Book Review: Outcast of Redwall

March 11, 2010

Two years ago I re-read Martin the Warrior over Spring Break (and reviewed it here). Now, I have always considered Martin to be the best of the Redwall books, but I’ve often heard that Outcast of Redwall could be considered a rival to that title; thus, this year, I decided to spend some time over Spring Break re-reading Outcast (which I haven’t touched for at least six years, probably longer) in order to pass judgment on that claim.

Conclusion: Those making that claim were wrong. Martin the Warrior is far superior to Outcast of Redwall. Furthermore, I think I can see in Outcast the beginning of the end of the Redwall series; that is, I think the book contains hints that Brian Jacques, while writing it, had an authorial crisis; he chose, rather than to bring Redwall in a more mature direction, to continue just spinning fun yarns. And it was this that resulted in the recycling of plots and general lack of creativity in the later part of the series (which has now gone on for longer than the earlier part – Martin was #6, Outcast was #8, and now he’s up to #20).

The book begins by introducing several interesting characters. Sunflash is a fairly relatable badger lord, with his desire to be a peaceful intellectual, and Skarlath makes a nice addition – a bird character who is not completely one-dimensional (not that he’s all that complex). Swartt Sixclaw is one of the more competent villains, though I find it hard to believe that his repeated poisonings of his rivals would work. Nightshade also adds a nice touch of mystery, and she is fairly sympathetic, as villains go; she feels fated to follow her lord to the bitter end.

Unfortunately, Part II adds several rather unlikable characters, including the absurdly romantic/idealistic Bryony and the whiny titular character, Veil. Now, Veil is a morally complex character, but he’s not sympathetically morally complex; whenever he does something bad, the reader’s reaction is to condemn him and wish the author  would stop talking about him, rather than to feel sorry for him and wish he would stop doing bad things. I realize one of the supposed strengths of the book is its moral complexity (relative to the other Redwall books, at least), but I thought it could have been much more convincing.

Plot-wise, there was a nice dramatic unity to each of the two plot threads (the Sunflash-Swartt rivalry on the one hand, Bryony’s struggle for Veil’s soul on the other), though they had little overlap. I found the Sunflash-Swartt one consistently more interesting, and I really liked the use of Nightshade the Seer (the fox prophets in Redwall are always good characters, actually) and how it came full circle at the end, everything coming back to where it began. At times, though, particularly in the middle section, the book seemed somewhat rambling, and the jump forward in time wasn’t as smooth as it could have been (I still don’t see how it took maybe years for Swartt to travel a distance other characters cover in a few weeks).

There was also a strange tendency, which I don’t remember in any other Redwall books, of plot threads being built up for a confrontation but then anticlimactically ending in a few pages. Yes, even in the original Redwall we see Redtooth try to usurp Cluny’s authority and be swiftly eliminated, but the book has more than just a few red herrings. Before the time-jump, we have Bowfleg, Wildag, Krakulat, Shang Damsontongue, Balefur; each is a threat to Swartt’s power, each is instantly eliminated (and interestingly, leads directly to the next threat). After the jump, Zigu appears, has a bit of character development, and dies in battle to a minor hare character. Obviously nothing can interfere with the the Sunflash-Swartt confrontation – Nightshade did predict it would happen, after all.

The last red herring is The Wraith, whom Swartt hires to kill Sunflash. Of course, genre-savvy Redwall readers know by now that assassins never work; thus it is no surprise when he fails mid-mission. But his failure is spectacular – not only does he not kill Sunflash, he doesn’t kill anyone, instantly falling to his death on being hit with a pie in the face. And after the number of failed diversions already appearing in the book, I couldn’t help but notice the absurdity of it all. It began to feel like a deconstruction of Salamandastron, #5 in the Redwall canon.

Indeed, I think Jacques was, perhaps self-consciously but probably not, performing a deconstruction of previous Redwall stories; thus the moral complexity of the Bryony-Veil plot line (ill-executed as it was) made perfect sense. I got the impression while reading that Jacques was realizing some of the absurdities of his universe, with its species-based morality and predictable plot lines, and decided to explore them – what happens if a vermin is raised by Redwallers? Is he still evil? How inevitable is the final confrontation between Hero (Sunflash) and Villain (Swartt)?

