The Ship Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: A Review of Passengers

passengers-movie-poster

This review contains spoilers!

In the realm of inferior movies there is a special category reserved for movies that are unsatisfactory despite their captivating and deceptively convincing trailers. Passengers is a new addition to this category, for despite its adrenaline-filled trailers that bombarded TV screens several weeks before its release, it leaves its audience with a bitter aftertaste that makes one think, “I could’ve written a much better space-romance than that.”

As the space-romance begins, the viewer finds themselves instantly thrown into a tumultuous story aboard the starship “Avalon,” which is flying through space on autopilot, navigating cosmic debris and asteroids. It is one of these asteroids that breaks through the defensive shield causing the ship to “rock”—already a rather unconvincing plot detail considering that the ship seems to have flown seamlessly for 30 years—and wakes Jim Preston from his hibernation pod.

Considering this is yet another space movie featuring Chris Pratt, one might expect him to be somewhat akin to Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy: clever, quirky, quick on his feet. However, when creating Preston’s character, it is as though the producers forgot all these things, resulting in him being, conveniently, an engineer that lacks a personality. His role does not go far beyond attempting to break open the door to the command center and to ultimately assume roles as a welder, botanist, jeweller, and stereotypical I-will-save-the-world hero. The only backstory he receives is that he could barely afford the ticket, but decided to leave Earth in an attempt to start a new life.

After Preston struggles over the course of a year with being alone on the ship and even contemplating suicide, the movie comes to what is the biggest and most problematic aspect of the movie: Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora Lane. It isn’t so much the fact that Aurora is, like Preston, a monochrome character, or the fact that she’s yet another example of a writer who writes to achieve fame (and also happens to be from New York, and have a rich and well-known writer for a father). The problem is more in the way in which she appears in the plot.

passengers-screenshot-1

This is where the biggest source of anger and disappointment lies. The trailers present Passengers as a romantic story of two people who happened to wake up together and find themselves trying to save the spaceship, and in doing so, fall in love. In reality however, it is Preston who “wakes up” Aurora Lane by meddling with her hibernation pod.

Preston’s explanation for this is the inability to cope with his loneliness—his only other constant companion being the robot bartender Arthur—and despite how horrible his actions are, one can understand the motivation behind them. However, the way in which he specifically “chooses” Aurora—by accidentally coming across her pod, finding her attractive, looking up an interview with her and declaring that she is the woman of his dreams—raises eyebrows and exasperates.

This development overshadows the rest of the movie, and drastically changes the atmosphere. The viewer is put in the position of judging Preston’s decision. We’re left wondering when he’ll tell her, and then choosing sides when the truth comes out, and ultimately imposing a “final verdict” depending on which character’s side they choose.

However, even the morality issues of the movie are overshadowed by the scientific inaccuracies, despite the absolute frequency of the moral dilemmas. It is a movie that exasperates not only those of science and engineering backgrounds but even general viewers having some knowledge in the field. Examples, such as flying past a burning planet, catch the eye of an audience who know that in real life the ship would be pulled towards the planet by its force of gravity.

Other glaring errors in logic are difficult to forgive even in a sci-fi fantasy movie: scenes such as Aurora floating in a water bubble and not drowning, or Preston surviving a massive flame without even minor damage to his space suit. It goes without saying that some semblance of scientific law and common sense is appreciated. For this reason, scenes like the ending lose their sentimental touch, instead provoking a stream of questions like “wait, what is that tree growing on? And how are all these animals surviving?”

passengers-screenshot-2

The one positive of this movie, which can also be interpreted as a negative by some, is how easily it opens up the debate on morals and what constitutes romance (although the faulty science still looms in the background as another big topic of discussion). While Preston is easily criticisable for his decision to awaken Aurora, one can counter by saying that she got the adventure she was hoping for, a bigger one than spending a 240 days in hibernation flying to a space colony. The way the viewer interprets the movie is a demonstration of their thought processes.

The movie is viewed differently by different age groups. Teenagers and young adults might see it as a destruction of dreams and the snatching away of possibilities, similar to the way in which Aurora often accused Preston of doing so. Some adults, however, will argue that it is a movie that counters the ‘dream big’, ‘dream without limits’ ideology by showing that not all people can have their dreams fulfilled; a fact that is very much a part of reality and that which is still reluctantly acknowledged by the entertainment industry.

