Saturday, August 16, 2014

Profound Insecurity -Reflections on Simple Narratives in a Era of Discontent

Reading and watching the news about Iraq lately has gotten me thinking again. The rise of ISIS the decimation they have caused, and the change they are bringing to an already volatile region of the world prompts me to contemplate the future.

I don't just wonder about the Middle East. I wonder about the world. It seems no matter where you go people are insecure. People in the United States, the country of my birth and nationality, are insecure about jobs, the economy a growing income gap and the growth of the security state. The shooting of yet another unharmed black teenager, this time in a small town in Missouri, has once again shown how much the so called 'Land of the Free' still has to do to address longstanding racism. People in Egypt, a country I lived in for two and a half years, worry about more street protests and violence as the army backed government their grapples with Islamists dismissed from power. Thailand, the country I was raised in and live in now, has undergone a military coup and the curbing of many rights. 

This time, whatever we might want to call it, seems to be one of deep unease. Perhaps, we people of the world feel it more thanks to the explosion of media an social media allowing us to instantly learn about tragedies in places on the opposite corner of the globe. I certainly think their have been more violent and tragic periods of history.

Nevertheless, we are grappling with so many issues in an interconnected world where deep divides between and within nations, states, cultures and religions.

With insecurity so rife, with so many across the world struggling to fill themselves and avoid repression it becomes easy to turn to extremes.

Insecurity seems to go hand in hand with polarization and bigotry. Being in Egypt before and after the less extreme but still delusional Muslim Brotherhood came to power, I saw how easily the message “Islam is the Solution” won over a poor, uneducated and desperate population who longed for change but had no clue how to truly achieve it. ISIS, though perhaps relatively small, leaves a large impact because it is united, because it has a clear digestible and nostalgic vision which resonates with a significant portion of the population. Going back to a supposed Golden Age, the Caliphate, which no one remembers never existed, offers escape into fantasy. And for many, that fantasy that simple story is all they live in.

Groups like ISIS resonate because their philosophy as a correspondent Nick Berg put it: “It promises everything” and yet at the same time ultimately, “it delivers nothing”.

Yet it would be utterly unfair of me to point at the shortcomings of Islamist and Jihadist ideology alone. For I also saw the same, narrow mentality of absolute certainty in conservative relatives of mine in the United States. Insecurity over a changing America prompts the same urge among some to idealize the stained history of the United States. Founding Fathers are deified, their humanity as forgotten as easily by Tea Partiers and Neo-Cons as the true nature of the Caliphate is by ISIS and Al Qaeda. We blot out or gloss over the injustices of Manifest Destiny, Slavery and Jim Crow only to be shocked back to the reality they have created when young black men are gunned down in the street by police officers...if then.

Simple stories, simple narratives exist within all the countries of the world. In Ukraine, Spain, Thailand, Brazil we see them embraced only to see their returning grasp strangle their hopeful embrace to death. Easy to recall and easy to remember, they offer escape. Yet ultimately they cannot provide answers to the complicated and intertwined issues we grapple with. Open eyes, open ears open eyes a willingness to see our failings and shortcomings as well as those of people of TV screens thousands of miles away from us. These are what we need if we're to start seeing the world for what it is. Hopefully, if enough of us to do this it will be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mythology vs History- The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire

One of my favorite pieces of GOT fan art. 

I love fantasy, I love epic fantasy. Therefore, I'm a fan of two of the best fantasy book series in the genre. The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. Once I was asked if I thought one of these series was stronger than the other.


Today, I'll try and answer that by saying that really, both are great works of fantasy in their own ways. I've found that one is not really better than the other. Ultimately, they're very different series telling two very different types of stories.


Before talking about their differences though we should talk about how the two influential fantasy stories are similar. They do share some common elements.


First, both series take place in their own complete universes with unique, locations, cultures and history. Part of the reason why both book series have captivated their readers is because both Middle Earth and Westeros are such well constructed worlds. The environments the authors create are exciting fantastical places that are also bound by a set of rules and standards. As such, the reader can immerse themselves fully in the streets of Kings Landing and halls of Rivendell. There are cities, towns, people groups and societies that are as rich and as vibrant as any on earth. In fiction it's vital that your reader can lose themselves in the world your creating with your words. In fantasy, it's doubly important and both Tolkein and Martin do an excellent job of universe building.


Second, both series have fleshed out relatable characters. Whether your talking about Frodo or Tyrion, both books have approachable characters we want to follow. They all have interesting, captivating obstacles and hardships that they have to overcome.


With that said, there's also no denying these two series are very different. If I had to sum up the differences it would be with this sentence:


'Lord of the Rings is more like mythology while A Song of Ice and Fire is more like history'


The background of the authors makes this pretty clear. Let's begin with the author of The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkein. Tolkein was a professor of mythology at Oxford, who in academic circles was well known for his writings on the epic Nordic myth Beowulf. Because of this, Tolkein drew a lot of inspiration from European myth and legend when creating his own epic fantasy. He even stated that one of his main motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to create an epic mythology for the UK which he felt had been lost to time.


A strong mythological influence can be seen in the focus of Tolkein's three books.


In Lord of the Rings, there is a very clear conflict between two opposing sides. Sauron and the forces of evil (orcs, trolls etc.) are attempting to enslave the free peoples of Middle Earth (men elves dwarves hobbits) and can only be stopped if the one ring of power is destroyed by a small band of heroes. The protagonists we follow and other characters they encounter, for the most part, fit this dichotomy. The heroes, though tempted to become evil at times, remain on the side of good. The villains, though they do have their own back-stories are not nuanced, caring only about dominating and destroying for the sake of dominating and destroying.  There are enormous epic battles, and ultimately evil is defeated through the tireless efforts of the heroes.


 other writings such as Children of Hurin, are also written in a similar, pre-history epic struggle vein. Often, as a reader, you get the sense that his work could be a true mythology for a real culture.


This makes Lord of the Rings far more like a great myth in the vein of Beowulf or the Trials of Hercules. There are magical elements, epic battles between heroes and villains, and lastly, some important instructional lessons on the dangers of power, the temptation all people face when confronted with such power.


A Song of Ice and Fire, on the other hand is not nearly as clear cut.


While Tolkein's epic work was largely influenced by Indo-European mythology, much of Martin's inspiration was derived from actual historical conflicts and power struggles among medieval European aristocrats. He's cited historical fiction authors, rivalries in Medieval Scotland as being strong influences along with a famous rivalry over control of the English monarchy, the War of the Roses. The names of the two families involved in this actual 15th century conflict, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, even bear a striking resemblance to two of the most important families in a Song of Ice and Fire, the Starks and the Lannisters.


The inspiration of history shows in Martin's work. Though there are supernatural and mythological elements to A Song of Ice and Fire, they often take a back seat to the personal relationships, rivalries and dilemmas of his many point of view characters. There are many despicable and reprehensible characters in the books, such as the sadistic Joffrey or nihilistic Sandor Clegane yet no one is clearly evil. There is no Great Eye no Sauron or Saruman who is clearly evil. Nor are there are any characters who are clearly morally good, including protagonists such a Tyrion, Jaime and Daenerys. Everyone has dark spots in their past and there are sometimes very negative repercussions for the actions the 'heroes' take. And yet even with their most questionable decisions these characters have understandable reasons for taking them. Instead of focusing on a struggle between two forces, Martin's emphasis is on the complicated, interconnected nature of the lives of people at the center and on the outskirts of political power. 


Because of this A Song of Ice and Fire, more accurately reflects the nature of the world we live in where decisions about power are often based on personal or factional interest, where relatively decent leaders can fall and rise as easily as brutal ones can, and where ordinary people are often the ones who suffer the most during times of conflict and political upheaval.


So is one story better than the other? No not at all. I have enjoyed reading both works for exactly what they are just as I've enjoyed reading mythology and history. Mythology and history both teach life lessons and allow us to connect more deeply with ourselves and with other human beings. They allow us to understand the world better and to understand human nature better. Because of this I don't feel like there's a lot to be gained by trying to assert that one series is better than the other. Their both valuable in their own right and should be enjoyed for what they are by readers everywhere.

Some amazing art by a fan of LOTR.