Tag Archives: pop culture rants

The trouble with elves

It’s been a while since I read Lord of the Rings, but this post brought back some old memories.

I was never really an elf fan. My favorite characters were the hobbits, because the hobbits seemed like people rather than Heroes of Legend. They’d rather have been at home than off adventuring, and they wanted to know when the next meal was going to be, and they mostly spoke in casual vernacular rather than solemn pronouncements. The elves were graceful and poetic and magical, and that was the problem–they were too perfect. They never seemed quite real the way the hobbits did. One of the great things about Lord of the Rings is that in a landscape lousy with elves and kings and wizards, it’s the humble little people who aren’t anyone special who make all the difference. Frodo isn’t a Chosen One of prophecy; he volunteers for a job that needs doing. And arguably the real hero in the end is Sam, who’s the most ordinary of them all.

I was reminded as well of another series, A.J. Hartley’s Will Hawthorne books. My feelings about those are more mixed, and I frequently outright disliked Will Hawthorne himself. But I usually liked him a lot better than his traveling companions, because they were all upright and noble adventurers on a quest that they took very seriously, whereas Will had a sense of humor, not to mention a healthy sense of self-preservation. (The generic-fantasy-photo covers on the author’s website are kind of unintentionally hilarious with the actual content of the books, which are narrated from Will’s sardonic perspective.)

I’ll take a character who seems like a real person, warts and all, over a paragon any day. The elves are impressive and all, but they’re kind of boring.

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Time travel and plot holes

I once co-taught a class for Splash on “Time Travel for Fun and Profit”, about the different ways that fictional universes handle time travel. It’s a bit like writing about magic, or faster-than-light space travel: since none of those things work in the real world, the author can make up whatever rules they like… as long as the rules are superficially plausible and internally consistent. And the dirty little secret is that even that rule isn’t ironclad; as with so many things in fiction, you can get away with nearly anything as long as the audience is entertained enough not to notice the inconsistencies until they get up to go to the fridge.

In other words: the only way to do it wrong is to do it in a way that breaks suspension of disbelief.

Which brings me to Legends of Tomorrow.

Look, the time travel on The Flash doesn’t always make sense, but it’s mostly okay if you accept that this is a universe where you can go back and change the timeline, and it’s not the focus of the show. Legends of Tomorrow puts time travel front and center and then blatantly lets the rules be whatever the plot needs them to be right now. This show holds the dubious distinction of having time travel mechanics handwavier than those of Doctor Who, and Doctor Who once described time as, and I quote, “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”.

There are… many things that can be said about Steven Moffat as a writer and showrunner, but one thing I always give him credit for is pulling off plots based on loopy time travel mechanics. “Blink” is the classic one, but a disproportionate number of Doctor Who episodes where Moffat has a writing credit are particularly timey-wimey, including recent high point “Heaven Sent”. (The two-part mini-episode “Space”/”Time” is a good example in miniature.) He’s good at playing with concepts like stable time loops, jumping ahead in the timestream while someone else takes the slow path, etc. There are some kludges (“you can’t change that, it’s a fixed point in time”), but at least there’s a sense that Moffat and the other Who writers know what they’re doing.

Whereas on Legends of Tomorrow, I don’t get the sense that the writers have really wrapped their heads around time travel. For example, there’s a concept that’s come up more than once, that changes to the timestream don’t “stick” immediately and some time has to pass before they become permanent… and it goes completely unacknowledged that the concept of “time passing” for the timestream makes no sense. You cannot give your heroes a time machine and then put them on a clock; if you can go back in time now and fix what you broke, you can just as easily do it (subjectively) later, because, hello, time machine. I twitched every time Rip brought up this idea.

It all comes back to suspension of disbelief. Plot holes are acceptable if they’re only noticeable after you’ve thought it over.* But when I’m watching the episode and shouting “That makes no sense!” at the screen, it becomes a problem.

 

*One that Legends of Tomorrow more or less gets away with: recently, the heroes contemplated killing a future dictator at the age of 14. They didn’t do it because of moral qualms about killing a kid, but it’s implied that going through with it wouldn’t have broken the timestream. A mere two episodes later, the team drops off their younger selves at Last Refuge, an isolated spot where future Time Masters are taken as children. So… it never occurred to Rip that he could send Per Degaton to the Evil Baby Orphanage?

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Wizard politics

Yet more rumination on Harry Potter. I’m on shakier ground here than I was with wizard technology or pop culture, as I’m not a lawyer or any other kind of expert on law and government. Furthermore, I am an American; most of what I know about British politics comes from Radio 4 topical comedy, supplemented by Wikipedia. So this post is going to be mostly speculation, with more questions than answers.

Potterverse wizards have a very strange relationship to the British government. Most of the wizard characters in the books (with obvious exceptions like Madame Maxime, Professor Karkaroff, etc.) are British nationals who live and work on British soil, but they don’t seem to concern themselves with the Muggle government. I would be shocked to learn that any of them have ever voted in a parliamentary election. The PM, when his name comes up, is referred to as the “Muggle Prime Minister.” It’s not even clear if they regard themselves as subjects of the Queen. The government body they do acknowledge is the Ministry of Magic–but the title “Minister of Magic” suggests that it’s a Cabinet post, which implies a much closer relationship with the Muggle government than is ever demonstrated in the text.

