Tolkien reading day 2019: Tolkien and the mysterious

King of the Golden Hall

The Tolkien Society puts on a themed reading day every March 25th (the day that the ring was destroyed and Barad-dûr fell if you didn’t know that already), and this year’s theme is Tolkien and the mysterious. Since Tolkien wrote a full-sized, believable world, there is plenty that is and will be mysterious in Middle-Earth. So there’s plenty to choose from. My personal favorite on this theme is Théoden’s healing by Gandalf, some of which I’ve excerpted below:

‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you harken to me?’ said Gandalf. ‘Do you ask for help?’ He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give those that despair. Yet counsel I could give and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.’

Slowly, Théoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again. The woman [Éowyn, by the way] hastened to the king’s side, taking his arm, and with faltering steps the old man came down from the dais and paced softly through the hall. Wormtongue remained lying on the floor. They came to the doors and Gandalf Knocked.

‘Open!’ He cried. ‘The Lord of the Mark comes forth!’

The doors rolled back and a keen air came whistling in. A wind was blowing on the hill.

I’m skipping ahead a little because of copyright reasons. I’d love to quote the whole thing, but I can’t. May I suggest reading the book?

‘Now, lord,’ said Gandalf, ‘look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!’

From the porch upon the top of the high terrace they could see beyond the stream the green fields of Rohan fading into the distant grey. Curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down. The sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder, and lightning far away flickered among the tops of hidden hills. But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the east was receding, rolling away southward to the sea. Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass.

‘It is not so dark here,’ said Théoden.

There’s more, of course, and I’d write it all for you if I could. So why this passage for the theme of Tolkien and the mysterious? Arguably, one of the most mysterious things in Tolkien’s legendarium is the power that words have in Middle-Earth. If oaths are made, they have to be kept, and, somehow, words have the power both to harm and to heal given the right circumstance. In this context, the thing that’s poisoning the mind of Théoden, in addition to his leechcraft, is Grima Wormtongue’s counsel. His words. And Gandalf’s healing comes, again, with counsel and with words. Even the beginning of Gandalf’s work here starts with him asking if Théoden will listen. If you pay attention, references to words are just littered throughout the passage. Wormtongue’s name is a great example, of course, but there are more subtle references than that.

What makes the mystery is how all of this works. Tolkien never set about to write a magical system that is all-encompassing, but what he did believe in (being a linguist and all) was the power of words. I’ll admit that this is not the single most mysterious thing in Tolkien’s legendarium, but it’s an interesting thing to notice that, most of the time, any magic in Tolkien’s works is either confined to objects, like the one ring or Andúril, or to words like we see in this passage. What’s interesting to note here as well is that Théoden’s healing happens in a sort of call and response. Gandalf offers the word, but Théoden also has to listen. You get the feeling that a great choice was made and Théoden’s choice to listen is what pulls him out of the darkness.

What I think Tolkien is doing here is getting us to share in some of his own appreciation of language. Obviously, in the real world, words have no magic to them, but they can harm or they can heal. Maybe not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, certainly. This passage is Tolkien inviting us in to share in enjoying that mystery with him. Personally, I think it’s always worth considering what words can do, how they can shape you, and how they can definitely hurt or heal depending on their intent and the person speaking those words. Maybe Wormtongue is just the ultimate bad advice guy, but maybe he’s also the representation of how some folks just try their hardest to bring everyone down with what they say.

I hope you all have an excellent Tolkien reading day!

-PWC

Everyone can write, but that doesn’t mean everyone does

not everyone can write

…or should, for that matter.

There’s a persistent myth I’ve run across several times both when I was a teacher and now in my professional life, and it goes a little something like this: writing is a learned behavior, everyone writes because of social media, email, texting etc., therefore everyone is a writer! In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

To be fair, the first two statements are true: writing is definitely something that anyone can learn, and with how much information is passed through the internet, words and language are just in use quite a lot more than they might have been before, but that absolutely does not make everyone a writer, and the idea that it does is bad for anyone interested in writing as a trade.

So first a disclaimer, I don’t see any reason to support the idea that writing is a lofty, artistic thing that only a few privileged people can attain. That’s clearly not the case because anyone can learn to write. But the keyword there is learn. The problem I want to focus on is the claim that everyone who can or does write is a writer. It gets a little bit like saying everyone uses a computer, so everyone’s a computer scientist. Obviously, that’s just not the case.

