Speaking of NaNo…

…I’m racing hard to catch up, so your post this week will be this short update. Coming up this month: writing great fencing scenes, a Game of Thrones fix fic, instructions on getting to Peru, and a reminder that The Last Jedi is actually great.

The Stupidest NaNoWriMo Hot Take

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I was recently unlucky enough to come across what must be one of the most egregious examples of the unfortunate “Actually, X Is Bad” genre. Published on Salon.com, it boasts the highest level of patronizing, classist wrongheadedness of any writing outside the Wall Street Journal opinion pages. It’s called “Better yet, DON’T write that novel,” by Laura Miller, and while it is from way back in 2010, terrible assumptions must be challenged whenever and wherever they are encountered.

The article’s thesis is that NaNoWriMo, the annual event where people join a global community to write an entire novel over the course of a single November, is a waste of time and energy because people should be reading novels instead of writing them. Despite the fact that book sales are increasing, the author purports to sound the alarm about a looming crisis in the book world, where so many people will be writing books that nobody reads them anymore.

The fact that Miller stitches evidence of this crisis together from scraps of anecdotal evidence is, surprisingly, not the worst thing about this column. That title has to go to the way she misunderstands every aspect of NaNoWriMo with such willful antagonism that she manages to insult everybody who’s ever participated in it. So for this week’s post (and in the interest of procrastinating my own NaNo project), I want to take her argument apart quote by quote.

I am not the first person to point out that “writing a lot of crap” doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November.

It may come as a surprise to people like Miller who assume that all great art is produced by a tiny circle of muse-touched geniuses, but as everybody else knows, writers are anxious people. We always have been. From Marcel Proust taking 20 years to write a single book, to the Bronte sisters publishing under constructed masculine identities, to Franz Kafka begging his friend from his deathbed to burn all his work, to George R.R. Martin being driven to madness by the desire to please his fans, most writers wield a command of insecurity that would make their most screwed-up characters tremble.

The result of this is that most writers, whether unpublished or wildly successful, have a really hard time finishing things. We burn out. We get distracted by other projects. We procrastinate with endless worldbuilding and character sketches. And underlying all of it is the belief that if we never finish anything, we never risk anything. Procrastination is a security blanket.

NaNoWriMo forces us to shove that blanket in the closet. By emphasizing the freedom to write first drafts that aren’t perfect, NaNo teaches us to take chances with our writing. The result is that more people finish more interesting stories.

“Big deal,” Laura Miller might say. “The stories are just going to be crap anyway. If it’s so hard for them to finish anything, why don’t they quit bothering and read something instead?”

I will concede that this article does make at least one good point: people finishing their NaNo projects and immediately querying agents with them is a real problem. I do sympathize with agents who dread the flood of unrevised, 50,000-word manuscripts people try to sell them in December.

However, assuming that the people who send those queries represent all NaNoWriMo participants is one of this hot take’s grandest acts of missing the point.

Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it?…But even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.

I thought this was obvious, but apparently it needs to be said out loud: not everybody who writes stories is trying to publish them.

What Miller doesn’t seem to understand is that she’s oozing distaste for thousands of personal passion projects. Would she visit a friend’s house, see a pillow cover they’d crocheted, and scoff, “Well, that’s garbage. Why did you waste time making that when you could have supported somebody who’s good at crochet?” When they sit down to dinner, would she taste the meal and say, “Ugh! You really just made this for a few of us to enjoy? It’s not even perfect! Why did you bother?”

Of course she wouldn’t. Outside of my distaste for one family of her opinions, I’m giving Laura Miller the benefit of the doubt by assuming she’s a kind, intelligent person who loves her friends and doesn’t get kicked out of dinner parties. But she clearly doesn’t have any friends who write fanfiction, or homebrew RPG campaigns, or work out their feelings with poetry, or are writing their memoirs for their families to enjoy.

In this column, the idea of literature having value if it isn’t commercialized doesn’t even seem to occur to her. Somehow, she’s completely missed the idea that writing can be just a hobby, which mystifies me: how can an author responsible for two separate books about falling in love with fictional universes not understand that some people survive by creating their own paracosms?

The reason I’m spending so much energy on this is that I’ve met so many lovely people through NaNoWriMo, and I’m afraid that one day, one of them will find this column and see an established writer telling them that all they’re doing is churning out unnecessary crap. I want to make sure their spirits don’t get broken.

When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in…It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.

It’s possible the column is aiming to be self-deprecating here, but in light of the previous paragraphs, it misses the mark. Widely. I’m left asking whether Miller knows she’s writing right now, and how she thinks books get written.

“People would come up to me at parties,” author Ann Bauer recently told me, “and say, ‘I’ve been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this …’ And I’d (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read … Now, the ‘What do you read?’ question is inevitably answered, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.'”

For now, let’s leave aside the fact that one author having a couple of bad experiences at some parties is not evidence of an overwhelming trend. There are a couple of reasons somebody might have said this to Bauer: either they write as a hobby, as described above, or they are misguided.

If the latter is true, so what? There’s nothing mutually exclusive about reading and writing. Quite the opposite: you can’t be a good writer if you don’t read, any more than you can be a musician if you never listen to music. I just fail to see how it’s NaNoWriMo’s fault that some people don’t get that.

If somebody who never reads wants to try and publish a bad book, let them. Either they’ll learn their lesson or they won’t. It’s not our place to try and save them from error by lambasting hobbyists who are just trying to do what makes them happy.

Frankly, there are already more than enough novels out there — more than those of us who still read novels could ever get around to poking our noses into, even when it’s our job to do so. This is not to say that I don’t hope that more novels will be written, particularly by the two dozen-odd authors whose new books I invariably snatch up with a suppressed squeal of excitement…Furthermore, I know that there are still undiscovered or unpublished authors out there whose work I will love if I ever manage to find it. But I’m confident those novels would still get written even if NaNoWriMo should vanish from the earth.

In this paragraph, Miller at last takes the cover off and shows us the machinery inside. She objects to NaNoWriMo because she doesn’t believe that most people deserve to put pen to paper. It’s a sadly common worldview: some people are geniuses, most people aren’t, and if you’re in the latter group, tough luck, your only role in life is to squeal at the people in the former.

Genuinely talented people use this argument to put themselves down so often that it enrages me when anybody uses it to denigrate others. Miller gives no credence to the role of practice, dedication, and perseverance–all critical traits for an author, and all skills that NaNoWriMo teaches. None of that matters to her. Two dozen people, and maybe some others hiding in the shadows, are good at writing. The rest of you can fuck off and start squealing.

Hard work has written more great novels than natural talent ever will. It’s also painted more great paintings, cooked more great meals, made more great scientific discoveries, led more great governments, raised more great children, and landed on approximately infinity percent more moons.

So I’m not worried about all the books that won’t get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on.

This was the part where, on first reading, I had to step out on my balcony and listen to the sounds of the city until my anger subsided.

When it did, I was left scratching my head and wondering why any art lover would denigrate a trend of more people participating in the art they love. Yes, if you’ve constructed a false dichotomy where every person is either a writer or a reader, then more writers means fewer readers–but there’s no proof this is accurate in any way.

One other thing I will agree with Miller on is that people who want to “be a writer” more than they want to actually write can be obnoxious. Yet that’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo: it forces all those people to shit or get off the pot. If you prefer telling people you’re going to write that novel someday to writing that novel now, you will lose. That’s the only rule of the game.

Consider turning away from the self-aggrandizing frenzy of NaNoWriMo and embracing the quieter triumph of Kalen Landow and Melissa Klug’s “10/10/10” challenge: These two women read 10 books in 10 categories between Jan. 1 and Oct. 10, focusing on genres outside their habitual favorites. In her victory-lap blog post, Klug writes of discovering new favorite authors she might otherwise never have encountered, and of her sadness on being reminded that “most Americans don’t read ANY books in a given year, or just one or two.” Instead of locking herself up in a room to crank out 50,000 words of crap, she learned new things and “expanded my reading world.” So let me be the first to say it: Melissa and Kalen, you are the heroes.

Writers take a lot of crap. People tend to assume we’re unpublished, unemployed, living in our parents’ basements, plinking away at unreadable works that will never be finished (when I’m clearly semi-professionally published, self-employed, living in my own apartment, and plinking away at an unreadable work that will be finished).

November is our month to destroy those stereotypes by coming together. Far from “locking ourselves up in a room”–which seems like a weird complaint given that this column was just grousing about how writers are taking over public spaces–we all take joy in gathering and lifting each other up. Nobody is claiming to be a hero. We’re just happy to be together.

Yesterday, at a “write-in” event, I met a woman who was writing an alternate-universe fanfic of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennett sisters are the five baristas at a coffee shop, and Darcy and Bingley are tech bros trying to found a startup in the same mall. I was floored by the implications. Here, two centuries later, an intrepid modern author was finding new ways to appreciate Jane Austen’s masterpiece. Writing was how she showed her love for the people that wrote before her.

This is the kind of adventure we miss out on when we turn writing into an aristocracy. Art isn’t about standing in awe of a few perfect gems. It’s about blind alleys, bad ideas, slurrying inspirations together with no clue how it’ll turn out. That’s what NaNoWriMo is about, too.

While it is sad that most Americans won’t read a single book this year, the truth is that most of them won’t write one either. Blaming a (nonexistent) decline in book sales on amateur writers is illogical, insulting, and harmful. The bottom line here is the golden rule of internet discourse: for gods’ sake, let people enjoy things.

Best Non-Scary Movies for Halloween

It’s no secret we’re in a golden age of horror movies right now. From Jordan Peele to Ari Aster, every month seems to bring a new vision of terror from a new auteur of fright. If you’re a fan of being terrified at the movies, and contemplating the depths of the human experience while you lie awake that night for fear of getting existentially murdered, it’s a great time to be alive.

If you aren’t a fan of that, it kind of sucks.

Horror seems like the only genre where you’re allowed to be creative anymore, but my annoyance at that is a whole separate post. Put bluntly, I don’t like scary movies. Every one I’ve seen has been either excessively cynical about human nature, needlessly gory, or weirdly Puritan, and half the time they don’t even end.

And yeah, I’m a wuss about jump scares, but I don’t feel that “dislikes paying for the privilege of being ambushed by nameless horrors” is a character flaw I need to apologize for.

Despite my dislike of horror in general, I love Halloween. It’s not a contradiction — I just find mysterious spirits of the night to be enigmatic and cool, rather than scary. In fact, that’s pretty much my religion.

Movies, much like the holiday itself, can be themed around paranormal, supernatural, and chilling motifs without being focused around terrifying the viewer. So, in case you’re looking for a season-appropriate film that you can actually watch without having to hide behind the couch, I thought I’d list out ten of my favorites.

1. The Mummy (1999): Everybody fondly remembers the movie they wanted to watch as a child whenever they were sick–this is mine. Starring Brendan Fraser as one of cinema’s most believable action heroes, and Rachel Weisz and John Hannah killing it in supporting roles, this ’20s-set monster flick is still the bar I measure all other action-adventures against.

2. Over the Garden Wall (2014): Technically a 10-episode miniseries, but clocking in at almost exactly movie length, this is one of the most original, daring, and beautiful works of animated fiction ever. Following anxious Wirt (Elijah Wood) and blithe Greg (Collin Dean) as they try to find their way home through a world inspired by old Americana postcards, Over the Garden Wall is just like Jason Funderbirker–it’s the whole package.

3. The Shape of Water (2017): Romantic sorts have it very good on Halloween. The Shape of Water won the Oscar, so you don’t need me to tell you how captivating this tale of fish-meets-girl is. But if you somehow missed it, tonight is the night to catch up. Afterwards, check out Guillermo del Toro’s equally season-appropriate Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth.

4. What We Do in the Shadows (2014): Recently adapted into a TV series, Taiki Waititi’s loving parody of all things vampire gets funnier every time I watch it. From the Circle of Shame to Vlad the Poker doing his dark bidding to Stu the actual real-life IT guy, this mockumentary did half the work of making vampires once again cool.

5. Let the Right One In (2008): And here’s the film that did the other half of the work. Swedish import Let the Right One In is very different monster love story than The Shape of Water, but no less lovely–in fact, it’s the most heartfelt movie about murder and blood-drinking you’re ever likely to see. Bonus points for having an American remake, Let Me In, that’s actually good.

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003): “You best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You’re in one.” There’s a reason Hollywood can’t let the Pirates franchise go. This first installment is a note-perfect blockbuster: the iconic music, the thrilling action, the endlessly quotable script, and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa deep-throating the scenery every moment he’s onscreen. It’s enough to make me not mind having to deal with Johnny Depp for two hours.

7. ParaNorman (2012): ParaNorman isn’t a horror movie, per se, but it is definitely a scary movie. This “PG” film about social outcasts, persecution, and mob violence manages to be even darker than Coraline. For me, it’s also a movie about the spirit of Halloween itself: learning to process fear and discomfort in a healthy way, rather than lashing out at things we don’t understand.

8. Ghostbusters (1984): I don’t really need to convince you to watch Ghostbusters, do I? Come on. Bustin’ makes everybody feel good. Nobody is afraid of no ghosts. We all know who we gonna call. Pop the damn thing in already.

9. Shaun of the Dead (2004): If you aren’t sold on Shaun of the Dead by the time Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are going through their record collection and deciding which ones are bad enough to throw at zombies, we’re just never going to agree on comedy. This is also probably the goriest movie on the list, but the graphic moments are usually easy to see coming.

10. Young Frankenstein (1974): Who said movies can’t be both atmospheric and funny? Just because your movie is primarily a comedy, that’s no reason to water it down. Mel Brooks gets that–his movies are both hilarious and surprisingly competent genre pieces in their own right (Men In Tights is one of the top three Robin Hood movies, prove me wrong). Young Frankenstein is almost certainly his magnum opus, a ludicrous gothic masterpiece.

If you’re in the midst of a ghastly movie night and at a loss for what to watch, I hope my list helps you out. Have a spooktacular evening!

5 things I loved and 5 I did not about The Secret Commonwealth

This post contains spoilers for every volume in His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of my life’s most enduring obsessions. The Amber Spyglass in particular has an awful lot to answer for when it comes to my future career choices (damn you, Pullman, if you’d just let Lyra and Will stay together, I could have my student loans paid off by now).

So you can imagine how excited I was when I learned that Pullman was planning to revisit his best-known work in a new “equel” trilogy called The Book of Dust. Or maybe you can’t imagine, because the answer was “not very.”

See, I get invested in the stories I love, but I’ve never been the kind of fan who constantly needs new content to keep my attention from wandering. I’ve always believed that when something is finished, it should be left alone, lest later installments tarnish the memory of the original. And in recent years, franchise after franchise after franchise has proven me right, with the rare exceptions–like The Heroes of Olympus and The Last King of Osten Ard–coming more as pleasant surprises than anything else.

When La Belle Sauvage, the first installment in The Book of Dust, came out in 2017, it lived up to my mixed expectations. The book centered on two supremely lovable new characters, but wasted time with fan-service cameos from the original trilogy. Its two halves–a tense spy thriller set at a riverside pub, and a mystical, symbolic river journey–were each great on their own, but didn’t fit naturally together at all. The villain was effectively frightening, but the book didn’t give any reason for his actions. And perhaps most damning of all, it didn’t feel like it added anything to His Dark Materials.

That said, with some distance, I’ve learned to appreciate La Belle Sauvage more. If I forget that it’s supposed to be connected to His Dark Materials and approach it as Pullman trying his hand at writing a fairy tale, it’s far more enjoyable. It was using that approach that I walked out of Powell’s with a copy of the second installment, The Secret Commonwealth, and a sense of cautious optimism.

Turns out that was exactly the right attitude. I tore through the 600+ pages of The Secret Commonwealth in a weekend, relishing almost every one, yet by the end was left frustrated, confused, and more than a little sickened. Now I’ve turned to the blank digital page to work out my feelings about this hair-tearingly inconsistent book.

Before I begin, let me warn you that this post will discuss sexual assault and related tropes that might be upsetting (as does the book itself).

Also, I will be spoiling The Secret Commonwealth and all its predecessors here. If you learn the ending of any of the five books from this post, it’s your own damn fault. Let’s dive in.

5 things I loved

1. Further exploration of daemons

If Philip Pullman is remembered for only one thing, it will be daemons. His best idea–giving each character a bonded animal companion that is at once a part of them and a separate entity–not only defines his series but has taken on a life outside of it. Daemons are an excellent alternative to “spirit animal” that avoids cultural appropriation, and are a popular fanfic trope, seen in works like Welcome to Night Vale crossover “He Says He Is An Experimental Theologian.”

The original trilogy explores the reality of daemons to some extent, but mostly as a metaphor for growing up. In The Secret Commonwealth, we get a lot more mileage out of daemons as both metaphors and real social phenomena. What does it mean, for example, if a person doesn’t get along with their daemon, something which never happened in His Dark Materials?

This last question kicks off the entire plot of the latest book. Seven years after the end of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra is now 20 years old, studying at Oxford instead of just being underfoot in the kitchens. Like too many undergraduates, she is–as a Redditor brilliantly puts it–“going through an Ayn Rand phase.” She’s been so influenced by a smug, trendy rationalist movement that she’s in danger of starting her own YouTube channel (“Lyra Silvertongue DESTROYS a fundie with FACTS and LOGIC”), and Pantalaimon can’t stand her anymore. Convinced she’s under a spell, he sets out to find a cure, leaving Lyra alone.

Though there’s plenty of detours into Magisterium politics, secret agent follies, and world-destroying essential oils, Lyra’s quest to reunite with Pan is the central thread of The Secret Commonwealth. As she travels across Europe and Asia in search of a rumored sanctuary for misfit daemons, she meets others who have lost theirs, each one forming a different heartbreaking metaphor for the ways we can be at odds with ourselves. One woman’s daemon fell in love with someone she couldn’t stand. Another man’s was transformed into something that would utterly destroy him. Several people have literally sold their daemons in exchange for physical subsistence, in a metaphor any professor of Marxist studies could teach a whole semester on.

It’s a fascinating series of beats. However much we can debate whether The Book of Dust needed to be written, one thing nobody can dispute is how much mileage remains in the concept of daemons.

2. The new villains

As I mentioned above, I found villain Gerard Bonneville to be one of the weakest aspects of La Belle Sauvage.

He was definitely scary: a snarling, relentless, nigh-unkillable madman, the hate child of the T-1000 and Reverend Harry Powell. What he wasn’t was believable or interesting. His only motivation was a rabid desire to get his hands on baby Lyra, for no clear reason, and his only hobby appeared to be rape. By the time Malcolm kills him in a dramatic confrontation at a flooded cemetery, we don’t know any more than we did at the start about what this guy’s deal is.

The Secret Commonwealth introduces two new villains: Bonneville’s son Olivier, an ambitious Magisterium lackey who matches Lyra’s skill with the alethiometer, and Marcel Delamare, Lyra’s uncle, who consolidates his power in the church while dealing with severe mother issues.

Neither one is that scary–Olivier is kind of a doofus, reminiscent of Prince Zuko’s early years, while Delamare never even meets any of the protagonists–but they do feel much more appropriate for their surroundings.

One of my favorite tropes is when a long-running series, realizing that it can’t keep upping the stakes forever, changes things up with a more intimate, worldly, petty threat (Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney is one of my favorite examples of this). After all, Lyra has fought armored polar bears, ghosts that eat your soul, witches, angels, and there was that one time she helped assassinate God. No human, no matter how stabby he gets, is ever going to measure up.

The Secret Commonwealth understands that it’s a much more earthbound story. It’s about a broken person trying to find out if she can ever be whole again. A book like that demands antagonists who are driven by prosaic concerns, and so, Olivier provides none of the jarring tonal dissonance we got from his dad.

3. Inching away from rationalism

It’s easy to see why Pullman decided to revisit the world of His Dark Materials. It’s not because he needed the money, or missed being on the bestseller list.

As The Secret Commonwealth makes clear, it’s because he saw readers taking His Dark Materials the wrong way. Readers took his fiery denunciation of organized religion to mean that they should abandon all faith and imagination and trust nothing but logic and reason.

One of the books responsible for stealing Lyra’s imagination is a thinly-veiled version of His Dark Materials itself: an epic saga that culminates in the protagonist killing God. Unlike with the real books, though, there aren’t any good intentions here. It’s as though Pullman has conjured in fiction the book he’s afraid he accidentally wrote in real life. The novel-within-the-novel The Hyperchorasmians renounces metaphor, condemns art, and does its best to show real-world readers how absurd a work of total logic would be (its in-universe author is in due course revealed to be a whimpering fraud).

Pullman is clearly a man with a great appreciation for the emotional, mythical, and irrational, up to and including the faeries and ghasts of the titular secret commonwealth, who can only be seen out of the corner of one’s eye. Over the years, he must have become immensely frustrated by fans “thanking” him for opening their eyes to the folly of everything but reason. Having famously attacked organized religion, he’s now wheeling around to pick a fight with its opposite–which it’s clear he holds in equal contempt.

4. Mental health representation

One of my favorite genres of fanfiction is stories about how the characters in an epic saga are doing, several years after that saga concludes. They’re usually getting along all right, but still scarred, marked by what they went through in ways they’re still working out how to live with.

The Secret Commonwealth is essentially a canon version of this, and it’s on this level that it works best. Lyra is extremely not OK from the very first page, even before Pan leaves her. She’s able to show flashes of her old self, especially when somebody else needs help, but on the inside, she’s feeling adrift, directionless, and confused. As hard as she’s tried to get over Will, she still hasn’t managed it, and as her feud with Pan makes clear, Lyra’s at the point of hating herself–she feels as though she should have become something better after her adventure across the multiverse, but has experienced a failure to launch. Who can’t relate?

The central metaphor of the book, that of going on a long journey to rediscover a missing part of yourself, lands beautifully–helped, of course, by the endlessly resonant metaphor of daemons. The regret and inner conflict that Lyra and Pan experience leaps from every page they’re on, to the point where it becomes oppressive, though not in a bad way. This is a book about quietly desperate people trying to understand how things changed so quickly.

In my opinion, this is what really makes a book “adult”: not gratuitous violence or sexual assault, but the acknowledgement that happy endings aren’t endings.

5. The refugee crisis

One thing I didn’t expect, but was excited to see, was Philip Pullman tackling Europe’s defining cultural issue of the last five years: their treatment of African and Middle Eastern refugees.

Of course, this being a parallel reality, things are a bit different. The cause of the crisis is simplified: instead of a complex melange of climate change, colonialism, and extremism, Pullman’s crisis is caused by the Magisterium secretly funding a Daesh-like organization to destroy rose gardens and kill growers. Much like the real crisis, it affects all levels of Syrian and Levantine society.

Lyra, who’s traveling the opposite direction of the tide of refugees, runs into them several times, and every time is forced to reckon with her powerlessness. She takes the opportunity to help the one little girl she can, an act of kindness that reverberates throughout the rest of the book, even while it forces questions I never thought this book would make me contemplate.

As we learned from La Belle Sauvage, Lyra herself was once a refugee in a boat. For much of her life after, though, she’s been extremely privileged. However, does it invalidate her suffering that other people are suffering much worse? How do we value the mental and spiritual anguish of a first-world citizen against the mental, spiritual, and physical anguish of the displaced peoples? How can we create a value system that empathizes with both, without diminishing the greater pain of the refugees?

The Secret Commonwealth offers no easy answers. Neither does life. Once again, this is the correct way to guide a universe from childhood to adulthood.

5 Things I Did Not Love

1. The gang rape scene

Now let’s talk about how not to do that.

There’s no sugar-coating this part. The third-to-last chapter, “Little Stick,” left such an acrid taste in my mouth that I’ll never be able to imagine this book without remembering it. There’s no excuse for this scene. It’s going to baffle and enrage me for a long time.

