Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 1.11: "The Black Paladin"

The first season of Voltron: Legendary Defender draws to a close with what comes as a shock to fans of older iterations of the fighting robot, a clear set-up for future narratives, and at least one more instance of the traditionally medievalist.

1.11. "The Black Paladin"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

Following directly upon the previous episode, "The Black Paladin" opens with the Paladins returning to the Castle of Lions to review intelligence acquired and determine their next course of action. Despite Keith's objections and amid tense talk, the group decides to mount an immediate rescue attempt as Allura is taken to Zarkon's central command structures and given to Haggar. As the Paladins and Coran continue to review their information and Shiro apologizes for his failure, Coran identifies an avenue of approach and Allura is brought before Zarkon, who reveals that he has a trap planned for Voltron.

Shiro and Coran lay out their resuce plans. Zarkon lays out his plans to his commanders, as well. Thus, as the Paladins enact their rescue attempt, Zarkon springs his trap on them; empowered by the Druids, he is able to thwart the advance of Volrton by forcing the robot to separate into the component Lions. The Paladins press on, assisted by Coran in the Castle of Lions, and Zarkon interferes with Shiro's control of the Black Lion. He is able to force it to eject the pilot; Keith moves to assist as the others press on towards Allura.

After Keith liberates the Black Lion from direct control by the Galra, Zarkon personally enters the fray. Matters go badly for Keith as Shiro proceeds towards Allura; Zarkon reveals himself as wielding a Paladin's weapon--because he was a Paladin, the Black Lion's pilot. Matters do not go well for Shiro, either; he encounters Haggar, who assails him successfully.

Meanwhile, rescue efforts continue, with Hunk reaching Allura. They proceed to rescue Shiro, who in turn saves Keith. They make to escape, an agent within the Galra forces and unknown to them assisting them--but Haggar interferes with their egress. The Paladins and the Castle are separated and cast apart across the cosmos, whereupon the episode and the first season of the series end.

Discussion

Much of the episode is taken up by battles, both person-to-person and more general. As such, it does not permit much time for the kind of consideration that fosters much in the way of medievalism. The fights are not the kinds of trial by combat or organized jousting that tend to evoke the Middle Ages in the minds of viewers, and various tactics deployed seem to rely upon technologies wholly other than the medieval.

That noted, and the medievalisms long established as common in the series continuing, there is one thing that emerges for particular consideration: the revelation of Zarkon as a former Paladin--and, indeed, the former leader of the Paladins. Some foreshadowing of it can be found, to be sure; Galra technology tends to pulse with a violet light, as do the eyes of the Galra Emperor, one much like that seen in the cockpit of the Black Lion as Shiro pilots it, and the color congruence is striking in the episode. And it is not an uncommon narrative device to see a former protagonist as an antagonist--TV Tropes describes it as a "Face-Heel Turn," citing no few examples of its occurrence here. But for the leader of knights--presumably the greatest of them--to turn is evocative specifically of Lancelot (already evoked in the series by the plot of the Blue Lion, Lance) and of Mordred (via the associations of "black" in an already-Arthurian-overtoned milieu). Add to that the many iterations of Black Knight that appear in chivlaric literature, and the connection emerges fairly clearly.

Such notes as are available as of this writing (20 September 2016) indicate that 1) a second season of the series is planned and 2) a series of comics, bridging the time between seasons, is in progress and will be gathered together as a single volume. More materials may come, as well. Review and consideration of how they enact and reenact the medieval will hopefully follow.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 2.7: "A Man Without Honor"

2.7 “A Man without Honor”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by David Nutter
Commentary by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff

Returning to thematic explorations of the episodes, this one again matches up with its title. While the explicit titular “man without honor” is Jaime—Catelyn calls him that near the end of the episode—there are lots of men who are showing their lack of honor in this episode.

Theon is the first to appear onscreen. He wakes up and realizes Osha, Bran, Rickon, Summer, Shaggydog, and Hodor are gone, and throws a temper tantrum. He goes hunting, taking Luwin with him and his men (and his dogs). Throughout Theon’s time “ruling” Winterfell, Luwin and Dagmar have been acting like opposite sides of his conscience, Luwin urging him towards thoughtfulness and mercy, Dagmar urging him towards violence and impulse. Theon begins the hunt in a grand mood—“Worry not, maester! It’s all just a game!”—but doesn’t stay in that mood for long. They hunt for most of the day, and the best they have to show for it is a handful of walnut shells. So of course when he starts to have an idea of what to do to save face for his men and the people of Winterfell, he sends Luwin away. Not only because Luwin knowing the deception he’s planning will ruin the whole thing, but because Luwin, as the gentle side of his conscience, does not belong here anymore. If he hadn’t fully committed to Dagmar’s side of things when he took Rodrik’s head off, he has when he sends Luwin away. And it’s Luwin’s reaction that leads the audience to Theon’s pronouncement and his unveiling of the dead and burned children at the end of the episode. Yet Theon’s face is what the episode closes on, and it’s clear that he knows he’s messed up bad, but he’s in too deep now (he thinks) to do anything but continue on his path.



The other major man without honor in the episode is Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Dany is freaking out about her dragons, and Xaro promises to help her get them back by calling a meeting of the Thirteen. But once there, it becomes clear that Dany has been a convenient tool and excuse for him to execute an idea he’s had for probably years—ridding himself of the Thirteen and ruling Qarth on his own. In order to do so, he made a deal with Pyatt Pree, who can duplicate himself by magic, offering him Dany and the dragons in exchange for killing eleven of the Thirteen simultaneously and stepping aside to allow Xaro to take the throne. Xaro has broken the promise he made to protect Dany and her people while under his roof and been complicit in murder, all for the furthering of his own power.



Pyatt Pree just wants Dany to go to the House of the Undying and live there with her dragons forever and ever. Dany’s not so keen on that idea, of course.

