Peter Hitchens enlarges on his point about the Middle Ages, but still does not convince me.

He explains his earlier comments:

The point about ‘Game of Thrones’… is that conscience and fear of judgement are entirely absent from the lives of all, and that this is most evident in the deeds of the most successful characters. Compare Hamlet’s self-torture over whether he can kill Claudius , when Claudius is at his prayers. Or the genuine horror of the English people at the alleged murder of the Princes in the Tower by Richard III.

Two things:

  • One, Hamlet was a fictional character written in the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages.  Thus, his behavior is at best an indication of what Shakespeare thought a Prince would behave like, not what they actually did.
  • Two: okay, so the English were properly horrified. But I want to point out that Hitchens is undercutting his own point by bringing up the idea that Richard III would do that. Game of Thrones is about the medieval elite and their ruthless power grabs–just exactly like the real-life power grabs of people like Richard III, Henry II, Henry VIII and so on! He complains “conscience and fear of judgement are entirely absent… in the deeds of the most successful characters”, and yet, by his own showing, the most successful people in the actual Middle Ages were the same way! Nice guys, by most accounts, finished last in the Middle Ages.

Remember, I have no wish to defend Game of Thrones.  I’ve never seen it, and for all I know it may be the worst and most loathsome thing ever to darken a television screen.  I just have issues with Hitchens claiming that “the society it describes is far worse than the Middle Ages”.

Two Flavors of Cynics

There are two definitions of the word “cynic“.  There is the modern definition, which says a cynic is someone who believes people are motivated by selfishness, and tends to assign impure motives to everyone.  And then there is the classic Greek definition that a cynic is someone who rejects all else in the pursuit of virtue.

It’s ironic that the latter definition means “idealist”, which is the opposite meaning of the former definition.  Language is funny.

But I was thinking that some cynics–in the modern sense–are really disillusioned idealists.  I have a friend who is like this.  This person is someone who  wants people and institutions to live up to ideals, but is too smart to willfully be blind to the fact that they don’t.  So, they are cynical about them because they are so disappointed they are not trying to reach the ideal.

Not all “modern” cynics are like this. Some of them never even consider the possibility of things living up to the ideal–they just expect everything to be motivated by self-interest.  To these cynics, the concept of an ideal is absurd–there are no ideals; just fables people make up to sugarcoat their true motives.

These are two different personality types; even though both could be considered “cynics”.  I am not claiming credit for realizing this–it’s probably something I heard somewhere a long time ago and can’t recall the source. But it occurred to me the other day while thinking about my friend, and it seemed the kind if thing we could have an interesting blog discussion about.  So, I ask you readers: does this seem like an accurate description of people you know?

Peter Hitchens and the Christian Restraint of the Middle Ages

Peter Hitchens is one of my favorite conservative writers.  I do not agree with him on very much, but he is an intelligent man, who usually analyzes political and social matters very well, even if he comes to very different conclusions than I do.

That said, sometimes he makes some pretty wacky assertions. For example, in his column today, Hitchens writes:

I am worried by the TV popularity of George R.R. Martin’s clever fantasy Game Of Thrones.

Mr Martin’s imaginary world is frighteningly cruel. The society it describes is far worse than the Middle Ages, because its characters are entirely unrestrained by Christian belief. [Emphasis mine] There’s a lifeless, despised religion but nobody takes it seriously.

I fear it will make those who watch it worse people than they were before.

I never watched this show, or read the books it is based on.   Yet, I still find this statement very, very difficult to believe.  There were a lot of bad things done in the Middle Ages, and its hard to see how George R.R. Martin could have invented something crueler than any one thought to do back then.

My core disagreement with Hitchens is that “Christian belief” made the Middle Ages more restrained.  He would have been correct if he had said that people who practiced Christian teachings were more restrained–”All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword“, after all–but the fact is there have been many people throughout history who professed Christian belief without ever letting the tenets of such belief color their actions in any way.

I think it’s pretty clear there were people in the Middle Ages who were unrestrained by Christian teaching.  And I am only talking about in the places that were generally “Christian” lands–that becomes even more obvious when you consider all the non-Christians in the Middle Ages.

Is April Fools’ Day on the 6th this year? Or am I missing  something?  I wish Hitchens would have gone into more detail about what cruel acts the Christian restraint of the Middle Ages prevented, because I frankly can’t come up with much evidence for the claim.

