Have y’all heard of Vi Hart? I’m not really sure what she does, except that it involves math and brilliance.
Here is one of her better ones.
…and her expose on SpongeBob SquarePants can be found here:
Course she’s not down with pi! (Yeah that’s right, Vi is anti-Pi.)
…it’s enough to make a guy wish he studied math.
Do you Recall that glorious moment in The Return of the King when Gandalf rides out to save Feramir and the last defenders of Osgiliath! Do you remember when he raised his staff and great light issued forth, driving the ring-wraiths away (along with all the cool kids who happen to be reading these here lines)? Yes, well, I do too. And now that it’s just us nerds here in the blog, let us talk of wondrous things!
What I’m particularly interested in on this dark morning here on the tail end of polar midnight, (aside from hope of a Gandalf-like ray of sun-light soon to come) is the way that some folks (ahem gamers!) often speak of wondrous things in particularly unwondrous ways.
‘Unwondrous’, Yeah, it’s a word now dammit!
One of the amusing meta-games that gamers have been playing ever since those heady-days of the early 80s is the game of “how do you stat that?” You know, the one where you decide that the Arnold version of Conan is a 10th level Ranger with an eighteen double-ought strength, and then your friend says; “hell no, he’s a 12th level fighter and he must have supernatural strength, 20 at least, …probably Chaotic Good alignment.” Then someone says; “You must be nuts! He’s easily true neutral.” …yeah, we geeks do that. Well anyway, the game of “how do you stat that” really comes into its own with magical effects, because stating magic helps to define the fantasy worlds in which the games take place.
In Tolkien’s work, mythic narratives began to flourish in fantasy fiction. Hell, for a time they almost seemed cool, cool enough for the mighty Zep at any rate, and this was a significant part of the cultural background informing the early days of pen&paper RPGs. But here is one moment where the game of stating the worlds around you (real or imagined) always seemed to fall short for me, at least in mainstream games. They fall short really the minute the game of stat this is played.
You see, to stat that magic moment in which Gandalf drives off the wraiths in AD&D one would need to assign his light effect to a designated spell with a designated range, area of effect, and duration, all defined in precise mathematical terms. The effects of light on undead would be clearly defined in this spell, and the sort of power it takes to generate the spell would also be clearly explained. In Dungeons and Dragons and many of the games emulating it, this wondrous moment in the story becomes a function of well-defined principle of mechanics. One might even suggest that it becomes part of the natural laws of the universe in which the games take place.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed countless hours of manipulating precisely those very mechanics over the game table. Good times! I wouldn’t part with them for brand new vorpral sword. But one thing is definitely lost in this approach to gaming, the wondrous part of it all. The rules of mainstream fantasy games normalize the features of mythic narratives to such a degree that they become a kind of demi-science. One can often see gamers haggling over the details of some magic effect or trying to plot the precise mathematical formula needed to ensure that all the orcs on the game table fry-up in a fireball without singing the elven maiden. in most cases there is nothing mysterious about it; the game rules tell us exactly how this sort of thing works. It’s how many of these games are played.
What is lost in this approach to gaming is the very fluid nature of the narratives which inspire and inform the genre. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t really present us with a theory of Gandalf’s light, not a complete one at any rate. We might imagine that Gandalf is able to generate that effect because of some arcane set of rules we know nothing about, but what we have in a mythic narrative is simply the fact that he did that, odd as the whole thing may be. Wondering just how such seemingly impossible feats actually happen is an important part of the story. Wondering about it at the game table? Not so much. Not usually anyhow.
In the scientization of mythic narratives, the spell-books of classic fantasy gaming effectively set that wonder aside. Of course there are alternative approaches to the subject, such as those used in story-teller games, but my purpose here isn’t to argue for upping the nerditude of the game table. It’s to comment on something I consider an interesting twist in the culture of fantasy gaming, namely its tendency to frame wondrous things in terms of a well defined rational principles.
