Thursday, September 17, 2020

New Rewatch Series: The Dragon Prince

𝔄 while back, as I began a different rewatch series, I noted that one of the then-future projects I had in mind was a rewatch of the Netflix original series The Dragon Prince. I'd held off work on it at that point because I had the other series to do--and that series is done, now. I enjoyed watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and looking at it for how it uses and misuses concepts of the medieval; I feel I got a lot out of doing so, and a few people have commented favorably on my efforts in that line, which always gratifies.
But the time has come, now, to move on to the next bit. I wrapped up the rewatch series. I took a little break. I am ready to move ahead. And so, next week, I will get (back) into The Dragon Prince. As of this writing, the series has not extended past its third season, so there is that to consider. Too, allegations against the show's creator remain in place, so far as I know; I have not seen that they have been addressed in any substantial fashion. So I cannot speak to how long the rewatch will last, although I do know I will be doing some discussion of the relevant issues--not as deftly as I should, doubtlessly, but I will try. It's all I can do, really.
I hope you'll begin to read the series here soon!

The Dragon Prince (TV Series 2018– ) - IMDb
Again, the promo poster seems apropos.
I'm borrowing it from IMDB for purposes of reporting and commentary.


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

A Reminder about #Kzoo2021

𝔓lease note that the deadline to submit abstracts and information for the Tales after Tolkien Society's offerings at the upcoming International Congress on Medieval Studies is Tuesday, 15 September 2020. Maugre earlier announcements in this webspace, submissions need to be made here: https://icms.confex.com/icms/2021am/cfp.cgi. Proposals from graduate students, those outside traditional academe, and traditionally underrepresented groups are still especially welcome, and please let people in your circles know who might be interested!

As a final reminder, the panels are these:

Legacies of Tolkien's Whiteness in Contemporary Medievalisms

A roundtable session examining the continuing effects of Tolkien's depictions of race in medievalist works.

Much criticism directs itself towards racial studies and postcolonial readings of the works of JRR Tolkien, arguing whether his works should be regarded as racist and what attitudes contemporary readers would be well served to adopt in response to them. Much attention in popular media has directed itself towards the use of medieval and medievalist works such as Tolkien's by white supremacist groups to offer themselves pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-historical support for their execrable agendas. The session looks for ways in which contemporary medievalist work (hopefully) unintentionally supports such efforts and what can be done to oppose them as things deserving all opposition.

Deadscapes: Wastelands, Necropoli, and Other Tolkien-Inspired Places of Death, Decay, and Corruption

A paper session at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University examining depictions of what comes in the wake of war and death in works in the Tolkienian tradition.

Many of the "standard" fantasy works, ranging from the epics through Arthuriana into Tolkien and beyond, make much of grand wars fought on massive scales. They also, at times, look at what is left behind when the war is done, the graveyards filled and memorials erected. The session looks at how such things are constructed in works in the Tolkienian fantasy tradition and what functions they serve for readers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
We still hope to see you at the 'zoo!

Thursday, September 3, 2020

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Rewatch 5.13, "Heart, Part 2"

Read the previous entry here!

She-Ra comes to an expected, happy end.

5.13, "Heart, Part 2"

Written by Noelle Stevenson, Josie Campbell, Katherine Nolfi, Laura Sreebny, and M. Willis
Directed by Christina "Kiki" Manrique and Roy Burdine

Synopsis

That's never a good sign.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Adora lies wounded in the approach to the Heart of Etheria. Catra attacks her assailant, Shadow Weaver moving to assist her. Catra urges Adora on as she faces the Etherian security, while, elsewhere, Glimmer faces her controlled father, Micah, and Bow strives to avoid Scorpia's attacks in the Horde installation, aided by Melog. Matters proceed ill for the lot of them, though they continue to struggle.

Glimmer breaks through Micah's power with some difficulty. Bow continues Entrapta's work, though he cannot evade Scorpia for long. In the event, he does not need to; Entrapta's device works, and the control chips are disrupted, freeing those who had been placed under their command. Prime orders retribution as Bow broadcasts a call to rebel that reaches across Etheria.

Ooh. Shiny.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
The fight at the approach to the Heart of Etheria continues. Horde Prime projects into it, distracting Catra as Shadow Weaver presses them toward the Heart, itself. They reach it, and Adora begins to suffer the effects of carrying the failsafe as Shadow Weaver finds herself empowered. Catra's suffering calls Adora to her, and Shadow Weaver sacrifices herself to save them both.

They press on as the fight elsewhere continues. At the Heart itself, Adora struggles to return to her form as She-Ra while Horde Prime's assault on the Heart continues. Adora tries to send Catra away; she refuses, remaining beside Adora as the failsafe begins to work.

Horde Prime makes contact with the Heart. Hordak turns on Horde Prime after being ordered to kill Entrapta, casting him down--only to be suborned in sequence, taken over by Prime. Prime takes Entrapta to Etheria to die by power of the Heart, which he begins to trigger.

Love is like that sometimes.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Adora struggles to use the failsafe. She lapses into unconsciousness and a vision of a happy future with Catra, and with Glimmer and Bow. Prime interferes with it, and Catra calls to her, confessing her love for her. Adora affirms that she returns the emotion and, enheartened, she trips the failsafe, thwarting Prime's plans. As She-Ra, she emerges to confront Prime directly, and she defeats him handily and completely, restoring the vitality of the planet. Hordak is left behind, confused, and the process of healing begins.

Discussion

While Alcuin might well ask quid enim Adora cum Christo, the final episode of the series, like many medieval works and many others, makes much of Christian messianic imagery. The wound in Adora's side evokes it, as do the repeated self-sacrifices intended and enacted, as well as the self-abnegation in Adora's fatalistic drive to enact the failsafe. So does the seeming enactment of the failsafe through an act of love; it happens when Adora and Catra admit their feelings to each other, after all. So, too, does the paradasical Etheria that emerges after Adora drives out Horde Prime from Hordak (itself in line with Christian doctrine and, in its pointed nonviolence, obliquely evocative of the Dream of the Rood). Indeed, the episode fairly rolls around in Christian imagery--interestingly, given the prevalence of lesbian relationships in the episode and the prevalent attitude espoused by professed Christians about such things. (Then again, lesbianism is hardly unknown to what is traditionally known as the medieval, as Erik Wade points out on Twitter.) So there's that.