“The Grand Duke”: Gilbert and Sullivan’s most underrated opera.

[I am not feeling well today--not quite a "broken-down critter", but still, "not at all well".  So, I'm not up to writing a new post.  But! I happened to find this absolutely marvelous video of a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Grand Duke on YouTube. So, in the interest of doing my bit to spread the word of this woefully under-appreciated masterpiece, I'm going to embed the video and include a little essay I wrote some years ago about the opera.]

(Act II is here. Many thanks to YouTube user John Burrows for posting it.)

As I have mentioned before, I really like Gilbert and Sullivan’s last operetta The Grand Duke. Historically, this is the operetta most G&S enthusiasts like least. And, I suppose, they have a few points in their favor, as in the sometimes very bad rhyming on Gilbert’s part. (e.g. “chooses/shoeses”) Also, while he is a good character, the abrupt arrival of the Prince of Monte Carlo in Act II can seem a bit out of nowhere.
But Gilbert’s talent for clever, clear and witty lyrics is not entirely absent, for surely Ernest’s memorable plea

If the light of love’s lingering ember
Has faded in gloom,
You cannot neglect, O remember,
A voice from the tomb!
That stern supernatural diction
Should act as a solemn restriction,
Although by a mere legal fiction
A voice from the tomb!

must rank with Gilbert’s wittiest. And even if it is a groaner, the ingenious lines: “In the period Socratic every dining-room was Attic/(Which suggests an architecture of a topsy-turvy kind)” is probably more amusing than any of the labored puns in H.M.S. Pinafore. Even second-rate Gilbert lyrics are, after all, still very pleasing.

However, I have always felt that Gilbert showed himself off at his cleverest as a writer in Grand Duke, if not as a poet. In fact, the whole premise of the “Statutory Duel” is as good an idea as Gilbert ever had for poking fun at the legal system. If Gilbert’s lyrical talents are a ghost–or rather, “ghoest”–of what they once were, he more than makes up for it with his inventiveness in plotting (Monte Carlan antics aside) and clever dialogue. (If you want to see Gilbert really being lazy, try Utopia, Limited)

As for criticisms that the text is overlong, well, that may be the case. It is possible that Grand Duke is very difficult to perform well, but certainly its story is quite enjoyable to read. Perhaps, that is Gilbert’s major sin here; crafting a story that was, in some ways, not suitable to his medium. As we shall see, however, in many ways Gilbert uses the medium’s conventions to marry form with thematic content in a very ingenious way.

I think it is one of Gilbert’s single best comedic stories; and (contrary to what you may think) a kind of culmination of his works. It is something of an irony that Gilbert and Sullivan, renowned for their “topsy-turvy” whimsicality, should have arguably their topsy-turviest piece ranked as a failure.

One of the major themes of Gilbert’s plays and poems is his annoyance at hypocrisy and artifice. His love of legalistic quibbles is only one manifestation of this, but really it is everywhere. Certainly, a major point in all his collaborations with Sullivan often draw on the idea that “Art is wrong and Nature right”, as Utopia Ltd. put it. But never is artifice and illusion more consistently targeted than in The Grand Duke.

Everything in The Grand Duke is about puncturing illusion, from Julia’s play-acting at “loving” Ernest as per contractual obligation, to the “legal death” mandated by the statutory duel, to Ludwig’s faux-Greek court, to the commoners pretending to be Noblemen in the pay of the Prince of Monte Carlo.

In this way, The Grand Duke attacks illusion and hypocrisy in a way no other G&S operetta ever did. From a thematic point of view, it is coherent; though admittedly a different kind of coherence than one might have been expecting from Gilbert. But it marries Gilbert’s dislike of society’s hypocritical conventions with the conventions of theater itself. Having satirized, everything else, Gilbert is now mocking the very medium he’s using, often by having characters break the fourth wall, as Gayden Wren thoroughly lists in A Most Ingenious Paradox.

As to the characters, is there really another female role in all of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon as funny as Julia Jellicoe? Ruthlessly ambitious, cynical, calculating and bold character who also serves to lampoon stage convention. I’d argue she’s one of the best female roles Gilbert ever wrote.

When I first heard her Act II song, “So Ends My Dream”, I thought it seemed melodramatic and over-the-top, out of place with circumstances, considering she didn’t even really want to be the Grand Duchess that much. Then I realized that’s the point. Julia is a prima donna in every sense of the word; and so she only knows how to react in a theatrical way. She could actually be a tragic character, someone who doesn’t know how to have real emotions because they are so skilled at faking them. (It’s played for humor, but Julia’s claim that her love for her and Ernest’s hypothetical children will be “a mere pretence” is pretty chilling.)

All the other characters are amusing enough–Ludwig, the amiable everyman, Ernest the theater manager and the miserly Grand Duke Rudolph all have some good songs. And even secondary characters have much to recommend them, as in the notary’s dry wit, or the costumier and his hired “peers” bantering.

The Grand Duke is probably my next favorite of their comic pieces after Ruddigore, and I don’t know why it does not enjoy the same popularity as The Mikado or The Pirates of Penzance.

 

Why “Knights of the Old Republic II” has one of the best endings ever.

 

 

The great thing about Knights of the Old Republic II, my favorite video game–heck, my favorite work of fiction–is that the fact that each character is crucial to the major thematic points of the game:

  •  Atton alludes to the last Jedi he kills telling him of a place where Force sensitives are sent by Revan to be broken. This is almost certainly Malachor V.
  • Mira lost her family as a result of the battle, and that is why she became a Bounty Hunter. The Exile’s actions at Malachor shaped her in this way. As Mira says “There’s a lot of lost people out there. Scattered ever since the Mandalorian Wars… if I can find them, maybe, just maybe I can put the Galaxy back together.”
  • HK-47 says that, as result of the destruction at Malachor, Revan was inspired to build him. So, as he puts it, perhaps the Exile is responsible for his creation.
  • Visas’s homeworld was destroyed by Nihilus, who was created by Malachor, and whose fleet was hauled from it. This act has clearly left deep physical and psychological scars on Visas.
  • Yusanis fathered the handmaiden with the Jedi Arren Kae, and he went with her into the Mandalorian Wars, breaking his vow to his wife. This act shames the Handmaiden. Kae (apparently) died at Malachor; making Yusanis enter politics and eventually get assassinated by Revan. He may have been at Malachor, and was obviously deeply affected by the war, hence Brianna’s interest in the Exile, who is the first person she has known since her father who suffered the effects of the war, and her loyalty to Atris, which is to make up for the shame her father’s infidelity brought upon her.
  • Bao-Dur has feelings of guilt about Malachor that made him come to Telos to aid the recovery. He also lost his arm at Malachor. He still harbors feelings of guilt for creating and using the Mass Shadow Generator.
  • Mical the Disciple was turned to his path of “historian and scientist” by the decision of the Exile to go to war, when he was not chosen as a Padawan.
  • The Mandalorians were badly beaten in the battle, necessitating Canderous Ordo (who was also at Malachor) to take up the mantle of Mandalore and reunite the clans on Dxun.
  • G0-T0 exists for the purpose of rebuilding the galaxy from the war.
  • Even the psychotic Hanharr has heard of Malachor. As he asks the Exile: “Did you hear [the Jedi] scream as you butchered the Mandalorian tribes? Did you… kill your heart to shut them out?”

From this alone, we can see that most of the Exile’s party members would not be here were it not for the Exile’s fateful decision at Malachor. But that’s not all…

  • Atris was clearly very close to the Exile in the past, and was affected deeply by her decision to go to war, as well as the resulting horror of the battle of Malachor. This clearly has deep psychological effects on her, possibly contributing to her fall to the Dark side.
  • Darth Nihilus, the closest thing the story has to an out-and-out villain, is at least partially a creation of Malachor. He is often described the most powerful entity in the game, with his presence being felt everywhere, by everyone from Kreia to the Jedi to GO-TO to General Vaklu. (Some players complain that Nihilus is too easy to defeat in combat, after his buildup. This might have been the point, however–too everyone else, he is an unstoppable force of nature; to the Jedi Exile, he’s a pushover)
  • In the game’s pivotal scene, when the Exile returns to the Jedi Enclave to meet/fight the remaining Jedi, it is revealed the s/he was also deeply affected by that last battle, and forced to cut his/herself off from the Force to survive.

All this is certainly enough to prove that indeed the ramifications of the Exile’s choice at Malachor are the central point of the game. It requires many playthroughs to find them all, but the case is overwhelming. But then, in a final masterstroke we are shown other, similar decisions and their consequences play out before us, that allow us to piece together the ultimate theme of the story:

  • The destruction of Peragus serves as an effective opening, because it reminds the Exile, subconsciously, of the annihilation of Malachor. Furthermore, Atris, Lieutenant Grenn, the Ithorians, Colonel Tobin, GO-TO and others all comment on how the lack of fuel will harm Citadel Station. Thus, Exile must come to grips with the “echo” of the destruction of Peragus. This, the game hints, is the first time the Exile has ever truly had to confront the consequences of his/her actions. Thus, by the time she leaves Telos, the Exile has seen or been told of the consequences of two of the more remarkable acts in her life, and Atris even compares the destruction of Peragus to that of Malachor.
  • The scene in which the Exile chooses either to help or furiously dismiss the beggar on Nar Shaddaa is key. Kreia allows the Exile a glimpse at the consequences of his/her choice, and reveals that it is not always as clear-cut as it may appear.
  • Nar Shaddaa is home to refugees from both wars.
  • Dantooine was badly damaged as a result of the Jedi Civil War, which was itself a result of the Mandalorian Wars.
  • Onderon is relatively unaffected by the actions of the Exile prior to the game (though s/he fought on Dxun) but the Onderonian debate between secession and isolation and remaining in the Republic bears a close resemblance to the Exile’s choice of whether to close his/herself off from the Force or to embrace it.
  • Telos presents the Exile with an opportunity for redemption, in the form of whether to help the war-ravaged planet recover, or not. (Though, as we will see, the way to do that isn’t as black and white as it seems.) More immediately, in the game’s final act, the Exile is called upon to save Telos from Darth Nihilus. This episode is particularly ingenious, as forces from Onderon and Dantooine arrive to help the Exile, who wouldn’t have done so otherwise.
  • Of course the recovery efforts on Telos and the Political Situation on Onderon are also interdependent, as the Ithorians are repopulating Telos with the Onderonian’s and Dxun’s beasts.
  • Korriban presents the Exile with the cave, where s/he must confront the pivotal moments in her past, and reflect on whether s/he would do things differently.
  • The Ubese warriors in Visquis’s lair are bitter about the bombing the Republic wrought against them in the war, and have thus been made into “weapons”, as Visquis says. This foreshadows the creation of the Sith Lord Nihilus and his hordes by the activation of the Mass Shadow Generator, as well as Revan’s ultimate plan.
  • Visas, like the Exile, has, as Sion puts it “kept living while the Universe dies” around her. She has seen a planet destroyed, and it has affected her tremendously. (Of course, her planet wouldn’t have been destroyed if… see above.)
  • The impact of the destruction and subsequent restoration of Telos is seen in many facets of the game, from the separation of Aiada and Lootra on Nar Shaddaa, to the beast rider whose Boma escapes outside of Iziz, to the oft-repeated need for fuel for Citadel Station by everyone from Lt. Grenn to Atris to Col. Tobin, show the echoes of Saul Karath’s attack.
  • Telos is again threatened towards the end of the game in the battle against Lord Nihilus, and here again, the Exile sees the consequences of his/her decisions (Peragus, Dantooine, Onderon and Malachor) play out.

The entire game builds, subtly yet relentlessly, into an awesome thematic experience that shows all the consequences of Malachor, of Peragus, of Telos, of the Mandalorian Wars and ultimately, as Kreia says: “of all wars, of all tragedies that scream across the galaxy.” Again and again, consequences of actions are shown, leading up to the last planet, where the Exile must walk upon the dead planet of Malachor, and culminating in the ending scene, in which Kreia tells the Exile how his/her choices will impact the planets and people s/he has met throughout the journey. This works well, because the player has already seen the consequences of past choices throughout the game.

But the true genius is not only that the theme is so brilliantly and so pervasively intertwined with the story, but also that it does not carry any judgment. Things may be called “light” and “dark” by characters, but the player can make their own decision. Is the “independence” of Gen. Vaklu or the “cooperation” of Queen Talia better for Onderon? The pragmatic Czerka  Corp. or the more spiritual Ithorians better for Telos? And the central question of the game: was the destruction of Malachor justified? It killed many, and ruined the lives of many more. On the other hand, would not countless more have died if the war had not ended, as the Exile can argue? And anyway, if not for Malachor, Mira, Atton, Bao-Dur, Mandalore, Brianna and Visas would not be around to help the Exile on the journey. And perhaps the most widely asked question: Is Kreia a Jedi or a Sith, good or evil?  It must be played through many times, and the player must make many different choices, but the game’s theme remains awesomely consistent no matter how the game is played.

People complain about the game’s ending, but frankly, I found it perfectly coherent and satisfying, once I understood all these concepts. It’s actually one of the best endings I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Help

I have a problem: I’m trying to find a ghost story I vaguely recall reading years ago, but I can’t remember the title or author.  All I can remember is that it’s a short story about a monk who reads a book of forbidden lore and summons ghosts or monsters.

Yeah, I realize that’s a pretty nebulous description–probably fits a lot of stories. But if any of my readers know what story I’m alluding to, I’d like to know. It’s been annoying me.

Categories: Books

“Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now” and “Far Cry 2″ and “Spec Ops: The Line”

[WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all four of the things mentioned in the title.]

About five years ago, I read Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.  Then, last year, I played Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 2, which are based in part on that book.  And then, yesterday, I watched Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie also based on that book, and which influenced both of those games.

As you may know, it has long been my contention that video games are an art form on a par with books and film.  And of these four works, it is my belief that one of the games–Spec Ops–is the best.  That said, it is also the most recent, and it uses the expectations built by the preceding tales to weave its narrative.

To begin with, I didn’t really like Conrad’s novella that much.  It wasn’t awful, but I didn’t see what was so great about it.  So there’s this guy, Kurtz; and this other guy Marlow, has been sent to find him in the Congo.  But, turns out, he’s gone nuts and is dying.  And the reason this happened to Kurtz is because being in the Congo was brutal, and he couldn’t take it.

It was never clear to me what the point was.  I guess it was that it was no fun being in the ivory business in the Congo, and that colonialism was awful, both for the colonized and the colonizers.  Well, yes–and I suppose that was more of a shocker in the era when “colonialism” was not a dirty word–but I didn’t really see any major moral depth to it.

Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the story, set in the Vietnam War, in which Marlow is named “Willard” and has been sent by the U.S. military to assassinate Col. Kurtz who has gone mad.  And so he does.

A big problem I had with the movie was that it is really thin.  In the first 10 minutes, we are told that Kurtz is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives.  And then, two hours later, we meet Kurtz and find out that, sure enough, he really is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. There is a strong implication along the way that the Vietnam war generally is also insane, but that wasn’t much of a revelation to me.

(Aside–the theme of “War Is Insane, And Makes Everyone In It Insane” was done much better, in my opinion, in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It ends with the line “Madness, madness”, which would have fit Apocalypse Now as well.)

Kurtz has no character development. Neither does Willard, really: he starts off as a battle-hardened, PTSD soldier and finishes it as an even more battle-hardened PTSD solider. I guess his crew-mates on his boat are supposed to show the ravages of war taking their toll, but they all had “doomed” written all over them from scene one.

I read on Wikipedia that they considered a different ending, where Willard joins Kurtz and fights off an airstrike on the base.  While seemingly impossible logically, that ending would make more sense thematically.  Personally, I would have liked to see an ending where Kilgore showed up and destroyed Kurtz’s base.  It would at least justify why they spend so much time on his character early in the movie.

(Another aside: Wikipedia also says that “Coppola decided that the ending could be “‘the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it’s the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough’”.  For the record–this is the version of the story I remembered, not the one in the 1991 movie of the same name I wrote about a few months ago. But that’s mythology for you.)

(Last aside: this post has too many asides.  One of them should be removed.)

I already wrote about Far Cry 2 in this post pretty thoroughly, so I won’t dwell on it overmuch.  The short version is that it, like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now before it, is well done, but empty. Although, I suppose it does sort of do what I criticized Apocalypse for not doing, in that there is some vague hint of character development in the sense that the player’s character is being sent to eliminate the Jackal in the beginning and winds up siding with him at the end.

To recap, in Heart of Darkness, we have this guy Kurtz.  Nobody is quite sure what his deal is, and we gradually find out that he went crazy in the jungle because everything was brutal.  Then, in  Apocalypse Now, we have this guy Kurtz who everybody thinks went crazy in the jungle because everything was so brutal–and indeed, so he did.  And then in Far Cry 2, we have this guy the Jackal, who goes crazy in the jungle because everything is so brutal.

Now, you will immediately see where Spec Ops is really different–here we have this guy Konrad.  And nobody is quite sure what Konrad’s deal is… and he’s in a desert!

Just kidding, that’s not the difference.

Read more…

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