Most of the knowledge we have of the relationship between wizards and the mundane British government comes from chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister.” In this chapter, the Prime Minister (who’s never named, but the commonly accepted chronology of the series puts it in John Major’s term of office) is visited by now-former Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, and there are flashbacks to the PM’s previous meetings with Fudge over the past few years. On the evidence of this chapter, my instinct is to say that the Minister of Magic isn’t a member of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister certainly did not appoint either Fudge or his successor, Scrimgeour, nor has either of them been attending regular Cabinet meetings. In fact, the Prime Minister is only informed of the Ministry’s doings in the event of an emergency, and regards annual visits from Fudge as alarmingly frequent. Any authority he might have over the Ministry is entirely theoretical. At most, the chapter proves that someone in the Ministry of Magic is paying enough attention to Muggle affairs to notice when a new Prime Minister is elected, but this doesn’t seem to have any particular effect on the running of the Ministry.

It seems, in fact, as though the Ministry of Magic isn’t so much a government department as an independent government in itself. Wizards have their own judiciary (the Wizengamot). They have their own laws and law enforcement bodies. They mint their own money–which suggests that if wizards pay taxes, they’re paying them to the Ministry. Given that each successive Prime Minister has been let in on the secret of the wizarding world, I have to wonder if the title “Minister of Magic” was chosen to appease PMs who might otherwise kick up a fuss about wizards being essentially exempt from their jurisdiction.

But wizards being exempt from British law is still a problem, particularly when wizards cast spells on Muggles. Stunning Spells, which are perfectly legal under the Ministry, would probably qualify as assault under Muggle law. Nor do I think the British legal system would look kindly on Memory Charms, though I don’t know enough about the law to say exactly what kind of crime they would be. And Memory Charms are a particularly notable example, because Ministry-sanctioned operatives perform them on Muggles all the time to preserve the secrecy of the magical world. It’s bad enough when they’re merely invading someone’s mind to make them forget they saw a dragon fly by, but in some cases this actually serves to cover up crimes by wizards. For instance, after Harry accidentally inflates Aunt Marge, the Ministry “modifies her memory” to make her forget the incident. Granted, Harry’s attack was unintentional and severely provoked, but making a person forget that she was attacked at all just compounds the crime. And whenever a British Muggle is attacked by a wizard on British soil, the Ministry immediately steps in to do this sort of cover-up–never mind that the Muggle government has a claim of jurisdiction and would probably take a much more severe view of the crime. If the Muggle authorities did manage to arrest and try a wizard for Obliviating a Muggle, would acting on the orders of the Ministry be an effective defense? (Contrast Rivers of London, where the Folly is within the Met’s chain of command and answers to the Commissioner and the Department of Professional Standards–i.e., to Muggles. Part of their function is to prevent breaches of the peace by the magical community.)

And that’s just criminal law. What about government recordkeeping? Many wizard children are born into Muggle families and have no knowledge of the magical community up to the age of eleven. These children have a paper trail: birth certificates, school enrollment, medical records, etc. Heck, even once they’ve started at Hogwarts, I bet their parents continue to claim them as dependents on their tax forms. But as adults? They enter the wizarding world so completely that they disappear from the records. They never get drivers’ licenses, use credit cards, pay taxes (at least to the Muggle government), own a car, register to vote, buy insurance, pay the television license fee… does no one ever notice that all these people’s paper trails have dead-ended? No wonder Muggleborn wizards all seem to leave the Muggle world behind; even if they change their minds later, they don’t have any ID or a credit history!

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The Fire Nation and the problem of Slytherin

*Spoilers below the cut for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Also for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but come on, it was a cultural phenomenon and you’ve had seven years to catch up. Whereas at the time of posting the Korra finale has been out for less than a week.*

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What do they teach in those Muggle Studies classes?

This is sort of a follow-up to my earlier post on wizards’ lack of interest in Muggle technology, but here I want to talk more about the social angle. Wizards failing to take advantage of Muggle innovations is just a symptom of the larger trend of wizards completely isolating themselves from Muggle society.

Honestly, this trend gets creepier the more I think about it, because we’re told that “pureblood” wizards are an increasingly rare minority. The majority of wizards are Muggleborns or half-bloods (or quarter-bloods, or some other fraction). This majority will only become more predominant over time, as pureblood families either marry into Muggle lineages or die of inbreeding. And yet wizarding society, Muggleborns, half-bloods, and all, seems to exist in near-total isolation from Muggle society. I think this is one reason that pureblood snobbery is allowed to persist. Modern, enlightened wizards understand that racism against Muggles is wrong, but they aren’t interested in getting to know any flesh-and-blood Muggles.

Granted, we don’t get to see how a Muggleborn wizard might live as an adult, and I wonder if there are any who cultivate Muggle friends, follow Muggle news, or stay abreast of Muggle advances in technology. If there are, where are they hiding? The wizarding world as a whole is so ignorant about Muggles that compared to his peers, Arthur Weasley qualifies as unusually well-informed. Do non-pureblood wizards keep in touch with their Muggle relatives at all? Surely even just seeing them at holidays and family reunions would result in some cultural osmosis.

Come to think of it, how do half-blood wizards even happen? When do wizards and witches have any kind of social interaction with Muggles, let alone get to know one well enough to get married and have a child? Some half-bloods, like Harry, have one parent who’s a Muggleborn witch or wizard, but there are certainly canon cases of wizards marrying Muggles–Seamus Finnegan’s parents, for example.

You know what else never gets addressed? What happens to magical Muggleborn kids who turn down Hogwarts. Mostly this goes unanswered because we don’t see any examples of this actually happening–well, of course we don’t, almost by definition. A kid who didn’t attend Hogwarts would never have crossed Harry’s radar. But remember Justin Finch-Fletchley? He was down for Eton, and came within a hair of going there instead of Hogwarts. What if he had made a different choice? I suppose young witches and wizards can’t be left to wander about totally untrained, but I can’t see Albus “our choices mean more than our abilities” Dumbledore forcing someone to attend Hogwarts against their will. Now there’s a spinoff story I’d like to see. “Untrained Wizards: Where Are They Now?”

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