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Posts tagged ‘death’

Three Reasons We Like the Adventurer

Last week, I promised a little more about the value of the adventure as a narrative. Adventure is an ancient genre, a story-telling style that has existed since long before pen was put to paper, or chisel to stone. Why has this type of story persisted, even through the twentieth century when traditional tales were so strongly challenged? What does adventure offer the listener or reader?

  1. First, there’s the narrative cohesion of an adventure story. In general, adventures follow the pattern of this happened, and then this, and then this…Of course, the straight sequence is interrupted frequently with danger. Typically, the adventurer went on a journey – but, oh no! the sky fell down – then the dragon put the sky back, so it was ok, and the journey continued – but oh no! the dragon decided to eat the adventurer – then a magical bird flew at the dragon, so it was ok, and the journey continued – but oh no! a hunter’s arrow struck the magical bird – then the bird turned into a dragon and rescued the adventurer from the hunter, so it was ok, and the journey continued … And so on. There are many ancient examples, and plenty of modern ones. Think of Andy Weir’s The Martian, where Mark Watney regularly evades death with wit and sass, and a sprinkling of stretched science. We all love the adventure narrative, and recognise it from many of our culturally-loved stories, from Robin Hood to  Indiana Jones to James Bond to  Harry Potter and beyond (yes, notice that the adventurer is traditionally male). The examples are truly countless. We love a story that goes: first this, then that, then this, then that… I contend that one of the interesting and maybe difficult aspects of GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones series is that, even though he uses the adventure structure, he regularly subverts the adventurer story with random deaths. Otherwise Ned Stark would still be alive in Book 2.
  2. So, we ask, its structural predictability is the only reason adventure remains so popular? No. The second, and perhaps more fundamental reason, is that adventure stories affirm life. The hero continues to expose him (or her)self to risk, and in general, overcomes the great adversary – Death – by courage or wit or skill or magical/divine assistance. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum explained that, in classical Greek literature (think those enduring adventures, The Iliad and The Odyssey), the very fact that human life is fragile makes it beautiful and beloved of the gods, whose immortality seems coarse by comparison. This is a concept that recurs in some modern fantasy stories, for example the excellent Folk of the Air series by Holly Black, where mortals live in the timeless courts of faerie.
  3. The third reason that adventure (in its many incarnations across genres) remains popular is that such stories indicate that humans can do something: they can take action which brings about a real effect in the physical world. Such reassurance is welcome in dark times, when people may feel that they are helpless against larger forces. This has always been true. Classical adventure contended that action can stave off Death many times before the inevitable end. With the rise of the novel, not only death but all manner of enemies could be defeated time and time again – fires and floods, plagues and poverty, assassins, ghouls, organised crime, unjust political systems…

Arguably, the Great War marked a turning point in our reception of the adventurer as a hero in high literature. Demonstrably, courage was seen to have no power over death (this has always been the case, but somehow centuries of readers missed this in The Iliad and its like)More introspective, thoughtful stories appeared, where the struggle involved inner demons and existential or even nihilistic considerations.  Adventure stories, once the heart of classical culture, were consigned to popular fiction – genre fiction – rather than high literature. That fits with the notion that ‘science fiction’ and its brethren are ‘lowbrow’ and of lesser value than post-modern novels of introspection.

I disagree. I think all stories have their place, their function, their readers. There is no single right way. Adventure continues as a mainstay of storytelling, its traditional male hero now, thankfully, often reinvigorated with heroes of various genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, species, and intergalactic origins.

I love it.

 

Birthday memories

Today my dad would have turned 95, if he had survived this long.

Instead, the ghastly, grotesque illness called Motor Neurone Disease (that’s MND in Australia, and ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease in the US) diminished him to death at the age of 67, twenty-eight years ago. Even back then, in 1990, we were hoping for a cure ‘soon’. While some people live for a long (and extremely difficult) time with MND (notably the brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking), many die much sooner. For my dad, the progress of the disease from diagnosis to death was four short years.

While there has been some progress in the treatment and management of MND, we are all still waiting. This was brought home deeply by the recent Australian Story program, ‘The Enemy Within’, detailing the work and illness of the amazing Justin Yerbury.

I still miss my dad. And although I know that he would have completely supported my writing career, and that he always encouraged me, I really, really regret the fact that he doesn’t know about it, and that I haven’t been able to share this stage of my life with him.

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There are so many untold stories. I think one day they will appear. What I’m thinking about now is the last time I saw him, in the hospice, on the day he died. Dad explained that a male nurse, all in white, had visited his room in the night and said that it was time to leave. Dad said, ‘I told him I couldn’t walk, but he said it was time to go.’

I checked with the staff – no male nurse had been on duty the night before. Strange.

But a few hours later, after all his visitors had gone, my dad up and left.

The Cruel Prince: dangerous fiction

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Maybe that should be ‘dangerous reality’. I’ve just finished reading Holly Black’s excellent fantasy novel The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1). I’ve rated it 5 stars on Goodreads, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s like George RR Martin, Juliet Marillier, and Paula Hawkins got together to write a completely captivating dark thriller set in Faerie.

By the way, I LOVE the cover.

*warning spoilers*

I became totally absorbed by this story, but also increasingly troubled. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m wondering if it’s the reflections of domestic violence that are worrying me? Let’s look at the story line:

Our protagonist Jude is kidnapped and taken to Faerie by a violent redcap general called Madoc. Madoc was married to Jude’s mother – she left him, taking their child. So Madoc murders both Jude’s mother and her new partner (Jude’s father), reclaims his own daughter, and takes Jude and her twin for good measure. The three girls are brought up in the dangerous, deceitful Faerie court.

So that’s problematic – being brought up by the man who killed your parents because your mother was once married to him, and failed to make a complete escape.

Then Jude, as a teenager, is bullied and despised by the Faerie court, in particular the friends of the beatutiful and very cruel Prince Cardan (who rips off a fairy’s wing the first time we meet him, for not a good enough reason). The bullying is vicious and relentless, and Jude is effectively isolated from any help – even her twin Taryn betrays her.

I was hoping against hope that this wouldn’t turn out to be a story where the girl falls for the violent, abusive love interest, who, you know, really loves her underneath it all. However as we discover that Cardan himself has been abused, I’m suspecting that he is being transformed from perpetrator to victim and that they may end up as a pair.

Scary. Too real.

What do you think?

Diagnosis blues

This week has been quite a difficult one. We discovered that our mother has a brain tumour. While this explains all of the bizarre and inconsistent and unreliable behaviour that we’ve been noticing recently, it’s a bit of a shock.

Did I tell you how Mum was acting more and more strangely and refusing help? Well, one day a couple of weeks ago she took herself off to the doctor in a taxi (at a time when she should have been home for the cleaner – resulting in multiple phone calls with the next step being the police! – because she didn’t tell anyone she was going – but that’s another story). Mum went to ask if she had dementia, so the doctor ordered a CT scan that afternoon. The first I knew about it was a call from Mum saying I had to take her to the hospital for a brain scan. All the way there, she criticised her children as being too managing, too interfering, too nosy, and for sending too many helpers, and making too many phone calls, and ordering the wrong food to be delivered. She was certain that the brain scan would show no dementia and that after the diagnosis we could all just leave her alone, thank us very much. Very Greta Garbo.

The upshot is, after a lengthy scan and a trip back to the GP, that she has a meningioma which is not malignant in itself, but steadily growing and impacting on her brain function. Off we went to the neurosurgeon next day, who ruled out surgery (her bad health and a long recovery time) and any other treatment (tumour too large for radio). And a palliative care team has been allocated to us.

So it’s been  an interesting time, negotiating all of us siblings and our diverse opinions. Mum, on the other hand, is very stoic and quite serene, and says she’s much happier now that she knows. She is calling everyone in her address book to tell them she has a brain tumour!

Greta Garbo ‘Wild Orchids’ film still from Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Garbo_wild_orchids.jpg?uselang=en-gb

Living on the edge

The older couple wriggled their way through to the front of the crowd. In only a few minutes, the aging rock star of their courting days would pass by in his elevated limo, beaming and waving, flashing the shiny ceramic imposter of his once-famous  smile. The old woman had prepared a small bunch of flowers to throw – nothing too heavy, for their idol was even older than they, and nobody wanted an incident: Aged Groupie’s Gladiolus Tribute Takes Out Star’s Eye. The crowd of younger fans eddied and heaved around them. The old man took her elbow, protecting her somewhat from the metal barrier that lined the roadway as well as the press of people behind.

A rising tide of sound marked where the star’s cavalcade was approaching from the left. As the wave of excitement rolled towards the old couple, a security guard unhitched the metal barrier. The pair suddenly found themselves staggering onto the roadway. As they disappeared under the great wheels of the big black car, the guard re-hitched the barrier.

Another group of fans squeezed their way to the front. Here’s the next lot, thought the guard, carefully folding her wings behind her. She looked over the crowd to the back, where new people joined the throng in an irregular pattern, not unlike the on-and-off disappearance of those at the front. Like lemmings, she thought, so eager for life that they fall right off the edge without even realising it.

She unhitched the barrier again, and waved another few people through.

 

Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10587