lecturettes

Video Killed the Paper Star (Part II)

In the first of these VKPS posts, I discussed and showed the Grammar Video Lesson assignment. Of course, you can surely see, lovely lurkers, how this assignment could work quite well in any class subject, any field.

The second way I encourage video projects instead of writing is in the Reading Response. Now, as a prof of the humanities, I perforce assign lots of reading to my students. I curate the reading carefully, and I always ask for a Reading Response (with a few specific guidelines as far as what I’d like to see in their responses). Basically, I want to see that they’ve done the reading, and I want to know what they think about it. More: I want them to connect the readings to other stuff they’re doing, and synthesize it within the rest of their scholarly (and other) experiences.

The Reading Responses (oh, and these are for ALL my courses, not just the ones on writing) usually end up being a few paragraphs of sloppy writing and an accompanying image up on a blog (my assigning blog creation for classes is a whole ‘nother post). But I always give the students the vlog option. Which is simply that they can record a video of their reading response in lieu of a written one, and they post it the same way they would a written response.

Surprisingly, not many students opt for the video version of this, but two students in particular found the option invaluable.

Nate’s writing skill wasn’t top notch, but his immersion in the stage combat class material was. He would ruminate on the readings into his phone while walking through campus, interspersing his thoughts with footage from class, making for an engaging, thoughtful, and thorough response. I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much from a written response from him, and he also got interested in video composition, adding these skills to his technological knowledge in classes. There’s a technology requirement in all general ed courses (which this one wasn’t), which is another reason why assigning videos is a good thing in the comp courses. Here are two examples of Nate’s work from advanced stage combat at Metro. These were from a few years ago, so if you wonder at the video quality, that’s why.

the final over view from Nathan Taves on Vimeo.

Another interview with me and suported by the club. from Nathan Taves on Vimeo.

Jackson is a Composition student of mine. Now these classes are all about writing essays, and for him, writing is a major struggle. So when I gave him the vlog option for the reading responses, he jumped at the chance to have some assignments that didn’t involve writing. Thing is, when he shared his notes for his video responses with me, it was apparent that his understanding of the reading was complete, and when you see his videos, you can hear yourself how intelligent and on top of the material he is. If I had not given him the option to respond with video instead of writing, you better believe I wouldn’t have been able to tell this.

Reading Response Chapter 1 from Jackson Stallings on Vimeo.

Reading response ch 14 from Jackson Stallings on Vimeo.

So there you have it. Two instances of video assignments working well for higher education. That’s not to mention the read-aloud assignment for Children’s Literature…..

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Yet Another Semester (and Quarter)

…and my musings withal.

This quarter at DU I’m teaching a grad level creative writing course called Fiction Fundamentals. We are putting the “fun” in “da mental.” Or something. So far, I’ve very much enjoyed our discussions about the readings especially, and I can’t wait for our first big workshop!

Front Range started last week, and I’m teaching two Comp I classes and one Comp II class (that last is on Saturday mornings. Ugh.), and they’ve already started their class blogs. Comp I is now embarking on their Mini-Essays (stay tuned here for winning ones), and Comp II is about to be assigned the Elevator Pitch, which is a fun way I like to begin a class all about arguments, all the time.

It’s a lot of bus/light rail commuting (4X/week), so I’ve been listening to podcasts: mainly the Columbo podcast and former student JD’s Left Hand/Right Brain podcast (on which I will appear soon–stay tuned)!

At Regis, I’m doing the one-on-one thing as usual: this session it’s a Developing Character course, a Travel Writing course, and I’m advising a Creative Capstone as well. At Metro, I’m teaching the online version of Staging Cultures again, which is always fun, as it has a wide and odd array of plays to read.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

The show I’m in, I Miss My MTV, is opening Friday night at the DCPA!! It’s tech week, kids! Will I live? Only if I can find a way to buy more coffee for the household…….

the freshly raised graffiti backdrop of IMMMTV, made by talented tattoo artist Sal Tino.

the freshly raised graffiti backdrop of IMMMTV, made by talented tattoo artist Sal Tino.

Musings on a New Semester

…and a new quarter, too. As DU is on the quarter system, my two classes for them begin this week. one is an online course called Writing the Short Story, which is a graduate-level writing workshop on, you guessed it: short stories. This is a new one for me, so right now I’m doing the dance of the teacher-as-pirate: deciding what materials to keep from the other professor’s work, what to invent of my own, and how to adapt. It should be fun–the most fulfilling courses I get to teach is when I help students with their creative work. Of course, it’s also the most hard work…

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I found this on my facebook feed, so I have no credit for this image. Wait–do you have to give credit for a meme?

The other DU course I’ve got going on is an on-ground course called Discovering Creative Energies. It’s a course for undergrads (adult learners), about the form and function of creativity: what it is, what it does and means cognitively, etc. Plus we get to keep a journal, which I always love. And need. I don’t do enough creative work on my own without external requirements like this, and even though it’s actually a requirement for my students and not me, I impart the deadlines on myself too. As my Mom always taught me, too: it’s good practice as a teacher to do the generation/output with the students–to model the process as well as be inspiring with her product.