If fantasy games presents us with a kind of alternative physics, I don’t think this is entirely unique to modern perspectives on the subject. One sees it in references to The Force of Star Wars, and still more so in the theme-killing notion of Midi-chlorians (microorganisms responsible for the force. …blech)! You can see it in old Theosophical notions of an astral plane through which emotional and psychic powers turn out to follow a kind of physics in their own right, and of course you can see it in sundry New Age efforts to turn Quantum Mechanics into a science of wishful thinking. Folks use these notions and others like them to embed the uncanny moments of a narrative in a theory which makes sense of it. In some cases, that is the total point of the theory; in others it is one of many uses.
Time and again, folks seem to want to find a theory in stories made wonderful precisely because they defy our theories, or more importantly, because they defy our normal strategies for making sense of the world. What makes the moment Gandalf creates his light effect compelling is precisely our inability to fully make sense of it. It is likewise with more traditional epic narratives such as the role of missletoe in the killing of Baldur in Norse mythology, the origin of sea mammals in the in Sedna’s severed fingers, or the forceful eviction of the Gambler in Navajo legends (he was fired up into the skies from a great bow). What all of these and so many more narratives share is not conformity to an arcane set of natural laws so much as a momentary in-your-face violation of expectations which people are most familiar.
What I am suggesting here is that the notion of magic isn’t really a part of these narratives, or at least that it is not the key to understanding the momentary occurrence of irrational events. Such stories may relate information about a natural order (such as a world in which the availabile game-animals are in some sense part of an active relationship to Sedna), but that order does not itself explain the moment in which something odd springs forth from her severed fingers. One doesn’t really need a theory to appreciate the story, nor need one assume that the story could be explained by a valid theory. One needs only to understand that the outcome of the narrative will be meaningful. In the interim, the shear absurdity of certain moments in that story is a thing to be savored, not to be explained away.
The notion of magic along with its specific variations come into such stories in efforts to square them with more familiar realities. Where the uncanny can be a feature of such stories, it becomes a bug when one imposes an expectation of literal truth upon it. So, people sometimes concoct a theory to explain the matter. Those theories then provide an ad hoc defense of the uncanny, but they provide us with no real insight into the stories.
Magic, resides in the secondary and even tertiary rationalization of mythic narratives, but there is no reason to believe it resides in the narratives themselves. We needn’t imagine Tolkien plotting an area of effect for Gandalf’s wraith-baffling light ray, nor do we need to ascribe a theory of mythic-evolution to Inuit story-tellers relating the story of Sedna. Hell, we don’t even need to imagine that the Book of Genesis constitutes an attempt to explain the cosmos, though a world touched by the hand of Thomas Aquinas can hardly seem to imagine otherwise.
There is something in the effort to find a theory behind wondrous narratives that does violence to those narratives themselves. Such theories always end up falling short of their source material. It is the same whether we are talking about the hackneyed apologetics of fundamentalist Christians looking to read a consistent theory into all the traditions crammed into the Bible; an anthropologist trying to find such a theory in the oral traditions of some exotic people, or yes; something as simple as a game designer trying to fit a wondrous theme into a rule system. The explanation never quite lives up to the promise of its inspiration.
Sometimes that failure matters more than others, but for me at any rate, the disappointment is a fairly common reaction. What concerns me most nowadays is the ease with which people seem to accept that mythic narratives ought to have a theory behind them, a set of principles that will explain them, even if only in terms of an error. That just isn’t the case. Sometimes this expectation gives us bad story-telling, sometimes it steers a whole generation of fantasy-gamers right past the fantastic part of fantasy, and sometimes it leads people to genuinely misunderstand great texts and brilliant oral traditions. Either way the variety of magics are never quite as brilliant as the stories which inspire them.
Magic itself just isn’t all that compelling, but a man playing chess with a fish or a cat that sings itself into a dragon? No explanations required.
I think I read the hobbit around 6th grade or soon thereafter. What I remember of the book was an enjoyable light read. It was the sort of story you read when young and cherish well into adulthood. I could identify with it as a youth because it was the story of a child like character adrift in a world larger in every respect than he was. Bilbo learned to get along in the Hobbit, even to thrive in it, but he never quite got a handle on the larger forces at work in that story, and neither did we as its readers.
It was a fascinating world that Bilbo carried us into. It was a world of myth to be sure, but not just because of the elves and the dragons. It was also a story in which the quest for gold seemed a perfectly sufficient reason to undertake a dangerous adventure, and a world in which orcs and goblins attack, because frankly that’s what they do. It’s a just-so logic that guides the Lord of the Rings, and that is just as any good mythic narrative would have it. a world in which great wars will happen. They will simply happen. No need for political complexities or struggles on which the fate of a whole world will hang. That sort of story will come later, but in the Hobbit, wars happen for lesser reasons, and that is all there is to it.
It is one of the charming features of The Hobbit that Bilbo never quite accepts the logic of that world, at least not its more violent features. His rejection is visceral, childlike. It isn’t a worldly critique of the Draco-gold standard or the perils of Dwarven realpolitik. Bilbo never quite understands the logic of the battle which serves as the focus of this last film, not that I remember anyway. One suspects that there is nothing really to understand; it is simply what these characters were born to do, how Thorin was born to die.
Tolkien dies not unleash the complexities of Middle Earth on his readers until the Lord of the Rings. He did rewrite the Hobbit to put it more in sink with the larger work, but even then he let much of the larger scheme rest on the background of The Hobbit. We may even see hints of that larger scheme, even as we continue to see hints of material from the Silmarillion in the Lord of the Rings. But what isn’t explained in both stories is as essential to the story as what is. Tolkien understands this. If Jackson ever did understand it, he has almost certainly forgotten it by now.
Watching The Hobbit has been a lot like attending a play with someone who has read he script and wants to make sure we know it, along with everyone in the next three rows. Just as an annoying theater-troll will spout the next lines ahead of the actors, Jackson keeps turning The Hobbit into a chance to tell us about the Lord if the Rings. He simply will not let the Hobbit be the Hobbit. It must instead be a prequel to that later (larger) story.
Focused as he is on the grand scheme of things, Jackson has all but forgotten Bilbo. The epic narrative that Jackson insists on relating has little time for a simple hobbit and little place for aHobbits point of view. Yes Bilbo does many of the same things in this trilogy that he does in the book, but his story is never really allowed to compete with that of Thorin’s quest for power, the rise of the bowman to leadership, the doomed love affair between a Dwarven romeo and his elven Juliette, or for that matter, Gandalf’s efforts to piece together the story of the Necromancer. How could Bilbo possibly compete with all that!
All that Bilbo can do is to play a bit part in a failed bid to avert a war. Yet, the problem isn’t that Bilbo is a minor player in the great scheme of things. Rather it is that this version of The Hobbit has forgotten the importance of bit players. It is too interested in the great heroes to give any real credence to those with humbler ambitions. In that respect, this version of The Hobbit couldn’t have wanderd further away from its original source.
This Hobbit is a story that contains a hobbit, but it most certainly is not a story about a hobbit. It is too busy being a story about other things.
So what? If Jackson and his writing team want to tell a different story, there is no particular reason why they shouldn’t do just that. And yet The Hobbit remains unsatisfying (for me at any rate) because it can never really be what Jackson and his team want it to be, which is another Lord of the Rings. The story line simply doesn’t support the tone of an epic narrative; it’s characters have never been quite up to the task. The Dwarves are just a bit too foolish, the elves a bit too vain, and the men too reluctant to be anything at all. These are interesting characters for a story with less ambition than Jackson has brought to the story. For a grand epic, they simply will not do. So The Hobbit trilogy remains overshadowed and upstaged by the epic narrative which is to follow, the one we’ve already seen, the one against which this story cannot help but pale in comparison.
