Impractical Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

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Well, do you? Really?

The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.

Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.

For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.

Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.

It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.

In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.

And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.

In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.

Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.

And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.

Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?

Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?

Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.

All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.

Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.

Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna  live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.

In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”

What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker


Calling All Storytellers: An Original, Contemporary Fairy Tale, Please!

When I think of fairy tales, I think of mythical creatures, anthropomorphic objects and animals, happy endings, and valuable lessons fully revealed at the end. The ones recorded  by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault have justifiably become classic fairy tales, with great popularity and numerous literary, film, musical, and theatre adaptations. Recently, the musical film Into the Woods, which came out on December 25, 2014, was a crossover adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ “Cinderella”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Rapunzel”. That film was in fact an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, which was itself an adaptation of James Lapine’s book of the same name. And that’s just one specific revival of the classic fairy tales.

On the top of my head, within the past decade (give or take a couple of years) these are some of the film adaptations of fairy tales: Ella Enchanted, Enchanted, A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story, Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, Beastly, the four Shrek films, the three recent Disney princess films, and so many others. And apparently there’s going to be more film adaptations this year, including one of Cinderella and one of Beauty and the Beast, which I’m not too surprised about; these fairy tales are as old as time with practically no copyright laws, and they help today’s storytellers get their creative minds going with at least the basis for a story.

But where are the contemporary fairy tales?

How can there be so many adaptations, but no new, original stories? Surely some brave people have attempted to create fairy tales with new teachings of morality that are relevant to our time. Yes, some of the aforementioned (and other) adaptations of the classic fairy tales may have snuck in an extra moral lesson or two, like Disney’s Frozen with its rejection of the idea of love at first sight. But where are the fairy tales with their own original premises and new, relevant moral lessons?

As you try to think of those fairy tales of our time, keep in mind that fairy tales are short stories. I was almost going to pose the idea of The Lord of the Rings as a fairy tale, after seeing it listed as a fairy tale on Wikipedia (another reason to take Wikipedia’s words with a grain of salt). If you think about it, it does fit the genre, especially since J. R. R. Tolkien’s own definition of ‘fairy stories’ from his 1965 essay “On Fairy-Stories” describes his own literary works so well. But then I remembered that fairy tales are short stories. Oops.

Unfortunately, short stories aren’t taking the world by storm as novels and novellas are doing, so we could have missed those brilliant contemporary fairy tales. The only fairy tale-like short story I can think of on the spot is The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch. You know, that princess that teenage girls dressed up as for Halloween in high school. It’s a short story because it’s a children’s picture book, it has fairy tale elements and motifs, and it teaches girls the valuable lesson that women don’t need a man to rescue them because women are capable of helping themselves. It seems like it could be the first of our contemporary fairy tales.

Now all we need are fairy tales with moral teachings on equity and diversity, discovering one’s actual passion(s), integrity in one’s work (to be applicable to any kind of work), making the choice between what’s right and what’s easy (thanks, Rowling, but maybe a short story with that lesson for the children would be best), and on feminist values (because The Paperbag Princess really only made the prince a wimp for comical effect and wouldn’t be proper in relating the genders equally).

I certainly haven’t read all of the fairy tales ever published (yet), so perhaps one of them was progressive for its time. But if not, do you know of any short stories that could be classified as contemporary fairy tales? And is there a valuable teaching pertinent to our time that I missed and should be the moral of a fairy tale? Let me know!

-contributed by Brenda Bongolan

Sandman : Handful of Dust

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When a young Neil Gaiman first approached Vertigo comics about The Sandman, he was pitching a simple revival of the 70s series of the same name by Joe Simon and Jack “The King” Kirby. But DC editor Karen Berger insisted that while they keep the name, Gaiman should create a new character.

And thank goodness he did, for otherwise the world would have been robbed of something beautiful. Running from 1989 to 1996, for a total 75 issues collected in 10 volumes, The Sandman managed to create its very own expansive self-contained mythology.

The original artists Mike Dringenberg and Sam Kieth fashioned the title character after Gaiman himself. The Sandman, also known as Morpheus or Dream, and by many other names, carries with him an aura of inhumanity. While early issues exist in the DC comic universe with appearances by The Martian Manhunter and John Constantine (hellblazer), the creators quickly realized that Sandman should be a world unto itself, and so that is what it became. Sandman used several different types of stories to keep itself going and to keep it feeling new and alien all the way through to its final issue, but over its run, three types of stories were prevalent.

The Sandman was able to hold on to many overlapping threads throughout its near decade-long run, with characters who appeared in early issues later returning to have their stories told in elaborate detail. This worked well for the first main kind of story that was used. While several volumes are focused on the Sandman himself, there are also a number of stories in which the title character only appears in a minor capacity, and sometimes he fails to appear at all, instead being merely alluded to or referenced by the other characters. These stories were all set in the present and centered on ordinary people who are pulled into problems or adventures that they don’t understand, becoming involved with magic and monsters.

But even when Dream himself didn’t appear, Gaiman never lost focus on what the series was about. Even in these more domestic stories, the focus is on these ordinary people’s dreams, and the effect that dreams can have on the waking world. Whether it be the story of a young woman named Barbie who becomes trapped in her own dreaming, or of a girl named Rose who finds herself with mysterious powers, the underlying idea behind the story is always clear—what is important are the dreams that these characters have, and how these dreams provide a glimpse into the effect that Dream has on the world he inhabits .

The next kind of story that Gaiman used most often involves the various preexisting mythologies that the world has to offer. In The Sandman, the deities from various cultures and mythologies coexist. This allows Dream to engage with different stories from various mythologies, and allows Gaiman to teach the reader about histories and mythologies that they might not have been exposed to otherwise.

The Sandman also includes Biblical figures such as Cain and Able, who in the series exist as servants to Dream in his mystical realm. Cain is doomed to always kill his brother and Able is doomed to be endlessly resurrected. The devil himself is a key figure in several volumes, with Dream actually visiting hell to sort out his conflicts with the infamous fallen angel Lucifer. One such conflict is when Lucifer decides to retire and leaves Dream in charge of hell, leading to all sorts of problems .

Dream also has stories with characters cut from Egyptian mythology, such as the cat god Bast, and characters from Norse mythology, such as Thor, Odin, and Loki, with the latter two becoming important figures in The Sandman’s later volumes. The three Fates from ancient Greek mythology also figure, and in the end they become Dream’s most important foes.

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But the third—and probably my personal favorite—kind of narrative that The Sandman employs is historical: the blending of the Sandman’s unique and eerie magic with historical figures and events. This is used to showcase the Kings of Rome and Marco Polo, and, most notably, is used when Morpheus visits the dreams of William Shakespeare, helping to inspire some of the famous playwright’s most beloved works. In issue 19, collected in the third volume Dream Country, Shakespeare’s company puts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Morpheus, with actual Fairy Folk sneaking into production. This issue is the only comic book to ever win the World Fantasy Award.My favorite example of this blending of history and fantasy will always be from Volume 6, Fables and Reflections, in which Dream inspires the broken and suicidal Joshua Abraham Norton in the year of 1859 to become the self-proclaimed Emperor of America, a real historical figure who solved social disputes in the city of San Francisco.

The Sandman is an intelligent, unnerving saga that follows an inhuman, monstrous magical figure. It traces his deeds and misdeeds throughout history with his siblings Destiny, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, and Death. The Sandman is a unique and beautiful series, and should always be remembered both as one of Gaiman’s crowning achievements and as one of the greatest creations of the comic book medium.

-contributed by Ben Ghan

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Grew Up

Illustration by Dorothy Anne Manuel.

I think I speak for all of us when I say that we all struggle to find our footing in the world during the transition from childhood to adulthood. Growing up to become an adult is a difficult and arduous journey that forces us to decide whether to hold on to our childhood self or to let it go. Most often, we are forced to stuff the child into the deepest recesses  of our brain, where we hope to forget them so that we can move on with our adulthood.

Now I know I’ve painted a dark picture, but the truth seldom shines in the light. However, there is one question that is worth asking: why are we forced to suppress our childhood self? Why are we forced to grow up only to fulfill societal expectations that may not suit all of us?

The answer can be found in one powerful tale that tells the story of a boy who chose not to grow up: Peter Pan. We’ve all read or heard of this story by Scottish novelist J. M. Barrie, but few of us may have thought about the overarching statement that Barrie is trying to make about the many reasons for and against growing up and what ‘growth’ really means. I’ll present just one theory that looks at the other side of the story: the side that explores why Peter left, and what that may potentially reveal about ourselves.

Barrie writes that Peter left his parents as an infant, because he heard them talking about his impending transition into a man and couldn’t bear going through with it. We are led to believe that he left because he didn’t want to grow up. But what if he left because he specifically did not want to grow into his parents and society’s definition of a man?

If we closely examine Peter’s adventures in Neverland, we can see that he does grow—he grows up psychically  but not physically. He leads a group of lost boys, fights Captain Hook, and saves people. Granted, all of these tasks are not seen as typical adult responsibilities, but that is only so in the eyes of society. Peter became what he believed he wanted to be. He became a man on his own terms. Even though it seems he never grows up, he displays strength, courage, care, and love. He even has a friendship with Tinker Bell, proving that he can be in relationship. Peter retains all the qualities a grown man has without ever giving up on the child in himself.

From the perspective of our society, we would declare Peter a child. Why? Because he doesn’t have a paying job. Because he doesn’t have a family. Because he is uneducated. Because he’s irresponsible. But again, all these limitations are only set by our society. Now, I am not saying that we should overthrow the system, but I think we should acknowledge that sometimes we don’t want to be the responsible, mature adults society tells us we have to be. Sometimes we just want to be ourselves, stripped bare from the expectations and responsibilities of our society.

Peter’s journey is not just one of a boy to a man, but also one of finding who we are when we are not society’s usual nine-to-five  working citizen with a nuclear family, a post-secondary degree, and relationship issues. His journey is about finding out what we can be when we are not any of these things.

Peter Pan says more than what it initially appears to say. Society presents us with many images  of middle-class working conditions, minimum wages, brick houses, and a family, and leaves out the possibility of individual growth. I realize that somehow or the other we all have to conform to society’s ideals of a grown adult in order to survive, but that does not mean that we must forsake who we want to be as an individual. That does not mean that we have to forsake our childhood self in order to make room for our adult self. And it does not mean that we are all just working-class  students with nothing more to offer.

Peter left because there was no room for him to grow in his society, and we, too, must occasionally seek out a reprieve from our collective identity as working adults with familial and financial responsibilities in order to discover that we can be who we want to be, independent of society’s demands and conditions. So take a trip to a nearby park or mountain, hike, go camping, go to the playground, go bungee jumping, write a book, or make music—do what makes you happy, regardless of what society dictates. After all, Peter found his Neverland, and it’s time we find ours.

Ever since we began to understand the world, we became aware that there is already a plan for our future determined by our parents and by society. Growing up might be touted by them as a sacred process, but it’s tainted with their expectations of what a grown adult is and should be. We are taught that we need a degree and that we need a job so that we can nurture a family and die peacefully knowing that we lived the right life. But there is no semblance of who we are when we don’t want to do these things, when all we want is to revert back to being kids again. That’s what Peter’s tale is all about: how we can grow to be responsible and mature without ever having to forget or erase our childhood innocence and wonder.

 -contributed by Rashida Abbas

Getting Dragons on Screen: The Cycle of Readers and Viewers

At its birth, the literary elite refused to accept fantasy as a legitimate genre. Fire-barfing dragons, scantily clad elves, and steel-swinging hunks could not possibly make for capital “L” Literature. Even after the explosive popularity of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and yes, even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, fantasy remained at the fringe of critically acclaimed Literature. While Papa Tolkien, arguably the creator of the modern fantasy genre, and his peers became literary stars, fantasy did not quite manage to crack into mainstream culture.

Recently, something has changed and fantasy’s Berlin Wall has crumbled. What launched fantasy into the global consciousness? For better or worse, the answer is the screen.

Game of Thrones, the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, is the most watched television series on air. Martin popularized contemporary fantasy by breaking Tolkien’s rules against gore and sex. The Harry Potter movies, adapted from Rowling’s books, are some of highest grossing box office hits in history. The symbiotic cycle of page to screen transforms readers into viewers and viewers into readers. Screen adaptations spike book sales. You watch an episode of GoT then you buy the book. The opposite is true as well. You read a Harry Potter book then you watch the movies.

The mutually beneficial relationship between the book and the screen has marked adaptations, especially of fantasy works, as the safest way to make movies.

Hollywood and cable networks are hungry for surefire hits. Standalone movies are dangerous because their success is questionable. Studios may pour $100 million into a flick that may bomb in the box office. To circumvent this unpredictability, producers with dollar signs for pupils turn to books. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies. Besides religious texts like the Bible, it is one of the bestselling book ever. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit 107 million. No surprise, these colossally popular books were made into movies. Pre-awareness and preexisting audiences make screen adaptations of bestselling books a no brainer. The final Harry Potter movie and the last Lord of the Rings stand as 4th and 8th highest grossing movies of all time, sans inflation. Peruse the “now playing in a theatre near you” list and you’ll see that every other movie is “based on the novel by [insert bestselling author here].”

This trend of adapting books into movies is especially important to fantasy. Fantasy lends itself to the visual. Fantasy authors create entire worlds that ignite the mind’s eye and the filmmaker’s passion. Battle scenes, mystical landscapes, and explosive magic all sear their way into the reader’s brain and clamour for visual adaptation. On top of their already visual nature, our beloved fantasy books boast a plethora of devoted readers.