The same thing is true of writing. Sure, everyone uses words and language, and nearly everyone can string a few sentences together, but that’s not the same thing as being a writer. The difference between someone who can put sentences together and a writer is that a writer is someone who has trained, studied, and honed the craft of writing. Not everyone has done so, not everyone has the time, and most people don’t have the inclination. I’m not even really talking about formal education or training, either. You can be a self-taught writer too, but the point remains: writers are people who study and people who practice. More importantly than definitional discussions though is that the idea that everyone is a writer actively works against anyone interested in writing professionally.

Here’s what I mean: employment prospects, job security, and pay are all directly linked to how specialized your work is and how easy your position is to fill. This is the reason an engineer who works on producing a car gets paid more than a mechanic who works on it later. Nothing against mechanics, but the engineer is a more specialized position. The same is true for writing. It is a specialized position that not everyone can fill. This idea that everyone writes or everyone can write, only makes writing professionally seem like a less specialized skill than it actually is. This hurts employment prospects, pay, and it gives a false impression of the overall value that professional writers can bring to almost any industry.  

All of this doesn’t even bring up the topic of writing as an art. That’s a muddier puddle than I really want to step in, but it’s worth considering alongside the broader topic of writing as a trade. I’m not convinced that everyone can produce literary art, either. I’m not even convinced that I can, really, but the idea that everyone is a writer might not be really helpful for the literary world. I don’t claim to know as much about that, but I do know there’s a lot of garbage literature out there. I know that’s a personal taste thing, but I wonder if we wouldn’t get better literature if we didn’t have the everyone’s a writer mindset.

Unfortunately, I hear this sentiment about everyone being a writer expressed by writers a lot, and I just don’t think it’s doing us any favors. It’s a nice idea, I suppose, but I’d rather see writers standing up for themselves and for the time, effort, and practice they’ve put into the craft. So if you’re a writer or if you’re studying to become one, claim it. You don’t have to be arrogant about it, but you’re working on a skill that is important and that not everyone has. That should be a source of joy and pride for you.

-PWC

Who owns this movie? The Last Jedi and its detractors

5713526090629120

I didn’t like the latest Star Wars movie any more than the next person, but have we all gone insane?

That’s the only question I’m left with after learning that there’s an actual Change petition to remove The Last Jedi from the Star Wars canon and remake that episode of the saga. And it has actual signers (?!?!). Add to that the fact that apparently some of the actors have had twitter threats, and I’m not sure what else to say other than people are damn weird. Aside from that, this does raise an interesting question: who owns the movie? Obviously, the answer is the creators. In this case, Disney, the company that made the movie; however, the only possible explanation for this awful behavior on the part of the fan base is that these people feel as if they own the movie: as if it was made directly for them and the way The Last Jedi was written was in some way a violation of their property.

Here’s the thing: we can responsibly critique any media that comes out in terms of the overall storytelling, the story’s reflection of reality, the ideas it’s putting forward, etc., but at the end of the day, the creative choices are up to the directors, writers, and other people responsible for producing a movie. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything a group does, but– and there’s no way to say this kindly– it’s not up to you. At least, not entirely. Audience is important of course, and I don’t think the creators of The Last Jedi were expecting the kind of backlash they got from some of the franchise’s most dedicated fans; however, I also don’t think they set out to ruin or violate (that term gets thrown around too much in these conversations, but it is the term used) anything. What they set out to do, however misguided the attempt, was to further the story. In order to do that, characters had to develop, and, ultimately, they had to leave to make room for the new set of characters.

Now, we can talk about whether that was done well or not, but throwing a tantrum and getting people to sign an actual Change petition in order to rewrite something is ludicrous. The troubling thing to all of this is that, for some, this is probably a justifiable move. After all, as the fans, a company has to do everything they can to cater to us, right? Nope. Again, we don’t have to like the choices, but there are probably more constructive things we could all be doing with our time. To sum up: let the creators create. Sometimes they’ll make stupid decisions, but that’s their call. As fans, it’s up to us to behave responsibly: if we don’t like something, we can talk calmly and rationally about what it was that we objected to. Creating and signing a petition, however, that’s just stupid. As for the twitter threats, just don’t.

