I do not remember how old I was when I first read Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Mara Daughter of the Nile. 12, perhaps. And I have probably read it nearly a dozen times since then.
This book rest firmly in the category of “books-that-I-love-till-death-do-us-part-but-am-not-sure-if-they-are-as-good-as-I-think-because-I-am-blinded-by-old-affection.” I find that books read in my teenaged years often fall into this category. The impression they made on me was so great, the warmth and coziness and joy I feel when I think about them is so tied up in my formative years, I can hardly be objective.
Mara Daughter of the Nile is the story of a young slave girl in ancient Egypt who, with hopes for eventual freedom, winds up a double spy for servants of both Queen Hatshepsut and her brother Thutmose. Initially indifferent to who wins or how, she falls in love (because, of course) and there’s all sorts of repartee, skullduggery, and bits of Egyptian history.
There are a few obnoxious cliche’s, such as the “different-eyed heroine,” and an excessive use of the word ‘beribboned,’ but I hardly noticed any such thing at the time. Later I found that there are also a few historical inaccuracies. The author chose to frame Queen Hatshepsut as the villain and the young Thutmose as the hero, and I hear tell the opposite might have been the case. I’ve not studied the period in sufficient detail to know for sure.
But the nature of the real historical figures is not why one reads this book. One reads this book for Mara. For Sheftu. For Innani. For adventure and romance.
Mara is something of a prototype for the sort of YA protagonist one sees frequently nowadays. She’s rebellious, she’s clever, she’s attractive, she’s mistreated. But this was before so many YA leads were action figures; she doesn’t engage in fisticuffs, but rather battles of wits.
The thing I like particularly about Mara, which many books fail to convey effectively, but this one executes pretty well, is her initial indifference to “the cause.” Up until the last third of the book, her main goals remain the same selfish (albeit very understandable) goals from the beginning of the book. Acquire freedom. Stay alive. Live a life of luxury. Who cares under which Pharaoh she does so?
She doesn’t care about the literal or abstract ‘fate of Egypt.’ She’s had a hard life and she wants to get hers. Even a burgeoning romance barely makes a dent in this attitude until shortly before the denouement.
This isn’t actually my favorite sort of character–the selfish, indifferent kind–but it really works here. It jives with her background and personality. It’s not just thrown in there to create drama.
Of note, Mara is a linguist whose duty throughout much of the book is as a translator. It is possible this simple little fact influenced the whole course of my life, a matter of which I will speak more later.
Mara is also very arrogant, another characteristic that I usually dislike in a protagonist. But it’s not left unaddressed. For a huge portion of the book she treats the Babylonian princess, Innani, with considerable disdain. She looks down on her as a ‘stupid barbarian.’ But her perspective changes (slowly, for she is stubborn) as she begins to see the quality of Innani’s character.
So this would be a good time to talk about Innani.
Innani is, at first, mere means to end for Mara. She is the “barbarian” Canaanite princess sent for by Queen Hatshepsut for the express purpose of taunting Thutmose with a bride that he will certainly deem inferior to himself. Innani’s very purpose in the book is to be scorned by Thutmose, mocked by everyone, and used by Mara (and others).
Since Innani does not speak Egyptian, an interpreter is required because Thutmose will not deign to speak her ‘barbarian’ tongue. Mara speaks Babylonian fluently, and she is to use her position as interpreter to glean information for one master (on Hatshepsut’s side) and convey messages for another (on Thutmose’s side).
Innani herself–alone, isolated, looked down upon–is initially treated with scorn even by the narrative itself, although mostly through the Egyptian pride exhibited in Mara’s personal thoughts towards Innani. But over time, Innani is shown to be kind, compassionate, far more intuitive than people give her credit for, and resourceful in figuring out how to live and endure when she is so clearly an unwanted guest.
While I honestly feel the narrative still could have done a little better by Innani, I do like what her character has to offer to the story: a friend that is kinder to Mara than she really deserves, a person who experiences unkindness and arrogance but handles it, if not with perfection, at least with compassion and patience and a modicum of dignity. She is a soft, selfless, and uncynical contrast to Mara’s harsh, selfish, and cynical character. The friendship that develops between them is not the focus of the book, but it is sweet and good.
I am at the point of confession. When I first read this book, it was probably the most romance-y thing I’d ever read in my life. I mean, it has two or even three kisses in it, you guys. That was almost more than 12-year-old me could handle. And I looooooooved it. The romance between Mara and Sheftu probably has a great deal to do with what I deem ‘romantic’ to this day.
I have no idea what I would think of it if I only read it for the first time now, instead of nearly 20 years ago. That timeline does not exist. I can tell you nothing of it.
Both Sheftu and Mara have ruthless streaks and each has the explicit objective of utilizing the other to gain what they want. This is out in the open. Mara wants freedom and riches, and working for (and tricking) Sheftu gives her the opportunity to achieve that and he knows it. Sheftu needs her skill and savvy to set his best friend and master (Thutmose) on the throne, and he would slit her throat in a hot second if he felt like she threatened that objective. And she knows it.
Both have the power to destroy the other’s life and–almost up to the end–both are quite willing to use that power if necessary. They are not enemies, exactly, but they both have their own end-goals which eventually clash.
Of course they begin to care for one another, which makes having the other’s throat slit much more difficult, as one might expect. Naturally this means they are both angry at themselves for allowing the other to be a distraction. Why do I love this so much? I don’t know.
Beyond that there’s a bit of that old upstairs-downstairs-type tension: Sheftu is a great Lord, wealthy and powerful. Mara is a slave and a ‘guttersnipe.’ This theme is not the main focus, but I am a sucker for these upstairs-downstairs dynamics. Again, I don’t know. Or I suppose it’s the romance of overcoming a social barrier, or the idea of someone who ought never to even notice the ‘guttersnipe’ finding them just too darn intriguing to ignore. It’s that idea that someone’s character, strength, or brilliance is hard for even those who want to ignore it to do so.
Here there be spoilers.
At the end Mara has become fully dedicated to Sheftu’s cause of bringing down Hatshepsut and putting Thutmose on the throne. So, naturally, just as she has become loyal, Sheftu discovers all her previous treachery and assumes that she is going to carry out her betrayal (which she has only just decided not to do!!) Delicious, cruel irony.
Mara is trapped multiple times and nearly killed, but she manages to finagle herself out of all trouble until the last minute where she basically sacrifices herself to save Thutmose’s resistance.
She is interrogated and beaten within an inch of her life (literally) but refuses to name names.
This right here is my favorite part of any book.
The hero no longer expects to make it. They hold strong to save others, but they themselves have no hope. Indeed the people she is saving, as far as she knows, still think she’s a traitor. And as far as she knows, no one will honor her for what she does. Heroic self-sacrifice narratives will always be my favorite.
Now even I can admit that this is not the most excellently-wrought version of the heroic self-sacrifice story. There are myriad contrivances towards the end of the book, and there is one heck of a cheesy romantic line following the denouement that made me wince even in my 12-year-old rapture.
Did it matter to my love for this book. Apparently not. I just read again it last month.
A Formative Book
A few years ago I was re-reading this book and it had been quite a long while since I read it, and I made a discovery.
So many of the tropes, scenarios, and character dynamics that I love to write are to be found in this book. I always knew I loved it but I never realized how formative it was. Once I read it I set about a fierce hunt for anything else that could satisfy this particular literary craving. My tastes have changed and grown, and maybe this book would not mean much to me if I read it for the first time just now. But I can say that the hunt that this book (and two or three others) started led me to write my own book.
And as to Mara’s role as translator? Well, 12-year-old me didn’t know that I would work for five years as a translator in the Marine Corps, now did she…but that’s what happened. And the role of languages, dialects, and interpreters still factor heavily into the kinds of stories I love to write.
I have a bad habit of starting three or four books at the same time. The variety part is good, but I think it fosters short attention span; one chapter of this, one chapter of that, then a little of something else.
But I keep doing it, and I guess it’s not too dissimilar from the way I eat my dinner. A bite of this, a bite of that, then a few tastes of something else. It works.
Right now I’m reading:
Mara Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. This is a historical adventure/romance set in ancient Egypt. One of my first loves. I have read it nearly a dozen times. I’m currently writing a blog post about all the hundred reasons I love it, and my near-blindness to it’s flaws (such as the really excessive use of the word ‘beribboned.’)
A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan. This is just good Victorian-flavored, Dragon-infused fun. It’s the memoir of famous dragon naturalist Lady Trent, beginning with her interest in bird skeletal structure, her penchant for collecting, preserving, and categorizing ‘sparklings’ (teensy pest-sized dragons), and leading to her determination to seek out and study dragons in the wild. There are lovely illustrations, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
Refusenik, by Mark Ya Azbel. Non-fiction account of the author’s life and experiences in the Soviet Union as a ‘refusenik.’ A refusenik is someone who tried to emigrate, but were ‘refused’ by the Soviet government. Most typically this refers to Jewish citizens, as it does in this book. Persecutions often followed if one persisted attempts to emigrate, or protested repeated denials.
The author did make it out of the Soviet Union, so he was able to write this book. What is interesting to me is the timing of the book’s publication. 1987. The book has tremendous value and relevance (this I can already tell from the first 40-some pages), but since it was published so shortly before the fall of the USSR, I imagine it fell off the radar. Accounts of Soviet atrocities, suppression, and propaganda are just as relevant today as they were then.
ALSO, I got a few new books over the past couple of weeks, each a special little thrill to my soul. Each is a sort of purposeful adventure; you’ll see what I mean.
The first was “The Golden Carpet” by Somerset De Chair. This book is, I believe, long out of print. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, I think it went out of print promptly after it was published, in 1945. Luckily, the edition I found is not one of the highly sought after special copies (which sell for $100 or more!!) and I was able to acquire it.
This book is something of a curiosity. It was written by a British Army officer and is an account of the Anglo-Iraqi war, a campaign which occurred during WWII when the Iraqi government (following a coup led by Rashid Ali) refused to break ties with the fascist governments against which Britain was fighting. Fearing that Iraq would become a base of Nazi operations in the region, Britain returned to Iraq (which they had essentially vacated by 1937) to secure the area for the allied cause and re-install a pro-British government.
