Thursday, January 25, 2007

Magik Beans Episode 2 is up

It took some wrangling to get this week's episode out, because I was stupid enough to try typing it up in the blogger interface. And then didn't "save as draft" often enough and ended up rewriting nearly the whole thing.

But it's there now. Here's a preview:

He smiled with the amusement of knowing that in a few minutes he'd have a chance to grind up the ‘magic’ coffee beans and see what they tasted like. For some, drinking coffee that had been in the pocket of a man whose clothing smelled like raw sewage would be off-putting, but for Andrew, who had actually tried Kopi Luwak, a coffee made from beans which had actually passed through the digestive system of a catlike animal (and fondly referred to as "poop coffee" as a direct result), these were just another exotic bean.

Who knows? he mused, perhaps I'll stumble upon some new culinary adventure.

And what would you call this new elixir? his self asked him, its mental voice rife with sarcasm. Bum coffee? That would go great with the Kopi Luwak. Would you like your bum coffee with a shot of poop?

Hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Magik Beans - The Prologue

Magik Beans is fully underway now, with the first installment posted. Here's a teaser:

The two of them contemplated each other. What the lump saw was a rangy, blonde haired male in his mid-twenties with the drawn, haunted look that only years of a sporadic dating life resulting in late nights on multiple chat rooms followed by Protestant guilt and the realization that you still have a final essay due by noon repeated over several years will fashion upon the human face. What Andrew saw was what he figured mall Santas look like in the off season, minus the fake stomach.

Check out the prologue to Magik Beans HERE.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Towards a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Works Cited

Works Cited

Alexander, Alex. “Stephen King’s Carrie—A Universal Fairytale.” Popular Culture 13 (1979): 282-288.

Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales. A New Translation by Tiina Nunnally. Ed. and Intro. by Jackie Wullshlager. Viking, Penguin, 2004.

Bausinger, Hermann. “Concerning the Content and Meaning of Fairy Tales.” Germanic Review 62 (1987): 75-82.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

The Company of Wolves. Dir. Neil Jordan. Cannon Films, 1984.

Carrie. Dir. Brian DePalma. Screenplay by Lawrence Cohen and Stephen King. United Aritsts, 1985.

Cooks, Leda, Mark Orbe and Carol Bruess, "The Fairy Tale Theme in Popular Culture: A Semiotic Analysis of Pretty Woman." Women's Studies in Communication 16 (1993): 86-104.

Ever After: A Cinderella Story Dir. Andy Tennant. Screenplay by Charles Perrault, Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant, and Rick Parks. 20th Century Fox, 1998.

Gruner, Elisabeth. “Saving “Cinderella”: History and Story in Ashpet and Ever After.” Children’s Literature 31 (2003): 142-154.

Haase, Donald. “Children, War, and the Imaginative Space of Fairy Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature 24 (2000): 360-77.

Jackson, Bruce. “A Film Note.” Journal of American Folklore 102 (1989): 388-89.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Dir. Kevin Smith. Miramax, 2001.

Kidd, Kenneth. “"A" is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the "Children's Literature of Atrocity.” Children’s Literature 33 (2005): 120-149.

Koven, Mikel J. “Folklore Studies and Popular Film and Television: A Necessary Critical Survey.” Journal of American Folklore 116 (2003): 176-195.

Legend: Ultimate Edition Dir. Ridley Scott. 1985. DVD. MCA/Universal. 2003.

Nikolajeva, Maria. “Fairy Tale and Fantasy: From Archaic to Postmodern” Marvels & Tales 17 (2003): 138-156.

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Plummer, Laura. “'I'm Not Laura Palmer': David Lynch's Fractured Fairy Tale” Literature Film Quarterly 25 (1997): 307-14.

Pretty Woman. Dir. Garry Marshall. Touchstone Pictures, 1990.

Richards, Patricia, et al. “Don’t let a good scare frighten you: Choosing and using quality chillers to promote reading.” The Reading Teacher 52 (1999): 830-40.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University Press. 2004.

Spells of Enchantment: the wondrous fairy tales of Western culture. Jack Zipes, ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Stephens, John and Robyn McCallum. “Utopia, Dystopia, and Cultural Controversy in Ever After and the Grimm Brothers' Snow White.” Marvels & Tales 16 (2002) 201-213.

The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: Norton, 1999.

Twin Peaks: The First Season Prod. Robert Engels. 1990. DVD. Republic, 2003.

Worley, Alec. Empires of the Imagination : A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Méliès to The Lord of the Rings. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, c2005.

Zipes, Jack. “Towards a Theory of the Fairy-Tale Film: The Case of Pinocchio” The Lion and the Unicorn 20 (1996): 1-24.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Towards a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Part 4

While I have made brief references to a number of different films which encompass a majority of the elements, it is the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s Legend which encapsulates the five elements perfectly.

Although the original theatrical release still dealt with issues of gender and sexuality through the temptation of Princess Lily by the Lord of Darkness, the director’s cut includes a scene between Jack and Lily early in the film suffused with a sort of innocent innuendo that hints at awakening sexuality. It is Lily’s virginal aspect that allows her to entice a unicorn, to betray Jack’s trust without losing his love. Later, it is her awakening sexuality which allows her to play coy with her captor, the Lord of Darkness and lull him into her confidence.

The element of good vs. evil is clear cut, realized with the rich imagery of the unicorns, sacred beasts that embody goodness; as Jack says, “as long as they roam the earth, evil can never harm the pure of heart…they express only love and laughter. Dark thoughts are unknown to them”. They are held in contrast to the Lord of Darkness, given the form of the classic red devil with massive horns and cloven hooves. These images are iconic, but Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness gives his evil a level of depth that transcends caricature. The struggle between these two forces is portrayed through the various desires and temptations of Princess Lily, whose strong, independent will results in the death of one of the unicorns as well as the emancipation of the other at the expense of her own safety.

Both Jack and Lily are meritorious individuals in their own right; Lily, through her noble, headstrong manner which makes her a match for the Lord of Darkness’ wiles, and Jack in more traditionally virtuous practices. Although he is not directly responsible for the death of the male unicorn, he accepts the mantle of champion to set things right. When he is enticed by Oona, a willful forest fairy who demands a kiss in return for freeing Jack and his companions, he refuses rather than betray his love for Lily. Both the characters survive their challenges and overcome their obstacles because of their integrity.

The entire production is magical; beams of sunlight shine through the boughs of massive, ancient trees in a forest that is filled with beauty and mystery. There are goblins and dwarves, an elf named Honeythorn Gump, a dancing black dress, a swamp hag named Meg Mucklebones and a pair of demon cooks. Few films have achieved such a level of visual enchantment, owing largely to the fact that the entire film was shot on a massive soundstage instead of actual locations. And when Lily asks at the end, “was it all a dream?” Jack can only reply, “you’re safe now”.

There are a number of transformations in the film, the first one of the Edenic world’s verdant green landscape being covered in an endless winter. We see Jack, hero of the tale, transformed from wild-boy of the forest to knight in literally shining armor, and his damsel in distress Lily go from demure princess dressed in white and gold to a vampish gothic queen in a low cut dress as black as midnight. Yet the greatest transformation takes place when Jack restores Lily from the dark spell she is under at the film’s conclusion.

“So many terrible things happened,” Lily reflects, “and something about you.”

“What’s that?” Jack asks.

“You belong here,” Lily replies. “You’re my prince.”

“I’m only Jack,” he tells her, before they embrace in a deep and grown up kiss.

In the original theatrical release, there is an implication that Lily stays with Jack in the magic forest, but in the director’s cut she departs, asking “can I come again tomorrow?” There is a hint, that as Jack waves goodbye to Lily, and then to his magical companions, that the transformation has been one of growing up. Their mutual transformation is much like that of Kai and Gerda’s; they look the same as they did at the start of the film, but they are no longer children. No longer innocent. “I will miss you” Jack tells Honeythorn Gump.

“But don’t forget us,” the elf tells him.

“Never,” Jack replies.

It is clear from the wide variety of films that utilize fairy tale motifs and elements that we have not forgotten our traveling companions in the perilous realm. Nevertheless, it does a disservice to the tradition of the fairy tale to include any film which deals with gender and sexuality, good struggling against evil, or any of the five elements alone. Rather, these five elements must be measured against the tradition they inhabit, and then evaluated, not as means to an end, but rather parts of a whole.

To put it another way, for a film to be categorized within the fairy tale genre, it must not only possess a number of these five elements, but those five elements should be woven together in such a fashion that to speak about one is to make reference to another, as is the case with Lily’s sexual transformation from pure virgin to sexually aware vamp, a scene which plays with all of the listed elements. When a film utilizes all five of these elements, we will then be able to recognize it for what it is; a fairy tale whether the characters be elves and faeries inhabiting a dark wood or princes masquerading as rich men, and the little ash girls posing as street walkers in downtown L.A.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Towards a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Part 3

While none of the distinctive marks I have proposed in this essay can function alone to classify a film as part of the fairy tale genre, personal transformation is the only one I would argue must be present, since metamorphosis is “perhaps the key theme of the fairy tale up to the present” (xvi). All narratives require a change on the part of the lead character, but fairy tales are concerned with a more dramatic sort of change. In the sections of his article concerning “fear and departure” and “illness and death”, Bausinger states that, “transformation, not gradual change, is the way of the fairy tale” (78). Fairy tales involve stories that “not only open abysses” but also provide the means by which the abyss “may be bridged, crossed and overcome” (79).

This is very much the case in the film version of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves, where it is difficult to say if good has triumphed over evil or that the heroine is meritorious; within the feminist framework Carter has created it could be argued that Rosaleen’s actions are meritorious, but ambivalence remains. There is the presence of magic, to be sure, from the surreal dreamscape of the forest to the lycanthropic transformations, but both the magic and the extensive exploration of gender and sexuality revolve around the axis mundi of Rosaleen’s final transformation, from little girl to wild woman.

Bausinger states that fairy tales “depict ways of finding independence” (78), which refer us to the idea of rites of passage, bringing us full circle back to the first distinctive of gender and sexuality. Most rites of passage involve the liminal phase of adolescence, that ambiguous time-between-times when one is no longer a child, but not yet an adult. In Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, the end of the story tells how Kai and Gerda, who began the tale as children, “sat, two grown-ups, and yet they were children—children at heart—and it was summer” (204).

There are two rites of passage in both the novel and film Carrie which bring about two different transformations. One is purely physical; Carrie’s first menstrual cycle, experienced with shame in the high school shower room. The other might be said to be emotional, or perhaps even spiritual, since it is at her high school prom, a North American rite of passage where Carrie discovers her telekinetic abilities. Koven notes how Alex Alexander “made the easy equation between prom and ball” and that there is “even a motif from the ‘Ugly Duckling’ folktale where the ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan in Carrie’s movement from gawky adolescent to beautiful young woman at the prom, a motif also present in some of the Cinderella versions” (182).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Toward a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Part 2

The first element proposed is that of gender and sexuality. Even the most sanitized versions of fairy tales are concerned with issues of gender and sexuality, even if that sexual aspect has been sublimated through multiple literary retellings. The earliest version of Little Red Riding Hood, “The Story of Grandmother”, contains what amounts to a striptease when the little girl asks the wolf, “where should I put my apron?” to which the wolf replies, “Throw it into the fire, my child. You won’t be needing it any more.” These two phrases are repeated over and over, with different clothing items replacing the already discarded ones until the little girl is obviously naked, at which point she immediately gasps at how hairy the wolf is (qtd. in Tatar 10-11). Basile’s verson of Sleeping Beauty is said to be a “story of rape, adultery, sexual rivalry” (Hallet and Karasek 18), while beast-bride tales deal with “courtship rituals and…the morning after” (Tatar 28).

