Crackpot Theory: Rhaegar Targaryen had Aspergers Syndrome

Anyone who has read A Song of Ice and Fire (or paid attention to the backstory of Game of Thrones) is familiar with Rhaegar Targaryen, the Crown Prince who sparked a war by running away with Lyanna Stark, a la Homer’s Paris and Helen. Rhaegar remains something of an enigma, since we are only relying on second or third-hand information about him – this leads to an awful lot of speculation about his personality.

Myself, I have a pet crackpot theory of my own design – one that is unlikely to ever be proved or disproved. Namely that Rhaegar had Aspergers Syndrome.

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Now, when the subject of Aspergers and Autism in Martin’s work gets raised, the most usual candidate is Stannis Baratheon. I actually think the evidence goes either way on Stannis (while he is socially awkward and honest, he does not have a “special subject” or an unnaturally stilted vocabulary). Rhaegar though allows much more room to speculate, and in this case, I think there would be something richly subversive about such a glamorous figure having such a “nerdy” psychology.

My evidence:

  • Rhaegar has a special subject that he pursues to the extent of obsession, namely prophecies, and to a lesser extent harp music. There’s even a flashback scene in the House of the Undying where he’s with his (own actually existing) son, and he’s still going on about “there needs to be one more”.
  • It explains him running off with Lyanna, and not quite understanding why it would upset people, even though he is highly intelligent.
  • As a child, he showed no interest in other children, and spent all his time with books. Our other bookworm, Samwell Tarly, is far more social by comparison – Sam likes dancing, kittens, and hanging out in the kitchen. Rhaegar is much more of a loner.
  • As a child, he impresses the Maesters with his knowledge of arcane trivia. One imagines his vocabulary being pretty extensive.
  • Rhaegar remains clearly introverted as an adult. He prefers brooding over his harp to social contact.
  • He doesn’t seem to notice that Jon Connington has a homosexual crush on him.
  • Ned Stark doesn’t think Rhaegar would visit brothels. This is generally interpreted as a comment on Rhaegar’s moral code, and certainly Ned would have meant it as such, but if we run with this theory, perhaps the notion of intimacy in a social setting made Rhaegar uncomfortable?
  • The apparent lack of social awkwardness can be explained by everyone being too busy admiring his inhuman beauty, or thinking how wonderful he is, to notice him doing anything odd. Especially given that he’s Targaryen: there’s a social expectation that Targaryens are supposed to do odd things, and while his father and little brother are more overt, there is nothing stopping Rhaegar from having his own issues.
  • The biggest strike against the theory is that Aspergers is commonly associated with poor hand-eye co-ordination. Rhaegar becomes a decent swordsman, which implies his hand-eye co-ordination was pretty good. To explain this, I would suggest that Rhaegar’s single-minded obsession with the prophecy (which he interpreted as requiring him to be a warrior) led him to devote far more time and energy to developing his swordsmanship than he otherwise would have.

Note that this theory also allows a middle ground between those who gloss over his role in starting a disastrous civil war, and those who would vilify him for his neglect of the political situation leading up to the conflict. Rhaegar would be culpable, but his culpability does not arise from selfishness or callousness – it arises from an inability to understand what a faux pas he was committing.

Magic as Fantasy’s Pseudo-science

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George R.R. Martin, currently over at the Helsinki Worldcon, has offered the following opinion on magic in fantasy literature: “Magic should always be dangerous and unknowable, not a pseudo-science.”

This is currently being cheerfully tweeted and re-tweeted all over the place.

Now, my immediate reaction is a knee-jerk one: I dislike Martin’s wording. It appears he is expressing a personal preference (magic as being mysterious) in a way that makes it some sort of rule. Certainly, I would prefer it if Martin had couched his statement as an opinion instead – “I think magic should be..”, “I like magic to be…”, and so on. But let’s give Martin the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that the “should” in that line is the expression of subjective desire, not a “shall” statement of how to write fantasy.

Ignoring the knee-jerk annoyance factor, I still disagree – not because I am committed to a pseudo-scientific view of magic, but because it is the sort of thing that really depends on setting. As you probably know, J.R.R. Tolkien is my favourite author; Tolkien is notable for treating magic as something very rare and mysterious. That doesn’t mean I am inherently tied to believing that magic should be written like that – Wise Phuul treats necromancy as a “mind-control” type of pseudo-science, to the point where, if you squint, there is a case for treating the book as a variant of science-fiction.

