Wednesday, July 1, 2020

not a woman

On Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast from Wired, 21 March 2020, science fiction author Tom Gerencer says, regarding Willow (on the occasion of a reported Willow-related television series for Disney+):
It wasn't quite up to Star Wars standards... I wasn't 100 percent in love with it, but I didn't think it was completely awful either.
The podcast's host, David Barr agreed, adding:
Star Wars draws on Flash Gordon, samurai movies, Westerns, and a bunch of other stuff... I feel like Willow pretty much just draws on Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barabarian. I feel like George Lucas wasn't as knowledgeable about--or maybe as passionate about--fantasy.
I read that yesterday before turning the movie on and figured I had no use for it. But, given some points I am about to make, I should say, I think Barr is wrong. 1) Star Wars is very much fantasy. It's got wizards. It's got magic. It's got sword fights. It's got monsters. That Lucas based his plot on a specific Samurai story (and arguably copied a bit of the concept of the Jedi from Samurai) doesn't mean he's necessarily passionate about Samurai films. Similarly, I'm not sure there is anything inherently Western about Star Wars. Whereas, I think there is much more to Willow than just fantasy. And, while there are easy parallels to be made between especially the early part of this film and The Lord of the Rings, the differences are what matter, and it is difficult for any fantasy to not ape Tolkien in some way or another, whether on purpose or not. Similarly, any space-based adventure story is probably going to have some passing similarities to Flash Gordon. And, they should. Good elements of story are good elements of story, and you should ape the greats if you can. Don't steal from them, but definitely copy their details. For example, Orson Scott Card describes in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy how in some science fiction or fantasy setting, bread is still just bread, unless there is a reason for it to be special. You don't give it a unique name unless, say, you're going to reveal that it is made from people late in the story. Then, you might call it Soylent Green, I suppose.


The thing is, there is more going on in Willow than just knockoff fantasy.
I
Start with an obvious detail: the setup surrounding Elora's birth. Prophecy. The gathering of pregnant mothers. Infanticide. And then this one baby is saved, set adrift in a river. Zteve T Evans describes several examples, 27 July 2016, in Under the Influence. The setup is simple, as Evans explains:
The story involves a helpless and defenseless baby committed by adults to take their chances of survival but against all odds and often with the help of divine intervention the baby survives to grow up and play a significant part in the culture of a society. More often than not they become great leaders saving or inspiring their people.
Evans' examples: Moses, Sargon of Akkad, Romulus and Remus, Taliesin of the Shining Brow, Karna, even Oedipus, "though he was abandoned on a mountainside rather than cast adrift in a river or the sea..." Hmolpedia adds Osiris and Dionysus/Bacchus (specifically linking the latter to Moses). Evans additionally cites Kal-El, Superman, as a modern example.

Elora Danan is not simply a cheap knockoff of any one of these mythical heroes. Rather she is a continuation of the idea. And the idea is simple. A great hero
(or a great inspiration, as Elora's presence is the driving force but she, herself, does very little... Actually, if not for her Cherlindrea wouldn't have given her wand to Willow and sent Willow on with the baby to Fin Raziel)
must come from the most humble beginnings to be inspirational. If a hero begins too well off, then the leap to our identifying with that hero is more difficult. Superman's parents die along with his entire planet. Spider-Man loses his uncle. Luke Skywalker loses the aunt and uncle who raised him. Even Batman, who arguably begins quite well off, loses both his parents in order to drive his superheroism.
And, in passing, I wonder if Batman had been created in a different time, he wouldn't have come from such well-to-do origins. Coming out of the Great Depression, maybe Bruce Wayne's wealth was also an important part of the fantasy, in part perhaps because those who were not well off needed hope that someone with means might aid those in need.)
Moses may be the exception among these stories in being found by the Pharaoh's daughter and raised in a higher position than his birth. Sargon is found and raised by a "drawer of water". Karna is found and raised by a low caste charioteer. Kal-El is found and raised by farmers John and Martha Kent. Elora Danan is found by the Nelwyn farmer (wannabe sorcerer) Willow, and the implication at the end of the film is that she will be raised by the criminal Madmartigan and the former princess Sorsha (but I am fairly sure from the descriptions online that Willow has continued to be Elora's protector, and in the second novel in the Chronicles of the Shadow War series, Elora is hiding out with Nelwyns (and I think I read somewhere that Madmartigan and Sorsha die early in the trilogy).