The second distinctive, that of good vs. evil in fairy tales has fallen upon critical times. In a global community, the dichotomy of good triumphing over absolute evil, often in violent ways is seen as backward thinking. Kenneth Kidd makes a call for children’s books which “actually reckon with the horrific world violence to which our nation handily contributes, and which challenge the masterplot of childhood innocence that has transformed our very understanding of citizenship” (140). Insofar as Kidd is speaking of books which deal directly with actual atrocities, such as the Holocaust or 9/11, I would agree; but to expect the same for fairy tales and films in that genre is remiss. Maria Nikoljeva writes that the ambiguity in postmodern fantasy undermines the sense of security readers derive from “clear cut distinction between good and evil” where “it is not self evident which choice is the right one…” (146-47).

While it is dangerous to apply the labels of ultimate good or ultimate evil to actual people groups or individuals, to downplay the “layers of menace” (Haase 370) presented by fairy tale villains robs the story of any real tension; if the child “discovers that we have removed the wolf’s teeth, the game is up; simply by attempting to shelter the child reader from harm, we have portrayed “the world as a fearful place”” (Richards 833). In modern versions of Little Red Riding Hood, killing the wolf in a violent manner gets replaced with a hasty getaway. The adults who altered the wolf’s fate from execution to evasion “perceived that version as less violent and less frightening, but children found it scarier because the threat of the wolf remains unresolved” (833). Rather than finding the gory or horrific details of how the heroes are devoured or the villain slain terrifying, children reported that they found “stories with no endings as frightening” (834). Further, in denying a form of justice for evil, we have removed the “anticipation of a better world” (Haase 361).

There can be no anticipation of a better world if a darker world is not imagined, and in that imagining, defeated. To debate whether Hansel and Gretel are greedy little children for their consumption of “the house made of bread…and cake…and sparkling sugar” (Hallet and Karasek 141) is pointless within the secondary world of the fairy tale; what matters is that the “wicked witch, who waylaid children and…killed, cooked, and ate any child who fell into her hands” (141) is “burned miserably to death” (143). She is a witch—not a modern adherent to Wicca, but a mythic monster.

The third element is that the meritorious individual will win out in the end, whatever the obstacles may be. In fact, the obstacles are implied within the idea of the meritorious individual succeeding, since there would be no point in needing merits to succeed if there were no obstacles. This is the deserving hero/heroine, the one who triumphs by holding fast to a true, pious or generous nature, one who suffers but does not waver from goodness and in the end is rewarded, such as Gerda in the Snow Queen, or Laidronette during her trials in “Green Serpent”. This motif abounds in fairy tales; "Cinderella receives compensation for being patient and humble; the goose-girl because she did her work without complaining and didn't reveal her secret; the golden virgin because she worked tirelessly and diligently for Frau Holle" (Bausinger 80).

“All manner of weird phenomena” (Worley 14) constitutes the fourth element, which is another way of saying magic, but with the same proviso Worley makes in regards to fantasy film in general, wherein “for the duration of any given fantasy film, magic must be accepted as real…the audience must temporarily believe…that princes can turn into doves, wizards can command magic and faeries do exist” (10).

The element of “all manner of weird phenomena” refers to how the realm of fairy “may resemble our own, but the illusion is never entire…Perhaps its geography appears inconsistent, and gothic towers loom incongruously over pastel suburbs, or the behavior of its inhabitants seems weirdly irrational, and grown men squabble like infants over tickets to a chocolate factory” (Worley 25). This could encompass everything from fully secondary worlds such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, to Superman’s Metropolis, where the only weird phenomenon is a man in tights flying over what is otherwise a familiar city skyline.

In the case of Ever After, there is an absence of magic as an act of the miraculous. It is not magic which enables Drew Barrymore as Danielle DeBarbarac to arrive at the prince’s ball on time but the scientific wonders of Leonardo DaVinci. While DaVinci’s “butterfly wings may appear magical, they rely on human craft for their effects” (Gruner 150). Nevertheless, the moment when Danielle steps into the palace courtyard, dressed for the ball, there is definitely a sense of wonder, which awakens “our regard for the miraculous condition of life and to evoke in a religious sense profound feelings of awe and respect for life as a miraculous process” (Spells of Enchantment xiv).

Friday, January 12, 2007

Towards a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Part 1

In “Breaking the Disney Spell”, Zipes comments that “worship of the fairy tale as holy scripture is a petrification of the fairy tale” (qtd. in Tatar 337), and decries Disney’s film versions of fairy tales, making the “assumption…that since filmmaking is a highly technical occupation, one [that] results in a fixed text, the ‘folk’ don’t have a chance to influence it” (Jackson 388). In the introduction to Spells of Enchantment Zipes states that, “the fairy-tale film silenced the personal and communal voice of the oral magic tales and obfuscated the personal voice of literary fairy-tale narratives” (6). Further pursuit of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” might have allowed for how Benjamin perceived audiences’ communal viewing experience would bring about a democratization of art (234-5). Sylvia Grider observed that media characters have been appropriated by their child audiences, who “frequently reiterate plot narratives from their favorite television shows and movies” fashioning them into “highly complex and original storytellings” which she called “media narraforms” (Koven 178).

In addition to the narratives of playtime, the advent of the deluge of amateur film critics on the Internet, adds another level of participation, one that echoes the “subversive features” of the oral tradition where “social behavior [cannot] be totally dictated, prescribed and controlled” (Zipes qtd. in Tatar 336). As Ben Affleck’s character in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back comments, “The internet is a communications tool, used the world over where people can come together to bitch about movies”. This crass description of the internet succinctly shows how fan culture internet chatrooms are also ‘playrooms’ wherein narraforms are constantly being constructed, so that film becomes closer to oral tradition than literary. Modern audience members are considered as active contributors to creation of popular culture, thereby being “much more comparable with folk ‘audiences’” (Koven 188).