A few other men have their honor questioned or tested in this episode. Sansa has a brief scene with Sandor Clegane, who informs her that killing is the best thing in the world, and any man who claims he doesn’t like killing is a liar. She’s shaken up by his complete lack of gallantry, chivalry, or any other kind of knightly behavior (according to her internal code), but he reminds her that once she’s married Joffrey, he’s all that will stand between her and a violent, brutal boy king.

Jon’s having a rough go of it, as well. Ygritte teases him mercilessly about being a virgin and giving up his right to ever touch a woman. She propositions him over and over, and it’s obvious both that Kit Harrington was having a really hard time keeping a straight face through Rose Leslie’s wonderful performance and that Jon’s tempted by everything she’s saying. Not just the sex part, but the freedom part. And he’s upset at himself for being tempted. He sees himself as Ned Stark’s son, bastard notwithstanding, and that brings with it a certain measure of responsibility for honorable behavior. Breaking his vows and having sex with Ygritte, let alone abandoning the Night’s Watch to join Mance Rayder, would not be honorable.



Tywin also gets to show a bit of his brutal side, hanging dozens of men to try to figure out who killed Amory (assuming that it was an attempt on his own life), and sending the Mountain out to burn villages and farms until someone gives up the Brotherhood without Banners (assuming that they’re behind it). Arya seriously considers trying to kill Tywin herself, but doesn’t quite get up the courage. And once again, Tywin shows that he should have all the information to figure out who Arya is, but either isn’t putting it together (which is ridiculous) or is playing his own game with regard to dealing with her identity.

Robb’s honor is heading toward its breaking point as he continues to flirt with Talisa, inviting her to come with him to the Crag to get medicine and such from their maester. His own people don’t think much of this, and their faith in him is shaken. When Jaime makes an escape attempt, killing a Karstark in the process, and is recaptured, the camp begins to fracture, with Rickard Karstark wanting to kill Jaime immediately and others (including Cat) arguing that killing prisoners of war (especially noble prisoners of war) is against every single rule.



This is what leads to the confrontation wherein Cat calls Jaime a man without honor, and it’s late enough in the episode to allow Jaime to put a cap on the whole discussion of honor:

So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the king, obey the king, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent? It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.

Cat says he “forsook every vow [he] ever took,” but really, he forsook one of them: to defend the king. Instead, he killed the king to protect his father and ultimately the entire city. We don’t get the full story in the show until I think next season, but it shows that Jaime, the one man explicitly called “a man without honor” in this episode, is one of the more honorable ones. He has a code, and he sticks to it (he points out to Cat that he’s never cheated on Cersei), and when parts of that code came into conflict, he did what he had to do in order to serve the greater good.



There’s one more thing I’d like to discuss with this episode that goes back to my complaints last week about the writers/showrunners and their issues with adaptation. In this episode, Sansa has nightmares about the near-rape she suffered, and in it, she’s stabbed in the belly by one of her attackers. She wakes up and discovers that her thighs are covered in blood—she’s started her menses. According to Benioff or Weiss (honestly, I can’t tell their voices apart), this scene is entirely the invention of Vanessa Taylor, and it wasn’t in the books.

Ahem:

   That night, Sansa dreamed of the riot again. The mob surged around her, shrieking, a maddened beast with a thousand faces. Everywhere she turned, she saw faces twisted into monstrous, inhuman masks. She wept and told them she had never done them any hurt, yet they dragged her from her horse all the same. [. . .] Women swarmed over her like weasels, pinching her legs and kicking her in the face and she felt her teeth shatter. Then she saw the bright glimmer of steel. The knife plunged into her belly and tore and tore and tore, until there was nothing left of her down there but shiny wet ribbons.
   When she woke, the pale light of morning was shining through her window, yet she felt as sick and achy as if she had not slept at all. There was something sticky on her thighs. When she threw back the blanket, all she could think was that her dream had somehow come true. She remembered the knives inside her, twisting and ripping. She squirmed away in horror, kicking at the sheets and falling to the floor, breathing raggedly, naked, bloodied, and afraid. (A Clash of Kings 52, Sansa IV)

Once again, the fact that the showrunners can’t tell the difference between parts of the story that they added and parts that are in the books does not engender confidence in their ability to handle the source material and adapt it successfully. Making changes is one thing—it’s a necessary part of the adaptation process. Failing to realize when changes have been made is something else entirely, and something I’ll have to spend a lot more time on in seasons five and six.

RIP:
Alton Lannister
Torrhen Karstark
Billy and Jack (farmer’s sons)
Eleven of the Thirteen of Qarth (including the Spice King, the Silk King, and the Copper King)

Next week: Yara gives good advice. Tywin's on the move. So is Jaime.

Images from screencapped.net. Gif from tumblr.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 1.10: "Collection & Extraction"

The first season of Voltron: Legendary Defender draws towards a close as problems arise for the Paladins and their Princess...

1.10. "Collection & Extraction"

Written by Tim Hedrick
Directed by Steve In Chang Anh

Synopsis

Princess Allura, the Paladins, and Coran review what intelligence they were able to recover from Sendak before Shiro ejected him into the ether during the previous episode. Coran raises questions about the ethics of doing so, of ransacking the forcibly extracted memories of a captive, and Pidge notes that the information was partial, in any event. Referencing it against what data had been recovered from Sendak's crashed ship on Arus, Pidge is able to piece together references to a strategically important site as debates about the best tactics to use in the fight against the Galra are. The decision is made to pursue the information, and the Castle of Lions moves toward the indicated location.

Upon arrival, a shipping hub is revealed in what serves as a covert location. Allura and the Paladins determine to investigate further, with Allura asserting her right to accompany the Paladins. Shiro concurs with her assertion, and the group infiltrates the Galra base. Pidge begins to ransack local data stores, and Allura determines to pursue further investigations based on preliminary findings--revealing shapeshifitng abilities inherent to the Alteans. Shiro resists the idea of allowing her to go alone, and Pidge convinces Allura that she should take the Black Lion's pilot along. As they head off, both Pidge and Keith determine to conduct their own investigations, with Pidge delving into other data sources and Keith searching through more of the facility.