There's clearly a lot left to unpack, not only in the present episode, but across the series. I hardly claim to be the single authoritative expert on it, and I welcome comments from others.

With the series ended, a new project will be coming up in this webspace soon. But, for the moment, it is time for something of a break. Check back soon!

Thursday, August 27, 2020

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Rewatch 5.12, "Heart, Part 1"

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry here!

It's the beginning of the end for She-Ra.

5.12, "Heart, Part 1"

Written by Noelle Stevenson, Josie Campbell, Katherine Nolfi, Laura Sreebny, and M. Willis
Directed by Jen Bennett and Roy Burdine

Synopsis

Doesn't look easy...
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
In the resistance camp, Adora contemplates her decision as her companions comfort one another. She continues to struggle to summon the power of She-Ra and lays out the current, dire situation. She assigns her companions to deal with Horde Prime's control chips; she purposes to activate the failsafe and disable the Heart of Etheria.

She steps outside, looking for Catra. There is no sign of her, and Adora warns off Glimmer and Bow; they refuse, determined to accompany her while the rest interdict Horde Prime's control.

Not an obvious place, is it?
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Adora, Glimmer, and Bow proceed towards the failsafe. They are admitted to the innards of the First Ones' devices.

Elsewhere, Catra rides Melog away from the resistance camp, if with some reluctance. Melog confronts her about her decision, and Catra protests her seemingly unrequited love for Adora until a Horde clone happens by.

It's an impressive edifice.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
The other resistance members make their attack on the Horde facilities to begin interdicting the control signals. They are remarkably effective in their assault, allowing Entrapta access to Horde machinery. She begins her work, if with some trepidation.

Adora, Glimmer, and Bow proceed. Adora begins to hallucinate Catra or to see projections of her, and her She-Ra form begins to destabilize.

Catra pursues the Horde clone to find a massive Horde installation at work. She remains undetected even as Horde Prime works through the clone to announce his impending triumph and direct access to the Heart of Etheria via the installation. Catra rushes to warn Adora of the coming peril.

Adora continues to waver as she proceeds. She finds herself in a projection of her first encounter with the sword of She-Ra, and she begins to push her friends away, thanking them for their help but denying them the ability to go with her. She vanishes in a flash of light, leaving Glimmer and Bow behind as Horde Prime's influence spreads.

The picture of ease...
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Catra returns to the resistance camp to find it empty save for Shadow Weaver. The latter notes that Adora has gone off to trigger the failsafe. Catra rails against her and rushes off to aid Adora as Prime continues to take over the planet's imposed architecture, teleporting Entrapta to him as he does so. And the battle turns against the other resistance fighters who had been screening her presence: Mermista and Scorpia make their entrance.

Horde Prime gloats over his perceived victory. Catra demands Shadow Weaver help her with Adora; Shadow Weaver reluctantly agrees, and they teleport to Adora's whereabouts, finding Glimmer and Bow. Catra reports what she has learned, and Glimmer and Bow transport to take up Entrapta's mission; Catra takes over theirs, and they part as friends. Glimmer takes a moment to confess her love for Bow; he admits the same to her, and they move off to take care of their work.

It is a pleasant thought.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Adora finds herself in a utopic vision alongside a projection of Mara. They confer briefly, Mara questioning Adora's motivations before the interruptions of Horde Prime manifest and Prime confronts her.

Glimmer rescues the other resistance fighters, affording Sea Hawk an opportunity to try to reach Mermista. It seems to work, but Scorpia's presence is missed--until she appears at Bow's location. And Micah also remains to confront his daughter and her companions in power and fury.

Meanwhile, Horde Prime gloats over Adora and leaves her to face the suborned Etherian defenses...

Discussion

A penultimate episode--and the first part of a two-part episode, no less--cannot be expected to bring in many things. In truth, the present episode does not seem to introduce any new medievalism, and it only lightly seems to reinforce that already present in the rest of the series. One thing that does come to mind, however, is an invocation of the Malorian Sir Palomides that has occasionally popped up as an antecedent. Wrong Hordak seems to follow the model to some extent, being a (religious) Other who is integrated into the primary narrative group (and, like the Palomides of the earlier and more thoroughgoing Malorian borrowing that is The Once and Future King, becomes a comedic figure). And, to continue the prevailing Arthurian pastiche, Wrong Hordak notably over-emotes throughout his appearance in the series; it is a commonplace of Arthurian fiction that the Round Table knights weep and bewail their situations, with Lancelot's death bring a prominent example thereof, though there are no few others. While not something that emerges in the present episode, it is something that is reemphasized by it, pointing up the medievalist borrowings of the series even as it comes close to its end.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Rewatch 5.11, "Failsafe"

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry here!

As the end approaches, the approach of an earlier end is called forward, with no few messianic overtones.

5.11, "Failsafe"

Written by Noelle Stevenson, Katherine Nolfi, Josie Campbell, Laura Sreebny, and M. Willis
Directed by Roy Burdine and Mandy Clotworthy

Synopsis

Good kitties. Nice kitties.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
In their camp, the remaining resistance fighters query Castaspella and Shadow Weaver upon their return. The magicians report on the failsafe they have found, and Glimmer rails against the plan. Catra and Melog begin to rise against Shadow Weaver, but Adora calms them and presses for more information. The information is forthcoming, and the group agrees to pursue the failsafe, though there are misgivings about doing so.

Adora makes to talk to Catra, working to reassure her about the plan and asking for her help, specifically. It mollifies Catra. Meanwhile, Entrapta reports that there is a limited time to save those enthralled by Horde Prime via control chip--and that she has a plan to address the issue.