The postmodern mindset rejects the concept of metanarrative, so even the fixed medium of film finds fluidity in the oral milieu where opinion holds the power to alter the meaning of each retelling, finding a place for “disparate interrogations of the metanarratives of culture” (Stephens & McCallum 201) wherein we understand that “the Disney text would be considered but one text among countless other variants” (Koven 177), effectively making the audience “the new folklorists, the new Grimms, charged with again retelling an old tale in new clothes” (Gruner 153).

Zipes readily admits this in his own fashion, saying that “the fairy tale as institution cannot be defined one-dimensionally”, that is to say, defined by Disney or any other mass media approach more concerned with happy endings than subversive potentials (Spells of Enchantment xxix). Nevertheless, if the “readers, viewers and writers of fairy tales constitute its broadest meaning” (xxix) then mass media’s democratization of art combined with the large scale forum of the internet and the postmodern disregard for metanarrative could conceivably bring about a vastly broad and yet still distinct understanding of what constitutes fairy tale film. As David Riesman observed, “people do not attend to the media as isolated atoms, but as members of groups which select among the media and interpret their messages” (in Koven 187).

It is precisely because of this highly interpretive postmodern landscape that steps should be taken to classify what constitutes a fairy tale film for the academic discourse. Jonathan Smith observed that the problem for religious studies was not that “religion cannot be defined, but that it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways” (193). The same applies to literary studies, where Aarne and Thompson’s classification system or Propp’s Dramatis Personae could allow nearly any narrative to be a fairy tale. Further confounding the issue is the ambiguous overlap between fantasy and fairy tale, wherein “the concepts overlap and are used interchangeably” (Nikolejeva: 138). While it would be presumptuous to state that the following will form a definitive classification of fairy tale film, “some basic generic distinction is desirable for theoretical consideration” (138). To that end, we turn to the five elements I propose for classifying a film as fairy tale.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Towards a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Introduction

When speaking about film or television versions of fairy tales, one would likely not cite the critically acclaimed early 90’s television drama, Twin Peaks, whose heroine is a dead girl named Laura Palmer, “the Homecoming Queen with a hidden lust for sex” (Plummer 308) as an example. While the program was a pastiche of detective story and prime time soap opera, the otherworldly aspect of the program pointed to “one of the oldest narratives: the fairy tale. Along with the archetypal markers of the genre, they follow the narrative plot of Sleeping Beauty” (308). The crystal coffin has been replaced by a coroner’s body bag, and the flaxen splinter of Basile’s text is present as a clue in the form of a small paper letter. This item is removed, not by a suckling child but by Federal Agent Dale Cooper, the handsome prince’s stand-in, who though unsuccessful in awakening the sleeping princess, is able to solve her murder by her own father, reminiscent of Perrault’s “Donkeyskin” in his “burning…desire that drove him mad” (qtd. in Tatar 110). The elements of the father pursuing the daughter are more horrific due to their modern context, but the relationship to “Sleeping Beauty” and therefore to fairy tales is hard to deny.

In the opening paragraph of his article “Towards a Theory of the Fairy Tale Film: The Case of Pinocchio” Jack Zipes makes the statement that “we know immediately that a particular film is a fairy tale when we see it” (1). His statement would carry more weight, if one were only considering the films of Walt Disney, Zipes’ favorite whipping boy. However, if one can allow Pretty Woman as a retelling of “Cinderella” (Cooks, Orbe & Bruess) or Stephen King’s “Carrie” as the horror genre’s interpretation of Sleeping Beauty (Alexander), then the landscape of the perilous realm becomes less familiar, less iconic. The question of what constitutes a fairy tale film has become an important one to the academic discourse on folk and fairy tales. A discussion on the subject seems necessary, given Stith Thompson’s comment that “cinema, especially the animated cartoon, is perhaps the most successful of all mediums for the presentation of the fairytale” (qtd. in Koven 177) juxtaposed with the reality that feature fiction film has been largely ignored by folklore studies (179) or heavily criticized, as already mentioned with regards to Zipes and Disney.

The following essay is an attempt to pick up where Zipes left off with his “Theory of Fairy Tale Film” by first establishing that film is not a fixed media, but rather a new form of the oral tradition, and then proposing 5 elements which would classify a film as being of the genre of fairy tale. According to the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, there are 3 elements which form a “mythic matrix” (331) which form the starting point for our list of elements, or distinctives. Those three elements are 1) gender and sexuality, 2) that good will always conquer evil and 3) the meritorious individual will win out in the end. To these I would add two more; 4) the presence of magic, and 5) a personal transformation. Ridley Scott’s film Legend will then be examined as a perfect combination of all five elements.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Pullman's Protest: The Fantasy of “His Dark Materials” as Polemic Propaganda

Methinks Phillip Pullman doth protest too much. The critically acclaimed author of the “three-volume fantasy and mythical series” (Donelson & Crowe) His Dark Materials, denied that his trilogy was pure fantasy, referring to it rather as “stark realism” (Weich, par. 7). In a similar fashion, Pullman has stated he’s “not making an argument, or preaching a sermon, or setting out a political tract” (Spanner, par. 18). While one cannot argue another person’s standpoint, it is interesting to compare Pullman’s public declarations with his artistic work, to observe whether or not the author’s protests seem credible from a reader’s standpoint.

At his own website, Pullman refutes his connection to the tradition of children’s fantasy which includes Tolkien or Lewis, saying he “was trying to write about…real people, not beings that don’t exist like elves or hobbits” (par. 23). This claim seems dubious, given the first line of The Golden Compass which introduces Lyra’s dæmon (3), a changeling which is “something akin to a soul but in animal form” (Donelson & Crowe).

In response to readers’ sense of verisimilitude about dæmons, “as if they’ve got a dæmon themselves” Pullman writes at his website, “we all have” (par. 23), and yet empirically, we don’t. While the concept of the dæmon may be intended to say something “true about us and our lives” it does not divorce Pullman’s trilogy from the fantasy tradition. It could be argued that Tolkien also meant to say something true about people and life in his tales of elves and hobbits, or Lewis in his tales of Narnia.