I’m already committed to spoilers, so I’ll come out and say it: in this chapter, Lyra is groped and nearly gang-raped by a group of Turkish soldiers in a train car. The actual rape does not occur, as Lyra fights back long enough to be rescued by the soldiers’ superior officer.

But that’s immaterial. It’s still assault. And it’s still incredibly unnecessary.

You could remove this scene entirely without losing anything from the plot–its only purpose is to give Lyra a chance to use the Gyptian weapon she was given earlier, which could have been employed in any number of better ways.

Why the hell is this in here? Did Pullman think nobody would believe his book was for adults if he didn’t include a graphic sexual assault? Or did he just think he needed an action scene before the ending? I can’t possibly imagine the author of The Amber Spyglass believing either of these things, but I literally have no other answers.

This isn’t the first time The Book of Dust has done this, either. The climax of La Belle Sauvage also involves rape, this time an assault on Alice by Gerard Bonneville. Again, there’s no reason for it, and again, it’s insanely gratuitous.

Male authors, no matter how distinguished: just stop using rape, or attempted rape, to increase the drama. We’ve lost that privilege. It’s gross, it’s lazy, it co-opts female voices, and it never accomplishes anything. Stop.

2. Everything about Malcolm

Malcolm Polstead was the best thing about La Belle Sauvage. In a prequel often dragged down by references to the original trilogy, here was a fresh face at the heart of everything: inquisitive, devoted, brave when he needed to be, frequently clever. His ability to implicitly trust people was presented as strength of character rather than naive bumpkinhood. As an ordinary English boy caught up in an extraordinary situation, he couldn’t have been more likable.

In retrospect, though, the signs of trouble were there. Malcolm didn’t really have any flaws. He was beloved by everyone except sinister villains, always equal to every task, and surprisingly capable of fighting fully-grown men.

In The Secret Commonwealth, this has only gotten worse. Malcolm is now a professor of history at Oxford who moonlights as a secret agent. He’s able to separate from his daemon, Asta, but unlike Lyra and Pan, this doesn’t seem to have caused them any problems whatsoever, and they still get along famously. He can row a yacht across Lake Geneva without getting winded, flawlessly interrogate a mark, shrug off knife and bullet wounds, turn the tables on someone who’s following him, and break a man’s neck in less than a second. He has a magic aurora in his head that tells him what to do next.

What I’m getting at is that Malcolm is too damn perfect, and it makes him a bit dull to read about. He has no flaws like Lyra’s impetuousness, Will’s social anxiety, Iorek Byrnison’s self-pity, or Pan’s tendency to be a condescending prat.

To be fair, Pullman has created other characters that run this risk. Both Lee Scoresby and Mary Malone from His Dark Materials could be accused of being unrealistically perfect.

The difference, though, is that they were both interesting. Lee is a devil-may-care Han Solo type that fits perfectly with the flavor of the universe, and Mary is intimately connected to the original trilogy’s myth arc. Malcolm is just an amazing guy who runs around beating up fools on what amounts to a sidequest.

None of this is helped by how obviously he’s being set up as Lyra’s second love interest. Malcolm’s only “flaw” in The Secret Commonwealth is that he’s in love with Lyra, but since she appears to be falling for him too–and a character all-but verbatim says that a 12-year age difference is not weird if they’re both adults–this doesn’t appear to be a flaw at all (never mind the enormously strange power imbalance involved in wanting to bone down on a former student you’ve known since she was a literal baby).

Maybe Pullman thought we’d never accept Lyra paired with anybody but Will unless he was the perfect man. That’s possible. But I wish he’d spent less time setting up how great Malcolm is and more time actually making sure the two have chemistry. As it is, I’m starting to get Anthony Caine flashbacks.

3. Lyra’s lack of agency

This is a very difficult one to complain about, because it’s the other side of the coin to one of my favorite parts of the book–the portrayal of Lyra’s “melancholy.”

But a huge issue I had with the mental health themes in this book was the equation of depression with helplessness. It’s great to portray a character struggling with her own mind. It’s even better to reify that struggle into a physical journey. Where Pullman falters is in deciding that Lyra won’t be able to handle that journey without being repeatedly bailed out by other people.

From the time she sets off from Oxford to her arrival at what is probably the Blue Hotel, I can think of maybe three things Lyra does entirely for herself. Other than that, episodes in her adventure tend to follow a formula: she goes to a new place, gets into some kind of trouble, gets bailed out by either an Oakley Street agent or somebody else who doesn’t have a daemon, gets directions from this person to her next destination, and keeps moving.

Again, it’s hard to be certain whether this is a bug or a feature, as part of Lyra’s arc in this book is about letting herself trust hunches and rely on providence. But neither that nor her depression require her to be so passive. Where’s the Lyra who once deceived an armored bear? Who broke into a lord’s mansion to steal back her alethiometer? Who led the exodus from Bolvangar? Who cut open the Authority’s tomb?

It’s only natural that Lyra’s changed. But melancholy doesn’t erase everything about who a person is. Lyra is the character that first taught my young self that girls could be badass–even leaving aside the horrible “Little Stick” scene, it’s sad that she doesn’t get more to do.

4. The side characters

The supporting characters in His Dark Materials are all-time greats in children’s literature. Lord Asriel. Mrs. Coulter. Lee Scoresby. Iorek Byrnison. Serafina Pekkala. Farder Coram. Mary Malone.

The Book of Dust hasn’t yet given us anybody who can match these people. Instead, as Sarah McCarry writes on Tor.com, we get a parade of “practically interchangeable academics and administrators with sensible haircuts.”

She’s referring to the women there, but the men are almost as dull. And the ones with character, like Gottfried Brande or the furnace man, are usually gone within one chapter. Even the few recurring characters, like Coram and Ma Costa, seem to have had the life sucked out of them. It’s a severe disappointment.

5. There is no ending

I don’t mean “the ending is ambiguous.” I don’t mean “it ends on a cliffhanger.” I mean “it literally ends in the middle of the manuscript.” Nothing that’s set up is resolved, no new information comes to light, there’s no sense of a climax or turning point. The Secret Commonwealth does the literary equivalent of cutting to black in the middle of a scene.

I’m aware that The Book of Dust, like its name implies, was originally written as a single volume, and I sympathize with Pullman and his editors not being able to find a natural cutoff point. But as an armchair commentator, I think he should have just written the whole thing and published a 1,200 page novel. I still would have bought it.

The Subtle Knife ended on a cliffhanger as well, with Will’s father dead and Lyra in the clutches of Mrs. Coulter. But plenty of plot threads, including Will’s bleeding hand, were tied off, and Scoresby’s death provided dramatic closure. My hope is that, like that volume, The Secret Commonwealth is concerned with putting all the pieces in place for everything to go completely bonkers in book three. Right now, The Book of Dust could use a little bit more bonkers.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure I’m being unfairly demanding here.

His Dark Materials is an absolute masterwork, an all-time great: at once wildly imaginative and tightly controlled, a feat of worldbuilding, its message married as perfectly to its action as a human to their daemon. Its protagonists explore a dozen universes, witness the most enormous set-piece battle in written fantasy, upend the politics of heaven, redefine the nature of death, and ultimately save the entire multiverse by making out. Perhaps it’s unreasonable for me to assume any author could align the planets like that more than once in their lifetime.

I do understand why Pullman thought he had to write The Book of Dust: he had more to say, which is the only reason anybody should ever write a sequel or a prequel or an equel or whatever. But the amount of unforced errors made in the first two books is just aggravating, and it’s making me worry that one of my all-time favorite authors has lost his muse.

There’s so much greatness in La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth, but it feels like it’s tied to lead weights. And foremost (and this can’t be said enough times) is the reliance on sexual violence against women at every climactic moment, which has changed my entire opinion of this trilogy from cautious excitement to conflicted emotional distance.

I will read the third volume, whenever it comes out. But I will request that it have no rape scenes, turn the Malcolm knob from a 10 to a 6 and the Lyra knob from a 2 to a 7, include a more exciting supporting cast (sorry, Bud Schlesinger, whoever the hell you are), and provide some kind of resolution. Otherwise, I’ll have to settle for rereading His Dark Materials, and remembering when Philip Pullman knew what being an adult actually means.

#BoostMyBio: 5 top 5s

This year, I’m competing in Pitch Wars, a contest set up to help connect aspiring authors with mentors and agents. Before the contest goes live, I decided to take a break from frantically revising Traitor’s Bones to participate in the #BoostMyBio blog hop–just a fun way for some of us contestants to get to know each other.

First, the basics.

Me

I’m Samuel Chapman (Sam is fine!), writer, fencer, tea-drinker, RPG-lover, and daydreamer living in Portland, Oregon, USA. I live in an apartment overlooking the Willamette River with my girlfriend, a neurobiology research assistant and crafts wizard, and pay the bills as a freelance writer and technical sourcer (I help a startup help other startups hire engineers to build their products).

When I’m not writing, you can find me trying new taprooms, crossing rapiers with the local SCA as Rhodri of Anglesey (5th-century Welsh), playing board games (Scythe is my favorite, but I’ve lately been obsessed with Aeon’s End and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective), hiking in Forest Park and the shadows of Mt. Hood, or reading. A quick rundown of some of my favorites:

Authors: Annie Dillard, Ursula K. Le Guin, David Mitchell, John Crowley, Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert MacFarlane, Philip Pullman, Katherine Arden, Naomi Novik

Movies: The Seven Samurai, Shakespeare in Love, Hot Fuzz, Master and Commander, Castle in the Sky

TV Shows: Lost, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Stranger Things, Great British Bake-Off, Babylon 5

Video Games: Final Fantasy IX, Psychonauts, Civilization IV, Sly 2: Band of Thieves, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

My WIP: Traitor’s Bones

I was casting around for my next book idea in the fall of 2018. I’d just abandoned a project I didn’t think I was ready to write yet, and was at a loss as to what to write next. I’d been tossing around the idea of a fairytale retelling, but all the well-known ones–Cinderella, Snow White, Rumpelstilskin, even The Twelve Dancing Princesses–had been done a million times.

Then I remembered a weird story from the back catalog of the Brothers Grimm: “How Six Made Their Way in the World.” It’s the tale of a soldier who fights in many battles, but at the end of the war, his commanders refuse to pay him. Outraged, the soldier sets off for the capital city to demand what he’s owed, and along the way meets five men who each have a strange superpower: one can run like the wind, one can shoot any target, one can even cause a blizzard by straightening his hat. Together, the six men steal the king’s gold and live happily ever after.

I love this story. It’s a superhero team-up from way before superheroes, a heist where nobody breaks into anywhere, a swashbuckler about sticking it to unfeeling authority. But I didn’t just want to rewrite it, I wanted to retell it. How?

I realized that if you swap the genders and make the story about six women, whole new dimensions appear. Women are underpaid for the same work men do. Often, women are never guaranteed a place in the world, instead forced by society to exist in relation to men. I thought, what if I could write a story about six women–each brutalized in a different way by the system they live in–banding together to demand the world acknowledge them?

A year later, here I am with Traitor’s Bones.

The Pitch

OCEAN’S EIGHT meets THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER.

All Sovay Martingale wanted was the chance to die as herself.

After three years fighting King Jerome’s wars in disguise as a man, 18-year-old Sovay reveals herself as a woman–right before leading the army to a smashing victory. But instead of rewarding her for her valor, Sovay’s commanders strip her of her medals and discharge her from the army, leaving her only three coins to buy her passage home.

Humiliated, but refusing to lie down and take it, Sovay sets out toward the bustling port city of Eastfall to demand her salary from Jerome himself. On the road, she befriends Alyssa “Lys” Glastonbury, a highborn bandit with a superpowered prosthetic leg. When she learns that Lys was once a playmate of Prince Malcolm, Jerome’s eligible bachelor son, Sovay devises a plan: have Lys propose to marry Malcolm, then force Jerome to pay them off to avert the undesirable match.

With the help of four other magically-enhanced misfits–sharpshooter Eden de Falaise, woodswoman Beth Sternridge, cryomancer Frances Hartigan, and airship pilot Miranda van Talleyrand–their goal might just be within reach. But when two unexpected romances and a palace uprising interfere, and a terrifying secret rears its head deep beneath Eastfall City, Sovay and her new friends will need all their wits and courage to make their way in the world.