At Metro, I’m riding along in Week 4 of an online class called Staging Cultures, which is an upper-division course for undergrads that centers on diversity in theatre through history. This iteration of the course focuses on colonialism in particular, and how that feeds into the theatrical works of both the conquerors and the conquered. We read a play a week in that class, and most of them were ones I hadn’t read before teaching this for the first time last Fall. Celebrating the brilliant obscure, in many cases.

Finally, at Front Range I’m teaching three (count ’em: 3) sections of Composition I. Beginning essay writing for incoming community college freshmen. Times three. Twice a week. Right now we’re in Week 3, and they just handed in their mini-essays (look for prize-winners here forthwith), and are now beginning Exemplification Essays. Which are essays that center on use of examples for support. Also I know from this class one shouldn’t use “finally” in one’s conclusion as that’s hacky high school writing. That reminds me: I actually have a few high school kids in these classes. So far they’re right up to par with the rest.

Of course, at Regis I’m doing my normal handful of one-on-one writing courses and Capstones. I’ve got a Creative Non-Fiction student this session, which is refreshing as I don’t work in that genre very much.

So.

Yeah.

I’m not picking this semester to quit my addiction to caffeine.

Recipe For Poetry

This, from my series of lectures from old and/or defunct classes. This is Lecture #7 from DU’s erstwhile Writers on Writing course, and is an introduction to poetry.

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Lecture 7: Recipe for Poetry

Many people of all ages have this crazy idea that poetry is stuffy, difficult, lofty, and way beyond them. They feel that they have to write an “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or understand just how important that little red wagon is in order to attain the vasty height of poem reader-hood. And writing poetry? Forget it, they’re not that “deep.”

In fact, poetry is the oldest and most profound way humans communicate. Song, image, sound, is as old as our upright crania, and as essential to our culture.Greek+vase

To talk about (and to write) poetry (as opposed to prose and story), one needs less a set structure (like a plot) than a recipe. There are three essential “poeia”s which, combined, make poetry what it is. (1) The recipe of three ingredients is as follows:

  1. Phanopoeia       (image)
  2. Melopoeia         (music)
  3. Logopoeia         (intellect)

1.) Phanopoeia

…is the language of image. Rich image is often more important, even supercedes, any narrative in poetry. All five senses are important in poetic image, and often in contemporary poetry you see either collaboration or other combinations of picture and word. There is the literal way to do this (concrete poetry, or additions to visual art, comics, or picture books), but in essence all poems have image at their center. Read this sample of phanopoeia in the first two stanzas of Linda Hogan’s “Bear Fat”:

When the old man rubbed my back

with bear fat

I dreamed the winter horses

had eaten the bark off trees

and the tails of one another.

I slept a hole into my own hunger

that once ate lard and bread

from a skillet seasoned with salt.   (2)

We’ve got the tactile (the feel of the fat and the massage), the visual (the horses and trees), taste and smell (the fried lard-and-bread image), and hearing (horses chewing bark, frying skillet), and this all in the first two stanzas. Notice the blank verse: no strict set meter other than what comes naturally to the English language. What a beginning reader of poetry should “get” out of this is not necessarily what Hogan “meant” by the lines, but the images themselves. Poetry is like mythology, in that every individual reader will take a poem’s images differently, and the images, free of spoon-fed “meaning,” can take on as many meanings as there are imaginative possibilities.

 

2.) Melopoeia

…is the sound of the poem. There may be no meaning or narrative at all to a poem, only sound. The sounds of poetry come directly from poetry’s root: song. Each different sound resonates in the reader’s ear with a different reaction; as different colors resound with different human moods, so do the different vowel sounds and consonant stops. Poets have the poetic license (!) to play with these sounds and their combinations, which is where certain set structures like sonnets and haiku and rhyme schemes come from. A master of melopoeia, Dylan Thomas centered his work all around sound. Here’s the first stanza of “All all and all the dry worlds lever”:

All all and all the dry worlds lever,

Stage of the ice, the solid ocean,

All from the oil, the pound of lava.

City of spring, the governed flower,

Turns in the earth that turns the ashen

Towns around on a wheel of fire.     (3)

Of course the first thing you’ll notice in the difference between poetry and prose is the line  breaks! What are they there for? They do what all punctuation does: they provide a breath break. All commas, periods, dashes, ellipses, and line breaks do this, in different degrees. The line is a breath unit (4)–so Thomas’ commas and periods at the end of his lines make for longer breath pauses. I would recommend reading this particular piece aloud. Loudly. Listen to the repeated gong-notes of the vowels, the “pound of lava” going through the whole piece. Poets make language into a meal (and prose writers can learn a lot from this practice).

