Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Dark Phoenix by Chris Claremont and John Byrne


Midway through reading this classic Claremont tale, I understood its significance to the X-Men mythology instantly, and I also wondered if it had some kind of impact on the role of the female superheroine in comics back then and today. That's because I consider Jean Grey in this story to be a very empowered representation of what a comic book heroine can become and be undone for at the same time. I would like to try and touch upon that subject matter in this review.

This is quite possibly the most popular and enduring comics story arc in recent memory that any self-respecting fan of the medium will immediately associate the X-Men with, and The Dark Phoenix Saga is deemed with such high esteem and praise for many good reasons. One thing that I think we all should remember about reading classic storylines from comics that defined and shaped the continuity or characterization of a particular title is to curb our expectations and adjust our preconceived notions about it to something more realistic. In my experience, some of these classics can exceed expectations while some are just relics that were overhyped. A few of which actually do require further contemplation after finishing them in order to garner a more nuanced appreciation. I can honestly say that The Dark Phoenix is one of them. It was a memorable story in itself because the ambiguity in which it was resolved was definitely worth the discussion. 

Though it may have been groundbreaking during its time, I think it better serves as a commentary of what female superheroines represent in comics before, as well as the limited roles they used to play or may continue to play. I don't want this to be some kind of feminist review because I don't have enough credibility to start a dialogue like that here. In general, I usually stay away from gender discussions particularly in fiction but it's hard to ignore the implications and symbols present in this story concerning Jean Grey both as herself and the manifestation of the Phoenix. I just thought such a discussion is noteworthy. [SPOILERS AHEAD!]


OVERVIEW

The saga itself is composed of ten issues from The Uncanny X-Men starting from #129-138 which follows the corruption and fall of Jean Grey after she succumbed to the dark and twisted force of her Phoenix power. But before that, a short background: Some time during the run of said series, a mission in space exposes Jean to a deadly radiation of solar flare which seemed to amplify her mutant powers which therefore made her attain the highest potential of her telepathy/telekinesis. She returns to Earth with a new identity and costume. She becomes known as the "Phoenix" since. As she becomes noticeably stronger, Jean as the Phoenix was also more lenient in using her powers and various teammates of hers, especially Cyclops and Wolverine, notice that she's freely using her skills without the usual measured caution that the old Jean Grey had. They would only later find out that this observation is just a symptom of Jean's inevitable downward spiral.

The Dark Phoenix arc also served as the introduction of the infamous and exclusive inner circle of the Hellfire Club led by Sebastian Shaw, and two iconic characters: Kitty Pryde, future Shawdowcat and one of the most memorable X-Men members; and Emma Frost, a formidable villain of telepathy who is also dubbed as the White Queen. The X-Men's primary mission only begins when the Hellfire Club (through Emma Frost) wants to acquire Kitty Pryde who is just starting to become fully aware of her mutant potentials. Pryde was also a candidate for the X-Men so when Professor X, Storm, Wolverine and Colossus visit her at her home, Emma Frost took advantage of the situation and decided to abduct these X-Men on a public location much later on. Kitty manages to escape and warn the other X-Men of their comrades. But before all of this, Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler are on a mission to find another mutant whom they encounter in a disco club. I'm referring to Dazzler who is just so ridiculous that I can't take her seriously while I was reading. Anyway, the meat and bones of the action start by the time the remaining X-Men rescue their captured friends with the help of the newly recruited Kitty.

That was the main plot of the first five issues or so of the saga but the developing subplot in the sidelines is that of Jean Grey who has been experiencing "timeslips" where she is being manipulated telepathically by Mastermind to prove his worth in the Hellfire Club he wishes to become a part of. He tries to get Jean to turn against the X-Men and for a short time during the story, he did manage to turn her into his Red Queen during a climactic confrontation between our heroes and the Club. Thankfully, Jean has embedded Scott with a psychic link so while Jean was presently ensnared by Mastermind, Scott tries to win her over through a duel in the astral plane, but he fails. Still, it was enough to shake Jean back into reality and upon discovering the damage that Mastermind has done, she becomes visibly angry--almost vengeful--in a way we have not seen her before. This is one of my favorite chilling exchanges in the comic book [1] [2]




THE AWAKENING

I thought that this was an important moment because of the build-up established from the previous four issues. Throughout the earlier installments, we saw Mastermind charm his way inside Jean's mind and heart, providing her with a beautiful romantic illusion where she was a noble woman from the past, enaromored with a gentleman named James Wyngarde. He opened her up and then pushed her further into embracing the depths of her desires, captivating her with needs she never realized she's always had: to have all the love and power in the world as well as glory as she rules next to a man she considers her equal. Jean Grey allowed this fantasy to claim her but once it was shattered she was left with so much self-loathing and dread which she subsequently inflicts to the fiend who fed these desires. I don't think Claremont and co. knew back then how impactful this speech could resonate now for readers like me who live in an era where the influence of female empowerment continues to grow. I would like to believe that a lot of us women in this generation have more control over our agencies, choices and self-expressions than the women in the earlier generations who have limited options back then. Jean Grey's speech addressed to an oppressive, overbearing man who fancies himself as the one who holds power over her is just damn cathartic to read.

"You came to me when I was vulnerable. You filled the emotional void within me. You made me trust you. Perhaps even love you. And all the while you were using me!" is a statement I know a great number of women in the past and present can relate strongly to; any woman who has been marginalized, abused and enslaved at one point in their lives can definitely attest to the freeing strength of this kind of righteous rage which Jean exhibited at this point. What comes next is terrifying though because Jean is determined to show Mastermind the price to pay for taking advantage of a woman and using her as your personal puppet.

As impressive as Jean was for taking control of that situation, it was ultimately the last catalyst that unleashes the disruptive and wild force known as the Dark Phoenix in issue #135. This extreme manifestation of her powers is ironically the very creature that robs her off her free will and agency. She becomes entitled, arrogant, selfish, hedonistic and uncaring as the Dark Phoenix, even going so far as attacking her own friends, believing that they are the ones holding her back in the first place. She left them completely devastated as she roamed the outer space, looking for something to devour because of this insatiable hunger inside her. She picked a random planet where five billion lived. She did not even bat an eye with this atrocity that seemed to only come naturally for her. This casual genocide attracts the attention of the Shi'ar empire ruled by Lilandra, Professor X's long-time alien girlfriend. After DP had that satisfying meal, she went back to Earth to visit her old home where her parents and sister lived. They were happy to see her, of course, but the dormant Jean also felt their fear which was a primal instinct that DP picked up on and she lashed out on them, feeling as if they were threatening her newfound independence and freedom. The X-Men luckily came back for another brutal second encounter and it was Professor X who eventually managed to lock the Phoenix away from Jean's subconscious. The victory was not meant to be savored though because Lilandra and the Shi'ar are determined to bring Jean Grey to trial for the genocide she just committed previously. This was the falling action of the grand arc that is The Dark Phoenix Saga.




EMPOWERMENT AND ABSOLUTE POWER

There is a true brilliance to Claremont's narrative and progression of this story from the moment Jean Grey was transformed into the Dark Phoenix. I have only vague recollections of the cartoon adaptation of this arc in X-Men: The Animated Series and I haven't gotten far from my re-watch of said cartoons just yet, so everything about reading this was fresh for me. Two things I liked about this saga are the tonality and approach of its writing when it comes to the roles of the female characters.

As Kitty Pryde's first appearance, I found that she was a surprisingly adaptable and brave young girl in the cusp of realizing her potentials as a mutant and aspiring superhero. She wasn't portrayed easily as a damsel in distress. In fact, it was her resoluteness to help the captured X-Men that enabled the other members to rescue them in the first place. At thirteen, her world was turned upside down but she coped with it rather impressively. Instead of running away, she found the courage to stand up for strangers she did not even know that well but believed that they are good and therefore worthy to be saved. At the end of it all, she did break down into tears but that was only a natural reaction to the dangerous life she has yet to know will be her daily existence from that day forward. Still, for a first introduction, Kitty Pryde already holds promise as a capable heroine who tried to make good choices out of the worst scenarios she faced.

In contrast, Emma Frost is a self-made, strong and cunning villainess who may ultimately answer to a domineering male group (Hellfire Club) but she certainly possesses loftier ambitions of her own and seemed to commit heinous acts not because she was forced to do them, but rather because she is motivated by her own greed. Her allegiance to the Hellfire Club's men is attached to the fact that they are also enabling her to pursue whatever personal goals she may have on the side. It wasn't explicitly shown but I get the sense that she could very much decide to leave the men by themselves if she wasn't getting what she wants from them in return and the men may be aware of that arrangement as well. She was defeated by another woman (Jean Grey), and it was another bonus for me to see that when her role in the story abruptly finished, it wasn't because a man did not find her useful anymore. Now I'm very interested to read about Emma Frost from this point on. To have another competent and powerful female telepath offers possibilities and I definitely want her to come back.

But empowering female characters in this story was sadly not very consistent though. The appearance of Dazzler was baffling to me especially her role in helping the X-Men. I do not understand her motivation in doing so anyway, let alone her relevance which was why I was uncaring that she was there. The same can be said for Ororo Munroe (Storm) who spent almost all her time in the story being a lesser superheroine next to Jean Grey as the Dark Phoenix. It was understandable for Jean to overpower Storm during their confrontations especially in her DP form but it also places Storm in a very unflattering way where her capabilities are diminished. There was even that passing scene in Mastermind's illusion where Jean was a noble woman and Ororo was a servant in her household who tried to escape and so Jean had to whip her. It just made me shake my head because I really didn't think that should have been put there. It's jarring and slightly insensitive to see a supeheroine of color be portrayed like that. It just wasn't necessary to the story anyway, and it only adds to the diluted effect of Storm's rather passive role in the narrative. Well, at least they did get to manage Storm to kick ass again at the later pages as the story comes to an end so I'll just take comfort in that. Speaking of said later pages---


THE IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE

The second climax of this saga arrives when the X-Men (Wolverine, Nightwalker, Storm, Angel and Colossus with recent Avenger-ed Beast) face Shi'ar warriors in a "trial by combat" arrangement to save Jean from punishment. There are at least twelve pages of great action sequences that these combats provided. It was visually engrossing which made me imagine seeing them on screen (and that only made me dislike X-Men: The Last Stand further. We really should have gotten The Dark Phoenix instead.). But before all that, I would just like to share this favorite set of panels where Jean Grey puts on her old Marvel Girl costume. It was nostalgic and appropriate. It shows that there is still light and humanity present in Jeannie, and she embraces the heroine she was at the beginning at this moment to demonstrate that her friends, especially her boyfriend Scott, have not lost her. And she is not ready to be lost herself.

In the end, it was only Scott and Jean who were left standing and together they fought their way for Jean's pardon and freedom. Scott was injured during the battle and seeing her beloved in danger has once again awakened the Phoenix in Jean. Tragically, the possibility of her going dark and twisted because of the Phoenix is just something her relationship with Scott and the rest of the X-Men cannot withstand. And Jean knew this from the moment Professor X was able to put some temporary restraints on her powers which are ultimately infinite and uncontainable. So in a quiet last scene between the lovers, Jean informs Scott of her decision to extinguish herself in order to save all of them. That conversation was done rather beautifully for me. In the heat and determination of everyone especially Scott to save Jean from her doom, they did not anticipate that perhaps she herself is giving up control and choosing to lose the battle instead by righteously as well as selflessly letting go of her powers. That's how I interpreted that final scene because it makes sense for Jean's character to choose death in order for others to live. It's who she is as a person. 

It's why she's one of my all-time favorite superheroes. She recognized the devastation and havoc she had caused when she committed mindless genocide as the Dark Phoenix and she would rather die a mortal than live as a goddess with unbridled passions and a lack of awareness and concern for life. It's a choice we all should commend her for.





THE VERDICT

"The X-Men may never realize it but this is the day they have won perhaps the greatest victory of their young lives. Jean Grey could have lived to become a god. But it was more important to her that she die a human."

I understand why this story is considered an important classic because it does define a lot of future arcs concerning Jean Grey, and the effect of the Phoenix as an unstoppable sentient force in the Marvel Universe. But I have my personal reasons why I think this is simply a comic book story you should find time to read. Since I began writing this review with the intention on discussing the role of female characters as the heart of the conflict, climax and resolution for this story, I want to end it now by recommending this to other young women who will read this review. 

Often, I've made this subconscious decision to ignore the underlying sexist themes and small moments I may encounter every now and then in superhero comic books if they only get in way of enjoyment of a great story (in spite of such flaws). I understand that superhero comic books have been majorly written by men in the past (and present, with a few exceptions) so old classics like this one can be very dated in the most negative sense possible. This is why The Dark Phoenix for me was uplifting to read because I found the way they portrayed Jean Grey (and, to a lesser extent, Kitty Pryde) to be most admirable. Most sites will tell you to pick this up because of its posterity and value as a classical tale. But personally, I want you to read this because it's a meaningful story about one woman's emotional and psychological journey through the joys and burdens of power, and the ultimate sacrifice she chooses to make, all for love and humanity.


RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Sunday, February 22, 2015

God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and John Byrne


This is the comic book that inspired some of the important elements featured in the groundwork for the arguably best X-Men film from the first trilogy franchise, X2. This is why reading God Loves, Man Kills will certainly be recognizable to a reader who has seen the said film adaptation first. With a total of sixty-four pages and illustrated by artist John Byrne, Chris Claremont took the task of tackling hard issues such as racial discrimination and religious persecution in this story.


As a lapsed Catholic from a developing Asian country, I'm inherently curious of how fictional mediums handle social issues with meaningful messages so this particular comic book got me intrigued. Its premise had a lot of promise and potential but I would also assert that the delivery can certainly get awkward in some of the pages. The connections it aimed to make is one concerning that of prejudice against mutants which could be liken to that of racial intolerance. When this was written, the civil rights movement being pushed through at that time was the plight of the African-American community (much like the circumstances in X2 reflect the gay rights movement). There was even that moment seven pages in to this comic book where Kitty Pryde, after standing up to a man who was a "mutantphobe", was reprimanded by an older female black friend. This is when Kitty lashes out at her, claiming that she would be more furious if that man used the N-word against her. The book actually does spell out the actual word, much to my shock. I was just as shocked with the opening two pages where we see two black children being gunned down because they were born mutants.

Claremont quickly establishes early on that this story is not going to be an easy walk-in-the-park. It was written after all to question and challenge the brutality, hatred and ignorance that people of color have suffered, and how much they have strived to fight and rise against it. To do so, he likens that to the prejudiced situations mutantkind itself faces daily from humans, and the X-Men's role in standing up against this blatant discrimination. To represent that opposing side, Claremont also creates the character of Revered Stryker who is hell-bent on purging mutants, believing that they are impure and unnatural, and therefore deserve to die. As an affront to God Himself, mutants are the scourge of the earth that Stryker and his followers have to cleanse. The terrifying implications of a religious order (particularly that of a Christian sect) using brute force and moral panic to advocate and sustain their crusades are uncomfortably familiar, especially if you have my background. However, as much as I enjoyed the honesty and appreciated the straightforward and cringe-worthy delivery of such a social issue, a part of me also doubts that God Loves, Man Kills has aged well. If you pick this up now, you might find it offensive or pandering, depending on your upbringing and personal politics.

Personally, I can accept  and even commend the effort to discuss a social issue within the confines of fiction and in a comic medium at that. It certainly can give weight to said medium as a source of insight and meaningful discussion (much like Alan Moore's Watchmen which satirizes the symbol and meaning of superheroes in a world where they were real and have participated and influenced certain milestones in human history). Nevertheless, using the civil rights movement of the African-American community and equating it with the struggles of a fictional group such as the X-Men and mutants in general can seem like a manipulation of sentiment and emotion., if not a disservice to the former group's own genuine hardships during the time this was written. Is it too far-fetched, or is it going too far to liken and compare both parties? That is not for me to say conclusively. This is a rather polarizing story for anyone who has read it. One can argue, however, that X-Men is supposed to be a representation of any diverse and oppressed group of people who wish to have equal rights with the majority. That's how I choose to view them and since I don't live in America and can understand the nuances or feel the aftermath of the Africa-American civil rights movement, I can't make criticisms concerning whether or not God Loves, Man Kills gave it a dignified portrayal or not.

What I can give a more informed opinion of is the treatment of religious groups for this comic book specifically with Reverend Stryker. As a character, he was completely despicable and even irredeemable to the very end. I would argue that this has been a constant misrepresentation of the Christian community in general. Though there are fanatics both in the past and the present who force-feed their own set of beliefs especially those that condemn and persecute minorities of race, sexual orientation, etc., it's bordering on lazy writing to utilize such a one-dimensional character that also reinforces an unfortunate stereotype. A good story requires a villain to serve as the evil force which the heroes must fight and defeat; but an excellent one requires a villain whose intentions and motives may be disagreeable but who should be just as well-developed (and perhaps even slightly sympathetic) as the protagonists in order to make a compelling conflict work which then make an emotionally satisfying resolution. In this sense, God Loves, Man Kills fails to deliver because the issue was tackled one-sided and interpreted in black-and-white terms. Reverend Stryker was simply unrelatable.

Speaking of believable villains, Magneto does take part in this story as an ally and whose help is something that the X-Men reluctantly accepts. They have a common enemy in Stryker and with Magneto in the pages, Stryker's flaws become more pronounced that it's very easy to choose to the devil you know. In this case, it's Magneto, and he is almost always single-handedly incapacitating the rest of Stryker's "purifiers"; these armed men and women who are avid mutantphobes and are unquestioningly torturing and killing mutants. I was really happy with Magneto's participation in this story as well as the pay-off in the end when he once again argues that humankind cannot be trusted and that the X-Men should stand with him and not waste time protecting a species that denounces them. It was Cyclops who maintains that peaceful co-existence is still possible between their kind and the humans, emphasizing that (and I will use a Once and Future King reference here because I just finished reading said novel last week, and the film did use it as both Xavier and Magneto's favorite book) 'Right should be established through Right and not Might.' It is notable though that Professor X almost wanted to go with Magneto

Y'all should know by now that I SHIP IT and that I always look forward to referencing just how much Prof X and Mags LOVE EACH OTHER BEYOND ANY OF US CAN COMPREHEND, so let me grab this opportunity and talk about Cherik for a moment. It's interesting that Charles almost concedes and takes Magneto's hand in those panels. I'd like to believe that he must have unconsciously recognized that this was the moment he's been waiting for; to be reunited with his former best friend and fight by his side JUST AS WHAT WAS WRITTEN IN THE STARS. However, he is also quickly reminded that he has an obligation as the founder, mentor and surrogate father of the X-Men so choosing to be with Magneto means abandoning them. That's the kicker. That's probably the only thing preventing Charles at this point to take the hand of his beloved "bookend-soulmate" (HEY IT'S BEEN QUOTED BY HIM) and FLY OFF SO THEY CAN FINALLY TIE THE KNOT. I don't think it's even his principles he cares about anymore at this point. He has witnessed and experienced first-hand (and in the most gruesome way during this comic book) the evil that men like Stryker can inflict on their kind so he might have been convinced just a little bit that now is the time for some of that Might that Magneto has been advocating from the beginning. But Cyclops gives this speech that reminds him that he's not just the sole dreamer of peaceful co-existence anymore. The X-Men share that dream and want to do everything they can to see its fruition. Kitty, amazingly, invites Magneto to JOIN THEM instead but Mags is just as stubborn in his own set of beliefs so he declines. He does, however, genuinely wish their team can succeed in achieving a democratic treaty with the humans because once they don't, he will come back into the picture and reinforce something more radical and long-term to accomplish mutant supremacy. Now that's a highly-developed and engrossing villain who continues to grow and surprise us, and often we find ourselves agreeing with him even with his severe methods.

Overall, God Loves, Man Kills provides a channel for discussion concerning the real-life implications of prejudice and ignorance against minorities of different cultural backgrounds. It can be viewed as a cautionary tale. It can be considered as a crucial story that solidified the X-Men as THE group of marginalized superheroes that are also champions for the sectors in our society who are denied the same rights as everybody else just because they are different from the rest. This was the driving narrative for the X2 film after all, and this was the comic book which helped build that version which I maintain is the better one of the two. So go ahead and pick up God Loves, Man Kills. It's considered a classic important work to some and if you are an X-Men fan in a way where you think their class struggle resonates with you then this might appeal to you. The violence and cruelty is very hefty though so I feel like I should warn you about that.

RECOMMENDED: 7/10

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Boy, the Myth, and Everything Between


I knew enough about the King Arthur mythology through cinematic adaptations I've seen growing up, but this is truly the first time that I ever read a novel which tackles this legendary hero, and I thought T.H White's classic masterpiece The Once and Future King is the best place to start as any, considering the raving reviews I've encountered about this one every time I browse the medieval literature section in book-related websites. I was also drawn to this book because of this singular quotation taken from it: 'Perhaps we all give our hearts uncritically to those who hardly think about us in return'. I remember buying a copy of this book once a paperback became available back in 2013 or so, and I started reading last year but had to stop because of my self-imposed Batman comics diet. I was glad to pick this up again last week where I was already halfway through the first of the four segments. Now that I have officially finished the entire thing, I suppose what I can say first and foremost was that it wasn't everything that I hoped or wanted it to be--and that was pretty disappointing, honestly. Nevertheless, there are exemplary aspects to it--particularly on the discussions concerning the ideologies of power and leadership; morality and gray areas--that are thoughtful and provocative. This book has very strong arguments which I immensely appreciated.

"Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance."


The first segment of the book is The Sword in the Stone where a boy deemed "Wart", a warden of Sir Ector and a playmate to his son Kay, meets a mysterious and whimsical wizard named Merlyn who offers to tutor him. Their chance encounter was supposedly destined and Merlyn is very fond of pointing out that he has clairvoyance, often humorously overwhelming Wart with prophesies from his distant future. Their relationship is very unusual, an interpretation and approach that I'm not used to, but it remains nonetheless as my fondest and most favorite part of the entire novel. Wart doesn't feel special in any way and it baffles him why Merlyn has taken such an avid interest him especially when the boy has gotten accustomed to being treated of secondary importance to his more privileged friend, Kay. His journey of self-discovery is an entertaining mix of the extraordinary and poignant where Merlyn forces him to question the social constructs of the era he lives in.

"The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then; TO LEARN."


Throughout The Sword in the Stone, Merlyn accomplishes this by turning Wart into various animals through magic, imparting him indirect lessons pertaining to the nature and roles of community and individuality so that the boy who will become king of Camelot will develop an understanding and compassion of how to best govern his subjects. Wart is a receptive student who eventually does accept that nothing his eccentric mentor is teaching him is inconsequential. Over the course of the first two hundred pages, Merlyn shapes Wart into the fine young man worthy of pulling out that famed sword Excalibur at the end of the first segment, and it's pretty much rewarding for our lead character and the readers to see Wart freely choose and embrace his fate even when he's absolutely terrified of the things Merlyn has warned him about for his future.

Next we have The Queen of Air and Darkness whose tackled events are twofold in scope; the first few years of Arthur Pendragon's reign and the wars he felt obliged to wage; and the curious adolescent misadventures of Queen Morgause's sons Agravaine, Gareth, Gawain and Gaheris whose unquestioning devotion and slightly (if not gravely) Oedipal-worship for their mother are upsetting and pitiful to read. Queen Morgause is, of course, Arthur's half-sister, who will make him unwittingly commit an incestuous affair that will produce an offspring who is to be Arthur's ultimate downfall--Mordred. In this segment, there are noteworthy discussions about "Right" and "Might" between Arthur and Merlyn and his old friend and mentor continues to challenge him to think about every decision he makes as a king and the purpose and motivation behind every course of action he will take.

"You have become the king of a domain in which the popular agitators hate each other for racial reasons, while the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the one person that gets hurt. Unless you do something, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles. That is why I have been asking you to THINK"


The third segment entitled The Ill-Made Knight is the longest one and definitely the part of the novel that ALMOST ruined it for me. We've been following Wart's growth and evolution to King Arthur and his meditative discussions with his mentor Merlyn, and then all of a sudden we've switched central characters midway and they're the most irreconcilably selfish, distressing and unsympathetic pair I have ever encountered. I'm referring to Lancelot and Queen Guenever. I may have more sympathy for the former whose lamentations and struggles of moral judgment against the weakness of earthly desires can be quite moving in some moments during the book, but I absolutely abhorred this version of Guenever. I assert that the writing for the women in this book is so appalling, even in medieval romance literature's standards. We have Guenever who is just vain, oppressive and pathetic and the commoner Elaine who is passive-aggressive yet also submissive and stupid. Both women are Lancelot's love interest and unrequited admirer, and they are respectively the devil and the deep blue sea for him as well. It's like reading the lives of a celebrity couple and a stalker-fan who wants to pull them apart. And it's not even the trashy-fun, tabloid drivel kind of soap opera which was why I almost, ALMOST wanted to give up reading this book entirely. I did like this quote, however:

"They thought they had understood each other once more--but their doubt had been planted. Now, in their love, which was stronger, there were seeds of hatred, and fear and confusion growing at the same time; for love can exist with hatred, each preying on the other, and this is what gives it its greatest fury. "


Though the third segment is heavily focused on the painfully unrealistic and absurd adulterous love affair between "Lance and Jenny" and the involvement of the unwanted second mistress Elaine (who, by the way, tricks Lancelot twice in her own version of modern 'date rape'), there are still gems to be found in this part of the book. This happens when we revert back to Arthur who begins to question and doubt the choices and rules he had imposed on his kingdom. I just don't understand why I should care about Lancelot and Guenever's depressingly bland "love story" when I'm so invested in finding out more about King Arthur as a leader who is supposed to be a champion of the masses but has found himself becoming their oppressor instead and in ways he had been so committed in preventing in the first place. This was the man who argued with Merlyn that ideas should not be imposed on people but rather made available for them to choose or not to--and yet he finds himself doing the exact opposite because the supposedly noble knights in his service have taken advantage of their positions.

"When I started the Table, it was to stop anarchy. It was a channel for brute force, so that the people who had to use force could be made to do it in a useful way. But the whole thing was a mistake. It was a mistake because the Table itself was founded on force. Right must be established by right: it can’t be established by Force. I'm afraid I have sown the whirlwind, and now I shall reap the storm."


Furthermore, there are also interesting sidestories concerning the knights themselves, particularly about the theory and application of "chivalry" back in those times. I recall Jaime Lannister from George R.R Martin's A Song of and Fire series once arguing that there are so many vows that knights take that it's often possible to follow one vow and forsake the other especially when they tend to contradict each other. White does tackle this but not nearly as straightforward as Martin's. His knights are still more inclined to hide under the veneer of moral self-righteousness to justify their machismo and misogyny. Even the bravest and most chivalrous of them all, Lancelot, still mistakes his own intentions but I can actually blame Guenever and Elaine for that. As a central character of The Ill-Made Knight, Lancelot is compelling but his inability to reclaim his weaknesses and use them instead to strengthened his convictions is ultimately the reason I stopped rooting for him. The only real lesson I garnered from reading the torturous and unsurprisingly tragic relationship between Lance and Jenny is the fact that passions unchecked and consummated out of blind lust and immaturity are going to destroy you little by little, and Guenever most of all deserved whatever is coming for her. I frankly want to wish away the "Lance and Jenny" disaster from the pages of this novel.

"Morals are a form of insanity. Give me a moral man who insists on doing the right thing all the time, and I will show you a tangle which an angel couldn't get out of. "


The final segment of the book is The Candle in the Wind is probably the most serious part of the entire novel (where as the first one has great humor in it) which is only appropriate since it concludes the story in a way that I actually found shocking yet acceptable. The personal drama between Lancelot and Guenever's revelation about their affair and Arthur's reaction to it is one that really amused me to no end because Arthur has been aware of the affair since it started (thanks to Merlin, the walking spoiler alert) but chooses not to do anything about it as long as it's left unspoken. However, his half-brother/half-son Mordred wants to make sure that Arthur will be forced to punish the adultery of his wife and best friend in accordance to the new laws of his kingdom. What follows over the course of the page is actually rather suspenseful for me. Everyone's dishonor and sin have caught up with them; Guenever's jealousy, Lancelot's pride and betrayal and Arthur's ineffectual stand against these two people and his unwillingness to accept Mordred as a son (as well as a couple of other things I won't spoil here). In the most twisted and ironic twist of fate, these three characters have no other choice but to stay united against the joint forces of Mordred and Agravaine who are determined to end Arthur's reign in Camelot.

Arthur's conflict for me in this last segment is very riveting to watch unfold; all the lessons Merlyn have taught him have lead him to this moment. "Arthur’s laws are the culmination of his conversations with Merlyn about the use of might and right; to abandon his faith in these laws would be to reject everything for which he stands. Mordred and Agravaine are aware of Arthur’s commitment to justice, so they are able to trap him by his own rules and laws. Arthur does not want to unravel the society he has built, but to preserve it, he must sacrifice the two people he loves most." It's Arthur, waiting and dreading for the other shoe to drop.
 
In summary, The Once and Future King was thought-provoking in ways that I enjoyed and consumed wholeheartedly, but it also fails to establish a well-balanced narrative that allows me to attach myself emotionally to its characters which diluted my investment in their eventual fates. I was very fond of Wart and Merlyn's relationship the most, and I would have liked to see Merlyn still play a role in the final years of Arthur's reign. I think the reason I have to rate this book lower than I initially intended was because I believe trimming The Ill-Made Knight is NECESSARY. I also believe White should have lessened his focus on Lancelot and Guenever and showed us more about Lancelot's relationship with Arthur as oppose to telling us in passing. I think Arthur and Lancelot's relationship is more important than his affair with Guenever and if Guenever was written better then perhaps her role in the story wouldn't have been so wasteful and indigestible to read.

I maintain that this is a remarkable classic as a whole as long as you can select the parts to remember the most fondly. If I ever re-read this, I definitely plan to skip all the Lance-Jenny-Elaine debacle. I caution anyone who plans to read this novel to endure the insufferable length of the third segment because overall, this is a worthwhile read.

RECOMMENDED: 7/10

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The human and inhumane devices of the mind and heart

 
"There must be a never-ending supply of Holmes stories just as there must be air and water. And they must be the finest Holmes stories we can create. Not the true quill of the Master perhaps, but still nourishing to a parched and hungry soul."

This is the final anthology I'm reviewing for the Sherlock Holmes birthday month last January which managed to bleed into this month as well because I was preoccupied with other readings so I had to take breaks for the last two books in my SH roster. But I eventually did finish reading all of them and now I'm officially ending with yet another collection edited by Michael Kurland, Sherlock Holmes: The American Years. It's worth mentioning that this is a re-read from six years ago which meant that the material is once again fresh in my eyes and I can honestly say that I barely remember a lot of these stories at all. Only one really struck me as a standout.

The ten stories included in this volume have operated with a premise based on the idea that the Great Detective has travelled to America; and what adventures he may have had during the course of his stay there. It was briefly mentioned in the canon that Holmes did find his way in the colonies before, and that inference should definitely breed a new set of possible scenarios as to why and how. Naturally, it could be because of a murder mystery or an ongoing investigation of any crime that is intriguing enough to draw in Holmes which was more or less what these stories offered. Another element common in all these tales is the inclusion of real-life historical figures for Holmes to interact with. In a sense, The American Years can be readily considered a collection of pastiche. Almost all of them too are origin stories pertaining to how Holmes found his vocation and calling as a detective.

I only considered four of them my favorites and these are My Silk Umbrella by Darryl Brock where Holmes meets Mark Twain, author of Tom Saywer's and Huckleberry Finn's Adventures during a baseball game and hilarity ensues; The Old Senator by Steve Hockensmith where Holmes is a stage actor who encounters William Gilette, the most memorable actor himself who played him a decade or so later on stage; The American Adventure by Gary Lovisi where Joseph Bell, the doctor Conan Doyle based Holmes on originally, was actually his mentor and friend after all; and The Curse of Edwin Booth by Carole Bugge where the titular actor is haunted by his brother's Lincoln assassination but struggles to eventually overcome that notoriety through the help of a certain aspiring English detective.

The rest of the stories are fairly decent although a few can be grating because of its alienating quality, most especially if certain historical facts go way over your head while reading. We have Inga Sigerson Weds by Richard A. Lupoff in which Sherlock Holmes has a older sister; The Sacred White Elephant of Mandalay by Michael Mallory; The Reluctant Assassin by Peter Tremayne that makes use of the Irish civil wars as a backdrop; Cutting for Sign by Rhys Bowen which is a proper Western tale where Holmes learns deductive reasoning from a Native American named Shadow Wolf; The Stagecoach Detective which is another Western but this time it deals with a female cast; and The English Senor by Martha Randall set in Mexico where an elderly woman is the POV character and imparts a young Holmes with a lesson never to underestimate the ways of the human heart.

It's weird for me to rate this the lowest of all the four anthologies I've read, considering I remember enjoying this a lot six years ago when I read it for the first time. I suppose it just didn't age well for me. Nevertheless, the aforementioned four favorite stories are worth checking out so this is still a commendable collection. I agree with the introduction I quoted for this review that there must be an endless supply of new Holmesian stories for generations to come!


RECOMMENDED: 7/10