Lost Heirs and Clever Peasants

(Note: minor spoiler ahead for Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Our story-telling traditions often make a big deal out of family and descent. Part of the classic Campbellian Hero’s Journey is the son’s need to measure himself against his father. A Real Princess™ can tell when there’s a pea under a dozen mattresses, or needs a Real Prince™ to wake her up (apparently princesses do a lot of napping). Modern stories often reinforce the importance of true family lines in similar ways, whether they’re directly invoking the mythic tradition (like Star Wars) or just because family is still an important part of the drama of our lives ( like Harry Potter).

The idea that family lines determine our characters’ stories, abilities, and ambitions is such a big part of our narrative legacy that it can seem like a primordial principle of storytelling, but in fact these kinds of stories arise from specific cultural contexts. These contexts have to do with the assertion of class.

Small-scale societies historically tended to be egalitarian. When a culture contained only a few hundred people, everyone knew one another personally, resources were freely shared, and there was no real differentiation between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. As societies got larger, up into the range a few thousand people or more, social distinctions tended to emerge because people were no longer held together primarily by personal and family relationships. In societies of this scale, some families acquired more resources and more influence than others. Over time, these differences hardened into class distinctions, with prosperous families asserting their own superiority over the less fortunate. An aristocratic class with a sense of its own importance took shape.

A rising aristocracy, however, often struggled against the older traditions of egalitarianism and mutual support. To maintain their position, aristocrats had to create and disseminate a new ideology which justified their status. In many societies all over the world, this ideology was framed by stories about heroic ancestors and special powers passed down through family lines. If you weren’t part of the family line, you didn’t inherit the special powers, and therefore you didn’t deserve to be rich or powerful like them.

Many of the ancient stories that have been passed down and become part of our common narrative tradition were stories originally told by and for aristocrats and would-be aristocrats clawing their way into positions of privilege. When ancient Greek bards recited the tales of Achilles, Odysseus, Helen, and Penelope, they weren’t just telling stories to entertain the masses. Bards and singers depended for their livelihoods on the support of aristocratic patrons, and the stories they told were propaganda for the people who paid the bills. Greek aristocrats claimed to be actual descendants of the heroes of the Trojan War and other myths. The Homeric epics are quite clear that no one from outside the family line deserves to get anywhere near the heroes’ wealth and power.

On the other hand, our story-telling traditions also include narratives that are democratic (or at least anti-aristocratic). Some of these take the form of “clever peasant” tales in which someone from an unimportant background gets the better of the rich and powerful through luck, audacity, and wits. These tales often set up the aristocrats as buffoons who are humiliated in the end and forced to acknowledge the individual merits of people with no family claim to riches or power. Stories of this type are common in folk traditions, including English Jack tales and their analogues in other cultures.

Another type of story combines elements of both, often revolving around a lost heir or disguised royal. In these stories, the hero at first appears to be an ordinary person whose individual initiative and skill earn them acclaim and awards, but they turn out in the end to be the misplaced scion of an important family. Sometimes these lost heirs know their own identity and are in hiding; other times they are themselves unaware until their true identity is revealed. King Arthur, in some versions of the Arthurian mythos, fits this pattern: having been raised in obscurity, he comes into his true heritage when he proves his special powers by pulling the sword from the stone. Robin Hood—again, in some versions—represents a different take on the same pattern: by rights a nobleman, he hides his true identity and fights for the common people. This tradition represents a degree of compromise between the aristocratic and anti-aristocratic narratives. The hero acquires something of the common touch and has to get by on individual merits, but the aristocratic claims to a unique status remains unchallenged.

When modern stories draw on these older traditions, they don’t always think about the implications of them. Star Wars, for example, has always awkwardly balanced the democratic ideals of the Republic, Rebellion, and Resistance with the mythic focus on the Skywalker bloodline. This is why I am so happy that The Last Jedi decided that Rey is not part of the Skywalker family or descended from Obi-Wan Kenobi or any other established Jedi but just the cast-off child of drunken scavengers from nowhere. (Assuming, of course, that Kylo Ren is telling the truth or even knows it to begin with, which is not a trivial assumption, but I’m going with it until we hear otherwise from a canonical source.)

Star Wars has always been told in the mode of myth, but myths don’t come out of nowhere and they aren’t just stories. Myths are stories that mean something. If Star Wars is going be meaningful in the world we live in today, it’s time to democratize the Force. We need more clever peasants these days, not more lost heirs.

Image: Arthur pulling the sword from the stone from An Island Story by Henrietta E. Marshall, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1906, via Wikimedia

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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Quotes: One Should Not Seek Ugliness in This World

“One should not seek ugliness in this world. There is no lack of it. You will find it soon enough, or it will find you.”

– Sigrud je Harkvaldsson in City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

Although my life has been very different from that of a Dreyling operative and assassin, I agree. (For instance, I’ve never understood the appeal of vampire or horror genres, but to each their own.)

Bennett, Robert Jackson. City of Miracles. New York: Broadway Books, 2017, p. 177.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 2

We’re continuing to rewatch and rate Doctor Who (new series) with season 2. Here’s how the season looks to us:

  1. “The Christmas Invasion” – 6
  2. “New Earth” – 3.5
  3. “Tooth and Claw” – 9
  4. “School Reunion” – 5
  5. “The Girl in the Fireplace” – 9
  6. “Rise of the Cybermen” – 4
  7. “The Age of Steel” – 4
  8. “The Idiot’s Lantern” – 5
  9. “The Impossible Planet” – 8
  10. “The Satan Pit” – 7
  11. “Love and Monsters” – 4
  12. “Fear Her” – 5
  13. “Army of Ghosts” – 2.5
  14. “Doomsday” – 2

Season 2 carries on much in the same spirit as season 1, with a mix of highs and lows, and ends up with the same average rating, 5.3. David Tennant slides easily into his role as the tenth Doctor, although we found Rose started to wear thin as a companion in this season and by the end of it we weren’t sorry to see the back of her. (In fact, by the end of the season, we were much more excited to see her erstwhile boyfriend Mickey return than to see any more of Rose.)

The low point of the season comes at the very end, with “Doomsday”—the conclusion to a two-part finale in which Cybermen and Daleks fight in the skies over London—coming it at only a 2. Many things dragged this episode down, including the ham-fisted introduction of Torchwood, which had been teased all season long. Worse, coming after some of the well-crafted storytelling in previous episodes, this one chucks out any attempt at story development or narrative logic in favor of Daleks and Cybermen trash talking each other.

By contrast, the best episodes of the season, “Tooth and Claw” and “The Girl in the Fireplace,” both at 9, show off how effective the slow unfolding of complex stories can be. “Tooth and Claw” has Queen Victoria menaced by an alien werewolf in the Scottish highlands while “The Girl in the Fireplace” has Madame de Pompadour menaced by clockwork robots from the future. Although both these episodes involve historical women in danger, neither is a “damsel in distress” story, as both Victoria and Madame de Pompadour get to play active roles in their stories. These episodes also share a pattern of multi-layered plots in which things that seem bizarre and inexplicable at first gradually become clear as pieces of the story fall into place one after another.

We know there are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and some of you probably feel quite different about this season and its episodes. We’d love to hear your take. Let us know which episodes of season 2 worked for you or didn’t.

Image: Doctor Who Season 2 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Star Wars Cantina Music for Piano Four Hands

When you’ve been looking forward to something for a long time, the closer it gets, the harder it is to wait. So, to keep you entertained in this last week before The Last Jedi comes out, here’s a father-son duo playing the classic Mos Eisley cantina music on the piano. Enjoy!

Star Wars Cantina Band by Brian Lockard

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

World of Warcraft: New Transmog to Match Hidden Artifact Appearance

I shared my WoW: Legion hidden artifact appearance last month and mentioned that I might be re-doing my fire mage’s transmog to match it. Well, here she is in her new, golden, white, and turquoise hues:

WoW Legion Fire Mage Artifact New Mog Sm

This may be my favorite transmog to date. I’ll try and get a better screencap later; this one doesn’t really show some of the details. I’m also making good progress on completing 200 world quests in order to unlock another color variant for The Stars’ Design appearance, so, yay! 🙂

Image: screenshot from World of Warcraft

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Why the Doctor Can’t Change the Fate of Krypton

Like you can gather from the season 1 rating post, we’re re-watching Doctor Who. An expected consequence is I’m having bit of a Doctor brain. Case in point: the comic I found funniest in this collection of imaginary text messages between Batman and Superman involved the Doctor.

Texts from Superheroes Krypton Fixed Point

Batman: Why do you always change in a phonebooth?

Superman: I like them. A blue one showed up on Krypton once. My father said it’s where heroes come from.

Batman: Was it bigger on the inside?

Superman: YES! I think my pediatrician owned it. He’s the one who told Jor-El to send me to Earth. He said being the last makes us stronger.

Batman: I’m familiar with The Doctor. I’m surprised he didn’t save Krypton.

The Doctor: Fixed point in time. I am so sorry.

LOLed—and groaned.

Yoinked from Texts from Superheroes, a project of stand-up comedian Andrew Ivimey and Internet comedian Diana McCallum, and part of the From Superheroes Network.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator

Creating medieval(esque) city maps just got a lot easier: Oleg Dolya (watabou) made an automated generator to do it.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator Small

Choose size of city with the click of a button, and color scheme and line or shading types from the options. You can export the image either as png or svg. Unfortunately the ward names (temple, merchant, crafts, etc.) aren’t saved on the exported map, though.

Watabou also built a 3d-visualiser to support Medieval Fantasy City Generator called Toy Town. Although I haven’t played with that, it sounds like both should be a great help to storytellers—unless you enjoy the process with paper and pen, of course!

Found via N.K. Jemisin on Twitter.

Image: screenshot from a map created by Eppu Jensen with Medieval Fantasy City Generator by watabou

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 1

We have continued our rewatching-and-rating project into a series with a bigger fan following: the rebooted Doctor Who that began its broadcast life in 2005. We know that there are a lot of Who fans out there who are passionate about the series and feel strongly about certain episodes and characters. Here’s how we felt about the first season, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion Rose.

  1. “Rose” – 4
  2. “The End of the World” – 4
  3. “The Unquiet Dead” – 4.5
  4. “Aliens of London” – 6
  5. “World War Three” – 6
  6. “Dalek” – 4
  7. “The Long Game” – 4.5
  8. “Father’s Day” – 5.5
  9. “The Empty Child” – 8.5
  10. “The Doctor Dances” – 10
  11. “Boom Town” – 5
  12. “Bad Wolf” – 4
  13. “The Parting of the Ways” – 3

It’s a rocky start to the new show, which is understandable given how much weight this first season had to carry: living up to the nostalgia for the old show while proving that the Doctor Who formula could be made fresh, new, and relevant for a new generation. The average episode rating for this season is 5.3, which is low but decent.

The lowest-rate episode of the season is the finale, “The Parting of the Ways,” in which the Doctor faces off against a Dalek invasion of Earth in the future while Rose desperately tries to get back to him from the present. It rated only a 3 for several reasons. There are pacing and structural issues with the story and its ending relies too much on an almost literal dea ex machina. We find Dalek stories generally weak because the Daleks are flat as characters and overpowered as antagonists.

The standout best episode of the season, though, is “The Doctor Dances” at a full 10. In WWII-era London, the Doctor and Rose deal with both dashing Time Agent-turned-con artist Jack Harkness and a monster that looks like a little boy in a gas mask but who turns those he touches into mindless gas-mask-faced shadows of themselves. As the conclusion to a two-part story after the very strong “The Empty Child,” this episode is full of both sparkling wit, clever sci-fi ideas, and powerful human drama.

This season’s heart (or hearts) are in the right place, even if it doesn’t always deliver. The “dig in the couch cushions and see what you find” special effects budget of the old show was always part of its quirky charm, but the fist season of the new show clearly struggled to live within its means. Not every episode pulled off the right balance of whimsy and pathos. Still, this season did what it needed to: it brought us back the Doctor and the TARDIS and prepared the way for greater adventures to come.

We know there are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and some of you probably feel quite different about this season and its episodes. We’d love to hear your take. Let us know which episodes of season 1 worked for you or didn’t.

Image: Doctor Who Series 1 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.