This is never a good sign.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
The group infiltrates Mystacor via teleportation and Melog's cloaking ability. They encounter Micah along the way, only narrowly avoiding detection as they press ahead. A fracas ensues when strife reemerges among the infiltration group.

Back at the resistance camp, Entrapa proposes to search out a group of Horde clones to analyze signals. Swift Wind reluctantly agrees to assist her. They find that the Horde is forcing a connection to the Heart of Etheria--but Entrapta gets the data she needs before a Horde clone comes across her. In the event, the clone is Hordak. Swift Wind takes her away before more can emerge.

There's enough looming here to get a tapestry out of it.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
The infiltration group presses on through Mystacor, finding the ingress to the failsafe for the Heart of Etheria. As they continue, Adora tries to calm Catra again, finding some success. The group finds confirmation that they are on the correct path--as well as more strife occasioned by Shadow Weaver's commentary. Magical traps beset them, and Adora frets while Shadow Weaver preys upon her mind.

Oh, that iconogrpahy's not evocative at all.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary
At length, the infiltration group arrives at the failsafe. Adora is obliged to take it into herself, at great risk and with the certainty of doom; her companions, especially Catra, are displeased at Shadow Weaver's omission that has led to it. Micah emerges again, and melee ensues; the infiltration group is hard-put to it, but they cover Adora as she takes the failsafe into herself. The mission accomplished, the group withdraws.

Back at the encampment, the group rests. Catra considers Adora's impending sacrifice and makes to leave. Once again, Adora chases after her; Catra questions her self-sacrifice and leaves despite Adora's pleas. And Adora rails against Shadow Weaver after.

Discussion

Two things come to mind for me as I rewatched the episode: the achievement of the Grail in Malory, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As to the first, in Malory as in other sources, the Grail is something of a plot-driver, a powerful relic in itself and one eagerly sought by the bulk of the Round Table. The parallel to the failsafe for the Heart of Etheria is fairly obvious. It was something held in trust by a figure of legend (Joseph of Arimathea) and reclaimed by a descendant thereof (Galahad), while the Heart was secreted away by Mara and reclaimed by her successor, Adora. The reclamation is self-sacrificial in both cases, if deferred in the latter; Galahad is translated to Heaven as a reward for his service, giving up himself against the greater glory of it, while Adora yet has a labor to accomplish before her own end comes. And, in both cases, the quest to achieve the item in question marks the beginning of the end; Arthur recognizes the Grail Quest as the dissolution of the Round Table, and the series is left on a two-part final episode after the present one ends.

Yes, we see it.
Image taken from Britannica.com and used for commentary.
As to the second, the Sacred Heart of Jesus (devotion to which is noted as early as in the 1200s, and which therefore likely got going earlier than that), the iconography is clearer than the parallel to the Grail narrative. The shining emblem that is put into Adora is more-than-vaguely heart-shaped, sitting in the center of her chest amid its own radiance (and golden rays when Adora is She-Ra), which parallels no few depictions of the Catholic devotional focus. (That no few images of Jesus figure him as light-haired, light-skinned, and pale-eyed--much as Adora is--doesn't hurt the association, either.) Adora's series-long association with Arthur makes her something of a messianic figure moving into the episode; that she willingly accepts pain and the expectation of death in the service of her friends--indeed, to save the very world if not all of the worlds that remain--only furthers the figuration. After all, greater love have none than she who lays her life down for her friends. And if she is not yet willing to admit to some of the loves that she feels, that she feels them and still acts upon a greater love does not diminish Adora.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Rewatch 5.10, "Return to the Fright Zone"

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry here!

Hope returns, and just in time.

5.10, "Return to the Fright Zone"

Written by Noelle Stevenson, M. Willis, Josie Campbell, Katherine Nolfi, and Laura Sreebny
Directed by Roy Burdine and Mandy Clotworthy

Synopsis

They are detailed plans.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Adora leads a strategy session to try to figure out how to stop the suborned princesses in their rampages across Etheria. Netossa notes weaknesses and methods for subduing her peers, including those present. The demonstration is convincing.

Discussion continues. Scorpia's location is noted--the Fright Zone. Scorpia soon becomes the imminent target, and plans for rescuing her begin to form.

It does appear to be a comfort.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Bow frets about his dads; Glimmer offers to take him to check on them, and he reluctantly accepts.

The mission to retrieve Scorpia begins, with Adora, Catra, Perfuma, Netossa, and Melog sneaking into the Fright Zone. They find it in ruins, Catra noting the fight with Hordak that occasioned much of the damage. And they find Scorpia in short order; she makes an explosive, energetic entrance, and a fracas ensues.

Glimmer and Bow arrive at the library. They reconnoiter, finding the library empty and ransacked slightly. Bow frets until Glimmer points out a letter to him from his dads; it reveals their location to him in a terrible pun.

The fracas against Scorpia continues. Mermista joins the fray. It does not improve things. Nor yet does the entrance of Spinnerella into the fight, which draws off Netossa.

Glimmer and Bow return to the First Ones ruins his dads had been studying. They find each other and confer, and Lance and George reveal that they have uncovered useful information.

Knocked the She-Ra right out of her...
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Mermista faces Catra and Melog; they retreat from her. Netossa faces Spinnerella. She-Ra and Perfuma flee from Scorpia, who pursues in might; Adora loses access to her powers and finds herself facing Horde Prime on what had been Hordak's throne. He gloats to her about his circumvention of her.

Lance and George show Glimmer and Bow that they have access to the First Ones technology that had previously been restricted: there is a back-door to the operating systems. And there is a destruct mechanism for the Heart of Etheria, one they may be able to access--if they can decipher the location.

It is a classic villain pose.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Adora and Perfuma face Horde Prime and Scorpia. They manage to escape. Netossa subdues and recovers Spinnerella as Glimmer arrives to effect extraction. There is some victory to be found, but matters are still grim, even as hope of the failsafe against the Heart of Etheria is present--for Shadow Weaver and Castaspella know it is accessible through Mystacor.

