Kind of a long post.
Last night’s dinner was Thai spicy chicken, cucumber salad, rice noodles, blueberries and blackberries drizzled with heavy cream, coffee, and CONVERSATION. Gods, but I’ve missed evenings at the dinner table like this. At first, we started out with, “what have you been up to?” stuff, because it may have been two years since I’ve been there for dinner, and while I’ve seen regularly or at least irregularly, and I have only connected more rarely. I think I’ve seen her twice since I went to grad school to finish my degree, and wasn’t around for a year. So there was a lot of catch-up to do.
It’s also been a huge amount of time since I’ve seen their son. He’s five now, and getting huge, and talkative. I remember him being talkative before, but now it’s complete sentences, very few grammatical errors, interested in everything, and so very cool. said she’s really looking forward to taking him on the train to New York when he’s a teenager and playing hooky from school, and watching him just try to turn into a tortured angsty adolescent when he’s got very cool poet-y, word-y parents who remember when punk was a movement and not just a genre (Thanks, ).
Gradually, we got into deeper subjects: ‘s novel or writing project, and how certain Biblical prophets could be useful to her plans. Images and thoughts from a city under seige by ideas, and undefining itself with crumbling walls. I still shiver, thinking about her talking of the fireworks seen from a clocktower over the town square. We talked about crops and exports, and Baba Yaga, and governors, and the way idealistic communities still define themselves in terms of “us” and “them”, outsiders vs. insiders. We talked about world trade and patterns of town development — and think about what your town would look like if it was designed specifically for walking in, and bicycles? We spoke about symbolic compression and the ability of an object to become representative of the story as a whole. (You’re also going to have a brickworks, because there’s going to be a lot more use for brick than wood, and it’ll be easier to make brick than cut wood with what is out in the forest. And the walls… are the walls brick? Think about Exodus and brickmaking, too….hmmm).
We talked about education, and I was accused of working at Hogwarts. OK, no. I’m not really the defense against the dark arts teacher, though sometimes it feels like it. Today I tried to get my sixth grade class to do a dumbed down version of a Greek comedy. The kids didn’t understand it, didn’t like it, hated it, hated each other, hated me. They’re little monsters — that comparison with Hogwarts, at least, is true. So much for doing “The Birds”… Time to move on to a new thing. Maybe maps of the Mediterranean is a good idea, get them used to doing some geography stuff. I hate sixth grade. If I’m forced to teach them again next year, I’m going to demand a curriculum change. This business of trying to make them understand the ancient world isn’t working. They need reference points rather than deep delving — they need to be able to say “The Golden Gate Bridge is in San Francisco, the Andes Mountains are in Chile and Peru, the Matterhorn is in Switzerland, the Eiffel Tower is in Paris…” that sort of thing. Why should they care if the Aswan High Dam is in southern (Upper) Egypt, and Cairo is in northern (Lower) Egypt, or that the Sumerians invented writing that looked like chicken feet in wet clay? They need English practice, and to learn the words for different parts of the world, before they learn who Tutankhamun was or what Pericles said.”
My seventh graders are a little better. THey have a test on Friday on the Reformation, and they’re being eager and serious about it, and reading up on it pretty carefully, and doing the review questions assiduously. I should give them a treat of some kind. I’m not sure what, exactly. I do see that I need to keep them more in line, and have them do other kinds of activities than just answer questions verbally and in writing. They need a lot more map skills, a lot more analytical skills, and a lot more “relating these names and places and dates to what I know”. The reformation has been good for that; they didn’t know of any knights, themselves, and had never seen a castle. But most of them have seen different kinds of churches and had wondered about why some people are Catholic and some are Protestant. We’re starting to talk about history that has an effect on the world they know.
Less than half my ninth grade class turned in their assignment on Sparta today. Argh. They have a big paper on some aspect of Bronze Age Greece due on Monday; I have my doubts that everyone will finish that. It’s going to be time to break out the 50s and 60s in the gradebook, then. Winter is the roughest time of year for getting stuff done; I still care, but they don’t. By spring, the weather outside has improved everyone’s mood, and a missed assignment seems like less of a big deal. Today, it’s achingly frustrating. I told ‘s story about babies in ancient times being raised in earthenware jars to produce dwarfs for court jestering and freak shows. Half my class reacted with disgust, half with fascination. That’s ninth grade for you. The half that did their Sparta papers were freaking out the other half with stories about Spartan homosexuality. Thanks, Larry Gonick, author of the Cartoon History of the World. You have successfully taught at least some of my students who the Spartans were….
Today I spoke with the head, and handed over ‘s resume with glowing compliments. It’d be great fun to have her working here, though I’m not sure how much she’d like it, especially given how strange and annoying today was.
I realized that the issue of a villain for the Orien writing has been weighing heavily on my mind for a while. I’ve been thinking about the villains I’ve admired most, and what makes them interesting, sympathetic, and useful. Captain deSoya from Endymion acts out of a sense of duty that becomes a kind of quest for redemption. Hector, in the Iliad is defending his city, Poseidon in the Odyssey is taking revenge for the blinding of his son. Williams in that book my Sterling in which Nantucket gets transported back to 1250 BCE, is out to make a kingdom for himself in a world without his knowledge of technology. David Weber’s villains are simply career military officers out to win a battle and save their own lives. Sauron, and what’s-his-name from Jordans interminably long dragon reborn Wheel-of-Time sagas are just evil because they want ultimate power.
I realized that the villain of Orien could be alchemical or magical in nature. That is, he (she?) is out to transform him/herself into an immortal being, kin to Sauron and what’shisname, and exit the cycle of life and death and rebirth — and to use this power to dominate all life around him. His goal is not simply to be immortal, as other alchemicals before him, but to be immortal and omnipotent.
However, in The Farthest Shore by Ursula LeGuin, the villain who has done this is a small-time sorceror who has made it impossible for death to find him — but he is causing the power of magic to flow out of the world, and ruining language. I don’t want to do a hack rewrite of The Farthest Shore‘s plot, though, and given that I’m already starting out with islands, that’s the direction I’d wind up going.
So the enemy has to be human, and have human-sized goals. Dominion and kingship are perfectly acceptable goals for such a villain, but I’d prefer a different set of goals. Random violence doesn’t cut it, either. He has to be a hero in his own mind and in the minds of his associates and assistants. He has to be more of a Hector than a medieval mystery-play Herod. The villain can’t be an all-powerful god or near-god; human motivations have to be high in his character. Greed, and Envy, perhaps, should be his primary motivating characteristics.