The Patron Saint of Mediocrity: Xenophon’s Socrates

I wasn’t actually intending to do a separate post on this, but in light of my earlier Platonic Reading Order, I thought I’d provide a brief summarised Epilogue: Xenophon’s Socrates. Remember that Plato wasn’t the only one of Socrates’ pupils to write works about his old master, and indeed some of the non-Platonic stuff survives, in the form of four works by Xenophon. Sadly, it would have been better for Xenophon if these four works hadn’t lasted, because history has played a very cruel joke. In fact, to draw an analogy, imagine in A.D. 4000, the only surviving texts from the period 1800-2000 are Tolstoy’s War and Peace and From Russia With Love, by Ian Fleming – nothing against Fleming, but it’s simply not a fair comparison.

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Or, to put it another way, Salieri from the film Amadeus, got it wrong. He’s not the Patron Saint of Mediocrity, living in the shadow of genius. Xenophon has him beaten by over two millennia.

With that out the way, let me briefly summarise Xenophon’s Socratic works [Note: Xenophon wrote other stuff too, and I do not presume to judge that, since I have not read it. This post deals with his Socratic works only]…

  1. Socrates’ Defence: This is Xenophon’s take on the Apology: the speech Socrates allegedly gives at his trial. In Plato, the Oracle of Delphi labels Socrates the wisest of the Greeks because he knows he knows nothing. Xenophon’s Socrates is “wisest of the Greeks” because of his god-acknowledged commitment to virtue (and doesn’t he know it…). Oh, and much emphasis placed on Socrates being old, so the execution will save him from going senile – a far cry from the famous gadfly of Athens.
  2. Memoirs of Socrates: Itself a compendium of four books, Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates is the longest and most sleep-inducing of the lot. This is basically a series of anecdotes, with Socrates interacting with various people, and lending them “wise advice”, which generally takes the form of a Victorian Public School Headmaster-style pontification about the virtues of self-restraint, physical fitness, healthy mind and healthy body. Et cetera. Plato’s Socrates is a troll who asks awkward questions, Xenophon’s Socrates is a moralising do-gooder with “practical advice”, up to and including a fable featuring the literal personifications of Virtue and Vice. Occasionally, Xenophon’s Socrates wheels out the Socratic Method, but it just reminds you how much you wish you were reading Plato instead.
  3. The Dinner Party: Thus far I’ve been a bit cruel to Xenophon. The Dinner Party, his take on The Symposium, is actually fun in its own right, and probably the only one of these four I would genuinely recommend. As per the Symposium, it’s a discussion about Love, with Love of the (masculine) mind being held to be superior to Love of the body (in fact, Xenophon even argues Zeus’ attraction to Ganymede is intellectual, not carnal. Priceless). Oh, and Xenophon’s Socrates declares himself a pimp, on the basis that he tries to make his followers (intellectually) attractive to the people of Athens, which just for a moment takes Xenophon away from his Victorian Public School moralising. The Dinner Party still a lesser piece to Plato’s Symposium though.
  4. The Estate-Manager: I have seen people treat this as an ancient treatise on economics, but that honestly gives it too much credit. It’s really a moral exultation about the virtues of hard work – “anyone can learn about agriculture, but success in farming really comes down to how much effort you put in. Oh, and running a farm is just like running an army.” Basically, a moralising and thin tract on political economy, but without the fun Platonic philosophy.

So yeah. Xenophon’s Socrates. Completely optional even at his best, and a decent cure for insomnia at his worst, though it’s just Xenophon’s bad luck that he found himself up against Plato. He had no idea what a horrible joke history would end up playing on him, and as such he might serve as warning for those of us who hunger for literary immortality. – be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

Das Silmaril: Tolkienian Economics Part I – Replies to Elfonomics and Jethro Elsden

This is one of those subjects that, on paper, I should have got to sooner. After all, I like Tolkien, and I like economics, so why not mix them? Sure, Tolkien himself was a philologist, not an economist, and it shows, but one can still draw inferences about the economic framework of Middle-earth, right?

Easier said than done, dear reader. A look at the economics of Middle-earth is less about filling in the gaps, and more about revelling in the glories of unfounded speculation. We really have very, very little to go on. On the other hand, that hasn’t stopped a couple of recent commentators from trying: Youtuber Elfonomics and right-winger Jethro Elsden. So before jumping into my own guesswork interpretation of Tolkienian economics, which for length reasons I shall look at in a subsequent post, let me first look at the efforts of these gentlemen…

(i) A Reply to Elfonomics

There is a disappointing lack of meat to this one. Yes, it may be excused for being the first of what appears to be a series, but it gets side-tracked by Silmarillion backstory, rather than treating it as a given. With that criticism out the way, Elfonomics makes the following points:

  • Ents versus Saruman is a critique of industrialisation.
  • Orcs understand money.
  • Valinor – during the time of the Two Trees – is a post-scarcity economy, with the Elves facing scarcity after Melkor and Ungoliant mess with things.

Elfonomics is correct in seeing the Ents/Saruman story as a comment on industrialisation, but it is handled way too briefly in economic terms. Specifically, the video fails to note the concept of externalities – there are negative “side-effects” associated with Saruman’s industrialised production process, namely environmental destruction and pollution. This process – which does cost Isengard, even if only in the expense of feeding and housing slaves – does not factor in these side-effects, so Saruman gets away with an artificially low cost of production. He is passing the “true cost” onto his neighbours, the Ents.

There are, of course, multiple solutions to this. Standard economics would envisage Saruman compensating the Ents for the damage, perhaps via the planting of trees, or, if one were to go off the free-market deep-end, have Saruman buy Fangorn Forest itself, with the Ents quietly retiring on the proceeds to Lothlorien or Mirkwood. That Tolkien suggests a different solution, one where the victims of the externalities literally bust-up the offending production process, shows that he isn’t one for standard solutions to market failure…

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On the second point, yes, Orcs understand money. Fighting over the hoard of Erebor, or over Frodo’s mithril coat literally makes no sense, except insofar as Orcs understand precious metals as stores of value (yes, Frodo’s mithril coat is treated as a store of value. It’s not as if Shagrat, complete with monocle, dressing gown, and pipe, aspires to add the item to his drawing room for its aesthetic value). The biggest fault on the part of Elfonomics is to omit the evidence from The Hobbit – which makes it clear that Orcs are not mindless savages. Orcs are talented miners, and their armour and weapons do not come out of nowhere, which implies that Orkish manufacturing may be less classy and renowned than dwarvish, but it is still clearly a thing. Orcs even invent sophisticated technology (wheels, machinery, explosions…), though where they get their food is trickier. Sauron (and probably Saruman) have some degree of agricultural slavery, but the Orcs of the Misty Mountains? Do they all subsist on fish and moss, or do they grudgingly trade their manufactured produce with other peoples, in exchange for food? Quite the mystery (don’t get me started on Angband, but that is for another time).

Elfonomics’ third point, I think, is debatable, primarily because the notion of post-scarcity itself is fuzzy. Valinor is an extremely luxurious place, and is, in a very real sense, Heaven on Earth. No-one starves, and everything is plentiful. Elves are immortal, so they have less of a dreaded opportunity cost to their actions than we do. The problem is that we know vanishingly little about the Elven economic framework – the most detailed depiction is the Wood Elves of The Hobbit. For all we know, there is an entire servant class of Elves (again, much like our friends from The Hobbit) whose labour sustains the aristocrats at the top. Who mines coal, cuts down trees, and transports the result to keep Feanor’s forge lit? Celegorm hunts for sport and food, but I have a difficult time seeing him cook his own dinner. Et cetera. Elfonomics assumes that the Elven leisure class is representative of Valinorian society, rather than a potential outlier – and if there is a servant class, such Elves would need to be paid, either in currency or in kind. That in itself opens questions about whether Feanor and Sons have bona fide feudal estates, which they use to fund their lifestyles. Or maybe Feanor is just the Noldorin William Morris, and does everything himself. We have no idea.

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(Elfonomics also errs by treating the Trees as a source of perpetual power. The Trees light up Valinor, but they don’t power it, and if their demise does create a scarcity-of-light problem, that problem is solved via the Sun and Moon. As it is, the Noldor presumably burn wood and coal, with perhaps local waterwheels and windmills. Where the coal comes from originally, Eru can handwave).

In summary then, I feel the video could have been better, and more in-depth, but we shall see how Elfonomics’ series progresses – I see the next target is the Dwarves, which should offer rich material for analysis. Also, to Elfonomics’ credit, he at least avoids using Tolkien’s work to push a particular ideology. Which is more than can be said for Jethro Elsden.

(ii) A Reply to Jethro Elsden

Elsden’s piece is a very blatant and very sad attempt to hijack Tolkien’s work in the name of a particular ideology. My distaste isn’t simply because I disagree with his right-wing worldview (though I do), it’s because The Lord of the Rings is such an idiosyncratic work that fitting it within any modern ideological framework requires taking extraordinary liberties with the text. Sure, by all means, find stuff in there that appeals to you – there’s something in there for everyone – but that’s a very different thing from using the book to whack people you don’t like. Elsden isn’t trying to shed light on The Lord of the Rings – he’s virtue-signalling to his fellows.

Anyway…

Take, for instance, the kingdom of Gondor, once so resplendent, now slowly waning. For hundreds of years there has been constant war with the forces of Sauron. This has drained the resources of Gondor, not only in terms of money and capital, but more importantly in sheer numbers of fighting men. By the time Sauron’s war reaches its climax, when his forces besiege Minas Tirith, there are barely enough soldiers to defend the city.   

No. Gondor has not been in constant war with Sauron, largely because Sauron was moonlighting in Mirkwood until comparatively recently. Gondor was a decaying Empire long before Sauron resumed normal service in the Dark Tower – sure, they were fighting his proxies for a long time, but Gondor’s decline (in both population and power) came from within. But such complex (and dare I say, Spenglerian) questions of civilisational decline are beyond the present discussion.

Meanwhile the areas of Gondor that Sauron conquers are left enveloped in a dark cloud of deprivation, slavery, and the sort of centralised planning of the hard left’s wildest dreams. It’s clear from the dialogue of the Orcs that their every action is centrally directed and there is a clear dearth of decentralised decision making: It’s the orcs on the ground that have the local knowledge, but without the approval of the Politburo (or in this case, Sauron and his lieutenants, such as the Nazgul) no one can use their initiative, and make independent decisions. 

Elsden is confusing leftism with centralised control. Yes, Sauron is a control freak dictator (more specifically, an immortal God-King), and he’s like that because he literally wants to run the world, but there is nothing remotely leftist about him. Sauron’s message is, at heart, a spiritual one, based off rejecting Eru and embracing himself as a replacement (by the Third Age, he was claiming to be Morgoth returned). He does not engage in materialist political arguments about economic systems, and certainly does not talk of “liberating the downtrodden,” after the manner of the political Left.

I’d also point out that the Soviet Union borrowed central planning from Imperial Germany. Does Elsden consider Kaiser Bill a red?

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The War of the Ring might have gone very differently if Sauron had only got his hands on the works of FA Hayek and learnt how much information centrally planned systems miss out on compared to the decentralised free market.

Except that modern market economies are planned economies. The number of shoes in Dunedin (and their prices) are not set by on-the-ground actors. Such decisions are made in an office in Wellington, Auckland, or Sydney.

This is only one of the clear similarities that Mordor shares with the Soviet Union. In a sense this is unsurprising – after all, Tolkien was strongly opposed to both socialism and central planning in general and was writing the Lord of the Rings in the 1930’s and 40’s, the same time as Communism was near the height of its power. The Soviet authorities’ fear of the anti-socialist ‘hidden allegory’ meant that it wasn’t until the fall of the USSR that a full translation could officially be made

To quote the man himself, to ask whether Orcs are Communists is as meaningless as asking whether Communists are Orcs. The Soviet hostility to The Lord of the Rings (only relaxed in 1988) was actually less about Mordor, and more about the Scouring of the Shire – and speaking of the Scouring, it was also interpreted as a potshot at the socialist policies of Britain’s 1945-1951 Labour Government. Tolkien rejected such a reading at the time, and I believe him.

As for the Mordor/Soviet analogy, let’s ignore the ideology for a moment, and look at the mechanics of the state. The Stalinist regime (in modified form) outlived its creator by decades, whereas Sauron’s regime literally collapsed with him… does that not alone suggest a point of difference worth investigating?

Sauron’s Soviet-style kingdom is in direct contrast to the free peoples of the West. While kingdoms such as Gondor, Rohan, or Lothlorien, couldn’t be described as paragons of liberty, there is nonetheless a large degree of freedom. People have duties to fulfil, and must ride to the aid of their king or chief if they are called (as the Rohirrim are by King Theoden). But apart from that people seem to mostly follow a ‘live and let live’ philosophy, at least with regard to their own communities. 

I’ll give Elsden credit for noticing that classical liberalism is a poor fit for Middle-earth, but there’s a gap in the spectrum between totalitarianism and ‘live and let live’. Denethor, for one, is as much a control freak as Gondor’s technological level will let him, which ties back to the general idea that applying modern political ideologies to this archaic and fictional world is facile.

While the Shire does have a Mayor and a Thain, it has little other forms of official authority, and is mostly a voluntarily ordered society. In many ways it epitomises the minarchist fantasy state, with the only government services being a post office, the Bounders (a sort of unofficial border control), and 12 ‘Shirrifs’ who act as a quasi-police force (but mostly spend their time rounding up stray livestock rather than chasing hardened crims). Not so much a Night-watchman state then, as a heavily sedated, emasculated, can’t-really-be-bothered Night-watchman state.