 

3.) Logopoeia

…can be better translated into a “dance of ideas.” (5) Stressing intellectual ideas, putting forth ideology and philosophy, poetry has long been a changer of history, as well as a “recycl[er] of a culture’s ruins.” (6) Poetry has been the most powerful protester and cause for many a cultural change. That’s not to say that a beginning reader of poetry should be bogged down by trying to figure out a poem’s “deep profound meaning” each time they read. A good poem should convey its “dance of ideas” through its image and sound selection, and meanings, as discussed above, can be as multifold as a poem’s syllables. Check out the three fractured haiku that make up Jack Collom’s “Indefinite Articles”:

an opinion

is like a moon

in a song

why should a

poem act so tough, it

has no feelings

Everything boils down

to a chunk of Roquefort,

which gets lost.     (7)

The light-hearted jab at poetry “acting tough” is a great thing for beginning readers and writers of poetry to remember: that song is in all of us, and a poem itself isn’t the feelings, the feelings are within us. The image of a moon in a song is a vivid visual and aural one, but why is it Collom’s definition of opinion? The reading of such potent little gems will differ for each person reading it. This is the other big thing about poetry vs. prose: in a poem, the language is condensed, heightened.  Anything said, any image conveyed, any repeated sound, is magnified by virtue of the poem’s line break form and length. This is why magic spells of old were often written in verse: the potency of the word, its actual physical power, was thought of as more powerful in poetry.

But then sometimes all it boils down to is “a chunk of Roquefort, / which gets lost.”

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(1) Ezra Pound’s setup, channeled through Anne Waldman, Naropa University lectures

(2) From The Book of Medicines, Coffee House Press, 1993

(3) From Collected Poems, New Directions, 1957

(4) From Lorna Dee Cervantes, Naropa SWP lecture, 1999

(5) Ezra Pound again, again through Anne Waldman

(6) Steven Taylor, panel discussion, Naropa SWP 1999

(7) From The Task, Baksun Books, 1996

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The POV Conundrum

More from the series of lecturettes from old and/or defunct classes. This is the 5th lecturette from DU’s defunct Writers on Writing course, which was for creative writing students in their graduate Liberal Arts program at University College.

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The POV Conundrum

 

There’s more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy.  –Philip Pullman

Last week in Introduction to Fiction at Metro, I discussed “The Tell-Tale Heart” with a handful of college freshmen. They all agreed that it was the most entertaining story they had read so far this semester, but were uncertain as to why. Something about the immediacy of it, they intimated: there was an element of suspense in “how Poe wrote it,” or maybe it was his “writing style.” What is his writing style?–I asked. They didn’t know: what does “writing style” mean? Is it the choice of words, the breadth of vocabulary, that ever amorphous term “voice,” or what?

The conclusion we reached had to do with Poe’s POV-character voice. They were surprised to find that nothing actually supernatural occurred in the story (having heard of Poe but having never read any of his work before now). At least, the eerie spooks they all expected were all in the narrator’s head, not real in the world of the story. They were also surprised that it wasn’t suspenseful because of it being a mystery story, either–I mean, we all know who dunit and how he dunit, there was no detective lifiting fingerprints to find the murderer, no Columbo closing in on court-accepted evidence. So what is this story, then?–I asked. What is it about? “It’s all about the main character’s madness,” one student replied.Clarke-TellTaleHeart

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is first-person POV and stays with the same character through the emtire story. But the story doesn’t take place at the scene of the POV-character’s craziness and murder: it’s implied he’s telling us about what happened sometime later. He also keeps repeating that he’s not insane, and uses his narrative to attempt to prove it to us, the readers. “Hearken,” he says, “how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” Of course, each instance he brings up allows us to understand more and more how insane he really is. This story is actually so much a monologue in style, it could almost be shelved with the dramatic literature. And, of course, it is a classic example of the “unreliable narrator.”

When you pick up this story again (and other stories) for this week’s exercise, look at punctuation and typeface: these things make the sound of a character’s voice vivid enough to hand to an actor (in fact, it’s said that punctuation was invented as a system of cues for a reader-aloud to know when to pause for breath). Notice how many pauses the POV-character takes, and how long. Notice the length of their sentences, and if that changes. Look at use of font changes like italics or all-caps, for emphasis. Notice any spelling oddities to illustrate dialect. Your mind can take the theatrical cues from the text itself to create the sound of a voice in your head. Try reading passages aloud. This is especially prevalent in older works of literature (especially any that pre-dates TV).

Ways Established Authors cheat, Making it Unfair For the Rest of Us:

POV and POV shifts are some of the most difficult techniques for a prose writer to master–I myself have been know to switch out of POV without realizing it, driving not only myself but my readers nuts. My problem is, I’ve been a reader forever (since about 1 & 1/2 years old, before I could talk), and so I’m heavily influenced by classic and/or phenomenal authors who are allowed to mess with the rules because they’re so good at the rules themselves.* So I try something similar, and all I’ve done is create a sloppy POV. Here are some of my favorite unfair examples:

1.) Fritz Lieber, author of the Lankhmar adventures, goes into and out of the POV of both his anti-heroes, but usually no other characters. So there’s no author-as-narrator, but also no limitation as such to either Fafhrd’s voice or the Gray Mouser’s voice only. And then, to make matters worse, there’s often information given that neither character knows / is present for, so what the heck POV is Leiber using? He’s not making mistakes, is he?

Well, no, actually–Leiber uses a brilliant device for his involved-author-narrator in those cases: phrases like “They say the two heroes did such-and-such, but but historians still argue,” or “For a while, the twain pass out of record, but by piecing together events, one can surmise…” In other words, Leiber’s involved-author voice is actually the POV of a group: the gossips and historians of the city. “They say,” or “Have you heard?” takes care of what would otherwise be either cumbersome POV shifts, or the inclusion, on and off, of an omniscient author-narrator. This way, we stay firmly within the world.

