Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Arthurian Legend and Guild Wars 2

I've never played World of Warcraft. Or Guild Wars, or most of the other fantasy MMO's out there, and the days I spent on Tera and Rift could be counted on one hand. There are only a couple of fantasy MMO's which have seemed worth the time to me, and they are Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan. Thematically, visually, the two games are worlds apart, but they have one fact in common: they are based on some really great books. That's what grabs me: a game which interacts with my other great loves, in this case literature.

So it was while I was surfing for the next game that I would try that I stumbled over an interview with the creators of Guild Wars 2 and, in a conversation about the new race in the game, I read that the Sylvari's stories were explicitly informed by Arthurian legend. They threw red meat at me, and I had to respond. Challenge accepted.

I've spent a couple of weeks in the game now, and much of that time has been spent on a Sylvari warrior, exploring Arthurian themes in the game. Are there, in fact, Arthurian themes in this game? How are they used and portrayed? Are they more than token gestures? To what extent are stories the Sylvari tell in harmony with the stories Malory and others told? These are the questions I am eager to answer, and I thought I would focus on one specific story at the beginning of the game, at least today. That is the story of the Green Knight.

Now, in modern re-interpretations of the Green Knight, there has been a great effort to portray him as an environmentally-aware character, sometimes a guardian of the forest or even as a supernaturally empowered avatar of nature. (See, for example, Marvel UK's Knights of Pendragon.) That is, the Green Knight is, politically, Green. He recycles.

None of that is in the myth. The story of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight survives in one manuscript written in the 15th century by an anonymous poet who may have also written the religiously themes poems "Pearl", "Patience", and "Cleanness". For those who have not read it, I really do recommend it. It is not terribly long and will take you only a couple of hours. It has been translated from a northern dialect of Middle English into modern English by many people over the years, but for sheer nerd value you really ought to read the one by JRR Tolkien, he of the hobbits and the wizards, who of course was also an Oxford language professor.

In the poem, Gawaine -- who is the paragon of courtly and chivalrous behavior, not the rude murderer he is in Malory -- is hanging out with his uncle Arthur and the Queen in Camelot when they are interrupted by a mysterious intruder who is dressed and painted entirely green. (Even his beard is green!) The Knight issues a challenge, the beheading game, which is an old trope in legend and myth. No one is willing to take the challenge except for Gawaine, who accepts the offer to take a swing at the Knight's head if, when he is done, the Knight gets a return stroke. Gawaine does well, cutting off the head, but the magic is revealed when the Knight walks over, picks up his head, and puts it back on. Now Gawaine must let the return stoke be swung, but the Knight gives him a year to put his things in order before -- presumably -- he will be executed. After commanding Gawaine to come to "the Green Chapel" in a year for the end of the contest, the Knight rides off.

Gawaine wastes the year partying and hanging out with the court. Finally, with only weeks left, he rides off to look for the Green Chapel, coming to grips with the fact he is probably going to die. He cannot find the Chapel, however, until he stops at a castle belonging to one Sir Bercilak and his gorgeous wife. Bercilak knows where the Chapel is, and it's just a few hours away; Gawaine can stay at Bercilak's home for a few days and, on New Year's, ride to the Chapel. Gawaine, perhaps thanks to the lady's charm, good looks, and earnest appeal, agrees to stay.

Bercilak's hobby is hunting, but Gawaine wants to stay home with the hot wife, so they make a deal. (You'd think Gawaine would have learned, but whatever.) Bercilak agrees to give Gawaine everything he gets on the hunt, but Gawaine must agree to give everything he gets during the day, too. And you get the idea that this is no idle game, since, while Bercilak is away each day, his wife engages in an all out full court press to seduce Gawaine into sex. She finds him in his bed, cuddles up and kisses him, but he tells her no each day. Each of the first two nights, Bercilak comes back with the remains of some beast and gives it all to Gawaine, while the knight gives Bercilak a nice smooch on the lips: his own trophy for the day.