Aesthetic (be gentle, it’s the first one I’ve ever made)

Image

Top 5 Top 5s

I thought I’d go a bit deeper into who I am by tossing together five “top 5” lists to paint a picture of who I am as a writer, or at least of my preferred methods for being annoying on the internet.

Top 5 favorite things I’ve written

1. Daniel and Lauren’s conversation in Mammoth Cave toward the end of The Valley of Steel. It contains what I’d call the thesis statement for my body of work. “When we get desperate, when we get cornered, we don’t lash out. We look to our friends. That’s what makes us the good guys.”

2. The whole short story “Span of the Sky.” It’s the first thing I’ve written that came to me in a dream in near-complete form, and though you’d expect that to be a disaster, I was shocked by how well it turned out.

3. The Codex Codicum sequence in Rafter’s Rats, the first time the misfit crew battles their way through a dangerous escape together.

4. The sequence in the first short story I ever sold, “The Foaling Season,” where Reynard calms a panicking gryphon.

5. Honestly, the whole third act of Traitor’s Bones. I love this book and I love writing it.

Top 5 meals of my life

1. A dinner with a slow food collective in Wallowa County, Oregon, featuring freshly grown vegetables and elk

2. A shockingly good Full Irish in the Shannon airport

3. A pig roasted in an outdoor oven with homemade BBQ sauce and cornbread, at a Trackers Earth staff party

4. A plate of pineapple rings on Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia

5. Feasting at the Whitman Renaissance Faire, April 2012 (there’s nothing like your first time)

Top 5 poorly-reviewed movies I genuinely love

1. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

2. The Mummy Returns

3. Cowboys & Aliens

4. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

5. The Three Musketeers (2011)

Top 5 go-to stories about myself

1. The time I made the evening news in Yonkers for being stuck on a malfunctioning tall ship with a class of fourth-graders

2. The time I haggled my way across the entire nation of Dominica in one evening

3. The time I served as a second in an actual literal duel

4. The time I witnessed a total cloud inversion in the North Cascades

5. The time I urinated in the North Sea

Top 5 time travel destinations

1. The Swahili Coast, 1400 CE, before the arrival of the Portuguese

2. Rome, 125 CE, during the controversial reign of Hadrian

3. Tenochtitlan, 1500 CE, at the height of its urban sophistication

4. Tang China, 740 CE, to hear Li Po recite poetry

5. Eastern North America, 1550 CE, founding date of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy

That’ll serve as my bio for now. Back to revising! Good luck to all Pitch Warriors!

Thanos and the Night King Have a Beer in Heaven

Contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones up to season 8, episode 3. You have been warned.

EXT: A beautiful seaside landscape at sunset, with no sound but the wind and the gentle wash of the waves. Two Adirondack chairs sit facing the ocean, with a cooler in between them. In one chair, sipping from a Heineken and occasionally sighing, sits the Night King from Game of Thrones.

Enter Thanos, the villain of Avengers: Endgame, from a path that leads inland over low, grassy hills.

THANOS: Hey, Night King. Mind if I join you?

NIGHT KING: Yeah, sure. I’ll just be thinking in circles all night otherwise.

Thanos sits and fishes a coors out of the cooler. Night King hands him a keychain bottle opener. They drink for a beat in silence.

THANOS: What’s eating you, N.K.?

NIGHT KING: Man. Tons of things. First of all, how are the two of us even in heaven? We both did some pretty terrible stuff.

THANOS: It’s theologically shaky, but I was just asking St. Peter and Gautama about it, and they said that by being a fictional character, you bring joy to millions even if you’re the bad guy. Since stories need villains, villains get to be in heaven because we let them have stories. And this place is so big you don’t have to see anybody you don’t want to anyway.

NIGHT KING: Joy to millions. Yeah.

He takes a long swig. Thanos sets his bottle down.

THANOS: Oooo-kay. I know what this is about.

NIGHT KING: It’s not what you think.

THANOS: Don’t hold back, bro. We’re gonna talk you through this funk. Let it out.

NIGHT KING: It’s just that everybody loved watching you get defeated! Like three critics on Earth didn’t like the movie where the Avengers finally killed you. But when I get my death episode, which was built up to for at least as long as yours, by the way, everyone’s all ambivalent about it. All I saw the first time I checked Heavenbook up here were a bunch of thinkpieces about whether it was “narratively satisfying” or “underwhelming” or “why was a seemingly immortal zombie lord being treated as less of a threat than Cersei.”

THANOS: It can’t have been that bad.

NIGHT KING: I met Ned Stark, Thanos! He apologized to me!

Beat.

NIGHT KING: I’m sorry. I raised my voice there.

THANOS: It’s cool. I know you’re feeling a lot of emotions right now.

NIGHT KING: But you get where I’m coming from, don’t you? We’re two of the scariest bad guys in 2010s pop culture, and we both got defeated on, like, the same weekend. People should have been losing their minds. We had such a great last episode where everyone talked about their backstories and stuff to make you care. And, you know, I thought it was really dope when Arya stabbed me using the same sword move she demonstrated on Brienne last season. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while it paid off Arya’s arc really well, it didn’t actually pay off the show’s.

THANOS: Mm.

NIGHT KING: Also, the only guy I personally kill is Theon? Really? I couldn’t even take out Jon Snow? The guy doesn’t have any superpowers! He just has a sword and a wolf he keeps forgetting is there! All the people you killed had superpowers!

THANOS: You want to know what I think?

NIGHT KING: Totally. Please. You know I value your opinion.

Thanos takes one more drink while he figures out how to phrase this kindly.

THANOS: So the first thing I should mention is that I didn’t actually manage to kill any named characters in my final installment either. Natasha and Tony both sacrificed themselves, and Steve literally died of old age.

NIGHT KING: Yeah, that sorta violated the established rules of time travel, didn’t it? Also it’s kind of weird that Black Widow didn’t get a funeral.

THANOS: Minor black marks on an otherwise excellent film.

NIGHT KING: Yeah. (sighs deeply) I know.

THANOS: Also, I was personally against the “fat Thor” subplot. But we’re talking about you, not me. Have you thought about the fact that maybe people just appreciate our two universes differently?

NIGHT KING: How do you mean?

THANOS: Well, like Pete and Sid said, we both provide viewers with catharsis. But people go to superhero movies to get a particular sort of catharsis: they want to laugh and cheer and experience eucatastrophe, with moments like Captain America finally wielding Mjolnir.

NIGHT KING: Uh huh…

THANOS: That’s not why they watch your show, though. Game of Thrones is all about morbid realities and deconstruction and pyrrhic victories. If it’s got one unifying theme, it’s the idea that human nature makes a better world impossible, which is the exact opposite of what Avengers stands for.

NIGHT KING: Wait a minute. Do you think that’s why nobody really cared that the Avengers undid the Snap through time travel, but everyone felt sort of cheated when Jon came back to life?

THANOS: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Every story makes a contract it has to fulfill. Your show won its place in the cultural conversation by killing off characters like Ned, Rob, Catelyn, Oberyn, and Shireen when it made sense in the story, even if it was shocking to the viewer. You took risks in the name of building a narrative that felt meaningful and lived-in.

NIGHT KING: It’s actually Robb.

THANOS: Whatever. Point is, you were all about tearing down something I played perfectly straight. A Song of Ice and Fire even has the character of Sansa to show how romantic “knights of the round table” tropes are attempts to sanitize much of what went on in the real European medieval period. And what are the Avengers if not the modern-day knights of the round table?

NIGHT KING: I think I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying I should have gotten to kill more important characters. Shit, I really wanted to take out Jaime.

THANOS: No, that’s not it, man. What I’m trying to say is–it was never actually about who got killed. It was about why. It was about showing that you were going to try and tell a story that had never been told before. People felt like you didn’t follow through on that promise.

Night King raises his beer, then puts it down without taking a sip.

NIGHT KING: You know…

THANOS: Take your time.

NIGHT KING: I’m starting to think it was a mistake for a show about human flaws and failures to have an unstoppable supervillain in it at all.

THANOS: That might be going a little too far.

NIGHT KING: It’s not, though! We were supposed to be painting in shades of moral gray, but there’s me walking around as the ultimate evil that you can’t understand or reason with? I force the whole show onto a moral spectrum that’s totally at odds with its themes! And if I’m supposed to be a metaphor for climate change or the inevitability of death or whatever, how does it make thematic sense that you can kill me a dagger? God, I’m such an idiot!

THANOS: Look, N.K., I appreciate that you’re going through a rough time right now. But I’m not trying to make you feel worse. I’m trying to build a place we can heal from, together.

Thanos pats the Night King on the back while the Night King cries it out. Eventually, Night King gets a Kleenex from his pocket, blows his nose, and gets another Heineken out of the cooler.

NIGHT KING: Thanks. That helped.

THANOS: I’m glad.

NIGHT KING: I did want to know why people liked your death so much more than mine.

THANOS: So then have you considered–

NIGHT KING: Can you imagine me in one of your movies? I bet I could have taken out the Hulk, easy. (shadowboxes)

THANOS: C’mon, bro, I’m trying to make a point.

NIGHT KING: Sorry.

THANOS: Have you considered that your presence in the story had the potential to add a whole new thematic dimension, but you were just poorly used by your writers?

NIGHT KING: What do you mean?

THANOS: One of your writers came right out and said he thought themes were for eighth-graders. It’s pretty clear that they don’t have anything profound or meaningful to say about power, mercy, war, love, or any of their other themes, and that for at least a season they’ve just been writing whatever lines will look best superimposed on a moodboard. But you’re different. You represent something your show has never been willing to say outright…

Thanos gestures to the whole beach scene.

THANOS: …that we’re all going to wind up here one day, and therefore there’s literally nothing more pointless than spending any time killing each other even faster. Resisting you represents the hope of a better world, of burning a torch against the night–this season’s billion-dollar chiaroscuro budget should have made that clear enough. But none of the characters in Game of Thrones have any clear idea of what a better world looks like, because their writers don’t either.

NIGHT KING: So the problem isn’t that I was dispatched too easily, or that I didn’t kill enough characters on the way…

THANOS: Go on, you’ve almost got it.

NIGHT KING: Or even that I was a poor tonal fit with the rest of the show…the problem is that I was treated as an obstacle to the fight over power, when I represent something so much more important than who gets to sit in a pointy chair! That’s why people didn’t like my death as much as yours!

THANOS: Yes! Nailed it! (chugs the rest of his Coors)

NIGHT KING: It all makes sense now. It would be like if Iron Man survived after he killed you, and then went to find Captain America and said “hey, fucker, we’re still having a civil war. Put up your dukes.”

THANOS: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from dealing with heroes all the time, it’s that when things get bad, people help each other. They realize they need each other. When everything is the worst, that’s when people’s ability to hope for better things charges into overdrive. Game of Thrones could have been a show about characters building a better world from the ashes of one that had become unsustainable. Instead they decided to roll around in the ashes and wallow.

NIGHT KING: Like the endless struggle over power is the only thing that’s ever going to matter. Can you imagine spending eight seasons and millions of dollars just to say that?

THANOS (shrugs): Some people like the sound of their own voice so much they’ll scream into the void just to hear it.

NIGHT KING: Heh. Sounds like a line from my show.

THANOS: You deserved better, buddy.

NIGHT KING: Thanks, Thanos. Good talk. I think I’d like to be alone now, if you don’t mind.

Thanos crushes his can and gets up.

THANOS: No problem, man. It’s getting dark anyway. I know that’s more your thing.

NIGHT KING: But hey, at least there’s one thing we can always agree on…

THANOS: What’s that?

NIGHT KING: Fuckin’ Starks.

THANOS: Fuckin’ Starks indeed.

Thanos turns to walk back along the shore.

Fade out.

On Spoilers

When I say that I don’t care about spoilers, people seem to think I’m not telling the truth.

