Black, White, and Shades of Grey: Morality in Fantasy Literature

Who wouldn’t want to hear their favorite authors speak together on the same stage?

Recently, I was inspired by staff at Eventbrite about putting together a dream panel of authors I’d like to see at a conference.  Eventbrite is an organization that helps people create and share events that bring communities together.  For more information about their conference management tool, check out their website.

I love attending conferences, but have sadly never been to one that is book-related.  (That is likely to change now that I’m working as a librarian.)  Still, I assume that most events follow similar structures and that there is a great deal of freedom in what goes on in a panel.  That being said, I spent some time brainstorming what group I should bring together.  There are so many genres that I love and so many topics that would be interesting to explore.  I ended up settling on…

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Imagination and Empathy: Tapping Humanity’s Greatest Strengths (Writing 101, Day 7)

J.K. Rowling, in her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, wisely said:

I firmly believe that one of humanity’s greatest strengths lies in imagination and empathy. We have this incredible gift to place ourselves into the shoes of others. We can experience lives that are not our own. This is a strength that is undervalued and underutilized.

Growing up, I was immersed in a culture that perceived differences as threats. My family and I attended church in our community for twenty years without ever being truly accepted and loved by the congregation. You see, we didn’t fit in with conservative Christianity. We didn’t deliberately stir up trouble… we didn’t want to cause controversy or divisions. We were eager to grow in our faith, learn more about God, and be part of people’s lives. But our minds worked differently than the people around us. We couldn’t help asking questions, which made people uncomfortable. We were different and they had a hard time understanding us. Because of those things, we never felt acceptance. As a young teen, I always felt like I was lacking something, like I wasn’t good enough, like I was made wrong. (That impression was later demolished and my sense of value was strongly established, but that’s a story for another time.) It took twenty years for us to uproot ourselves and search out a church that valued us for the people we are, differences and all. It’s been three years and we are still searching.

I think that empathy can solve problems like these. Empathy is the ability to see things from another’s point of view. Because, the fact of the matter is, we as people are not all the same. Everyone is wired differently—some are scientists, some are artists, some are Republicans, some are Democrats, some are men, some are women, some are old, some are young, some are Christians, some are Muslims, some live in the city, some live in the country, some are dreamers, some are doers, the list goes on and on. There are thousands of perspectives out there and, if you cannot see beyond your own, you limit yourself to a narrow worldview that destroys more than it fosters.

The ability to empathize is one of the most valuable lessons I learned in college. Because of this, I am an ardent believer in the value of higher education. Through years of literature classes, reading the voices of times gone by, I learned to open my mind to new perspectives. Now, let me assure you that I am in no way a master at this. I’m not perfect and, more times than not, I find myself passing unnecessary judgment on others with perspectives different from my own. But there is a difference between having blind spots and being aware of them. I know I often fail at empathy, but I’m trying.

The thing is, differences are not a threat. I think that differences are an incredible strength. If the world were full of people who were the same, nothing would ever be accomplished. If everyone were a builder, we’d have lots of buildings and nothing to use them for. If everyone were a writer, we’d have lots to read, but nothing to eat. If everyone were a politician, we’d really be screwed. The differences between people are what make the world work.

You may not agree with another person’s point of view. It may even offend you. But that’s not the point. Devaluing someone’s perspective is devaluing his or her humanity. If more people considered other points of view, damage caused by unnecessary judgment would decrease. You don’t have to agree with a person, but taking the time to understand their perspective and accepting differences can do worlds of good.

We simply cannot function without imagination and empathy. We cannot settle for being narrow-minded. We cannot go on rejecting perspectives that do not match our own. The world we live in is so broken. Every time I turn on the news or open a paper, it’s something new. Driven from their homes, refugees struggle to establish a new life. A manic father shoots his wife and children before committing suicide. People who legally can now marry are still denied their rights.

But we have the power to change things. We can imagine a world where refugees find homes, where mental illnesses are diagnosed and properly treated, where people are allowed their legal freedoms. Once we imagine all these things, we are in the perfect position to act. We know what must be done. We can then become the people who step up and bring about transformation.

