Unsurprisingly, the debate concerning gender roles in Sword and Sorcery rages on...
Morgan Holmes' latest article on the subject offers a compelling look at the raw numbers, in addition to some more anecdotes and observations about the shifts that occurred in the publishing industry. If you've been following the argument with any interest, I highly recommend it.
Anyway, in a comment below the article on social media, Jason Ray Carney made the following statement:
"It seems you’re making incompatible claims in order to strategically adapt to changing rhetorical needs (the hallmark of tendentiousness). In the past you claimed that epic poetry endures and appeals widely because it manifests something like universal, anthroprological insights and lessons about being a human male; now, when that same appeal to universality is deployed against you, the spirit moves you and you become cultural relativists. Where was this enlightened, relativistic view of culture when you were discussing masculinity and epic poetry? Can’t you see what you’re doing?"
To clarify, Carney is referring to a comment I made some weeks back under a separate thread, where I drew comparisons between the Men's Adventure genre, Sword and Sorcery, and the heroic tradition exemplified by epic poems like Beowulf and The Iliad.
I responded (briefly) in the thread, but I wanted to organize and expand my thoughts on that comparison here. What follows is likely my last word on the subject for now, a sort of "closing argument" from Brain Leakage.
The fact is, I've only encountered other people reading The Iliad in two places.
The first one was in the classroom, where it was assigned reading. The guided discussion there hewed fairly close to what Jason Ray Carney talks about when he mentions our "gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against (and inevitable defeat by) time." A major topic of the discussion was mortality, and the finite nature of life.
The second place was in the Marine Corps, where several of my buddies passed a copy around the barracks. We ended up discussing it late nights over beers, while cleaning weapons at the armory, and while hanging out around the smoke pit.
The subject of those talks?
The courage of Hector, standing alone before the walls of Troy. How that courage momentarily broke when he was faced with the wrath of Achilles. How he found it again, to stand and face his own death. Achilles' desecration of Hector. His eventual remorse and mercy towards the grieving Priam.
In short, we were discussing what warrior virtues were and weren't modeled by the characters. Granted, we used more f-bombs and euphemisms for female anatomy than most scholarly works on the subject do.
But those raw, profane, and—above all--sincere discussions by a bunch of young men in the barracks had something those classroom sessions lacked.
We were engaging with the story in its natural habitat.
You see, tales like The Iliad and Beowulf weren't born in the classroom or the lecture hall. They weren't even born in the grand auditoriums of the classical world.
They were born by the fireside.
Long before these stories were ever written down, they were oral tales told to young warriors and would-be warriors, modeling idealized warrior behavior. Songs of great men to inspire and instruct the neophytes, as they sharpened their spears for the coming battle.
Glory and immortality went to those who displayed strength and bravery. Dying a glorious death was better than running away. Honor meant loyalty to your king, loyalty to your home, and loyalty to your brothers.
Simple lessons, but timeless ones. And still applicable to modern warriors.
Which, of course, raises the question: what about warrior behavior is distinctly masculine? Aren't idealized warrior traits as "gender neutral" as Jason Ray Carney's "all-too-human struggle against (...) time?"
No, they're not.
Historically, men have been expected to serve and perform as warriors in a way (and on a scale) that women simply haven't. Yes, there have been examples of women warriors throughout history. Nancy Wake and Leigh Ann Hester spring immediately to mind.
But no matter how many Nancy Wakes or Leigh Ann Hesters a society produces, its women as a whole will never be judged by their ability or failure to perform as warriors.
But its men will be.
Strength, fighting prowess, and physical courage aren't considered masculine traits because only men can display them. They're considered masculine traits because only men are ever judged deficient for lacking them.
And sure, you can say that's an outdated definition of masculinity. You can call it backwards, sexist, regressive, or whatever other word you want to throw at it. You can even call it "toxic," if you want to use the fashionable term.
Hell, you might even be right.
But those young men huddled around that Bronze Age fire? The ones listening to tales of Achilles to bolster their courage? I don't think they'd agree. Neither would those foul-mouthed young Marines, discussing the same stories almost 3000 years later.
I'm going to close with a quote from an article I wrote for DMR Books back in January:
"Critic Damon Knight once made the half-assed assertion that 'the human race has never produced and never could produce such a man' as Howard's Conan. I say anybody who believes that has obviously never heard of Arminius, Miyamoto Musashi, or Audie Murphy.