Pullman’s accomplishment with His Dark Materials, whether he likes it or not, is the creation of what Tolkien called a “Secondary World”, a place where a “green sun will be credible” (1975:51). By the end of The Amber Spyglass, readers have been introduced to a host of creatures inhabiting a handful of the “uncountable billions of parallel worlds” (1995:330). Pullman’s masterful prose allows the reader to treat creatures such as cliff ghasts “with leathery wings and hooked claws” (281), armoured bears of the panserbjørne, soul-stealing Specters, Lilliputian-like Gallivespians, “armed and shining” angels (1997: 133), harpy-like creatures who guard the land of the dead, and the extremely alien Mulefa, who possess wheels as appendages, all as credible within the Secondary World he has created.

In an interview at, Pullman commented that he “can’t read fantasy” because “it doesn’t tell me anything interesting about being a human being”. Like Lord Asriel, Pullman “dares to do what men and women don’t even dare to think” (1997:47), namely seeing his own fantasy work as transcending the genre and the tradition that has lead to it. Yet it is clearly a work of fantasy, drawing parallels to the very works Pullman abhors (McSporran, par. 1). Is it the tradition of fantasy literature itself that Pullman wishes to avoid, or perhaps being associated with some of its authors and the ideologies they espoused?

Pullman has had much to say about the “propaganda” (Ezard, par. 6) of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, while he himself has been the purveyor of his own polemic propaganda, since the “preach factor is equally high in both” (McSporran, par. 27). In an interview with, Pullman made the statement that he believes “profoundly in this notion of the Republic of Heaven” then immediately adds that he’s “not trying to preach in the book”. As with the renunciation of the fantasy tradition, this is a difficult pill to swallow, given the evidence of the texts themselves.

Pullman has stated that the trilogy is “about a universal human experience, namely growing up” (2006). The story’s liminal nature certainly plays a major role, but the backdrop it is set against is Asriel’s war against the Magisterium. What begins as a mere element of the narrative in The Golden Compass expands to become the tale’s prime mover by The Amber Spyglass.

As Lyra is drawn further into Asriel’s machinations, it only makes sense that the narrative will turn to addressing the nature of the Authority and his forces, but by the third book entire chapters are built around lengthy metaphysical and moral discourses. Whereas writers like Lewis and George McDonald made allusions to their faith Pullman is bluntly direct about the absence of his. The singular villain threatening Pullman’s fictional universe of myriad worlds is the “God of the Church, the one they call the Authority…” (1997: 45), referred to as “decrepit and demented” (2000:328) and in his final moments, “terrified, crying like a baby and cowering away…” (410). Pullman could have chosen to keep the Authority disconnected from actual faith practices, but references to original sin, (even in the alien Mulefa’s myth of the seedpods (224)) and Mary Malone’s very clear statement that the “Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake” (440) leave no question as to the target of Pullman’s invective.

Further, though Pullman excels at writing deep, multifaceted characters such as Mrs. Coulter, whom readers alternately love or hate depending on which chapter they’re reading, Pullman’s depiction of the Church in Lyra’s world is decidedly uniform, for “every church is the same” (1997: 50), despite Mary Malone’s estimation that “people are too complicated to have simple labels” (2000: 447). Mrs. Coulter’s description of them as “a body of men with a feverish obsession with sexuality” (326) coupled with her earlier estimation that “Killing is not difficult for them…” (205) encompasses the caricature Pullman paints of the religious authority in Lyra’s world.

It would seem to me that Philip Pullman, despite all his protesting, has created a tale which not only draws upon traditional elements of fantasy, which serves to dispense his own opinion concerning religion, but refuses to acknowledge that the books do so. In short, Pullman is a writer of fantasy which serves both as entertainment as well as outspoken propaganda, but refuses to accept these labels. Like the human of Lyra’s world whose dæmon settles in a shape they don’t want, Pullman should perhaps heed the words of the able seaman; “…till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it” (1995:147).

Works Cited

Donelson, Ken, and Crowe, Chris. Rev. of The Amber Spyglass/The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife, by Phillip Pullman. English Journal Nov. 2001: 118.

Ezard, John. “Narnia books attacked as racist and sexist.” Guardian Unlimited. 3 Jun. 2002: 28 Mar. 2006.

McSporran, Cathy. “The Kingdom of God, the Republic of Heave: Depictions of God in CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.” eSharp: Electronic Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Review for Postgraduates. 1 2003: 28 Mar. 2006 <>.

Pullman, Phillip. Interview with Dave Weich. “Philip Pullman Reaches the Garden.” 2000. 28 Mar. 2006 <>.

---, Interview with Huw Spanner. “Heat and Dust.” Third Way: The modern world through Christian eyes. 2002. 28 Mar. 2006 <>.

---, Interview. “About the Writing” 2006. 28 Mar. 2006 <>

---, The Amber Spyglass. New York: Random House, 2000.

---, The Subtle Knife. New York: Random House, 1997.

---, The Golden Compass. New York: Random House, 1995.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and leaf; Smith of Wootton Major; The homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s son. London: Unwin Books, 1975.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Movies I Want to See in '07

I'm not doing a 'predicted list' anymore. It's impossible for me to assess movies that currently have no trailers or press information, and I find that new and excellent films arrive in the fall that I had no idea about. So this year, I'm doing a "top 10 movies I'm anticipating". These are the ones that are making me drool...I can't wait to see them, that sort of thing. So, without any further adieu, here are a few of the films of 2007 I simply can't wait to see!

