Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Jan Siegel - Reprise

I first read Jan Siegel's trilogy (Prospero's Children, The Dragon-Charmer and Witch's Honour) in July 2005, when I expressed my disappointment with the way in which Witch's Honour ends and I noted that there were some Tolkienian themes in the books. Since then I've discussed the ending of the third book with others online and re-read the series, and I realised that in fact, Fern's decision to bargain with Azmordis that she will drink from the waters of Lethe, thereby forgetting not only the events of the past 14 years, but also all that she has learnt since she came into her Gift, thereby buying safety from Azmordis for herself, her family and her friends, is the only option open to someone who isn't totally heartless. Like Frodo, she knows she can never be at peace in this world and, since she cares too much about her family and friends to want them to be at further risk from Azmordis' desire for vengeance, forgetfulness is the only option left to her. Fern first tried to deny her Gift (in Prospero's Children) until she was forced to go back in time to Atlantis to stop the mad witch Zohrane. Then she tried to live with her Gift, but Morgus kidnapped her spirit in The Dragon-Charmer and she was forced to live outside Time under the Tree until she could escape to deal with a renegade Dragon-Charmer who was threatening her brother Will and her friend Gaynor. So finally, after facing and killing Morgus (in Witch's Honour), who has wanted revenge for what Fern did to her when she escaped the Tree, she bargains with Azmordis and forgets her Gift.

On re-reading this trilogy I noticed more Tolkienian themes than I did on the first reading; I put this down to the fact that I've been reading a lot Tolkien-related books (again) since September whilst researching and writing my pieces for the Tolkien Encyclopaedia. Besides the Sam-like encounter with the giant spider guardian of Morgus' sapling from the original Tree which I mentioned before, and the whole issue of the drowning of Atlantis (recreated by Tolkien as the Drowning of Numenor); there is the fact that Fern deliberately misquotes Gandalf's remark to Frodo "Many that live deserve death."; there is also Ragginbone's claim that he gave one of his names (Gabbandolfo) to a man he used to meet "in a pub in Oxford, many years ago. He was an academic, a scholar of ancient languages. I remember he wanted to create a mythology for Britain. [...] He struck me as intelligent and imaginative, a Catholic as I once was. [...] I believe he was a genius, in his way." Clearly Ragginbone is referring to Tolkien and saying that Tolkien got Gandalf's name from a corruption of Ragginbone's name; something I find quite bizarre given that anyone who knows anything about Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth, knows that he found Gandalf's name in the Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress) of the Elder/Poetic Edda, where he also found the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit. I find Siegel's claim for her character to be rather odd.

However, I still thoroughly enjoyed this trilogy, in particular the characters of Fern and her friend Gaynor.

* * * * * *

There was an interesting review in the Guardian on Saturday of David Crystal's How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die (Penguin) which Ian Sansom describes as "the perfect one-volume introduction to the study of language." It is a 73 chapter discourse which, Sansom says, explodes in chapter 69 'How not to look after languages', with Crystal "at first merely grumbling about amateurs muscling in on the work of professional linguists - people 'without any training at all'", such as broadcasters, bishops and civil servants. These amateurs, says Crystal "Believing in the inviolability of the small set of rules that they have managed themselves to acquire, [...] condemn others from a different dialect background, or who have not had the same educational opportunities as themselves, for not following those same rules." Sansom notes that Crystal argues that "Language change is inevitable, continuous, universal and multidirectional. Languages do not get better or worse when they change. They just - change." Sansom, however, argues in his turn that "languages do get better or worse", and "that a coarsening of language, for example, can lead to a corrupting of human concepts and feelings, and that the more people alert to these changes, even if they are merely amateurs or people off the radio or the telly, the better." To support his argument Sansom quotes Victor Klemperer, a Jewish Professor of Romance Studies in Dresden who was compulsorily dismissed by the Nazis in 1935.

"What was the most powerful Hitlerian propaganda tool?" asked Klemperer in LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen (The Language of the Third Reich (trans. Martin Brady, 2000). "Was it the individual speeches of Hitler and Goebbels ... their rabble-rousing against the Jews, against Bolshevism? ... Certainly not ... Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously ... Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all."

Anyone who's been bullied verbally will agree with the idea that words can be like small doses of poison; the old saw "Sticks and stones break my bones but words cannot harm me" has always seemed to me to be entirely wrong. I would rather have someone break my bones, which will heal if treated promptly, than drip poison into my mind with their words.


The Poodle's Friend said...

Yes, I completely agree. Sticks and stones are nothing compared to words.
Nice quote on propaganda. I guess once something's repeated enough times, one eventually starts believing it. Just thinking about recent events, the whole 'weapons of mass destruction' argument... It's amazing how easy it is to manipulate people with language.

Michele said...

Indeed ! It's happened repeatedly throughout history in many different places, where a lie has been repeated so often that no one will believe the truth.

Liz B said...

If I have time this summer, I'll reread Siegel's trilogy with your words in mind, but I can't help it: anything that ends with the main character forgetting really bugs me. I find it to be a real let down, almost a cheat. It's the only thing I don't like about the Dark is Rising series, and there's another series (something with red and black in the title?) that did something similar.

Michele said...

I can't think of anything with "Red" and "Black" in the title - but then I've not had breakfast yet, so the brain is only semi-functional !

I do know what you mean about it being very annoying - I was certainly very annoyed the first time around - I felt it was a total cop-out on the part of both Fern and Siegel. I hope you'll let me know if you do find time to re-read the series, and whether you still feel the same afterwards.