Discussion

Little if any new invocation of the medieval presents itself in the current episode, although there is an oblique bit of medievalism. Jason Tondro, in Superheroes of the Round Table: Comics Connections to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, makes a formal case for the kind of links noted briefly by Hana Videen here--namely, that superheroes such as DC's Superman and Marvel's Captain America are themselves medievalisms. It's an obvious thing, really, given heraldic blazons, call-backs, shout-outs, and some outright borrowings (The Mighty Thor, anyone?). And there is something of Batman and his hyper-preparedness in Netossa's dissection of her peers' weaknesses early in the episode; the Dark Knight (another medievalism in itself) keeps contingency plans to take down his colleagues, much as Netossa has developed. And at least one of them comes to fruition in the episode.

To pivot from that slightly, Horde Prime appears to have made use of what TV Tropes calls a Batman Gambit in laying a trap for Adora. That is, he expects Adora to try to save her friends--which she does, of course, being as she is. That he is unable to capture her in the event is less a misreading of her and more a hubristic belief in his own superiority--but, as noted before, he has (unjustified) reason to harbor such belief.

More people could stand to learn the lesson in his failure.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Rewatch 5.9, "An Ill Wind"

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry here!

Resistance to Horde Prime passes something of a nadir.

5.9, "An Ill Wind"

Written by Noelle Stevenson, Laura Sreebny, Josie Campbell, Katherine Nolfi, and M. Willis
Directed by Roy Burdine and Christina "Kiki" Manrique

Synopsis

This is never a good sign.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Back on Etheria, Glimmer's power is restored to her, and she teleports her group to the site where the resistance had made camp when they left. They find it ruined and empty, and they consider that they may be the only ones left, as well as how to proceed. They proceed to a nearby village, finding it under occupation.

From his command ship, Horde Prime observes the process of rebellion against his rule. It affirms his desire to take the Heart of Etheria for his own; he begins looking for a way to circumvent She-Ra and orders further action on Etheria.

Not suspicious at all...
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Glimmer's group makes to infiltrate the village, using Wrong Hordak as cover for them. The initial entry works well enough. Initial contacts with the locals goes less well; they are fearful and therefore likely to be problematic, despite Bow's questions. The suborned princesses have caused trouble, and the group divides to search more thoroughly. They find matters are unsettled, and they are unwelcome. Then Spinnerella attacks, and melee ensues. It does not go well for Glimmer's group; they flee from the initial contact and are pursued. Netossa intervenes, forcefully, but the group is still made to retreat.

Ew.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Aboard Horde Prime's command ship, Prime brings Hordak with him to survey the bodies of his former hosts. Prime plumbs the memories of one such, trying to figure out the issues of Etheria and the First Ones. Hordak remembers Etheria and Entrapta, beginning to sour again.

On Etheria, Glimmer's group takes stock of the situation. News is exchanged, and the situation is not good. They resolve to defeat Prime, beginning with reclaiming Spinnerella.

Yeah, this looks like a boss-fight about to happen.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
A counter-offensive begins. Initial efforts are successful. The second fight against Spinnerella proves difficult, even with She-Ra in the fray. Spinnerella flees, and the village's population is restored--to Horde Prime's anger. He makes for Etheria, and Hordak continues to sour against him. Glimmer's group rejoins what resistance remains, and while they are--generally--glad to see each other, their situation is still not the best.

Discussion

There are a few touches in the episode that point towards the medievalist rather than the medieval, as such. One such is the iconography hanging over the village Glimmer's group liberates and its change after the liberation, which speak to miniatures wargaming. If it is the case that many such games are in non-medieval settings, it is also the case that many of them partake heavily of the medieval. (Warhammer 40,000 comes to mind as one example, though not the only one. Too, Dungeons & Dragons itself emerged from tabletop miniatures wargaming, and it remains a major source of medievalism in the United States and elsewhere.) Another is in the small-band freedom-fighter setup of the present episode--one not uncommon to the rest of the series, admittedly, though Bright Moon and Frosta's realm both show up as having standing armies. The small-band setup brings to mind Robin Hood's Merry Men and the prominent members of the Round Table, among others, as well as any number of "medieval" movies and stories. And there is another in the recognition of Glimmer--something occurs about the return of a monarch, like in some book or another...

Still, it is near the end of the series. It is not to be wondered at that less is introduced now than reinforced, and the medievalisms that have pervaded the series have not gone away.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Guest Post: Ruth Lewis, "Whose Splintered Light?"

The following essay was kindly submitted by contributor Ruth Lewis, a British zoologist, writer, and illustrator with a strong interest in Tolkien. It is presented below with only minimal editorial adjustment. 