Stories, by their nature, place us directly in the perspective of others. This is why I love Rowling’s quote so much. Stories force us to see with eyes that are not our own, to walk with the feet of others, to feel with heartbeats outside our breasts. Fiction captures the essence of humanity and consuming it forces us to be human.   I believe a well-told, well-timed story can change the world. 

We have everything we need to transform our world. We have the power to empathize.  We have the power to imagine.

On the Shelf: Summer Reading Updates & Mini Reviews

I’ve decided to switch up my On the Shelf this week.  Instead of one big review, I’ve done some mini-reviews, followed by some chit chat about other books I’ve been reading.  (Also, apologies for being a day late on this post…)

The Heir by Kiera Cass

Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars

A few weeks ago, I finally picked up the fourth book in Cass’s The Selection series.  The thing about Cass is that she isn’t a breathtaking writer–her post-apocalyptic America is relatively boring and her characters lack depth–but I somehow still love her books.  They’re like a mashup of The Hunger Games, The Bachelor, and all my favorite fairy tales.

Taking place after the trilogy ends, the book centers around Eadlyn, the first female heir to the throne.  Although the caste system has been dissolved, the country’s problems aren’t over.  Citizens are increasingly unhappy and are beginning to turn on the royal family.  In attempt to lift morale, another Selection begins and male suitors begin pouring into the palace from all over the country, determined to win Eadlyn’s hand.

For the most part, Eadlyn isn’t very likable.  She’s stubborn, proud, and stuck-up.  She’s pretty high and mighty, but her many flaws are partially forgivable because of the amount she gives up for her throne.  The book makes clear that, given the choice, she wouldn’t choose to rule the country.  But she throws herself into it anyways and, throughout the book, sacrifices her personal desires for her position.  That doesn’t wholly redeem her, though.  She still is annoying at points.

What I love about this book is that it takes us on the other side of the Selection.  In the first three books, we see it all from the point of view of one of the participants.  In this story, we get to see the process from the heir’s point of view.  What would it be like to balance dating 30 young men and learning to rule an unstable country?

The other thing I love is that it brings out a lot of double-standards.  Being a feminist, I LOVE seeing double-standards exposed.  Before this, it was always a male heir surrounded by female suitors.  Boys, though, respond differently to the competition.  While girls got into spats, boys brawl.  With a female heir, sexual assault becomes an issue.  While it’s okay for male heirs to get physical with the candidates, a female one is looked down upon as loose.  While the press was all about praising Maxon in the first series, it seems out to get Eadlyn–painting her as a prideful, spoiled, ice queen.

Is The Heir the best piece of literature out there?  Nope.  Is it enjoyable?  Definitely.

The Kingkiller Chronicles: The Name of the Wind & The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Rating: 2 / 5 stars

Summary: Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature.

I picked up this unfinished series at the high recommendation of a book lover friend.  It’s been a while since I picked up a massive fantasy novel and thought I’d give the highly-acclaimed series a try.  What I can say is that Rothfuss is a very gifted writer.  His prose is truly excellent.

What I can’t say is that I enjoyed these books.  Although they’re entertaining/easy reads, I didn’t feel myself loving these books.  The way they’re set up bothers me.  The premise is that there’s one story taking place present-time regarding a civil war with mysterious monsters on the loose.  The main character, Kvote, is the stuff of legend, but has taken cover as an innkeeper and thought dead.  When discovered by a recorder of stories, Kvote decides to tell his.  The majority of the books follow the course of his life–tracing his childhood in a troupe of traveling musicians to years living as a street urchin to living as a student at the university.  In the second book, Kvote continues his studies, helps a king woo a wife, tracks down bandits in the woods, winds up in the fairy world and shacks up with a fae temptress, and spends time with an off-the-map society where he learns to fight.  All the while, Kvote looks for information on the Chandrian–a group of killers out of legends who killed his parents.

The story, ‘though intriguing, feels like it’s going nowhere.  Kvote isn’t very likable.  He goes from adventure to adventure and is amazing at everything he does.  He’s an amazing musician, student, lover, fighter, and magician.  There’s nothing he can’t do…  And he’s a smart-ass.

Then there’s his love interest, Denna.  Ugh.  She’s one of the worst female characters I’ve ever encountered.  I’d go into how awful she is, but a Goodreads reviewer has said it better than I ever could.

If you’re into fantasy, you might like these books.  If not, skip them.

Other Books I’m Reading…

I’m still plugging through The Silmarillion by Tolkien.  It’s breathtaking, but extremely thick.  I can only manage thirty pages a week.  This afternoon, I finally breached the 200 page mark.  It’s slow going, but I’ll have it finished by the time summer ends!

At work, I’m listening through Harry Potter again.  This week, I reached Order of the Phoenix… so my hours are filled with lots of angst.  I plowed through Goblet of Fire last week and, in the wake of Voldemort’s return, I’m once again annoyed by how unpleasant Harry is in this book.  But it’s okay.  It just makes me thankful I’m out of the teen years.

Recently, I picked up Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier.  Yes, more fantasy.  It’s the first of Marillier’s Sevenwaters series.  I’ve read the whole series already, but it’s been a few years.  The first is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Wild Swans”.  I love a good fairytale retelling and am looking forward to this read.

That’s it for this week’s On the Shelf.  What books have you been reading lately?

Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award (Part II)

Exciting news!  Amanda from Amanda Under Construction was kind enough to nominate me for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers award!  I met her through Blogging 101 and her site is a real treat–do check it out! sisterhood-of-the-world-bloggers-014 Since I’ve received this award before (see first post here), I’m going to skip all the hoo-ha and simply answer the questions.  (There’s more to it, but if you’ve been a reader for a while, you’ll know that I’m super awkward about the whole nomination business.)

Amanda’s Questions:

1. Favorite social media platform?

Probably Instagram.  It doesn’t suck up a great deal of time and I love all the photos.  (Follow me at ameliab648!)

2. Favorite movie? Most recent movie you’ve seen?

Most recent: Jurassic World

Favorite: Midnight in Paris

3. What’s been the best day of your life so far?

Describe it! I’ve actually written posts about this!  “An Afternoon in Austria” describes the process of getting to five of the best days I’ve ever had.  On my travel blog, “The Austria Post” gives more of a general impression.  In it, I talk a lot about how visiting my friends impacted my Christian faith at the time.

4. Ryan Gosling or Jake Gyllenhaal?

Both are attractive, but if pressed to choose…

5. Name a female that you look up to/you see as a mentor/role model! (Celeb, mom, whatever.)

This woman:

Not only is J.K. Rowling an incredible storyteller, but I’m always blown away at her poise in the public sphere.  Her 2008 Harvard Commencement speech is one of my absolute favorites–I’ve listened to her wise words about the importance of failure and benefits of imagination multiple times and they never fail to give me chills.  Her rags-to-riches story has always inspired me greatly.  I also really admire her empathy to those less-fortunate and her incredible ability to send scalding, but still elegant retorts in 140 characters or less on Twitter.

6. Best compliment you’ve ever received?

Four years ago, I spent the summer before my freshman year of college volunteering at my local library.  There was a librarian there I really liked.  Recently, my mother was at a meeting for prominent local business people and ran into her.  The librarian, recognizing my mom, inquired about my current well-being.  When I heard about the encounter, I was shocked that she actually remembered me.  After all, three months of shelving books once a week isn’t enough to really make a lasting impression… or so I thought.  My mom then said something that has stuck with me: “Amelia, you’ll be surprised at the impact that you make on people just by being true to yourself.”

7. What makes you feel better when you’re feeling sad?

Scented candles, hot baths, romantic movies, cuddling my cat, and curling up with a good book.

8. What’s your favorite word?

Nostalgia.  I’m a deeply nostalgic person and find the word’s etymology fascinating.  The two portions in their Greek form, “nostos” and “algia”, literally translate to “the pain of home”.  Just thinking about this definition makes my heart ache for an idealized time-gone-by that can never be found again.

9. Bookstores or libraries?

Bookstores have my heart, but libraries have my soul.

10. What do you most like writing about?

Most of the posts I’ve been the most proud of tend to be musings about the past or future.  Trying to articulate how a place or event shaped me tends to draw out my best thoughts.  Attempting to use words to give shape to the future usually has the same effect.  That aside, I love writing about books.  My weekly On the Shelf posts have been particular favorites lately.

Thanks again, Amanda, for the nomination!

The Forest Again

On a rainy Saturday night, I find myself taking part in one of my favorite pastimes.  Over the past few months, I’ve slowly been revisiting some of the novels that have impacted my life more than probably anything else (save the Bible, of course).  That’s right, I’m talking about Harry Potter.  I could honestly gush for hours about my love for these novels, discussing character development, themes, plot structure, etc.  But if I did that, would you read it?  Probably not.  In lieu of this, I thought I’d share the most poignant (in my opinion) moment in the series.  It comes from the beginning of the final novel, Deathly Hallows, in chapter 34, just after Harry views Snape’s memories in the pensieve during the final battle.

Finally, the truth. Lying with his face pressed into the dusty carpet of the office where he had once thought he was learning the secrets of victory, Harry understood at last that he was not supposed to survive. His job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms. Along the way, he was to dispose of Voldemort’s remaining links to life, so that when at last he flung himself across Voldemort’s path, and did not raise a wand to defend himself, the end would be clean, and the job that ought to have been done in Godric’s Hollow would be finished. Neither would live, neither could survive.

He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. How strange that in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive. But it would have to stop, and soon. Its beats were numbered. How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the forest?

Terror washed over him as he lay on the floor, with that funeral drum pounding inside him. Would it hurt to die? All those times he had thought that it was about to happen and escaped, he had never really thought of the thing itself: His will to live had always been so much stronger than his fear of death. Yet it did not occur to him now to try to escape, to outrun Voldemort. It was over, he knew it, and all that was left was the thing itself: dying.

If he could only have died on that summer’s night when he had left number four, Privet Drive, for the last time, when the noble phoenix feather wand had saved him! If he could only have died like Hedwig, so quickly he would not have known it had happened! Or if he could have launched himself in front of a wand to save someone he loved… He envied even his parents’ deaths now. This cold-blooded walk to his own destruction would require a different kind of bravery. He felt his fingers trembling slightly and made an effort to control them, although no one could see him; the portraits on the walls were all empty.

Slowly, very slowly, he sat up, and as he did so he felt more alive and more aware of his own living body than ever before. Why had he never appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart? It would all be gone… or at least, he would be gone from it. His breath came slow and deep, and his mouth and throat were completely dry, but so were his eyes.

Dumbledore’s betrayal was almost nothing. Of course there had been a bigger plan: Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now. He had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive. Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the Horcruxes. Dumbledore had passed the job of destroying them to him, and obediently he had continued to chip away at the bonds tying not only Voldemort, but himself, to life! How neat, how elegant, not to waste any more lives, but to give the dangerous task to the boy who had already been marked for slaughter, and whose death would not be a calamity, but another blow against Voldemort.

And Dumbledore had known that Harry would not duck out, that he would keep going to the end, even though it was his end, because he had taken trouble to get to know him, hadn’t he? Dumbledore knew, as Voldemort knew, that Harry would not let anyone else die for him now that he had discovered it was in his power to stop it. The images of Fred, Lupin, and Tonks lying dead in the Great Hall forced their way back into his mind’s eye, and for a moment he could hardly breathe. Death was impatient…

But Dumbledore had overestimated him. He had failed: The snake survived. One Horcrux remained to bind Voldemort to the earth, even after Harry had been killed. True, that would mean an easier job for somebody. He wondered who would do it… Ron and Hermione would know what needed to be done, of course… That would have been why Dumbledore wanted him to confide in two others… so that if he fulfilled his true destiny a little early, they could carry on…

Like rain on a cold window, these thoughts pattered against the hard surface of the incontrovertible truth, which was that he must die. I must die. It must end.

J.K. Rowling

My other favorite moment in the series goes all the way back to the first book–when little Harry stumbles upon the Mirror of Erised and sees the images of his parents for the first time.  But that’s for another time.

P.S. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually put efforts into coming up with a deep, insightful, intelligent, moving, (insert more adjectives here) post.  But until then, you’re going to have to settle for Harry Potter quotes.  You’re welcome.