-PWC

Robots writing

 

Not a robot

Sometimes spam comments lead to some interesting thoughts.

I’m not a particularly frequent blogger on this site. I would sure like to be, but I have other things that are often a constraint on time, and since that’s the case, my blog writing tends to be a little on the slow side. I could probably update more, but I once tried to blog every day for a month. I quickly found that the quality of what I was writing was in steep decline as I tried to keep up with that pace, so since then, I’ve been a consistent writer, but a fairly slow one.

The only trouble with that stance (if you keep a blog like I do) is that you’ll eventually run into the kind of spam comment that goes something like this: “Hey, I’ve noticed you don’t update frequently. Here’s some advice/software program/educational tool/etc. that you can buy from me!” Usually, they aren’t even that clear. I got one of those recently, and it was for a tool that helps writers produce articles. The interesting part is that it’s essentially an AI writer for blog posts. As someone who is fascinated by both the English language and technology, this had me intrigued.

Essentially, the “tool” is an automatic thesaurus. I had to find a free version since I wasn’t about to pay $50 dollars to satisfy my own curiosity, but the one that I found allowed me to type into one box, submit what I typed, and change small bits of the text. For Example, I took the first paragraph of this piece as the input, and here’s what I got back after submitting it:

I’m not an especially visit blogger on this webpage. I might beyond any doubt want to be, yet I have different things that are frequently a limitation on time, and since that is the situation, my blog composing has a tendency to be a little on the moderate side. I could likely refresh all the more, yet I once endeavored to blog each day for multi month. I rapidly found that the nature of what I was composing was in soak decay as I attempted to stay aware of that pace, so from that point forward, I’ve been a predictable author, however a genuinely moderate one.

Hmm. Perhaps the paid version is better than the free one, but I sincerely doubt it. Here’s the thing: first, writing advice is always and will always be to use the words you know. If you have a limited vocabulary, reading more and reading with a dictionary can help. Second, no bot, no AI, and no writing tool is going to get results that anyone wants. Human language is incredibly complex and far too nuanced for any technology, so these kinds of “re-writing” tools are just going to make any piece of writing worse than it would already be.

The sad part is that these tools are marketed toward freelance writers a lot of the time. Sometimes writers get paid by the word, so I can imagine it would be tempting to use something like this as a way to lengthen a piece and get a slightly bigger paycheck. The thing is, someone is going to read the piece later, so even if there are a few more words, there is going to be some editor somewhere that will read it and realize it doesn’t make any sense. My piece of advice? Stay away from tools like this, write on your own, and work on finding your own voice.

-PWC

Why do we read?

20180427_140408-1

For the record, I don’t read GQ. I know vaguely that they are some kind of lifestyle magazine mainly aimed at a male audience, but that’s about it. I’ve got my own lifestyle figured out already, so I’ve never really felt the need to get one from magazines. That being said, it does occasionally appear in the app that I use to read news and blogs, and most of the time it is something I scroll past without thinking too much about. All of that means that I don’t know the kind of things that normally get published there, so maybe their content is generally pretty good; however, the subject of this post is most definitely not good.

A few days ago, GQ posted a piece called “21 books you don’t have to read.” It’s a little click-baity, so I’m not going to do it the service of linking it here. Feel free to Google, if you wish. Out of a sense of curiosity for the topic, I took a look. The piece provides a list of various well-known books, gives a short analysis of the book (using the term analysis loosely, here), and then provides something to read instead of the listed book. The trouble here is that the author’s analysis of each rejected book goes something like this: “this book was boring, and this other one is more fun!” There are multiple problems with the article, and two of them in particular I’ve pulled out for further response in the postscript at the bottom of this piece; however, overall, the GQ piece brings up an interesting question which isn’t addressed all that well in a lot of book discussions but which I would like to address here: why do we read?

Given the analysis, the GQ author’s reason seems to be entertainment. Of course, this is not a point that can be dismissed out of hand because a good book, particularly a good story, is going to be entertaining in addition to anything else that might be said about it. Also, as one of multiple different forms of media competing for our attention, yes, books can be read for entertainment in the same way that a movie can be watched for entertainment, or a video game can be played for the same reason. All are entertaining forms of media. However, if all you’re looking for in a book is entertainment, there are plenty of books that well give you that. But is that it? Is that all we should be looking for in a book? If so, then most classic literature is not the place to look. Books don’t usually endure on entertainment value alone, and a lot of classic literature is not going to be entertaining per se. Some of it may not even be enjoyable at all which leads me to my main point: quite a lot of classic books fall into what I call the vegetable category.