𝔙erlyn Fleiger’s Splintered Light is widely regarded as one of the best critical books on J.R.R. Tolkien [1]. Flieger referred the concept in her title to Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction of 1928, cited by Flieger from the third edition of 1973.
As an artist with an interest in the history of art theory, however, I have long been aware that the mythos of Light has deep roots in ancient philosophy and Christian theology. As the art-historian W. Swaan explains:
Plato’s metaphorical association of sunlight with goodness and knowledge was greatly elaborated by the pagan Neo-Platonists who identified light with Ultimate Reality and the generating principle of the universe. Light, they argued, was also the means by which the intellect perceived truth. This concept found confirmation in the magnificent passage in the Gospel of St John where the Word is compared ‘to a light that shineth in darkness, by which all things were made, and which enlighteneth every man. . .’. On this dual basis of pagan and Christian thought, a fifth-century Syrian mystic, Dionysius the Areopagite, built a highly complex philosophy which constituted no less than a theology of light. [2]
It should be noted that the Syrian was accidentally or deliberately confused with the first-century Athenian Dionysius who was a disciple of St Paul and is properly called ‘the Areopagite’; the fifth century mystic is often referred to as the pseudo-Areopagite or pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The Biblical reference seems to be a paraphrase of John chapter 1, verses 1-9 [3].
Coming forward to the twelfth century, the theology of light had a great practical influence on the emerging Gothic style of architecture, primarily though one man, Abbot Suger of St-Denis near Paris. As the American art-historian W.S. Stoddard explained: ‘As Erwin Panofsky has so clearly stated in his book on Abbot Suger, the writings in these texts present a theology which combines the Christian doctrine with “fundamental and illuminous aliveness of the world”. As Panofsky states:
According to the Pseudo-Areopagite, the universe is created, animated and unified by the perpetual self realization of what Plotinus had called “the One”, what the Bible had called “the Lord”, and what he calls “the super essential Light” or even the “visible son” – with God the father designated as “the Father of lights” and Christ as the “first radiance” . . . which “has revealed the Father to the world.”
This emphasis on the metaphysical qualities of colored light certainly must have had a profound effect on Suger and is clearly evident in the design of the choir of his new abbey church.’ [4]
Abbot Suger had a particular interest because the patron saint of his abbey was a triple compound of the Athenian disciple of St Paul, the Syrian mystic and the 3rd century AD martyr and Apostle of Gaul, all named Dionysius or Denis. He was not however alone in his interest in the theology of light at this time. As Swaan goes on to point out:
Suger’s infatuation with light which had so decisive an influence in formulating the Gothic style was but an extreme manifestation of a view widely supported by the Scholastics which received expression from men as different as Hugh of St Victor, Gilbert de la Porrée, St Thomas Aquinas and Robert Grosseteste, who hailed light as the most direct corporeal manifestation of the Divine, ‘the mediator between bodiless and bodily substance, at the same time spiritual body and embodied spirit’. [5]
The first problem with all this was the question of how such ideas might – or might not – have reached J.R.R. Tolkien, who is not known to have taken any interest in the relevant medieval and Classical writers. CS Lewis was working on material from the relevant period at various times from the writing of The Allegory of Love (published 1936) to that of The Discarded Image (published 1964). Yet that seemed too late for the appearance of the idea of ‘splintered light’ in Tolkien’s writing. Linked with this was the question of whether or not the same material had been part of Barfield’s inspiration, whether at first or second hand. Owen Barfield was an Anthroposophist, a member of an organisation whose founder, Rudolf Steiner, split from Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophists over the question of the worth of Oriental mystical traditions versus those of Europe [6]. This could easily mean that Steiner’s thought, and following him that of Barfield, also drew on the mythos of Light as it was developed by Neo-Platonist philosophers in the Classical era. This problem remains to be explored.
However, I have only just discovered, by sheer chance, a reference to exactly this set of ideas about Light, from an author whom we can be fairly certain J.R.R. Tolkien knew well, someone obviously important to him and much ‘closer to home’ than the medieval and ancient authors which I referred to above. The passage in question reads as follows:
Break a ray of light into its constituent colours, each is beautiful, each may be enjoyed; attempt to unite them, and perhaps you produce only dirty white. The pure and indivisible Light is seen only by the blessed inhabitants of Heaven; here we have but such faint reflections of it as its diffraction supplies.
That is a quote from the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman, founder of the Birmingham Oratory, cited in the chapter on him in A.N. Wilson’s Eminent Victorians [7]. Wilson most unfortunately saw no need to give a proper reference for his quote in a book which was a tie-in to a television series, intended for a ‘popular’ rather than an academic audience. Having previous acquaintance with the difficulties involved in researching anything in connection to Newman’s writings (to be honest, I gave up on it), I hesitate to contemplate the work required to locate that quote. Yet I do believe that it would be a good idea for somebody to chase this quote down – and to look at its full context with reference to JRR Tolkien’s thought and writing.
Newman’s diffracted, broken, reflected light is very close indeed to Tolkien’s words in his poem Mythopoeia:
… the refracted light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues …[8].
Again, Newman’s ‘dirty white’ blended of many colours is markedly close to the supposedly ‘white’ but actually many-coloured robe which Gandalf sees Saruman wearing, as reported to the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings [9]. As the teacher of Tolkien’s own guardian, Father Morgan, and the founder of the Birmingham Oratory which was such an important influence on Tolkien, Cardinal Newman has long merited a closer look than he seems to have received from scholars interested in J.R.R. Tolkien.
It is a testament to the quality of Verlyn Flieger’s insight into the writing and thought of J.R.R. Tolkien that her thesis in Splintered Light remains wholly valid even if she was partly wrong about the source from which Tolkien drew those ideas. On Tolkien’s own testimony, Owen Barfield’s book Poetic Diction did have an impact on him [10]. However, Tolkien may well already have been aware of the concept of ‘splintered light’ from Cardinal J.H. Newman’s writings, a source likely to have been much more important to him and carrying markedly different implications. I hope that bringing the attention of the Tolkien scholarly community to this apparently close relationship between Newman and Tolkien in a particularly key area may inspire someone with the right skills, knowledge and library access to take a much closer look at the links between Newman’s thought and that of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Written 14/03/2020, last revised 26/07/2020.
Ruth Lewis, pen name Elizabeth Currie, brush name Ruth Lacon.

Notes:

  1. Flieger, V., 1983; Splintered Light; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., revised edition 2002 Kent State University Press.
  2. Swaan, W., 1969, The Gothic Cathedral, Paul Elek Productions Ltd., cited from the 1984 Omega Books edition, p.48.
  3. It could of course also be from a different translation. In the Authorized Version the relevant text reads in full as; ‘1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not. 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. 8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. 9 That was the true Light which lighteth every man which cometh into the world.’ Gospel of St John, ch.1, in The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments, to which are appended notes, etc, Oxford University Press, n.d. but before 1880.
  4. Stoddard, W.S., 1966; The Art and Architecture of Medieval France; Wesleyan University Press, cited from the 1972 ICON edition by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., p.101. The citations from Panofsky come from Panofsky, E., 1946; Abbot Suger on the Art Treasures of Saint-Denis; Princeton University Press; no page numbers are given.
  5. Swaan, W., 1969, The Gothic Cathedral, Paul Elek Productions Ltd., cited from the 1984 Omega Books edition, p.48.
  6. Carpenter, H., 1978, The Inklings, George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, p.36: and Ahern, G., 1984/2009; Sun at Midnight: The Rudolf Steiner Movement and Gnosis in the West, James Clark & Co., p.43.
  7. Wilson, A.N., 1989; Eminent Victorians; BBC Books, pp.156-7.
  8. Tolkien, J.R.R., 1984, Tree and Leaf, with Mythopoeia, George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, cited from the 2001 HarperCollinsPublishers edition, p.87
  9. The Lord of the Rings/The Fellowship of the Ring, bk.II, ch.2. References not given to page level as editions numerous and variable.
  10. Tolkien, J.R.R. ed. Carpenter, H., & Tolkien, C.J.R., 1981; The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien; George Allen and Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, cited from the 1990 Unwin Paperbacks edition; letter no.15, p.22, and n.3 to commentary on jacket-flap, p.435: and Flieger 1983/2002 p.39.

Bibliography:

  • Ahern, G., 1984/2009; Sun at Midnight: The Rudolf Steiner Movement and Gnosis in the West, James Clark & Co.
  • Bible, The: The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments, to which are appended notes, etc, Oxford University Press, n.d. but before 1880.
  • Carpenter, H., 1978, The Inklings, George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd.
  • Flieger, V., 1983; Splintered Light; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., revised edition 2002 Kent State University Press.
  • Stoddard, W.S., 1966; The Art and Architecture of Medieval France; Wesleyan University Press, cited from the 1972 ICON edition by Harper & Row.
  • Swaan, W., 1969, The Gothic Cathedral, Paul Elek Productions Ltd., cited from the 1984 Omega Books edition.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R., 1954; The Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring; George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. ed. Carpenter, H., & Tolkien, C.J.R., 1981; The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien; George Allen and Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, cited from the 1990 Unwin Paperbacks edition.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R., 1984, Tree and Leaf, with Mythopoeia, George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, cited from the 2001 HarperCollinsPublishers edition.
  • Wilson, A.N., 1989; Eminent Victorians; BBC Books.

The Tales after Tolkien Society welcomes contributions to the blog from members and from interested parties. Please send yours to talesaftertolkien@gmail.com, and thank you!

Thursday, July 30, 2020

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Rewatch 5.8, "Shot in the Dark"

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry here!

A new ally joins the group, and a new plan begins to emerge.

5.8, "Shot in the Dark"

Written by Noelle Stevenson, Katherine Nolfi, Josie Campbell, Laura Sreebny, and M. Willis
Directed by Roy Burdine and Jen Bennett

Synopsis

That's a lot to get through.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Aboard the Darla, Adora, Glimmer, Bow, Entrapta, and Catra confer regarding their progress and expected course. They fret about running a Horde blockade, and Catra warns against charging in. Bow presses for information about weaknesses, and Wrong Hordak inadvertently lets some of that information slip; Catra confirms some of it, and the group proceeds to the location identified as anathema to Horde Prime.

Catra's is the face of confidence.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
On the identified planet, the group finds evidence of a thwarted Horde presence, and Catra shows clear signs of apprehension. Investigation reveals a presence near them, though Wrong Hordak avers that all life was eliminated. Catra voices concerns regarding the group's eagerness to press ahead.

On Etheria, the diminished resistance takes stock of its increasingly perilous situation. Castaspella appears and is investigated; options for relocation are few. Shadow Weaver voices an idea to Castaspella; she reluctantly listens.

The search for Horde Prime's weakness continues, the surroundings proving eerie and shifting. Wrong Hordak continues in his devotions to Horde Prime, and Catra provides ingress. The environment continues to unsettle the group as they press on; its mutability manifests more strongly, attacking the group.

Shadow Weaver and Castaspella confer about the threat Micah poses. She notes that they will need more power to defeat Micah.

Not a good face to see suddenly, this.
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
Adora and her group press ahead, trying to find the life form Entrapta had indicated. Entrapta notes that their location is a First Ones colony that, while conquered, offered some strange threat--as well as that their communications are being interfered with, and that they are not alone. Catra attacks, and she and the other find themselves elsewhere as the fight continues. Adora attempts to rush to Catra's aid, but she, Glimmer, and Bow are blocked--until Glimmer finds the hindrance is illusion. She realizes there is magic available, and the group proceeds to Catra's aid.

Who's a pretty kitty? You are! You are!
Image taken from the episode, used for commentary.
As they do, Catra is able to make some connection to her erstwhile assailant. She recognizes that her own emotional state influences the being, which reveals its name to her--and her alone--as Melog. Melog relays a history, with the First Ones having tried to mine the magic from the planet and Horde Prime trying without success to take that magic. Magic is noted as the weakness of Horde Prime, and Adora offers to take Melog with them to Etheria--where magic remains.

Castaspella follows Shadow Weaver in anger until Shadow Weaver reveals the restraint imposed upon Etheria by the First Ones. They agree to work against the old mistake, with Castaspella in position to stop Shadow Weaver if she goes too far. And as they do, Adora's group returns to Etheria under Melog's power, successfully passing the blockade.

Discussion

The magical being Melog is a clear invocation or evocation of the golem of legend. The name is an inversion of the word, and the character is a malleable being not quite capable of speech. Admittedly, the golem-story most commonly known is not strictly medieval, connecting back to Rabbi Loew in the sixteenth century in Prague, though it may well extend back further (as in the case of Solomon ben Judah or ibn Gabirol). Too, in the typical legend, as in the present episode, the golem is inextricably linked with magic, depending for its very existence on the presence of such energies as might in other media be expressed as syllables from the name of a god. Melog may not be strictly medievalist, but they certainly move in such a direction, underscoring the coming of a new thing in evoking a later period, perhaps.