The specific interest for me is that first-hand accounts of this war are a bit hard to come by and I am hoping it will give me at least some account of the duties and experiences of the Iraq Levies.
The Iraq Levies are a strange bit of history unto themselves, one that is a bit tricky to explain if one has no background in modern Iraqi history. During the British mandate in Iraq, the British trained and maintained local troops which became known as the Iraq Levies. This was initially something of a scout system, starting during WWI, and at a certain time consisted of a fairly wide variety of ethnicities and religious groups. At the outset, there were Arabs, Kurds and Turkomani people in the Levies, but when the actual Iraqi Army began to take form most of these, naturally, became part of the national army.
Nevertheless the Levies remained, and came to be dominated by an ethnic and religious minority, the Assyrians, although a few other minorities still made up a portion of their number.
The Assyrian minority has a complex history, in some ways parallel to the better-known Kurdish situation, and in others rather more akin to the Jewish Iraqi experience prior to the late 1940’s. Regardless it’s a history I want to study further and I’ll take any first-hand accounts I can get. I do suspect that if this book were of stronger literary and historical value, it might have run quite a few more printings, might even be in print today. But I’m excited to see what it has to offer nonetheless. I’m not in an academic context and I don’t have all those delicious historical journals to draw from. I must be creative.
The next book I got was Dear Martin, by Nic Stone. I actually heard about this book a long time ago, not long after I was in the querying trenches. The author had signed with an agent that I had also intended to query, so I followed her. I started to hear about her book and I thought the premise sounded really good:
A young black man named Justyce who goes to a fancy prep school has a bad encounter with a cop, who profiles him and mistreats him. Justyce wants to be like MLK so he tries to process his experiences through that lens (hence, ‘Dear Martin’), but he struggles and becomes increasingly discouraged as he encounters (and becomes aware of) more and more issues.
Yeah I was just going to “read a couple pages to get a feel for it” because I had other books at the front of the line. No dice. Blazed through this book. I had a few small quibbles, but I am so glad I read it and I certainly recommend it. I may go into a bit more detail at my end-of-year reading round-up.
The third book I got is called Salt, by Mark Kurlansky.
Few words in any language thrill me as much as the word ‘salt.’ Salt is a background theme of my book and my favorite candidate for a “literalized metaphor” as author and translator Ken Liu put it.
Salt has the best and most versatile metaphors! I have such a visceral reaction to that word and it’s meaning, purpose, and history. “Salted with fire.” “Salt of the earth.” “Worth your salt.” “Take with a grain of salt.” “Salt in the wound.” “Salt and light.”
So there’s a whole book about the history and meaning of salt??!?! Yes, please, and thank you.
Few things are more beloved and ubiquitous than the Anti-Hero. The term has come to encompass such a broad range of character types, from the simply less-that-sugary member of the good guy band, all the way to someone who only escapes utter, horrific villainhood by one or two actions, which are nevertheless significant actions.
So, as always, the questions here are:
Why does this trope exist and continue to resonate?
What causes the trope to fail?
What causes it to succeed?
For this one, I’m going to focus on the raison(s) d’etre, which I find to be the most interesting thing about this trope, and which largely answer questions two and three.
Bad is easy, Good is hard
Just like in real life, right?
That, to be honest, is something of an oversimplification, but it is the starting point of the Anti-hero. Bad is easy, good is hard. You will often find writers talking about how their villains just write themselves..not to say that a well-rendered villain is an easy thing to accomplish, but that there are no strictures on their behavior. They can do whatever they want.
The ‘good guys’ however are bound,if not by all virtues,at least by those which we feel they cannot do without and still be good. This leads to the stereotypical (and obnoxious) scene where the noble hero refuses to kill the bad guy and lets him get away, while we all groan inwardly knowing that our protagonist could have ended it right there if only they’d been a little more ruthless.
Of course a hero can be sometimes cruel or arrogant or flawed or whatever, but there are lines they cannot cross while still being the person we’re expected to root for. They have limitations. They are good, and in real life we are very glad for people around us to live by those limitations, but the narrow road is not always as easy to write or as entertaining to read.
Enter the style of anti-hero that is more or less a villain at the outset. He or she has the so-called “freedom” of evil. A deceptive freedom in real life, but certainly a helpful one for the author of such a character. They can be vile, dark, dangerous, vicious, and heartless.
But…sometimes they have a moment of mercy. An experience that casts light onto their shadows. Sometimes they fall in love (and are furious about that because it’s an interference). Sometimes their dark past garners sympathy, and the reader (or the writer) begins to wish this villain could someday escape the hole they’ve dug for themselves.
A redemption path begins to break out. If that path is taken, and followed for a while, an anti-hero (in the modern parlance at any rate) is born.
C.S. Lewis implied this “good is hard, bad is easy” principle with reference to his popular book Screwtape Letters. It is an epistolary style book written as though from a senior devil, or tempter, to a junior one who is trying his best to lead a particular “patient” to hell. Lewis mentioned that he had thought of writing an Angelic corollary, full of all the wisdom and strength to fight the temptations laid out in Screwtape Letters. But he stated that every line would have to “smell of heaven.” It couldn’t be merely ‘good advice,’ it would have to be divinity-soaked and holy. He gave up on the idea as being out of reach of his (extraordinary) talents.