Allow me to explain: eating your vegetables is healthy and important to get enough nutrients, but, at the risk of painting with a broad brush, nobody really likes vegetables (vegans be damned, we all know you’re lying!). Where I’m going with this is probably obvious, but, in the event that it isn’t, some books are like vegetables: they’re healthy, but you probably won’t enjoy the process of mentally consuming them. A good example is Moby Dick. Any way you describe it, Moby Dick is a slog; it’s basically the kale salad of the vegetable books. It goes on for pages and pages about things that aren’t necessary to know in order to appreciate the story; it is incredibly dry, in places; and even though I liked a lot of the information about ships and ocean fishing, I can’t claim that I was actually entertained while I was reading all of it. Given that description, anyone would be justified in wondering why they should read the book. The answer is that it’s a vegetable book: you get other things out of it than easy entertainment. Lest this become an argument for reading Moby Dick, I’ll stop with the example here and just talk more generally: if it isn’t entertainment you are getting from classic books, what are you getting? Further, why should anyone read them? There are probably more, but my argument for classic literature comes down to three related reasons: history, ideas, and culture.

First, the historical benefit of classic literature. No one who writes a book sits down and says, “today, I think I’m going to write a piece of classic literature!” That would be absurd, and someone would probably call them out on their hubris. That being said, writers are usually responding to their particular moment in time. This is even true about stories set in the future like sci-fi. It’s usually just an extrapolation of the ideas of the writer’s moment. When you read a book, you are giving yourself a chance to step backward in time into that history, and, though you may end up seeing everything from the point of view of an author whose views would be unacceptable today, it still allows you to see from a different perspective. You don’t have to agree with the perspective, but the additional point of view is helpful in forming some of the reasons that you don’t agree. Further, being able to see, however briefly, into the past can give you some perspective on how things in general have developed. Basically, it’s an answer to the question of how we got from point A to point B. Sure, reading a history textbook might give you the same ideas, but a classic book will give you the chance to step into the lives of characters as they were lived at that particular moment in time.

This, of course, leads to the next point: the development of history is always the development of ideas as well. Humanity has always been, and always will be, a mixture of really good and really horrible ideas. This is as true now as it ever has been, and a hundred years from now, even what we might call progress is going to look antiquated. This is the point of view that you end up with if you study humanities in general, but literature provides a unique look into how those ideas were lived out in real time. Sometimes, by reading the classics, the bad ideas are on display; sometimes, the good ones get the spotlight. Either way, good reading, interpretation, and (most importantly) good criticism can give an appreciation of how those ideas developed and exactly what it is that makes an idea good or bad. By way of example (possibly by way of confession) one of my favorite books is Heart of Darkness. It’s not a cheery book by any stretch of the imagination, but one of the things it does well is give a frank and honest look at colonization, which, in case anyone is wondering, decidedly falls into the “bad idea” category. Of course, I don’t need Heart of Darkness in order to say that colonization wasn’t good; however, what it does do is give a clearer picture of the cruelties and dehumanization that went along with colonization. In other words, it helps us to see why the idea was bad. A lot of classic literature does this. It may not have been intended that way when it was written, but in its interpretation in today’s world, it can be seen from that perspective. This leads us to the final point: culture.

Now here’s a term that’s as hard as ever to pin down; however, a culture can be summed up as a set of shared beliefs, ideas, institutions, and conventions. While cultures change and develop over time, they do so fairly slowly and every iteration of a culture leaves material objects that say something about that particular time and that particular way of thinking. This is another way of looking at classic literature, then: it’s the development of a culture. Now, to be fair, I’m more familiar with western culture than anything else, but the ideas apply elsewhere as well. Also, cultural artifacts don’t always take the form of books, but since this is the subject of this argument, I’ll stick with that. If you’re an American reading a classic piece of American literature, you’re getting a good idea of the way that American culture has been shaped over time. If you read Mark Twain, for example, you’re getting an idea of post-civil-war America, warts and all. It’s not always pleasant, but it can give a lot of insight into where we are today. Basically, when you’re reading classic books, you are seeing the way that cultures have developed over time.