The real test comes the third day when Bercilak's wife reveals that she wears a sash which, so long as it is worn, keeps you from dying. She offers it to Gawaine and he, suddenly seeing a way out of certain death, accepts it. When he meets Bercilak that night, he gives him the kiss he got earlier in the day, but not the sash. That, he keeps for himself, and in so doing breaks his word.

Bercilak leads Gawaine out to the Green Chapel the next day and reveals that he, himself, is the Green Knight. Ready to claim Gawaine's head, he tells the knight to bend over and he makes two fake swings at Gawaine's neck, missing each time on purpose. But the third stroke nicks Gawaine's neck, drawing blood, and Bercilak explains that he knows everything that transpired with his wife during Gawaine's visit. Because Gawaine was honest on the first two days, Bercilak misses the neck, but because Gawaine lied on the third day, he got hurt. But it's only a scratch, instead of a death blow, because Gawaine's lie was understandable: the young knight did not want to die. And because he wanted to live, he lied. Who would not do the same? So Bercilak shows mercy, and Gawaine is humiliated but alive. He returns to Camelot and tells the story, leading Arthur and the court to adopt the wearing of green sashes which, for Gawaine, is a badge of his shame and his failure, but which for the king and court are just a fashion statement. It is worth noting that the story about the sash preventing you from harm is a lie: if Bercilak wanted, he could have killed Gawaine. The spell of invulnerability which Bercilak had was provided by Morgan le Fey, who is probably to be identified with an old woman who shows up once in the poem, accompanying Bercilak's wife.

Sylvari players are confronted with the green knight in their personal story; they can choose to have Dreamed of the Green Knight, a mysterious White Hart, or of the moon. (The White Hart is also an explicit Arthurian reference, which we will unpack another day.) The Knight, whose name is also Bercilak, has just slain Eladus, beloved of Dagdar, in battle. Eladus and Dagdar are both male but there seems little doubt of their romantic relationship when Dagdar refers to "my beloved". This homoerotic relationship stands out in the game because it comes so early; it is literally the first romantic relationship many Sylvari players encounter. But it's also a nice call-out to the homoerotic elements of the original story, in which Gawaine plants three lusty kisses on his host.

The player character's fight with Bercilak here echoes the Knight's first arrival in Camelot, with the PC triumphant but denied his victory due to magic; Bercilak cannot be killed. But the beheading game specifically is absent, replaced by a more traditional duel between knights (or "valiants", to use the Sylvari term). Rather than wasting a year at court before slowly finding his way to the rematch, the Guild Wars hero actively seeks out Bercilak and the source of his powers in order to deliver justice on a guy who is much less morally ambiguous and more clearly wicked than the source material.

The quest leads to a female Sylvari named Gairwen, a nice Gawaine reference. This Bercilak is not married, and is instead courting a female Sylvari whose (male) lover he has already slain. Arthurian myth has plenty of examples of knights killing a rival only to claim the rival's wife, so Bercilak can perhaps be excused for thinking Gairwen would fall head over heels for him. His inability to understand Gairwen's dislike echoes another famous Gawaine story, the tale of Dame Ragnell, in which Gawaine is sent questing to learn the answer to the question "What do women want?" (Chaucer told this story in the Wife of Bath's Tale, but he edited out Gawaine to make it about an anonymous knight.) The answer is that women want to call the shots, they want the power to decide their own destiny, rather than be forced to let men make the decisions for them. But Gairwen, though she resents Bercilak's attempts to force her, is quite willing to let the PC make the decisions. She tells us that Bercilak's invulnerability comes from his magic armor, a play on the idea that the green sash really does make you immune to harm.

This sends the PC off on a quest to find the smith who made the armor, a reference not to an explicitly Arthurian tale, but rather to Norse and Celtic tales of a godlike smith. Our smith is named Occam, presumably after Occam's Razor, which would be a cool name for a sword but which is actually a principle of logic and deduction which states that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. Occam can be compared to characters like Weyland, the Norse smith who, in Mary Stewart's influential Arthurian novels, forged Excalibur. In our story, Occam fills the role of Morgan le Fey, the magical source for Bercilak's spell of invulnerability.