It is much easier to write from the perspective of the devilish half we know so well, than the angelic half we struggle to realize. A good and noble character can be glorious, but is just as likely to come off as insipid or two-dimensional. Villains can also suffer from a thinness of character, especially when they are simply serving the role of “thing to be fought against” with no further explanation, but the Anti-hero exists because good is hard to render well without some admixture of evil (what else do we know?) and evil is difficult to render well without leaving some small window of hope for redemption. This comes, I think, from the strange dual impulse in us (quite apart from the difficulties in depiction) to disbelieve in the possibility of real good and real right, while also refusing to believe that someone can be beyond all rescue.
It’s actually a philosophical conundrum, and requires a bit of cognitive dissonance; part of us longs for the villain to be redeemable(ish), but we seem to doubt that there is anything to be redeemed to. The depths we can sometimes understand, but the heights seem to be beyond scope or capacity. In any case, the whole point of redemption, in its original meaning, is an utter reversal of status. Once slave, now free. Once damned, now divine. But since such a radical transition is not easily shown without seeming…well, manipulated, or fake, we usually go in for the halfway point. Either a slightly redeemed villain, or a somewhat fallen hero.
This bleeds into may next point:
Exploring Our Dark Side
The anti-hero is a platform for exploring the darker aspects of our own souls. We can do this with pure villains too, obviously, but–once again–the more deeply we identify with our villains, the more we desire their redemption, the closer they inch toward anti-hero.
But whether villain or anti-hero, it is much easier to explore the horrors and consequences of our own native cruelty, hatred, pride, rage, hard-heartedness, brokenness, and selfishness when we have that slight remove of building a character who is allowed to be all those things. We take that piece of ourselves (and maybe I shouldn’t say “we” but “I”…) and place it on paper and let it run where we dare not go, whether because of our deep convictions, or (frighteningly) because of mere conformity to conventions.
There are two directions this can take, one which I think is demonstrably…um…healthier than the other.
Acknowledgement: This is the healthier one, by my reckoning. This is where we use our pen to ‘probe our wounds,’ to repurpose a Lewis phrasing, It requires exploring our flaws in a way that does not try to evade their worst iterations, the true consequences. It’s admitting what exists, and trying to make something good out of it, maybe even trying to learn from it. I don’t mean writing a didactic story, but simply refusing to ‘cheat’ around that which is wrong or undesirable in us. Our characters don’t get off scot-free and, as the source of their most dangerous flaws, neither do we. In some cases, each and every character we create is like the result of a choose-your-own-adventure. What would happen if I followed that destructive road? What if I didn’t have the love, or support, or positive influences or beliefs that I have? What if I had given up in that dark moment of the soul? This tactic forces honesty and consequence.
Indulgence: This is where we explore our fascination with a broken moral compass, not to edify, but to indulge. To let that part of ourselves run free on the page to satisfy a craving, rather than to expose a truth. This is creating something for very light, unthinking consumption. It is fantasy, not in the genre sense, but in the psychological sense. We think it sounds cool to be a ruthless assassin with no moral code, so we make one and revel in the toughness and bad-assery we associate with that without ever going too deeply into the cold reality of such a thing. If I find that my character’s amorality simply looks cool, but never seems to cause anything but a vaguely menacing aura, then it is like smoking. Looks great, maybe even feels great, but the teeth yellow and the lungs rot.
A great example of how these two tracks play out is through the lens of the classic Revenge Story. I am not partial to the revenge story myself, but it is very popular in both the following forms:
In the “acknowledgement” story, the Anti-Hero/Protagonist sets out to avenge and, while they usually succeed, the process often destroys them as well. They are left broken after breaking so much, and they don’t get back what they lost. The futility of revenge is usually the main theme in such stories.
In the “indulgence” story, there are a lot of “satisfying” moments of revenge and “cool” violence and the story usually ends right after the epic culmination of the revenge plot, with the protagonist walking off into the sunset, blood-covered, but ‘fulfilled.’
If you can’t tell, I have a decided distaste for such a story, because it is such an obvious falsehood. I know a lot of people like this as simple fun popcorn fare, but it irks me to no end.
In any case, this is where, in fiction, we dally with that which we would shun in reality. I don’t think this is particularly admirable, but I have found the tendency to be true of myself at times. I want to work within the character of a hardened killer, or a ruthless ruler…but I would hope and pray I never have to deal with such things in reality, and I will not be so “intrigued” if/when I do.
The Romance of Tragedy and Danger
This tragedy part of this is pretty straightforward. Tragic backstories garner sympathy, draw us in, and are intriguing in their complexity. A character need not be an anti-hero to have a tragic backstory, but anti-heroes usually have one, or are implied to have one. In the original meaning of the anti-hero, they stood in contrast to the farmboy with the courageous spirit, kind heart, and noble motivations. Maybe they fought alongside the farmboy, but the anti-hero has a cruel streak, and acts selfishly. Why? Tragic backstory.
And the romance aspect of this was pretty well summed up by Anne of Green Gables, when she spoke of her own “wicked” protagonists.
“I wouldn’t marry anybody who was wicked, but I think I’d like it if he could be wicked, and wouldn’t.”
