Monthly Archives: March 2014

On Mermaids, Hobbits, Dwarves, and Trolls

J  R  R Tolkien

JRR Tolkien, from wikipedia.org

Today is Tolkien Reading Day, so I’m going to talk a bit about The Hobbit, which is much more–and much less–than it appears to be. Obviously it’s Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain to defeat Smaug the dragon—he goes, as the subtitle tells us, both there and back again—but on the way he finds himself, or rather, a version of himself he never knew existed: a courageous little hobbit who gambles with a fortune he really has no claim to, and he manages to survive it all. He grows in several ways, so in The Hobbit, we see the development of a hero. But there are a few things in the novel that I find frustrating, and one in particular, so forgive me if I take the opportunity to get this off my chest.

I’m going to begin by referring, as Barbara Bush did in her extremely successful commencement speech at Wellesley in 1990, to a now famous story from Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You’ve probably heard it before: Fulghum is leading a group of children who are playing the game “Giants, Wizards, or Dwarfs” – a life-size version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The children are instructed to choose what they will be in the game and then go stand with their peers. As they make their choices, a little girl walks up to Fulghum, taps him on the elbow, and asks, “Where do the Mermaids stand?” When Fulghum informs the girl that there are no Mermaids in the game, she surprises him by replying, “Oh yes, there are. I am one!”

220px-Waterhouse_a_mermaid

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse, 1901 From wikipedia.org

Both Fulghum, and later Bush, use this story to celebrate the independence and creativity of a little girl who refuses to be categorized, who thinks outside of the box, even though any teacher could tell you that this girl, charming as she is in the story, will probably cause quite a few headaches for those around her as she grows older. But what Fulghum’s and Bush’s story both seem to miss is that among Giants, Wizards, and Dwarves, there are no female roles. I mean, what’s a girl to do when faced with a game like this, after all? Mermaids do seem like the only option.

I bring this up because we have pretty much the same problem in The Hobbit. I’ve read it many times now, and yet I know a lot of people who have never read the book, or who have started it and never made it through. I’m beginning to think I know why: at least one reason may be because there aren’t any women in the book. None. Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna Took, is mentioned within the first few pages of the novel, but only as a conduit for some adventurous Tookish blood to make it into her son’s prosaic make-up.

So, in the absence of women, what do we do, those of us who are women readers? In other words, if this is a world where there are only hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards, and none of them are women, then where in Middle Earth are we supposed to stand? Given this problem, it’s kind of surprising that any women read the novel at all. The really remarkable thing about The Hobbit, then, isn’t how many people haven’t read it, but how many people have.

I wanted to explore this lack of female representation, coming from my frustrating foray into Western films last week. To begin with, I think I can tell you where Tolkien’s lack of women characters originates—it’s pretty easy to see, and it isn’t from Tolkien’s personal life. The fact is, Tolkien was really an anachronism, writing in 1937. By this I mean that he may have been writing a children’s story, but he was borrowing heavily from his area of professional expertise: Old English literature. In The Hobbit, we see a riddle game (The Exeter Book, written in Old English, contains close to 100 riddles, and Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo Saxon, would have known these intimately). We also see elements that are clearly borrowed from Tolkien’s great, lifelong, passion: Beowulf; in fact, as you can read here, Tolkien’s 1926 translation of Beowulf is set to be published for the first time in a couple of months. Like The Hobbit, Beowulf has a dragon, a thief who provokes the dragon, several monsters to kill, and very few women. Beowulf doesn’t concern itself with women; they come into the story, more frequently than in The Hobbit, but they don’t really achieve much, and they don’t stay long. For the most part, it seems women just weren’t considered worth writing about in Old English.

Another way of looking at it is to say that it’s not that women are excluded from The Hobbit: it’s just that they’re not represented. There’s a subtle difference here, actually. The default gender in The Hobbit is male; Tolkien is not interested in the relationship between the sexes, because this story is for children, and sex—as we all know—is not for children. (Or is it? Tell that to Disney, which thrives on marketing sex for children—a mostly sanitized version of sex, but sex nonetheless). Tolkien was clearly looking for a purer form of escape than Disney ever did, however, and he purged his created world of sex in the crudest way possible: by eliminating women from the story completely.

So, to sum up my point so far, in this children’s story that repudiates gender relationships (goodness knows Tolkien has all he can handle negotiating the relationships between the elves, dwarves, men, and goblins in The Hobbit), we have virtually no female characters. But is this really a problem for female readers? Strangely enough, I’d say not really: it might be a problem for very young female readers, but for the most part, women learn pretty quickly in their reading experience not to expect books that highlight the female point of view. For every Jane Eyre, there are five David Copperfields. True, these days young adult literature is changing and there are so many more books written from the point of view of girls—but this is a recent development. Back when I went to school we had to read A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies—and neither book has any active female characters. It’s no wonder I wasn’t crazy about my high school English classes.