2.) Peter S. Beagle’s incredible novel The Innkeeper’s Song has chapters titled by character name, so it’s easy to see who we are supposed to “be” during that chapter. Faulkner does this too. And depending on what’s happening, he chooses which character should relay what information, so the various perspectives on sometimes the same events not only paints each character more vividly than a limited-1st, but also reveals secrets with the most emotional impact.

3.) Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series (especially the first one) has an involved omniscient author POV too, but instead of it being the author’s voice (a-la Dickens), the POV is that of the Guide itself, sort of a PDA of all possible information in the galaxy one might need (and much that one doesn’t). Using this mechanical “character” as the involved omnisceint author, we get some hysterical dry humor, at times almost a MST3K-like commentary on events.

4.) YA novel Mara, Daughter of the Nile does the whole-chapters-in-different-POVs to good effect. It’s a thriller/suspense novel set in Ancient Egypt, and who the POV is at any time is crucial to the suspense: in a mystery or a thriller, when a reader knows a thing is more important than what she knows. Author McGraw also totally cheats: a couple scenes are in the POV of the egyptian goddess of the night and childbirth, Nuit. Nuit is not involved emotionally or vitally in the events taking place, but can literally look down on the characters and what they are doing, relaying information in a very detached manner, instead of a rapid POV-switch.

As you skim your favorites noticing POV, see how and why these authors do what they do. See if you can mess around within your own fiction: see where you get too cinematic, where you shift POV, if you can tell, and if you should. Try limiting yourself to just one of your characters’ POV for a while, see if it changes your intimacy with the character, if he tells you more about himself than you knew before.

*It was the illustrator Hirschfeld who said something about the only reason he could represent, say, an arm with only one curved line was because he knew exactly how to draw the arm with anatomical accuracy first.

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Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle

Another in the series of lecturettes from old and/or defunct courses. This from a course called “Writers on Writing” I taught a few times at DU many years back. This is a Week 6 lecture from 2006, and their readings would have been Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing and Philip Pullman’s speech about writing here.

 

Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle (1)

My favorite (book) is always the one I’m working on, or the one that’s just come out. Not the one I just finished working on, because as soon as the manuscript leaves home, I become convinced that it’s the most appalling piece of earwax that ever slew trees. Not until the typeset galleys arrive for proofing do I begin to think that I’ve been a teensy bit hard on the poor thing. And when the author’s copies of the finished book land on the doorstep, voila! A miracle of transformation. It’s suddenly a dear little book, with such a cute little spine, and the most adorable running heads…(2)

The main idea I’d like to briefly ruminate about this week is that of the Muse (in Bradbury’s terms); and this concept that if you force your writing, it won’t come. How many writing instructors have you had that make you do Timed Writing or I Remember or Morning Pages until you’re plaid in the face? What these exercises do is they tease the Muse into following you–the more you write down “this is stupid, I remember nothing, I can’t see straight, how much longer, my knees are falling asleep, I have carpal tunnel syndrome…” sudddenly in the middle of the dross will emerge a sparkle. Something weird, unusual for you, something you would never plan on writing, something truly worth cutting and polishing and setting in white gold and selling on the black market. But the little gem wouldn’t have come without sifting through all that dirt first.

My own version of Bradbury’s cute little Muse concept is a bit grittier, and came first from a theatrical experience, not a writing

Fuck it, we're the Muses.

Fuck it, we’re the Muses.

one at all. Beware, it’s a Rated R phrase:  I call it the Fuck It Moment.

We’ve all had them–struggling with that long par 4 hole, trying so hard to swing a carefully chosen club just right, and what happens? Plunk! in the pond. (3) Only when you’re so frustrated you’re almost going to scream (except you can’t because it’s a golf course and you’re supposed to keep quiet), THEN you think to yourself, “Fuck it!” and just swing the damn thing, and…what? Whoa! 280 yards, straight down the fairway!

My own personal ground- and career-breaking Fuck It Moment came when I was in the final semester of one of the final studios in acting school, the hard-core training nearly done. I was doing a scene with a good friend, also a fabulous actor, and we specifically chose this scene because we knew we were superior actors and it was a notoriously difficult scene to pull off well. (4) I’m sure you can see what’s coming, right? We labored on that scene until we were both exhausted, every time we rehearsed it, and it remained nothing but mediocre at best. Over and over our instructor said, “I don’t understand why this isn’t working for you.” The scene was shallow, melodramatic and boring, and and we were at our wits’ end. No amount of homework-rehearsal made it better–in fact, it just made our scene worse as we began to hate it as we burned out on it.

Time came for the final showing of this scene in class, pretty much one of the last bits of graded acting we were to do for our BFA degree. Not only did we know perfectly well our scene still sucked, but the instructor knew, too. She’d given us private rehearsals (extra ones) to no avail. Here we were, the two talents, about to bite it in front of everyone that had, up till then, respected us. What to do?