Perhaps more overtly medievalist (as distinct from medieval) is the continued insistence upon consistent imagery with the character; each of the members of Adora's group remains clearly identifiable even with their spacesuits on, and clearly in line with their prevailing iconography. It seems to relate to the insistence in medievalist depictions of those figures who sport heraldry favoring a single display across uses and appearances (as opposed to such depictions as Malory's, in which knights routinely change and exchange shields, as well as to what might be expected shifts upon taking a new office or role, as in Glimmer's case). Too, while spacesuits might benefit from the kind of easy recognition heraldic devices ostensibly promote, there is little need for--and, indeed, some danger in--an ab-window such as Bow sports. So it seems a bit of a stretch, even if an accustomed one.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Guest Post: Ruth Lewis, "Provoking Thoughts: Reflections on the Section ‘Legacies of Tolkien’s Whiteness’ in the Call for Papers at the Kalamazoo Medieval Conference in the July 2020 Beyond Bree"

The following essay was kindly submitted by contributor Ruth Lewis, a British zoologist, writer, and illustrator with a strong interest in Tolkien. It is presented below with only minimal editorial adjustment. 

A version of the call for papers to which the essay responds can be found here.

'ℑs Tolkien racist’ is an ‘old chestnut’ which should have long since been consigned to Frequently Asked Questions lists, right alongside ‘Do Balrogs have wings?’ and ‘Is Tolkien anti-feminist?’. That it is still being asked in as serious a forum as the Kalamazoo meeting is probably due in part to the phenomenon that Tom Shippey remarked on in Author of the Century with the example of Germaine Greer, who ranted on about Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings with total certainty – only to admit afterwards that she hadn’t read the book.
It is well worth remembering that Victorian and Edwardian Britain were not one single block of opinion about ‘race’. Ignorance and knowledge, distaste and interest, distant theory and on-the-spot practicality were all present, all muddled together, all subjects of discussion. Theory was tested in the hardest of practical exams, the unforgiving real world. Practical superiority of British forces over non-European peoples was not guaranteed until very late on indeed, within living memory for much of Tolkien’s lifetime. For every runaway victory such as Omdurman, there was a cracking defeat such as Isandhlwana. It is also worth remembering that Empire was not a foregone conclusion, but a matter of hot debate. As Tolkien grew up, as he wrote, every possible shade of opinion about ‘empire’ and ‘race’ that we can imagine – and some that might surprise us – coexisted within British society and thought. Only by recovering that historical reality can we understand how J.R.R. Tolkien could think with or against the turbulent intellectual currents of his own time.
The other reason why we are still asking questions such as ‘Is Tolkien racist?’ is, in fact, a backhanded compliment. We are still reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, unlike the works of most of Tolkien’s contemporaries and even many of his juniors. So it is a little too easy to criticise as if Tolkien were a living writer who could be expected to come up with a ‘woke’ bestseller next, and not someone born in 1892, who died in 1973. Stop and think about that for a minute; how much have attitudes changed since the 1970s? We don’t say half as much about the woeful presentation of women and non-Western European characters in books by the likes of Ian Fleming or Dennis Wheatley. They are dead in both senses, physically and culturally (the James Bond movies long since departed from any serious relationship with Fleming’s writing). Tolkien in contrast is still a living influence in our culture, and therefore we do ask these questions.
The problem with asking ‘is Tolkien racist’ one more time is that it blocks consideration of more interesting questions – such as ‘how do readers actually respond to books from outside their own culture?’, or even ‘what kind of book is The Lord of the Rings?’.
Now, I know that last looks like another old chestnut – but if we want to ask why Tolkien does not have the sort of ‘active female characters’ we prize, or any obvious non-European ones, in The Lord of the Rings, we need to ask it. Yes, on the surface The Lord of the Rings is fantasy. Scratch the surface, though, and it is amazingly realistic in some ways… such as moon phases, times and distances covered, and, yes, the composition of the Fellowship. At no point in time prior to the First World War would such a group have included women unless the setting explicitly included unusual peoples such as the Sarmatians who did have Amazons. That, by the way, is exactly what we find in the Silmarillion-tradition, with the Second House of the Edain and their women warriors. The same goes for people from outside the immediate geographical point of origin of a group such as the Fellowship of the Ring. It could happen, but the circumstances would be unusual.
The irony is that the very history and medieval fiction that gets cited as something too parochial to be useful in creating exactly such unusual circumstances and wider views is often much more diverse than we think. Even in recent times, ‘alternative’ voices do exist but don’t often get heard – such as the Dundee house-husband who told one 1920s journalist that it was harder work looking after one baby than being a riveter in the shipyards. Go back further and things change in strange ways. In the 3rd century CE a Greek author named Heliodorus could write a novel (yes, they did exist back then) called Aithiopika which is filled to the brim with active women, non-European characters, and cultural diversity, where nothing goes quite as we expect. To give just one example, in the final act the day is saved by ‘naked philosophers’ teaching a non-violent Way who persuade the Ethiopian king to change his mind by force of argument, not force of arms. There are men in skirts and women with weapons in Anglo-Saxon graves, ‘traditionally queer’ people obviously accepted by their community as such to be buried that way. There are medieval romances that cheerfully take their characters across seas and cultures, that don’t just see everyone different as an evil ‘other’, that do include surprising figures. Modern accounts of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival don’t often mention his half-brother Feirefiz, son of a Grail knight and an eastern princess, his piebald appearance showing his mixed ancestry, who may start out bringing an army to claim his heritage but ends up as a Grail Knight and the husband of a former Grail Maiden. Even on Munsalvasche, it seems, there may be many ways up the mountain.
Our current perceptions of ‘the medieval’ are the problem, far more than the real material. To present this material as ‘racist’, or to use it as a basis for secondary writing in that mode, is, bluntly, a perversion of the facts. That it can happen is regrettably not a surprise, given the nationalist ideas at the heart of much of the 19th century rediscovery of medieval literature. Just as serious if not more so has been the repeated narrowing of our view of medieval writing that has happened across the 20th century.