During his infiltration of a docked ship alongside Allura, Shiro has a flashback to his imprisonment on another Galra ship and uses the sudden recall to proceed further into the ship. They are able to begin pulling out more data, and Allura manages to bluff past a potential threat of discovery. Meanwhile, Keith finds a Druid and follows the figure, sending along intelligence about the energy-collection operations in progress at the facility; he determines to steal some of the available resources. As he is spotted and begins to fight--badly--against the Druid whose rituals convert the acquired energy into useful form, Shiro and Allura are themselves spotted and begin to flee--and Allura's prodigious strength emerges. Pidge oversees extractions, rescuing both Keith and Shiro--but not Allura, who allows herself to be captured to ensure the Black Lion's pilot can escape. Shiro reports his failure to his comrades, and that there will soon be a direct assault on Zarkon's holdings becomes clear.

Discussion

Once again, the "standard" medievalisms at work in the series are on display in the current episode; nothing much new is added in that regard. Something else that does seem to present itself, however, or to reassert itself is a focus on the carceral experience. That is, much is made of Shiro's imprisonment--indeed, his being fugitive from the Galra legal system is a plot point, as it is the recognition thereof by Galra automated systems that forces him and Allura to flee. Given the association of the Paladins with chivalric romance--and with Arthuriana more specifically--the Tristram incarceration narrative and the Malorian carceral metanarrative come to mind as either possible antecedents or as iterations of tropes evoked. Chivalric knights end up imprisoned fairly frequently, and the idea of the captured damsel in distress is a commonplace (and although Allura is far from helpless--and may well have allowed herself to be captured with another purpose in mind, per clues in the episode--being taken by an avowedly hostile force is distressing). For a princess to be taken prisoner, then, with the clear implication that knights will rush to her rescue is very much a medievalist motion for the series to make.

Something else that seems to reassert itself is the powerful mystery of the Druids in the series. Although a dedicated fighter who demonstrably attends to his training, Keith is easily overmatched by the single Druid--and it can be inferred that the Druid, assigned to the seemingly menial task of fuel refining, is not mighty among the Druids. They are fearsome, arcane foes to face, much as the various sorcerers and other magically-empowered figures of neomedievalist fantasy tend to be. While there is no small mysticism associated with Allura, her mystical abilities seem much less overt--and they receive much less attention than do those of her opponents; magic is much more a force for ill than for good in the series, it seems, and that is another correspondence with the medieval to be found in Voltron: Legendary Defender.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 1.9: "Crystal Venom"

The series progresses towards the end of the first season, and its medievalism seems to move a bit further back...

1.9. "Crystal Venom"

Written by May Chan
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

In the wake of the previous episode, Allura reflects on lost Altea and confers with the holographic vestiges of her late father, King Alfor--returning to an idea not seen since the first episode of the series. Coran intrudes upon her reverie to see to her recovery before meeting with the Paladins where Sendak is held captive in stasis. They purpose to use the same technology that allows for the holographic Alfor to plumb Sendak's memories for vital intelligence. Shiro watches intently as the process proceeds; the other Paladins wander off, attending to various tasks about the Castle of Lions.

As they do so, Castle systems begin to malfunction. The malfunctions are humorous enough at first, involving food sprays and a harmless restraint, but they soon turn dangerous, threatening decompression and dismemberment.

Allura finds herself summoned by the holographic image of Alfor and follows him as the malfunctions continue. Shiro, meanwhile, begins to hear the voice of Sendak in his head, taunting him and pressing upon him to leave off the fight against Zarkon. Echoes of the earlier traumas that must have befallen him afflict him.

Allura begins to believe that Altea is restored and moves to direct the Castle of Lions there as the Paladins begin to puzzle out what has happened. They race to where Shiro had been watching Sendak, finding that the Black Lion's pilot had ejected the Galra commander into space. They are there when Allura begins to pilot the Castle of Lions towards its doom, and they race to intercede--but to no avail.

Coran, however, is able to break the illusion under which Allura as been placed. She tries to redirect the Castle, but she is rebuffed by the holographic Alfor, exposed as having been corrupted by Galra infiltration--a result of the earlier Galra seizure of the Castle. While the Lions and Coran work to slow the Castle's approach to its certain destruction, Allura makes her way to and destroys the information storage unit that allows her communion with her millennia-dead father--and the Castle and its occupants are saved.

Discussion

Some of the medievalisms at work in the series continue unchanged in "Crystal Venom." Alfor's armor continues to appear modeled after the Gothic shining armor of the stereotypical (although inaccurate) knight, and the various symbols embedded in the five Paladins themselves remain present. What emerges particularly forcefully, though, is a sense of longing for home or unease in exile much like that found in The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Both adopt deeply elegiac stances, bespeaking a loss of home and an unending removal from it--and such are the attitudes Allura expresses, perhaps heightened by the partial images of her home available. She can converse with a simulacrum of her father, and she can touch seeming flowers of her homeworld, but their smell is gone, as is the warmth of her father's embrace.

Perhaps, however, Deor, with its refrain of "Ðæs ofereode; ðisses swa mæg," is a better fit. After all, at the end of the episode, Allura returns to a message of hope. And there is a certain hope embedded in the typically medieval; even if there is not necessarily expectation that all will be right in the world, there is among the European medieval a certainty that a better world is to come--just as there is a certainty among the Paladins and the remaining Alteans that they will, in the end, be victorious.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 2.6: "The Old Gods and the New"

Episode 2.6 “The Old Gods and the New”
Written by Vanessa Taylor
Directed by David Nutter
Commentary by Kit Harrington (Jon Snow), Rose Leslie (Ygritte), Vanessa Taylor

Rather than my usual thematic breakdown of the episode, I think I’d like to take a step back and talk about adaptation and internal logic in the series, specifically in this episode. Because this episode has some . . . problems. With both.