That’s right: I said “Fuck it! Let’s just do this,” to my partner, and we did. Neither of us cared anymore–all the work we had done wasn’t helping, so fuck it. I went off, laughing thorugh most of my lines, moving around the studio in ways I’d never rehearsed, letting my voice go everywhere in my range, and succumbing to exhausted tears. Then laughing through them. My partner reacted wholly honestly to my weirdness, not sure what to do about any of it but just go on.

When we finished, breathing heavily, mussed and sweaty, there was a deep silence in the studio. Then, astonished applause.

Of course, if you know anything about the scene, you’ll notice that what I just described is exactly what is needed in this case: the madwoman and her shocked lover. My forced, depressing-dramatic ideas of how to “act mad” and my partner’s overly-morose ideas of what his “reactions” should be were too calculated and therefore not the correct choices, acting-wise. I had, as Bradbury says, scared the Muse away by whipping the scene to death with what I thought were “good acting techniques.” When I said Fuck It, I let go all those set ideas, all those expectations, all my inhibitions and went with literally whatever, NOT THINKING about whether it was any good or not because clearly it wasn’t going to be.The result of which is some of the best acting I’ve done to date, and certainly one of the best scenes in the class.

I’m sure you’ve understood by now that my point in relating this personal anecdote is that it relates completely and absolutely to the process of writing (and most arts, I would aver). The catch with this kind of thinking (as some of you observed last week in the DBs) is that the letting go cannot and does not work unless first you have a solid base of technique. This is something that Bradbury, in my opinion, doesn’t stress enough. If you have been writing pages and pages a day, if you read constantly, if you take classes, then you will have a good intake and output that will mean when you reach your own Fuck It Moment, you will know how to write to keep up with it. If I hadn’t had nearly four years acting training before the above anecdotal example, you better believe the scene would have fallen apart in a big mess. So remember that too: it’s the same thing Pullman says in our next week’s reading: he started with the yellow Post-it notes, then ended up throwing them away and just writing. But the Post-It note phase is still essential to the process. Without that solid base, your wild ride wth the Muse will leave you with nothing more than wounds and a big mess. But with the solid base of technique, experience, and/or training, you’ll get off the roller coaster bruised and shaking, but with a good first draft clutched in your fist.

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(1) This chapter, in Zen in the Art of Writing, is optional reading, as it is very similar to past-read chapters. I just love the title so much…

(2) Emma Bull, from an online interview at greenmanreview.com.

(3) From Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss.

(4) The final scene from Chekhov’s The Seagull. Nina comes back and is out of her mind. You know, “I am an actress, I am a seagull,” that? Those of you from Creative Expressions class can understand my approach to Chekhov now in a new light.

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Who is the Bad Guy?

This, lovely lurkers, is the first lecturette from now-defunct graduate-level writing and lit course from DU called “Villains, Monsters, and Foes.” In it, I describe the overarching study of the villain character and introduce the three-pronged approach I made for the course: the Monster, Fair-Faiced Villain, and Villain Within. I’d like to hear your comments here in response to the discussion board prompt. I also want to go more into Marina Weber’s concept of the Beast-as-Cyborg, in a post of its own soon.

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Who Are You?                                   

Archetypes are forms, symbols, or images that have universal meaning and inspire an original model, or prototype.[1]

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized.[2]

villian

A classic villain with a classic design.

Okay, numerous and well-organized agents, 🙂 this is the idea for the quarter: to explore many samples of the villain archetype, hopefully to inspire your own villain prototype to emerge.

Who is the villain? The antithesis of the hero? Someone with a physical or psychological defect? The hero’s best friend? That sinister bald guy petting his cat? Why does the villain hate the hero so much, and why does he make it a point to get in the hero’s way? What does the villain want?

That’s really the question, isn’t it—as realistic villains normally are after the same goals the heroes are. A non-stereotypical antagonist may not even understand his actions as being necessarily bad, or if so, may feel that his selfish or wicked actions are a means to an end.  When discussing the villain Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Paul Kocher asserts that evil is self-centered; that the essence of the villain is that domination-lust, the desire to be “king of other wills,” the intense (and often paranoid) protection of ego to subordination of all else, and the “lack of imaginative sympathy” is what the hero has that he lacks, which often leads to his downfall.[3]

Think about the overall theme of hubris, or overweening pride, as we explore the three types of villain this quarter:

  1. The Monster:  ugly, deformed, alien, artificial, the “other” in any way
  2. The Fair-Faced Villain:  the one whose villainy is hidden under an attractive façade
  3. The Villain Within:  split-personalities, either literal or figurative
  4. we’ll also speak briefly about the anti-hero and tragic hero—not quite goodies, not quite baddies?

Who are the already-written characters you love to hate? Why do you think they are effective as characters? Let’s talk about this on our first DB.

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[1] Floyd Rumohr, from Movement for Actors, Nicole Potter, ed. NY: Allworth Press, 2002 (emphasis mine)

[2] Sherlock Holmes, from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem

[3] Paul H. Kocher, from Master of Middle Earth, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1972.

Love in War

More from the defunct course lecturette series, this from Hobbits and Heroes at DU: “Love in War.” I believe at that point we had read through The Return of the King and of course various and sundry essays and influential works and things.   ~Jenn

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Love in War

“I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly.”

“Nor would I…therefore I say to you, lady: Stay!  For you have no errand to the South.”

“Neither have those others who go with thee.  They go only because they would not be parted from thee—because they love thee.”

 The cliché “love makes the world go ‘round” is absolutely true in LOTR.  More than being mythologically posing representatives, the “good-guys” in the epic act out of passion and love, which is inevitably how they win the War of the Ring.  Friends, servants, and lovers stick together through the intensely harsh circumstances in the last book, and the many love-ties are the foundations for victory and the basis for the New Age of Middle-earth.

Romantic Love

Arwen and Aragorn:  Though we get to know Aragorn pretty well since his appearance as Strider way back in Bree, we barely see Arwen at all until their story appears in the Appendices.  She is described in detail, her beauty (and apparent wisdom) a beacon to Aragorn through all he endures.  Arwen’s presence is in his mind, particularly before he takes off to the Paths of the Dead:  mainly because he may never exit said place of terror, but also because he has to let Eowyn down gently before he does so.  Arwen’s Galadriel-like bestowing of gifts at the end make her even more what she really is through the epic: a prize that Aragorn (and everybody, since she is now Queen) wins by his victory.  Even earlier in Lothlorien, when Galadriel discusses what Aragorn’s gift is to be: he (and she) speak of Arwen.  She, indeed, is the gift that Galadriel (and Elrond) give, to be collected as long as Aragorn survives to be King.

Eowyn’s Match

Of course we realize that Eowyn is in love with Aragorn (some of us wish he’d end up with her instead of Arwen, but oh well), and it is just before Aragorn leaves for the Paths of the Dead that he actually turns her down, much to everyone’s chagrin:

“Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.”

 In Return of the King, it is made plain that Eowyn really loves Aragorn because of his title and valor—more of a love of glory than a true personal love.  When in the House of Healing in Gondor, she meets and chills out with Faramir, who awakes in her warmth and real love.  Remember, everyone describes Eowyn throughout as the “cold maiden of the Rohirrim,” or something similar, always describing her as cold, aloof.  When Faramir confesses his love, she is transformed:

Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.    

Talk about “warm and fuzzy.”faramir-and-Eowyn-faramir-and-eowyn-29599448-1000-571

Friendship

Legolas and Gimli

Two races, both alike in dignity, when put into an adventure, learn love and understanding.  Gimli’s transformation happens in Lorien, when the love of the Lady Galadriel moves him to most un-Dwarf-like behavior.  Legolas and Gimli both have a friendly contest of how many orc-heads each has hewed, which is so endearing it’s some of the best (and necessary) bits of comic relief we get in the series of epic battles  in RoTK.  They both make each other a promise: that if both survive and Suron is indeed destroyed, then Gimli will show Legolas through the great caves behind Helm’s Deep, and Legolas will in turn lead Gimli through Fangorn.  They are both still of their own kind, yet when confronted with the unknown, each is a comfort to the other.  We also find out in the Appendices that Gimli eventually follows Legolas into the eternal Elfhome lands.  Like Pippin and Merry in Elrond’s Council, or Sam trailing Frodo, Gimli and Legolas are so attached that Legolas won’t go into eternity without Gimli still at his side.

Frodo and Sam

I have been calling Sam Frodo’s “caddie” through the past couple of weeks.  It is in this “master/servant” relationship that the love between Frodo and Sam develops.  A combination of the Victorian era’s ideal of “romantic friendship” and the relationship between an officer and attendant in early war shows these two with arguably the strongest love-bond in the story.  Contemporary readers (and film-watchers) have been mystified by this relationship, as Sam continues to call Frodo “master” yet the physical tenderness between them (lying with head in lap, holding hands, even a chaste forehead-kiss) adds up to apparent homosexuality.  But what contemporary folks forget (especially Americans with our Puritanical morals) is that there is such a thing as deep love without sexuality.  Back “in the day,” when men went to school and women didn’t (or went to different schools), the close friendships one made in “high school” and at University would be of one’s own sex.  Holmes and Watson are another famous pair of this “romantic friendship” ideal, also jeered at by modern folks.  But marriage, even as late as the turn of the last century (and even later, let’s be honest), was purely an economical arrangement, not having much to do with mutual partnership and love. Women were not really in society (witness the females in LOTR as per Week 7’s discussions), and so close bonds between young people of mutual interests would nearly always be between men.  When these men would decide to marry, they were lucky to find a woman of good quality who they also loved.  You go, Faramir!

When it comes to the love bonds between the LOTR characters, we have to remember the time periods involved, not only the pseudo-medieval setting of the story itself, but also of the times in which Tolkien wrote.  The troubadour-sung Chivalric Romance is the epitome of Arwen and Aragorn, the eons-long battle between different peoples is given hope in the undying friendship of Legolas and Gimli, and Frodo and Sam represent utter loyalty, even to the depths of Orodruin.  What about Faramir and Eowyn?  There’s nothing like a happy ending for two heroic types who really deserve it!

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Corruption and Redemption

More in the defunct course lecturette series: this from erstwhile DU class Hobbits and Heroes. This lecturette was during our discussion of Return of the King, so by that week we had read the whole trilogy plus The Hobbit, as well as various and sundry essays and things.   ~Jenn

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Corruption and Redemption

 

A Brief History of the Origin of Evil in Middle-Earth:[1]

Melkor (“he who arises in might”) was jealous of Eru [the One] already before Arda [the world] was created, and wanted to be king of other wills himself. When Eru revealed the results of their song to the Ainur [Vala and Maia], Melkor was one of the first to descend into it, mainly from this desire.

…when the Valar finally rested, he and his followers (downfallen Ainur, like Sauron and the later Balrogs) attacked their dwellings and destroyed their Two Lamps (precursors to the Two Trees and the sun and the moon).

…the Noldor first named him Morgoth, “dark destroyer of the world”. With the aid of Ungoliant [mother of the giant spiders, including Shelob] he also managed to destroy the Two Trees and bring darkness to Valinor, before he fled.

Because Morgoth dispersed his essence all over Arda, it is said that all of Arda outside of the Blessed Realm has some evil in it, this being the Morgoth-element.

 

The essence of evil in Middle-earth centers around selfishness, the desire to be “king of other wills,” the intense protection of ego to subordination of all else, and the “lack of imaginative sympathy”[2] which is usually the fatal flaw by which evil is vanquished.  We have to remember that Sauron is not the biggest baddie of Middle-earth: Morgoth (still in chains and diminished in the times LOTR takes place) really is the Root of all Evil, having had Sauron, the Balrogs, and Ungoliant as his best subordinate servants back in the day.  Even though Sauron is an extremely powerful, if non-corporeal, presence in LOTR, we must remember that he is but a Maia (like Gandalf and Saruman), whereas Morgoth is a Vala, a higher being and much more powerful.  Thank goodness Morgoth is out of commission in Middle-earth at the time of our story—if Sauron, his lieutenant, can wreak this much damage and fear, imagine what Morgoth himself must have done back when he ruled from Utumno.

“Nothing is evil in the beginning.  Even Sauron was not so.”

Well, Gandalf should know, he being of the same race as Sauron, and most likely knew Sauron before Morgoth convinced him to turn to evil.  The worst kind of evil, the kind which flatters and seduces, is examined over and over again in LOTR; each time a baddie is defeated, he is given a chance for redemption, and true colors will out when one looks at the choices each character makes.  Sauron is a terrifying Eye, a void with a dominating presence (oxymoron? maybe), but back before he died and came back (like Gandalf) he was handsome and well-spoken, enough so to fool the Elves into forging Rings for him.  His deception is much akin to Saruman’s voice: betrayal masked behind a fair facade.

Boromir’s Fall / Smeagol’s Fall

Both these characters are irrevocably seduced by the domination of the Ring: both fall into the trap of wanting to possess it (Smeagol actually does possess it, to his ruin), and both are ultimately redeemed in death.

When Boromir tries to seize the Ring from Frodo, he subsequently falls on his face, then weeps, realizing what he has done.  He understands, finally and too late, why Elrond and the wise ones in charge did not want to use the Ring, but destroy it.  He dies defending the hobbits Merry and Pippin, and confesses his sin to Aragorn before he dies, thus redeeming his honor.

Smeagol and the Ring are inseparable: he is addicted to it without hope of healing–the Ring cannot be destroyed while Smeagol is alive.  When Frodo, at the Crack of Doom, gives in to the Ring’s power and claims it for his own, only Smeagol’s self-sacrifice (in the guise of mad desire for the Ring) makes it possible for it to finally be destroyed.  Smeagol’s long life of sniveling addiction is redeemed in that last act, and though he does not consciously realize it as such, it is self-sacrifice.  He is the Ring, and for it to be destroyed means he too must be destroyed.denethor_demotional_by_sabervow999-d4ylmcv

Saruman’s Fall / Denethor’s Fall

Saruman and Denethor are more men of intelligence than men of action, like the above fallen figures.  They both, in their peak of good work, prize knowledge greatly, and in particular the knowledge of the darker arts.  Both have one of the palantir and both use it, but, foolishly (as in the seductive trap of the Ring) they both think they can wrest its power from Sauron and rule as a great power in his stead.  This is how both these wise characters come to their doom: they begin to think like Sauron: of domination, and so play right into his hands.

Saruman does not take the chance for redemption given him, not when Orthanc is first taken, nor later when he meets the leftover party on the road as a beggar.  His corruption is not easily erased, however, as the hobbits find out when they return to the Shire.  He has ruined the Shire on his way down, and even in death there is no redemption for him.

Denethor, being a proud man of the blood of Numenor, is easily tricked into believing he has control of his palantir, because Sauron is quite familiar with such pride, and can easily feed him the information he chooses until Denethor collapses into despair and suicide (and filicide. Is that a word? It is now).  The path Denethor follows is no doubt just like the fall of the Nine Kings of Men who are now the Ringwraiths: if Denethor had had the One Ring (or any of the Rings of Power), he’d become a Ringwraith as well. As it is, his life is over even before Gandalf and Pippin arrive.  He achieves no redemption in his death, as suicide is not an honorable way to go in Middle-earth.  Here, Gandalf admonishes Denethor, already in madness, against the sin of suicide (emphasis my own):

            “Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death…and only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.”

Pride and despair: the center of the self-fear that is evil manifest in Middle-earth.  How does one defeat such evil?  With humility, of course: humility, empathy, and hope.

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[1] Go to the “Middle-Earth” wikipedia link, and enter “Morgoth” to read the detailed summary. Bracketed explanations and italicized emphasis are my own.

[2] From “Sauron and the Nature of Evil,” Master of Middle-Earth, Paul H. Kocher

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Tolkien and Faerie

Yet another in the defunct course lecturette series–this is the final lecture from DU class Hobbits and Heroes. At this point in the class, they had read the entire series as well as various and sundry inspirations, fairy tale collections, and essays by Tolkien and others. Hey, it was a graduate level lit course. 🙂 Please to enjoy.   ~Jenn

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Faerie-Speak and Fantasy Closure

 

…for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.[1] Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[2]

Enchanted

There are several scholars who claim Tolkien’s Middle-earth is an actual account of life during a certain time of Earth’s pre-history.  The very end of Return of the King in fact, has everything to do with the Elves leaving for their own Undying Lands, the Dwarves descending and disappearing underground, and Hobbits, well, becoming even more self-contained and quiet a community.  Remember Tolkien’s fatherly-narrator voice in The Hobbit?–describing a hobbit’s silence by gently admonishing the reader that they disappear when “big folk like you and me come blundering along,” intimating that they still exist in this world (perhaps that’s where humans have gotten their misconception of elves and fairies being tiny—we’re getting them mixed up with hobbits).  Some essayists even reference the Nazgûls’ winged steeds, remarking how close the description of such sounds like the pterodactyl.  They also notice the prevalence across cultures of legends of an older, taller, more powerful race as precursors to contemporary man, and remind us that the Age of Men began at the end of Tolkien’s epic.

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A winged Nazgul. See the Black Rider riding it?

Such a reading of the work, though fun and interesting from an anthropology-dabbler or ancient astronomer’s point of view, is in my mind a mistake.  The very nature of Fantasy should be about enchantment, about losing oneself in the Perilous Realm[3] and bringing back new understanding of the real world through the potent lessons magic gives.  That, after all, is the center of Campbell’s “magic formula” of story, and of The Hero’s Journey—the journey of every human through life in this world.  To attempt to rationalize and historicize LOTR is much like taking certain parts of the Bible literally—it is not in every instance appropriate to come to a piece of literature with a literal mind.  Often, the TRUTH of a story is more important than the FACTS, and this is where poetry, mythology, and fairy tales come into play as an important educator.  Without the ability to read a work of enchantment with a mind for the many-layered symbols, one is likely to dismiss fairy-tales as kid’s stuff at best, dangerous escapism at worst.

Remember, there is a difference between a LIE and a METAPHOR.  Just because there was no such physical place as the Garden of Eden doesn’t mean the story isn’t true.  The truth of the story is the metaphor, the symbolic resonance in the heart.  Just because there are no such things as Elves does not diminish their truth, and we should not feel ashamed if, like Sam, we love them.

 

Fantasy is a natural human activity.  It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity.  On the contrary.  The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.  If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured.  If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.[4]

Resonance and Language

It’s amazing how each name in LOTR seems absolutely appropriate.  Even though we may not know OE, Finnish (or Elvish) by heart, the names in Middle-earth add to the truth-resonance of the epic by being based on languages from our own Earth.  So we know, intuitively, that Frodo will be a hero, because his name comes from the OE frod, meaning ‘wise,’ also freoda, ‘protector, defender,’ and freodo, ‘peace, security.’   These embedded meanings in his name gives us his character by intuitive osmosis, before we even see him do anything.

Here is a list, taken from The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Ruth S. Noel, of some major character names from LOTR, and their “real-world” translations.  See what you think of the appropriateness of the name constructions.

Samwise: OE ‘half wise’

Ent: OE ‘giant’

Eowyn: OE ‘one who delights in horses’

Saruman: OE ‘crafty man’ from searu, ‘craft,’ ‘device,’ ‘wile.’

Beorn: OE ‘man’, also Scandinavian bjorn, ‘bear.’

Gandalf: Old Norse Ganndalf, ‘sorcerer elf’

Smeagol: OE smeah, ‘penetrating,’ ‘creeping.’

Thorin: Old Norse ‘bold one’

Gimli: Old Norse ‘lee of flame,’ ‘highest heaven’

Elvish is a completely constructed language, so Legolas is purely an Elvish name, with las meaning ‘leaf.’  Is there a resonance with the lovely sounds of Elvish that makes us think of Latin and Finnish combined, the ancient with the Norse continuance?

[Thanks, everyone, for embarking on the journey to Middle-earth with me this quarter.  I hope you were enlightened and enchanted, and I look forward to our final discussions and your final papers.]

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[1] Tolkien also says, however, that “Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.”

[2] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Story,” Tree and Leaf.

[3] Not to be mistaken for the dangerous habit of escapism, but of a healthful journey into the human psyche, or collective unconscious.

[4] “On Fairy Stories” again.  He also says, on a less depressing note, that “if men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.”

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