This is where you get the “bad boy” tropes, and the villain love-interest types. Villainy, for all the we claim to be against it, can be attractive to us.
I have a couple of ideas as to why this is (though I’m sure my list is not exhaustive):
-We like the idea that a villain goes out of his or herself towards the love interest. If the villain falls in love (or, often as not, in lust) it shows a weakness, a breakage in the armor. This seems to speak to the value, beauty, strength, or character of the one the villain/Anti-Hero desires. Perhaps we picture how this would be if we were the protagonist. For example, if the villain begins to lose his single-minded intensity towards his evil aims, and that’s happening because of little old me? Or little old her? Little old him? What does that say about the quality of a character who can draw someone right off of their dangerous path like that? They must be amazing.
But it’s not as amazing if the hurdle of ‘tragic backstory’ or ‘villainous tendencies’ were not there to be overcome.
-In fiction, we find danger romantic. We envision ourselves, or our characters, standing noble and brave against an onslaught of evil or cruelty. It’s hard to show the brilliance of perserverence and courage if there is nothing to be courageous about. Villains (well-drawn) show the hero’s courage in the strongest light. But this is usually more powerful if we have an emotional connection with the villain as well, or perceive a fraught connection between the hero and the villain. The brings tension and pain into the contrast between good and evil. It hints at the ifs, and whats, and maybes of the villain’s past, present, and future.
And then we’re sad to see the villain stay fully a villain. We have, in an effort to cultivate emotion and empathy, fallen a bit in love with them (romantic or otherwise) and it can be hard to leave them to their destruction. Sometimes they stay a villain, and it’s all the more tragic because they almost, almost became an Anti-hero.
And an Anti-Hero lives in the perpetual state of potential Hero. They live in that halfway point between destruction and redemption. And maybe that’s just really, really recognizable to us.
So in this recent blog post, I discussed a storytelling device that I really liked which was to be found in two wildly different stories–Till We Have Faces and The Emperor’s New Groove–and now I want to talk about a different device which also seems to have a similar sort of bait-and-switch quality.
I’m sure there’s a proper name for it, but I’m just going to call it the Red Herring intro. It’s when the story zooms in on certain character, setting, or culture at the beginning but then subtly turns the tables and by then end of the story you realize that it wasn’t about that at all. An extreme version of this would be where you start with a character and follow them for a while, but a third of the way into the book they die or disappear and someone who you thought was a secondary character becomes the protagonist.
What I am NOT talking about is that sort of thing where you have an intro scene in which some random person is attacked or killed, just to create thrill, but who has no real significance to the story. No, I’m talking about stories where you are led to invest in a setting or character only to find that it was just a tricky way of leading you to something else still more important. The initial setting is still relevant, mind you, but whereas you thought it would be in the foreground, it fades gently to the background.
This works best when the story starts with a recognizable form, character, or relationship dynamic. A guy and a girl start off on an adventure together and you expect there to be a romance, but then the story veers off into somewhat different territory than you expected. It starts out seeming like a rebellious princess story, but it turns out to really be about her long-suffering lady-in-waiting. This is neither good nor bad. Sometimes we want the story to go the way we expect and are disappointed when it doesn’t. Traditional forms or patterns are good and beautiful. They survive for a reason. We like them.
People read romance novels assuming at the outset that the protagonists are going to get together, and they just enjoy seeing how it unfolds. We watch superhero movies knowing that they will save the world and almost certainly survive, but we like watching them do it.
By the same token, it can be really awful when a story veers off its so-called “tracks” and goes where we did not expect. This usually happens when the deviation is extreme and tonally jarring. You pick up something that seems like a fluffy contemporary comedy, and it turns into horror. If the tone feels like cheery, adventurous high fantasy, but it goes into grimdark dystopian gore, few will appreciate that sort of bait and switch.
Whether or not this Red Herring device works depends mostly upon the nature of the preconception that it un-weaves. As I mentioned above, there are tropes we like because we want to see them “completed,” so to speak, or brought to expected fruition. And there are times where we delight to see our expectations thrown out the window. We realized we were making assumptions about what should happen and how things should be, and the author nudges us to some new, strange, untrod ground.
To put it simply, it matters what we are diverting from, and what we are diverting to.
But if the balance is struck–subtlety is best–it can be lovely even as you find yourself saying “This really isn’t quite what I thought this story was going to be about.”
The Black Panther Preview:
This is a somewhat thin example, it being only a preview (albeit an excellent preview), but it shows a miniature version of the Red Herring. The preview starts with two very famous faces in the world of fantasy: Bilbo and Gollum, as it were. These are some guys we like and have seen here, there, and everywhere, so to speak. It seems to be an interrogation, the classic sort, in the dull room with the flickering fluorescents. We know what’s going on. We’ve seen this intro before. Presumably these two guys are important, since we would usually expect our first shots to be of the hero, and of the villain.
But this is not our hero. And this is not our villain. And this cold, badly lit room that reminds you of other interrogation rooms in other films? No, no, no. This is not that story.* Sit here a moment and contemplate this familiar introductory setting for a few moments, because we are about to show you what’s really going to happen here.