Occam has been kidnapped, which leads us back to Gairwen and a cunning plan: if we can trick Bercilak into kissing Gairwen -- an act which you all will recognize by now -- we can deprive him of his helmet and, thus, allow his head to be chopped off. This is a Reverse Green Knight: instead of a challenge in which we chop off Bercilak's head and he is not harmed, we instead have a rematch in which we chop off the head and it works. Gairwen is still grieving for her lost love, but she agrees and persuades Bercilak to kiss her before stealing the helmet. This leads to a pretty straight forward fight with a tough boss with a knockdown attack that, I cannot help but wonder, might be referencing Bercilak's requirement that Gawaine get down on his knees to accept the sword stroke. With Bercilak defeated, Gairwen moves in with the PC, which I found interesting. Sadly, there is no Green Sash costuming item from Bercilak. It's a real shame, and would make a wonderful memento of a fun quest chain. Perhaps it was left out because only those Sylvari who choose this personal quest chain would be able to get this reward. Regardless, I would have liked to see a green belt or chest piece awarded to those who defeat the Green Knight. This, by the way, is where the British Order of the Knights of the Garter come from: the garter is specifically a reference to the sash Gawaine wears.

The story of Bercilak the Green Knight of Guild Wars 2 is loosely inspired by the original poem, but owes more to that poem than to other, popular, conceptions of the Green Knight. In that sense, and in its uses of the kissing motif, of love between two men, and in its portrayal of a man who cannot understand why a woman would not enjoy being forced to have sex, the quest honors and plays with medieval source material. It's not as morally ambiguous as the original tale, and it recasts the whole business from a test of moral character to one of combat prowess, but this seems fitting considering how early in the game this story is encountered. There are hard choices which players must make in this game -- and in this story the player must choose to save Gairwen or Occam -- but trying to portray Gawaine's refusal to have sex with Bercilak's wife, and then his willingness to hide the garter from Bercilak himself, is perhaps a bit too nuanced for an action adventure game like GW2, especially when players might be experiencing the game for the first time on their first character.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Georgia on my Mind

There is much to report since my last blog post, but a man must start somewhere. So, for now, I want to address all of my new students who might be furiously trying to Google their new professor and want to know, "Who is this guy and what is he doing in Georgia?"

My name is Jason Tondro and I am the newest English professor at the College of Coastal Georgia. CCGA is a school in transition, moving from a community college to a four year institution offering Bachelor degrees. I was very flattered to be invited to interview several months ago and even more delighted to be given the opportunity to come here. A lot of people have asked me, "Why Georgia?" Well, the true answer to that question is that I go where the work is. I loved Southern California -- I have friends and family there, and UC Riverside is just one sprawling comfort zone for me -- but this is a very bad time to be an educator in California. The cuts to the educational system are demoralizing and they hurt the students, which makes every day a kind of walking, talking tragedy. I was more than happy to leave an environment of disappointment.

Now, Georgia has its own financial questions to answer, and the Georgia state college system, of which CCGA is a part, is hardly made of money. But CCGA in particular is growing; it is building dormitories and student facilities, it is renovating classrooms and offices, it is creating programs instead of eliminating them. And that is where I want to be. So while the short answer was, "I go where the work is," the long answer is, "I go where I enjoy being." That these two places happen to be the same place is a stroke of good fortune to which I am not blind.

For those of you who are new to the blog and to me, my training and background is in Medieval and Renaissance literature (effectively everything in English from Beowulf to Milton) and in comics and graphic novels. My book, Superheroes of the Round Table, is about the ways in which superhero comics like Iron Man, Captain America, and the Justice League can help us read and understand more traditional texts like Shakespeare and Arthurian legend. It was enormous fun to write. I also have about a decade of experience teaching writing at the freshman level, in composition classes at many different universities and colleges. I'm a writer myself, not just of academic articles but of novels, short stories, poetry, blogs and more. I've written comic scripts and film scripts and many of them were very bad, but I learned a lot.

This semester I am teaching one section of ENG 1101, which is freshman composition, and one section of 1102, which is composition and literature. I have one traditional section of World Lit I, which is lit up to 1650 (Milton) and therefore precisely in my wheelhouse. I also have two online sections of the same class, so we will all be learning and experimenting there together in an attempt to not only master the material but also build some kind of student-teacher relationship. I don't want you to be only a number to me, and I presume and hope you do not want me to be merely a number to you.