Yes, Jackson and company can certainly tell us what ever story they like, but I cannot help thinking something a little closer to the original Hobbit would have been more valuable. I find myself wanting to say; we’ve seen this. You did it right the first time. Now show us something new.
But alas! This was not to happen.
For whatever reason, Jackson could not bring himself to let the hobbit be the hobbit, or even to fashion it into something altogether new and creative. So many of his interventions pull the story towards the Lord of the Rings, which is something it simply can never be. Jackson’s heart is set on the Lord if the rings. His mind is bent on it. And it is his master.
The final scenes of the Hobbit are filled with allusions to the coming trilogy, and truth be told, that is to be expected, even relished. Yet each of these references drags on a bit too long. We get the reference to Aragorn, and we get the moment Bilbo replies to a knock on his door, which is actually kind of clever, or at least it would have been if Jackson had been content to let a couple quick lines connect the two stories. But he can’t do that. Jackson has to make sure we get the point, and each of these references seems to carry on well after we get the point.
It seems as though Jackson just cannot let the coming epic go, and the urge to tell us about his precious Lord of the Rings won’t let him settle for a proper allusion, just as it would not let him simply tell us the story of the Hobbit in the first place. It’s as though the Lord of the Rings has hold of his spirit.
It will not let him go!
Last year I was in anchorage in early December, just a bit too early to catch the completed ice sculptures of this annual competition. I still got some interesting pics, but as I didn’t get the final products, what I got never quite found its way into the blog. This year, I’m stoked, because I’m in town later than before, and that means I get to check out the completed work.
So, let’s have a look at the completed projects for this year’s Crystal Gallery Ice Competition.
(You may of course click on an image to embiggen it.)
We can begin with this spectacular bit of minimalism, well placed in front of a colorful tree. It takes courage for an artist to run with an idea like this. Such a simple composition and so profound, all of it beautifully executed.
I really like this one.
Seriously, I am so excite to arrive in time to see the completed works here. This is really a treat!
Now this piece, here is some real talent. I mean, the symmetry of it all, and I really like the use of color. I mean, you wouldn’t think that would be a factor in an ice-sculpting competition, but seriously, this piece has some real color going for it. Also, it’s very blocky. Yes, it’s quite block-like.
Why don’t these pieces have titles anyway? I would have entitled it “Colorful Block of Ice.” The artist should totally go with that!
This array of rough hewn blocks in front of the tree has a definite, um, ethos. Reminds me of Santa’s Reindeer, the way they are all stretched out in a line like that. I don’t know who the artist is, but hey art guy, if you’re looking for a title, I would suggest; “Reindeer in Front of a Tree.” It really is an excellent piece, but my one quibble would be that you know there are supposed to be more of them, 8 I think, or is it 9 with Rudolph? I forget the exact number, but I’m pretty sure that you need to add more.
…also, they are kind of blocky.
…for Reindeer, I mean.
These guys over here look kinda lonely. I don’t think they made the cut, really. Better luck next time guy! If you don’t mind a little suggestion, perhaps, you could do something a little more intricate. Please don’t be offended. It’s just…
I mean, I know I’m not an artist. I just think, well, you know. Anyway, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t presume. I mean it’s your vision, and I respect that. It’s just.
I think this one is some kind of ironic commentary on the public facilities around Anchorage, which I think is way cool. I mean, I know some people don’t like it when art gets too political, but personally, I like the edgy feel of it.
Yellow on blue? Okay, I simply love the way some of these guys work with colors! That really was a surprise here. Maybe some sort of study in contrasts or a meditation on the color green. I don’t know.
I just can’t help feeling the sculpture could have put more effort into shaping the piece.
No, nevermind. That’s just conventional thinking on my part. Who am I to question this guys vision? You rock-on block-carving ice-sculpture guy.
Now this is shear brilliance! It totally has my vote for ‘best in Show’. Do we get to vote? I mean, is the public part of this? Or is it, just professionals? I mean, well I don’t know. You just, you really gotta hand it to this artist. He has the shape of the blocks down perfect. So symmetrical, and so boxy! I mean, others seem to be exploring similar shapes, but I really think this piece nails it perfectly.