The fact is, there's a damn good reason so much of storytelling throughout human history has focused on men like Achilles, Hector, and Brian Boru. A society with a heroic tradition is a society that produces men capable of heroic acts. There's a primal, almost intrinsic need for these stories.
It's a need that few writers understood as well as Robert E. Howard."
I'm kind of a late comer to all this Star Wars criticism, but a couple of weeks back I gave my initial impression of The Last Jedi. I focused mainly on the stupid plot dynamic between Poe and Holdo, and the fact that most of the movie's tension would evaporate into thin air if Holdo were an even halfway competent character.
That was far from the film's only flaw, although it was definitely a fatal one. The much bigger issue for me, however, was the film's treatment of Luke Skywalker.
This is one of The Last Jedi's most divisive aspects. Luke's arc is a love it or hate it thing, and how people feel about it tends to be a pretty good predictor of whether or not they liked the movie.
The people I know who loved it were impressed by the unexpected story direction, and the realism of Luke being unable to live up to his own legend. One friend described the broken, burnt-out Luke seen in The Last Jedi as a perfect mirror image of his younger self in the original Star Wars.
I don't disagree. I just think it's a complete misfire, one that justifiably pissed off a lot of fans.
Luke the Antihero
Last week, I wrote a post about the corruption of the word "antihero" away from its original meaning. That original meaning has nothing to do with the amoral badasses it constantly gets applied to, like the Punisher or Deadpool. In its original meaning, an antihero was "a central character in a play, book, or film who does not have any heroic qualities, such as courage."
And while that definition doesn't apply to Deadpool or Punisher, it's a dead-on description for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi.
When we meet him on Ach-to, Luke is living the life of a solitary hermit. He's cut himself off from the Force, fled to a place nobody will find him, and chosen to spend the rest of his days wallowing in misery and contemplating his failures.
When Rey shows up, seeking to learn the ways of the Force and to enlist him in the fight against the First Order, two things happen in relatively short order. The first is that he learns about Han's death at the hands of Kylo Ren. The second is that he realizes Leia is involved in this fight.
His response to learning that his closest friend is dead, and that his twin sister is in mortal danger?
He rebuffs Rey. He refuses to go with her, and he refuses to teach her about the dangerous power growing inside her. "Go away," he says. "It's time for the Jedi Order to die."
At last, R2-D2 plays on his sympathy, using the old hologram of Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. He agrees to train Rey, but he still adamantly refuses to leave Ach-to to personally intervene.
All of this is, of course, before the flashback scene where Luke admits to a "moment of weakness" in which he contemplated murdering a teenaged Kylo Ren in his sleep. All because he "sensed a great darkness" in him.
You know. Just in case we needed any more reasons to see this version of Luke as a pathetic, cowardly loser.
The thing is, none of that really squares up with what we know about Luke from the original trilogy.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke abandons his training and knowingly flies into a trap because it's the only way to save his friends. After failing to defeat Darth Vader, he spends time training himself for a second confrontation. But he has no intentions of killing Vader in their second encounter. Luke senses good in him, and believes he can be redeemed.
Then, to help ensure the success of the Death Star mission (as well as his personal quest to redeem his father), Luke surrenders to Empire troops and faces both Vader and the Emperor alone in the throne room. And he does it on the freakin' Death Star, a battle station he has every reason to believe is about to be blown up.
Luke in the original trilogy is a hero in the classical sense, a man of great strength and courage. He puts his life on the line time and again to protect his friends and fight against the threat of the Empire. He's also a hero in the more modern sense, displaying a strong moral compass in addition to his physical prowess.
Luke in The Last Jedi completely lacks those traits. He doesn't even have any vestiges of them left.
And yes, I've seen the argument that Luke staying on Ach-to was a "courage of his convictions" thing, a dedication to pacifist Jedi principles that no one else in the movies ever had the strength to adhere to.
I think that's bullshit. And in order to explain exactly why, I'll need you to bear with me a second.
Coward is as Coward Does
In his wonderful screenwriting book Story, Robert McKee outlines an idea called "taking a character to the end of the line." In brief, he points out that the positive and negative forces in a character's life don't exist in a binary. He says they're actually on a four-point scale with a positive (+), a positive/negative (+/-), a negative (-) and a "worse than negative" (-/-) expression.
So, if the struggle is life and death, the four point scale is:
That fourth point on the scale is what McKee means when he talks about taking the character to the end of the line. It's the "fate worse than death," the thing that the character cannot allow, no matter the cost. In Return of the Jedi, Luke faces this when the Emperor goads him into fighting Vader. Luke nearly betrays his friends and his values by giving in to the Dark Side. He stands on the edge of that personal damnation, finds the strength to pull back from it, and tosses away his lightsaber. He tells the Emperor he has failed.
"I am a Jedi," he says. "Like my father before me." In that moment, Luke knows he will die by the Emperor's hand, but it doesn't matter. He faced that personal damnation and defeated it. He's already won.
Another example in McKee's book is the scale below, outlining the possible expressions of "Courage versus Cowardice":
Cowardice Masquerading as Courage (-)
I believe that fourth point on the scale is where we find Luke in The Last Jedi. For all of his high-minded prattle about how "it's time for the Jedi to die," and cutting himself off from the Force to keep the galaxy safe, what he's really doing is hiding.
He's hiding from a mess he helped create in Kylo Ren. He's hiding from danger when his friends need him the most. And in cutting himself off from the Force, he's even hiding from having to feel any of the consequences of his inaction.
That's simple cowardice, no matter how you frame it. Only Luke has somehow managed to convince himself that it's the noble course of action.
Audience Expectations Can Suck It
All this ties into an important storytelling principle, one that Rian Johnson deliberately violated for shock value: keeping the promises made to the reader/viewer.
I'll go into more detail about this principle in a future post, but for now the easiest way to explain it is this: If you start out telling one kind of story, don't shift gears in the middle and deliver a different one.
If Act I of your story is a taut cat-and-mouse game between the police and a killer, don't deliver a climax that hinges on a tearful confession between husband and wife, and a commitment to learn what it means to love one another again. Act I promises a thriller, and the audience had better get a climax worthy of one.
Like it or not, this same principle applies to characters, especially in long-running series. If you don't believe me, try to imagine the flak J.K. Rowling would get if she penned a sequel depicting Harry Potter as a burnt-out loser who flatly refuses to help his old friends Hermione and Ron. Or if Ian Fleming wrote a Bond story in which 007 suddenly finds himself clumsy and flustered around women, and having panic attacks at the prospect of having to use his gun.
In both examples, fans would justifiably see it as a betrayal of the character they'd come to know over the years, a violation of the promises made by the beginning entries of the story. In Harry's case, that promise is that he's a brave and resourceful boy who would never shy away from helping his friends. In Bond's case, it's that he's a cool, suave agent with a License to Kill.
Of course, Rowling and Fleming would have every right to subvert audience expectations and tell those stories. Just as Lucasfilm had every right to take Luke in a subversive new direction in The Last Jedi.
But most of the core audience isn't looking for subversion. To them, the thrill doesn't come from seeing the ways in which creators can tear apart their assumptions about the character. It comes from seeing that character tested to the limit, and still coming out on top.
And that's really the crux of the problem. At some point, subversion became an exalted ideal in storytelling. It's like there's a school of thought that dictates a story isn't "serious" unless it tears down the audience's expectations. That simply meeting those expectations is a lesser form of storytelling, one that's inherently childish and naive.
I don't mind subversion, as long as it happens in a satisfying way. I think Rogue One did it brilliantly. In delivering a Star Wars story where all of the main characters die, it made a powerful statement about the human cost of the Rebellion. It's satisfying because we know all that suffering means something, that the stolen plans will eventually lead to an important victory for the "good guys."
But Rian Johnson's blatant character assassination of Luke doesn't give any satisfaction. In showing us our old heroes are nothing but burnt-out losers and cowards, he doesn't make any powerful statements about the cost of the conflict. He's making a nihilistic declaration that the conflict meant nothing, and that our admiration of those heroes was stupid and misplaced.
Johnson's treatment of Luke is nothing but subversion for its own sake, an attempt to shock the audience by tearing down one of the icons of the story world. And worse, he doesn't give us anything worthy of taking that icon's place. The end result is Rian Johnson's Star Wars is reduced to being a galaxy without heroes.
And sure, maybe that's "serious" storytelling. Maybe it's more "realistic." But I never watched Star Wars for the realism.
Play us out, Twisted Sister:
One of the online discussion groups I belong to is dedicated to the life and works of the late Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner, in case you're unfamiliar with him, was a World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author. Among his most enduring and famous creations is Kane, an immortal, ageless killer cursed by a "mad, idiot god" to wander the earth. Kane is amoral, killing both the innocent and the corrupt in pursuit of his goals, and sometimes he's only cast as the hero in relation to the greater, more ancient evils opposed to him.
This leads some to describe Kane as an antihero. But according to Wagner's longtime friend John Mayer, Wagner himself would strongly disagree. He always preferred to call Kane a villain-hero.
This wasn't just an author playing pedantic games. Wagner would stress that "antihero" was a word with a specific meaning, one that was slowly being corrupted and lost by misapplying it to characters like Kane.
I agree with him.
When someone says antihero, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the tough, morally grey outsider. A character like Deadpool, the Punisher, or the Man with No Name. By any reasonable metric, these aren't people to be admired. They're criminals, outlaws, and mercenaries. They don't reflect the values of society. Under other circumstances, they'd be considered villains.
Yet we admire them anyway.
Despite their moral failings, we're drawn to their strength and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Their outsider status gives them the advantage of being able to ignore society's rules in pursuit of their goals. And because those goals often serve some greater good (either by accident or on purpose), they're moved a step closer to "heroism" on the morality scale.
Here's the thing.
All of that stuff up there, about the grey morality and the admiration solely for strength and courage? That's not antiheroism.
That's just straight, garden variety heroism. At least in the classical sense.
The English word "hero" comes from the Old French word "heroe," meaning "man of superhuman strength or physical courage." The Old French is in turn derived from the Greek and Latin "heros," meaning "demigod" or "protector." Its original meaning in English was "man who exhibits great bravery."
What all of the above definitions are lacking is a moral component. There's nothing in there about right and wrong, serving the greater good, or any of the other "traditionally" heroic qualities. That's because the basic concept of heroism (having great strength and personal courage) predates dualistic notions of good and evil. It isn't rooted in any specific morality, dualistic or otherwise.
This is readily apparent when you look at some of the Greek myths. Heroes like Achilles, Theseus, and Odysseus exhibited some genuinely awful behavior. Their stories are filled with betrayal, murder, kidnapping, and forced marriages.
So if these characters were such shit-heel human beings, why have they been admired for thousands of years? For that matter, why were they admired by the ancient Greeks?
Answer: They were admired because they faced the enemy in battle, risking death and crippling injuries. Because they challenged monsters spawned by the gods. When their own people or lands were menaced by outsiders, they stood on the field and fought tooth and nail to protect them.
Their strength, their skill, and their willingness to put everything on the line when it mattered is what made them heroes.
And as bitter a pill as it can be for us to swallow with our modern sensibilities, it's possible to exhibit all of those qualities and still be a reprehensible human being.
So, if heroes can be awful people, where do antiheroes come in? Why does the word even exist?
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines an antihero as:
"the central character in a play, book, or film who does not have traditionally heroic qualities, such as courage, and is admired instead for what society generally considers to be a weakness of their character"
In the original meaning of the word, an antihero is a very specific kind of character. The weak, nebbish leads in Woody Allan's films are antiheroes. The henpecked, buffoonish husbands in most sitcoms are antiheroes. The resigned and listless characters in Franz Kafka's work are antiheroes.
And just as heroes can be rotten piles of human garbage, antiheroes can be good people. In the case of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray is a loving father and husband. He honestly tries to do right by his family. But he lacks almost any kind of courage or strength. Which means he will never, ever be a hero. Not in the classical sense.
Which brings me back to Wagner's original point. It's really not possible to apply this definition of antiheroism to characters like Deadpool, the Punisher, or Wagner's own Kane. Reprehensible actions aside, all of them display physical courage in spades.
Of course, language evolves. At some point, "heroism" picked up a moral component, one that seems to have completely replaced "strength and physical courage" in most contexts. This, in turn, bled into the idea of an antihero being someone who lacks that morality. But with that evolution, we're losing an important distinction. We don't have another word to replace "antihero" as it evolves away from its original meaning.
Considering how many characters in modern fiction are antiheroes in that original, classic sense, it's a loss the language can't really afford.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.