Now, the arguments on both sides are well-known – there is the school of thought that a magic that loses its mystery is no longer magic (to which the counter-argument goes “Is that a problem?” – magic is just a manipulation of the world according to different physics. Clarke’s Third Law, and all that). Alternatively, there is the school of thought that advocates a more systematic approach – magic needs limits on what it can do, lest it come across as a deus ex machina. True, but is there any particular need for those limits to be made explicit in the text? We don’t need to know the gory details of Gandalf’s spell-casting to know that he is less powerful than Sauron.

Thinking about this a bit more, I would refine my view that “it depends on setting”:

  • If magic is used to resolve the plot, it should strike a balancing act – yes, you want to avoid deus ex machinae (which is what Sanderson’s First Law of Magic is getting at), but if it is too well-explained, you run the risk of tension being sapped from the scene. Rather than the reader wondering how on earth this obstacle is going to be overcome (and then surprised and delighted when it is), the reader ends up sitting on our protagonist’s shoulder, second-guessing and tut-tutting, as though watching a sort of literary chess game.
  • Relating to the above, one can skirt close to deus ex machina without actually going over the cliff, so long as it feels consistent with the spirit of the setting. Tolkien never explicitly establishes the limits of Elven singing, yet he gets away with Lúthien sending Morgoth to sleep (or driving Mandos to pity) – because he has established the story as being mythic, he can have mythic things happen.
  • Further relating to the above, the sort of thing Sanderson warns about – unexplained magic acting for the convenience of the author – can become apparent when magic shifts from being a background thing to having real plot significance. Harry Potter worked much better before Rowling started to rules lawyer things after the fact in order to suit her authorial needs.
  • If magic is used to resolve the plot, it should still be secondary to actual character conflict. People don’t watch court-room dramas for the excitement of seeing a legal question being resolved, they watch it for the humans struggling to get something they want. There is a reason TV and literature alike often play fast and loose with the mechanics of law, and even the most perfect and elegant of magic systems has to bow before the rules of narrative.
  • It is easier to keep magic as a mysterious background force when your protagonists are non-magical themselves. When you are seeing things through the eyes of Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee, or even Aragorn, Gandalf’s activities are a thing removed from their understanding. In Martin’s work, the chief magic-using Point of View character is Bran Stark, who learns and grows in skill throughout his story – he may use magic, but he is not in a position to understand the finer details, and for all his talent, he is only one character. By contrast, the nature and setting of Harry Potter by necessity turn magic into a science once the whimsy dissipates – it is literally the only academic subject around, and everyone uses it (though Rowling is hardly rigorous about it, which causes problems later).
  • A more systemised and scientific magic system creates more demands on the world-building – if these strange forces can be understood, they can be harnessed, and if they can be harnessed, they will have inevitable effects on the way a fantastical society develops. Martin’s Westeros does not lend itself to an abundance of magic, since it would deviate too strongly from the 15th Century English model – as it is, Martin’s neglect of how his variable seasons would impact his setting is already a major weakness of his world-building. Magic as a mysterious thing in the background ties in with the sort of story Martin wants to tell – which is fine for him, but not everyone wants to tell the same sort of story.
  • While Rowling provides a cautionary tale of trying to turn whimsical magic into something more rule-bound, magic can exist as both a mysterious force and as a pseudo-science in the same setting – as per Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller books. Naming and Sympathy are both clearly magic, yet the books have their cake and eat it too, with the former being the unknowable quantity, and the latter being a sort of magical engineering. Rothfuss’ trick? The two systems are entirely distinct branches of magic, rather than one turning into the other.

All this is before we consider Martin’s implicit assumption that mysterious magic is somehow more dangerous than the more pseudo-scientific variety. Knowing what the risks are beforehand does not, to my mind, mean safety – especially if the power associated with the magic comes at an inherent price (I am thinking Holly Lisle’s Secret Texts trilogy here). There is also the point that real-world magical traditions did actually end up going down the pseudo-science route, to the point where the likes of Isaac Newton did not distinguish between his occult/biblical prophecy/alchemy work, and his work on actual mathematics and physics – and in the case of his ideas about gravitation, one may have influenced the other.

So, yes, I think even if we give Martin the benefit of the doubt on his statement, there is a fair bit to unpack. As always with writing, I think it matters less about the underlying dogma, and more about the needs of each individual setting, and how the author goes about attending to those needs.

