Wednesday, December 21, 2016

'Tis the Season

With the fondest regards for what Christmas is really all about...

The middle-aged woman in the Santa hat sitting next to me on the plane sighed dramatically. “Seems like people have completely forgotten what Christmas is all about,” she announced to the air. She paused in an apparent attempt to leave me an opening to interject. I steadfastly did not. 

Without further preamble, she launched into an impassioned tirade about the commercialization of Christmas, which, she suggested, was a relatively recent development that had begun sometime after her own golden childhood and which was now reaching an unbearable peak. 

Down through the ages, we humans have repeatedly told ourselves the story that commercialism, exploitation and cynical thinking are recent developments and becoming more pronounced as time goes on. You can find laments about this in ancient Greek, Latin and Egyptian, and yet we continue to perceive the issue as being about the specific things going on in the world around us rather than the things going on inside all of us, always. 

An example is our belief that the commercialization of Christmas began within our own lifetimes. Actually, merchants fabricated most of the current American Christmas tradition around 1820 as part of a successful attempt to refocus the boisterousness of a population at loose ends and flush with unaccustomed abundance away from rioting and looting and toward buying things and quietly staying home to give them to each other. 

You see, in ancient times, January was a more interesting month. The arrival of January meant that the harvest was complete, which meant less farm work to keep people busy. The cold weather kept butchered livestock from rotting, but there was a short window of time in which to enjoy it at its peak of palatability. So there was a lot of feasting. The first batches of beer were also ready to be drunk, which is what vast swaths of the population were at the onset of January—ready to be drunk. They had too much time on their hands, a short-lived overabundance of food that was going to be followed by a long period of want, way too much alcohol and the prospect of a long, bitter winter. Plus, they were coming out of thousands of years of a feudal tradition in which January was the “season of Misrule,” when masters and servants reversed roles and the poor could accost the well-to-do and demand gifts of food, alcohol and money as a kind of social-pressure-relief valve. Now bring us our figgy pudding and bring it right here! We won’t go until we get some!
However, the seasonal traditions of drunken overindulgence and ritual extortion of the wealthy that filled a functional social role in monarchies didn’t go over very well in democratic, capitalistic America. In Europe, drunken revelers accosted noble lords and ladies who’d inherited land and other holdings, but in America, they harassed hardworking business people who didn’t feel as if they owed any particular debt to the masses. The great experiment of American democracy, coupled with the beginnings of the industrial revolution, caused great social upheaval that was profoundly affecting everything, including Christmas. The holiday frequently turned into an excuse for licentious behavior, rioting in the streets and looting of shops, making the season such an unsafe time to go outdoors that the celebration of Christmas was actually officially outlawed in some major cities.

And so, spearheaded by business owners, a movement grew in the early 1820s to change Christmas from a drunken carnival of public excess into an idyllic domestic celebration built on a foundation of “selfless generosity” that would require the exchanging of gifts. They hand-selected or outright fabricated “traditions,” like filling stockings with presents and exchanging Christmas cards. 

Commercialism isn’t the bane of our current Christmas tradition but its foundation. Even our modern version of Santa Claus was formulated as the figurehead of this domestic/commercial movement, built from a combination of the gift-giving Saint Nicholas, the British Father Christmas and various pagan figures, including Odin, Cernunnos and the Green Man. Santa’s fur-lined suit and cap are both holdovers from the wild Green Man, as are his reindeer Donner (Thunder) and Blitzen (Lightning). His red hat is probably a corrupted blend of the bishop’s miter of St. Nicholas, Odin’s pointy wizard cap and the Green Man’s hooded cloak. 

Which is what I was thinking as I watched the white fluff ball at the tip of my seatmate’s hat bob energetically while she emphatically shook her head. “It just seems so wrong that all these brands and stores and everybody are glomming onto our Christmas traditions, using them to sell stuff and then not even wanting to call the holiday by its proper name,” she concluded. She sighed mightily and then stared at me expectantly, perhaps waiting for me to commiserate. 