What I got out of this movie is that capitalism is scary, business comes first and foremost, and that if I were in the movie I wouldn’t get onto the Avalon even if they paid me. (Also that writers aren’t always weak and can actually swing sledgehammers or beat-up the jerks that ruin their lives.) Other than that, Passengers was a source of disappointment and emotional discomfort, with a bland storyline, shallow characters, a “romance” that is neither believable nor right, and an ending that makes one reach for a pen and paper and yell “I can do better!”

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Why I Play Dungeons & Dragons, and So Should You (If You’re Into That)

dungeons-and-dragons
Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Okay friends, it is time to talk about my favourite subject.

Despite the rise in nerd culture, Dungeons and Dragons still has a bit of lingering stigma. The problem is that many people do not understand it. When you ask non-nerds about it, often they’ll make references to teenagers running around in sewers dressed in wizard robes, or mumble something about demon summoning and satanic rituals (I mean, that sounds fun too, but it does not really have much to do with D&D—unless that is how you want to play, in which case: you do you, buddy).

Even nerds will sometimes shrug and say, “I’m not that kind of nerd.” It’s as if D&D players are some kind of off-brand super nerd: a lower rung in the nerd hierarchy that no one likes to acknowledge. However, if you like fantasy, storytelling, and hanging out with friends, I think you should give this game a chance.

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy improvisation game played with friends. You have a Dungeon Master (or DM)—yes it is silly, but the game does have its glorious roots in the 70s after all, so we need to get past this, guys—who acts as the storyteller and main author of the world. Think of it like a fantasy novel, but each player brings their own protagonist to the table, each with their own personalities and goals. Together, you weave a story as unique as the people playing the game.

Every group I have been a part of has had a completely different dynamic. You could play a character-heavy intrigue game full of alliances and betrayal, a heroic coming-of-age story, or even the rise of a villain. Alternatively, you can just battle monsters and collect loot, Diablo-style. Unlike video games, there are no “invisible walls” limiting what you can do; the narrative is purely based on the creativity of its players.

What makes D&D special is that it provides a framework in which to tell your story. Its core mechanic involves dice-rolling, where your character’s success or failure in a task depends on their skill—represented by bonuses or penalties added to the dice total—and on pure luck. This last part is what draws you into the game: the stakes are real, and every time you engage in combat, you are risking your character’s life along with all of the personal investment you have in their continuing story.

Putting your characters in “danger” can lead to the most creative and memorable experiences in the game. I’ve seen situations where, when the chips were down, a player in trouble has pulled out the most off-the-wall solutions and just rolled like a boss to pull it off. These moments can stay with you for years; I still look back fondly on many of my own close calls.

Dungeons and Dragons also provides a large range of pre-made settings and adventures, plug-and-play style:  if you are new to the game, the developers have your back. Many experienced DMs engage in what is affectionately called “home-brewing,” and create their own rules, maps, and other features customized to their players. So if you really want to play a gunslinger in a medieval fantasy setting, your DM can make that happen in a way that keeps the game balanced and enjoyable for everyone.

I really want to emphasize the social aspect here. Unlike playing an online game, D&D lets you sit around a table, along with some snacks and a case of beer (or whatever floats your boat). In short, you should play Dungeons and Dragons because it is fun.

Now that I have given you my spiel, those of you who are still reading may be asking, “So how do I get started?” What a great question! If you are not asking that, you do not have to read this next bit.

First of all, you need to find a group of like-minded individuals who are interested in playing. The best size for a group is around five people (including the DM), but you can play with as few as two and as many as you can fit in one room.

If you want to do some window-shopping before you commit, there are a few recommendations I can make. Critical Role on Geek and Sundry (also on Youtube) is a show where a bunch of “nerdy-ass voice actors” (their words, not mine) get together and record their D&D sessions for the world to enjoy. If you are into anime, cartoons, or video games, you may have heard of some of them: Matthew Mercer is the DM, and the players include Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, and Sam Riegel. Orion Acaba stayed on for the first twenty-five episodes before moving on to other projects, and there are several exciting guest stars that make an appearance throughout the series.

I cannot emphasize how amazing it has been to watch this show and its storyline develop. From a slightly glitchy first episode to the jaw-dropping latest episode (fifty-eight was a personal favourite—I may have cried a little), this show is definitely worth your time. Matt Mercer is a master storyteller. He’s the kind of DM I aspire to be, and he really demonstrates the heights of what a game can reach.