300 - Coolest trailer since any of the previews for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Honestly, I haven't been this stoked about a movie based on its trailer alone in a long time. I've not read the graphic novel, but Christmas is coming...I'm also growing to be a big fan of Gerard Butler, and the highly stylized digital environments just blows me away. Plus, now that I've shorn my locks, I want my sword and sandal epics to feature men with short hair!
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - I'm sick of hearing all the whining about how bad the cinematic adaptations are and how "they missed this" or "they cut out that". I like these movies because there's still a kid living inside my head. It's the one who thought Clash of the Titans, Flash Gordon and Sword and the Sorcerer was the shit. So take your literary priggery and go bitch at some geek forum if you didn't like the Potter films. I do. And so does my wife. And as soon as Gunnar is able to comprehend Quidditch, we're signing him up for the local community league.
His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass - As a Christian, I'm probably supposed to be working on my signs to picket this film. But considering I've got Harry Potter on this list, I'm probably already headed for the third or fourth ring of hell. While I'm clear that Phillip Pullman is an anti-Christian atheist, I am fond of pointing out that none of his characters really are. And his secondary world is decidedly Gnostic in its mythic flavor, so I don't really feel that the text is nearly as antagonistic toward my faith as its writer is. Truth be told, I think "His Dark Materials" makes for some excellent reading for Christians. Let's hope it makes for good watching too.
Beowulf - it's one of my favorite stories, and after all the adaptations I've had to endure where Beowulf is either surly and conflicted (Beowulf and Grendel), fifth business (13th Warrior), or the monster is really just a sub-human (see both of the aforementioned), I'm glad someone is finally doing a piece where Beowulf gets to be a hero, Grendel gets to be evil, and there's promise of a dragon in the mix. The cast of voice actors looks pretty choice, with such tidbits as Angelina Jolie playing Grendel's mother.
I Am Legend - The director is the man who was behind Constantine...which I really enjoyted. As well, the film is based upon one of my favorite books(of the same name) of all I'm pretty confident I'm going to love it. For those who have never tasted the delights of a Richard Matheson novel (I recommend this, as well as Hell House), it's about the last man alive after a plague turns the rest of earth's population into vampiric zombies.
Stardust - I've never read the Neil Gaiman novel this film is based upon, but I've read a number of his other works, and love his writing, so I'm banking on this high fantasy work to add something very interesting to the year's films.
Transformers - It's gonna kick butt. Robots that change into cars and helicopters. There's a grade 5 kid still running around in my head ya know.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Magik Beans

Thanks to everyone who has enjoyed the Chronicles of the Magi here at the Gotthammer blog. I had a blast writing it, and while I originally had this idea of a pitched battle between Herod's men and the magi, it really felt like I'd ended with that last post. Anything more feels like I'd be tacking something on. And really, epiphany was yesterday, so Christmas is officially over.

And I've been dying to get this new endeavor off the ground for about two years now. It was originally supposed to be a webcomic, but I type faster than I draw, given that each one is supposed to be worth a 1000 words. I average that in a 30 minute space. I'm not sure I could draw certain things in the same amount of time.

So, until I have nothing but time on my hands, the daily writing exercise Magik Beans. Check it out and bookmark it. It's gonna kick ass.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Chronicles of the Magi: Part 9

The remainder of the swift race to the town of Bethlehem was a blur to Gushnasaph. He could not shake the images that continued to run through his imagination of the being of fire and light which had shattered the line of Uttuki blocking their way to bring warning to the new King. The thing had been, in many ways like the ball of fire and light which had smashed into Larvendad's tower so many months ago. It seemed like an eternity, since they had begun this journey.

When they had left Babylon, he had been eager for the leaving. He had been born the son of nobility, in a land where nobility no longer mattered, a people of an empire now forgotten. The Parthian empire stood against the advance of Rome, yes, but it did not itself advance into Rome's empire either. Persia and Babylon's days of glory were a thing of the past. While he had owned fine horses and slept in luxurious tents beside beautiful, lithe concubines, while he commanded a small regiment of his own personal guard, Gushnasaph had always been all too aware of what a sham it all was. Like the Parthian empire, he only maintained--he did not advance. The desire to journey somewhere, to step out into the unknown and change the world in some ways had burned in his heart, like the sacred fire of Zoarastrianism. Fire changed things. It consumed, heated, flickered, roared and raged. If a fire smoldered...

Now, he felt the fire that had driven him to this quest smolder. He saw his whole life trailing out behind him, and wondered what it would mean if this child was indeed not simply a king, but the king of heaven. What would it change? Already he was a man without a country, a nomad amongst nomads. Where would they go once they had finished this work? As the Uttuki had stated, the magic was changing. Would Hormoz still be able to read the skies? Would Larvendad's unnaturally long life finally come to an end? Would he be able to command the elements? He had drawn his sword against the Uttuki because of how much it had drained him to pull the fire down upon the guards in Jerusalem. He had not the magic left to deal with the demons. Once upon a time, it had been child's play to fly upon magic carpets, to contain djinn within lamps, to walk upon water. Was that magic gone from the world now?

As they neared the town of Bethlehem, dirty and bedraggled, the moon was high in the sky. Larvendad reined in his mount and turned to his companions.

"I wish you could see as I do," he said in awe, the fire and light burning in his eyes brighter than it ever had before. "And now I understand why it was all changing. I understand why there was a trail of light leading us to this place...from any direction. If we had come from the west, I'd have seen it. If we had come from the south, it would have guided us from there too. It is why we could approach from the north. It is, furthermore why I became confused about the location the nearer we came here."

"What do you see?" Hormoz asked.

"Great bands of light and fire coming from all over the earth," Larvendad replied. "to this one place. It is the magic. It is being compelled to return to its source. All these years I thought we were it's masters. But now I see how wrong we were."

They rode into the tiny, sleeping village, following Larvendad who followed the streams of magic as they coallesced upon a house. A plain, simple home. It seemed no different from the others, aside from the noise coming from within.

A baby's healthy, noisy cry in the night.

The three magi dismounted and approached the house. Larvendad walked to the door and knocked, soundly three times.

