Charlotte Brontë, feminist

The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, originally published under gender-ambiguous pseudonyms, as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Ellis Bell’s Wuthering Heights was republished under Emily Brontë’s real name shortly after her death. At the beginning, Charlotte Brontë wrote a biographical note on Emily and Anne, now both dead. It included this note on their choice of pseudonyms:

Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality and, for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.

The biographical note is followed by an editor’s preface, also by Charlotte Brontë. Talking about the qualities of constancy and tenderness in the characters of the novel, she wrote,

Some people will think these qualities do not shine so well incarnate in a man as they would do in a woman, but Ellis Bell could never be brought to comprehend this notion: nothing moved her more than any insinuation that the faithfulness and clemency, the long-suffering and loving kindness which are esteemed virtues in the daughters of Eve, become foibles in the sons of Adam. She held that mercy and forgiveness are the divinest attributes of the Great Being who made both man and woman, and that what clothes the Godhead in glory, can disgrace no form of feeble humanity.

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Female Wizards on the Discworld

I have a theory about female wizards on the Discworld, which is just about possible to defend on the basis of the first three books (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites), but which also owes something to much later ones (The Last Continent and Unseen Academicals).

Unseen University is the Discworld’s premier college of magic (in its own mind, at least); not the only one. We already know there are wizards on Krull, which is almost completely separate from the rest of the Disc. We know that at least one of them (Marchessa) was female, and that this was not remarked on.

Buggarup University in XXX is another example of a separate college of magic, though it too is all-male.

In Unseen Academicals, we see that in fact Unseen University has rivals not only in places separated from the rest of the Disc, but also on the main supercontinent. The UU Dean has just set one up in Quirm; there’s a visiting professor from one in Genua; and I recall hints that there are others, with long-standing rivalries between them. (And Ponder Stibbons can play academic politics as well as anyone, thank you very much!)

We also see that there are differences in academic culture. UU wizards must be celibate (there’s a hint in The Colour of Magic (and again in Sourcery) that it’s only straight sex which is outlawed, but the possibilities thereby left open are never explored. This does not appear to be the case in Genua. When Ridcully heard that a Genuan wizard had been “named in divorce proceedings”, he just assumed that the Genuans didn’t prohibit their wizards having sex with women. He had to be explicitly told that in this case it was gay sex.

So UU has a “straight sex explicitly outlawed” and “gay sex doesn’t happen, does it?” culture, but accepts that other universities have different cultures. The one in Krull even accepts women, and did even before Esk’s time. Maybe others do too? Maybe, in fact, UU is the sole remaining holdout?


Why did Thorongil warn Ecthelion against the White Wizard?

I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings. Appendix A, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers”, tells us that Aragorn son of Arathorn spent part of his youth in Minas Tirith under the assumed name “Thorongil” serving under Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor.

Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey.

Appendix B, “The Tale of Years”, tells us,

2957-80 Aragorn undertakes his great journeys and errantries. As Thorongil he serves in disguise both Thengel of Rohan and Ecthelion II of Gondor.
10th July 3018 Gandalf imprisoned in Orthanc.
18th September 3018 Gandalf escapes from Orthanc in the early hours.
25th October 3018 Council of Elrond.

Saruman’s treachery was not clear to anyone before the dispute with Gandalf in July 3018. And Aragorn did not learn of it till he and Gandalf met again in Rivendell in October. So why was Aragorn already suspicious of Saruman roughly 40 years earlier?

I asked this question a while ago on Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange. I got a few good answers. Here’s the one I selected as the best, from Peter Turner:

Not sure where this is in the annals, but it says in the Tolkien Companion by J.E.A Tyler

Saruman made his first deliberate move in this direction (toward imposing his will, which was forbidden of the Istari) in the year 2759 Third Age, when he appeared at the Coronation of King Frealaf of Rohan, successor of the mighty Helm Hammerhand. The Wizard brough with him rich presents, and declared himself the friend of Rohan and gondor, and a little later was able to persuade Steward Beren of Gondor to grant him the Keys of Orthanc, the mighty Tower which, together with its fortress of Isengard, commanded the strategic Gap of Rohan. All thought this was a welcome move.

All, that is, except a weary ranger who would see everything given up by Gondor as a challenge to its power.

And it further says that

all the time the Wizard was secretly searching the Tower of Orthanc for a long-lost treasure of the Dunedain … the Palantír of Orthanc.

Then in 2851 the White Council met to think of ways to stop Sauron from coming back

Saruman, hoping that the Ring would expose its location if Sauron were left unharassed, deliberately overruled a strong recommendation (from Gandalf) … that Dol Guldur be attacked.

By his actions, Gandalf may have suspected that Saruman was up to something, although I don’t think Gandalf even knew of the ring.

So, either through his own understanding of the Palantír through the lore of his people or through his association with Gandalf, Aragorn was more naturally suspicious than Gandalf and I think it makes sense that he’d know something was amiss well before anyone else had reason to suspect.

You can read Peter’s answer and all the others at SF&F SE. This entire blog post, both my own writing and the section I quoted from Peter, is under the license CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

How did Túrin’s sword speak?

At the end of the tragic tale of Túrin Turambar, as told in The Silmarillion, Túrin goes alone to the high point of Cabed-en-Aras above the river Teiglin, and there calls to his sword Gurthang.

There he drew forth his sword, that now alone remained to him of all his possessions, and he said, ‘Hail Gurthang! No lord or loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that weildeth thee. From no blood wilt thou shrink. Wilt thou therefore take Túrin Turambar, wilt thou slay me swiftly?’

And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: ‘Yea, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.’

Then Túrin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life.

Then they lifted up Túrin, and found that Gurthang had broken asunder.

Nowhere else in the legendarium, as far as I know, does a sword speak, nor is any explanation offered for how Gurthang did so.

You have to remember the literary genre. Quenta Silmarillion is presented as a collection of legends and stories, collected many years after the events concerned. It is not a novel, and is not written as one. It is the legends and stories of the Elves, though also containing accounts of some of the notable Atani, such as Túrin. As such, only those stories known to the Elves of Middle-earth are told. For example, we are told little of what passed in Valinor after the exile of the Noldor, nor do we know the final fate of Maglor.

How then, can we know the details of the passing of Túrin and Gurthang, since they were alone at the time? We can’t, of course. The detail of the sword speaking is a literary flourish, added as the story passed down the generations, because it seemed fitting. A talking sword taking the life of its owner (“master of doom by doom mastered”) is properly the stuff of legends, and so it is included in this legend.

What makes this legendary is not the likelihood or otherwise of the tale, but the way it is told, the high remote language, and the overall structure of the story. The plot of The Lord of the Rings is the stuff of legends, but that novel is not itself legendary in style. The dialogue is natural; the characters are shown intimately. The reader is made to feel close to the tale. The Silmarillion has a very different feel to it. The events happened long ago, in a different Age of the world, in fact, in a world which in many ways no longer exists, for it has changed so much in the interim.

To think that Gurthang actually spoke is to make a mistake in the understanding of literary genre; the same mistake that people make when they think Genesis says the world was created in 144 hours.

License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

Choosing to be Gay

Does one choose to be gay? It’s a fascinating question, and many people feel that a great deal rides on the answer. If homosexuality is a choice, they argue, it is permissible to restrict the civil rights of homosexuals, and to encourage homosexual (or ‘pre-homosexual’) teenagers and younger children to ‘turn straight’. (Some of the methods used to achieve this end are quite nasty.) On the other hand, if homosexuality is ‘hard wired’, they should be nice to homosexuals.

James Dobson of Focus on the Family, in his book Bringing Up Boys, disagrees. He argues that the morality of homosexuality is not dependent on whether or not it’s a choice. Dobson is a charlatan, and Bringing Up Boys is a collection of pseudoscientific nonsense (the chapters on ‘pre-homosexuality’ are, anyway), but on this issue he’s right. Homosexuality does not harm. In certain circumstances, indeed, homosexual acts may even increase the sum total of human happiness. I can find no logical reason for labelling homosexuality as immoral; and this conclusion does not in any way depend on whether or not it’s a ‘choice’.

For the record, though, homosexuality is not a choice. Gayness, however, is.

Homosexuality is an orientation. You’re homosexual if you’re sexually attracted to persons of the same sex as yourself. Gayness is an attitude of mind. You’re gay if you can say so, even to yourself, without wincing.

I found myself homosexual, and chose to be gay. The alternative was to be self-loathing. Some people (Ted Haggard* and Larry Craig spring to mind) seem to have taken that option.

* “There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”

Originally published on GreenTambourine.

I was in Dublin today

I was in Dublin today, and popped into Eason, a large and famous bookshop on the corner of O’Connell Street and Abbey Street. I looked at a few books, including The Jesus Jokebook, by Des MacHale. It’s less irrevarant than it sounds, its compiler being a practising Catholic (and Professor of Mathematics). One I did buy, though, was Laura James’ Tigger on the Couch.

Then, inspired by a complaint I’d read recently about a bookshop which didn’t stock any Thomas Paine, I went to the customer services desk to ask what Paine they had. After I’d spelled his name for her twice, the lady found that they had Common Sense in the classics section downstairs. So I descended to the basement to search it out. It took a while, as the books were not all in alphabetical order. Most of them were, but Common Sense was with the other books in the Great Ideas series. I ended up buying it and two of its companions: Michel de Montaigne’s On Friendship and George Orwell’s Why I Write.

A little later, having read almost half of Why I Write over lunch, I wandered into another bookshop, Books Upstairs, opposite Trinity College, a much smaller place than Eason, with apparently only one member of staff on duty. A chap was asking him for a particular translator’s version of a Greek classic, which I now forget, and he was heading upstairs to see what was in stock when he saw me hovering. Again, I asked whether they had any Thomas Paine. “We should have The Rights of Man, shouldn’t we?” He said. “I’ll have a look.”

I hung around till he came back downstairs. “Sorry,” he said. “We always have The Rights of Man, but we’re out of stock at the moment.”

I think I’ll be going back to Books Upstairs. I had a glance there at Gunter Grass’ Peeling the Onion, extracts of which I’ve heard on Radio 4, but it was a bit pricy.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Tigger is diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (AD/HD), Predominantly Hyperactive Impulsive Type.

This post was originally published on GreenTambourine.