Tywin Lannister’s been set up as an incredibly intelligent strategist when it comes to warfare. Nobody expected Robb Stark to last as long against Tywin as he has, not only because he’s young and untested, but because Tywin is the best. He’s also cold and distant and doesn’t have the best relationship with his family.



So why in the world would he allow a young girl who’s clearly from the North, who’s clearly highborn, who can read, who’s clearly nervous around Petyr Baelish, and who Petyr Baelish obviously recognizes or thinks he recognizes into his war councils? We haven’t gotten direct confirmation that he knows Arya Stark is missing, but I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t let it slip to him. If he’s that smart and that good of a strategist, why is he being so stupid?

Also, why is he telling this nobody of a girl / Arya Stark (depending on whether he’s figured out who he is or not) all about his family, his relationship with Jaime, and his relationship with his father? Tywin is not an open man. There’s no reason he would be any less cold with Arya than he’s been with his own family and his own bannermen. The best I can give Bryan Cogman and Vanessa Taylor, who wrote the two episodes in which this has been going on so far, is that Charles Dance and Maisie Williams have some really great chemistry and their scenes are delightful to watch. However, they completely break internal consistency with regard to Tywin’s established character and intelligence. Even if he isn’t completely sure she’s Arya and is pretty sure she’s not going to run off and take his plans to Robb, the absolute smartest thing (and most Tywin thing) to do would be to clap her in irons and have someone take her back to King’s Landing, where Tyrion can handle any further questions about her identity and getting a trade set up (which he’s already doing without Arya anyway).



It’s also a side-effect of the weird pacing they’ve done with Arya’s storyline this season. It’s simultaneously sped up and slowed down; she ends up Tywin’s cupbearer rather than working in the kitchens until Roose Bolton takes over, and Tywin stays at Harrenhal much longer than he did in the books. I don’t remember if they ever get Roose Bolton to Harrenhal in the show, but if they do, I’m pretty sure Arya’s escaped by then. At the time, Roose is still more-or-less loyal to the Starks, so being privy to his war councils doesn’t matter as far as the enemy knowing his secrets, and anyway, Arya’s primarily concerned about getting out of Harrenhal and to Riverrun.

So in trying to create more “interesting” TV (I’d argue that the storyline as it stands in the novels could have been plenty interesting onscreen), the writers have (inadvertently?) undermined the strength and credibility of one of the strongest (by which I mean “best written” and “interesting”) characters in the novels. Even considering Tywin’s character just internally to the show, we’re told a lot about who he is and what kind of person he is, then shown something completely different. Unfortunately, this is another trend with the show; so much of the strength and development of the characters is sacrificed to what the showrunners think will look cool.

Which brings us to Sansa.

Up until this point, Sansa’s storyline has followed the books pretty much beat-by-beat. She starts out kind of bratty, horrible things happen to her, and she slowly develops the political savvy necessary to save her own skin. However, in the riot-in-King’s-Landing scene, the show swerves in a way that probably wouldn’t be such a big deal if it didn’t also become a trend with Sansa’s character.

While returning from the docks, where they’ve shipped Myrcella off to Dorne, the smallfolk’s restlessness explodes into full-blown rage. Someone throws a cow pie at Joffrey, he screams to his guards to kill them all, and all hell breaks loose. In the fray, the High Septon is torn apart by the crowd (literally. It’s pretty gruesome), and Sansa is separated from the group of nobles, chased into an alley, grabbed by a group of men, shoved around, has her dress torn, and is nearly raped before Sandor Clegane finds her and slaughters every last attacker.



Here’s (part of) the problem: this doesn’t happen in the books. Sansa remembers the incident this way:
She could hear the people screaming at her, screaming without words, like animals. They had hemmed her in and thrown filth at her and tried to pull her off her horse, and would have done worse if the Hound had not cut his way to her side. (A Clash of Kings ch. 52, Sansa IV)
The gang-rape incident does happen—to Lollys Stokeworth, a character who does not appear in the show. It also happens off page and has terrible consequences for the character. So, not for the last time, the showrunners and writers have replaced a minor character with Sansa, a point-of-view character, and had her experience the minor, not-appearing-in-this-picture character’s sexual assault.

Here’s the other part of the problem: in the commentary, Vanessa Taylor says, “You have to hand it to George, he really goes there in the books.” Kit Harrington follows it up with a comment about how this scene is just as disturbing when it happens in the books—to Sansa. Except that, no, Martin doesn’t go there (on page), and this doesn’t happen to Sansa. I can excuse Kit Harrington—he’s not one of the writers, and it’s not imperative that he understand the differences between what happened on page and what’s happening on screen (later he remarks that he must be remembering the books wrong because he thought Xaro Xhoan Daxos was a pretty decent guy). But I can’t really excuse Vanessa Taylor, or David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who presumably greenlit this change of rape victim. Making this change is one thing; being somehow completely ignorant that it is a change is another. So often, these writers “pass the buck” to Martin when complaints arise about violence and sexual assault in the series, but this is a buck that can’t be passed, even if they think it can.



This also starts a trend apparent in the show of demonizing or ridiculing “girly” things and valorizing “male” power. Women who draw their power from things coded “feminine”—courtesy, social skills, etc.—are treated much worse than those who reject “girly” things and/or embrace “male” (read: violent) power. I’ll have more on this in the next week or so when I’ll have to have another mini-rant on Talisa, and even more when I get to season six. I’ve mentioned briefly in several of these posts that there are “trends” in the adaptation of this series that perpetuate (and, in later seasons, explode) throughout the show, and these are a couple of major ones. Right now, they seem like minor, even inconsequential changes, but the attitudes behind them continue throughout the series and get more intense.

The highlight of this episode is the introduction of Rose Leslie as Ygritte. She’s one of my favorite characters in the books for her feistiness, her ability to mouth off to anyone, and her refusal to take anyone’s guff. Also, “you know nothing, Jon Snow” is one of those lines that’s crept into my everyday vocabulary (I communicate primarily in pop-culture references anyway).

