Black Friday Rants

Anyone particularly taken with last week’s writeup of the Harry Potter series may want to mosey on over to The Awl, where Maria Bustillos basically tells you the exact opposite of what I told you.  It’s good!  Go read it!  She and I agree on the fact that ‘chosenness’ in the series is basically a big old social construction (and it is) but while I see the seeds of a reformation in that construction, Bustillos doesn’t at all.  Let’s take a look at this in particular:

But if you have a young Harry Potter fan in your orbit, you might steer him or her toward Philip Pullman, whose Dark Materials trilogy is genuine in every way that Harry Potter is false; a fully realized work of fantasy to rival Tolkien in its wisdom, inventiveness and questioning. Because Pullman’s novels really do threaten the establishment view of religion and institutionalized coercion, because they are really subversive in the manner in which Harry Potter pretends to be, the Hollywood establishment chickened out completely and made a perfect hash of the first Pullman movie. Tom Stoppard, who’d adapted the original screenplay, was dumped by director Chris Weitz (of American Pie fame), who preferred to write his own. Hollywood is, unfortunately, an absolute tool of the corpocracy, and will never be equal to any story that presents a legitimate threat to conventionality or to materialist values.

Yes, very nice!  EXCEPT: the Dark Materials books actually become quite bad!

Like, I think the Potter novels are actually pretty mediocre, but they maintain the same pleasant mediocrity throughout for the most part.  I knew this even when I was a wee lad of 14.  The first HDM book knocked my socks off, so to speak, because it was startlingly adept in its worldbuilding and its magical malarkey (an aspect that has always been too slapdash in Harry Potter for my taste).  And yes, around the second book, The Subtle Knife, when the main characters declared war on God, I was pretty much like, whoa, dude!  I was all for it!

Except then the book descended into its own morass of half-assed magic, but now it was pretending to be quantum mechanics, and eventually the whole thing became kind of a soapbox for Pullman, including some bizarre line of bullshit about dying and becoming quantum dust and the Circle of Life moves us all.  I really didn’t like the Narnia books after the first two or three because it got to the point where I couldn’t even enjoy the story on account of Lewis pounding me on the head screaming MICHAEL LOOK MICHAEL CAN YOU SEE THAT THE LION IS JESUS MICHAEL ACCEPT THE LION INTO YOUR HEART.  Pullman, by the end, was doing the same thing, except what he was telling me to accept into my heart didn’t even make much sense — and when you make less sense than a lion who is Jesus fighting snake-worshiping Muslims, you got a problem.

Bustillos’s argument then goes into the same old “economic success = moral corruption” territory, which I gotta tell you is pretty tiresome!  Yeah, Pullman’s novels were neutered for the big screen, no qualms with that, but chalking it up to how it’s because HDM is just too hot for you to handle, you bourgeois jerk is the sort of ideological teeth-gnashing that makes everyone look bad.  Pullman’s novels weren’t as successful as the Potter novels, either, not by a long shot.  But rather than say it’s because Harry Potter supports some corrupt establishment, I’ll take the opposite tack: The Potter novels are more successful because they are nicer.

Seriously!  The Potter books do better because their stance is not one of “HEY I AM GOING TO KICK YOU IN THE FACE UNTIL YOU REALIZE HOW MUCH OF A GODDAMNED SLOVENLY HALFWIT YOU ARE.”  Pullman’s books fail, ironically, for the same reasons his reviled Narnia books fail: the didacticism, the partisanship!  The sense that, if you are not agreeing with the books, then you have no place in them!  You can’t go to Hogwarts — that’s certainly true — but the books don’t stop you from imagining that you could.  Bustillos would probably say this even more insidious and repellant than polemics, but that is maybe a point where she and I would just have to differ!

Anyway, the article is a very good read, and very apt in a lot of ways.  Also: Rowling’s overzealous love affair with her copyright, that’s another matter entirely.  Bustillos does give you an accurate blow-by-blow there.  JKR sure loves her money, and also hates her fans!  Then again, I would probably hate my fans if I had them, too, so who am I to judge!

Elsewhere, author Hiromi Goto has a great essay up on the Amazon blog about the relationship between fantasy and horror.  Go give it a read, but here’s the key bit:

Our senses tell us our world is “real”, the tangible is our proof. We believe in it more than we believe in words. So, to make the fictional world (created through words!) come alive, I take care to detail the visceral experiences of the character’s body and her world. Once I begin doing that, the fantastic can easily slip into the horrific. I think my narratives of the fantastic can veer readily into the horrific, because of my desire to depict an image or scene “realistically”. I pull the viewer in, close, instead of casting the scene from a more distant and softer view. A romantic veneer can be stripped away by bringing something into sharper focus. The Swedish film, Let The Right One In, is my favourite vampire story. Humane, monstrous, realistic and heart-breaking, it stripped away all the glamour from the image of Hollywood vampires, and approached the trope with a realistic lens.