Now to the crux of the issue: canonized literature is not sacred. It has its share of problems, and even the books considered classic have plenty of cultural blind spots. A lot of classic literature is missing the diversity of perspectives that would be valued today, and, of course, it is open to cultural and literary critique. On top of all of this, quite a lot of classic literature is not entertaining. All three of the things I’ve mentioned so far are not entertainment; they’re learning. While we occasionally hear words like edutainment (a dubious concept, at best), learning usually isn’t fun. It implies growth and struggle, and neither of those are comfortable experiences even if they are worth the time. So to circle back to the question that kicked off this post, why do we read? We can read to be entertained all we like. There are a lot of books out there that will give us that, and if that’s what we’re looking for, then we should go for it. For my part, I’m just happy that people are reading. That being said, reading is also good for learning about the world and for broadening perspectives. Those are not comfortable experiences: they aren’t fun, and they certainly aren’t entertaining; however, just like vegetables, although the experience isn’t pleasant, it is good for you.

So overall, you could take the GQ writer’s suggestion and skip 21 books to read 21 others that are more entertaining. Or, and this is the option I would suggest, you could read 42 books that will give you some easy, entertaining books, and a healthy dose of your vegetable books that might be unpleasant, but will help you grow quite a lot more.

For a more direct response to two of the books on the list, read the postscript below.

-PWC

***

Postscript: Some Responses to Particular Items on the List

I want to just highlight two items that stood out when I read through the GQ list. These were too short to really make into two whole posts, but I also wanted to respond particularly with some personal thoughts to these two items that the author said to skip. The two are The Bible and The Lord of the Rings.

First, The Bible. There are some obvious problems on the surface of this one. The Bible is not a single book after all, and even the individual books of The Bible are vastly different in style, genre, and content. Add to that the problems with treating any group’s holy text as just another piece of literature, and you’re in some problematic territory; however, for the moment, let’s just focus on the issue of suggesting that people not read The Bible. If you want to be a literate person, and if you want to be widely read or to think about ideas that have influenced humanity over time, you would be hard pressed to find anything that has had more influence than The Bible. The various books of The Bible have been behind some of the best of western culture and its improper interpretations, behind some of the worst of western culture. A lot of great artwork depicts religious scenes, multiple pieces of literature take on similar themes, and even in modern video games, if you play as any kind of a sacrificial hero, there’s usually some reference to Jesus. To dismiss that influence outright does a thinking person something of a disservice. Even if people don’t agree with a single word of The Bible, it ought to be on anyone’s reading list just for the sheer amount of influence it has had on the world, and if that isn’t enough to be convincing, there is another compelling argument as well.

I’m not sure of the statistics of other countries, but particularly if you’re in the U.S., there is a really good chance your neighbor, or your coworkers, or a good friend, or possibly a relative, or a boss is a Christian. The latest polls have the number at around 75% of the population identifying with Christianity. Even though that number has decreased slightly in recent years, that is still a huge number. By way of contrast, that is more than the number of obese people in the U.S. (37% of the population), more than the people who vote in the U.S. (which hovers around 60-65%-ish), and just 20% less than the number of people who own cars. Any way you look at it, that is a huge number of people. Again, even if you, personally, don’t agree with anything in there, it can still help with your understanding of the people who do. Religion is very important to plenty of people, and if you want to know why, one of the best ways is to read the source material. Dismissing something like that out of hand is absurd.

To reiterate something I mentioned earlier, the piece is click-baity, so let’s be honest with ourselves here: there’s a good chance that something like The Bible is just in here to draw the ire (and therefore the clicks/advertising traffic) of various groups of people, and it seems to have worked. That being said, it’s still ridiculous to dismiss something this influential. It’s a little bit like seeing the Mona Lisa in a museum and going, “eh, I’ve seen better.” But if anything, it’s more stupid.

