Monday, January 12, 2009

Of Orcs and Men

My opinion of Orcs has been changed forever. Because that is what the jacket copy said would happen, and I'm just gullible that way.

I've been working my way though a book called Orcs, by Stan Nicholls. It's not about Tolkien's Orcs, per se - more like Tolkien's Orcs transplanted into a different imagined world, where they are, well, not the heroes exactly. They're still Orcs and they do what Orcs do. Call them the protagonists instead. It's not even a single book - it's a trilogy of books that have been rolled into one big book for better marketing. It's pretty good on its own terms - interesting characters, well plotted and all that, and I like the idea that the humans are the bad guys - but the thing I really like most about it is that it combines two of my favorite things for books to do.

For one thing, it is a fun book to carry around. It jars people a little bit when they see the cover. And you can see why:

People tend to take one look at a cover like that, look back up at me, and then just sort of stare off nervously into space. You have to rattle people's cages now and then, otherwise they fall asleep on you.

I like books like that.

This summer, as part of my recent project to figure out just how exactly the United States got shanghaied over the last forty years by a fiscally irresponsible, ideologically radical, morally bankrupt, deeply anti-intellectual, fanatically anti-Constitutional authoritarian movement that insists without irony on calling itself "conservativism," I read a wonderful book entitled White Protestant Nation. The basic argument behind it was that this "conservative" movement essentially views the US as the property of white Protestants (generally rural, evangelical white Protestants of limited means and even more limited horizons), regards the growth of other segments of the population as nothing short of evil, and seeks to "return" the country to its preferred target audience through political action. It's an interesting argument, but a more interesting book to carry around. People don't know if the book is describing something or advocating something, and they tend to stay out of your way.

Unlike what happened when I was a graduate student in heavily Catholic Pittsburgh and was assigned a maroon book whose bright, yellow, highly visible title read, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. That one made people somewhat confrontational.

More importantly, Orcs is an example, more or less, of a type of book I just love - one that retells a story from the perspective of another character, one who wasn't the main character in the original story.

There are a whole lot of books like that, and I read them whenever I get the chance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite plays. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow trilogy, which retells the Ender's Game trilogy, is well worth reading even if Card himself is a bit of an idiot when it comes to the real world. I truly love Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, and will never quite look at Jane Eyre or Mrs. Havisham the same way again. And Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal is the funniest novel I have ever read, and I speak as someone who has read all of Discworld.

Even movies do this sometimes. One of my favorite animated movies is Hoodwinked, which tells the Little Red Riding Hood story from the perspective of not only Red, but also the wolf, the woodsman and Granny as well. It's Rashomon with pratfalls.

The thing about these books, plays and movies is that they remind us that stories have perspectives - that there isn't a single version that encompasses the entire tale, that what looks like one thing to you may look like quite another to someone else, and that where you stand depends an awful lot on where you sit. We forget that at our peril. There are a lot of people out there in the world who feel that they have the whole story, that Truth is theirs and theirs alone, and that other perspectives are unnecessary at best and evil at worst. Many of these people have political power. Others have weaponry. Others are harmless to anyone save themselves, for they have no idea that they're missing out on things.

It's a big bright colorful world out there, folks. Try not to see it in black and white.

No comments: