When Reading High Fantasy, Travel Light

Back in the early twentieth century, two journeys began. They both began in England. One was the story of a Hobbit cleverly manipulated, though not necessarily against his will, into joining a company of Dwarves to confront a Dragon. The other story is one of a young girl, raised by bears and dragons, that sees heroes as her enemies, talks to a Valkyrie,  and must travel the world to find and understand her place in it. One of these stories was made by a male Anglo-Saxon and Linguistics professor, poet and novelist, while the other was created by a female Liberal, Socialist, novelist, poet, and an early founder of some of the first birth control clinics in London. One of these stories survived and helped found a genre of high fantasy. The other story, however, was all but forgotten.

But fantasy author Amal El-Mohtar has not.

Naomi Mitchison wrote the 1952 novel Travel Light. While Mitchison is an interesting figure in and of herself, and she possesses many contemporary sensibilities about war, sex, and women’s rights, it is this particular novel of hers that fascinates me even more. Obviously, up until I read the above linked io9 article I neither heard of her nor this story. Travel Light is the story of a young girl named Halla, formerly the daughter of a king, who is rejected by her family and fostered by bears before, finally, being raised by dragons. It is after living amongst dragons and legendary monsters, and being taught to despise the heroes that hunt them, that she is approached by the All-Father Odin (The Wanderer),  and is forced to make a choice: whether she wants to hold onto the parts of her life that define her, or to shed them and wander as well.

It is actually because of the io9 article and Amal El-Mohtar’s own beautiful article Crossroads And Coins: Naomi Mitchison’s ‘Travel Light’ that I read this book. It is an interesting story in a few ways. First of all, unlike Tolkien and his other contemporaries such as C.S. Lewis, Mitchison makes her mythological and historical references clear. Halla’s world is very overtly the world of Nordic and Mediterranean mythology. Also, there have been mentions of Greece, Constantinople, and Novgorod. Mitchison manages to subvert, perhaps tweak these beings ever so slightly and succeeds in making the reader look at them from another perspective. In fact, not only does she very smoothly subvert some tropes, she may well have made a few of her own. At the same time, she makes it so that Halla’s story seems to take place in our world, as much as fiction, fantasy or otherwise can allow, and that in itself speaks volumes.

As such, Mitchison also does not shy away from the very real dangers and moments of grief and vulnerability that Halla faces and comes to understand as a girl, a woman, and essentially as a human being. There is one quote that really gets to me after Halla faces a particularly horrible situation where it is stated “It was as though the murderers who had killed the old dragon had also killed a dragonishness in herself and she hated them all the more for it.” Mitchison makes sure that that while the dangers and consequences are not gratuitous in detail, she makes abundantly clear that they are serious and very real. At the same time, as all of these events happen to Halla, proving how strong and how vulnerable she really is, there is another element of Mitchison’s writing to consider.

While Halla is immune to fire, has knowledge of all languages that are animal or otherwise, and even comes to be given a piece of the Wanderer’s cloak, the most striking thing about her as a character is how many times she sheds her sense of identity, even as she collects epithets–surnames–to become and learn something new. It very much critiques and averts some parts of “the hero’s quest,” and heroes themselves, but at the same time Halla’s journey maintains its own rules. Simultaneously, when the story does come back full circle, it makes for a very awe-inspiring realization and where the narrative begins as a fairytale, and heroes and monsters fade into mutual legend, it all ends in mythology.

Travel Light is a story that works on so many different levels of physical detail and emotional depth: a tale with a sentence structure and language flow that you sometimes have to pay attention to, that doesn’t shirk away from background intrigue, or dare I say Byzantine scheming,  but at the same time provides dimensions to characters and an interesting notion of spirituality. I have this temptation to state, in a similar way to Amal El-Mohtar, that Mitchison’s novel makes an excellent story for young girls trying to find someone they can identify with in literature and fantasy. Unlike Tolkien’s heroines Eowyn, Arwen, or even Galadriel in Middle-earth Halla is the protagonist of her own world and her journey.

But what I really want to say is that Travel Light works on many different layers, as most great stories do, and Mitchison says something to everyone. I do think that young girls should read this story, but I also think that boys and adult audiences would also definitely appreciate the depth and resonance that it provides.  In fact, I would definitely classify this novel as an obscure classic, as a narrative that can be read by someone as a child and read again as an adult with a different kind understanding but still somehow managing to retain a sense of timelessness.

In the end, Travel Light is a work that deserves to be on a shelf next to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and all the great timeless stories of fantasy: that is, when a parent is not reading it to their child, or when their child is not reading it for themselves and imagining themselves stripping away all their preconceptions of reality … and traveling light.

Boys and Toys Franchising Make For Better Superhero Cartoons?

I’m not going to say anything new. In fact, there is nothing within the conversation between Kevin Smith and Paul Dini that is even remotely new. Paul Dini is the producer and writer of Batman: The Animated Series, and Tiny Toon Adventures as well as a script contributor to Animaniacs, Freakazoid, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited among other cartoon programs that many of us grew up with (myself included) and shaped our formative geek interests for all the years to come.

So for him to basically state that superhero cartoon executives have been cancelling story-driven programs with three-dimensional characters of both genders for the sake of merchandising toys to young boys is just… it’s not surprising.  But it is infuriating.