Those are the visitors to this story. Let me show you its residents. This is not a story about secret military organizations and aliens and the politics of superhero clubs. This is about a King. A country. A people. A struggle. Ready? Go.
Now, you don’t have to enjoy the preview as much as I did, or even care one whit about superhero movies in order to recognize the subtle way in which the makers of the preview gave viewers something familiar, then switched the camera and said, “yeah, that too, but here’s the main point.”
*There is obviously some presumption here, since I have no idea of the plot of the movie. I’m simply going off of the atmosphere of the preview.
Theeb is a film I watched some time ago. Set in Saudi Arabia in 1916, this story is about a boy, the titular character, and a deadly journey he takes. I will take care not to give away major spoilers, but obviously, the story does not quite go as expected.
At the beginning of the story we have Theeb who keeps close to his older brother. They are bedouins and their father, we learn, has passed away but was greatly respected.
An Englishman soon comes to visit and request a guide. Theeb’s brother is assigned the task and Theeb, through sheer stubbornness, loyalty, and perhaps fear, tags along. This is the “familiar territory.” One thinks Lawrence of Arabia. The Jungle Book. An “exotic” desert setting, with a Westerner introduced, and perhaps some cultural clash hijinks, and the little Bedouin boy will befriend the British soldier and everyone will learns some nice lessons, and then, I don’t know, go to boarding school or whatever.
Not. At. All.
This story is it’s own sharp, clever creature. It takes its own wild turns. It is, as the title suggests, a wolfish story. (Theeb, or thi’ib in MSA, means wolf in Arabic. This was filmed in Jordan, and is subtitled)
Wolves, by the way, are not aggressive creatures. They are shy. They will hide. They will wait and avoid danger if they can. They won’t show their teeth until they have been pressed back and cornered. Then, it’s much too late for you.
And that is exactly how this story goes. The Englishman who seems so important in the beginning? He comes to very little in this story, almost to nothing. Because it isn’t his story. It’s Theeb’s. The secret the Englishman carries which so arouses Theeb’s interest? It is a disappointment, to say the least. So many things you think are important in this story aren’t. So many ways you think it must go, it doesn’t.
Intrigue is shown, only to be cast aside for more dire circumstances. Friendships are forged through struggle only to end as abruptly and brutally as they began, never to be restored. This story has a frustrating and unpredictable quality that perhaps gets closer to real life than many stories do.
(Side-note: I definitely recommend this movie)
For a weaker example, there is Rogue One. Weak, I say, since it wasn’t so much unpredictable what happened at the end, as it was simply atypical for a Star Wars movie. Usually everyone lives and dances with Ewoks at the end of those movies with the scant few dead coming back as happy ghosts.
Cynthia Voigt’s The Wings of a Falcon is a sort of YA quest Fantasy that really acts nothing like a YA quest fantasy. Calling it that gives you no useful information and no sense of the dark, harsh, unrelenting atmosphere of that book.
Why I Like It
I like this sort of story because it draws me away from comfortable expectations to something else of value, however unexpected. The point is, the redirect has to be to something also relevant, also beautiful, also worthy. This would not work if I was expecting a deep philosophical examination of good and evil, and was diverted to platitudes or a diatribe. The diversion must be from a familiar good (the expected trope/story/scenario) to an unfamiliar or unexpected good. The diversion may well be from something soft to something harsh, but there is value in that if the harshness illuminates or fleshes out the softness.
It reminds me a little of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, where Ransom and Tinidril discuss how you might go out looking for a certain fruit in the paradise that is Perelandra, but then you find the one you did not expect. But to reject it for what you expected, rather than receive it as a good, would make for an unadventurous and flavorless life (to say nothing of the theological implications which are the whole premise of the argument!)
Sometimes a story takes you down a beloved path, and you relax in its comfort. And sometimes a story says “you’ve followed me this far because you recognized the road, now come with me where you’ll have to do some climbing and sharp turns, so you can see something you weren’t expecting. I hope you’ll find that it’s worth it.”
And when that diversion is good, it become a fresh perspective and a fresh joy.
It has been several weeks since I posted here for a variety of reasons, but life will be settling into a more regular (if still quite challenging) rhythm here pretty soon. So I’m dusting off the keyboard with a quick run-down of the books I’m currently reading and all that is good about them.
Republic of Fear, by Kanan Makiya
This is an detailed academic account of the nature, tools, rise, and strength of the Iraqi Ba’ath party, most particularly as it pertains to the Ba’ath under Saddam.
I’ve actually been reading this one in bits and pieces for a while, but I’m nearing the end, and while it can get a mite tedious and dense at times, I highly recommend it. Iraqi history is one of my all-time favorite topics of study. What is particularly chilling about ‘Saddam’s Iraq’ is that so many of the things we see as signs of modernization and progress–less emphasis on tribal relations, universal education, sharp increase in literacy–were the exact tools the Ba’ath used to indoctrinate the society. The more the traditional family could be broken down, the more the children could be got hold of and taught state education, the more each individual felt allegiance to the state over and above family, tribe, religion, or any other traditional ties.