As for The Lord of the Rings, again, there’s a dismissal of a very influential book. It’s been influential in different ways than The Bible, obviously, but for a series that’s relatively recent, The Lord of the Rings has influenced quite a lot of writers, and there’s a good argument to be made that pretty much all medieval fantasy from Ursula K. Le Guin’s work with the Earthsea series, to Game of Thrones, to even things like Blizzard’s Warcraft games, have all taken some cues from Tolkien’s work. The reason for this is that Tolkien’s work is an exercise in one of the hardest things a fantasy writer has do: realistic world building. In Tolkien’s work, the world itself is a character as much as the members of the fellowship are, and given that the story is an epic journey from the Shire to Mordor, if the world itself wasn’t realistic and believable, none of the rest of the story would be.

As for the author’s critique of the novels being “barely readable” I’m not sure what to say. In part, this is because I’m not certain what the critique is here. I read The Lord of the Rings the first time when I was ten or eleven, and I never found them difficult to read then. Re-reading them now, I still don’t think it’s particularly difficult reading. The books are not action packed, but that’s only because it really isn’t an action story. The journey is the real story. This might be some distortion from the movies coming through. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies put far more emphasis on the action than the books do. There’s also a lot of poetry in the books, so there’s some genre-bending going on, but again, it’s nothing that’s all that complicated. Again, I’m not sure what the critique actually is, so I’m not sure how to respond other than they really aren’t hard to read.

As for the suggestion of reading the Earthsea books instead, by all means, read that too. Both The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Earthsea quartet are amazing series, and, in my opinion, they should be required reading for anyone interested in fantasy. That being said, they are both very different books that get involved with different themes. I don’t think I could honestly suggest one over the other, so my advice is read both and come to your own conclusions of which one you like the best. There’s a really good chance you’ll end up like me: you’ll like both of them, but for very different reasons.

I didn’t write anything in March: Some thoughts on persistence

20180423_092535-1

Writing is tough work, and I think that is what turns so many people off of it. Sitting down at a computer with a blank screen can be daunting, and knowing where to start can prove overwhelming. Also, where speaking is a natural, biological thing we do as humans, writing is an invented technology and must be learned. Like anything worth doing, the work is hard to do. That being said, there really is one thing that can make it a little easier, and while this is mainly about writing, the advice here applies to anything that requires an element of labor in order to become good at something.

And so on to the point: I didn’t write a single thing in March. Various preoccupations kept me away, and while I could make plenty of excuses, what it really came down to was that I wasn’t leaving myself time to write, and so didn’t get very much accomplished. Of course, time off is both helpful and healthy, and it can lead to new ideas and better work as well; however, it can also lead to complacency, which, if you plan to write, is an easy trap to fall into. Basically, it’s far easier to not write and dream about that story or that blog post, than it is to actually sit down and do the work. The trouble, of course, is that story is never going to be written without the work that goes into it. There’s a quote that’s broadly attributed to Dorothy Parker (though there’s some evidence that it wasn’t original to her), that goes something like, “I don’t like to write, but I love having written.” I think this captures the sentiments of a lot of writerly types fairly well: we all like to have work that’s finished, but actually doing the work can be, well, work. And nobody likes work.

That, I think, is what makes it easy to step away from writing. At least it does for me. That being said, without the work, nothing is ever going to be accomplished. One of the major misconceptions about writing is that it’s some kind of magical process. It isn’t. Instead, it’s much more like training and developing certain habits of mind. As a parallel, if you wanted to paint, play piano, or get really good at running marathons (if you’re into such torture, I suppose), the logical idea would be to practice and train. That’s the only way to get better at those activities, and it works the same way for writing. Training for writing will lead to more and better writing in the same way that practicing the piano will make you better at piano. It isn’t rocket science, but it is surprisingly hard to do. This is where persistence comes in. I’ve heard the term “grit” used to express similar ideas, but I like the word persistence a little more. Persistence has an element of stubbornness to it that I think is important in the context writing. Basically, if you’re going to be a persistent writer, you are going to write. And that’s it. You’re not waiting for the voice of God for inspiration; you’re not daydreaming about published work or academic accolades; you’re writing.

I suppose the moral of the story, then, is don’t have a month like March was for me. This might be the closest I’ve come to a motivational post, but sometimes the reminder is helpful: if you want to write, and if you want to be a better writer, you’ve just got to keep writing. It will mean that you’ll produce a lot of stuff you wouldn’t want anyone to see, but that is what the backspace button is for.