If The Shire is such an amazing example of libertarian minarchy, why does Tolkien take such a dim view of such capitalist go-getters as Lotho Sackville-Baggins? It is almost as if there are various unwritten social conventions (many of them class-based) that govern The Shire, rather than a commitment to free-market liberalism.

It’s not just in the direct cost of constant war that the free peoples are harmed. There are also indirect costs, such as Sauron’s forces disrupting the lucrative trade networks across Middle-earth. From the giant spiders and forces of Dol Guldur making travel on the Old Forest road through Mirkwood hazardous. To the Great East Road, and the Greenway near Bree falling into disrepair. Traders no longer travel in the numbers or regularity that they once did.

A valid point, were it not for the problem that Eriador does not really have sufficient population to justify the maintenance of such roads. Eriador (with the exception of the Shire, Bree, and Rivendell) is basically empty. One would expect most trade in the setting to take place along waterways (Lake Town), or seaborne (Pelargir).

Kingdoms like the Shire rarely interact or trade with those outside. This is despite the fact, that the Shire produces pipe weed (and appears to be a monopoly supplier), a clearly valuable and desirable commodity. In a more interconnected ‘globalised’ economy, where the roads were safe and secure, pipe weed could be sold by hobbits in the Shire, and the money used to purchase commodities that they lacked. For example, an enterprising hobbit could travel to the Iron Hills, or to Erebor, and trade pipe weed with the dwarves for gold. Or get the dwarves to use their estimable skill to craft bejewelled gold buttons, to go on his waistcoat.

Or how about an enterprising hobbit decides to sell pipe weed to Isengard. What could possibly go wrong with that…?

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(Elsden is bright enough to spot that the underlying assumptions of economic liberalism don’t hold in Middle-earth, and points out areas for economic enterprise. It’s fair enough, but ignores the elephant in the room, namely that Tolkien’s world is not the world of the free-market precisely because Tolkien wasn’t an economic liberal. If he was, Lotho Sackville-Baggins would have been the hero).

Property plays a key role in the works of Tolkien, not only in terms of the epic fight for ownership of the ring, but also in terms of Aragorn’s claim to the throne, and the tension this creates with the Steward of Gondor. Property rights are pretty well developed, and legal contracts exist to protect the rights of property owners. So, despite the Shire being a mostly voluntary society, with little official authority, hobbits respect the rule of law, and the property rights of other hobbits. This is why Bilbo can safely transfer his property to Frodo, and the only way the Sackville-Bagginses can get their hands on Bag End is to buy it.

Elsden is again ignoring the role of unwritten social conventions. Libertarian “it’s my property, I can do with it as I please” philosophy is a poor fit here, precisely because (with the exception of Lotho) no-one in Middle-earth actually acts with regard to profit maximisation.

However, we can still draw inferences from some of the events in Tolkien’s works. For example, in The Hobbit, Smaug’s attack on Dale and Erebor and seizure of its vast treasure hoard would have had a devastating economic impact. The destruction of property and people in the attack would severely depress demand, as people cut back expenditure to replace lost necessities such as housing and food. Many businesses would have been destroyed, as well as a vast amount of accumulated capital. This hit to supply would take years to recover from. 

Well, Smaug’s attack on Dale and Erebor would suppress demand via the simple fact that no-one (bar Smaug) lived there any more. Dead people don’t have demand – including for food and housing. I am not sure what Elsden is talking about here.

(As for what happened elsewhere, presumably Lake Town went into steep recession as it lost its best customer literally overnight. It’s why the Lakemen get quite excited about the prospect of Thorin’s return).

However, perhaps the most damaging impact of Smaug’s attack would be the severe monetary tightening that would occur. 

Elsden needs to elaborate on this point. As it is, he makes it sound like Dale was still a thing after the dragon attack, rather than a burnt-out shell.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if Smaug was willing to buy stuff with the gold, since this would be a monetary injection and would provide coinage to lubricate trade. But sadly, as a rational ‘draco economicus’, Smaug maximises his utility by hoarding the gold and going to sleep. While they have nothing to sell, and no money to buy goods, trade with the woodland elves would dry up. The Elves would thus have to switch to alternative providers, who presumably would supply goods that are lower quality, or more expensive, or both. While these suppliers would obviously be better off, the Elves and the people of Dale would definitely not be. And it would be a big hit to the overall welfare of Middle-earth.

Again, confusion: is Elsden confusing Dale (no longer there) with Lake Town (just lost its best customer, but otherwise still standing?). Until this situation is clarified, it becomes impossible to address this point. I would note though that in the next paragraph, Elsden has an irrelevant little rant about central banking – as though that, rather than wider systematic breakdowns, were somehow the inherent cause of hyperinflation.

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 Tolkien’s story is fundamentally an anti-socialist tale, criticising greed yes, but not property or the Bourgeoisie.

Tolkien’s story examines misuse of property (Lotho) and makes the bourgeoisie out to be broadly ridiculous (hobbits generally, and the respectable, boring Bagginses in particular). Tolkien’s no socialist, but he’s no free-marketeer either.

It’s a tale which says that what the world needs is not to be remade in violent revolution, as Wagner implies, but for each of us as individuals and communities to build incrementally on what we already have. It’s a tale which argues that societies will only flourish when power is limited not arbitrary, when each individual can be secure in their property, and when even the humblest of hobbits, like Sam, has the freedom to build a life for themselves free from tyranny and coercion. So, if you’re in favour of freedom, property and against untrammelled government power and looking for a story that embodies these values, put down that copy of the Fountainhead, or Atlas Shrugged and pick up some Tolkien instead. 

Elsden knows very well that Tolkien is a poor fit for the values of economic liberalism – he spends half his essay pointing out that Tolkien’s world and characters do not fit the framework, to the point where he invents enterprising hobbits and globalised trade by way of improvement. Sam’s world – an extremely humble one – is not centred around being enterprising, or maximising his return from pipe-weed futures. It’s about, well, pottering around in the garden, raising a family, and having the occasional beer down at the Ivy Bush.

Or as Thorin Oakenshield once put it, “if more of us valued food and cheer and song over hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

**

Phew. Another long one. With this couple of replies out the way, I will hopefully take a look at my own interpretation of Tolkienian economics in a subsequent post.