You also see how the various revolutionary governments, once they were in power and even stable in that power, would use all the various scapegoats, and any number of massacres, to stir the population to both loyalty and dread. The scapegoats were usually the Assyrian Christians and the Jews. But they also found it easy to dub anything they didn’t approve of or want as “imperialist.” It was an easy slur to throw at your opponents to claim they were ‘for the west.’
Anyhow, for anyone remotely interested in modern Iraqi history, it’s a must-read.
In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson
I did not mean to be reading two books about the rise and nature of tyrannous regimes, but here we are. This book is about the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in 1933. It is non-fiction and very thoroughly researched, but is written in a narrative style, kind of like The Zookeeper’s Wife.
1933: Hitler had already come to power, Jews were already being persecuted, laws against them were proliferating, and the U.S. was largely uninterested in any of these developments. The Ambassador, Dodd, and his daughter Martha initially range between “neutral” about the dangers of Nazism (that would be Dodd), to enthusiastically in favor of Nazism (Martha, at first). You get a disturbing glimpse at anti-semitism in the U.S. as well. There’s this attitude of “Well, I don’t want anyone to be persecuted, but they did sort of bring it on themselves.”
So, parts of it will surely turn your stomach: but it is a very good read so far.
Pensees, by Blaise Pascal
Pascal’s scattered thoughts on God, faith, human nature, and so on.
Yes, I’ve been reading this one for a while too, bit by bit, but that’s not a bad way to take this book, since it is essentially a collection of snippets patched together to form…well…general ‘thoughts’ on topics. Definitely recommended, but worth reading at your own pace, pen in hand.
(If your one of those who marks in books as I do. I know some consider it sacrilege…but I do it all the time.)
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
I’ve read this one before, but it is my favorite Austen, and I was craving it. It is just as good as I remember.
The thing I love about Persuasion is it’s maturity. Anne and Wentworth are older and wiser than most of Austen’s other protagonists. They’ve loved and lost. They’ve moved on (ish).
I adore Anne’s forbearance, her quiet resolution, her resignation even. Her resignation is not that of a weakling, or someone who gives up, but is in fact the sign of a remarkably strong character. She is thrown into the company of a man she loved and rejected, and has to deal daily with his coldness toward her. She is conscious of her failings, chooses not to dwell on anyone else’s failings, and though in some emotional pain, she has grace for everyone around her. She makes a choice to act kindly and sensibly during emotionally fraught situations. And it is not easy. She doesn’t vie for place, or engage in jealousy, or bitterness.
This may sound like she’s too perfect, but she’s not. She battles within herself, but she wins.
And the TENSION in this book, oh my goodness, the tension. Subtle, excellent, beautiful romantic tension. It is this book which confirms my personal view that less is usually more in romance.
And that’s all that I’m reading right now, but I’ve got quite a few things I’m really excited about, including doing a few beloved comfort reads, like Weight of Glory and Mara Daughter of the Nile. I’m much in need of comfort reads right now.
My determination to focus on the books already on my shelves has been going very…um…medium-ly? I am making progress, but rather more slowly than I had planned, and I have made a few exceptions.
We went to a bookstore on our wedding anniversary, so that was one exception, and we bought a few books then.
But then I had a brilliant idea for another loophole (you see the problem)! I had several books on my shelves that I knew I would either not read (based on certain types of content that I know I do not prefer) or had no interest in reading again. Most of them were in very nice condition, so I thought a used bookstore would take them. And they did, in exchange for store credit!
It just so happened that I hit the mark with the books I picked out, using up the store credit almost exactly. I don’t like to get rid of books, and I do it very rarely, but if I ever need to clear a few off the shelves again, this is a very fun way to do so.
So here is what I found!
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s Gilead is probably my favorite read so far of the year. It was so full, rich, and lovely, and sorrowful and heart-breaking (but in a brightening, wholesome way??) that I knew I must read more of her books. This book takes place concurrently with Gilead and includes essentially all the same characters.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
I know nothing about this book other than that it’s an astronaut who accidentally gets left on Mars, but I did hear that it was funny, and I don’t read humorous things very often. I have not seen the movie. I’m just curious. Oddly enough I just finished re-reading Out of the Silent Planet, which is also about a man who gets stranded on Mars, but that is from a more religious/cosmology/philosophical perspective, and I don’t imagine the books will be anything alike.
The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
Okay, I love this book, but getting this one was kind of an accident. We already have it. We knew we were missing one of the Chronicles of Narnia but neither my husband nor I could remember which one. Finally we both agree it must be The Last Battle. We were wrong. The one we’re missing is Prince Caspian. Now we have two copies of one and none of the other…a lack which will have to be remedied eventually!
The Art of War, by Sun Tzu
A classic, we did not have it, and now we do! It is a short book and I’m of the notion that if a book was written around the 5th century B.C. and is still considered tactically and literarily relevant today, it really ought to be read.
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor
We had this book on our shelves growing up, but somehow I managed to read some of the other books in Taylor’s series (about the same family) but not this one! The story centers around a black family in the south in the 1930s as they deal with family, daily life, and, of course, racism of both the casual and the violent kind. I know for sure that I read The Road to Memphis, which is set several years later, as well as a collection of short stories about the various characters in the books.
I’ve started keeping an eye out for books that I want not just for me, but for my kids. I remember those books I read of Taylor’s being very impactful and loving them, so I want to share them with my kids. I envision this making a good read-aloud for when they get older. I think it’s age bracket ranges between mid-grade and YA.
The Source, by James Michener
I often see this book referred to when I am perusing mid-east or Jewish history or historical fiction. Basically this book is a fictional account of the whole history of the Jewish people, up to the “present” (which is to say 1965, when the book was written). I have never read anything by Michener, but I was very happy to find an actual 1965 copy at the store.
Oh, and we also got two Dr. Seuss books, but I don’t suppose I need to explain those.
And, hey, I still have fifty cents store credit so…there you go : )
I have learned recently, being of a tortoise nature when it comes to projects of all sorts, that slow and steady does not always win the race. Sometimes, yes. Often, even. But not always. The parable of the Tortoise and the Hare is deceptive because it assumes that sprinters never act wisely, and lumberers are always doing all they can. Neither of these are necessarily true. I have found this to be the case in how I approach writing. The Tortoise tactic has its merits, but does not always work.
I learned this the way I learn a lot of lessons in my life–not from the actual experience itself, but rather from going on a run and learning it by parallel. For some reason running seems to parallel so many things that I often use it as a tool to figure out something–some struggle or challenge–in real life. Same as writing, actually, now that I think about it.
So ever since having a baby seven months ago, I have been working hard on distance in running, rather than speed. This was for good reason. I planned to run two half-marathons, and I didn’t have much time after the six-week post-partum recovery period to add mileage except at a very strong, steady rate. Speed would have to wait till later, which was just as well, because I’m not really a speedster by nature, and working on speed is much harder (for me) than simply lengthening my runs. This has always been the case, even before having kids.
I have been (relatively) fast in the past, but there were two major causes for this that came somewhat from outside of my own motivational capacity: first the Marine Corps, second my husband. When I was in the Marine Corps, how fast I ran determined what class of Physical Fitness Test score I had (ideally a “first class” score) which, in turn, influenced promotion. Also, nobody wants to be the one to fall out of a run and look the fool. It was to my absolute advantage to be as fast as possible.
Then, after finishing my service, I still ran a lot, but was often shy of really challenging myself speed-wise. Then one day my husband said “I bet you could do such-and-such a distance at such-and-such a pace” and I scoffed. That was way too fast! I’m not that fast, and probably never could be!
But I tried it for kicks. And, ladies and gentlemen, I was that fast. I wish I could say I’m just a ball of raw, self-sustaining motivation and discipline, but that is not the case. Sometimes I need a firm shove, a little extra fire on my six, to stay in gear.
Now that I have completed my planned long-distance races, I’m working on speed and I am out of practice. I start running and I want to slip into that casual, comfortable, just-for-the-sake-of-finishing kind of pace, and then I remember I’m supposed to book it. Or at least shoot for some kind of specific goal. I feel resistant. I try to bargain and say, maybe I’ll do that next run. Next time. Tomorrow. When I feel more like it.
This is no good. And this is how I’ve been with writing lately. I finished this mega long distance run (writing and revising my book and its sequels) and I’ve sort of taken a break. I let my muscles tighten up, and then even atrophy a bit. Now that I want to get back into it, and try new “races,” slow and steady isn’t working anymore. If I approach writing with a “let’s keep a casual pace” mentality, as I have been, I just end up doing almost nothing at all. The equivalent of going on a few short walks. I like walks. But it’s not getting the job done.
I need to do sprints. And I need to combine distance with speed. I need to do a strong tempo pace over some hard terrain. I’ve seen other authors do this and, yes, sometimes they burn out as a result. Then they have to ease back and do some slow/steady work. And that’s fine. You can’t sprint all the time.
But sometimes, if only to get those fires stoked, you just have to grab yourself by the collar, whisper in frustration under your breath (“But I don’t want to do this right now”), and just go hard until your muscles get watery.
Others may have trouble slowing themselves down to take needed breaths, but–at the moment–I’m the one who needs to shed some of that lumbering tortoise mentality and learn how the hare does.
When my husband and I run together we have always had opposite tactics. He goes all out from the beginning, then just keeps pushing himself and sometimes he runs out of gas towards the end. He is much faster than I, as a side-note. I always start very slow, then warm up, and usually blast out all my “conserved” energy at the end. Both these methods work better or worse depending on context and what you’re intending to do.
But my usual method isn’t getting me anywhere right now, in running or writing, so I’m going to have to learn how to push myself again, not later, not further down the road, not when I’m feeling more up to it, but right now. Because, the truth is, my method can be (and in my case probably is) nothing more than a fear of failure. What if I push hard at the beginning and then have to stop and walk? What if I start this new story and I can’t figure it out and it goes nowhere?
What if I start feeling awful and have to slow down? What if I get halfway through the story and realize I’m going in the wrong direction? What if I can never get fast again? What if I just don’t know how to tell this kind of a story?
Well, so what. That’s what I’m telling myself right now. So what if it fails. I’ll have learned something, at the very least.
Whatever keeps me from getting out the door has to be done away with. It’s time to cover some new ground and learn to set a more challenging pace. So what if I have to stop and breath. So what if I get a little lost. In running that can be part of the adventure, why not in writing?