I have also recently started Acquisitions Inc., a podcast of Penny Arcade fame—being only six episodes in, I am a little late to the party, but it has been highly recommended and from what I have heard so far I feel comfortable passing it on to you. They play fourth-edition Dungeon and Dragons, which is slightly less streamlined and intuitive than the newer fifth-edition, but it is still great.

You will need some gaming dice to get started. The rulebooks can be pretty pricey, so if you are not sure you want to commit (and you live in Toronto), the Merril Collection at the Toronto Public Library at 239 College St. lets you peruse them for free. Look for the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook—that’s where everyone starts. There are a myriad of supplemental materials once you have gotten past that, so feel free to go wild!

If you are an aspiring DM, I recommend Matthew Colville’s Youtube series on how to run a game. He lays things out in a really accessible, straight-forward kind of way that I found really helpful when I started DM-ing (not too long ago, I might add).

And that is all she wrote! I hope this helps you.

Go forth, friends, and play!

Contributed by Eleanor Crook

Arrival – A Case of Déjà vu

arrival-movie-poster

Walking into Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, I only knew a little about the movie. I knew that it was based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang which I have not read (it’s on the shelf). I knew that it was starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. I was pleasantly surprised to see Forest Whitaker around the ten minute mark. I knew this was going to be a movie about first contact with aliens. And yet as the movie began, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this all before. I mean that as the highest of praise, incidentally.

Twelve alien space ships land on Earth. Nobody knows why. Professor of linguistics “Louise Banks” (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US government and sent to the alien arrival sight in Montana, where she is partnered with “Ian Donnelly” (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Together, they are charged with finding a way to communicate with the visitors.

As Louise and Ian learn to communicate with the Heptapods (cheekily dubbed Abbot and Costello by Ian), Louise begins to uncover the Heptapods’ strange circular written language, which has no beginning or end, and begins to have flashbacks to her daughter Hannah, who died of an incurable disease.

Right away this is where Arrival separates itself from so many other “first contact” movies. In Louise and Ian, I can see every goofy pair of scientists in science fiction, sidelined as the comic relief while someone brash and bold fires a rocket wrapped in the American flag to save the day. But not this time. Arrival has billed itself as a film of intelligence, and it remains so to a fault.

arrival-still

But still, Arrival is intensely aware that it belongs to a canon. Maybe not to everyone in the audience, but to someone like me, who lives and breathes science fiction of this nature to the point that it’s tattooed on my body, I can see where all the elements come from. I can hear Close Encounters of the Third Kind in sound effects of the Heptapods. I can see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in the aesthetics of the alien ships. I can see The War of the Worlds in the design of the aliens, and District 9 in the TV news footage of the world’s reaction to their arrival. I can even see Independence Day in the scale of the story. Hell, I can see E.T. in Louise’s growing connection to the Heptapods, and Slaughterhouse Five in the nature of the aliens themselves.

I can see where all these elements of famous science fiction staples were drawn together to make this film, but this is far from a bad thing. Sharply aware of the pastiche of its particular sub-genre, Arrival focuses on what makes it so smart.

Every shot of this film is beautiful. From a spaceship hovering over a field in Montana, to Amy Adams framed by the sunset streaming through her backyard window, to the interior of the spaceship itself, every frame suggests a world that is vast and expansive.

Louise is an interesting character. She’s a workaholic, a loner, has a sense of humor, empathy, and everything else that an interesting lead in a movie like this needs to have. The only thing that stretches my suspension of disbelief when it comes to Louise is how nice her house is. I’m not sure what school she’s a professor of linguistics at, but there is no way on Earth (pun intended) that she can afford a beautiful modern home in the woods overlooking mountains. No way.

In Arrival, we get two stories, and both are equally interesting. We get Louise and Ian learning how to communicate with Abbot and Costello. The movie spends a lot of time and energy on discussing the Heptapods’ written language. They write in beautiful, arching spheres, with no sense of linear time. Within their language, past, present and future happen all at once. Louise and Ian are learning to communicate with their Heptapod ship, even as eleven other nations around the world begin to communicate with their own ships. Tensions mount as the nations of the world start refusing to share. Arrival becomes a story about overcoming differences, and learning to cooperate with one another.