But then… Jacques doesn’t do anything interesting with it. The Nightshade/prophecies aspect of the Sunflash-Swartt plot line vanishes after Nightshade’s death, leaving the status (fated or not?) of their rivalry not only unanswered, but unaddressed. I don’t mind leaving something unanswered, but I think authors have a duty to at least address the issue and suggest a resolution, even an imperfect one.

Then there’s the final resolution of the Bryony-Veil plot line. It really bothers me. Jacques, speaking through Bella the badger-mum, seems to say that all of the moral ambiguity we thought he had been discussing had been illusory, and in fact morality is black-and-white after all.

So Jacques begins to deconstruct his world – but then stops, goes back on what he’s said, and then writes a bunch more Redwall books – twelve (and counting). Did he decide the issues he’d brought up didn’t actually need addressing? Did he think he had addressed them? Did he not realize there were issues? I don’t quite know. But it definitely seems that Jacques began a deconstruction but never attempted a reconstruction.

The later entries in the series were never as good as the ones preceding Outcast, and I think this is why. Jacques kept writing what he had been writing, but he had realized some of the absurdities of it, on some level at least, and decided not to address them. Thus they moved from innocence to immaturity.

I realize this is a harsh criticism, and I don’t mean for it to be taken as entirely accurate. I overstate my case; the books were not perfect up until Outcast, Outcast is a decent book, and they were not uniformly abysmal following it. But I do think Outcast serves as a good turning point in the series towards the worse, and that the above is a good part of the reason why.


So Weit Wie Noch Nie

December 22, 2009

I recently came across the song “So Weit Wie Noch Nie” by Jürgen Paape. Here are the lyrics, and my translation of them into English:

Wir hören ein Singen im Raum
Singen im Raum
Singen im Raum
Wir jagen die Monotonie

Wir machen aus Stunden ein Jahr
und Mondschein aus unserem Haar
Wir fliegen so weit wie noch nie


We hear a singing in the room
Singing in the room
Singing in the room
We hunt the monotony

We make out of the hours a year
And moonshine out of our hair
We fly higher than ever before.

What’s fascinating about this song, I think, is the sense of joyous fatalism that it captures. Some friends of mine who heard it said it reminds them of someone intentionally driving a car off a cliff, or maybe into a wall. These were people who don’t know German, but it fits with the lyrics; “we hunt the monotony,” and “we fly higher than ever before.” I used it as background music in a film for German class to impart a similar tone – that the characters’ actions are pointless, but that the pointlessness doesn’t matter, and is even perhaps beautiful.

It’s an interesting aesthetic, one of resignation, of recognizing and accepting the transience of human life.

Book Review: No Country for Old Men

April 20, 2009

No Country for Old Men is one of my favorite movies. I recently read the book, by Cormac McCarthy, that the movie was based on. It was an interesting experience; normally one reads the book then watches the movie to compare the two, but more and more recently I’ve been watching the movie first then reading the book.

One result of this is I find it hard to look at the book as a book – I’m constantly comparing it to the movie, even though the book came first and stands on its own. Ah well.

Of course, there’s some things that a book can do that a movie can’t, and vice versa. The movie has cool fight scenes that don’t show up in the book; the book has a unique style of prose that works really well for what McCarthy is doing. It works for The Road, which I read a while ago, and it works for this. It would work horribly for, say, a romantic comedy. I’m not sure what to make of this.

But other than stuff like that, the book is really similar to the movie, which is another way of saying the movie does a good job of following the book. Every scene of the movie, pretty much, is from the book, and most scenes of the book show up in the movie. The only important exceptions that I can recall are a few of Sheriff Bell’s monologues and one of Anton Chigurh’s deterministic rants.

Of course, one of the reasons I loved the movie was the character of Anton Chigurh, so I found the slightly different way he was portrayed in the book somewhat interesting. Essentially, while in the movie he is portrayed as a straight determinist, he actually has something a bit more complex going on.

As far as I can tell, and I might be wrong, he clearly doesn’t really believe in free will, but he’s more of a fatalist than a scientific determinist. He thinks that your choices are determined by your personal characteristics, and so in any particular situation you can’t “change your mind”, but that what you do is still the result of who you are, and so you are still somewhat responsible for it. If, as we did in my Lit Trad III course, we look at things in personhood in terms of moira, ethos, and persona, Chigurh believes in only moira – but he still believes in personhood. He’d more of an ancient Greek fatalist than anything else, really.

So, NCfOM is well written, interesting, does some things the movie doesn’t… is it better than the movie? I honestly have a hard time saying it is. Each can do different things, but I don’t want to say the novel is per se a better narrative medium than the film, and it’s a damn good movie. And I’m not sure that what McCarthy is doing with the novel-specific aspects of his work – the prose style, the narratorial asides, etc – are important enough, that they manage things the movie simply could not. A book like Moby Dick would not work at all as a movie. Something like NCfOM, however, works nicely. And there is a power movies have that books do not – though vice versa, as well. So I don’t know.

In any case, both are good. I actually do think it’s worth it to both read the book and watch the movie. If you can only do one… watch the movie, because there are better books out there, but there’s not that many better movies out there. But do try to read some Cormac McCarthy at some point. He’s quickly turning into one of my favorite modern authors.

Accidental Dualism and Responsibility

January 5, 2009

I am often irritated by reading about how scientists have found a “physical explanation in the brain” for a given behavior/personality trait. It is treated as if this discovery means that the trait, which was previously considered as under the control of the possessor or completely part of their genetic make-up is now in this weird third state where it’s not under the control of the possessor, but neither is it natural – it’s caused by something, but no one knows what because we don’t understand how the brain develops. A few examples:

It’s not that I think there is something wrong with any of these findings in particular. It is that I think the fact that this is how we present the findings – they’re all cast in terms of discoveries about how the brain is linked to our behavior – is wrong. Of course people who commit suicide will have a different brain structure than people who don’t; they’re thinking in a different way, and thinking differently is synonymous with having a different brain structure. And we already know children from poor families do worse in school on average than children from rich ones; why would it surprise us that their brains look different as well? The same with the article about the risk-taking brain. The obesity one is different; it talks about how, because what is controlling obesity is in the brain, not the glands, it is under the control of the possessor in a way it was not when it was glandular.

All of these, I think, reflect a kind of dualism. The first three represent a mind-body dualism, where if something is present in the body (which includes the brain), it means it’s not present in the mind, and free will does not apply to it – rather it acts as a constraint on the mind, one beyond the control of the mind. The last one represents a brain-body dualism, which functions similarly to the mind-body dualism except that the brain is the mind.

Now, I tend to think all such dualism is fundamentally flawed (mainly because of my extremely anti-dualistic Phil of Man class I had in Rome). Why are they popular then? I think because they let people shuffle off responsibility… if there is something in their brain that makes them want to take risks/commit suicide/be stupid, then their desire to do so isn’t their fault; their brain made them do it. And since if you look hard enough the brain will be different according to every change in personality, you will always be able to blame your brain.

What people don’t realize is that this removal of responsibility also removes free will. If what is in our brain is not our fault, it also is not to our credit. And since there would be evidence for everything we do in our brain (whether or not it is the ’cause’ is another story), we wouldn’t have free will at all. This doesn’t seem desirable.

Of course free will is a complex question, and it is really difficult to find a philosophic position that makes sense of it, but I think the dualism reflected by these BBC articles is worse than most. If we really were Cartesian points floating above our head controlling our actions through the pineal gland it would make sense, but the truth is we’re not, and the brain either controls or reflects (I’m not even sure there’s a difference) all of our actions and personality traits, so this kind of dualism makes nonsense of free will (because the Cartesian point would control nothing).

So… what are the chances we’ll ever stop seeing it in popular culture? Probably slim to none. The ghost in the machine is a powerful concept.

Minority Report

September 22, 2008

So, I recently saw the movie Minority Report (which, I know, is several years old). It was vaguely interesting – the world it is set in, which is futuristic but still very similar to ours and quite disturbing, was well portrayed. But the movie had a fundamental problem. Its premise was nonsensical.

Now, the movie revolves around a form of crime prevention known as “pre-crime” – they have these three psychics who can predict when a murder will occur before it does, and then they dispatch police officers to prevent the murder from taking place. There hasn’t been a murder for 6 years in Washington, DC (which is where this program is being tried out before it goes nationwide).

Then, one day, one of the pre-crime cops, while monitoring the machine that reports on the psychics’ visions, sees that HE is now predicted to commit a murder! And so he must run away and lead the other police on a wild goose chase all across the city, all the while trying to avoid committing the murder he was predicted to commit, but being apparently drawn inexorably to commit it anyway. (He ends up committing it, though unintentionally [the guy wants to die and grabs his gun-hand and forces him to shoot].) How suspenseful! How like the Greek tragedies in which the protagonist knows his fate and yet cannot avoid it! (And then there’s a half-hour left of the movie in which little of actual interest happens.)

Except… does anyone else see what is terribly wrong with this situation? Let’s think for a second. How pre-crime works is, the psychics see the murder happening in the future, they tell someone about it, and then the murder is prevented. There’s nothing fundamentally different about the situation the protagonist is in – the psychics see the murder happening in the future, and they told someone – the perpetrator – about it. But somehow, instead of him just saying “ok, I’ll just avoid that situation and so not commit murder” (which is philosophically no different from the cops jumping in and preventing the murder at the last second, which they do all the time), it is treated as if he is somehow fated to do it. In fact, he wouldn’t have even wound up in the situation where he could commit murder if the prediction hadn’t been made!

So, basically, the movie is not consistent. Either seeing the future allows you to change it – in which case there’s no reason the protagonist would have been worried at all – or seeing the future does not allow you to change it – in which case pre-crime makes absolutely no sense to begin with, and would only have been good for ensuring that the murderer was always caught after the fact.

Thus Minority Report is, I think, while a somewhat interesting and amusing movie, fundamentally flawed, and so not really worth watching. There are much better philosophically-minded sci-fi movies out there for those so inclined.

Lying Minds

June 25, 2008

It’s strange how our brains lie to us sometimes.

For example, for some unknown reason, I was under the vague impression a few years ago that Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, was somehow related to the constructed language Esperanto. This belief was, of course, baseless, and as soon as I thought about it for two seconds and browsed the wikipedia pages of each that became quite clear. I still, however, subconsciously link the two, and so my gut response to the question of “who thought up Esperanto” is going to be “Spinoza”, and I’ll have to consciously correct myself. Presumably with time this will correct itself, but for now, my brain insists on this link between these two unrelated things.

I think  the fact that our brain is able to do this probably encourages the belief that we somehow have a
mind that is separate from our brain. There is this obvious (if actually non-existent) interplay between our brain, which we think of as functioning as a kind of storage and retrieval system, and our mind, which does the actual thinking – and the brain, we think, can give false information the the mind – when it does this is the brain’s fault, not the mind’s. This makes us want to say, for example, that we could somehow take our consciousness and transplant it to another body and “we”, meaning our consciousness abstracted from our brain, would somehow take control of that body. Really, it’s another example of gnosticism.

This distinction is, of course, absurd. Scientifically there is no basis for it, and neither does religion provide one – at least not the Catholic religion. The person, for the Catholic, is both body and soul, and the soul is intimately intertwined with the body – separating the two leaves you without a complete person. (I suspect that the state of the soul is somehow reflected in the physical state of the brain – this would mean that even if you could observe the process of decision-making in the brain before the person was conscious of their decision, it would not mean that the decision was not freely arrived at by the soul – but I know of no doctrinal support for this belief.)

Yet many of us, whether atheists, Christians, or something else, approach life as if this were the case. I suspect this is because we are predisposed to do so given how we can observe our brains lying to us – even if the distinction between “brains” and “us” is completely meaningless.

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