An Interview With Nix Whittaker

Nix Whittaker has started a page devoted to listing New Zealand authors (we do exist!). She has also been doing interviews, so I thought I would share my one:

Interview

Farewell to DMB432…

A couple of weeks ago, I was stopped at the traffic lights on Cumberland Street. Unfortunately, the car behind me didn’t stop, which rather wrecked my car.

It’s a total write-off, in fact.

So while I’m waiting for the insurance to be sorted (luckily, the other driver had third party), I popped in to rescue my remaining stuff from the car.

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Stuff rescued includes a bottle of engine oil, a street map of Invercargill, and a cassette with “Goat’s Ears” fairy tales from my childhood. The stuff that winds up in a car when you’ve had it for ten years…

A Breath Through Silver – published

As mentioned in an earlier post, my 9000-word sword and sorcery novelette has been accepted by Swords and Sorcery Magazine, and is a special feature in their end of July issue.

Here it is: A Breath Through Silver

(I have also edited the Bibliography section accordingly)

50/25/5 Reading Challenge: July (+ Writing Update)

Completed reads for July:

  • As Red As Blood, by Salla Simukka
  • As White As Snow, by Salla Simukka
  • As Black As Ebony, by Salla Simukka
  • The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski

Just the four this month – it’s pretty clear that I’m unlikely to meet my reading targets for this year, but at least I’ve got an excuse. July has been a productive month in the writing department instead:

  • Pulmenti, Gloriosum Pulmenti: A 4300-word Catholic vampire story. Yes, really. Finished to submission level.
  • It Shines Bright Tonight: A (currently) 8000-word sword and sorcery novelette. Currently undergoing its second draft.

A Breath Through Silver – accepted

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In a good bit of news on the short story front, my 9000-word sword and sorcery novelette, A Breath Through Silver, has been accepted by Swords and Sorcery Magazine for their next issue. Yay!

It is the second longest piece of fiction I’ve ever completed (behind only Wise Phuul), and represents an attempt at pulp-style fantasy. Lots of action and good old-fashioned cheese.

How to Adapt The Silmarillion?

We have all seen Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and we have all suffered through Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. There remains, however, the lingering hypothetical question – how would you go about adapting the most monumental of Tolkien’s works, The Silmarillion?

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Any answer to this must remain hypothetical, of course. Christopher Tolkien remains adamantly opposed to selling the rights, and he has very likely planned ahead, as far as Estate succession goes. Moreover, while The Lord of the Rings will enter public domain in the United Kingdom on 1st January, 2044, The Silmarillion is trickier. If either Christopher or Guy Gavriel Kay are legally considered co-authors, rather than merely editors, the work only becomes public domain seventy years after they die – and both are still very much alive. So we are unlikely to see any Silmarillion adaptation any time soon.

But The Silmarillion on screen is fun to speculate about, at least if you assume that Peter Jackson will play no part in it whatsoever. So let’s do it.

Option 1: A television series

This option has several advantages.

  • Most obviously, Game of Thrones has shown that there is a market for multi-season televised fantasy (rather than BBC-style adaptive mini-series), so we know it can be done. Indeed, several other fantasy adaptations are currently moving in that direction, rather than trying the blockbuster movie model typified by Harry Potter.
  • An episodic framework plays to the book’s strengths – The Silmarillion is not a continuous narrative, but rather a history with discrete events (some of which are more overtly fantastical and mythological than others).
  • It enables you to spend more time building up the backstory, rather than forcing you to dump everything into an introductory prologue.

The difficulties are twofold:

  • The cost. Game of Thrones, itself hardly cheap to make, has characters talking, shagging, eating, or killing (or some combination thereof), in a room, for episode after episode, interspersed with brief shots to remind you that this is fantasy. The big set pieces are rarer, and generally saved for later in the season (The Battle of the Blackwater, Hardhome, et cetera). By contrast, The Silmarillion does not lend itself to such a framework – it is much more ongoingly epic in nature, with much more diversity required in terms of sets. Even something as straightforwardly necessary as Morgoth’s Throne Room would only feature once (Beren and Lúthien) in the entire series, though you could conceivably milk it for other scenes, like the captures of Maedhros and Húrin.
  • The lack of central characters to frame the story around. Game of Thrones has three “main” characters – Jon, Daenerys, and Tyrion – and the factions are pretty clear, regardless of who lives and dies, since the narrative revolves around the twin foci of the Iron Throne and the Wall. The closest The Silmarillion has to central unifying characters are Morgoth (the *antagonist*, who also fades into a backdrop figure once the action hits Beleriand) and Fëanor, who dies early on. Even something as ostensibly pivotal as the silmarils plays little immediate role in, say, the tale of Túrin, or the Fall of Gondolin.