Students looking to reach me can do so easily at

Friday, April 20, 2012

Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby

I was talking with one of my colleagues at the PCA conference last week when he told me how fortunate we were, as comics critics, to have two fantastic books come out in the same year. One of the two books he praised so fulsomely was Charles Hatfield's Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. I won't get into the other book except to assure you it was not mine. It was probably yours.

Anyway, my colleague's praise dwelt especially on Charles's prose, to which the adjective "soaring" was applied, and I am always interested in learning from good prose. So that night while we all had dinner, I logged on to Amazon and lo and behold there was a kindle edition for one fourth the price of the hardback. I am only halfway through the book right now, but it provokes a lot of reaction and I want to get some of that down now before I forget it in the second half.

Academics know better than to call anything "definitive", but if we think of definitive instead as a scale of increasing definitiveness, then Charles's book is positioned to be pretty far along that scale. And I was struck by this because, of course, Kirby is dead. That is, his career is entirely and "definitively" over. This is in contrast to, say, Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, who have also been the subjects of single-author monograms recently. No matter how good Marc's book is, or Annalisa Di Liddo's Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel, Moore and Morrison are still working, still creating, and in ten or twenty years someone else is going to put out a book that is informed by those authors' entire body of work, instead of "just" a few decades of it, and Marc or Annalisa's take on these authors will no longer be "definitive". Not that either author expects it to be, but as authors and scholars we do hope our take on a subject demonstrates staying power and longevity.

Charles, however, is writing from a more traditional lit crit vantage point: that is, his subject is dead. Like Shakespeare or Chaucer. But unlike those two subjects, the subject of Jack Kirby is still fresh in academic circles. Indeed, this is the first book length academic treatment of Kirby. And god knows we needed it. But when you add in these facts -- that Charles can write about Kirby's career as a totality rather than as a work in progress, and that Charles is basically writing in a field that is sparsely planted -- what we see is that Hand of Fire is positioned to be the definitive analysis of Jack Kirby for, oh, one academic generation. That is, until one of our current students, someone entering grad school in the Fall, decides to write a better book sometime around 2025.

Provided, of course, that the book does not suck. And it does not. There are a lot of things for me, personally, to like about this book. Let's get to a couple of them.

Hand of Fire is a big sloppy wet kiss to all of us who think that the author is still relevant. One of Charles's arguments -- and there are several -- is that Kirby's life experience, the shape of his career and the conditions under which he worked, had a huge influence over the art and stories he produced. Charles spends plenty of time doing textual analysis of Kirby's pages, looking at how they work and what they say, but he always does it in the context of the argument that these pages are expressions of Kirby's values, values shaped by very real forces which can be traced and outlined. I'm a historicist by training and this kind of argument goes a very long way with me. I'm not arguing that we can know what Kirby "meant" with any individual page, but I agree that we can come to a better understanding of these pages if we know where Kirby was at, personally, financially, and in a literary sense, when he made them.

Speaking of theory, Charles spends a lot of time writing about semiotics in this book, and that's one of the reasons I really like it. As the study of signs, semiotics is a natural partner to comics analysis and I am ashamed to admit I don't know as much about it as I should. But Charles shows a keen awareness of his reading audience when he walks us through semiotic theory, and an awareness of the audience is no less refreshing in a scholar's second book than it is in a freshman essay. Most of my academic life is spent teaching, and when Charles walks us through some of his classroom experiments teaching semiotics to his students, this is nourishing food to a starving man. It makes the book useful beyond its title. If Charles had "only" written an informed, articulate, and thorough examination of Kirby's art, that would still have been damn impressive. But it is also a practical handbook on how to teach semiotics theory in the classroom and how to put it into practice on the page. The first book was totally necessary; the second is an exciting surprise.

