Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Happy Easter!

And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, "Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."  And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.

John 11: 49-52

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Popol Vuh

While I was taking a Non-Western Lit class at college I was introduced to a collection of Mayan mythology called the Popol Vuh.  We only had a couple excerpts but those pieces were interesting enough that I went out to my local B&N and got a copy.  (Allen J. Christenson's translation if any one's interested.)  I read the first two-thirds right away.  The story was weird and interesting, following these twin trickster-gods in and out of the underworld.  Then, about two-thirds through the actual people came along and the twins pretty much disappeared out of the story.  I got distracted by life and stopped reading for awhile.

I finally got around to picking the book up again.  What the last third has (and maybe the numerous footnotes have something to do with this) is a sense of archaeological history.  The people move through several named cities.  They describe their battle against the surrounding tribes.  It's interesting in a totally different way from the first part because of the sense that you've moved from strait myth in to actual memories.

When I was about eight or nine I wanted to be an archaeologist.  Then I found out that archaeologists have to memorize the names and ages of different rock strata's, and that people who discover lost cities and ancient tombs have to study dead bodies.  (Never on my top ten list of fun sounding things to do.)  But even though I never went in for archeology, I still love the idea of finding windows to the past.  To me, that's what mythology and older writings are.  They allow you to see how people who lived hundreds of years ago looked at life around them, and at their own societies. 

Here's the other thing Popol Vuh made me think about; while it didn't go into great detail, there was mention of the whole human sacrifice thing.  Now, the Mayan civilization was incredibly advanced as far as technology, math and science are concerned.  Just look at their cities with the ziggurats, the carvings, the calender stones.  They were an absolutely amazing people.  But the thing Western civilization remembers about them (besides ziggurats are cool!) is the human sacrifices.  It's such a brutal way to go.  Part of their reason for it was to make the nations they conquered fear them.  I wonder how much the average citizen thought about the human sacrifice thing, and how much it was just part of society.  I think it's easy to ignore the things that are horrifying to outsiders because, well, that's the way it's always been and hey, life's been great so far.  I wonder about American society.  I mean, we're advanced, right?  Tall buildings.  Good irrigation systems.  Plenty of scientific and mathematical breakthroughs.  What things do we see as normal that people of the future will consider barbaric brutalities?  (As a pro-lifer, I admit abortion comes to mind.  But I'm sure there are plenty of things I'm not thinking of that will shock our descendants.)  I guess what I'm saying is, people are people.  We'll always have blind spots when we look at our own culture. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Story Structure with 101 Dalmations

My birthday was this past week (32.  Yikes!)  Here is a picture of me celebrating

Remember how two weeks ago I said I had half a post written?  Yeah... this isn't it.  That post died a tragic death.  Instead of trying to give it CPR, I've decided to talk about the strong plot structure of The 101 Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith.

The book starts fairly slowly, introducing Pongo and Missis and their family.  Cruella deVille appears like a storm rumbling in the background; there, but not really involved -yet.  The heroes are more worried about their domestic problems.  Missus has too many puppies and their humans have to find another nursing dog to help her.  They find the half-starved Perdita, a dog who tells our (canine) heroes that her pups were stolen. Our heroes are sorry for her and do their best to help, but the crisis hasn't really hit home yet.  The inciting incident is when Pongo and Missis own pups are taken.

Now, at this point in a story, it would be easy to let the heroes wallow in despair.  The worst has happened, right?  Dodie Smith has her heroes take an active role, though.  They send out a message and pick up a possible lead, only to face their first set-back.  This isn't a world of talking animals.  They can't tell their humans where the pups are; they have to undertake the rescue themselves.  I like how Dodie uses the whole `animals in a people world' as an obstruction for her heroes.  She even uses the well-meaning owners of Pongo and Missis to set up the next obstacle.  The humans advertise for their missing dogs.  Pongo and Missis have to leave the main roads or risk getting taken home before they can accomplish their mission.

See, the obstacles don't have to come from the villains.  Sometimes they come from good people who have different ideas about how to accomplish a goal, or through communication breakdowns.  Or both. 

Another thing Dodie Smith does that really helps the story is give the heroes what they're after, while still causing problems for them.  She doesn't drag the search out for the whole book; halfway through, Pongo and Missis find their missing children, BUT the kids are not alone.  Ninety-eight other puppies are with them, and all are going to be killed if Pongo and Missis don't save them.  Talk about raising the stakes!  At first Pongo thinks they have about a month to plan the rescue, but -well, remember what I said before about allies who can accidentally add to the problem?  The fact that Pongo and Missus' owners are advertising for their lost dogs leads Cruella to decide her dog napping operation is too hot.  The parents have to rescue their and every other puppy that night, without any time to prepare. 

I'm not going to go through the rest of the book.  For one thing, this post is getting a little long.  I do think as far as stakes go, this book does an excellent job.  Nothing is settled until the end, but the heroes don't get stuck in a Gilligan plot either.  (The sort where the audience begins to ask `how are the heroes going to fail this time' instead of wondering whether they'll succeed.)  It's important to let your heroes have some success at least by the half-way point, even if reaching one goal just shows how much they still have to accomplish.  

So what do you all think?  Ever bog out on a story because the heroes set out to do something and still haven't gotten anywhere three books later?  Know any good examples where the heroes accomplish enough going along to keep you reading?