Tolkien and Rowling’s box office numbers prove that fantasy books are viable targets for adaptation. That said, we persnickety readers of fantasy have also proven that crappy adaptations of our favorite books will flop. Movies like Eragon, The Golden Compass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Brothers Grimm, Inkheart, Beautiful Creatures, and Mortal Instruments all wheezed their way through pathetic box office showings and endured countless critical lashings. Look any of these adaptations up on Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll cringe.

All in all, however popular it is, cultivating a successful screen adaptation of fantasy works is treacherous. Hollywood gurus option boatloads of New York Times bestselling fantasy works. While oftentimes, nothing comes of these options, we can expect a tsunami of our pet books to either drown us in their fetid waters or buoy us up into imaginative ecstasy. Either way, wear a lifejacket.

-contributed by Danny Vedova

The Ghosts’ High Noon: Supernatural Elements in the Operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan

In late Victorian England, the world of operetta was dominated by the comic works of writer W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. Their shows were some of the most popular of both their time and ours, and were literary and musical masterpieces, often with a heavy dose of satire. Across twenty-five years and fourteen original shows (though the music to their first, Thespis, is now lost), they satirized the government, the military, etiquette, culture, the class system, and controversial issues of the times like evolution and feminism.

Their stories and characters are quintessentially Victorian, even those set in Japan, Venice, or the Middle Ages, or those which involved elements of the otherworldly.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s third collaboration was The Sorcerer, which revolves around the actions of one John Wellington Wells (of J. W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers) and a magic potion that makes everyone fall in love with the first person they see. The potion was originally called for to illustrate that things like class and wealth should have no bearings on love, but of course, things did not go entirely according to plan and everyone ended up terribly mismatched. Gilbert later considered reusing the gimmick of a magic potion or object, though nothing came of this.

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The supernatural elements of the show were well-received by both the public and critics. “In a work full of droll originality there is nothing more original than the figure of the Sorcerer himself,” said an early review in The Pall Mall Gazette. It also praised the acting of George Grossmith, who would become a Gilbert and Sullivan regular. Grossmith, who played the titular sorcerer, was called “grotesque and wizard-like enough”, and his portrayal was described as having “a strange effect, like some of Hoffmann’s tales, in which the most ordinary incidents of every-day life are closely interwoven with ideas and apparitions from another world.”

Some successful years later they premiered Iolanthe, which used the supernatural for satire to the greatest extent out of all their shows. Young Strephon, in order to win back the favour of his beloved, enlists the help of the Queen of the Fairies and her court. Strephon’s mother is Iolanthe herself, and as such he is half fairy (his upper half). The fairies decide that Strephon will run for parliament, and surely with their assistance will command a majority and win back his girl. Soon the House of Lords and the fairy court are at the brink of war, before the conflict is resolved by a trifle and everyone happily married.

The presentation of the House of Lords as a collection of rich, incompetent fools bested by a group of fairies drew some criticism, as noted in the Ipswich Journal shortly after the show’s opening: “Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan will pursue no further this particular line. The collaborators have practically exhausted their whimsical vein of humour.”

Nonetheless, the show was quite popular and is regarded by many as one of their finest. The role of the fairies was also celebrated, as by The Pall Mall Gazette: “no difficulty attends their presence as witnesses in Chancery nor their ultimate marriage into the English peerage. That a directly satirical purpose underlies the extravagant conjunction Mr. Gilbert shows may be surmised.”

Gilbert and Sullivan’s final show featuring the supernatural was 1887’s Ruddigore; or, the Witch’s Curse. While The Sorcerer and Iolanthe are fantasy, Ruddigore is horror, to the extent that Vincent Price performed in a 1982 film version.

Ruddigore involves the Murgatroyds, who have been cursed for centuries by a witch whom Rupert Murgatroyd had burnt at the stake. The terms of the curse state that every Murgatroyd who holds the title of Baronet of Ruddigore must commit a crime every day or suffer a terrible fate at the ghostly hands of his predecessors. The current “bad baronet”, Sir Despard, only has the title because of his elder brother Ruthven’s unfortunate demise, but over the course of Act I it is revealed that Ruthven has been alive and living under an alias the whole time.

In Act II Ruthven, now Baronet of Ruddigore, lurks in the portrait gallery of his ancestors and is visited by their ghosts, who remind him of his criminal duty (false income-tax returns are not valid, because “everybody does that” ). But as always, a last-minute realization lifts the curse.

Ruddigore’s opening night was not received as well as Gilbert and Sullivan’s other shows, but the show was still praised, especially after some alterations were made to the plot (for one, it originally ended with the chorus of ghosts restored to life, which was subsequently changed). Early reviews praised much of the acting, singing, set, and costumes of the original run, as well as the first act. The melodramatic characters and rather jovial ghosts were appreciated by a Victorian public that was at the time very interested in the occult.

 -contributed by Risa Ian de Rege