Saturday, April 13, 2013

Magic Optional: Medieval Women and the War of Roses

When I was in college, I took a class on medieval women, the first of two classes I took on the topic (the other one was in grad school) and the first of two that I hated. I hated the one in grad school because the professor was demanding without explaining her expectations and lowered your grade drastically for what most professors see as minor offenses, such as not always following consistent citation styles in weekly short responses. It wasn't just me, either. 90% of the class hated it, and nearly everyone had at least one come-to-Jesus meeting with the professor.

The one in undergrad, though, I hated for the exact opposite reasons. It was a 300-level class that was a partnership between the English department and, I think, history, which means that people in there knew how to write. Despite this, our professor treated us like high schoolers. Before our first paper was due, we had a session on the structure of a paragraph, and how to write a basic thesis statement. I wanted to die of boredom, and quickly losing all respect for her and her teaching, began to half-ass that class like I had no other.

The worst example of this was my paper on Margaret d'Anjou. I did all of my research for the paper as I was writing it the day it was due (it was due by midnight). I remember sitting there, books in my lap, frantically looking for quotes and facts to include in the paper. By 8:30, I was on page 8, and it was supposed to be a 5-7 page paper. I was halfway through the war, and I was worried about when the building where my professor's office was would close. So I rewrote the intro, whipped up a conclusion, and just stopped. Still got an A-, with the only criticism being "I don't understand why you stopped where you did."

Given this utter lack of effort, it's not surprising that I remembered very little of the history described in Philippa Gregory's The Lady of the Rivers. The plot revolves around Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, Margaret's close friend and handmaid to the queen. To be honest, the plot was interesting, and I respect Gregory's research into Jacquetta (she was a real person who was in the center of the action, but has rarely been written about. At least according to the addendum at the end of the novel), but the characters themselves were a little flat. Jacquetta was too good, seemingly never conflicted or tempted to truly do anything wrong. The closest she comes is when she thinks she is responsible for a curse on the king, but that is glossed over. She dabbles in magic, which mainly seems to allow her to see minor bits of the future and predict if she is having a boy or a girl, but as soon as her husband asks her to stop, she does. Margaret is petty and strong and whiney, seemingly only driven by a need for revenge against those she thinks have done her wrong. She never seems to advance beyond the political understanding of a 15 year old, which I think does her a bit of an injustice. The king is watery, and nothing else.

I know I've read other books by Philippa Gregory, but I'm honestly have a hard time remembering those, making me suspect that this book, like the facts from my oh-so-hurried paper, will quickly vanish into the depths of my memory.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

It's All in a Name

It should surprise no one that I love words. I took Latin senior year of college; it was one of my funnest classes, since it combined puzzles and words. (I like crosswords, but I liked Latin better. I even bought Harry Potter: The Sorcerer's Stone in Latin.) But one of the most complicated parts of studying literature is that literary theory is nearly impossible to read. I had to read most articles twice, once to get the idea of the article and once to truly understand. Because here's the thing. How do you question the act of reading and what words mean through reading? You're questioning the meaning of the method you are using to question meaning. It's impossible to do that in any straight-forward method. To quote this week's book, The Name of the Wind, "using words to talk of words is like using a pencil to draw a picture of itself, on itself."

And one of the most fundamental questions is what do words mean. What do names mean? How can you capture an experience, a moment, a person? Given this, it's not surprising that there is a trope in fantasy of the power of the name. By knowing the true name of someone or something, a word that somehow encapsulates their being, you gain power over them. You have a way to see all the things they try to hide, all the parts of themselves they don't want someone else to know.

The Name of the Wind dances around this. By knowing the true name of the wind, a person can command the wind to attack someone, or to stop that person from falling. But the book goes beyond the trope. Rothfuss does a fabulous job of creating a new world, with its own legends and rules and culture. He includes the power of names, but talks more of humanity's ability to define itself. The main character, Kvothe, has had many names, played many roles, is defined by many people. By playing those roles and going by those names, he is redefined and redefines himself. The same issue with names is true of his love interest, Denna. Her name, her identity is constantly in flux. In to Kvothe, she seems to garner power from playing outside of the system. People tell stories about her and what her role is, but she seems to ignore that. She plays her own games and sets her own rules. She hides herself, both physically and emotionally, and because of that, no one else can define her.

Yet she is lonelier than Kvothe. He, at least, has good friends. He is allowed inside the system, despite his rebellious nature. She seemingly is only friends with Kvothe, a man with an inner knowledge of names. Is Rothfuss, then, suggesting that allowing others to name you is necessary to be close to them? Is it an intrinsic part of humanity? Without that closeness, she seems to be an idol to many. Something distant that they can love, lust after, but never truly know. And idols don't have friends. They don't have lovers. They have worshipers.

In the end, the book speaks of masks; wearing a mask can change who you are by changing who you believe yourself to be. Words have power, more so because of their fluidity than because of their ability to describe. Which then begs the question. Can only simple things be named, walls, movements of air? Where is the limit? If humans define themselves, what about other animals? What about trees? Is it knowing the power of definition that frees us? What does this mean for those who refuse to play in that system, like Denna? Is she, by refusing to allow others to define her, casting off her humanity?

Sunday, April 07, 2013

An Excuse

So I haven't forgotten about blogging this week. But I'm behind on finishing my book (less that 100 pages left of The Name of the Wind) and am so exhausted I'm nearly incoherent. (Blame IA Summit, which was a great experience.) I promise I'll update in the next few days.