-PWC

Abandoning major themes: storytelling advice from The Last Jedi

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Star Wars: The last Jedi came out in December of last year. It’s now April, so that makes this post just about 4 months later than it should be. I took the advice of a good friend and didn’t see it in the theater, so here we are after I finally got around to seeing it. The Last Jedi was a mediocre movie, even taking into account the rest of the Star Wars canon (and yes, I do mean the prequels), and it made a number of major mistakes along the way. The critiques of the story and the way that it treats the background lore of the Star Wars universe are many and varied, so I’m not trying to add to that mix. Instead, I want to focus on something that I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about when critiquing The Last Jedi: the major themes that the movie dropped from the overall story and what advice writers can take away from the failings of the movie.

First, some groundwork. In a story, the theme is what the story is really about. This is different from the plot in that the plot is all of the action of a story, and a theme is what the action is supposed to have us thinking about. Most good stories, and especially ones as expansive as Star Wars, have a number of themes that are supposed to draw our attention and get us thinking. In Star Wars, a good example of a theme is the way that various users interact with The Force. The Force itself is amoral, but the way that individuals use it determines its morality: they end up on the light side or the dark side. The theme, then, is getting us to think about how we interact with power, and what, as individuals, we should do with the powers and abilities we have. One of the ways that you can tell this is a theme in the story is that over the course of eight movies, it is an idea that keeps coming up again and again. This makes it different from the plot because each of the individual movies has its own plot lines. So far, so Star Wars.

As a storyteller, it’s important to think about what kinds of themes you are trying to write about, and how they interact with the plot, because the interplay between the two is what can make or break a story. Also, if you have a story that comes in multiple parts, a reader is going to be expecting the theme to carry through all the varying parts of the story. This could be individual chapters; this could be books in a series; or it could be individual movies. For example, I’m currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and a theme that repeatedly comes up all the way from The Hobbit to The Return of the King is that the humble halflings, the least of the peoples of Middle Earth, are the ones who save everyone. The idea being that it isn’t always the strong and the mighty who end up being heroes; sometimes, heroism comes from the least likely places. Now what would happen if halfway through, Tolkien just dropped this theme entirely? Say somewhere in The Two Towers, Gandalf takes the ring of power and uses all his might to blast open the gates of Mordor and throws the ring into Mount Doom. It would be an interesting twist, but would ultimately make for a very different story, and, at the same time, it would render all of what the hobbits had to do fairly useless.

The idea of this slight rabbit trail through Middle Earth is that if you abandon major themes of a story, you really fundamentally change the world you are writing in. Further, if you make those changes without solid explanations that make sense in the fictional universe, you’re going to lose your audience. That’s exactly the trap that Star Wars: The Last Jedi fell into, and it goes a long way in explaining the low audience score on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. There are probably more, but here are three themes that The Last Jedi abandoned without any good explanation.