For those with an eagle eye, the first time the Heptapod language is explained, a big twist is given away. At least, part of it is. Yes, I have no problem saying that there is a time travel element to this story. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

The second narrative is about tragedy, as we follow the story of how Louise’s daughter Hannah grew up, why her father left them, and how Hannah dies. This is about a grieving mother learning to cope with the death of her daughter, and understand that even though death is inevitable the time before death is still worthwhile.

arrival-still-2

Arrival is a story about grief, and making connections, and aliens, and time. It never fails to be smart, it never devolves into the action-oriented blockbuster format of so many others, it never falters in the ideals that it strives to put on screen. It is everything that a modern science fiction movie should be.

If you want to go see a movie that does science fiction right, with intelligence and integrity, is beautiful for every frame of its runtime, and might make you cry like the little baby we all secretly still are, Arrival is the movie for you.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A Charming New Chapter of the Wizarding World

fantastic-beasts-movie-poster

Some people may understand I say that the first time I saw the commercial for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it felt very much like deciding whether to go and order another cup of coffee. On the one hand, you know you’ve already had several and so drinking another will probably ruin the pleasant effect, but on the other hand the thought is so appealing, and it looks so damn good that you can’t help but wonder if this one might be even better than all the rest.

At first, the movie seemed like just another cash-grab. And when J.K. Rowling announced that she plans to turn it into a series, with five films rather than the initially planned three, I have to admit it felt like another example of an author milking their success.

But seeing the movie turned out to be much different, and the feeling of relaxation, enjoyment, and overall lightness after exiting the theatre made the verdict quite clear: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very good. The adulthood missing from Harry Potter is present in Fantastic Beasts.

Fantastic Beasts transports the viewer to New York in 1926, and it is the wizard and magizoolistic Newt Scamander who serves as our protagonist. He is just as British as Harry, and as tussled and quirky, but that is where their similarities end. Unlike Harry, who we first met at 10-years-old, Newt begins the series as an adult and has the knowledge to prove it. He never sets out to flagrantly display his intellect, but instead spends the movie content with inwardly curating it out of the joy that it brings him.

The main conflict of the film is a little formulaic, part Pandora’s box and part comical-accident-turned-catastrophic. The magical suitcase Newt brings into NYC ends up switched with a suitcase full of pastries carried by the No-Maj (the American term for Muggles) Jacob Kowalski, who accidentally releases several of the magical creatures within it. One of these animals is the adorable Niffler, which has the appearance of an echidna and the personality of a magpie, amassing all the gold and jewels it finds into its bottomless pouch.

And thus begins a hunt for the missing creatures throughout the city, with the help of Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein, her Legilimens (telepathic) sister “Queenie,” and Jacob.

fantastic-beasts-still

Right from the start one finds the distinction Rowling draws between the North American and European wizardly worlds. From the use of terminology for regular humans (muggles vs. no-maj), to the American wizards governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which is headed by a president. There is even a squabble at one point between Newt and Queenie over which wizarding school is the best in the world. Of course, Newt represents Hogwarts while Queenie argues for the recently introduced and still unfamiliar Ilvermorny.

Some aspects of the world-building cross the geographical borders, such as the Deathly Hallows sigil and the name dropping of Albus Dumbledore. Others transcend time and begin to create a sense of interconnectedness with the future, occurring in the form of a photograph Newt carries with him of Leta Lestrange, as he later admits, a past love from his Hogwarts years that ended poorly.

These differences and connections within the plot cannot compare to the most important difference of all: that of the quality of the story. Rowling presents a much more measured and sophisticated approach to magic, making it feel magical and all-encompassing in a way that doesn’t bombard one with a dazzling show of gimmicks and terminology as the Harry Potter series did. Instead time is taken to show the inside of Newt’s suitcase, to explore the nooks and crannies of it and develop a personal attachment to the creatures living inside it, giving a detailed example of the Undetectable Extension charm which was previously only vaguely shown in Hermione’s bag.

There is also a greater sense of order—or lack thereof—and consequence in the movie. The character of Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an order that that fights to draw New York’s attention to the existence of witches, adds a touch of urgency to the story. She was a reminder that the threat of exposure and negative influence of no-majs on the wizards was just as significant as the threat wizards posed to each other.

fantastic-beasts-still-2

I can find few qualms in the movie, and even those are more technical than they are glaring plot errors. The obsession with darkness and dark scenes grew to be a bit much at certain points, making some scenes difficult to make out visually. The casting of Johnny Depp was another reason for confusion. His appearance in the film and just in general were unpleasant, by the bleached hair, eyebrows, and moustache, while his last words “Will we die just a little?” were delivered in a muffled manner that was also contextually disappointing.