This book also surprises in its occasionally personal nature. Frankly, I did not expect Charles to have as clearly audible a voice as he has in this book. But I am glad it is there. In the course of reading, I have learned that Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth is Charles's favorite Kirby comic, one which he read as a child. I have learned that Charles really doesn't like modern superhero comics in the "realistic" mode, most especially the art of Alex Ross, which Charles targets for special disdain. An emphasis on the detailed heroic form, on the posed "picture" instead of on narrative drawing, has taken the life and drama out of the genre, he argues. I wonder what he would think of something like All-Star Superman, where Quitely's art definitely falls under the category of "hyper-detailed" without -- at least in my opinion -- sacrificing narrative power.

I'm only halfway through Hand of Fire. But this is a start, and as you can see, it has given me a lot to think about. Which is a good thing in and of itself.

My El Guapo

It's been a long time between updates here, and much has happened. While I am no less busy now than I have been, I find I have an increasing desire to write about what is on my mind, and blog topics have begun to backfill in my brain.

First, the big news: I begin work as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the College of Coastal Georgia in the Fall. There's much to say about this felicitous turn of events, but for now I have to limit myself to, "The book worked." Because I had no illusions that I would sell tremendous quantities of Superheroes of the Round Table (168 at last count); I wrote that book to get a job.

But let's get to the real topic of this post: a big hairy guy who's out to kill us. Yes, I am talking about El Guapo. No, not that El Guapo, the one who got his legs blown off by a missile. I mean this El Guapo:
Lucky Day: I suppose you could say that everyone has an El Guapo. For some, shyness may be an El Guapo. For others, lack of education may be an El Guapo. But for us, El Guapo is a large ugly man who wants to kill us!

I don't think shyness is my El Guapo. And certainly a lack of education is not my El Guapo. For the people of Santa Poco, their El Guapo just happened to be the actual El Guapo. My El Guapo is Dr. Marc Singer.

Because Marc is neither ugly nor especially hairy, some explanation may be in order. I basically have a huge inferiority complex and Marc -- who is a genuinely swell guy and who is probably reading this -- has always been that guy who was smarter, funnier, more successful, and just better read than I am. And I have a deep and long lasting envy of the man. I suppose I could claim envy is my El Guapo but I can't think of anyone else I actually envy. Sorry, Marc. You're it.

What this means is that in my darkest moments -- and we all have them -- I bludgeon myself with the firm conviction that there are always going to be people who make me feel stupid. (I can admit to fears of failure now, when I have landed a good job.) Fortunately, Marc is such a stand up guy -- as you would expect my El Guapo to be -- that he remains always the gentleman and, in my brightest moments, I'm able to turn that envy into a motivating desire to succeed that makes me sometimes smarter and more articulate than I otherwise have any right to be.

All of which has led me to reconsider Geoff Klock's book How to Read Superheroes and Why. Now, this is a really well written book and a fun read for any fan of superhero comics because Geoff is wide ranging in his subject matter and the authors and characters he deals with. Where else are you going to read an academic book that analyzes WildCATS vs. Aliens? Nowhere else.

But although it is engagingly written, diverse in its material and ambitious in its scope, I have always kind of relegated the book to "Interesting but..." status because I disagreed with the fundamental theoretical foundation of the book, which is Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence argument. And if you are following along, you now see where this is going.

Bloom approaches literature with a (modified) Freudian perspective and argues that authors are essentially trying to one-up or out-do their artistic "fathers", whoever that might be. So, for example, Shakespeare's early career can best be understood -- Bloom argues -- by seeing it as Shakespeare's effort to surpass or break free of Marlowe. But Marlowe died young, freeing Shakespeare from his primary source of artistic anxiety, and this resulted in the more experimental and masterful Shakespeare we eventually got. In other words, Marlowe was Shakespeare's El Guapo.

Looking back on my own personal experiences, which are of course idiosyncratic and should not be extrapolated across a discipline, I have to admit I have felt my own "anxiety of influence" and, well, Bloom and Klock might be on to something. Academics are already well aware of the foolishness of trying to apply one theoretical lens to all texts in all situations, so I don't really need to caution against doing that, but taken in some moderation, seasoned with a recognition that influences are multiple, across the inner self and the outer social one, it seems equally silly to dismiss the anxiety a thinker feels because he has role models who are So Damn Smart.