The cost issue might conceivably be mitigated by animation – which would not be cheap either, but in this case would come out ahead of live action. That involves making some interesting stylistic choices though, perhaps giving the resulting work an anime feel. This in turn might affect public reception (would an animated Game of Thrones enjoy the same popularity as the live action version? I honestly don’t know).

An interesting solution to the “lack of central characters” problem is provided here  – with the envisaged outline being provided in some detail. Essentially the framing narrative involves a surviving Maglor passing on lore to Elrond, which would have the advantage of using an existing “known” character (Elrond) as audience surrogate. It also ties-in very well with how Tolkien originally intended his mythos to be communicated, harking back to Eriol/Aelfwine from The Book of Lost Tales.

(Speaking of Maglor being used in this way, I’d just like to cite this as my favourite piece of Tolkien fanfiction).

Option 2: A five part movie series

There is no obligation to make any Silmarillion movie series into five parts – it is simply the way I would do it. What you lose in screen-time and breadth relative to television, you (presumably) gain in terms of budget and focus, and in the case of The Silmarillion, I think you can identify five stories worth focusing on:

  • The Revolt of the Noldor.  – This one would have to feature the Ainulindalë, et cetera, as prologue: you want the chief conflict of this story to be Fëanor vs Morgoth, with the thrust of narrative being the former’s slide into darkness (a character-driven story that stands apart from previous Middle-earth adaptations). The movie would end with Fëanor’s death, and his sons pledging to go on.
  • Beren and Lúthien. – If you were making a stand-alone movie from Silmarillion material, this would be it. At the risk of Professor Tolkien coming back from the grave just to strangle me, I would even describe it lending itself to a Disney-esque adaptation: a rebellious princess and her True Love overcome all obstacles (including death itself!), with the help of a talking animal sidekick.
  • Túrin.  – This would be much harder for modern audiences to stomach, due to its extreme darkness. The incest might be fine in the age of Game of Thrones, but a story that ends with the main character impaling himself on a talking sword (a la the Finnish Kullervo) might be a bit much. Personally, I’d emphasise the alien and archaic nature of the culture – make the film black and white, perhaps, or even silent, after the manner of a 1920s Fritz Lang piece. If you’re going for niche art-house cinema, you might as well go the whole hog.
  • The Fall of Gondolin. – This and the next one would comprise an obvious two-parter within the wider series. You’ve got the obvious Tuor/Idril/Maeglin love triangle, followed by the resulting Fall of the city itself. It would be the most location-specific of the movies, and I think would create a nice counterpoint to Jackson’s Rings trilogy – we’ve seen Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith hold out under siege from Evil, but sometimes all our protagonists can do is run. There’s also the potential for something weirder if you actually portray the mechanical dragons.
  • Eärendil and the War of Wrath. – If Túrin would be problematic for its source material, this would be problematic for its absence of source material – the Voyage is, alas, one of those bits of the mythos that needs more detail. I visualise this one as centred (obviously) around Eärendil, and his family’s trials and tribulations (time to reintroduce the Sons of Fëanor and their destructive ways…), followed up by the Voyage, the Great Battle itself, and the Breaking of Thangorodrim. If the earlier movies have done their work, there will be a good deal of audience catharsis at Morgoth’s final defeat.

These movies would obviously be quite stylistically distinct, but I feel would work as a satisfying adaptation of the text. Not that anyone is going to do any adapting for the foreseeable future.

Attentive readers will notice something I haven’t hypothesised as a movie – the Akallabêth. The reason is threefold:

  • It would basically scream “prequel” (Elendil and Sons establish Arnor and Gondor). There was enough of that in The Hobbit movies.
  • You can’t very well end the movie with the actual Downfall itself – it may be visually spectacular, with Humans Destroyed By the Wrath of God, but we’re supposed to feel sad about it, not cheer it (the Númenoreans aren’t the Nazis from Raiders of the Lost Ark). Túrin can end on a downbeat note because it’s part of a wider series where Morgoth eventually gets his comeuppance, but doing the same here would be an open admission of prequelism. An Akallabêth adaptation would need to stand on its own, not piggyback off The Lord of the Rings.
  • Our protagonists don’t do very much plot-wise beyond survive – evading human sacrifice, stealing a fruit from the White Tree, and trying to seek forgiveness from the Valar doesn’t strike me as fertile adaptation material. Nor does making Ar-Pharazôn a villain protagonist work – if you’re going to portray slow corruption on screen, I feel Fëanor is a much more interesting candidate.