According to an excerpt of the transcript between Smith and Dini on Lauren Davis’ i09 article Paul Dini: Superhero cartoon execs don’t want largely female audiences, instead of taking advantage of an opportunity created by particular cartoon programs that attract not only young boys and girls, but adult audiences, and diversifying their merchandise these executives apparently are “uncomfortable” with taking a chance on something so “uncertain” and want to fall back on their mainstays of boys and toys and more simplistic programs.

The sad thing is, logically it makes sense from a market and industry perspective. The industry, in this case the superhero industry encompassing comics, toys, television shows and commercial products, cares less about story and inclusivity and more about steady, tried, tested and true income-making. From the perspective of this particular mindset, diversifying or attempting to add new products to something that already “works” would be tantamount to taking risks or placing bets on a chance that may not pan out. It is so much easier to appeal to a common denominator, to older and more entrenched social stereotypes and biases, than it is to attempt to make something new or innovative and hope that you can find, or develop, a large enough audience to keep making you the same amount of income that is expected of you.

This narrow perspective has been around for a very long time and while it definitely has a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, with an added “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel” that seems to serve businesses well, there are two matters to consider. First of all, this isn’t good business sense. The fact of the matter is that there is a substantial audience of boys and girls out there that want good stories and characters to relate to. By ignoring this audience, not only do these executives and the companies they manage lose out on potential pay-offs, but eventually the work they produce will become one-dimensional and stagnant: to the point where they will be so interchangeable with other shows that no one will bother watching them, never mind purchase any products they have to offer. Of course, I could be both underestimating and overestimating the situation. There are always collectors and an individual can be trained over time to accept a great deal of limiting circumstances.


And this leads to my second point.  The industry is a business and despite the wonder of creation and art that many of us appreciate, it will always see it as a commodity: one that either has the potential to make money, or doesn’t. It is the culture of the audience, of the customers, our culture, that is the issue. Many of the programs that Dini helped create and worked on originated in the nineties all the way into the mid-early aughts. Perhaps it is just nostalgia on my part, but an attitude with regards to gender and how it was depicted in the programming of that time slowly began to change into whatever it is now. I’m sure there are many theories about this, and I know that even the 90s were not perfect with regards to how they represented gender equality. You can even argue that this determining factor in how many toys can be sold to boys existed even then and perhaps had something of a role in the end of the cartoons that existed back in the day. To be honest, I don’t really know.

But I will say is this, the possibility that executives of superhero cartoons cancel or pass up on shows because it is easier to fall back on long-held and largely unexamined prejudices, that boys given vapid programming are easier to sell a certain set of toys to, that girls don’t or can’t buy the same toys as boys, that you can’t make something more creative to make them into life-long fans and buy your products is just plain laziness, and it is a complacency that has been in our cultural attitudes for some time. The fact that this is a factor that determines our creativity, its expression and what we teach our children is not only laziness, it is even more plainly ridiculous.

There is always this debate as to whether or not the media influences us, or if we influence it. This is an issue that obviously applies to more than just the cartoon superhero industry (certainly the comics and film industries have their own tendencies to override creativity and innovation for a sense of surer profit) but I would like to think that we as geeks, nerds, or what have-you can somehow influence the media to give us the quality that we want for ourselves and our children. I obviously don’t know the how of it, but I think what it all comes down to is the very thing that is lacking, or even discouraged by certain forces in this world.

It’s called imagination. And not attempting to reinvent the wheel, in this case, could grind the former into dust. You can do better than this. We can do better.

This whole article is just stating the obvious. I just wish I didn’t have to do that. For more on Kevin Smith’s and Paul Dini’s discussion, listen to the entire podcast at SModcast Fat Man On Batman #052: Paul Dini: Shadow of the Shadow of the Bat.



Sexy and Clara: A Doctor Who Mini-Episode

I seem to be reaching my twelfth regeneration, or twelfth post, on G33kpr0n and I find it really interesting how even though I am a Star Wars fanatic I’ve really been focusing on Doctor Who lately. I suppose it can’t be helped. After all, we have the Adventures in Space and Time documentary drama and Neil Gaiman’s Nothing O’Clock both happening on November 21, and that isn’t even mentioning the 50th Anniversary episode “The Day of The Doctor” happening on November 23. There is all this gravitas and doom and glory that is about to hit a whole ton of of Whovians, and sometimes it can just seem like too much.

So now, for the moment, we turn away from The Doctor and what will probably be another potential universal apocalypse to the two current women in his life right now. “Clara and the TARDIS” is actually a mini-episode made exclusively for the Series 7 DVD and Blue-Ray box sets. It apparently takes place before “The Rings of Akhaten” and “Hide,” and therefore long before “The Name of The Doctor.” It’s been long known by most Doctor Who fans that the TARDIS is a sentient being (who has, relatively recently, chosen a name for herself) with her own sensibilities and feelings on certain matters, especially with regards to her beloved Doctor. And Clara herself, at this point in the game, seems to be new enough a Companion to be unaware of the others that came before her, but old enough to have her own room on board … for all the good that does her at this point.

I won’t say anymore than that except to add that, aside from the obvious fan-service that Steve Moffat produces between Sexy and Clara with this mini-episode, there is some actual foreshadowing with regards to Clara’s character arc in this confrontation. But all that really being said, Sexy either really doesn’t like Clara Oswin Oswald at this stage, or she really enjoys messing with her.