I briefly toyed with telling her that Christmas, as she knew it, really was about commercialism, that there really was a Santa Claus but that he wasn’t the selflessly generous and sprightly old elf from her childhood, that he was instead an odd combination of ancient Norse Gods, pagan nature spirits and misappropriated saints invoked by merchants to sell presents and Coca-Cola, that what was bothering her was that she was getting older rather than that the world was changing, that her perception that the state of the universe was devolving into corruption and commercialism was a story as old as humanity and one we all tell ourselves in order to avoid facing the harsh reality that we are sliding into old age.

So I did.
And let me tell you, it is possible to make a four-and-a-half-hour, middle-seat flight significantly more uncomfortable than it has to be just by saying the wrong thing. Even if it is true.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sixteen Spellbindingly Alphabetized Witches and Wizards

I’m going to upset someone with this list. Let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat. Probably a bunch of someones. People love them some witches and wizards, and if I know people (and I do know a couple), they get pretty persnickety about which spellcasters they think are the best, and why. First, there’s going to be some dispute over gender-specific magic user titles (witch, enchantress, sorceress, etc.). Why can’t I just call them all “wizards” and be done with it? Because some characters (Serafina Pekkala, for example), are proud of the title “witch,” and would get mad if I changed it. So boom. People are going to be mad right there. Couple that with the fact that there are literally hundreds of witches, wizards, warlocks, enchantresses, sorcerers and necromancers that show up in fantasy fiction while I’m trying to hold my list down to just fifteen of them, and someone is going to get their nose out of joint because their favorite got left off the list, or didn’t take the top slot, or should have been referred to as a “necromancess”.

I won’t do anything about the gender-indicative titles because that’s not my job. And I can’t really do anything about the too-many-magic-users thing, because there are just too many magic users. But I can mitigate the impression of slighting your favorite enchanter/ess by listing these fifteen witches and wizards… ALPHABETICALLY! So, without further ado (wait! One further bit of ado! There are a few spoilers on this list, although I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum), here are Sixteen Spellbindingly Alphabetized Witches and Wizards:

1.      Dallben—When we first meet Dallben in The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, he’s already 379 years old, so there’s that. I’m barely half a century and I’m already getting creaky. Next, he’s one of those wizards who hardly ever needs to use his power because he’s so bad ass that the bad guys just steer clear of him. But when they do try to mess with him, he burns them to the ground. In addition to being the mightiest enchanter in all of Prydain, he’s also the keeper of the magical Book of Three, which has all the secrets of the past, present and future in its pages. And finally, he’s both the protector of Hen Wen, the oracular pig, and the foster parent of Taran, the main character. All of these things make him pretty awesome, in my opinion.
2.      Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden—So, I had to decide—H for Harry or D for Dresden? Most wizards are such rock stars that, like Madonna or Prince, they go by a single name and everyone knows who they are. But not Harry. He’s got four names. I decided to go with the system I learned in first grade—alphabetize people by their last names. Harry is the star of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series, which is kind of a mashup between magic and hard-boiled detective fiction. He’s not just a wizard, he’s also a private detective working in Chicago. As far as magic goes, he’s a powerful elemental enchanter, specializing in “Kaboom Magic” (battle magic) that involves earth, wind, fire, water and ice spells (although he’s not above using a regular old shotgun in a pinch). He also has a magical talking skull named Bob and a dog named Mouse who is basically as smart as a human.
3.      Albus Percival Wulfric Brian DumbledoreDumbledore’s got five names. Count ‘em. Do I really need to explain why Dumbledore’s on the list? Ok, fine. Let’s see. For starters, like Dallben, he’s an old teacher (he was born in 1881, which makes him about 115 years old). We get introduced to him as the Head Master of Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and then he runs the place and pretty much knows everything for six more books. Apart from running the school of magic, he can pull memories out of his brain (and other people’s) with his wand, he has a pet phoenix, he was the winner of the greatest magical duel of all time in which he battled and imprisoned the wizard equivalent of Hitler (Grindelwald), and when he looks in a mirror that shows people their deepest, darkest desire, he sees himself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks. Not really on that last one. He was actually totally lying about that to Harry. Oh, and he’s the only gay wizard on this list…that I’m aware of. While most people have heard that the word Dumbledore is an antiquated word for bumblebee, apparently, it was also a style of hat popular in London in the 1880’s and 90’s. Albus is Latin for “white,” so that would make his name, “White Hat,” which is a sneaky way of saying, “the good guy.”
4.      Elphaba—So, I know. She’s a wicked witch—no, THE wicked witch. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, it’s that there are two sides to every story and the winners usually make the losers look like the bad guys. Elphaba is actually a bit of both, and a pretty awesome witch to boot. First, she doesn’t like being called a witch. I don’t think I would either. Second, she’s Ozian royalty. Third, she’s the illegitimate daughter of the Wizard of Oz, and finally, she uses sorcery to create the flying monkeys. Come on! That should get you on a list like this even if you spend the rest of your career slacking.
5.      Gandalf—Oh, come on! Like Gandalf wasn’t going to be on this list! Of course he is. Gandalf isn’t even a human. He’s a Maia, which is basically an angel. That’s right. Gandalf is an angel incarnated in a basically human form, sent down from Valinor to aid in the battle against Sauron. How old is he? He was born before the world was created and he’s essentially immortal. So…old. 2,000 plus, at least. What else? Well, when he’s not flapping around on giant eagles, he rides around on the fastest horse that ever lived, (which he can talk to), he owns one of the Three Elven Rings (Narya, the Ring of Fire), he battles a Balrog, and he gets to shout that awesome line, “Fly, you fools!” Then he gets killed and comes back to life. Oh, and he can make fireworks and blow animated smoke rings from his weed pipe. There’s a bunch of other stuff, but those are the basics.    
6.      Ged—Wait. So now I’m switching from advisor wizards to protagonist wizards? Yes. I can do that. I don’t have to write about Ogion, even though he’s an old wizard who teaches, because I like Ged better and this is my list. We first meet Ged as an orphan child in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (the K stands for Kroeber, which isn’t some weird middle name; it’s her maiden name). And right off the bat, he unleashes some major magic without even knowing what he’s doing. That kind of turns out to be a theme for him, as he later unleashes a viciously evil shadow monster into the world without really knowing what he’s doing. But, he also does a bunch of other stuff, like mastering dragons and travelling to the literal ends of the earth and finding the broken pieces of a massively magical ring and being the only guy with any chance of closing evil portals between the land of the dead and the land of the living. Oh, and he’s the only wizard of color on this list—a fact that the SyFy channel totally overlooked when they made their utterly crappy and very Caucasian mini-series, Legends of Earthsea, based on the books.
7.      Hermione Granger—Hold it! Hold it! I already did a spell caster from the Harry Potter series! What do I think I’m up to? Well, I’m including Hermione from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and that’s not technically in the seven-book series. Plus, she’s such an awesome witch that she actually becomes Minister of Magic. Plus, Harry and Ron would never have survived without her. Plus, she got turned into a human/cat hybrid for a couple of months. Alternately described as “the brightest witch of her age” and “an insufferable know-it-all,” depending on who you ask, she’s pretty much a genius. Plus, her parents are both dentists.