This episode also marks Theon’s point of no return in the trajectory that leads to his really horrible fate at the hands of Ramsay Snow/Bolton; just before he beheads Ser Rodrik, Rodrik tells him, “Gods help you, Theon Greyjoy. Now you are truly lost.”



Arya makes another decision about a death, and while this one isn’t quite as wasteful as the choice she makes in the books, it is spur-of-the-moment and needful because of her own carelessness.

And a good chunk of Dany’s khalasar, including her handmaiden Irri, is wiped out so that the warlocks of the House of the Undying can kidnap her dragons.

RIP: Rodrick Cassell
Armory Lorch
Irri
The High Septon

Next week: Theon goes hunting. Sansa becomes a woman. Xaro is a double-triple-possibly-quadruple-crosser.

All images from screencapped.net


Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Reminder: CFP for Kalamazoo 2017

Helen Young sends the following reminder:

Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies
Growing Up Medieval: The Middle Ages in Children's and Young Adult Literature
The generation which 'grew up' with J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter are now young scholars going into doctoral training and embarking on academic careers. The session explores the visions and versions of the Middle Ages which, like Rowling's, can serve to spark interest in an era where students are increasingly unlikely to enounter the medieval period through their elementary and high school years. What kinds of medievalist texts are written for children and young people? How are decidedly adult Middle Ages-influenced texts like "Game of Thrones" impacting them? What ideas about the Middle Ages are taught to young people through popular fiction? The session welcomes papers which engage in theoretically engaged readings of individual texts or author's oeuvres.

Please send a 200 word abstract with a Participant Information Form (available via https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/submissions) and short biography to talesaftertolkien@gmail.com by September 15th.
If you've an idea, send it along! We'd love to have you!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 1.8: "Rebirth"

With apologies for the delay in keeping this going...

1.8."Rebirth"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

Immediately after the end of the previous episode, the Robeast sent to the Balmera emerges from its coffin-like pod and attacks. The Paladins, initially thinking it a threat similar to the Robeast Myzax, prepare to make a fight similar to that which felled the gladiator; they find they are wrong and retreat under fire, assisted by the Castle of Lions.

Following the withdrawal, the Paladins confer about tactics to use, and Hunk attempts to marshal the Balmerans to the fight. They demur, and it begins to become clear that the Balmera is dying. Allura determines to make planetfall to help evacuate the Balmerans, and the Paladins screen her approach and initial evacuation efforts.

When Allura arrives, while the Paladins fight the Robeast with limited success, the Balmerans refuse her offer of assistance. Allura refuses the refusal, and her affinity for the Balmera emerges suddenly; she exploits the affinity to make an impassioned plea for escape, which the Balmerans accept. The evacuation begins shortly after, with Coran directing the Castle of Lions to a useful location and noting a ceremony that the Alteans had performed in earlier days, when they had existed in symbiosis with Balmerae. (The plural is conjectural, of course, but it seems apt.) As the evacuation continues, the Balmera showing signs of degradation, Allura and several Balmerans enact the ceremony.

Meanwhile, the Paladins continue their fight. Hunk, piloting the Yellow Lion, is made aware of additional capabilities of his equipment, and the Paladins put it to use, improving their performance against the Robeast. They are able to keep it at bay as Allura and the Balmerans complete the ceremony, restoring the Balmera. In return, the Balmera itself destroys the Robeast, entombing it in crystal.

In the wake of the victory, Hunk and Shae talk under the starry sky. Hunk reaffirms his commitment to the fight against the oppressive Galra--and the Balmera arc concludes.

Discussion

Such medievalisms as the Paladin label and the "knightly" combat with sword and shield--and with a shield looking much like a kite shield--continue in the episode. Less fortunate evocations of the medieval, of a type described by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul in their introduction to Medievalism in the Postcolonial World, with the "advanced" European-analogues coming in and foisting their "right-thinking" ways on those they would "liberate," also persist.

Something else called itself to attention as I watched the episode again, though, and it really ought to have called to me earlier. The ceremony Allura leads to heal the Balmera arranges her at the center of a pentacle of Balmerans; they kneel in a star pattern facing her. In my write-up of "Return of the Gladiator," I note some Marianic overtones that attach themselves to Allura; seeing her at the center of a five-pointed star called to mind the depiction of Gawain's shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the poem--at least in the version edited by Tolkien and E.V. Gordon and hosted on the University of Michigan Corpus of Middle English Verse and Prose--Gawain's shield bears a pentacle reminiscent of the magic of Solomon and evocative of the five senses, the five wounds of Christ, and the five greater parts of the body (two arms, two legs, and head/torso); facing him is an image of the Virgin, according to the second Passus. In what is described by many critics as the finest piece of Middle English Arthuriana, if not the finest piece of Middle English romance (Garbáty comes to mind as a prominent example), the five-pointed star is linked physically with Mary--and "Rebirth" appears to link it to Allura similarly.

The evocation of SGGK also emerges more generally in the composition of the robot Voltron--something I admit should have occurred to me earlier than it did. The five Lions correspond to the five portions of the body referenced by Gawain's shield, and it might be argued that the five pilots are themselves evocative of the four humors of medieval medical thought united under the wisdom and reason represented by the most senior among them: Shiro. (Which is which might be an interesting thing to treat.) How much of such reference is made "on purpose" is, of course, open to debate; even when creators are alive to ask after their motives, they may well not remember in full what they were thinking, and they may not have been aware of all of the mental processes at work as they created. But even if none of it was, that the episode can be read in such a way speaks to the idea that the medieval remains with us even now, arguing in favor of its continued study and enjoyment.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 2.5: "The Ghost of Harrenhal"

2.5 “The Ghost of Harrenhal”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by David Petrarca

This episode starts with a bang, killing Renly off within the first five minutes. The shadow-thing slithers in, stands up, stabs Renly through the back, and poofs. Brienne shrieks. Cat freezes up. Two other knights bust in and attack Brienne, but Brienne isn’t too torn up to defend herself and kill them. But she immediately comes to pieces again, holding Renly’s body and sobbing. This allows Benioff & Weiss to set up the theme of the episode: revenge. Cat convinces Brienne that she can’t find and kill Stannis (the shadow looked like him) if she’s caught and killed here. A good deal of the conversations and action of this episode revolve around revenge—what’s required to get it, how it’s gotten, and how to be smart about getting it. Petyr refers to revenge as “the purest of motivations,” which says a lot about his character and how revenge-seeking reflects on every character who seeks it.

