Monday, September 24, 2012

Lagomorphs on my mind

I mentioned some weeks back about how formative certain books are on a person. If you’ve read my opinions online, you probably know that the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings had big impacts on me as well (If you didn’t, now you know. I should also mention Dune while I’m at it because as hyped up as people made it, it still blew me away when I read it).

One book that I particularly love but haven’t mentioned is Watership Down. If you haven’t read it, you have to. On the surface, it’s about rabbits. But, to paraphrase a deleted scene from Donny Darko—it isn’t really about rabbits. It’s about people.

The struggle of a small prey animal is, in many ways, our struggle in the face of a seemingly hostile universe. The rabbits, like us, have only their wits. And each other.

But enough about meaning and philosophy. I want to comment on it as a writer. The thing is, I love this book as a writer because I am always looking for ways for my characters to solve issues without violence. And this book does that in spades. Don’t get me wrong—violence is not only entertaining but often necessary in a story. It is, after all, a part of life. But all too often, the main character solves a problem by hacking or shooting his way through, which isn’t creative at all.

Frankly, when guileless violence solves a problem, it bores me (ruses and clever tactics are a different story though). It gets boring because we’ve seen it done so often. The Iliad is full of battle scenes—magnificent, gory battle scenes—but which scene does everyone remember? The one with the wooden horse. When you think about it, Achilles didn’t get his own story. He was just one guy in a story full of characters. But when The Iliad was over, Odysseus gets a whole nother book devoted to him.

A clever hero can always resort to violence (Odysseus certainly didn’t hold back when he found those guys schmoozing his wife). But a character whose only skill is violence can’t achieve much else. Conan, for instance, used cunning and stealth as much as muscle, a fact often ignored when people besides Howard write about him.

The rabbits in Watership Down do fight on occasion. There are some great action scenes (usually chases—they are rabbits after all). But they really shine when they use their brains. This book is in many ways about using adverse conditions in an environment to one’s advantage. When the rabbits survive an encounter, they learn from it. Instead of just saying “whew, that was close!” they often say “how can we use that later?”

It’s a good attitude for a rabbit to have. And it’s a good attitude for people, too.

For a writer, this kind of resolution is a challenge. The best tricks take hundreds of pages to unfold, delivering the ultimate Aha! moment at the end of the story.

Something to think about.

PS: There may be more rabbit stories to come. Apologies if that isn’t your thing. Like I said before: I’m a world person. To my mind, there is no such thing as a boring animal, just unimaginative people.

Monday, September 10, 2012

New Look

You may notice some changes. As before, I have Punksthetic Art to thank for the new look. I intended it for a Halloween thing but it isn't even October. It was suggested I call it my 'creepy autumn look.' So I will.

We're trying to get 200 Likes, so if you're on Facebook and you like the art I've got here, head on over there and show it.

It looks nice on my bookshelf

Alright, I’m back as it were. My intention is a blog post every Monday or at the very least an update.

Obviously, I’ve been pretty busy with non-writing-related stuff. As a reward for my not killing anyone this month, I bought myself a copy of my favorite translation (in hardcover no less!) of Le Morte D’Arthur. For me, this was that book. You know the one.

I was in fourth grade and I really started getting interested in medieval stuff. This was a time before (a great site to find really old books, by the way). My mom dragged me down to the library. It was one of those branch libraries in a strip mall. It wasn’t very large but it had the book. It had my book.

I can still remember when I found it: white cover, stark black artwork which I now realize was meant to imitate a woodcut. This was the original King Arthur. I’m older now and can tell you that the story originated much farther back, with men like Chretian de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and so on. To a fourth grader living in a crisper, less cluttered world, though, Thomas Malory was the real deal, the Origin; it was Q.

This original tale took my young mind completely by surprise. There was adultery, incest, and oh so much violence. Maidens were decapitated—an act no Hollywood knight, no matter how evil, seemed to do at the time (I read this decades before Game of Thrones). And that was some of the good guys! Shields and spears were splintered. Horses were murdered. Kings got their brains dashed out. Young knights were dismounted and trampled before they could get up.

It was pretty appalling stuff for a fourth grader. And I loved it. I remember hauling that thick white tome with me everywhere. I read it at school and at home and in the van on the way to Grandma’s. I memorized the names of the great knights and the order of their strength and skill. I decided on my favorite (King Pellinore) and my least favorite (Gawain—and there’s a link between the two, for those of you who know).

Most of all, though, I found my worldview changing.

The knights in this story were deeply flawed individuals. They weren’t the paragons found in 20th century fantasy novels or the vapid cinema coming out of Hollywood. And here’s the part many adults won’t understand: I could handle it.

One of the reasons I think Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are so popular is because their authors aren’t afraid to tell children that the world can be a scary place, that not heroes aren’t perfect and villains are much worse than in the movies.

There were other lessons as well, like the scene when young Sir Breunor le Noir is knocked off his horse by two older knights. The young knight demands the right to finish the duel on the ground but the older knights decline. Later the reader learns that jousting is a skill that took years to master, but fighting on foot requires strength and endurance, which gave the advantage to younger, healthier men. For a kid, this was a powerful lesson. In a lot of bad movies and fiction, the hero is a badass and nobody can beat him. In reality, however, everybody has their weakness and skill is much more nuanced than X > Y.

On a side note, I particularly like the Keith Baines translation. I’ve read a couple of translations now. Maybe it’s because this was the first I read, but I prefer this one. Baines uses modern language (for when he was writing it), which might turn some people off, but I prefer it. There are still plenty of words (brachet, courser) that are rare enough in modern discourse that the text feels exotic without bogging you down in strange phrases. To those of you who have ever read a translated book and not liked it, I strongly suggest trying a different translator before you pass judgment. It’s a difficult job, translation. You have to be able to pass information from one to the other without corrupting the original meaning andkeep it interesting. I have a lot of respect to translators, so here is my hat off to them. As for me, I’ll just keep telling beautiful lies. It's easier.