These had little impact on the movie, which was a well-crafted story of adult wizards and witches from beginning to end. It did have the quality of a prologue to it, and some may find it to lack action while stressing the informative tone, but that is to be expected of a movie that is not only part of a series but is also introducing a new side of the wizarding world.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them balances the familiar with the new, the former used more as a strategy to make the viewer more comfortable with the latter. It isn’t a crutch but rather a reminder that there is always room to create new worlds, characters, and plots, which is exactly what Rowling was able to achieve. The fact that she wrote the screenplay gave the movie a quality of confidence and authenticity, strengthening the sense of magic and wonder it already possessed.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

The Poor Teaching Practices of Professor Dumbledore

dumbledore
Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was a great man. A champion of wizard and muggle rights, defender of the innocent, genius, scholar, warrior, philosopher, and general. Founder of the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore single-handedly stopped the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s reign of terror, kept the dangerous Elder Wand safe from those who would abuse its power, and waged two wars against the Dark Lord Voldemort (yeah, I can say his name) over a period of twenty years, even giving his life in order to stop the darkness.

Dumbledore’s life stood for kindness and compassion for others, and the value and power of love. I love him and I will challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel. And yet… how well suited was Dumbledore to be the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

Here, to the detriment of my own soul, I admit that as great a man as Dumbledore undoubtedly was, he wasn’t a very good headmaster.

Let us start with the dangers that Dumbledore allowed into his school. Does everyone remember in The Philosopher’s Stone when three eleven year old children stumbled into a room that held a gigantic, vicious three-headed dog? I sure do, that book was great. But you might be shouting, “Fluffy and the other traps were there to protect the philosophers stone you moron!”. And yes, I know this.

It was a very decent thing of Professor Dumbledore to do, to keep safe the most important possession of a dear friend against the forces of evil. But…why exactly did Dumbledore decide to do this in a school? Yeah sure, he mentioned at the feast that year that the third floor was out of bounds to any who didn’t want to suffer a horrible death. This is a school full of children! It was wildly inappropriate for Dumbledore to hide the philosopher’s stone inside of the school where his priority should be the children. Yes, he had the best intentions, but he still endangered the lives of his students in order to prevent the return of Lord Voldemort.

Also, speaking of monsters, remember how there was a giant child-killing snake hiding in the Hogwarts castle? The first time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, Dumbledore was a professor! A child was killed, and that was absolutely out of his hands. But later, once the attacks stopped, Dumbledore just kind of went, “Well, I know there is a child-killing monster somewhere in this castle. Neat.” and he did nothing about it! There is no evidence that in the fifty years between the times the chamber was opened that Albus ever so much as peeked under a bed to try and look for it.

Now we must come to Dumbledore’s teaching practices. Professor Quirrell can be excused, as he was hired before supergluing the Dark Lord to his head. I will also fight anyone who says it was inappropriate to hire Remus Lupin. Even Hagrid I would say was a perfectly decent choice for the Magical Creature’s professor, although some limits as to what he was allowed to teach at what level (and what he was allowed to breed) should have been firmly put in place before Hagrid accepted the job.

So this leaves us with six teachers we know were hired by Albus Dumbledore during his tenure as headmaster of Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Severus Snape, Gilderoy Lockhart, Sybill Trelawney, Firenze, Mad-Eye Moody, and Horace Slughorn.

The most obvious and insane mistake of Dumbledore’s hirings: Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart, who is a barely-competent wizard, a selfish fraud, and a charlatan, is hired by Albus Dumbledore, a man adept in seeing through people, has the power to read minds, and hopefully the ability to check references. What on earth prompted Dumbledore to hire a man who is so obviously incompetent that a bunch of twelve year olds figured it out after a couple weeks of lessons? Really, there are only two possible explanations.

  1. He did it because it was funny. Yes, Albus has a great sense of humour. No, it should not be at the cost of the education of the youth under his care. Or…
  2. Dumbledore thought Lockhart was very pretty, and so hired him on the basis of how pretty he was. This is horrible and his students suffered as a result, though admittedly, since I too am hoping to get by in life by being so very pretty, it does give me hope for my future.