Brienne and Cat run away, and Brienne offers to swear fealty to Cat, which is a bit odd because Cat’s a lady, not a liege lord, and because Brienne’s not a knight. However, Cat takes it in stride, even when Brienne qualifies her oath by asking Cat not to restrain her from killing Stannis when the time comes. Cat promises, oaths are sworn, accepted, and counter-sworn, and Cat has herself a sworn sword to protect her as she travels back to Robb’s camp, and then to Winterfell (she hopes). Although Cat having a sworn sword doesn’t quite match the ethos of lordship and vassalship in Westeros, it’s not uncommon for romance, wherein knights would often swear themselves to ladies, which even in the romances made for some interesting implications with regard to gender and status. Brienne acting as a knight is still outside the realm even of romances, where (as far as I know, and someone can correct me if I’m wrong) this never happens. (Unless the romance is also a hagiography of some kind; cross-dressing happens pretty often in saint’s lives and hagiographies and stuff.)



Also, this is where aging Brienne up gets a little weird. In the books, she’s eighteen and still has a very romantic view of knighthood and vassalship. She’s madly in love with Renly, who she sees as the perfect knight and perfect king, much as a romance knight sees his beloved. Gwendolyn Christie is 38, and while she’s visually stunning as Brienne and I love her acting, it loses a lot of the wide-eyed innocent that I picture with book-Brienne. Christie plays Brienne much more jaded and tired and less romantic-minded and young.

Loras also wants revenge for the murder of his lover, and they act out a similar scene as Cat and Brienne, with Margaery and Petyr trying to convince Loras that they need to leave before Stannis arrives or he’ll never get to take his revenge. While Loras’ desire for revenge might be “the purest motivation,” Margaery’s desires are a bit more complicated. She’s looking at the death of her hope to be queen, but the wheels are turning, and new plots are being formed. Petyr asks her if she wants to be a queen, and she says she wants to be “the queen.” Wheels start turning in his head, too.



My one issue with this particular scene is that Margaery and Loras immediately jump to believing that Stannis somehow killed Renly. They dismiss the idea that it was Brienne as nonsense and move right on. This doesn’t match Loras in the books, who continues to insist that Brienne killed Renly up until A Feast for Crows, when Jaime manages to convince him otherwise. Perhaps this simplifies the plot and character motivations a bit, but the logical leap—only Cat and Brienne were in the tent, the tent was well-guarded, the guards came in immediately and didn’t see anyone else—that Brienne wasn’t involved was a bit odd. Taken by itself, it isn’t really a big deal, but it’s part of a larger trend of Benioff & Weiss simplifying and trimming and condensing until the narrative is almost unrecognizable.

Cersei is getting a shallower and pettier sort of revenge against Tyrion by withholding information from him. It’s a stupid move, frankly, because the information she’s withholding is about how they plan to defend King’s Landing against Stannis. You’d think she’d want all the minds she can get helping to plan this, but she has such an overinflated idea of her own cunning and political skill that she thinks she can do it on her own (with some input from Joffrey, of course). (Also she's drunk.) This leaves Tyrion to suss out her plans for himself, which sets up the upcoming Battle of the Blackwater by introducing us to the pyromancer and the idea of wildfire. Bronn playing this-will-never-work advocate is a hilarious part of this whole scene.



Even Theon’s storyline is kind of a revenge one; he plans to sack Winterfell for a lot of really complicated reasons: to show his father he’s really Ironborn (and get revenge for his father sending him away ten years ago); to take something that belongs to the Starks (and get revenge for being held hostage for ten years); to one-up Yara (and take revenge for her embarrassing him when they met a couple of episodes ago). Theon has a lot of entitlement issues, a lot of which are no real fault of his own, along with a bit of an inferiority complex that makes him want to prove his worth to everyone (usually by mouthing off, which doesn’t work with the Ironborn), which makes him a really fascinating character. (On a completely side and inconsequential note, something about the way Alfie Allen says “Iron Islands” grates on every nerve I have. Great actor, though.)



Finally, we have Arya. Arya’s entire character arc is about revenge. All she wants is to get big enough, skilled enough, and strong enough to kill everyone on her prayer-list, and probably some others besides. But she’s not yet, so when Jaqen shows up again and offers to kill three people for her to balance the scales for her saving him, Biter, and Rorge from the fire, she’s all over it. Unfortunately for Arya, she’s still young and doesn’t think about the bigger picture. Jaqen offered to kill anyone. Arya’s list has names like King Joffrey, Queen Cersei, Ser Gregor Clegane—really influential people whose deaths could actually change the course of history.

She picks the Tickler.

Now, I’m not saying the Tickler doesn’t need to die. He’s a sadistic bastard who tortures people to death (well, supervises their torture while he asks questions) for fun. He almost killed Gendry. I understand why Arya wants him dead, especially since she’s pretty narrow-sighted right now. The Tickler is an immediate threat to her and the people around her, and she wants him dead.



You know who’s a more immediate threat? The Tickler’s boss. Gregor Clegane. Or maybe Gregor’s boss—Tywin Lannister. Both are available if she wants to stick to people in her immediate vicinity. Both are smarter choices, big-picture-wise. But Arya’s not there yet (and I don’t know if she ever gets there; the teaser chapter from The Winds of Winter would indicate that she’s still willing to sacrifice the bigger picture for immediate payoff). I’ll have more on this when she picks her next two deaths.

Other things going on that don’t have much to do with revenge:
Daenerys is being wined and dined and Jorah’s jealous that she remotely trusts Xaro. He insists that he can find her a ship that will take her to Westeros, where people are eagerly awaiting the return of the true king. Again, the simplification here removes so much nuance; in the books, Jorah tells her that if she marries Xaro, he has the right to ask her for one thing that she’s not allowed to refuse. What’s he going to want? A dragon, of course. That’s what convinces her not to trust the people of Qarth to help her get her throne, not Jorah begging, and it makes much more sense. In this case, she agrees to possibly trade half the wealth of one of the wealthiest men in Qarth (or so we think, dun dun duuuuun) for Jorah’s single ship and promises that he can get her support once they’ve reached Westeros. Dany may be just a young girl and know little of the ways of war, but she knows better than that. And it’s not even like keeping that particular plot point would complicate things, anyway. Heck, it might set up the changes they made to Dany visiting the House of the Undying in the next episode even better, because we know the people of Qarth are generally just trying to steal her dragons from her.



Bran knows the Ironborn are coming, but since he saw it in a dream, he doesn’t know that that’s what he knows. Prophetic dreams are irritating like that.

Jon, Mormont, and Qhorin Halfhand make plans to assassinate Mance Rayder. Again, here’s another minor change that completely shifts some connotations of what happens and wasn’t needed. In the book, Qhorin asks for Jon. He knows Jon’s Ned Stark’s bastard and that has leverage up here. He can use both Jon’s birth status and his relationship to the late Warden of the North to get Jon into Mance’s camp. Instead, Benioff and Weiss have Jon volunteer to go, Mormont reluctantly let him, and Qhorin not particularly caring one way or the other.

RIP:
King Renly Baratheon, First of His Name
Emmon Cuy and Robar Royce (the knights Brienne killed)
The Tickler

Next week: The sea comes to Winterfell. A girl says a second name. The smallfolk are restless. Where are my DRAGONS?!

All images from screencapped.net

Monday, August 29, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 2.4: "Garden of Bones"

2.4 “Garden of Bones”
Written by Vanessa Taylor
Directed by David Petrarca
Commentary by Liam Cunningham (Davos) and Carice Van Houten (Melisandre)

Oh, look, it’s another episode of Game of Thrones where death is the major theme, but this time it’s not individual deaths or people doing things to cause their own deaths, but massive deaths inflicted on the common folk at the hands of the nobles. The title comes from Daenerys’ arrival at Qarth, where Jorah tells her that because of the location of the city, if the masters of Qarth decide not to admit travelers, they die outside the gates, where their bodies are just . . . left.

Daenerys and her khalasar come very close to suffering this fate; the Thirteen (the council that governs Qarth) ask to see her dragons before they’ll admit her, and Dany balks. The reason for her refusal to show them the dragons isn’t clear—stubbornness? Not like being told what to do? CGI budget too low?—but because of her refusal, the Thirteen are prepared to allow Dany and her people to die in the desert. Only the intervention of Xaro Xhoan Daxos prevents this fate; he swears a blood oath (cutting across his palm, of course, because people in TV shows and movies don’t need those tendons) to make Dany et al his responsibility while they’re in the city. It looks like altruism, but chances are it’s not. (Nobody on this show ever does anything just to be nice.) So Daenerys and her khalasar live for a bit longer, entering Qarth, the greatest city that ever was or ever shall be.



There’s some Lannister soldiers who aren’t so lucky. Robb ambushes Stafford Lannister’s camp, leaving bodies strewn across the battlefield. Roose mentions that they have too many prisoners and offers to torture a few (specifically by flaying them) to get information rather than feeding them. Robb tells him no, then dodges any further discussion by helping a pretty battlefield nurse hold down a wounded soldier who really doesn’t want his foot taken off. Roose insists that there are more important things to be doing than dealing with this one single Lannister soldier, and he’s right, for the most part, but Robb has to make goo-goo eyes at his new soon-to-be love interest (so much more on her later). Yet spending some time with the soldier and Talisa allows the show to bash home its message a bit; Talisa proceeds to chastise Robb (you know, just the king, nobody important who could have her head off for sass-talking him) about starting battles that cause no-name smallfolk to suffer. She does bring up a good point that he doesn’t exactly have plans for what to do after he’s sacked King’s Landing and killed Joffrey, then retreated north to be King in the North—who’s he going to leave on the Iron Throne?



Meanwhile, Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie are in the thick of the expendable smallfolk, watching the Mountain’s torturer try to get information about the Brotherhood and what valuables might be left in the village. One of the women tells them that he picks one person every day and tortures them to death. (My husband pointed out that this is really stupid—why tell them anything if they’re just going to kill you anyway? Getting any information through torture-to-death, especially in front of people you plan to torture to death, is really inefficient.) Her time in the cage gives Arya an opportunity to build and refine her “prayers”—the list of people who have hurt her or her family and who she plans to kill one day. The torture goes on for several days, until Tywin arrives and tells them torturing perfectly able-bodied people to death—like Gendry, who’s in the chair when he shows up and tells Tywin he’s a smith—is really extraordinarily stupid and they need to stop it at once. Arya comes to Tywin’s attention because Polliver yells at her for not kneeling, and Tywin decides Arya needs to be his next cupbearer. This accelerates Arya’s timeline a bit, as the books have her working as a floor-scrubber for a while before becoming Roose Bolton’s cupbearer when the Starks retake Harrenhal, and completely shifts the power dynamic and implications for this relationship. I’ll have more to say on it in the next couple of episodes.



Joffrey’s abuse of the smallfolk is more intimate in this episode; in order to try to mellow him out (and get him to quit beating up on Sansa), Tyrion gives him a nameday present of two whores—Ros and Daisy, both of whom we’ve seen before. Joffrey doesn’t want to actually have sex with them (his avoidance of Ros’ groping is interesting, and I’ll have to keep an eye on his reaction to sexual situations from now on to see what the showrunners are doing with this). Instead, he wants them to hit each other. A lot. Hard. With a belt. And then with a stag-topped staff. At crossbow-point. Because he’s a sociopathic, sadistic little shit. (Every single commentary track that deals with Joffrey at all mentions what a nice kid Jack Gleeson is and what a shame it is that he’s the most hated man on television.)



The specter of dead smallfolk is less visible when Renly and Stannis have their parlay on the bluff overlooking the ocean, but it’s still there if you know where to look. These two men (and Catelyn) are discussing how to avert a battle between them, a battle that, like Robb’s attack on the Lannisters, would kill lots and lots of people. This isn’t their main concern, though, beyond the fact that killing lots and lots of people would mean their armies would be weakened when it came time to attack King’s Landing. Mostly, they’re worried about their pride. Stannis believes he’s the rightful heir to the throne, all other considerations be damned. Renly believes he’s the better choice for king because he’s more personable and has more support, because Stannis never bothered to make any friends. Catelyn thinks they’re both being idiots and need to kiss and make up. Of course neither of them can or will bend, so the peace talks are a failure and they ride off to get ready for war.



Or, in Stannis’ case, to cheat. Hard. For a man who prides himself on honor and justice, he sure doesn’t balk at using underhanded and magical means to get what he wants. He’s got an “ends justify the means when it benefits me” kind of outlook that makes him not nearly as honorable as he thinks he is. Of course, Ned Stark was as honorable as Stannis thinks he is, and look where that got him. So Stannis has Davos use his smuggling skills to sneak Melisandre ashore, where she once again shows us her boobs, then births a shadow monster that runs off to make sure there won’t be a fight between Renly and Stannis.

Bones once again play a part in the story when Petyr and a couple of Silent Sisters bring Ned’s bones to Catelyn. Tyrion has arranged it as a show of good will, hoping that Cat will agree to trade Jaime for Sansa and Arya (completely lying about having Arya), since they know Robb won’t do it. Petyr then makes a tactical mistake in trying to convince Catelyn that now that Ned is dead, they can finally be together, still believing that it was Cat he had sex with all those years ago (spoiler: it wasn’t. I don’t remember how much the show goes into this whole Cat-Lysa-Petyr mess, so I’ll deal with it when and if it comes up).

Any storyline in A Song of Ice and Fire that deals with the smallfolk (Arya’s and Brienne’s, primarily) emphasizes how the lords playing their “game of thrones” do so on the backs of the smallfolk, who for the most part couldn’t care less who’s in charge as long as they can live in peace and feed their families. In A Clash of Kings, Arya overhears some of the Harrenhal prisoners complaining: “It’s not just, it’s not. [. . .] We never did no treason, the others came in and took what they wanted, same as this bunch.” She then proceeds to curse the Tullys, Lannisters, and Starks equally (Clash 416). A lot of book-fans complain about Brienne’s story in A Feast for Crows, claiming that “nothing happens,” but what’s happening is Martin establishing how much the War of the Five Kings has decimated the countryside, uprooted families, and generally left chaos in its wake. So few medievalist fantasy novels deal with the plight of the smallfolk at all that it’s really refreshing to get it from Martin (even if he does exaggerate for effect).

On a side note, while Liam Cunningham and Carice van Houten’s commentary didn’t add a lot to the analysis of this episode, it was a joy to listen to, because they’re clearly such good friends and spend a lot of time teasing each other. Also, Liam Cunningham’s accent is delightful.

RIP: Rennick
Lots of Lannister soldiers
Stafford Lannister, apparently (not on screen)

Next week: A girl must choose. A king dies. A man goes north.

All images from screencapped.net

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 1.7: "Return to the Balmera"

The Balmera arc of the series continues, as do commentaries on how the series recapitulates the medieval.

1.7. "Return to the Balmera"

Written by May Chan
Directed by Steve In-Chang Ahn

Synopsis

As the Castle approaches the Balmera, Allura, Coran, and the Paladins plan how they will liberate both it and its inhabitants from Galra control. As they begin to enact their plans, Lance voices a desire for glory, for which he is swiftly rebuked by Keith. Proceeding, the Paladins reconnoiter the Balmera and work to destroy Galra facilities; during the process, both Keith and Lance stumble onto new abilities in their Lions. Shiro recognizes that the Galra are enacting their own plans against the Paladins--plans which are explicated in a brief narrative focus on the Galra military as it moves to engage the Lions.

On the Balmera, the operation continues. Hunk, true to his word, works directly to free the Balmerans held captive; he learns that Shay has been taken into special captivity. Keith and Lance continue to coordinate well, and, at length, the five Paladins converge where Shay is held captive--at which point they are trapped away from their Lions, which the Galra military makes to steal as it engages with Allura and Coran. Shay and the other Balmerans work to clear the Paladins' paths back to the Lions, however, and the Paladins, Allura, and Coran make short work of the oncoming forces.

Meanwhile, Zarkon rebukes his military commander for interfering in his plans. What they are becomes clear when a Robeast crash-lands on the Balmera; the episode ends with the looming threat.

Discussion

Some of the ongoing medievalisms of the series continue in the episode. For example, the need to protect the innocent while fighting the less so, noted in "Return of the Gladiator" (here), presents itself again in comments throughout the episode that the Paladins have to limit their collateral damage as they fight the Galra on the Balmera. In such things, then, the episode breaks no new ground, although it does well to contiue to sift through such soils as the series has already dug up.

The association of Lance, the pilot of the Blue Lion, with Lancelot, his evident namesake, receives reinforcement, as well. Malory's Lancelot is repeatedly described as the knight of greatest worship--that is, the knight of greatest renown. He is also rebuked, during the Grail Quest and at other points, for seeking glory as he fights for his own elevation rather than the cause of right. Lance, in the episode, makes several comments about being fêted by the Balmerans, for which he is rebuked verbally by Keith and silently by Shiro, his primus inter pares (since it is clear there is a sense of parity among the Paladins, although Shiro is clearly the seniormost--another reference to the Round Table, perhaps). It is a subtle connection, to be sure, but it is one that does help to link "Return to the Balmera" to major medieval currents and works, suggesting that what has been will contnue to influence what is and what will be.