2019 Reading More: October

Completed reads for October:

  • The Saga of Grettir the Strong, by Anonymous
  • The Saga of Gisli, by Anonymous
  • Wise Phuul, by Daniel Stride
  • The Conception of Cú Chulainn, by Anonymous
  • The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn, by Anonymous
  • The Wooing of Emer by Cú Chulainn, by Anonymous
  • The Recovery of the Tain, by Anonymous
  • The Quarrel of the Pigkeepers, by Anonymous
  • The Tidings of Conchobar, son of Ness, by Anonymous
  • The Birth of Conchobar, by Anonymous
  • The Affliction of the Ulstermen, by Anonymous
  • The Debility of the Ulstermen, by Anonymous
  • The Courtship of Cruinne and Macha, by Anonymous
  • The Battle of the Assembly of Macha, by Anonymous
  • Medb’s Men, or, The Battle of the Boyne, by Anonymous
  • Does Greth Eat Curds, by Anonymous
  • Athirne the Unsociable, by Anonymous
  • The Wooing of Luaine and the Death of Athirne, by Anonymous
  • The Battle of Cumar, by Anonymous
  • The Elopement of Emer With Tuir Glesta, by Anonymous
  • The Training of Cú Chulainn, by Anonymous
  • The Words of Scáthach, by Anonymous
  • Cú Chulainn’s Shield, by Anonymous
  • The Death of Derbforgaill, by Anonymous
  • Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde

Irish stuff:

The Conception of Cú Chulainn is Brown’s translation. The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn is Harris and Slover’s. The Wooing of Emer is Meyer’s (off The Book of the Dun Cow), as is The Birth of Conchobar, and The Elopement of Emer. The Recovery of the Tain, The Debility of the Ulstermen, and The Courtship of Cruinne and Macha are Stohellou’s. The Quarrel of the Pigkeepers is Nutt’s. The Tidings of Conchobar, The Battle of the Assembly of Macha, The Wooing of Luaine, and The Training of Cú Chulainn are Stokes’. The Affliction of the Ulstermen is Hull’s. Medb’s Men is O’Neill’s. The Battle of Cumar is Dobbs’. The Words of Scáthach is Henry’s. Cú Chulainn’s Shield is O’Curry’s. The Death of Derbforgaill is Marstrander’s.

Other stuff:

Grettir’s Saga is Hight’s translation. Gisli’s is Johnston’s.

This is my first re-read of my own work for some time. It is genuinely strange to come back to something you thought you knew, only to find distance there. Seeing the strengths and weaknesses with fresh eyes…

(Unlisted in the above, I also caught up with The Order of the Stick webcomic after several years).

 

Review: Caligula [Film] (1979)

I watched Caligula last week.

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I had seen it before, a few years ago, at an evening meet-up of the University of Otago Classics Society. That time, I had never heard of the film’s reputation, and was understandably surprised at stumbling across a late 1970s combination of Sword-and-Sandal Epic and Hardcore Pornography. Now? I knew what I was getting into, and wanted to see if Caligula was quite as… unique… as I remembered.

In the event, it wasn’t as unique as I remembered. Indeed, Caligula the film is all a bit sad and dull to 2019 eyes, which might say more about 2019 than anything else. Game of Thrones can cast a long shadow over previously risque material, to the point that even a legendary piece of cinematic pornography like Caligula loses its power to shock. Genitalia and oral sex on screen? Yawn. Disembowelling and child murder? Yawn. Brother-sister incest? Must be Tuesday. For legal (and moral) reasons the film even dials back on some of Tiberius’ alleged historical monstrosities, via ageing up his “little fishes”.

So, yes, Caligula is a failure. But – and I was struck by this – it is an ambitious failure. It makes a serious, albeit ponderous, attempt to examine the mind of a man gifted with absolute power over his fellow human beings. Such a man, the film argues, would soon think himself a god, and go mad as a result. All well and good, and Malcolm McDowell does his absolute best to conjure such a psychological screw-up, but… well, it ultimately doesn’t work, and an ambitious failure is still a failure.

Specifically, this thematic study simply does not justify Caligula’s two-and-a-half hour running length. The film would have benefited massively from either a massive cut in length (I’m not just talking about axing the infamous hardcore pornography either), or else actually introducing a greater degree of character conflict. I think the biggest problem with Caligula is not its continual straying into gratuitous pornography – though that is obviously a problem, especially when it confuses quantity of sexual material with quality of sexual material. I think the biggest problem with Caligula is that apart from the (genuinely interesting) early scenes with Tiberius, the plot may be summarised as “a man finds himself in a position of absolute power. He tries to test the limits of this power via deliberately antagonising those around him. Those around him finally snap. The End.” One would almost be tempted to suggest that there is some post-modern meta-commentary at work, with the film antagonising the audience after the manner of the Emperor and his victims, but that would be to give the film credit it does not deserve.

(As it was, I was struck by how uninteresting and thin the plot felt, when stretched to this length, when by contrast the Caligulan sections of I, Claudius are so absorbing. The distinction is that I, Claudius has meaningful character conflict – it’s about Claudius’ desperate struggle to survive his nephew’s insanity – and much more developed characters. We care about the characters in I, Claudius. We do not care about the characters in Caligula, who, like something out of late-season Game of Thrones, exist for nothing more than the purpose of grotesque spectacle. Two and a half hours of grotesque spectacle, where you just wish the plotters would hurry up and murder the protagonist so you can go and do something else).

So Caligula fails at its attempted thematic musings, fails at entertaining the audience, and even fails as titillation. So far as we know about the actual Emperor Caligula’s reign (itself a pretty sketchy subject), the film mangles the history too. That’s pretty dire. Is there anything that can be said in favour of the film, beyond nominating it as something So Bad It’s Good?

It turns out there is. As mentioned, there is some genuine early tension between Tiberius and Caligula, with the decrepit old Emperor simultaneously advising and threatening his successor. Tiberius is mad and evil, a decayed monster who revels in having the power of arbitrary death over his subjects – and unlike his adopted heir, he does not outstay his welcome. Yay for character conflict, and even a bit of catharsis as our protagonist survives to assume power (though we know how he’ll end up). Macro is even set up as a decent threat after the old man shuffles off the mortal coil… though sadly wasted, as Caligula then promptly deals with him, and spends the rest of the film engaged in murders, orgies, and murderous orgies. A story that explores Caligula’s transition from trusting Macro to fearing him would have been much better, but, well, such psychological subtlety is too much to expect from this piece.

The other thing I will say for Caligula the film – it is capable of generating a peculiar, and often outright surreal, visual aesthetic. While it over-eggs the pudding, the strange interplay of smoke, costume, and character decadence would not be out of place as an adaptation of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique (now there’s an idea…). I love Tiberius’ twisted funeral mask, for example, and the head-chopping machines are just awesome. This Rome, so tired of life, so hungry for something new to sate its appetites, has succumbed to an overly civilised hedonism and (literal) naked depravity – it is a compelling setting, and deserves better than what is done with it here.

**

So… Caligula. A fucked-up and legendarily mad piece of 1970s cinema. Is it worth watching? In a sense, no. It’s a literal and metaphorical orgy of torture porn, as much for the audience as for the characters, and there are much better ways to spend a hundred and fifty minutes of your life, unless you want to be put off sex for a week afterwards. It’s also strangely tame by 2019 standards. On the other hand, buried within the mounds of dull filth, there are occasional glimpses that suggest the film didn’t have to be this way. Not that anyone is about to attempt a re-make any time soon.

It’s All Black Now: Memories of New Zealand Getting the World Cup Boot

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Yikes. I’m talking about sports again. Sorry about that, but, well, the All Blacks getting so comprehensively outplayed at the Rugby World Cup is something worthy of commentary. Why, yes, England did thrash us 19-7 in the semi-final tonight, and, well, to judge by the match reports, the better team certainly won. I’m not particularly bitter about it either – age has perhaps made me more philosophical about All Black defeats, and the end of free-to-air test coverage means I don’t watch the sport as avidly as I used to. Hell, I remember going along in person to watch Otago play the British Lions at Carisbrook in 2005, but when the Lions turned up in 2017, I contented myself with online coverage. Tonight? I was busy with something else, and actually forgot about the game until it was basically over.

This is the ninth Rugby World Cup, and New Zealand has won three of them (1987, 2011, and 2015). I thought I’d share my personal memories of the six losses…

1991 (vs Australia): I am too young to remember 1987, but I can remember, as a very young lad, thinking the All Blacks never lost (they were unbeaten from 1986 to 1990). I was allowed to stay up to watch the opening match of the 1991 Cup, which was New Zealand vs England at Twickenham. We won that one, and I recall the English fans singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ a lot. I didn’t watch any of the other games. My father, by contrast, actually watched every one of the World Cup matches, except the final (Australia vs England – he’s a Scotsman living in New Zealand). All I remember of the semi-final loss to Australia was getting up to the news that “the All Blacks got beat.”

1995 (vs South Africa): This one hurt. Seriously, we had smashed our way through everyone and everything on the way to the final. I remember the semi-final against England, and Keith Quinn stumbling over his words as Jonah Lomu monstered Mike Catt. The final against South Africa… it was to be a formality, surely? Even with the food poisoning thing? Well, no. The match ended 9-9 at the end of regulation time. I was on the edge of my seat. Then, well into extra time, it was 12-12 (if I recall correctly, if it had ended like that, we’d have been awarded the Cup, because South Africa had someone sent off against Canada). Then came this:

Dad turned to me, and reassured me that it wasn’t the end of the world. “Think how happy Nelson Mandela will be.”

For 12 year-old me, that was scant reassurance. I remember going to bed (it was middle of the night, New Zealand time) feeling absolutely numb.

1999 (vs France): This one was out of the blue. This was not a great French side, and everyone was looking past the semi to the inevitable final. Big mistake – there was something freakish about the French in the second half, to the point where it remains one of the great warnings against complacency. The kicker was that we then lost the 3rd/4th play-off to South Africa. The New Zealand public made a point of going after All Black Coach, John Hart, to a shameful degree, which feels a bit embarrassing in hindsight. On the other hand, the loss did have a giant silver-lining – it short-circuited then-Prime Minister Jenny Shipley’s attempt to win the 1999 election off the back of an All Black success.

2003 (vs Australia): This one wasn’t out of the blue. Honestly, if we hadn’t lost the semi-final to Australia (quite comprehensively), we’d have lost the final to England. My major memory of this one is watching the last few minutes of the match, and Australian half-back, George Gregan, going on about “four more years, lads. Four more years.” Gregan had an uncanny ability to get under the skin.

2007 (vs France): Ah, yes. This one. The only time the All Blacks didn’t make the semi-finals at the World Cup… and, well, the anger was less focused on the team, and more at referee Wayne Barnes, whom New Zealanders cordially loathe to this day. Seriously, the 1999 loss to the French was at least them suddenly playing Rugby From Mars. The 2007 loss? Well, the All Blacks weren’t great (again, over-confidence), but the French weren’t great either… it’s just that the French somehow didn’t get penalised a single time in the second half. And I still remember yelling at the television about a certain blatant forward-pass that Barnes somehow missed.

2019 (vs England): Tonight. Well, what can I say? I’m almost pleased I spent tonight reading Economics articles, rather than watching the game itself. But congratulations, England. 🙂

Calling Shamhat: A Short Rant On the Importance of Libraries

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Dear, oh dear. You expect to find stupid people on the internet, especially in comments sections. But sometimes you find one that makes you want to rant back – especially when it’s an area that is quite close to your heart. And, well, I have a blog… it’s been a while since I’ve had a good rant.

The initial post is garden-variety Farrar: creating a “there is no alternative” dichotomy between Wellington City Council investing in a new library and keeping its minority stake in the local airport. Because increasing rates ain’t an option, supposedly. But that wasn’t what sparked my annoyance. It’s one of the comments below the post, namely one poster going by the moniker of Enkidu:

Why do we need a library? Do we really need a building to hold on physical paper stuff that should be digital and online? Do we really need racks and racks of ten year old or older technical books? A library in 2019 should only contain a few rare books and document. It should be tiny. It should not be freely available to anyone, except online.

People say we really need a library, but if you ask them, they would not be able to recall the last time that they visited a library.

Yes, dear reader. There are people who really think like this. In 2019. Disturbing, isn’t it? As someone who is a prodigious user of a public library – and someone with a keen interest in books – it’s enough to make me cringe.

First off, physical books exist for a reason. Many people (including myself) prefer reading off the page to reading off the screen – while I do make copious use of Project Gutenberg for older texts, I will use it very much as a last resort, in the event that the library does not have the book in question. Reading a thousand page doorstopper? Fine if you’ve got a physical copy. Reading a thousand pages online? No thanks.

It’s not only a matter of preference either. You see, public libraries don’t simply stock “older technical books” (maybe Enkidu imagines library basements full of dusty guides to Windows 95 or something?). They stock arrays of fiction and non-fiction… and the copyright on these books is frequently still current. Sticking these texts online screws with the publishers, who would literally be pirated out of business – physical library copies aren’t, well, easily copiable, in the way that online digital texts are. Great way to destroy the book industry, Enkidu. A reader-pays system to compensate rather defeats the purpose of a public library in the first place – people who want to buy a book will, you know, buy it, rather than borrow it.

The kicker is that public libraries do actually have a significant online element – at the level of service provision (the books, of course, generally being physical). Public libraries offer free access to the internet for their members. You know, because some people might not otherwise be able to access it? I have had situations in the past where my internet is down for a few days, so I have needed to pop down to the library to check my e-mails. The additional printing services also come in handy.

But to answer Enkidu’s query directly: yes, I do know the last time I used the library. A fortnight ago, and I have four books on loan. I, for one, would be screaming from the rooftops if Dunedin’s Central Library closed.

(I hereby cordially invite Enkidu to get civilised like his namesake from Gilgamesh. Maybe the poor guy just needs to get laid…).

 

Gender Flipping Tolkien for Fun and Silliness

My earlier post about a mooted female Gandalf has come back to haunt me.

Recall that I suggested that a female Gandalf would diminish the mythic resonance of Tolkien’s story, and that female Aragorn would mess-up the plot, but also that female Frodo (and Sam. And Gollum) would not achieve anything beyond the cosmetic. Well, my thought today – meant in a playful way – is why stop there? What would a gender-flipped Middle-earth look like? Here are some ideas, and please note, I am treating this as nothing more than a fun thought-experiment. Please do not take seriously.

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(i) The Hobbit

Miss Bilba Baggins – comfortable middle-aged spinster – is whisked away on an adventure by the wandering witch Gudrun, and thirteen (female) dwarves. The story dynamics do not change all that much, even in a gender-role sense (Bilba is not a great warrior. It’s her brains, courage, and moral compass that win the day). In fact, there might be something genuinely subversive about a middle-aged spinster being an adventure-fantasy protagonist, and pointedly returning home with chests of gold, still comfortable and still unmarried. Feminising the dwarves, while retaining the beards, might be a tougher sell, however, and while both Beorn and Thranduil can be flipped without fuss, the Battle of Five Armies would suggest some curious things about goblin sociology.

(ii) The Lady of the Rings

The Freudian imagery just writes itself, what with Saura the Dark Lady seducing the world with the Ring (Galadon, Lord of Lothlorien, must resist the temptation…), but in all seriousness, the Amazonian nature of Rohan, Gondor, and even Mordor would be a bit much. Women fighting in a war is one thing. A woman-only war is quite another. Indeed, we would have a situation where males are universally expected to stay behind while women fight, to the extent that male Eowyn (Eomer, I suppose) is regarded as breaking gender roles. All a bit strained, and on-the-nose, and we would lose the man/Man dual-meaning, as Eomer and Mary Brandybuck take down the Witch-Queen. The less said about Helob the Giant Spider, the better. That said, flipping the genders of Arwen and Aragorn would actually be pretty subversive, at least in terms of their individual relationship – “go and make yourself Queen before I let you marry my son.”

(iii) The Silmarillion

The really strange thing – I could actually see Feanora working, at least on a personality level. The biggest issue with the character would be devising a way to kill off her father, Mirwe, such that the childhood issues work themselves out. Feanora’s seven Amazonian daughters? It’s not impossible to imagine, but given what they get up to, I am not sure the resulting thematic messaging would be to everybody’s tastes.  Melka/Morwen would be an uncomfortable fit as villain, and a male Ungoliant even less so (to be honest, I don’t think male Ungoliant could be a spider here. He’d have to be some other giant horror).

As for the Great Tales…

Flipping Beren and Luthien? A female Beren may work in isolation (a lesbian relationship! I am sure there must be fanfiction to that effect…), but in flipping Luthien we’re tinkering with Elven sociology so much as to render it unrecognisable. The handsome Luthior – his defining traits being his incredible looks, singing ability, and determination to rescue his hapless would-be girlfriend – would play merry hell with the basic point of the story. Luthien, like Eowyn, is a breaker of gender norms in a way that just does not work in reverse.

The Children of Hurin? This one would need some significant plot tinkering, but I could maybe see it, if I squinted. Turiel as a sort of Dark Amazon figure, Morin her father as a dour survivor… sure. Female Hurin and male Nienor would be trickier – maybe the former as a wise-woman, captured by Angband, and cursed accordingly? The latter – maybe a foolish young warrior who attempts to kill Glaurung on his own, only to have his memory wiped, before he runs into big sister Turiel? There’s the nugget of a recognisable story in there somewhere.

Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin? At first sight, this one would involve turning female Tuor into yet another Amazon, but it’s possible – with a bit of tinkering – to avoid that. Have Tuora flee from an attempted forced marriage, only to come to the Sea, and encounter the Vala Ulma. Tuora must find the Hidden Kingdom, and warn its Queen of its doom… A male Idril (Idros?) could fill in the fighting component, while it’s not as if Maeglin (male or female) needs to fight out of necessity. Their plot role is to lust after Idril/Idros, hate Tuor/Tuora, and (under torture) betray the city. There is much less on-the-nose stuff than one would expect.

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Needless to say, I do not expect any of this speculation to feature in adaptations any time soon – apart from fanfiction, where I am sure such things have already been covered in gory detail. Overall, I’d say the best candidate for (limited) gender-flipping might be The Hobbit. The gender of Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings can be flipped without either changing the story or saying anything meaningful, but the gender of Bilbo in The Hobbit… a happy ending for a middle-aged spinster that does not involve marriage, or forcing her into a fighting role? There’s interesting potentials there. The rest of Tolkien’s stuff, however, either straight-up doesn’t work in a gender-flipped context, or else requires extensive plot surgery to make it work.

(Oh, and belated apologies for the terrible feminising/masculinising of Tolkien character names in this piece. I was literally just doing it as a stand-in fantasy tweaking to get my point across).

Spring? What Spring?

Out and about in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens this afternoon:

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After a ridiculously mild Winter, a certain Antarctic Weather Event has been screwing with Spring. It hasn’t been particularly cold, but Dunedin has returned to form, with grey overcast skies and endless drizzling rain, which means getting out and about has been a patchy affair.

The Dance of the Cartoon Houyhnhnm: Reflections on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010-2019)

So that’s that. As of several days ago, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic aired for the last time.

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I finished watching the final episode (The Last Problem) last night, and have since noticed that it cleverly invokes the title of what was to be the final Sherlock Holmes story, The Final Problem (Friendship is Magic has always operated on two different levels – one for the children, and one for the adults, and the latter has always enjoyed meta-commentary). Recall that The Final Problem was not the last Holmes story after all. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought the great detective back as a result of public and publisher demand (and boatloads of money)… and, well, The Last Problem won’t be the last word either, so far as My Little Pony is concerned. There’s the comics, for a start, and, of course, much public demand, and boatloads of money involved. We’ll see what happens.

One thing is for certain: the fanbase is not going anywhere. It will certainly quieten down, and indeed BronyCon wound up earlier this year, but one suspects the fan community, with its prodigious output of art, fanfiction, and other material, will endure at least until My Little Pony discovers its next incarnation. On the other hand, I myself do not self-identify as a Brony, perhaps because of the term’s negative connotations, and I don’t really participate in the fandom, outside sampling some of the more infamous fanfiction. Put it this way – I have (anonymously) written my share of extremely dodgy and disturbing fanfiction, and I don’t even want to touch My Little Pony. I read Cupcakes, and realised immediately that I could never top the stuff others have come up with.

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If not a card-carrying, self-identifying, Brony (I don’t own any of the merchandise either), I think I would at least qualify as a sort of Fellow Traveller. I am, after all, an adult man who watches the programme, and enjoys it to the extent of having watched all nine seasons, amounting to over two hundred episodes. It’s all a far cry from the 2015 sceptic, who thought My Little Pony was just a mechanism for selling toys to little girls, and who hesitantly watched a couple of episodes because my flatmates’ children enjoyed them (leaving the living-room when My Little Pony came on involved more effort than I was willing to expend). On the other hand, by the time I started watching, the (silly) online war about Bronies and gender roles had largely simmered down,* and the programme had not yet reached its later seasonal rot. In that sense, 2015 was a decent time to start one’s Pony habit.

So what did I like about Friendship is Magic? In large part its ability to present genuine and sincere idealism, while also presenting non-trivial life lessons to its intended child audience. This non-trivial nature is what appeals to me – these are recognisable situations we have all been in, even as adults, and far from being an exercise in fantastical lotus-eating, a fluffy over-sweet world that exists only as a safety blanket, there is a recognisable commentary on our own social situations. Twilight Sparkle spends the series learning, not from books (which she loves, and never abandons), but from her interactions with other people.

Meanwhile, as an adult, I also get to spot the nuance – there are plenty of gleeful pop-culture references (“What do we do, Twilight?” “Same thing we do every night, Pinkie. Save the world!”), whole-plot allusions to, for example, Murder on the Orient Express, and deeper commentary on both theme and the artistic creative process. One episode has Twilight publish a book on friendship, only for the local ponies to worry about putting their unread signed copies in protective wrapping (as if to say “damn it, guys. We’re trying to discuss the importance and role of friendship, and all you care about is the way the story is packaged”). Another has a character lose his ability to generate jokes because the mundane, mass-market nature of commercialism has destroyed his anarchic spontaneity. And so on. As I have said, Friendship is Magic does lean on the Fourth Wall from time to time, all the more interesting given that this sort of knowing wink is generally associated with cynical world-weary storytelling… of which My Little Pony is the thematic antithesis.

That is not to say the series is perfect – not by a long chalk. There is the occasional misstep into areas best left alone (the episode with the buffalo). There are copious filler episodes, and the occasional predictable cliché. The later seasons are significantly weaker, as the writers start to run out of ideas (Season Eight being a particular nadir). The root problem here is that there are only so many insights into friendship one can make before starting to become hackneyed, and there is a decent case that the series did last a bit too long. On the other hand, Friendship is Magic did wind up before it outstayed its welcome, which is more than can be said for certain other series I could name, and Season Nine did wrap the thing up in a broadly satisfying conclusion. Which is also more than can be said of certain other series I could name…

By curious chance, the run of Friendship is Magic coincides almost exactly with that of Game of Thrones (2011-2019). I cannot recall this coincidence being noted elsewhere, perhaps because one is a children’s cartoon, and the other is a live-action ‘adult’ fantasy, but I think a compare-and-contrast is worthwhile. These two television series, each spanning the length of this soon-to-be-departed decade, and each having a very enthusiastic fanbase, represent two contrasting views of the human condition. One is profoundly idealistic, the other profoundly cynical. Friendship is Magic appeals to the better angels of our nature, even as it struggles to get out from beneath the weight of its own commercial raison d’être. Game of Thrones – no longer to be confused with A Song of Ice and Fire – prefers to present the human experience as a Hobbesian nightmare. Potentially even a pointless Hobbesian nightmare if we continue to ignore the existential threats on our doorstep. Friendship is Magic offers hope, but Game of Thrones (at least until the last season, when it loses the plot) offers a warning.

Now, there is actually a place for both viewpoints in modern popular culture. Humanity, as Terry Pratchett once put it, is the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape, and I have derived pleasure from both series at various points over the years. I was reading George R.R. Martin long before I stumbled across My Little Pony. In comparing the two, however, I cannot help but recall an episode from Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Swift has his protagonist come to a place populated by the equine Houyhnhnms and the humanoid Yahoos – the former noble and decent, the latter savage and depraved. Gulliver prefers the Houyhnhnms over the Yahoos, even though biology places him closer to the Yahoos. Maybe the legacy of these idealistic cartoon ponies will outlast that of Throne’s cynical humans?

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Who knows. But for myself, I currently find the eventual next incarnation of My Little Pony in the 2020s a more interesting prospect than any of the proposed Game of Thrones spin-off series. Yes, such an incarnation carries with it gigantic question-marks, and maybe the series will degrade back into the puerile commercial nonsense of yesteryear – I was initially sceptical of Friendship is Magic for a reason. But for now, I’m willing to give it a shot. Maybe I, along with Swift’s Gulliver, am a Brony after all.

*C.S. Lewis said it best:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Rushing In Where The Tuatha Dé Danann Fear To Tread: A Reply to Naturally Orla

October is clearly a month to live dangerously. First I tackle the Female Gandalf controversy (a controversy that has now sadly resulted in Robyn Malcolm receiving a death threat from one lunatic). Now? I’m going one better, by wading into a discussion of cultural appropriation in a fantasy context. Oh dear.

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The original post was written by one Naturally Orla. Entitled Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish is Discount Elvish?, it criticises the perceived misuse of Irish mythology in a fantastical context. Specifically:

“… the problem is treating Irish and Irish culture like it only exists as a reusable fantasy product.”

Orla identifies language mangling, mash-ups of Irish myth, and various bits of demonisation and sexualisation as signs that the fantasy genre is using and abusing Irish culture.

Now, in writing a reply to this… I need to make a small-but-obvious disclaimer. Namely, I’m not Irish. Sure, my great-great-grandfather, Daniel Keenan, emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand in 1864, and there are residual bits of my life that have been shaped by that, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m a New Zealander, not an Irishman. I wouldn’t know the language if I tripped over it.

On the other hand, I am a fantasy author, with an (understandable) interest in the genre, and can talk a bit about the way source material impacts on writing. So let’s begin…

It is common to drawn on folklore for fantasy writing. Irish mythological characters and monsters have become staples of western fantasy in many ways. Mainstream concepts of “fairies” are often some mash-up between English, Irish and Scottish folklore traditions, all of which are different. The fairy courts, Titania and Oberon, Pixies and Brownies, Seelie and Unseelie are all part of English and Scottish traditions. The Morrigan, Ring Forts, the Sidhe, Leprechauns and Banshees all come from the Irish.

This is not a problem alone, but they are usually removed from all context and multiple cultures are used as inter-changeable for each other.

Yes, fantasy frequently mashes together disparate traditions into a hodge-podge. I am not sure why this mashing together need commented on, let alone disparaged. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books? They’ve got Greek Dryads, Roman Fauns, Norse stone giants, an entire book (Voyage of the Dawntreader) that amounts to Lewis’ version of the Irish Immram stories, plus a cameo with Father Christmas, and the odd reference to Shakespeare. And the entire thing is absolutely drenched in Christianity. Lewis used and abused real-world traditions, borrowing and stealing in order to write his own story… and whatever one might say about Narnia, its eclectic nature is not normally the target of criticism.

J.R.R. Tolkien – who did actually grumble a bit about Lewis here – engages in his own little myth-mashups. The Children of Húrin marries Norse Sigurd and Finnish Kullervo, and in one sense, the underlying narrative of The Silmarillion is a lengthy explanation for how (Finnish-inspired) Quenya and (Welsh-inspired) Sindarin came to be linguistically separated. Plus there’s the Neoplatonic influence from the Classical World. Tolkien is less haphazard in throwing together motifs and ideas than Lewis, but he does it, because that is what fantasy is and has always been… a borrowing and a re-working. Tolkien himself compares story to a Cauldron of Soup – a jumble of disparate ingredients, and mixed together to create something new.

Orla’s essay would disparage such mixing-and-matching as disrespectful and inaccurate – treating different traditions as interchangeable. But, with the greatest respect to Orla, mixing stories is what creates stories. Those aforementioned Irish Immram stories were themselves hijacked by Christianity, eventually resulting the incredibly popular (in medieval times) Voyage of Saint Brendan tale. If there is a genuine fault to be identified here, I would suggest it is less about fantasy authors mixing together English, Irish, and Scottish traditions, and more about them doing so in a manner that feels unoriginal or just plain bad. But that is a different criticism from the one Orla makes – it is one thing to complain that the soup is bad, but another to complain that the soup ought not to have been made at all.

Even when Irish mythological characters are used in their right, they are portrayed as either demonic or highly sexualised. The sexualisation of female figures taken from Irish mythology is a continuous trope. Versions of the Morrigan and Maebh are usually seen to be evil seductresses.

Orla has obviously read far more Irish mythology than I, but even in the material I have read, there is a very strong sexual component. Cú Chulainn – among others – is positively notorious. Don’t get me wrong – I am no fan of the Female Seductress trope, and think it lazy and problematic writing at the character level, but complaining about the mythological connotations strikes me as an odd way of approaching the issue.

This is not exclusive to fiction. Dungeons & Dragons, an iconic fantasy gaming product, takes a range of Irish mythological creatures and then makes them nearly all evil aligned. Not all hags have their origin in Irish and Scottish folklore, but the Bheur Hag definitely references the Hag of Beara and is also evil. There’s something uncomfortable about an important Irish mythological figure being reskinned as an evil creature that specifically tries to starve people to death.

It would be handy if Orla could provide some other examples of these Irish mythological creatures being turned into D&D Evil Monsters. I mean, D&D has the Banshee, but, well, that is hardly a lovable figure in the folklore either. As for hags, they do have a place in other traditions, where they generally have a sinister reputation (they, unsurprisingly, turn up in Narnia too). The cited example? Sure, I will concede the point – having an ‘Irish’-flavoured starvation monster is indeed a bit on the nose.

It is common for colonised cultures to be portrayed as demonic and hyper-sexual. This is used to present the culture of the colonised people as savage and in need of the civilising influence of imperialism. Similarly, when all the different cultures of the “British Isles” (a gross imperialist term that most Irish people never use) are just thrown together in a big mess it is reinforcing colonial erasure.

Now this is an extraordinary leap. Mixing of human cultures is something that happens. Often it is the historical result of imperialism – but that cannot be undone, any more than we can turn back the clock to some imagined (and romanticised) past, and once cultures interact, they will inherently feed off and modify each other. The fantasy genre is just one very small facet of that, and if Orla and like-minded people are concerned with the direction the genre is taking, by all means, I encourage them to pick up their pens, and produce their own contribution. As it is… did the Voyage of Saint Brendan – written in Latin, featuring Judas, and overtly Christian, but using the Immram framework – erase earlier Irish culture, or did it constitute a cultural synthesis, a merging of old and new?

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Another way colonialism disrupts cultures is through the destruction and devaluing of their languages. The Irish language could not be used on birth certificates or any official documents under British rule despite it being the primary language spoken by the majority of the country until the 19th century. Other colonialised populations, in the Americas or Australia, had similar experiences of imperialism. In some countries their native languages were banned outright.

On this particular point I do agree. Linguistic mixing is natural, but language suppression is something else (it happened here in New Zealand too, though Maori is currently undergoing a renaissance). I am, however, extremely sceptical of Orla drawing parallels between such suppression and run-of-the-mill mangling.

Coming back to Dungeons & Dragons, the language of Sylvan, the Fey language of D&D, is strongly based off Irish, though with an English alphabet which Irish does not use. Here’s some flavour text for a Darkling, a fey monster, which uses the correct word for dark/black Dubh (dove) but uses the word Catha, meaning battle-ready or warlike, for crow. The author likely made this mistake because of the Irish goddess Badb Catha, the war crow, but Badb is the old Irish word for crow not Catha. Showing that author did not check the words separate from each other. A small mistake that might seem petty to point out. But it’s so small it would have taken 30 seconds to type into Google or a dictionary. There are plenty of native speakers online to ask.

I think Orla sets the bar too high here. For a start, the language is “based” off Irish. This would imply that it is not supposed to be literal Irish. “Basing” names and flavour-text off real-world analogies is nearly universal in the fantasy genre – as writers we often want a consistent linguistic aesthetic. On the other hand, very few of us have a Tolkienian ability to formulate an entire language for ourselves, while we might not want to invoke the connotations that come from using a literal real-world language. I myself have bits and pieces of mangled Finnish in the names of the Viiminian Empire, with various fantastical modifications, especially insertions of ‘h’ at various points. I do this (deliberate) mangling because I want to avoid implying that the Empire is Finland – it obviously isn’t – but I do want a particular aesthetic with the names, one that is distinct from those of the Skeevereet Principality. Plus, seeing as I do use actual Maori names like pohutukawa and weta, I rather have to mangle everything else.

Basically, this is not some malign plan of linguistic imperialism. It may or may not be laziness on the part of creator, but Orla never stops to consider that the writer(s) may be consciously avoiding a one-to-one correspondence between fantasy and reality.

Warhammer 40k, a longstanding game universe, uses Irish almost unchanged as it’s space-mystic Eldar language. While the Irish there is more accurate, this isn’t much better. Why are these aliens in an entirely fictional setting speaking Irish, a real language?

Excellent question… which might explain why other creators use pseudo-Irish, rather than real Irish. On the other hand, Orla disagrees with use of pseudo-Irish, so does that mean all writers have to be Tolkien, or else serve up randomised gobbledygook? As I have said, this is simply too high a bar. We are fantasy writers, but not necessarily skilled linguists or philologists.

Ultimately the issue is not the inclusion of Irish or Irish folklore in fantasy, the problem is treating Irish and Irish culture like it only exists as a reusable fantasy product.

If Orla were expressing concern that Irish folklore is being treated as an “off the shelf” means of writing fantasy, I would agree. There is indeed something vaguely banal about a fantasy writer who thinks “for extra Elvish flavour… just add Celtic Tropes!” And I do agree with Orla that one ought to think about what one is writing (easier said than done, however – it is surprisingly easy to “miss” a connotation until it is much too late, and I suspect the earlier-cited starvation monster is just such an example). Where I disagree with the essay is that it frowns far too much on the mixing of traditions, without which we would have no stories, and the linguistic issues that come with writing fantasy. Reading in colonialist scheming to erase culture is simply a bridge too far.