Sybil Trelawney is a true psychic. Indeed, it was her prophecy which caused the deaths of James and Lily Potter, and ensured that their son Harry would be the one to bring about the downfall of Lord Voldemort. Knowing her importance, Dumbledore agreed to hire her as the divination professor in order to keep her safe from Voldemort’s forces.

But just to be clear, so far as Dumbledore is aware, Trelawney has only ever made one real prophecy in her life. Albus believes that the rest of the time, Trelawney is a fake. He does not hire her to teach his students, he hires her as a chess piece in his war against Voldemort. An asset in a supernatural war is really not a good reason to hire a bad educator.

Now how about Mad-Eye Moody, eh? Yes, I know Moody himself never got a chance to teach since he had been secretly replaced a Death Eater. That wasn’t the real Mad-Eye. But we still meet the real Mad-Eye Moody in later books. We get to see how paranoid, abrupt, and extreme he is. This is a man with intense PTSD from his time as an officer of the law. He is brilliant, but he is also prone to violence, shouting, and telling people that someone is going to come and try to kill them at any moment.

Albus Dumbledore thought it would be cool to put this man in charge of eleven year old children. Maybe I’m being judgmental here, and it could have turned out that if given the chance, Mad-Eye would have been a great teacher and had hidden talents in working with youth.

But I don’t think so.

And finally: Snape and Slughorn.

Slughorn is a more than competent potions master. He is perfectly capable to do the job he has been hired to do and, creepily making students join his pseudo-cult aside, he seems like a good teacher. But this is not why Dumbledore hires Slughorn. Slughorn is actually hired so that Dumbledore can have Harry Potter extract a memory from the old professor, so that Albus may confirm his theory on Voldemort’s seven horcruxes. Slughorn is hired so that Albus can continue the fight against Voldemort. It had nothing to do with his teaching ability.

And finally, Snape. Snape, who is Dumbledore’s valued spy. Snape, who Dumbledore entrusts with both his life and his death. Snape, who brutally tortures the child of the woman he loved, just because she didn’t love him back. Snape, who was biased in the classroom, cruel, and abusive. Snape, who made thirteen year old Neville Longbottom more afraid of his teacher than anything else in the universe.

I understand that Snape was ultimately not the villain he pretended to be. Snape did what he needed to do on Dumbledore’s orders. He was an excellent spy and soldier. But he was a terrible teacher. Maybe Harry could forgive Snape for his treatment of children, but I can’t. Dumbledore brought Snape to Hogwarts to fight a war against evil, and they won. But he did so at the cost of allowing a teacher to bully his students until they trembled when he approached.

I will never forgive Snape for being the thing that the Bogart became at the sight of Neville.

If there is an underlying theme of my criticism of the headmaster, I think it is that Dumbledore often put his fight against evil over the safety and education of his students. Yes, he did the right thing, he stopped a terrible dark wizard from destroying his people. Albus worked as hard as he could, and saved as many as he could. But really, did he do so as a teacher? No. Many of his hiring practices were to do with fighting evil, which was good for the fight, but bad for the school.

Dumbledore might have turned down the position of Minister of Magic, believing he could not be trusted with power. But really, it might not have been a bad idea to go and run the war from the Ministry instead of the school. If anything else, he could have at least found a place for that giant three-headed dog where an eleven year old girl couldn’t break the lock.

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Great man. Lousy school administrator.

 

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Embracing The Hag: Feminist Implications Of Proto-Pagan Ritual

winter-hag
Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Mythologies across the world have stories from before the regular pantheon. Before the Norse gods there were frost giants, and before Zeus there was Cronos and the Titans.

The Winter Hag, or Cailleach, is an ancient deity, a goddess of winter and the land who predates even the earliest Celtic pantheon of spirits. My aunt Valeria—an expert on mythology through her own religious practices—once told me a folktale all about how no one could recall the Winter Hag’s age.

The story goes: One day, a parish priest visited Cailleach’s house to asks how old she was. The woman replied that she couldn’t quite remember, but every year on her birthday she would kill a cow and throw the thigh bone in her attic. So if he wanted to, he could go up to the attic and count the bones. In the end the priest sent his assistant to go, and the last anyone heard, the young priest is still counting.

It’s a joke, but it accurately represents the proto-age of the mythos. A dark, scary earth mother from a cold, ancient time where the harsh northern winters of Ireland and Scotland could easily kill. She sleeps throughout the summer and returns in late fall to bring winter across the land.

My aunt has been interested in the legends of the Winter Hag for years. Fittingly, we sat down by the fireplace on a winter night with a glass of wine and talked a lot about the evolution of religion, and how deities are shaped to fit the lands they’re brought to through diaspora and travel. The Winter Hag comes from Ireland and Scotland and was such an integral part of the land there, but being adopted by practitioners across the world shapes the mythology, in much the same way that European and American Christian practices can be so different.

The Winter Hag’s mythology predates the maiden/mother/crone archetypes defining so many women in folklore. These proto-deity earth mothers are found throughout mythologies and come from a time when land was central to existence. The Hag is her own woman, having many lives, faces, and facets representing the whole of her experiences on earth. She’s the grandmother, the spinner, and the weaver, similar to the Fates in other mythologies.

Her appearance is described in the tale of Beira, Queen of Winter as that of a very old, wrinkled woman with a blue face and one eye. In Norse mythology, as recounted in James Weigel’s Mythology, the god Odin shares this feature, having traded his other eye for wisdom.

According to the Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, the name Cailleach means “old woman” in Modern Gaelic, but comes from an older word for “veiled one.” But rather than veiled out of modesty, like the Catholic nuns who came to populate the insular world once Christianity spread across pagan lands, the Winter Hag covers herself in a veil of mystery. She isn’t about hiding her appearance, and neither is it the practice of those who worship her. Valeria described how some contemporary rituals involve looking deep into a mirror to really look at yourself and see the strength of all the qualities you’ve acquired in your life. Seeing Cailleach in yourself means seeing – and accepting – yourself for who you really are.

The stories of the Hag are helpful guidelines when looking at aging, mortality, and change. Old age and ugliness can be seen as terrible things, especially for women in contemporary society. “There’s a lot of this identity where your value as a human being is about being sexually attractive to men,” Valeria mentioned. She feels that, as women grow older, they grow more invisible, but also that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can help take focus off of physical appearance, one of many, many aspects of womanhood. “And you get less focus from creepy men,” she laughs, but it is very true.

A lot of the “fear” of the elderly comes from a fear of death. But, as in the case of the Winter Hag, age can indicate how long you’ve survived just as much as it indicates how close to death you are. It’s good for old and young people to share each other’s strength, and it benefits folklore, stories, and wisdom. I experienced this firsthand while I talked to Valeria; I learned about mythology, but I also gained a better perspective on the relationships between youth and age.

The story of the Winter Hag is all about teaching each other from experiences and accepting aging and changing. This folklore came to Valeria at a point in her life when she was accepting change and becoming an elder within her community; it really made her think about the passage of time – in stories and community – and everyone’s place within it. She’s going to be a grandmother soon, which puts it all into a concrete perspective. It’s similar to the sense in which you’re a different person now than you were in high school, but you’re also still the same person. You are aging and growing, both spiritually and physically.

Winter is resisted the same way aging is. But if it was always summer, and we were always young, the natural balance would be upset. “Part of embracing the hag is accepting the seasons and appreciating what winter offers us,” Valeria reminds me. I offer up the idea that winter functions as a “palate cleanser” for all the emotional strife that summer always brings me; something to wipe away all the drama and leave you ready to start over again. Valeria agrees, “If it was always summer it would be out of balance.” The unchanging can only offer so much.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

The Old Gods and the New: Religion in Westeros and Beyond

the-old-gods
Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Just as George R. R. Martin draws inspiration from real-world history and politics to add depth to his world in A Song of Ice and Fire (or, as HBO would prefer, Game of Thrones), so too does he look to real-world religions.

Religion, a central aspect of medieval culture, is also an important theme throughout A Song of Ice and Fire: it pushes the story along, develops characters, and fleshes out an immensely complex world. Many different faiths are depicted and are all shown to have their own power, whether it be politically, in the strength of their followers, or magically.

Drawing from the books and the show, here are three of the major religions in the series, the roles they play within the story, and their real-life historical and contemporary counterparts.