I’ve touched on thoughts similar to this before.  Fantasy and horror are the recreations of some fictional realm with different operant natural laws.  Goto’s note on realism is, of course, the key difference.  I’ll elaborate.  Horror — at least as the genre has traditionally existed — is more realistic than fantasy.  Horror generally works best as such because it is in some way connected to our world.

Consider elves as envisioned in Tolkien: they are unnatural if we hold humans to be a natural standard.  Elves are immortal, incomprehensibly wise, and under some circumstances capable of great corruption and cruelty.  But in Middle-Earth there is nothing strange per se with elves, because Middle-Earth is an environment where elves are largely acknowledged and understood to exist, even though we as readers know they do not, just as we know Middle-Earth does not exist.  The world of Arthur Machen’s “The White People,” however, is different, in that the world is ostensibly ours.  Two gentlemen in what appears to be more or less our London at the beginning of our 20th century discuss the nature of sin and evil, and together peruse the pages of a young girl’s journal.  The elves we meet therein are decidedly different — though they are also not human, and perhaps long-lived, and privy to certain arcane knowledge, and yes, even capable of very mean things.

In this way of thinking, Machen’s White People are indistinguishable from Tolkien’s elves.  The horror of the former comes into play when we are led to believe that the White People exist not in Middle-Earth, where such things can exist, but in our world, where we have been led to believe they do or should not.  This is also why I personally feel more at home working in horror: it’s more powerful.  In Middle-Earth, elves are simply elves; in our world, where there are no elves, the appearance of one means something has gone gravely awry.

2 thoughts on “Black Friday Rants”

  1. Hi Michael, wow what a GREAT POST. I was thrilled to see people have been commenting on my HP thing here and there, and your comments are my favorite so far. Firstly. YAY times one million for being able to have a conversation with someone with whom you disagree profoundly (that would be me and you, in some instances) and for making cogent arguments in support of your own position while giving an astute and fair analysis of the other side’s strengths and weaknesses. If there were more blogs like yours around the Internets would be a ton more interesting.

    Secondly, you make some powerful points about the “partisanship” of Pullman’s novels, and I really like your take on the success of HP being the result of relative “niceness” I think that is true, though what I’m really getting at is that if you look a little closer, HP is maybe not so nice as all that.

    Our biggest disconnect, I think, is that I find that Pullman’s take on religious matters does leave a lot of room for dissent. I can prove this, too, for example with the totally awe-inspiring conversation that Pullman had with Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is so super smart and freaking learned and open-minded too. Dr. Williams has actually called for Pullman to be taught in schools because he thinks people ought to be thinking, reading and talking about this stuff openly. So that is one of my favorite things about Pullman, is that he takes a position and defends it ably but doesn’t refuse to give the other side the most serious consideration, too.

    Just like you!! And me, I hope. Thanks for the generous reading and comments. Hope we can continue–All the best, Maria.

    1. Maria, wow, thanks for reading! Sorry I’ve been a bit of a lag in getting back to you — final weeks of the semester and everything. I’m glad to see that Pullman is as smart as his books make him seem. The interview you linked seems to clarify some things I picked up in the novels but wasn’t sure how far to take, namely, that while they condemn religion they are actually condemning a certain type of religion, and in so doing become a strange kind of Gnostic parable. In fact, it’s mentioned pretty explicitly here, so all right!

      And in my initial responses, I probably did lay down some gloss on other aspects of HP that would have affected its market success, and this dovetails nicely with it. HP is, regardless of class sympathies and sincerity, really not very imaginative in the scheme of things. It’s very accessible, is a nice way of putting it, and while I certainly don’t think YA Lit should be James Joyce, there’s something to be said for the type of learning Pullman exhibits. Not only is he drawing on Gnostic and Jewish sources, but he does a pretty interesting rewrite of Paradise Lost while he’s at it — and just for fun, apparently, whenever the armored polar bears fight they’re described in terms that echo Homer’s descriptions of battle in the Iliad. The target audience of either HDM or HP isn’t going to catch this, but older readers probably could, which is why it’s a shame that more adults read HP and think that’s as good as it gets. There’s also the matter of who protests what; the people who protested HP often said it would make kids witches or Satanists, which is generally understood to be a loopy claim, but when similar (and not so similar) people protested HDM saying it would make kids atheists, a very real and modern bugbear took the stage. So your claims of HDM being too edgy for Hollywood and the culture and general are actually true, and in more than one way, since the philosophy is not only challenging but the sophistication is, as well.

      That’s all I have time to ruminate on now, but again, thanks so much for reading and commenting! I was definitely flabbergasted when I saw you’d responded, and it means a lot to be taken so seriously (and, as you point out, so civilly).

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