  1. Family relationships: at the core of the Star Wars story is a theme about how fathers and sons relate to one another. What was Vader’s big reveal in to Luke? “I am your father.” What was Anakin’s surprise in the prequel movies? “There was no father.” Further, Anakin’s complaint about Obi Wan’s training? “He’s like a father!” The line that brings Darth Vader back to the light side? “Father, please!” A line Luke doesn’t finish because he’s getting electrocuted. Even more broadly, other family relationships come into the story as well. The thing that motivates Luke into nearly killing Darth Vader is that Vader finds out Luke has a sister. Anakin’s turn to the dark side happens after his mother is killed. You get the idea. The Last Jedi throws this theme completely out the window. There was plenty of buildup about who Rey’s family was going to be in The Force Awakens, and what was the payoff? Nothing. Rey’s family was no one. It’s interesting to see Star Wars branching away from the Skywalker bloodline, but there’s not really a solid, in-universe explanation for why this happens, and it completely drops a huge portion of what Star Wars is about. It also leads to problem number two.
  2. The Force: one of the single most brilliant things about the Star Wars prequels is that it made The Force biological. I know this got a lot of hate initially, but hear me out for just a second. This explanation of The Force took the abilities outside of the mystic mumbo-jumbo of the original trilogy and gave it a real explanation that works incredibly well in the Star Wars universe. This explains, for example, why Darth Vader is so powerful, and yet manages to be struck down by Luke. With Vader missing most of his limbs and being “more machine now than man,” he doesn’t have the organic tissue to actually harness and use The Force; however, his great power is transferred, genetically, to his son and daughter. Thus, Luke, having most of his limbs, is able to use The Force in a way that Vader cannot any more. This also explains why Leia is able to use the force in a limited way as well. Even without training, the biological power is such that she is still very strong in The Force. This even explains Kylo Ren who, although not a very impressive villain, is still very powerful: he’s still part of the Skywalker bloodline, and so still has the same power. Again, this is where Rey and her lack of a family becomes a problem. We get the idea that she’s incredibly powerful, but why? Where did it come from? Especially if her parents were just nobodies, how exactly is she so powerful? If it’s some kind of genetic mutation, wouldn’t that potentially mean other physical mutations as well? After all, we know she does have parents, so it isn’t some kind of born from The Force thing the way Anakin is. Dropping this theme creates too many questions, and, again, without a solid explanation, it isn’t doing the story any favors.
  3. Galactic Politics: answer this, if you can: why are the rebels rebelling? There isn’t much in the way of explanation given in the original trilogy, and from all we can tell, The Empire seems to be a fairly stable political structure with the infrastructure to employ plenty of people, and the funds to create enormous weapon systems. By all accounts, this makes the rebellion seem more like a force (no pun intended) for destabilization than anything else. There are two things that can go a long way in explaining why the rebellion is rebelling against The Empire, but we have to go slightly outside the movies. First, we need to ask a question: was The Empire really employing everyone? The actual answer is… no. In some of the books and comics set in the Star Wars universe, it gets revealed that The Empire is selling and keeping slaves to do the work. The movies touch briefly on slavery in the prequels as well, but this is mostly a non-canon explanation. That being said, it does go a long way in explaining how The Galactic Empire was able to grow: conquered planets weren’t just destroyed; instead, they were enslaved. Second, there’s a question of funds. Where exactly does The Empire get the money for what it does? The answer from logic and what we already know about real political systems is taxation. Yes, The Empire sells slaves, but that can’t be their only source of income. There must be some kind of taxation system in place. Additionally, there’s a lot of smuggling in the Star Wars universe, so we can make some interpretations about that too. Does The Empire set up trade regulations? Are they fixing prices or banning particular things? Since all of those tend to create black markets, we can assume that The Empire is doing all of that. So the crimes of The Empire are slavery, possibly heavy taxes, and possible over-regulation, banning, and price fixing. There’s one we haven’t touched on though: earthly empires do one thing the most: colonization. We can probably assume that The Galactic Empire was also setting up colonies on other planets, and we can also assume that colonization doesn’t look very different in space than it does on earth. So the cause of the rebellion, if anything, is quite possibly more libertarian in nature than anything else. They want freedom from slavery, taxes, regulation, and colonization. What does The Last Jedi do with this theme? Nothing. In fact, it changes it from liberty to hope for the oppressed and poor. This makes the rebellion in The Last Jedi more proletariat than libertarian. Now there’s the obvious response that The First Order is a different political system, and that’s true; however, from all that we can tell, they seem to be copying the political dynamics of The Empire. We can probably assume that they are also copying some of the crimes of The Empire as well. So is there an explanation for the change in motivations? Nope. At least, not an in-universe explanation.

These are just three examples of themes that The Last Jedi dropped without any good, solid explanation, and like the example I gave from Tolkien, it makes for a really different story. Basically, for a universe that has managed to stay more or less consistent in its themes for years, these were huge departures from established work, and, understandably, estranged the established Star Wars audience. So what is the advice here? Let’s say you’re a new writer. You have a story that you’ve written and a theme you’ve developed, but you’re also working on a part two that is going in a very different direction and has a different main theme, but you still want it to be connected to the same universe. If you don’t find yourself writing a different story altogether, then the advice is this: think of a convincing explanation. The theme-dropping in The Last Jedi is not necessarily the problem. It will divide loyal fans either way, but if it had a convincing explanation for the changes, then The Last Jedi would have been much more acceptable. So make theme changes if you want, but in a multi-part story, the important thing to keep in mind is that a convincing explanation for the changes will go a long way in making a coherent story and keeping readers convinced.

As an aside, this is true for a lot of other businesses as well. One of my favorite bars, for example, was an Irish pub that decided (seemingly on a whim) to become a tiki bar. That change had about the fan reaction that you could imagine.

Always have a good explanation, people!

-PWC.