“He claims he doesn’t care if we talk about Game of Thrones before he’s seen it,” my family thinks, “but Sam has a long and annoying habit of staking out intentionally contrarian viewpoints, so this is probably one of those. In actuality, he is riven by the fear of spoilers. Consumed by it. As are we all.”

It’s true. I do have that habit, and I’m working on it, because it is annoying. But this isn’t one of those times. I would never violate somebody else’s right not to be spoiled because of my beliefs that spoilers don’t matter, but for me personally, I really, literally don’t care if you tell me about the plot beats of new books, movies, TV shows, or video games before I’ve read them.

A recent Vox article about spoiler paranoia has inspired me to expand on my opinion here. That piece’s thesis is pretty simple, if you don’t want to read the whole thing: as evidenced by the bizarre filming process of Avengers: Endgame, bending over backwards not to spoil things leads everyone to jump through hoops that make movies worse.

The idea that fear of spoilers is changing the way movies get made is especially galling to me, and I can express why in five simple words: to me, ruining stories doesn’t ruin them.

The Potter Example

Let me set a scene. It’s July 20, 2007, and you’re standing in line to get your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when it gets into the bookstore at midnight (as long as we’re time-traveling, you might as well imagine it’s a Borders). As you’re leaving the story with your copy under your arm, a guy drives by with his window down.

“Harry is a horcrux!” he yells. “He dies but gets better and then he marries Ginny! Fred and Hedwig don’t make it! Snape wanted to bone Harry’s mom!”

And other such charming phrases. For maximum visual irony, his car has a spoiler on it. Before you can shoot out his tires, he’s screaming onto the interstate to spread chaos elsewhere.

Here’s my question. At this point, knowing many of the book’s major reveals, do you toss it in the garbage?

Of course you don’t. Below, I’d like to list the reasons why.

1. You can’t be sure the spoiler is telling the truth

You probably aren’t in the habit of believing everything people scream at you from moving cars. But you also don’t believe everything you read on the internet, or even that you hear in person–you may love your friends, but you still tune out Dave when he starts talking about chemtrails.

Spoilers, though, are granted a weird exemption from skepticism. We’re so annoyed that somebody has ruined the ending for us that we don’t stop to ask whether they know what they’re talking about. This is important wisdom not just for enjoying pop culture but for navigating the entire world in 2019: a statement is not automatically true just because it is upsetting to hear.

When we get to the story ourselves, we can actually preserve a lot of the suspense and surprise by remembering that it’s still an open question whether the spoiler was at all correct. Fans who saw The Empire Strikes Back in its original theatrical run frequently reported that when Darth Vader claimed to be Luke’s father, they straight-up didn’t believe him. Now, it’s our generation’s turn to cultivate the spine to tell Darth Vader he can shove it.

2. There are other reasons to experience stories than to find out what happens next

Yes, I do understand this is a major source of enjoyment for readers and viewers. It is for me too. And I also understand how many people identify with the Russian scientist who stabbed his colleague for telling him the endings of books, even though that was likely a product of madness from the Antarctic isolation. This point, though, is really critical, and I believe everyone gets it, even if we don’t talk about it much.

Harry Potter and his friends are beloved characters. We enjoy spending time with them. We like luxuriating in their magical world. We cheer for the themes of protecting the helpless, fighting for equality, and living meaningful lives. All of these are things that are not damaged, in any way, by knowing beforehand that Harry is a horcrux.

Some of the greatest works of Western literature, including the poems of Homer and the tragedies of Shakespeare, ruin their own endings in the first lines. By line 15 of the Odyssey, we know that Odysseus’s crew will be killed after slaughtering cattle belonging to the sun god; by the same point in Romeo and Juliet, we know that the title characters will die and thereby end the fighting between their families.

Similarly, nobody who buys a ticket for an action movie is in any doubt about whether it will end with the protagonist bringing the villain to justice. You know the ending of the story going in, and you still sit down, because there’s so much more in a good story than a few major plot beats, and it’s all so much harder to ruin.

I’ve harped on this before, but I’m going to keep repeating it whether anyone likes it or not. The difference between a story and a surprise is the difference between a Vegas magic show and your friend who does card tricks when they’re drunk. The reason we all stopped caring about M. Night Shyamalan movies is that nobody gave a crap about anything that happened before the reveal.

To really beat this into the ground, if the best value to be gotten from stories was from the steady reveal of plot beats, nobody would ever reread books.

3. Being spoiled does take something from the experience, but it adds more than it takes

A series of studies conducted at UC San Diego suggested that people actually derive greater enjoyment from a story when they’ve been spoiled. The researchers theorized that knowing the plot beforehand allows a reader or viewer to appreciate everything else in the story more, because they aren’t distracted by waiting to find out what happens. In other words, watching a movie again to appreciate all the subtle hints at the twist ending is just as pleasurable if it’s your first viewing.

There is definitely a thrill that can’t be replicated that comes from discovering new twists as they happen, but to me, that’s a very small part of the experience of being told a story. That’s what makes it so frustrating that spoiler culture privileges it above everything else. If you love something, says spoiler culture, what you care about is what happens next. And so, the natural connections people forge around things that should be beloved cultural touchstones–the very foundations of nerd culture–are limited by the necessity of tiptoeing around what should be the least important part of those stories.

4. Even so, don’t spoil things for people

I want to be absolutely clear about this. If what people want is not to be told what happens at the end of the next installment of their favorite story, nobody has the right to decide otherwise–I don’t get to decide what’s good for someone else against their will, ever, and I don’t have the right to decide what beliefs do and don’t count as legit.

I’m just hoping that, eventually, spoiler culture will die down on its own. It’s frustrating and limiting, and in a small but real way, devalues what I love.

The Ultimate Halloween vs. Christmas Cage Match

All right. Buckle the heck up, because I’m about to take you people to school. It’s time for me to settle the ultimate debate: which is the best holiday, Halloween or Christmas?

A few things before we start. Yes, I’m aware they’re both wonderful times of the year that provide a great deal of joy to many people, but this is America, and nothing has value here unless we make it defeat something else. Yes, I know Thanksgiving should be involved in this, but Thanksgiving is just a big amiable doofus sitting in the middle of this fight, unaware it’s going on, so I won’t bother it. And yes, I know that they play very different cultural roles and it doesn’t make sense to compare them apples-to-apples, but this post is not about making sense. It’s about winning.

I’m going to compare Christmas and Halloween by every metric I can think of, and at the end, only one bruised and bloody holiday will be left standing. And now, further ado.

Music

Christmas might seem to have this locked up, right? It’s the music holiday. Only 4th of July has as many tunes instantly come to mind. But much like 4th of July, I mostly like Christmas songs because other people around me like them and I want to hang out. Because the fact is lots of Christmas carols are–as my brother likes to say–boring as schmaitz.

Sure, there’s some great stirring ones. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” never fails to get me hyped for Baby Jesus, “O Holy Night” and “Good King Wenceslas” are bangers, “We Three Kings” is goth AF, and while my favorite, “Do You Hear What I Hear” is controversial, I contend there’s nothing more rousing as long as you can find a singer, or singers, who isn’t, or aren’t, lobotomized.

Unfortunately, all that dies once your initial writing date gets on the wrong side of the “Silent Night” line. Then you wade into a minefield of what I call “boomer carols” or “songs that could put one to sleep even if one were currently riding a motorcycle.”

“White Christmas”? Get the cocoa, kids, Bing Crosby’s using all four of his notes!

“Jingle Bell Rock”? Has a less rocking song ever been recorded, possibly excepting “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”?

“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”? Merry Christmas, children! Everyone in your life will ignore you for being different, until that difference becomes convenient for them!

And am I the only person who’s noticed that “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” are the same song? I feel like I’m shouting about Derek Zoolander’s looks every December with this one.

Point is, you have to compare the music of Christmas and Halloween along two avenues: classic and popular. Halloween puts up a good fight on classic, with Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Danse MacabreNight on Bald Mountain, and Der Erlkonig, but they can’t stand up to all the pre-1900 Christmas carols–plus the secret designated hitter, Handel’s Messiah.

But there’s also pop. This is where Halloween truly shines.

“Thriller.” “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” “Ghostbusters.” “Music of the Night.” “The Time Warp.” “I Put a Spell on You.” “Somebody’s Watching Me.” “Spooky Scary Skeletons.” “Monster Mash.” “Season of the Witch.” “This is Halloween.” “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.” “Werewolves of London.” Tell me you wouldn’t rather listen to that playlist than the 85th cover of Frosty the Snowman.

Totally unbiased winner: Halloween

Movies

Another one that starts out obviously going one way and then veers another due to my vested interest. Everyone loves Christmas movies, right? You gotta! What’s Christmas without A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Love Actually, uh…Elf

This is very hard for me to finish. Because I don’t like any of those movies. A Christmas Story is funny, but not the 46th time. It’s a Wonderful Life is a great 20-minute film with a two-hour prologue. Love Actually, as has been better pointed out in The Atlantic, is extremely unromantic, ignoring every part of love between lust at first sight and marriage (the whole movie should have been about Bill Nighy’s character anyway).

There are some gray areas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a classic, of course, but it’s like eight minutes long, and five of those are the song. A Charlie Brown Christmas, same deal, but every holiday has a Peanuts special, so Charlie Brown can’t be definitively claimed. Same with The Nightmare Before Christmas, which both sides get, so it’s a wash. And no, Christmas, don’t try claiming Jesus Christ Superstar–are you trying to take all Easter has left?

Elf, The Polar Express, (except for the part with the evil Christmas hobo) Miracle on 34th Street (except for the part where Santa clubs a guy into unconsciousness) and the others are all fine, I guess, but I’d never watch them anytime other than Christmas. And that’s the main point here. I can think of only two “Christmas movies” I’d want to watch for reasons other than celebrating the season: Die Hard, and Hong Kong kung fu classic It’s a Drink! It’s a Bomb!

“But Sam,” you say, like the hypothetical strawman you are, “maybe Christmas movies are a weak bunch, but I don’t like horror movies. How can Halloween win this one?”

All right, listen up, because this is central to my argument. Not all Halloween movies are horror movies, and vice versa. If you don’t like horror movies–and I don’t either!–you can watch any number of horror-themed movies that aren’t actually scary.

Once you realize this, practically every genre opens up. Want a film that captures the spirit of Halloween without frightening you? Check out ParaNorman, newcomer The House with a Clock in its Walls, or my favorite that I watch every year, Over the Garden Wall (which is actually a miniseries). Feel like an adventure? There’s The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Romantic sorts are especially in luck–they get Sleepy Hollow, Let the Right One In, Ghost, Corpse Bride, The Shape of Water, or hell, Twilight if that’s what you’re into. Would you rather laugh? Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Scream, Young Frankenstein, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hocus Pocus are all season-appropriate. Sci-fi nut? Alien, Predators, and Pitch Black are all right there. There are even musicals–The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, and Wicked–that’ll make you forget all about White Christmas.

Many of these movies are ones I’d call my favorites any time of the year. But if that enormous cascade of great cinema didn’t convince you, consider two other points. First, Halloween-appropriate movies have been considered great art throughout the history of film: Psycho, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Get Out are all milestones. Can you name any Christmas movies with the impact of any of those? Didn’t think so.

And second: modern Christmas traditions were heavily popularized by Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol.” A story about–can anyone tell me?–ghosts. The original Christmas story was actually a Halloween story.

Obvious winner: Halloween

Decorations

One thing that’s true about both of these holidays: if you love them, you love decorating for them. Halloween fanatics can’t face the season without their jack-o-lanterns, fake cobwebs, and spiders; Christmas lovers go nuts on the lights, fake snow (assuming their area doesn’t get real snow), and inflatables.

It’s all great. Both in different ways, of course. The key to Christmas decoration is extravagance: it’s a celebratory festival, and light displays are a fantastic way to display your joy. I myself remember many happy evenings on the Trail of Lights in Austin, and there’s even a TV show, The Great Christmas Light Fight, where people compete to greet the season using numbers of gigawatts that would make Doc Brown tell them to settle down a little.

On Halloween, the best decorations come from ambience and performance: being the star of a terrifying scene. Halloween tends to come in stories, which is probably why I gravitate toward it, or would if I weren’t a perfectly impartial cage-match referee. A Christmas village is a static thing, but a Halloween haunted house, or even a well-decorated trick-or-treat destination, involves you in an unfolding scare.

All that said, it’s hard to weigh the breadth of Christmas against the depth of Halloween in this area. So I’m declaring…

Winner: Tie

History

Holidays don’t appear in a vacuum, as I’ve already alluded to. Which holiday has the coolest origin?

Christmas has gone through a lot of iterations over the years. Yule celebrations are as old as human civilization in temperate climates, at least in Europe: celebrating the moment when the days become longer again makes perfect sense. Many people know that the birth of Jesus Christ wasn’t celebrated by Christians in the first few centuries that was a thing you could be, and that the Pope chose December 25th as Jesus’s birthdate so it would coincide with the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Disclaimer: this next argument is lifted almost wholesale from Jamie of the British History Podcast, and I’ll pay him back for this theft by telling everyone reading this to go listen to an episode before you keep reading.

You back? Good. Halloween went through much of the same process as Christmas: a pagan harvest holiday, scheduled due to the natural rhythms of the year, re-branded into a Christian occasion by a church powerless to stop the heathen revelries. In Halloween’s case, All Hallows’ Eve festivities were said to just be the prelude to All Saints’ Day on November 1.

What I find interesting is that, before both were Christianized, Saturnalia had many of the same characteristics we associate with Halloween today: masks and costumes, general revelry, and the reversal of traditional social rules. At Saturnalia, masters waited on their slaves at table; on Halloween, children demand treats from adults and are indulged instead of punished.

Anyway, the exact argument I’ve stolen from the BHP is that while Christmas has been wholly sanitized by 1,500 years and the work of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, Halloween never lost its pagan edge, no matter how hard the priests tried. It’s Samhain, the night the world of the spirits is closest to our own. A night for the superstitious, the credible–for those who refuse to accept that the purpose of existence is to avoid fear and discomfort. A night when the oddballs, the outsiders, can be hailed as just another part of the masquerade.

Of course, Christmas plays a different role. While Halloween is about letting madness into our brutalist lives, Christmas has come to represent kindness and generosity as people share what they have to help others make it through the long night. But that will score it points in a different category.

Christmas’s current incarnation can sometimes feel like an invention of the modern world. Halloween feels like a message sent from long ago: a magnificent standing stone, or barrow for a great king, that nobody can move no matter how hard they try. Which one do you think Susan Cooper’s biggest fan is giving the edge to?

Winner on points: Halloween

Traditions

Tradition, tradition! Having examined the trappings of the two titans of festivity, we now dig into the marrow. What actually makes Halloween all-hallows’ eve, and Christmas the celebration of nativity? Let’s review them point-by-point.

Halloween

Costumes: For one night, city streets and genteel suburbs are transformed into the dealer room at Comic Con. However, the pressure to wear something cool and creative can stress out those who don’t enjoy it.

Trick-or-Treating: This is a sad one for me. I still remember that feeling of having the freedom of a neighborhood at night, even though I had parents tagging along. It was beautiful, testing those limits, so of course everyone now wants to destroy it.

If you only read one paragraph of that article, read the one about the researcher who has been updating his study on Halloween sadism since 1981, and hasn’t seen a single instance of any child being fed a razor blade or murdered on Halloween by anybody they didn’t know. Halloween is supposed to be about letting fear into your life; instead, we’re ruining one of its most hallowed traditions because nobody wants to be scared. A. and I didn’t get one child at our door this year.

Haunted Houses: I love these. Even more so because my friend who works in one has given me a direct line to all the backstage drama. Sure, they can be cheesy, but the performers put their hearts into it, and I’ve seen some great effects and well-staged scenes. And if you don’t like being freaked out, an escape room can give you the same feelings in a safer environment.

Candy: I still love it. But growing up has taught me about all the horror in the chocolate supply chain, so I can’t stand to buy it anymore.

Ghost Stories: In recent years, this has become one of my favorite ways of celebrating: gather with friends in costume and trade scary tales. H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe are mainstays, but I tend to bring either “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or my abridged version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Pumpkin Carving: Why don’t we do this year-round?

Other: I’ve talked before about the reasons my completely unbiased self prefers Halloween, and this is another. I don’t honestly love many of its traditions in themselves. I love the potential for weirdness this holiday always holds. One year I wore a Captain Hook costume on a tall ship and had a sword fight with Peter Pan on the boom. Another I spent on a friend’s roof, dropping a fake corpse whenever anyone walked by. Then there was the year I got menaced by Stupendous Man in my calculus class. Or wandered the neighborhood as a mummy with my bandages realistically unraveling.

Nothing weird ever happens to me on Christmas, in other words.

Christmas

Presents: Xkcd has pointed out that at some point Christmas became our most meta holiday, entirely about discovering the meaning of itself. Personally, I think that came about because everyone feels awkward getting presents and decided to collectively pretend we don’t care about them. But screw that, because presents are great, both to give and to receive–you get the warm fuzzies of watching someone open something you know is perfect for them, plus then you have a bunch of cool stuff you didn’t pay for.

Christmas Morning: This is much like defecating, in that no two people seem to do it in exactly the same way. Do you open presents the night before? Do you make a big deal out of stockings? When do you have breakfast? How long do you torment the children for? To church or not to church? But it is hard to beat the extraordinary feeling of peace. Looking back, that’s what I loved most, even though there are other places to get it.

Stockings: Like trick-or-treating but your feet don’t get tired, the food is better, and your parents let you do it.

Trees: I have been hard on Christmas for letting go of its pagan roots, but this thing where you put a tree inside your house for no reason, and enough people do that to maintain a year-round industry, has me like bottom-picture Drake.

Family: It could be said that Halloween is a holiday for friends, Christmas for family. I’m very lucky–my family is full of strong personalities that inevitably clash when you put them in a house for a week, but by and large, we all love each other and look forward to the togetherness, especially since we don’t see each other much the rest of the year. However, it’s hard for me to rate this highly given that I think the general idea of “family comes first” is toxic for people who don’t have families as kind as mine.

The result here is our first victory for Christmas, with qualifications: my love of Halloween is personal, as I’ll discuss more later, but too many modern issues are dragging it down right now.

Food

This will be a fast one. Halloween has got candy and apples, pretty much. Maybe roasted pumpkin seeds if you’re into that. If it’s being celebrated right, as a harvest festival like its origins demand, you can have a feast, but those functions are largely handled by Thanksgiving now.

Christmas demands a feast. Several, usually. While the nature of the food is less circumscribed than on Thanksgiving, the only requirements are that it be hearty, ample, and shared with the less fortunate. Christmas gets the win since Halloween just isn’t a food holiday.

Atmosphere

Here’s a really intangible one that nonetheless makes or breaks how much I enjoy a holiday. How does it feel to be out on the streets this season?

At Christmas, everyone is bundled up, scarfed and hatted. Their breath clouds as they hurry from door to door with their hot cocoas and peppermint teas. People carry stacks of brightly-colored bundles to their cars, while on the next corner, some singers in Dickens garb are absolutely crushing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” There’s some lights on the underside of a bridge and you have no idea how they got there. Everybody seems dedicated to making life slightly nicer.

On Halloween, the spirits of dark netherworlds and fae realms are conjured by hanging bats, fake tombstones, and spider webs. People wear cloaks outside, linger in cemeteries,  mix food coloring into everything. There’s organ music coming from somewhere you’re pretty sure doesn’t have an organ. Everybody seems dedicated to making life slightly more interesting.

Let’s remember what I said before. Festival days are about stirring up life so it doesn’t settle into boredom, even if you’re required–like most of us–to follow a routine. On Christmas, we are kind and generous because our culture doesn’t usually incentivize that. On Halloween, we court fear because our culture is otherwise built entirely around avoiding it. What this means–for all of us–is that the true meaning of these holidays is what we get out of them.

And ultimately, that’s why Halloween is the victor on atmosphere. Because it’s a personal decision, and Halloween, as I have discovered by writing this post, is just the one that I’m better at. Halloween is about coming to terms with the enormous things: death, the size of the worlds, the massive sweep of our ancestral history and the ghosts it left. Understanding those things breeds generosity like mold on a jack-o-lantern.

But I haven’t really found that it goes the other direction. For all that I love about Christmas, it has a way of shrinking the world until it’s small enough to be cozy. Halloween expands the world and tells us that in the end, we are the ones that keep each other warm, shoulder to shoulder around the fire.

Conclusion

Who wins this cage match? For me, Halloween. For you, who knows? This took me longer to write than I expected. It was a process of learning that festivals give us a chance to examine what’s important, and that will never be the same between two people. Here’s my goal, though: remember why we celebrate, and not just in the classic meta-Christmas way.

For as long as there have been festivals, they have marked the passage of time so that we can feel connected to the universe. They are about the sun and stars, the crops and snow, the dead and the ones we love, not just about “generosity.”

That said, Halloween movies really are better. Fade out.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (abridged)

Welcome to the Halloween Special! This is a little service I’m providing to people who might find themselves in the position of needing a great creepy story to read on this night of spooks and spectres, or any other similar night in the future. I love Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow–it’s atmospheric, hilarious, and can trace a direct line of descent to Over the Garden Wall–but Irving is on par with Victor Hugo as a master of digressions.

Absolutely, the digressions are the point. But I also here present a version I cut down to less than half its original length. This one goes over very well as a performance for an audience who might not want to sit through several pages of locating the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley in America’s founding myths, not to mention enough food porn to give George R. R. Martin a stomach ache. Feel free to use it or steal it however you like!

As a side note, this means new generations can be introduced to the fact that Ichabod Crane is not, in fact, the hero. Enjoy.

***

In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, there lies a small market port, which is generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town. Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.

From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.

The dominant spirit that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts extend to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.

Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned in Sleepy Hollow for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity. The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

His schoolhouse was a low building of one large room, rudely constructed of logs; the windows partly glazed, and partly patched with leaves of old copybooks. From hence the low murmur of his pupils’ voices, conning over their lessons, might be heard in a drowsy summer’s day, like the hum of a beehive; interrupted now and then by the authoritative voice of the master, in the tone of menace or command, or, peradventure, by the sound of the birch, as he urged some tardy loiterer along the flowery path of knowledge. Truth to say, he ever bore in mind the golden maxim, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Ichabod Crane’s scholars certainly were not spoiled.

I would not have it imagined, however, that he was one of those cruel potentates of the school who joy in the smart of their subjects; on the contrary, he administered justice with discrimination rather than severity; taking the burden off the backs of the weak, and laying it on those of the strong. When school hours were over, he was even the companion and playmate of the larger boys; and on holiday afternoons would convoy some of the smaller ones home, who happened to have pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard. Indeed, it behooved him to keep on good terms with his pupils. The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda; but to help out his maintenance, he was, according to country custom in those parts, boarded and lodged at the houses of the farmers whose children he instructed. With these he lived successively a week at a time, thus going the rounds of the neighborhood, with all his worldly effects tied up in a cotton handkerchief.

The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle, gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson. Our man of letters, therefore, was happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays; gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overran the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent millpond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.

It was often his delight, after his school was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his schoolhouse, and there con over old Mather’s direful tales, until the gathering dusk of evening made the printed page a mere mist before his eyes. Then, as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination. Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him. But if there was a pleasure in all this, while snugly cuddling in the chimney corner of a chamber that was all of a ruddy glow from the crackling wood fire, and where, of course, no spectre dared to show its face, it was dearly purchased by the terrors of his subsequent walk homewards. What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path, amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night! With what wistful look did he eye every trembling ray of light streaming across the waste fields from some distant window! How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which, like a sheeted spectre, beset his very path! How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him! And how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the Galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings!

All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness; and he would have passed a pleasant life of it, if his path had not been crossed by the woman.

Among the musical disciples who assembled each week to receive his instructions in psalmody was Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and only child of a substantial Dutch farmer. She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. Her habitual dress was a mixture of ancient and modern fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold, which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam; the tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.

Ichabod Crane had a soft and foolish heart towards the sex; and it is not to be wondered at that so tempting a morsel soon found favor in his eyes, more especially after he had visited her in her paternal mansion. Old Baltus Van Tassel was a perfect picture of a thriving, contented, liberal-hearted farmer. He seldom, it is true, sent either his eyes or his thoughts beyond the boundaries of his own farm; but within those everything was snug, happy and well-conditioned. His stronghold was situated on the banks of the Hudson, in one of those green, sheltered, fertile nooks in which the Dutch farmers are so fond of nestling.

As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee,—or the Lord knows where!

From the moment Ichabod laid his eyes upon these regions of delight, the peace of his mind was at an end, and his only study was how to gain the affections of the peerless daughter of Van Tassel. In this enterprise, however, he had more real difficulties than generally fell to the lot of a knight-errant of yore, who seldom had anything but giants, enchanters, fiery dragons, and such like easily conquered adversaries, to contend with and had to make his way merely through gates of iron and brass, and walls of adamant to the castle keep, where the lady of his heart was confined; all which he achieved as easily as a man would carve his way to the centre of a Christmas pie; and then the lady gave him her hand as a matter of course. Ichabod, on the contrary, had to win his way to the heart of a country coquette, beset with a labyrinth of whims and caprices, which were forever presenting new difficulties and impediments; and he had to encounter a host of fearful adversaries of real flesh and blood, the numerous rustic admirers, who beset every portal to her heart, keeping a watchful and angry eye upon each other, but ready to fly out in the common cause against any new competitor.

Among these, the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roystering blade, of the name of Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of BROM BONES, by which he was universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar. He was foremost at all races and cock fights; and, with the ascendancy which bodily strength always acquires in rustic life, was the umpire in all disputes, setting his hat on one side, and giving his decisions with an air and tone that admitted of no gainsay or appeal. He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom. This rantipole hero had for some time singled out Katrina for the object of his uncouth gallantries, and though his amorous toyings were something like the gentle caresses and endearments of a bear, yet it was whispered that she did not altogether discourage his hopes.

Such was the formidable rival with whom Ichabod Crane had to contend, and, considering all things, a stouter man than he would have shrunk from the competition, and a wiser man would have despaired. To have taken the field openly against his rival would have been madness; for he was not a man to be thwarted in his amours, any more than that stormy lover, Achilles. Ichabod, therefore, made his advances in a quiet and gently insinuating manner. Under cover of his character of singing-master, he made frequent visits at the farmhouse.

From the moment Ichabod Crane made his advances, the interests of Brom Bones evidently declined, and a deadly feud gradually arose between him and the preceptor of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod became the object of whimsical persecution to Bones and his gang of rough riders. They harried his hitherto peaceful domains; smoked out his singing school by stopping up the chimney; broke into the schoolhouse at night and turned everything topsy-turvy, so that the poor schoolmaster began to think all the witches in the country held their meetings there.

On a fine autumnal afternoon, Ichabod, in pensive mood, was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a man in tow-cloth jacket and trowsers, who came clattering up to the school door with an invitation to Ichabod to attend a merry-making or “quilting frolic,” to be held that evening at Mynheer Van Tassel’s.

All was now bustle and hubbub in the late quiet schoolroom. The scholars were hurried through their lessons without stopping at trifles, and the whole school was turned loose an hour before the usual time, yelping and racketing about the green in joy at their early emancipation. The gallant Ichabod now spent at least an extra half hour at his toilet, brushing and furbishing up his best, and indeed only suit of rusty black, and arranging his locks by a bit of broken looking-glass that hung up in the schoolhouse. That he might make his appearance before his mistress in the true style of a cavalier, he borrowed a horse from the farmer with whom he was domiciliated, a choleric old Dutchman of the name of Hans Van Ripper, and, thus gallantly mounted, issued forth like a knight-errant in quest of adventures.

It was a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn; and soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.

It was toward evening that Ichabod arrived at the castle of the Heer Van Tassel, which he found thronged with the pride and flower of the adjacent country. Brom Bones, however, was the hero of the scene, having come to the gathering on his favorite steed Daredevil, a creature, like himself, full of mettle and mischief, and which no one but himself could manage. Old Baltus Van Tassel moved about among his guests with a face dilated with content and good humor, round and jolly as the harvest moon. And now the sound of the music from the common room, or hall, summoned to the dance. Ichabod prided himself upon his dancing as much as upon his vocal powers. The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance, and smiling graciously in reply to all his amorous oglings; while Brom Bones, sorely smitten with love and jealousy, sat brooding by himself in one corner.

When the dance was at an end, Ichabod was attracted to a knot of the sager folks, who, with Old Van Tassel, sat smoking at one end of the piazza, gossiping over former times, and drawing out long stories about ghosts and apparitions. Several of the Sleepy Hollow people were present at Van Tassel’s, and, as usual, were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the Horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge; when the Horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.

This story was immediately matched by a thrice marvellous adventure of Brom Bones, who made light of the Galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey. He affirmed that on returning one night from the neighboring village, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch, and should have won it too, but just as they came to the church bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire.

All these tales, told in that drowsy undertone with which men talk in the dark, the countenances of the listeners only now and then receiving a casual gleam from the glare of a pipe, sank deep in the mind of Ichabod.

The revel now gradually broke up. The old farmers gathered together their families in their wagons, and were heard for some time rattling along the hollow roads, and over the distant hills. Ichabod only lingered behind, according to the custom of country lovers, to have a tête-à-tête with the heiress; fully convinced that he was now on the high road to success. What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know. Something, however, I fear me, must have gone wrong, for he certainly sallied forth, after no very great interval, with an air quite desolate and chapfallen. He went straight to the stable, and with several hearty cuffs and kicks roused his steed most uncourteously from the comfortable quarters in which he was soundly sleeping.

It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. In the dead hush of midnight, all the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He was approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark.

As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he began to whistle; he thought his whistle was answered; it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling but, on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze.

About two hundred yards from the tree, a small brook crossed the road, and ran into a marshy and thickly-wooded glen, known by the name of Wiley’s Swamp. A few rough logs, laid side by side, served for a bridge. As he approached the stream, his heart began to thump; he summoned up, however, all his resolution, gave his horse half a score of kicks in the ribs, and attempted to dash briskly across the bridge; but instead of starting forward, the perverse old animal plunged to the opposite side of the road into a thicket of brambles and alder bushes. The schoolmaster now bestowed both whip and heel upon the starveling ribs of old Gunpowder, who dashed forward, snuffling and snorting, but came to a stand just by the bridge, with a suddenness that had nearly sent his rider sprawling over his head. Just at this moment, in the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

The hair of the affrighted pedagogue rose upon his head with terror. What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin which could ride upon the wings of the wind? Summoning up a show of courage, he demanded in stammering accents, “Who are you?” He received no reply. He repeated his demand in a still more agitated voice. Still there was no answer. Once more he cudgelled the sides of the inflexible Gunpowder, and, shutting his eyes, broke forth with involuntary fervor into a psalm tune. Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and with a scramble and a bound stood at once in the middle of the road. Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame. He made no offer of molestation or sociability, but kept aloof on one side of the road, jogging along on the blind side of old Gunpowder, who had now got over his fright and waywardness.

Ichabod quickened his steed in hopes of leaving him behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind,—the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him; his parched tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. There was something in the moody and dogged silence of this pertinacious companion that was mysterious and appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!—but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle! His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight.

They had now reached the road which turns off to Sleepy Hollow; but Gunpowder, who seemed possessed with a demon, instead of keeping up it, plunged headlong downhill to the left. This road leads through a sandy hollow shaded by trees, where it crosses the bridge famous in goblin story; and just beyond swells the green knoll on which stands the whitewashed church.

As yet the panic of the steed had given his unskilful rider an apparent advantage in the chase, but just as he had got half way through the hollow, the girths of the saddle gave way, and he felt it slipping from under him. He seized it by the pommel, and endeavored to hold it firm, but in vain; and had just time to save himself by clasping old Gunpowder round the neck, when the saddle fell to the earth, and he heard it trampled under foot by his pursuer. For a moment the terror of Hans Van Ripper’s wrath passed across his mind,—for it was his Sunday saddle; but this was no time for petty fears; the goblin was hard on his haunches; and he had much ado to maintain his seat; sometimes slipping on one side, sometimes on another, and sometimes jolted on the high ridge of his horse’s backbone, with a violence that he verily feared would cleave him asunder.

An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. The wavering reflection of a silver star in the bosom of the brook told him that he was not mistaken. He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash,—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.

The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master’s gate. Ichabod did not make his appearance at breakfast; dinner-hour came, but no Ichabod. The boys assembled at the schoolhouse, and strolled idly about the banks of the brook; but no schoolmaster. Hans Van Ripper now began to feel some uneasiness about the fate of poor Ichabod, and his saddle. An inquiry was set on foot, and after diligent investigation they came upon his traces. In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

The brook was searched, but the body of the schoolmaster was not to be discovered. The mysterious event caused much speculation at the church on the following Sunday. Knots of gazers and gossips were collected in the churchyard, at the bridge, and at the spot where the hat and pumpkin had been found. The stories of Brouwer, of Bones, and a whole budget of others were called to mind; and when they had diligently considered them all, and compared them with the symptoms of the present case, they shook their heads, and came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the Galloping Hessian. As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him; the school was removed to a different quarter of the hollow, and another pedagogue reigned in his stead.

It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin and Hans Van Ripper, and partly in mortification at having been suddenly dismissed by the heiress; that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court. Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival’s disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe; and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

Adventure Time and Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag

Massive spoilers for all of Adventure Time.

I’m deeply excited for this post, since it’s a chance to write about two things dear to my heart that both left us this year: Cartoon Network’s hit Adventure Time, and speculative fiction legend Ursula K. Le Guin.

What do these things have to do with each other? It’s hard to imagine Ursula getting excited about a children’s cartoon, especially after the controversial reception of the nominally Le Guin-inspired Tales From Earthsea. However, I’m going to propose today that in 1989, Le Guin called for the evolution of a new form of fiction, and starting in 2010, Adventure Time answered that call.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite novelists, most famous for her Hainish and Earthsea Cycles. Easily on the influence level of Tolkien, she bestrides both science fiction and fantasy while simultaneously remaining as true a native of her Oregon home as William Stafford (she was a regular guest at the Fishtrap gathering of writers, where I once worked). Her work is famous for interrogating concepts of gender, race, and class within fantasy and sci-fi.

As I wrote in my senior thesis, Le Guin is dedicated to healing the wounds of humanity that manifest themselves as gaps: between ourselves and our planet, between our women and men and others, between ourselves and our own mortality. If there is one central virtue in her novels, it is wholeness, of the kind she–and I–have found in Oregon’s wilds. If you want proof of her greatness, ask yourself: “Can I name any other authors who influenced both Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling?”

In addition to stories, she gave great writing advice, including admonishing her audiences not to be afraid of exposition. Here, though, I’d like to draw attention to an essay published in a 1989 anthology, in which she laid out her “carrier bag” theory of fiction. To summarize it inadequately–like all her writing, it’s easy to read yet dense with meaning–Le Guin is here proposing that the traditional model of a story as conflict hurtling toward a resolution is misguided. The original purpose of the story, and so of humanity, was to hold things, not to reach or strike things–but “the Hero” obscured this purpose as civilization grew.

It is the story that makes the difference. It is the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero…It sometimes seems that that story is approaching its end. Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another one, which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished.

In other words, while so many of the stories we hear are based on hunting, it is time for a new sort of story based on gathering.

Adventure Time

Try to keep it short. Adventure Time always did. Two hundred eighty-some episodes across eight-plus years, a near-decade of candy-colored mythbusting musical tragicomedy, Final Fantasy plus H.P Lovecraft times Philip K. Dick divided by Mystery Science Theater 3000 raised to the Charlie Brownth power, but funnier, but sadder, but weirder. And every episode still, what, 11-and-a-half minutes? Less, with an opening credits sequence only a heartless streaming service would ever skip? –Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly

Adventure Time began as the tale of two heroes, Finn the Human and Jake the Dog, who romped around the Land of Ooo fighting evil, looting treasure, and saving princesses. All the typical elements of a day’s work for an RPG character. The first couple of seasons were best known for resembling an acid trip–one of the voice actors even called it “this generation’s Yellow Submarine.” It was fun, it was weird, it was definitely popular, but groundbreaking? Not exactly.

But then an amazing thing happened: like Lord of the Rings, the tale grew in the telling. From the very start, close observers could see the detritus of modern civilization scattered around Ooo, leading to the outright confirmation that it’s actually set on Earth–1,000 years after we destroyed ourselves with nukes in a “Great Mushroom War.” Storylines centered around long-lived characters who remembered the war and were personally affected by both its brutality and the kindness that came in its wake. As the show’s lore grew, so did Finn: he experienced heartbreak and loss, questioned his purpose, and had his identity as a “hero” constantly challenged.

Through all this, the show never lost its boundless imagination: episodes involved Finn flying to Mars, meeting his past lives, living an entire alternate life inside a pillow fort. Scripts riffed on Ovid, Shakespeare, Shelley, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By the time Finn locates his biological father (a sociopathic space conman) and mother (a domineering but ultimately kindhearted digitized intelligence), defeats an avatar of his evil impulses made out of grass, and learns to be less clingy with girls, he’s moved on from trying to be a great hero and just wants to be a good person.

That’s the core of it, for me. Even if Adventure Time didn’t feature a prominent same-sex romance, even if it wasn’t chock-full of gorgeous scenery or positive mental health representation or anti-nihilist philosophy, even if it wasn’t funny, it would be one of my favorite works of art because its teenage hero learns “how the real world works” and becomes more empathetic as a result. “Finn the Human” isn’t a description by the end, it’s an aspiration.

What makes Adventure Time a herald of the new form of storytelling Le Guin discusses with her carrier bag? It’s not just that her allegory involves a lot of names that sound like “Ooo.” Back at the essay, we can see her distaste for “the Hero,” on every page. The Hero, she writes, has an “imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse…to take everything over.” He “has decreed…first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative…is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.” (emphasis mine)

I’d like to spend the rest of this post dissecting each of these as they relate to the show.

The Arrow and the Spear

Writers like me get and give an awful lot of advice. Much of it centers around how to make things streamlined, clear, brutally efficient. And more often than not, books written to that standard leave me cold. Case in point: my favorite reads this year have been a labyrinthine concoction of set-pieces and character flaws (Six of Crows), a fanatically overstuffed 19th-century epic (Ivanhoe), a Slavic pastiche about how owning a magic horse is even better than you think is (The Bear and the Nightingale), an anthropological survey of thousands of years of misread history (1491), and a fantasy that sprawls more than your humble author on any soft surface (To Green Angel Tower).

These books succeed because of their detours, their atmospheres, the little eddies and currents to get lost in. A story that has trimmed every bit of its fat has also lost all its nutrition. It’ll come out the rear exactly how it looked when you swallowed it. I use these metaphors because Le Guin is concerned with food in her essay, writing, “If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat.”

One characteristic of Adventure Time that sets it apart even from its contemporaries in the cartoon renaissance–Avatar: The Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and Gravity Falls–is its lack of any sort of overarching plot. Compared to the struggle against the Firelord, the fight for freedom against Homeworld, or the identity of the Author, Adventure Time hasn’t got much narrative drive: its most menacing villain, the Lich, only shows up a handful of times, and is almost always defeated soon after he appears.

In place of those myths, the show instead offers the story of its characters. Other than Finn’s growth from hyperactive childhood to reflective adulthood, the closest thing to a show-spanning arc is the redemption of 20th-century antiquarian Simon Petrikov, transformed by a magical crown into the immortal, deranged Ice King. To these two stories might be added the romance between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, which burns hot and slow enough to make Jim and Pam look like Romeo and Juliet.

Much like I described in my post about The Edge Chronicles, the narrative in Adventure Time tends to punish those who become single-mindedly focused on one goal, even if it’s one that seems noble. Betty is trying to lift her boyfriend’s curse, Huntress Wizard seeks spiritual guidance, Bubblegum just wants her kingdom to be safe, but all of them suffer from only seeing straight ahead. Neither is this an excuse for indolence, though: while Jake the shapeshifting dog is the most emotionally stable character, he suffers from a poor relationship with his children, and sets out to make things right. Heroism is important, but not only in itself.

Then there’s the ending. In the essay, Le Guin bemoans that “hunting” fiction “will be, and has been, triumphant (Man conquers earth, space, aliens, death, the future, etc.) and tragic (apocalypse, holocaust, then or now).” But Adventure Time’s finale rejects both triumph and tragedy. Finn and friends avert a second Mushroom War and banish an evil demon, and their ultimate reward is…getting to live their lives. Not a lot changes. The show asks: isn’t that enough?

What’s more, a frame story suggests that the world ended again sometime after the year 3,000, and is already on its way back by 4,000. Which means none of those ends were as final as they seemed. A post-apocalyptic story that suggests the apocalypse never actually happened: how’s that for a new genre?

Conflict

Le Guin again:

…when I came to write science-fiction novels, I came lugging this great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets which when laboriously unknotted are seen to contain one blue pebble, an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time on another world, and a mouse’s skull; full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don’t understand.

One of my favorite things about Adventure Time is that it’s got several episodes where almost nothing happens. One episode spends half its runtime on a sentient banana voiced by Weird Al Yankovic explaining to Finn and Jake how an internal combustion engine works. Another, which parodies blockbuster podcasts like Serial, is nothing but Jake describing the actions of a regular bunny. An extremely sweet later-season entry consists almost wholly of best friends Jake and Finn sitting on a cloud, giving each other haircuts. Still others involve quests that do have real stakes, but are ultimately inconsequential.

Why do these episodes work? Simply because, like a forest, there is so much to discover even when nothing is happening. First, there’s the context, which transforms episodes from wastes of time into much-needed breathers. There’s humor, which is everywhere, as long as you’re really looking. There’s beauty–only today I was reminded of Cheryl Strayed’s line about putting yourself in the way of beauty, which is something Adventure Time never hesitates to do.

I don’t mean to suggest nothing happens in this show. Plenty of things do. There are battles, quests, deaths, villains, breakups, makeups, extraordinary heroism and tremendous sacrifices. As Le Guin tells us, fiction based on carrying things gathered does not mean nothing happens: “Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.”

Everything in the world is defined by its interaction with everything else, but that interaction does not have to take the form of a clash. Thus, we get a show whose purpose is to hold things: relationships, insights, and scenery. To put them together and see what happens, what evolves.

No less an authority than Terry Pratchett called Le Guin an architect of “the consensus fantasy universe…dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities…the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.” This easily describes both Discworld and the Land of Ooo, two of the most vibrant secondary worlds ever dreamt of–places where the quests are not as important as the seeing. Adventure Time‘s strong Dungeons and Dragons influence explains this as well, because what story has ever had less of a final goal than a D&D campaign?

By the end of Adventure Time, Finn gets it. He’s tired of fighting, even at 17. He wants his life to have more music in it instead, more love. He’s learned fighting is a means to an end, frequently necessary, not meant to be the point of living.

The Hero

Le Guin:

…the Hero has frequently taken (the novel) over, that being his imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse, to take everything over and run it while making stern decrees and laws to control his uncontrollable impulse to kill it.

And later:

…it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.

Le Guin works hard in her essay to equate the term “Hero” with “control freak,” and indeed, if we look back at Adventure Time, we’ll notice this is Finn’s main character flaw. In the first half of the show, he gets into trouble for wanting everything–quests, romance–to go his way. This culminates in the controversial episode “Frost & Fire,” where this habit destroys his relationship with his girlfriend Flame Princess.

The narrative studiously avoids giving him any special treatment for this screw-up. It’s tragic, but it’s not hero-tragic, not a noble flaw leading to a destined destruction. He’s just a stupid kid who did something avoidable. This leads him to do a lot of soul-searching that culminates in what is arguably his last moment as protagonist: rejecting a cosmic deity’s offer to take him to a higher plane of existence, Finn decides to continue being part of “meat reality,” and from then on is far more obviously just one character among many.

Beginning with the magnificent, Raymond Briggs-esque third-season episode “Thank You,” Adventure Time began experimenting with stories that didn’t revolve around Finn and Jake, and some where they didn’t even appear. “Root Beer Guy” follows an unremarkable citizen of the Candy Kingdom. “The Mountain” gives the leading role to the screeching, complex-riddled Earl of Lemongrab. “Little Brother” stars a minor supporting character created from another minor supporting character. Flame Princess, introduced as Finn’s love interest, gets to shine in “The Cooler,” where her ex-boyfriend neither appears nor is mentioned.

And so on. At once, these moves reflect both a Pratchett-like desire to enrich and complicate the setting, and a confidence that Ooo doesn’t need a hero to survive. It needs humans. Even if some of them are dogs, or vampires, or made of candy.

I’ve heard people complain that, as the ending approached, Finn felt like a supporting character in his own story. While I sympathize–as I’ve said, he’s one of the most lovable characters to ever grace a TV screen, equal parts Charlie Brown, Bart Simpson, and Conan the Barbarian–I contend that these complaints misunderstand Adventure Time. It was never Finn’s story, or if it was, it was the story of Finn discovering that it wasn’t his story.

(And I should add: the fact that it does all this without one single moment of arch 4th-wall-violating self-winking tweeness does wonders to endear it to me.)

Where does that leave us?

OK, so a kids’ show from the 2010s matches up surprisingly well with a 30-year-old essay by a master writer. So what?

First of all, this should be taken as a clarion call for writers. There are so many more ways to tell a story than the ones we’re so often taught. If a story about a vampire falling in love with a sentient wad of chewing gum can work, there’s literally no idea that can’t, save for the explicitly bigoted ones. But while you’re writing, remember that the climax is not the story, and someone doesn’t have to get killed for the characters to have done meaningful work. Stories are journeys and journeys are stories and conflict is only part of both of those things.

But to think beyond writing, I’d like to share another, longer quote from Le Guin’s article.

This theory (of stories as carrier bags) not only explains large areas of theoretical obscurity and avoids large areas of theoretical nonsense (inhabited largely by tigers, foxes, and other highly territorial mammals); it also grounds me, personally, in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before. So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing, I never thought that I had, or wanted, any particular share in it…The society, the civilization they were talking about, these theoreticians, was evidently theirs; they owned it, they liked it; they were human, fully human, bashing, sticking, thrusting, killing. Wanting to be human too, I sought for evidence that I was; but if that’s what it took, to make a weapon and kill with it, then evidently I was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all.

That’s right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero.

Go on, say I, wandering o{f towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again–if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.

Look at the world destroyed by the Mushroom War. Look at the Lich, who never says a word that isn’t about death, endings, finality. All these things–the bombs, the war, the world, the Lich–are ultimately human creations, and in the world they rule, who are our heroes?

First, Simon: a quiet, patient gatherer of the past, a devoted father figure. Then Marceline, who hardly makes a decision in her life that isn’t out of love for someone else or desire to be loved.

As time moves on, we meet others: Bubblegum, whose empathy overcomes her totalitarian instincts, and Jake, who treats the little pleasures of camaraderie as the utmost importance in life. And Finn. First the Human, then the Hero, then, at last, just human. If he’s the last of us, he’s also the best of us. All of them, together, represent a story so much better than the one we’re told about who humans are.

We look at the news every day and see the catastrophic certainty that everything, all the time, is about to end, that the arrow is going to thud into the mammoth any day now, and then where will we be? But if these are the people who will take up the fire of civilization after it’s burned low, it’s tempting not to fear the bombs when they fall.

Not Le Guin, but Camus: “Knowing that certain nights whose sweetness lingers will keep returning to the earth and sea after we are gone, yes, this helps us to die.”