I’m also kinda hoping, we can move on to some more ideas here soon, because honestly, how are y’all gonna top this? You can’t really. Once perfection has been perfected, you just gotta go find your own bliss.
…preferably not in a block.
I just, I dunno.
These guys really aren’t listening.
Fuck it! I’m going to Humpy’s.
When Dances With Wolves came out in November 1990, audiences throughout the country cheered as Kevin Costner and his Lakota friends killed U.S. soldiers in one of the final scenes of the film. The Lakota in this film were decent (perhaps noble?), and the soldiers had been as contemptible as any character could be. More than that, the soldiers were emissaries of an aggressive nation bent on taking everything Costner’s Lakota friends had. Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in the film. Of course we rooted for the Indians!
Two months later, American troops and attacked Iraqi forces that had taken Kuwait, and Americans cheered as bombing attacks appeared on CNN just about all day every day. Iraqi treatment of the Kuwaitis had been cruel and Saddam Hussein posed a threat to world peace comparable to that the great Hitler (as some would have it anyway). Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in history. Of course we rooted for the American forces!
The transition always appeared to me rather seamless. It was a very disheartening moment, an indication of just how powerless the left wing critique of American imperialism had been. For once, the American public seemed to have gotten the message, at least one some level, and then it went right out and repeated all the same mistakes over again. Just as sensationalist accounts of Indian atrocities had once fueled military aggression against them, lurid stories of Iraqi conduct fueled support for military action in the Gulf War. And once again, America expanded its military presence in the world, to what end, we are still learning.
There are differences between these stories of course, and we could haggle over the details, but I’m not particularly interested in debating the Gulf War here. What concerns me is the question of which difference made the distinction matter? I can’t help but think that difference was time.
I would say that the critical difference is also a question of entertainment versus reality, but of course few war movies have provided near the entertainment value that the Gulf War presented to the American public. Whatever else that conflict represents, it was also a tremendous achievement in the theatrical violence. Plus, the conflicts depicted in Dances With Wolves have real world analogs. The specifics may have been fictional, but the issues in question were quite real. no, the difference is time. Dances With Wolves depicts a conflict most Americans believe to be over, and that makes it safe to flirt with critical appraisal providing it isn’t going anywhere.
Dances With Wolves was a story about America’s past. Cheering for the Indians in a fictional skirmish about an event long ago didn’t pose much of a personal cost for the average American. Sure, there may be some jingoists out there who really couldn’t stomach the thought that any aspect of American history had been anything short of a gift from God himself, but any discomfort they might have felt at the final scenes of Costner’s epic was surely the price of their own extremism. More folks could flip loyalties for that one brief moment, and then flip them right back again when push came to petro.
That’s hardly an unusual transition. It’s as easily done as shifting from present to past tense when the topic of Indians comes up in a conversation, or shifting from particular issues to a great big general narrative about the history of Indian white relations. The hat trick is of course the phrase; “what we did to the Indians.” What continually fascinates me is its appearance in otherwise focused conversations. You could be talking about some specific policy and its impact on some specific native community, and the next thing you hear is someone telling you that they really think it’s sad what ‘we’ did to the Indians.
…except the past tense undermines the ‘we’ part. Those saying this know very well they aren’t including themselves in the damned ‘we’ of that sentiment, not really. A good portion of the times I’ve heard this, the impact of the utterance was precisely to shift the conversation away from anything that ‘we’ really could be do anything about today. And that is of course my rather long winded point; it’s easy to root for the Indians in Dances With Wolves, much easier than it is to support them in present, and much easier to support them than it is to question attacks on any prospective enemy we have today. Whether it be casinos, tribal mascots, or tribal jurisdiction, the same folks who will happily root for the Indian in a fictional battle set in the remote past are much less likely to support the native side in present day conflicts. As to foreign policy? Well…
But let’s stick with Indian-white relations for a bit. You can see the whole transition in a stanza from one of Alice Cooper’s more obscure songs, but to get the full effect, you have to listen to the full tune. (Don’t worry; it’s one of his less shocking pieces.).
In case you missed it, the relevant lines are as follows:
I love the bomb, hot dogs, and mustard.
I love my girl, but I sure don’t trust her.
I love what the Indians did to Custer.
I love America.
There they Come. There they go.
– Alice Cooper
The line about Custer fits with the rest of Cooper’s rhyme scheme, but the line about Custer is a bit of a twist. The over-the-top jingoism of Cooper’s song seems inconsistent with the celebration of a set-back to the march of American history. We wouldn’t expect Cooper to root for the other side. And then suddenly, he isn’t cheerful at all, or at least the song isn’t, as we hear an Indian war-party come and go accompanied to faux-Indian music right out of the movies. He drops his rhyme scheme and sings almost as an aside, “There they come,” and then “there they go.” And thus a line about the demise of Custer and his troops becomes a comment about the proverbial vanishing Indian.
It’s safe to root for him, because he’s vanished.
Cooper’s song celebrates an Indian victory in order to mourn a Native loss, and of course that loss is precisely what the voice of the song calls for, the removal of an obstacle to the America cooper loves so much. And then of course the song picks up again as Cooper continues to celebrate all-things red, white, and soldier blue. It seems likely that Cooper’s treatment was deliberately ironic; it seems equally unlikely that he appreciated the full depths of that irony.
I don’t think Cooper’s attitude is at all unusual. I’ve heard similar sentiments many times. I understand why my old professor, a Choctaw celebrated the Custer’s last stand, and I understand why Lakota and Cheyenne do today, but they are celebrating a victory, something their people did right. Folks like Cooper are celebrating a loss, and one has to wonder just what they think that loss means?
As with any other great cultural icon, what is said of Custer is often really said of other things. At this point he seems to stand in proxy all of western history. The man has always had his critics, but it was probably the movie Little Big Man that taught the public to think of him as a raving lunatic. The Custer of this film is as ruthless as he is incompetent, and he is clearly the voice of western expansion. In the real world, it was Horace Greeley who advised young men to go to the West. In Little Big Man, it is Custer who tells the main character, Jack Crabb, to go West. It is Custer who carries out the most horrible atrocities of the film, the ones which make that migration possible, and ultimately, it is Custer (along with his troops) who will pay the price for Western expansion.
I grew up with that vision of a Custer in mind, one shared by multiple sources of popular culture in the 70s and 80s. I can’t recall meeting anyone personally who defended Custer in my youth, not once. From time to time, I heard or saw echoes of Custer’s previous incarnations in popular culture, the heroic Custer of Anheuser Busch or the onion-loving Custer of some old movie whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I could easily think that heroic vision as deluded, but of course that was a Custer who belonged to someone else, one who had been slain literally and figuratively on the screen of Little Big Man.
While we can haggle over the facts of Custer’s career and the details of his final battle, the successful caricature of Custer doesn’t facilitate a pro-native view so much as a an easy dismissal of the larger problems of American expansionism. This is where Little Big Man fails in its politics. (It was of course also a commentary on Vietnam.) In framing the horrors of American Indian policy as a reflection of personal lunacy, the movie invited us all to feel far too much relief at Custer’s ultimate defeat. It’s simply easier for all of us if Custer can take responsibility for all the horrors of America’s Indian policies, easier because he lost, and in his loss, folks can well imagine that he carries those horrors with him into the grave.
All of which brings to mind the title of Vine Deloria’s old classic, Custer Died for Your Sins.
To be sure films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves call attention to larger problems, but they also point to a way out which all too many Americans seem to have taken, the belief that the ugly side of American military can be laid at the feet of the occasional lunatic clad in buckskin.
Or perhaps to a cigarette puffing soldier who lost her moral compass somewhere along the way.
Because surely the problems don’t go any further than that!