content by

Elyse Martin

Medievalists Ask Five Questions About A24’s The Green Knight

On May 11, A24 dropped the long-awaited trailer for The Green Knight, directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel. The film, ironically delayed for a year thanks to COVID-19, adapts a delightfully bizarre medieval tale from the late 14th century, in which the titular Green Knight crashes Camelot’s Christmas party and demands someone behead him, and be willing to be beheaded one year later (or one year and a day, according to the J. R. R. Tolkien translation). Sir Gawain accepts the challenge in order to preserve the honor of the court and keep the king from accepting the challenge himself. As you might expect with a giant, mythical green man who likes to play beheading games, the Green Knight picks up his severed head and leaves after reminding Gawain of his promise.

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This Is The Way: Fanaticism and Found Family in The Mandalorian and She-Ra

Fanaticism has helped define our era. The popularity of unthinking, passionate adherence to a belief system over everything else, and the subsequent unwillingness to critically analyze the actions taken in the name of this ideology, has resulted in a series of unprecedented events in American politics and society. It has given rise to “alternate facts,” claims that anyone disagreeing with you is confirmation of your rightness, coverups of horrifying abuse scandals in some groups, and acts of international and domestic terrorism supported by others. This is a zealotry entirely different from feeling passionate about your religion, your philosophy, or your code—it is a self-fulfilling, all-consuming obsession that rejects reality and substitutes its own, that persecutes dissidents and demands blind faith and conformity from its adherents.

Given how much fanaticism has defined the first twenty-one years of the twenty-first century, it’s unsurprising that it pops up often in speculative fiction, or that some of the most popular and acclaimed media in this genre would shine a spotlight on it…and on how we escape this trap of unreality. Two of the most interesting TV series to tackle fanaticism in 2020 are She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and The Mandalorian.

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Beloved Child of the House: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi and the Renaissance Memory Palace

“It’s a magical missing persons case in a Renaissance memory palace,” I’ve told one friend. And another, “It’s like Prospero and Ariel, only instead of an enchanted isle, the fantasy world is the cave from Plato’s allegory.” Or to my husband, “It’s dark academia, kind of, since an academic gets so lost in his quest for knowledge he loses his sense of self in an inadvertent Faustian bargain, but it’s also about statues and augury?”

None of these descriptions is quite right, but none of these attempts to explain Susanna Clarke’s new novel Piranesi are quite wrong either.

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The Magic of Translation: Interviewing Kiki’s Delivery Service Author Eiko Kadono and Translator Emily Balistrieri

If you’re like me, the ongoing state of the world has meant a retreat into old childhood classics. The anime Kiki’s Delivery Service, a perennial favorite, has been a particularly refreshing escape: a young witch flying around the gorgeously illustrated countryside with the help of her cat Jiji, meeting kindly people and making friends wherever she goes. It’s a classic film inspired by a classic novel—one that’s just been translated into English for a new edition, released earlier this month.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Kiki’s Delivery Service author Eiko Kadono, and her translator Emily Balistrieri. We discuss Kadono’s original inspiration for Kiki, what it feels like to return to a book thirty-five years after publication, and the challenges of translating such a beloved children’s book from Japanese to English.

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Balancing on the Hyphen: AAPI Identity & Nationalism in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series

The Age of Revolutions has always fascinated me. After I first learned about the French Revolution as a child, I promptly decapitated my Princess Jasmine Barbie for crimes against the Republic. (My mother screwed her head back on, thus allowing Princess Jasmine to elude revolutionary justice.) This time period, roughly 1774-1849, encompasses some of the greatest shifts in Western thinking, and transformations of Europe and its colonies so seismic that, when asked about the influence of the French Revolution, former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is purported to have replied, “It’s too early to say .”

But for all these dramatic changes, these great increases of rights for the common man and citizen, the expanded world of the age of sail, it is one of the most whitewashed periods of history in contemporary culture. Period pieces—and the fantasies inspired by them—are pale as debutant’s white muslin gown. In the days before Hamilton suggested that people of color could own and be interested in the American Revolution as much as white students, I had the same historical vision of this time period as a 1950s Republican Senator. I had a vague understanding that the Indian muslins and Chinese silks Jane Austen characters wore had to come from somewhere, but someone like me, a mixed race kid with a Chinese mother and a white American father? I didn’t belong there. There was no place for me in this history.

Enter Tenzing Tharkay, from Naomi Novik’s alternate history Temeraire series.

[And he has an amazing entrance…]

Howl-ever It Moves You: Diana Wynne Jones and Hayao Miyazaki Do the Same Work With Different Stories

We often see Asian stories adapted for a Western, English-speaking market, but Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most famous cases of the reverse. Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film is a loose adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s 1986 novel, which Jones described as “rich and strange, full of the most beautiful animation,” by someone who “understood my books in a way that nobody else has ever done.” Miyazaki deeply understands the work the novel does: using popular fantasy tropes to interrogate and disprove dominant social narratives, and thus deprive them of their power.

In adapting and translating the novel to a visual medium for a different time and for a different, primarily Japanese audience, Miyazaki took a fascinating approach: he focused not on faithfully replicating each detail of the novel, but preserving its work. The novel Howl’s Moving Castle uses fairy tale tropes as a means to examine societal roles and restrictions that hold people into certain positions as well as holding them back, and the magical power of language to break people out of them. Miyazaki, who began working on Howl’s Moving Castle with “a great deal of rage” about the US invasion of Iraq, approaches a standard war plot at angles and strange intersections, using fantasy tropes to show the ridiculousness and pointlessness of war and the magical power of human affection, connection, and compassion to transform.

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In Defense of Needlework

Sewing is fantasy fiction’s least favorite activity. How many times has a Strong Female Character proved her agency and ability by hating her needlework? The heroine is not like other girls! She disdains embroidery; she likes to fight and ride horses, like boys do. In the Game of Thrones series, for example, fan favorite Arya rejects needlework for Needle, her sword. Plying her Needle becomes an elaborate joke on societal expectations for women in Westeros, at once a refutation and denigration of traditionally feminine activities, as well as a reflection of the fates of Arya and her more traditionally feminine sister Sansa in the first book. Sansa is imprisoned; Arya escapes.

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For the Love of Footnotes: When Fantasy Gets Extra Nerdy

Books are a curious paradox. They are, at once, both story and object. And one of the most compelling bits of paratextual  material that confronts and engages with this conundrum is the footnote. Other paratextual materials can be more easily separated from the story or even ignored. There’s an old cliché about not judging a book by its cover, and the maps and illustrations in classic fantasy novels are often so expected they don’t always register as a way of guiding you, the reader, through the book.

Like maps, illustrations, and covers, footnotes frame the text. They also pause it. They offer a chance to step back from the narrative and dispute it, observe it, or explain it. Footnotes aren’t often found in fantasy, and because a footnote’s natural habitat is the academic text, footnotes bring with them implications of scholarly rigor, a sense of painstaking objectivity, or carefully grounded and continuing arguments in The Academy.

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