The Meaning of Swing

As I’ve said before, I don’t really intend to turn this into a political blog – it’s primarily about writing and reading speculative fiction, with other geeky bits and pieces added. But today, I really couldn’t help myself. It’s the mathematician in me, I think: there is just something profoundly wrong about people who misuse statistics in order to champion their pre-determined point.

In this case, I refer to this gentleman.

Now a moment’s glance at the blog in question would suggest that the author really doesn’t see eye to eye with British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Which is fair enough – people are entitled to their own opinions (personally I find it hilarious how blatant the pre-8th June posts are in predicting a landslide Labour defeat, while the post-8th June posts suddenly switch to complaining that Labour should have won a massive victory. Which is it, sir?). No, the issue is that the blogger presents us with this graph as evidence that Corbyn’s Labour is wasting votes by piling up support in safe seats (Britain, unlike New Zealand, still uses First Past the Post):

Based off this data, British Labour has just seen an extraordinary percentage gain in votes (bigger than 1997), for comparatively few seats. Oh no, claims our blogger, clearly this is due to an incompetent Labour campaign.

Well, no.

The basic problem here is that this is not how you measure electoral swing. There is one giant factor missing from the above graph – the simultaneous change in vote for the British Conservative Party.

To take some examples, 1997 saw Labour gain massively (+8.8%), and the Tories lose massively (-11.2%). Unsurprisingly, this translated into big seat gains for Labour. February 1974 saw Labour lose votes badly (-5.9%), but the Tories lost even more badly (-8.5%), so Labour picked up seats on a lower vote share. 1983 saw a massive Labour vote drop (-9.3%), but the damage was less than it could have been, because the Tories also lost some votes (-1.5%). And so on.

What to make of 2017? Well, yes, Labour’s vote went up massively (+9.6%), but the issue is that the Tories also went up significantly (+5.5%). This, not safe seat pile-up, is the reason for Labour’s relatively modest seat gain. Imagine a similar graph showing change in Conservative vote vs Seats – the Tories have just gained 5.5%, their biggest increase since 1979, while also losing seats. By the blogger’s reasoning, this must have represented an insane level of marginal seat neglect, which it wasn’t.

To actually measure election swing, you need to average the change in Labour vote with the change in Conservative vote:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_(United_Kingdom)

Thus the swing to Labour in 1997 was 10% (thus massive gains), the swing to Labour in February 1974 was 1.3% (thus modest gains), and the swing to the Conservatives in 1983 was 3.9%. The swing to Labour in 2017? A tad over 2%, which is slightly better than Neil Kinnock managed in 1992 – based off which, you would expect meaningful Labour gains, but hardly a landslide.

Which, surprise, surprise, is what happened. Labour gained 30 seats net (the Tories lost 13). No need to bring in nonsense about safe seat pile-up.

There is admittedly the question of why the Conservative vote went up too – while this is straying away from the point of this post, I would invite the blogger to consider the change in UKIP vote (12.6% in 2015 to 1.8% in 2017), and then consider where, exactly, that vote might have gone in light of the 2016 referendum.

Ivor: July update

Ivor has now hit Sixth Level, which means he gets an extra two spells via Magical Secrets (yay!). His spells are now as follows:

  • Cantrips: Friends, Minor Illusion, Vicious Mockery
  • 1st Level: Faerie Fire, Unseen Servant, Dissonant Whispers, Healing Word, Inflict Wounds [Magical Secrets] [Dropped – Heroism, Sleep, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter]
  • 2nd Level: Invisibility, Suggestion, Silence
  • 3rd Level: Hypnotic Pattern, Major Image, Animate Dead [Magical Secrets]

Stats:

  • Strength: 12
  • Dexterity: 15
  • Constitution: 15
  • Intelligence: 10
  • Wisdom: 10
  • Charisma: 18 (incl +1 Boots of Charisma)