Thankfully, children’s literature has changed, but The Hobbit hasn’t. It persists in the intentionally gender-free (that is, male) world Tolkien created, and its female readers have to do a great deal of work to identify with the characters in the story. We’re probably not even aware that we are doing this work, either. Like many other things we do, it comes naturally to us now—this ideological cross-dressing we do so well in so many parts of our lives. When we read, women often think like men, not because we want to, but because we have to in order to enter the text.

Hobbit_cover

Image from wikipedia.org

This may sound like a criticism of Tolkien, and perhaps it is, but I think there is good to be gained from reading The Hobbit. First, readers need to notice what isn’t in a text as well as what is in it. If we want to gain from our reading practice and return to our world richer from the experience of reading—which is the only justifiable excuse for reading as much as I do, then we need to see what’s been left out of a story to make it work. (This is basic deconstruction, left over from the 1980s, but it still holds true today.) Second, noting the lack of women in The Hobbit shows us just how powerful a reader’s mind is, in that woman have been able to read, study, and enjoy the book for over 80 years now despite the fact that we’re not represented in it. Third, it’s possible that women readers appreciate The Hobbit precisely because there are no women in the story, as a form of fantasy escape—especially if you have a household full of teenage daughters.

Mostly, though, I want to point out that Tolkien, for all his talent and imagination, went just so far and no further in his creative work. Unwilling to deal with gender issues in his story, he simply avoided them by omitting women completely. Can we say that his friend C.S. Lewis did any better? Not in his space trilogy, and many readers would argue he did even worse in The Chronicles of Narnia (the problem of Susan). But late in life, Lewis engendered a world that turns on a woman’s perspective in a book that should satisfy the demands of any long-neglected female reader: Till We Have Faces, told from the point of view of a woman. It makes me wish that Tolkien and Lewis hadn’t drifted apart, because I’m convinced that Tolkien could have learned a thing or two from his friend Jack if he’d only been willing to listen to him.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Literary theory, Literature, Reading, Writing

My War with Westerns

If you’ve read this blog for a while, or just snooped around a bit, you will remember that one of my earliest posts was on movies that I couldn’t finish, which is available here. But recently I’ve found another film to add to the list, and perhaps an entire genre as well.

The film in question is 3:10 to Yuma. I actually walked away from the television about halfway through the film, bored with and tired of what seemed to be a predictable plot with lots of violence to keep it moving. But I’m not sure the film itself is to blame. Maybe it’s actually a good film of its kind; maybe I just don’t like Westerns. When I talk about genre in my classes, I always point out that genres, like clothes,  are subject to fashion trends through the years. For example, remember leisure suits from the 1970s?

leisurebirth

From the website Plaid Stallions: Reliving the 70s a Catalogue Page at a Time

Truly awful, right? Consider literary (or film) genres as if they were clothing, and you’ll see what I mean about trending fashions in genres. If 1970s was the decade of horrors like the leisure suit in terms of clothes, the 1590s were the decade of the sonnet in England. Everyone who was anyone was writing them–kind of like children’s books in the last decade or zombie/vampire/supernatural stories today.

What does this have to do with Westerns? While I’m not an expert on film or on Westerns, it seems safe to say that the heyday of the western film was the 1950s and 1960s, spilling over to television in those years as well, with shows such as Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The High Chapparel, and of course Bonanza. Doing any Western film today kind of seems like revisiting an older art form, but in this case, it really is a remake: 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 version of the film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, a version I haven’t seen, but which I strongly suspect I would not like either.

Why? The answer is simple: I’m a woman, and the Western is a man’s genre.

I realize that is a loaded statement to make today, in an era of gender liberation, an era of liberation from gender itself. But let me point out why I left the couch last Saturday night to go play my guitar when confronted with another 45 minutes of watching a film I couldn’t connect with. It wasn’t the violence, or the cynicism, or even the sexist attitudes of the characters: these are things that I can understand and accept, given the plot and setting. Rather, it’s the fact that there are no women in the movie for me to identify with. In other words, while watching 3:10 to Yuma, I was left with the  choice of identifying with either  the prostitute or the faithful wife, neither of whom get a lot of time on screen–unless I wanted to do some cross-gender fantasizing, which is fine when it isn’t forced down your throat.

It kind of makes me want to slap the director. “Really?” I want to say to him.  “We wait fifty years for a remake of a movie, only to duplicate the sexual stereotypes that probably made it a B-grade movie on the first go-round?” It seems like a monumental waste of time to me. I kept hoping that the boy William, who follows his father off into the sage on his mission to deliver Ben Wade to justice, would turn out to be a girl. I even concocted this whole story about how William’s parents created this switched gender for her in order to protect her from marauders and would-be seducers. In the end, I realized that the story I was making up to get me through the movie was, in fact, far more interesting than the movie itself, which is why I stopped watching it in the middle.

The truth is, I can accept a film that has gender stereotypes when it’s made in the 1950s and 1960s; we don’t quit teaching The Taming of the Shrew just because it’s antifeminist, after all, because we can explain its outlook from a historical perspective. For much of recorded history, women have been given the short end of the stick, so to speak, and it does no good to deny this. In fact, studying such depictions of women might even help us understand other forms of oppression, so I get the idea of tolerance for gender stereotypes in older films. But I expect more from a contemporary film, and I’d love to hear from readers out there if there is, in fact, a Western that does not demand we step into a mental straitjacket when we watch it.

Any takers? Leave your comments below, and I’ll start expanding my Netflix queue.

5 Comments

Filed under Criticism, Films, Historical Fiction

My Life with Ernest (Part I)

About three years ago, after watching Julie and Julia and hearing a friend’s account of The Year of Living Biblically, I decided I was up for what I now call a self-induced pointless project, or SIPP for short. You know what I mean: a SIPP is a personal goal of some sort that isn’t based on getting healthy (like losing weight or training for a marathon), being creative (like writing a screenplay), or acquiring a skill (like learning to play piano). It took me a few weeks to figure out what I would take on as my SIPP, and then it came to me in a rush of insight: I would read all of Ernest Hemingway’s works in a year.

Well, of course, it didn’t pan out that way. Other things got in my way. In about the second month of my SIPP, I got completely sidetracked by running for state legislature (otherwise known as a PEPO–a pointless expression of political optimism), and that took up the better part of a year. (How that happened and what I learned during my campaign will become fodder for another post some day, I’m sure.) But now I find that this old SIPP has come back to me, this time in the form of a WIPP (Work-Induced Pointless Project): next fall, I’ll be teaching a class on Ernest Hemingway, and I need to prepare myself for the task. It’s going to be quite a challenge, since I am a Victorian scholar by training, but it’s got to be easier than campaigning for public office, so I’m totally up for it.

So, from time to time, I’ll be posting random musings about Hemingway here at the Tabard Inn.

Back when I first started, I began my quest by reading Jeffrey Meyer’s biography of the writer: Hemingway: A Life. I like reading biographies, but I find them unbearably sad, with their insistence on the heartache of living from day to day, month after month, year after year, until death ends all. (I am perhaps the only viewer who cried while watching De-Lovely, a largely forgettable bio-pic of Cole Porter. Don’t even get me started on La Vie en Rose.) I’ll gladly read a biography of any literary figure–Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontes–or even of a historical figure, like Elizabeth I. But for me, the Ur-Biography will always be Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography of Dickens, which a friend from graduate school gave me as a gift many years ago. I’m probably dating myself when I write this, but my view is that no one does it better than Johnson, who mixes biographical facts with literary criticism in a thoughtful blend that makes it all look easy.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Meyer is no Edgar Johnson; Hemingway: A Life turned out to be somewhat informative, but mostly confusing. Dates bled into each other as I worked my way through the chapters. Important events, such as the death of Hemingway’s grandchild, were glossed over, mentioned only once in passing and never picked up again. Through Meyer’s thorough but difficult-to-read biography, however, I was able to develop a basic sense of the body of Hemingway’s work and the shape of his life; predictably, it is monumentally depressing. Hemingway apparently peaked at a young age and then simply repeated the same old ideas again and again, hoping to hit pay dirt once more. (On the other hand, I did find it consoling to think that there are good things about never really peaking at all.) To make matters worse, Meyer seems downright antagonistic to his subject much of the time, which both surprised and confused me: why write a biography of a man, spending hours and hours on researching his life, if one isn’t simply ape-shit bananas over him? I could not answer this question, not even after finishing Meyer’s book, all 300-plus pages of it.

And where am I now in my quest? I’m steadily plowing through Hemingway’s short stories. And there are some beauties: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Capital of the World.” Those are memorable stories, ones that stick in your head for days after you’ve read them. I was less impressed by “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which seems too much like self-pitying autobiography. And to be honest, I’m bored by many of the Nick Adams stories, despite the fact that I know they have a huge following. My attitude no doubt owes something to my Brooklyn background. I imagine having a conversation with the young, Nick Adams-era Hemingway, entirely one-sided, in which I tell him, “So, Hem, you went fishing. You caught a trout. Maybe you didn’t. You were mean to some girl. Or she was mean to you. So what? Big deal! Life happens—no need to write a story documenting every detail of your life for some poor schlep of a reader. How would you feel if I made you read a story about my trip to the podiatrist? Or if I made you read about my search for some nice, fresh gefilte fish?” Yet I have to point out that during this excursion into Hemingway country, I’ve discovered a story I never knew, one which has become one of my favorites: “A Canary for One.” This story is an interesting exercise in which a first-person narrator suddenly appears halfway through the story, intruding himself and adding a snappy little ending worthy of Saki (H.H. Munro). Somehow–and I’m not sure how–Hemingway makes that one work well. I find myself wishing Hemingway had written more of these tricky little stories, and fewer of the bullfighting, war-time, or fishing stories.

Stay tuned for more posts on Hemingway and his work as I struggle, as usual, to stay one step ahead of my students.

ernest-hemingway-fishing1

Image from the blog Vintage Culture: http://www.vintageculture.net/ernest-hemingway/

Leave a comment

Filed under Criticism, History, Literary theory, Literature, Publishing, Reading, Writing

Check out my Guest Blog on Interesting Literature

Richard-Dadd-1817-1886

Click here

Leave a comment

Filed under Criticism, History, Literature, Writing

My Life as Queen Margaret

tumblr_maidfgmo1L1racd4ro1_500

Brian Bedford as Richard III; Maggie Smith as Queen Margaret,
Stratford Shakespeare 1977, from Guilded Butterflies http://shakespeareishq.tumblr.com/post/31742477738/brian-bedford-as-richard-iii-and-maggie-smith-as

A couple of weeks ago, my Shakespeare class read Richard III. Since the last Plantagenet monarch’s remains were found just about a year ago, it seemed only fitting to delve into the play that has since become known as a Tudor spin job. The play is just as I remembered it, only perhaps a little worse–definitely not Shakespeare’s best. There’s no deep insight into human nature, no acute depictions of suffering (although the scene in which Queen Elizabeth speaks to the walls of the Tower, begging them to protect her sons, is pretty good). True, the Duke of Clarence is quite a cool guy, but he gets drowned, famously, in a butt of Malmsey wine, which makes for an interesting demise but unfortunately occurs offstage.

To be blunt, Richard III is an uninteresting story of unmotivated evil versus unwitting–indeed, absolutely clueless–good, which only wins out in the end because it has to in order to be historically accurate. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that it’s a dog of a play. Still, I do have a favorite character in Richard III, although it’s occurred to me that I may be the only person who actually likes Queen Margaret.

Queen Margaret is a character who really has no business being in the play at all: she is the wife of the previous king, a ruler who, before the action of the play starts, had already been deposed and killed, along with their son. By all rights, this woman–the remnant of the previous regime– should be under lock and key, if not in a tomb herself. So why is she  free to wander around the court, cursing people at will, popping on stage at various moments to call forth doom and destruction on pretty much everyone? There’s really not a good explanation for her presence in the play, and that intrigues me, although you can read a very good undergraduate analysis of her function here.

Actually, I like Queen M out of sheer perversity: I  love the fact that she’s a cranky old anachronism. In fact, I’ve noticed that my 20-year-old cat is very much like Queen Margaret. Most of the  time, Blackie is quiet, sleeping in the warmest spot she can find. But every so often, she slinks around the house, howling at the top of her feline lungs, just as Margaret stomps across the stage, hurling curses. Perhaps in creating Queen Margaret, Shakespeare was making a comment about the impunity of old age. After all, survival against the odds, whether calculated in terms of regime change or just in extensive years of a cat’s life, endows one with a certain freedom of speech that exists solely to make other people uncomfortable.

Blackie

Blackie, aka Queen Margaret

Sometimes, I feel like Queen Margaret myself. There are days that I wander around, making outrageously pessimistic comments that few people listen to. “Climate change is going to destroy civilization as we know it,” I announce, and no one bats an eye. Or, on a more personal note, “Don’t worry about your student loans–global economic meltdown will occur in the next ten years. You’ll never have to pay them back!” People just stare at me, then make the obvious choice to ignore me, and life goes on.

So, let me pay tribute here to the Queen Margarets out there, those of us who go about cursing, muttering, hollering, and generally making pests of ourselves. The world needs our nasty, incisive comments from time to time, even if it takes no note of them. After all, without Queen Margaret, Richard III would be just another play about a dead king–and heaven knows we have enough of those.

4 Comments

Filed under Criticism, Historical Fiction, Literature, Reading