The baby ceased its crying. The door opened, and a man of Hormoz' age peered into the night. He held a small oil lamp in one hand. Behind him, in the shadows of the house, a woman could be seen holding a small baby to her. The baby was staring out at them as well.

"We are...Magi," Larvendad said, having nothing else to say. "We have come from the east, seeking a king. We saw a sign in the heavens that told of his coming...and we were lead here, to this home."

"Come in," the man said, stepping back from the doorway.

Gushnasaph wondered at the man's faith. How could he know it was safe to allow them in? He'd have thought someone mad who came to his door in the middle of the night to tell him of signs in the sky about kings...this was not a palace. It was a labourer's house-the tools of his trade in the front rooms.

But when he gazed into the child's eyes, he knew why. The baby smiled at them all...not in the beatific way he would be painted in years to come. With the simple smile of a child, delighting in the arrival of new visitors.

And there was something else behind that gaze, behind the smile. Hormoz gasped when he saw the child, and Gushnasaph knew his companion was catching a far sighted glimpse of the boy's future. Larvendad looked upon the child with eyes of fire, and then his sight dimmed. He went to one knee immediately.

Gushnasaph had never seen his mentor bow. Not once, ever. Never before the council of the Magi. Not before King Herod. And here, in this humble house, before this child of no remarkable signs, he bowed.

And then Hormoz did as well.

Gushnasaph was stunned. In a daze, he approached the child, who held out a chubby hand to him. Gushnasaph raised his hand, and the babe squeezed one of his fingers and laughed. In that moment, Gushnasaph was given a vision of the depths of time, and of the point at which all history would forever rest upon, a moment of sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness, of love so powerful that no darkness could stand against it, let alone begin to comprehend it. All the knowledge of the Magi was dwarfed by it. No wonder Larvendad had gone to his knees.

Gushnasaph wept. Everything was changed. Nothing would ever be the same.

Blood magic indeed.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Chronicles of the Magi: Part 8

In years to come, the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem will be rendered in such a way as to imply that they came upon camels in a manner normally attributed to kings. An entourage of servants accompanying them, the star shining serenely in the sky. The Magi themselves are depicted as composed, resplendent in a fine array of silk garments and bejewelled turbans.

The truth of the matter is that the three men arrived in Bethlehem without their caravan, on wild eyed steeds in a lather of sweat and dust. Their servants had met them upon the road and provided the horses; part way to Bethlehem the group had split into four companies, hoping to throw off Herod's pursuit, to buy a little time before the mad king could accomplish his revenge.

But Angra Mainyu had other servants at his disposal.

The road between Jerusalem and Bethehem is not a long one; only 10 kilometers separate them. By horse at a full gallop, the distance could be covered in under an hour. Provided there are no delays.

As the trio road up the hill that lead out of Jerusalem and onto the Bethlehem road, Larvendad sent his thoughts to his younger companions.

We are not alone. Already Angra Mainyu seeks other means to impede our swift progress.

Hormoz glanced to the side, calling upon the light of the stars to aid his sight. He heard Gushnasap utter a curse. Uttuki...demons, running parallel to them in rapid strides. They held a form somewhere between predatory cat and reptile. Their speed made it difficult to follow their path--moving erratically in staccato fits and jumps.

The dread beings moved ahead of the three Magi, and began fanning out to cut their prey off. Hormoz could see them put on a burst of speed, blurring into the distance, only to reappear in a dark line on the horizon, waiting patiently. This was the only route to the baby king. If the Magi were to find him, they would have to run this gauntlet.

The three Magi reined in their horses and faced their enemy.

"We are the Flashes of Lightning," one of the Uttuki uttered, forcing its inhuman physiology around the human sounds in ugly croaks and snarls. "You go no further, old man."

"We'll see about that," Larvendad replied. "I've fought worse than you and am here to tell the tale."

"You were younger then," the Uttuki said. "And your magic was stronger. The world is changing with the coming of this boy-child. With his coming, your power wanes."

Blood magic, Larvendad sent to his companions. We've seen this; the sacrifice becomes the most powerful of all spells.

"So be it," Gushnasaph whispered under his breath, and drew his sword.

"No!" Larvendad commanded. "You think that sort of power is needed for the likes of these? Our power may be fading, but if this King is who the Jews think he is...then the power of Angra Mainyu is at an end."

The old man turned to the demons.

"We serve the Light!" he shouted to the dark forms. "We are upon an errand for Ahura Mazda, or perhaps the God whom he serves, or is merely a shadow of. What is certain is that you will not bar our path."

"And what will you do to remove us from your way?" the Uttuki barked.

"Nothing," Larvendad replied. "I have lived a long enough life. If the Lord of the Sacred Fire declares my days at an end by your doing, then I am resigned to this, as our my companions. But we have not come all this way to be stopped by errand runners for He Who Cowers in Darkness."

Larvendad spurred his horse forward at a slow walk, resolute in his demeanour. After a moment, Hormoz and Gushnasaph followed their teacher's example. The horses began to panic as they neared the Uttuki. Gushnasaph felt beads of sweat running down his back...he had never been so close to this many demons before. He could smell their rank breath, and in the moonlight their glistening scales and needle-like teeth were all too apparent.

And then the sky erupted in a torrent of light, blue coruscating arcs running around what the young Magus would swear had been a winged figure...multiple wings, and heads shifting and changing, now an eagle, now a bull, then that of a man, then perhaps a ram...powerful, muscled limbs that he could only assume had been arms, for they carried a sword. And while he had felt a twinge of fear at the demons' pursuit, the emotion that surged through him at the sight of...whatever it had been was a pure fear, a terror indescribably, holy and undefiled by any sense of courage or superiority. Whatever had tore into the Uttuki's ranks had been something sublime, beyond his comprehension.

And what haunted him to the end of his days, was that he was sure that he had only seen the least of the Light's servants.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Fave reads in 2006

I read a lot of books this past year. Many of them were textbooks, but being in Comparative Literature means that many of your textbooks are just really damn fine works of writing, that you find yourself loving to read. Some you can't put down. That said, some of them are just plain old textbooks on subjects like literary theory or narratology and so you read other things to remind yourself why you love literature. Here's a list of both the best texts and the best mind-numbing and mind blowing books I read in 2006, in no particular order.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson: I read it first for my Science Fiction class back in the winter semester of 06 through a mix of audiobook and hard copy. It's hip, it's cool and it has the prestige of the best opening I've ever read, hands down. Thouroughly enjoyable, both as a religious studies and comparative literature student.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Jesus' childhood Friend by Christopher Moore: I don't laugh out loud at books very often. Terry Pratchett is about the only writer who really gets me laughing, but Christopher Moore had me lol'ing many times throughout this irreverently reverent take on the life of Christ. Being a book that could win the award for most inside jokes only a seminary student will get doesn't hurt either.

It's Superman!: A Novel by Tom DeHaven: If I ever get to teach a course on pop culture or pulp fiction, this excellent revisionist look at the origins of the Man of Steel will be on the required reading list. Unlike most comic-book novels, which are usually just comic books without the pictures, Tom DeHaven achieves a beautiful sense of verisimilitude about a beloved cultural icon. There are winks to the die-hard fans, but this book is utterly accessible to readers who love good writing.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney: This translation is to Beowulf what Eugene Peterson's The Message was to the Bible. It brings the story to life in a way that engages readers--I've both read it and listened to it read by the author and enjoyed both. With phrases like "the hero stood, resolute in his helmet", what's there not to like?

Bone: One Volume Edition by Jeff Smith: I was first introduced to Jeff Smith's wonderful black and white comic fantasy by the free giveaway of a Christmas special, so it was appropriate that I finished reading the entire collected work around Christmas this year (it was a Christmas present from last year!). Think Walt Kelley's Pogo meets J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and you have an approximation of what this wonderful, funny and epic work is like. Anything else would spoil all the wonderful surprises.

300 by Frank Miller: The graphic novel the upcoming movie is based on. 300 Spartan warriors vs. the Persian army. If the movie is half as good as the graphic novel, it's going to be awesome. 'Nuff said.

Chronicles of the Magi: Part 7

The first blast of the shofar sounded over Jerusalem, a long drawn out breathy moan that echoed throughout the city followed by three shorter blasts, like the sound of groaning. Nine times more the shofar wept, this time in quicker, short blasts which made Gushnasaph think of someone sobbing.

"Not the happiest new year's celebration I've ever been witness to," he said to Larvendad as they stood in the shadows of an alleyway.

"It it a ram's horn, like the one their patriarch Abraham found in a thicket to replace his son Isaac on the altar of sacrifice in their scriptures," Larvendad said. "The Hebrew new year's celebration is about repentance. It is not only the new year, but the anniversary of the first man, Adam's sin."

"What a dreary religion," Gushnasaph remarked. "All blood and moaning near as I can tell."

"On the contrary," Larvendad said, stepping from their hiding place to join a throng of revelers.

"Leshanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim!" one of the men said to Larvendad, who replied in kind.

"What did you say to him?" Hormoz asked, stepping from the alleyway as well to watch the throng move further down the street.

"May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year," Larvendad replied. He ate the piece of apple dipped in honey one of the men had handed him. "A blessing for a sweet year."

"I hope sweetness includes us getting past the gate without being noticed," Gushnasaph said.

"That is why we waited for the beginning of this celebration," Larvendad replied. "There are many people coming in and out of all the gates today. And Herod still thinks we're in his archives studying. So long as one only enters and sees, but does not touch the illusion I conjured of us studying his scrolls, we won't have to worry about the gates at all."

They moved along the streets, heading for the southern gate to the road leading to Bethlehem. Along the way, Larvendad spotted what he'd been hoping for; a Jewish family heading out of the city, on their way to visit family for the upcoming feast of Yom Kippur, still ten days away. A small suggestive mental nudge from Hormoz within the minds of the family, and they were treated as long lost relatives.

The opening they were to pass through was called the Zion gate, a rectangular passage beneath the imposing stone walls of Jerusalem. Upon the walls, Roman guards nonchalantly walked; none of them terribly vigilant--an assignment to this armpit of the empire was not a promotion or an honor. It was not Rome's elite who policed Israel. The three Magi could only hope that no message had been sent from the palace.

As they neared the Zion gate, Gushnasaph saw them; twelve of Herod's temple guards cutting down the adjacent street towards them. The leader pointed and barked orders.

"We've been found out!" the young magi shouted to his companions.

"They're coming from all sides!" Hormoz shouted.

Gushnasaph picked up the young boy who stood between him and the oncoming guards and handed him to his father.

You need to get your family out the gate as swiftly as you can, he mentally commanded the man, who immediately took the boy and shouted to his family to get through the gate.

Gushnasaph returned his attention to the oncoming group of soldiers, and adopted the same defensive stance Larvendad and Hormoz already stood ready in. The soldiers were all wearing helmets, so the possibility of a mental suggestion was out of the question. It would have to be something elemental then.

Larvendad struck first, just before the group from the east street reached them. It was as if a great stone fist grew out of the wall of Jerusalem, and pounded the earth where the attacking soldiers had once stood. To the west, Hormoz, unable to command stone, called upon the element of air to lift his assailiants clear off the ground, hurling them hundreds of feet into the air and letting them drop to a messy death. Gushnasaph pulled the flames from the torches of the northern group and increased them into a great pillar of fire that rushed forth from his extended arms to engulf the remaining attackers.

Larvendad looked up to the walls to the Roman guards, who looked down in a mix of horror and unresolved duty, then at the ones who currently blocked the Magi's exit through the Zion gate.

"Your fate can be the same," Larvendad's voice boomed at an unnatural volume, "or we can be on our way." The inner flame that had guided them blazed in his eyes.

Moments later, the three men were on their way out the gates of Jerusalem, headed into the darkness toward Bethlehem.