Stories like Bevis of Hampton (a medieval bestseller which I believe exists in a Yiddish translation, a copy of which turned up in Cairo – a lesson take by this!), which were available in versions for primary-school use in Britain before the First World War, are barely accessible for postgraduate readers nowadays. Eastern and Southern Europe is largely excluded from our perceived ‘medieval’ world of writing at the moment, let alone anywhere further away.
Whole areas of story widely familiar throughout the medieval era and across continents – such as the persistence of the Trojan legends that linked authors as various as Guido Delle Colonne in Sicily, Snorri Sturluson in Iceland and the Gawain-poet in England – have disappeared from view. Mehmed Osmanli bynamed Fatih, the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople, could use an ‘heirs of Troy’ strategy in propaganda and expect to be taken seriously, not laughed at – but we’re just puzzled. Snorri was using an ‘It’s Trojan, really’ strategy to rescue Norse myth and legend, but we don’t even see that far less ‘get’ it, either. We have lost sight of material that created important links across time and space, rather than being local and restricted. (And there is an even more crushing restriction in publication of medieval manuscripts; secular rather than sacred books barely get a nod. The Victorian ‘monks and missals’ idea persists to a ludicrous extent in the popular view of medieval books. That shapes people’s idea of where it is appropriate to use medievally-inspired styles, while books of history and legend languish unnoticed and rich possibilities for modern book art are ignored.)
In a very similar way, at the moment we really do not see the sheer spread of ‘medieval romance’. This was a web of story that in its day reached from Iceland to Baghdad and beyond, with readers eager for new stories translating and reworking tales across languages and cultures.
That takes me back to the question of reader response. There is a definite tendency to see Tolkien as a very English writer, whose local inspiration is perceived as shining through his writing. We have somehow lost sight of the possibility that it doesn’t always work like that. For some reason, useful critical ideas such as ‘the implied author’ or even ‘author writing in character’ have not made it into discussions of Tolkien’s work as far as I know. Preserved footage of the man himself, as well as some of his letters, makes it very clear that Tolkien is a ‘slippery’ author, a man whose distaste for Drama in theory is not matched by inability in fact or on paper – a man with a sense of humour about himself and the world. That makes ‘straight-faced’ interpretation awfully dangerous. In The Akallabeth, for one large example, Tolkien is channeling the Gildas of ‘On the Ruin of Britain’ quite successfully. The ‘implied author’ of that work is a decidedly unreliable chronicler whose position within the fiction needs to be thought about quite as much as the flesh-and-blood person holding the pen. ‘The mask of the actor’ can be ‘the mask of the author’ too, and where we can see it happening once, we really ought to be watching out for it elsewhere. Consideration of reader reaction, ideas about how we read and what we can do with (or to!) a text which we read, are another set of critical concepts which I for one have not seen brought into discussion of Tolkien. Teek-aye – sorry, let me translate; OK – I know I’m increasingly out of touch with, especially, American writing on Tolkien, and out of date on literary theory. The book at my side as I type this is Margaret Anne Doody’s The True Story of the Novel, Fontana/HarperCollins 1996. But just perhaps some of these ideas might still be useful to think with, before we start throwing babies out with the bathwater.
There is or was plenty of anecdotal evidence that people who read Tolkien can see his books quite differently to the ‘Englishness’ paradigm. On the specific question of ‘how do you think of hobbits’, for instance, the reader with an ‘innocent eye’ does seem to imagine them as people of their own country and culture. That doesn’t sound so odd from countries so closely connected we forget how different they are, such as France or the Netherlands. But encountering somebody from India who thought of hobbits as Indians, as my husband did, really shakes up the ‘Englishness’ idea. How far does an author impose ideas and how far can people adapt the text in front of them as they read? Any postmodernist critic would say yes of course that happens – but even they don’t quite seem to see how deep and strange the process can be. Fantasy of all genres should be open to wide and wild reader re-interpretations – just like medieval romance.
It is one of the deeper ironies of modern Tolkien fandom and scholarship that in a supposedly global world, we rarely hear other voices. Nor do we see creative work from outside a narrow band of ‘acceptable fantasy art’. The Dutch artist Cor Blok’s Tolkien calendars ran headlong into that problem, for one example – and that’s a European artist whose style just happened to be too unusual for many people to accept it. Diversity does not get encouraged. The work involved in doing it differently is not recognised. That could change. In fact, all of what I have written about could change.
Criticism of the ‘Is So-and-so a such-and-such?’ variety is only worthwhile in my view, if it takes into account the specifics of real lives and real books in real time, rather than the nebulous realm of ‘everybody knows’. Anything else is unfair to authors who can’t answer back. There is also often an implied ‘…so should we be reading this?’ hanging off the end of questions like that. We laugh at fuddy-duddy judges in 20th century censorship trials asking if the jury want their servants or their children reading this – and fail to see it when we get close to the same position.
If we want to understand the reality of life and of fiction in ‘the medieval era’, however we define that, we need to look back past the 20th and 19th centuries. We need to stop reading secondary sources and start reading original works, with as fresh an eye and as wide a scope as we can manage. The medieval web of story may be tattered and torn, but far, far more of it still exists than most people realise. In our own particular area, people have been much too ready to trust what Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman about there being nothing but ‘chapbook stuff’ left of English medieval literature. Tolkien was not on the witness stand in court under oath there, he was trying to sell two very difficult books to a sceptical publisher. Anybody of Waldman’s age at the time who had been educated in Britain would probably have realised they were being handed the proverbial ‘pig in a poke’; we certainly need to beware of the cat in the bag. If we want to see new, different approaches in both scholarship and creative work, we mustn’t take anybody’s word for it – not even Tolkien’s.
We have a moment just now where there is a wish for change, for difference, for a wider, more diverse and more interesting world. As in all moments of change, we need to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If we put in the work that is necessary, we could see genuine and beneficial change in both scholarship and creativity that draw on the medieval world. Doing things differently is not easy, but it can be very rewarding.

The Tales after Tolkien Society welcomes contributions to the blog from members and from interested parties. Please send yours to talesaftertolkien@gmail.com, and thank you!