1. The Drowned God 

We Do Not Sow

The Drowned God is worshipped on the Iron Islands, one of the only parts of Westeros to resist the conquest of the Faith of the Seven. The Ironborn culture is one of reaving and taking; they are conquerors. Their god reflects their maritime lifestyle, and his priests are called Drowned Men. The Drowned God is in constant conflict with another deity, the Storm God:

“From the sea had come the ironborn, and the fish that sustained them even in the depths of winter, but storms brought only woe and grief.”

The Drowned God’s watery halls

In Norse mythology, one of the gods of the sea was Aegir. His wife, Rán, was a goddess of death who used a net to bring the drowned to feast and drink mead in her and Aegir’s great hall below the waves – an underwater Valhalla. Much of the Ironborn culture reflects that of the Vikings, and similarly the Drowned God welcomes drowned men into his halls. When Balon Greyjoy, former king of the Iron Islands, is pushed from a bridge and dies, it’s said that “he feasts now in the Drowned God’s watery halls.”

Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel

When Theon Greyjoy first returns to the Iron Islands in A Clash of Kings, he meets his uncle Aeron, a priest, who baptises him with the salt water Drowned Men carry as holy water, blessing him and bringing him back into the culture and faith he was taken from as a child.

Being baptized to the Drowned God is violent. “Fill your lungs with water, that you may die and be reborn. It does no good to fight,” says Aeron during a baptism in A Feast For Crows. As children, Ironborn are sometimes baptized gently, with a dab of water similar to Christian baptisms, but Aeron and other devotees look down on these. In both practices, baptism and holy water are key rituals for integrating people into the religion.

2. The Faith of the Seven

The dominant religion in Westeros, the Faith, is common everywhere except in the Iron Islands and the North. In structure and its role in society, it is similar to the Catholic Church of medieval Europe, holding a powerful place politically and socially. At the head of the Faith is the High Septon, who serves like a pope. Female members of the clergy are called Septas and usually serve as governesses to noble families; the Stark girls were taught by Septa Mordane.

Seven Faces

The Seven are seven facets of one god: the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Smith, the Maiden, the Crone, and the Stranger. These seven faces are similar to the Christian Holy Trinity, where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God, though the seven have more distinct roles. A follower of the Faith may pray to the Crone for wisdom or the Warrior for military victory.

The High Sparrow

The rising tension between church and state becomes a major conflict as the series progresses and is at the heart of the King’s Landing story in season six. The High Sparrow and his Faith Militant act as an inquisition, intent on bringing faith-imposed justice for a myriad of political and religious reasons in the same way the medieval inquisitions started by the Catholic church fought against heresy with violence and torture.

3. The Lord of Light

R’hllor, the Lord of Light, is a strange, foreign deity who isn’t well-understood in Westeros, but is widespread in Essos. The basis of the religion is the conflict between R’hllor and The Great Other, who brings darkness and death. The mythology of this faith is also a metaphor for the central conflict of the series: the fight between fire and ice, dragons and White Walkers, life and death. Red Priests and Priestesses work with fire as a divination method, using the flames to see what the Lord has to show them and its cleansing power to sacrifice non-believers.

The Night is Dark, and Full of Terrors

Melisandre, a priestess who is the main voice of R’hllor in the series, uses potions and tricks for show, but is very capable of real magic – surviving deadly poison, casting glamour charms to make one man look like another, and, in the show, bringing back the dead. Similarly, Thoros of Myr continually brings Beric Dondarrion back to life, and, in the books, does the same with Catelyn Stark after her murder at the Red Wedding.

Fire, light, and rebirth are key motifs throughout this religion’s folklore and the central theme of light against dark is universal in the real world as much as it is in Martin’s fiction. Dualities, such as God and Satan, enlightenment and suffering, fire and ice, life and death, are integral to mythology.

Rebirth

In the New Testament, Jesus rises from the dead and will come again to the world. In Essos legends, Azor Ahai is a legendary hero who sacrificed his wife with his sword, Lightbringer, in order to bring light to the world when all was dark. The world starts out dark in the Old Testament too, before God creates light. Azor, as God, as Prometheus, will be born again to fight off the terrible dark of the long winter looming over Westeros.

Melisandre believes Stannis to be Azor Ahai reborn. Some claim it is Daenerys Targaryen after she rose unharmed from a pyre with three dragons. But if season six is anything to go by, it may end up being Jon Snow who is Azor Ahai, reborn to lead the fight against the White Walkers before a rapture of night and ice overtakes the world.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege