Take Your Revolution And Stuff It

With no prior exposure to Les Miserables (except some of the songs as produced by my grandmother’s music box collection), I am free to think about its plot like I didn’t know it before. Because I didn’t. And in thinking about what happens in that tale, I am forced to confront the fury I felt as soon as it was clear the little boy was in with the rebels. I imagined what did happen to him, would. Because he’s a little kid. Because he’s surrounded by people old enough to have ideas but young enough not to think them through. They were always going to get them killed, and then they went and did so. Congratufuckinglations, O Brave Revolutionaries.

Does this make me a curmudgeon? I worried about this even as the film played out before me. I am a fiercely liberal person. But this flimsy hopeless pile of chairs—was this what was to bring “freedom” to people? Really? And when people my age speak of the 2006 riots in Paris, or any number of violent clashes with security forces outside of this or that summit, I boil over in frustration. This pointless violence, this idiocy, can get innocent people killed. And often does.

So I tried to puzzle out where this conviction came from. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Malafrena, for one, though I need to reread it because I do not recall if there were any innocent parties there. (Ugh, what a cynical thing to say—what I mean is, I do not recall if there were any non-adults there.) And then there was my years-long and grossly uninformed obsession with the Irish struggle, which began with the strictly fantastical words of Morgan Llywellyn (Bard, Druids…which itself was banned from my high school for portraying sex magic, ha!), carried on through Llewellyn’s own historical novels addressing various failed revolts (1916, 1921), and ended rather abruptly with the IRA-sympathizing Terrible Beauty, written by Peter King, who rather startingly was also a congressman.

Actually, I can point to the precise moment where my fascination with the Irish struggle died. It was a week before 9/11, and my history class (led by a woman with whom I’d have many clashes, not the least of which was her deciding to use me as an example of “the kind of people Hitler would have liked,” because of my hair and eye color. “I have GREEN eyes,” I snapped at her, in a time when I would have died before I snapped at anyone in public, let alone a teacher) was dividing its time between discussing the Taliban and the renewed hostilities in Belfast. She showed us a clip (recorded on a VHS on her home television!) of tartan-skirted schoolchildren of one religion trying to walk through an area of the other religion (I cannot remember who was Catholic and who was Protestant), being pelted by stones and escorted by their parents who, rather than sheltering them from the blows, were hurling frothy-mouthed threats and insults at the other parents and kids throwing the rocks. “You think this about religion?” our teacher asked, as little girls down their peter pan collars on screen. “They say it’s about religion, but it’s about land, and always has been. That’s all this has ever been about.”

Hardly an enlightening viewpoint, I know. Anyone should have been able to tell you that. But, before she said that, I couldn’t have done so. Because when I thought of the Irish struggle—I prided myself on my pronunciation of the names of terrorist groups, for godsake!—of the Fianna and Sinn Fein, of people who BLEW UP BUILDINGS WITH LITTLE KIDS IN THEM, what did I think of? Bards and harps and fairy tales promising glory to poor people in hovels if only they did x y and z first. Druids and Riverdance and good beer (as if I drank a drop before college!) and hornpipes and reels danced in the lowest reaches of steamer ships. And do you know why I thought of these things? I was a silly child who filled her head with the zealousness and magic of others, and I didn’t know enough to question it.

And maybe that’s why I wanted to grab the dashing revolutionaries in Les Miserables by their lapels and slam their heads into the wall. “You see that little boy?” I’d bellow at them. “He hasn’t had the chance you had to grow tall and go to school and be told things and DECIDE if he believes them or not. He hasn’t had that chance because HE’S A LITTLE BOY. And he worships you because HE HAS NO ONE ELSE. And he believes in your cause more than you do because that’s what children do, they believe. And YOU ARE GOING TO GET HIM KILLED.”

I felt the same watching American History X, or watching protest rallies where people make politically inflammatory shirts and put them on their six-year-olds waving flags. You can’t rob little kids of the chance to decide, with enough background and context for it to be an educated decision, whether they believe all this shit or not. You can’t deny them that. They get to grow up first. They do, or you’re a terrible manipulative person for not letting them. No matter how good you look in a frock coat, stuck full of bayonets under a dirty flag. If you’re messing with kids you’re as monstrous as the powers your glorious revolution is fighting against.

What Is Magic Covering For?

I shouldn’t have to preface every long-winded post with this, but given the trumped-up way I talk about things I don’t want to give the impression I think I know more than I actually do.

So, I don’t.

But while reveling in the Dragon Age: Origins (don’t get me started) soundtrack I found to my delight on Spotify, and hitting the track called “The Chantry’s Hubris”—this with the thick hardback Towers of Midnight occupying my desk to the right of my screen—-it dawned on me that magic has got to be covering for something in all these fantasy games and novels. Between the Chantry in DA trying to herd every mage into a tower where they can be safely kept under lock and key “in case they go crazy and kill us all, what with them being unstable and prone to demon takeovers and everything,” and the various forces in the Wheel of Time series trying to control and/or exterminate channelers (which = wielders of magic, for those of you non-readers), something’s up.

If you think I’m reaching too far, well, that’s what I’ve been trained to do, for better or for worse. I’d grown tired of the classics since high school Latin class until I took a course in college wherein, amongst any number of other things, we were exposed to the idea that those mythical standbys in Greek literature—the Amazons, the centaurs, the [third and fourth groups I forgot, but which were recurring figures in art and literature]—did not stand for “fear of the natural world” or “fear of women” or “fear of man losing control of himself,” but for the very real and very powerful Persians across the Med (and, increasingly, right next door).

I know the feminist view would at some point run the gamut of “ha, amazons, it’s men writing stories about crazy banshees who cut off the breasts men love so much so as to better shoot arrows with which to shoot men” to “in both these fantasy series they’re herding powerful women into phallic towers, thus reasserting their male authority,” but I mean, really. Please give the writers of fantasy a little more credit than that. Could magic not be standing for something else in these series, other than just “shit we don’t understand and thus fear?” Could there not be some concrete force that magic is standing for, as [I was taught] the Amazons and centaurs stood for?

Sometimes, it’s technology, I know. In other lesser, smaller series. But I don’t think that’s the case in WoT and I definitely don’t think it’s the case in Dragon Age. Why get religion involved to police technology? Besides, in WoT, technology as we know it is actually stepping up to the plate and changing the way people make peace and war, independent of the Power. It ain’t tech we’re talking about then.

What about—oh, don’t snerk—democracy? No, I am not making this assertion out of some pompous sense of patriotism. I’m serious. Both these series deal with largely feudalistic societies. For many (not all) fantasy readers, feudalism is something of a requirement—a defining feature of the genre. When you start to leave feudalism, or at least to cover the exodus from it, you start to leave the realm of fantasy—what would Skyrim be without dragons after all? An alternative history of rebellion. Hence, dragons and draugr and all the rest of it. Dragons and draugr, though, unlike mages in DA and channelers in WoT, aren’t subject to frantic policy decisions from above. They’re straight-up wild, uncontrolled things you fight in a very base fantastical way. Mages and channelers are put into the bureaucracy  Quite often, they’re put into that bureaucracy so that they don’t disrupt the status quo of the various kings and queens and emperors in whose lands they reside.

This seems important.

Locked as I presently am in a debate with people who should know better about the educational validity of computer and video games, I am highly sensitive to the “that’s just trash/pop literature/culture/music, there’s nothing to be gained there” argument. People don’t write this stuff in a vaccuum. They may write games or, yes, fanfic about fireball spells and battle gryphons, but they live in a world of drone strikes and suicide bombers. If you’ve played Dragon Age 2, you’re braindead if you didn’t make some kind of connection between the Qunari and radical Islam. It’s flagrant. And though the timing of international hypersensitivity to it doesn’t quite coincide with the writing of the Wheel of Time series, in the later books the portrayals of the Seanchan are certainly suggestive of the kind of socially binding but staggeringly-restrictive-to-some-groups (hello, women!) ideologies that are gaining traction in the world today—Islamic and otherwise. So if those connections are there to be made, what about magic? What is its real-world mirror-image?

The function of magic in both the Wheel of Time and Dragon Age is to give power—and, therefore, a kind of voice—to those who would otherwise lack it. Poor farmboys in Ferelden who find out in adolescence that they can make rain fall on the burning barn to save the livestock; tailors’ daughters in Andor whose potential rapists are tossed back by a seemingly invisible wall of air in the moment of greatest need—these are not people who would otherwise possess power. Without the magic, the barn would burn and the girl would be raped, and each party would suffer for it (though obviously in completely different and not entirely comparable ways). Without the magic, the power balance would remain as usual: the men would have the way with the girl, the likely life-altering repercussions (psychological trauma, potential pregnancy and, if her rape is popularly known, general refusal to marry) of their actions be damned; the boy’s farm would go potentially in ruin and at the very least hugely into debt with someone in charge—at the highest level, the Arl of the region.

Okay, so I don’t mean democracy in the let’s-all-sit-down-and-vote-on-this-sense. But, let’s say, magic is a stand-in for the drastically more democratic practice of giving a voice to the otherwise more-or-less impotent, powerwise. The poor, the physically weak, the women, the members of this or that reviled caste of society. (Dalish elves, anyone?) Usually, in the power structure as it has developed so far in the worlds of these series, these people are disenfranchised  Magic enfranchises them, and then the bureaucracy steps in—often in the guys of being guided “by magic-wielders, for magic-wielders,” but really with greater strings tied to the political bigwigs of the era (think of the Amyrlin’s ties to the Ajahs and their ties to the various political pots they have their fingers in; of the Chantry’s domination of the mages in the Circle despite the farce of their autonomy to do as they wish amongst their books and dormitories)—to disenfranchise them again. Or rather, to take their power and funnel it into a contained, safe space which itself is controlled by others.

It sure is convenient to have over half the population fearing and/or loathing these powerful people, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want them to use their magic to make their crappy farm more prosperous than the loyalist neighbor’s spread, after all. Wouldn’t want them to delve into the sick amidst Healing and discover that it’s not the will of the Creator that the populace of a given city is dying of the plague; it’s because the tax money that was supposed to go to improve the sewer system and flush out the waterways went instead to the king’s personal hunting palace not 10 leagues distant…

Anyway, it’s hardly a perfect theory, but it’s something I was thinking about today while listening to the DA soundtrack and counting down the minutes till my lunch break and the opportunity to march boldly onward toward the end of the Wheel of Time series. And then of course there’s DA3 slated to come out this year, on an as-yet-unannounced series of consoles from companies who’d better goddamn stay afloat long enough to release them…but I digress. Any other ideas for what magic stands for, people? Democracy? Technology? Feminism? The right to not contribute money toward the chandler’s industry?

…what with the floating balls of magical light, I mean. You get it.

if you read nothing else today… (edited with correct passage)

I think you know the rest: We now live on a global clock, every standardized minute counted off on the screens we stare at all day. Our world has never been so closely observed and recorded and mediated, yet our lives have never seemed more self-contained. Western societies are increasingly a matter of discrete single, couple, or family plots, private spaces designed to sustain themselves apart from any conception of a whole. That tendency toward a discretionary existence accounts for the familiarity of the floating, customized Xanadu of the Internet, as well as the hunger for community it seemed to satisfy. The clock was restarted, and the challenge to scale one’s finite sense of time against an ultimate infinity was compounded by a sense of hair-straightening acceleration—the sudden potential to experience all things, all at once. It became possible—it became progress—to live at a speed and spacelessness that held the present in an exploratory suspension. We could prospect this new world like towheads in Narnia, with the sense that life on the outside was paused where we left it, and that “together” we might invent an end to loneliness.