8.      Harold Shea—Harold, the “Incomplete Enchanter” Shea, is one of my favorite wizards. He’s really a psychologist from the present day (well, present day 1940’s—which is when the stories were written) who uses a system of symbolic logic to project himself into alternative realities in which magic works. Unlike almost every other wizard, Harold doesn’t have a teacher—he figures out how to do magic based on things he’s read, educated guess-work and logic. Most of the time, he’s just winging it and bumbling his way through his spells to create tales of wonderfully screwball fantasy. Harold is basically just a brainy nerd—but written before nerds were a thing. Do yourself a favor and check him out in the Complete Enchanter series by L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt.
9.      Sorceress Ivy—Princess Ivy (that’s right, she’s going to be King of Xanth one day) is just three years old when she stars in Piers Anthony’s seventh Xanth novel Dragon on a Pedestal and helps save the world from destruction. She has a “magician level” talent—the magic of enhancement. She can enhance any quality of a person or object—including unconsciously making them more like what she thinks they are or should be like. She’s also the twin sister of Ida, the Sorceress of the Idea, who can make any idea become a reality.
10.  Marceline the Vampire Queen—Wait…I’m including characters from Adventure Time on this list? Yes. Marceline Abadeer is not really a traditional magic user, but everything about her is magical. While she’s a vampire, she doesn’t usually suck blood—instead she eats the color red out of things. She is over a thousand years old, can levitate, turn invisible, change into various beasts, absorb the powers of other vampires and can play bass guitar. She also survived a nuclear war. So there’s that.
11.  Merlin—OK. This one was another gimme. You can’t make a list of wizards and not put Merlin on it. There’s a law. But let’s not do the normal Merlin stuff. Let’s focus on the lesser known coolness. First, Merlin was based on a supposedly real guy named Myrddin Wyllt, who is a legendary Welsh madman and prophet from around AD 573. He started off as a bard, but went insane during a battle when he saw his entire side of the fight wiped out. Geoffrey of Monmouth renamed him Merlin and associated him with the Arthur legend. But apart from all the Arthur drama, which I assume you know, Merlin is cool because he was apparently the offspring of a king’s daughter and an Incubus. That’s right. His dad was a demon, which I guess makes him a half demon. And he singlehandedly built Stonehenge. Yup. And, he cast the magic spell that allowed Uther Pendragon to disguise himself as Igraine’s husband and father Arthur. Which he did because his gift of prophecy hipped him to the fact that making baby Arthur was a good idea. So, not bad for an insane, Welsh bard.
12.  Ninguable of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face—I’m totally cheating! I’m doing two for one here! But it’s my list, so shut up. These two wizards are from the Lankhmar books by Fritz Leiber, and I’m including them both in one entry because they are kind of the co-patrons of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, even though they never really work together as wizards. They’re both kind of creepy and ominous and not a lot is known about them. Ningauble has seven glowing eyes that float around inside his hood. He lives in various caverns. Sheelba just has a black space in his hood and his house is a hut that scuttles around on chicken leg-like posts—very similar to descriptions of the witch Baba Yaga’s place. Both these guys are behind-the-scenes-style manipulators who send Fafhrd and the Mouser on various quests. If you’ve never checked out the Lankhmar books, you should, because they are great. And that’s not just my opinion. You can look that up. That’s a fact.
13.  Quentin Coldwater—Are you paying attention? Yes, I just broke my alphabetizing rule and filed this one under “Q”. Why? Because I didn’t want to start my list with Quentin. Why? Because I wanted to start with Dallben, and it’s my list. Also, you have to build your way up to Quentin Coldwater to properly appreciate him because the character was clearly built on a scaffolding of all kinds of excellent wizards and stories from the fantasy genre. Anyway, Quentin Coldwater is the hero of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. Grossman said that he wanted to write a darker, more grown up version of Harry Potter where the school of magic was more like what he’d experienced in school. I think he succeeded. Quentin is a kind of depressed misfit who basically pulls a Ged and accidentally unleashes a horrific beast by goofing around in magic class. I love him as a wizard because he’s never particularly confident about what he’s doing and because a lot of his magical adventures happen in a land called Fillory, which is basically a dark and grown up version of Narnia.
14.  Rincewind—Described as, “the magical equivalent of the number zero,” is the most cowardly and incompetent wizard on this list. That’s what makes him such an excellent character. He seems to spend most of his time running away from various enemies and transforming relatively minor problems into seriously major ones. He debuts in The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett and is featured in a number of other Discworld books. While Rincewind himself is not particularly fierce, he does have a very dangerous piece of sentient luggage that follows him around everywhere, violently protects him, and has an interior that is not constrained by its external dimensions. Rincewind is also a failed student at the Unseen University for wizards on Discworld.
15.  Serafina Pekkala—Wait, shouldn’t she be under “P” for Pekkala? Yes, she probably should, but I always think of her as Serafina rather than as Pekkala. Now quit nagging me about the alphabetization.  Serafina is the gorgeous witch Queen of basically Finland in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. She’s around three hundred years old and likely to live to a thousand (witches live a long time in those books) although she’s not exactly human. She can fly with the aid of a pine branch and intervenes from time to time to save the day.
16.  Tim the Enchanter—I had to turn it up to eleven and end this list with Tim. He is my favorite wizard of all time and the only one who is not from a book. Clearly, he specializes in pyrotechnical magic, and he’s Welsh. Apart from that, and his enmity with the vicious, nasty Rabbit of Caerbannog, I can’t tell you a whole lot about Tim except that I laugh every time I see him, no matter how often that is. If you’ve never had the pleasure, check him out in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where he is played by the incomparable John Cleese.