The point is that Elora's birth is immediately significant and her very presence, first in the dungeon, then with the nurse, then in the Nelwyn village, is dangerous. And, like certain prophecy in The Lord of the Rings, the interpretation is specifically vague enough--Elora really only plays a role in Bavmorda's downfall because a prophecy said she would. She plays no role herself. But, the danger surrounding her drives Willow and others to the crossroads, sends the brownies to steal Elora from Madmartigan, leads Cherlindrea to send Willow to Fin Raziel, and Fin Raziel's own revenge and urge to save the kingdom from Bavmorda drives the main plot forward. Elora is the MacGuffin that propels, not an agent with her own active role.

But, this is common in this kind of story. Evil's weakness is the idea that something can defeat it. And, all the rebels, the fellowship, the what have you, need is inspiration.
II
And then there's Madmartigan. Keep in mind a few key details of his part of the story. He is introduced in a cage, presumably left to die. His humble beginnings are criminal (and that he knows Airk suggests a past as a soldier). He takes Elora, loses her to the brownies, and when we see him next, he is disguised as a woman because he is involved with a married woman. And, later--tying into yesterday's focus on Sorsha, it is significant that Madmartigan, not Sorsha, is the powerless one as their relationship builds. He is sent running, he is captured, he is drugged with the brownies' Dust of Broken Heart, and then he is on the run again. And, at Tir Asleen he is effectively on his own against an approaching army.

Madmartigan, like Willow Ufgood, comes from humble beginnings, and is inspired to greatness by the hope that Elora Danan represents. Interestingly, Madmartigan takes a liking to the child well before he has any particular interest in saving the kingdom.

But let us backtrack to Madmartigan in a dress. Monica Silveira Cyrino, 1998, Arethusa, suggests, regarding recent stories of male public figures dressing as women,
By co-opting the feminine through real or theoretical transvestism... The male celebrity is able to reinforce his simultaneous attraction to and dominance over the female spheres of, for example, emotion and sexual objectification.
Going backward in time, Cyrino describes how some ancient Greek weddings involved the bride and groom dressing as their opposite genders to "invoke the symbolic power of cross-gender impersonation to effect a simultaneous expansion and definition of the subject's own sexual identity." Cyrino also writes about Achilles and Herakles, just two notable mythical male heroes who are "compelled to cross-dress by the will of a powerful (royal or divine) woman."

Filippo Carla-Uhink argues in "Between the human and the divine", specifically, regarding Ovid's telling, that Herakles cross-dressing with Queen Omphale involves "an entire pattern of reference to the female sphere, through which, nonetheless, Herakles loses nothing of his masculinity when wearing a peplos", which is a woman's shawl that hangs in folds and can be drawn up over the head, not unlike Madmartigan's outfit which he later turns into trousers.

Thor, Theseus, and Pentheus also cross-dress. As does Achilles...

The J. Paul Getty Museum, regarding the painting "Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes" explains:
Achilles' mother, knowing that her son would die if he fought in the Trojan War, disguised him as a woman and entrusted him to King Lycomedes' household, where he lived among the king's daughters. When war threatened, Ulysses and other Greek chieftains were sent to fetch him, knowing that they had to trick him into revealing himself. Cunningly, they deposited a heap of gifts before the women: jewelry, clothes, and other finery, but also a sword and shield. When it came time to select from the gifts, Achilles instinctively grasped the weapons, thus revealing his true identity.
Madmartigan, still partly wearing woman's clothing, proves himself worthy of protecting Elora Danan and serving a more significant role than criminal layabout.

And, as I already pointed out in passing, when Madmartigan is hit with the Dust of Broken Heart, he is the one powerless. He may come upon Sorsha asleep in her tent but she immediately has a dagger out and could kill him at any moment. He, on the other hand, is compelled to spout poetry. Behind the scenes, Kilmer was in a later scene quite powerless when Whalley kissed him and he could never remember a line of dialogue he was supposed to say just after. That Sorsha is a warrior before she is a princess (even if she, in the bounds of the film, is a princess more than warrior in the end) and Madmartigan is a lowlife criminal quite willing to dress as a woman, and quite able to spout poetic lines of love when compelled to do so is an important element of the story. That Sorsha's two sides remain intact through to the battle at Nockmaar and Madmartigan rises above his past to get to that same battle puts this film far above a simple knockoff.

Instead, like Star Wars, Willow pulls from many former stories, ancient and modern, and alters the details to create something new. As any good story would.

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