Friday, March 27, 2009

The Dark Is Rising*

I am going to start making book recommendations through the titles of my blog posts. Each title will be the name of a book and will reflect a topic I wish to address. I will try to always include a small blurb at the end of each entry about the book I’ve included. For this entry, I’ve chosen The Dark Is Rising because it is the perfect lead-in to talk about villains, and a perfect title/theme to counterpoint my blog post “Esperanza Rising.”

There’s an interesting line from the movie The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” One thing I’ve learned from my reading experience is that the line between hero and villain is actually a lot thinner than most readers realize. In fact, I would argue that the best villains are the ones most like their respective heroes.

Take, for instance, the Queen from Snow White. Beauty is the defining characteristic of both the Queen and Snow White and the key to each women’s rise to power. It’s a simple comparison, but we’re talking about a fairy tale with a basic story line, so the comparison works. Think about it: the Queen, perhaps, was a carbon copy of Snow White when she was a young girl. But that’s where the similarities end. In contrast, for the Queen, beauty is a curse that leads to vanity and jealousy, but for Snow White it’s a blessing. She’s so beautiful, in fact, that the woodsman sent to kill her spares her out of mercy. Why is that?

And then there’s Star Wars, and the brilliance of that saga is that the villain is the hero. It is Anakin’s story after all, not Luke’s. Luke just carries the saga forward in the middle of the story, in place of his father, and acts as Darth Vader’s means of redemption. The story is not complete until Anakin’s story is fully told. Furthermore, the Darth Vader/Luke dynamic only proves the hero-villain theory that the best duos are more alike than different: both are powerful, with similar Jedi training. They even share the same genes! But they use the same means to achieve different ends.

Returning to The Dark Knight: What is it that causes a hero to become the villain? And conversely, what prompts a villain to redeem himself, as Darth Vader does? To explain, I’m reminded of another line from another story: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

That, of course, is a line from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I love that book particularly for its hero-villian conflict, as Harry debates whether or not he should have been a Slytherin. The idea of choices is what Chamber of Secrets--and the difference between a hero and a villain--boils down to. The best hero-villain pairs are those who clearly illustrate the choice between good and evil, which is the essence of truth. And they illuminate truth by showing us the same situation with vastly different outcomes.

Yes, Dumbledore is a wise man indeed.

Note: The Dark is Rising is the title of the fantasy series by Susan Cooper. The Dark Is Rising is also the name of the second book in the series.

Update: Looks like Entertainment Weekly stole my topic this week. Check it out here: http://www.ew.com/ew/inside/issue/0,,ewTax:1041,00.html

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Esperanza Rising*


Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope, so it’s easy to deduce from the title Esperanza Rising that the story will be, well, hopeful. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. . . . right? Unfortunately, in this day and age, nothing is that cut-and-dry. There’s always a cynic. (Gee, that was a very cynical thing to say.)

The phrase “happily ever after” either makes you leap for joy, or makes you cringe. Maybe a little of both.

What is a happy ending? To me, a happy ending is one that does not make you a cynic. Under that definition, even some sad endings can qualify. Also under that definition, even some so-called “happy” endings DON’T qualify. So don’t think I’m trying to say that all stories should end in “happily ever after.”

So, let’s define “happy.” Off the top of my head, I can think of these categories of what, to me, qualifies as a happy ending.

Bittersweet: A Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, Titanic

Inspirational: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, sports movies like Rudy or Remember the Titans

Happily ever after: Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

“Life goes on”: Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting

Cinderella is usually the model people use when discussing happy endings, and I think that is because the story is often used on both sides of the debate. On one hand, Cinderella is considered the ultimate happily ever after, but on the flip side, Cinderella is an example of a “bad” happy ending. The example of Cinderella is proof to me of how optimists see the world one way and cynics another. I can usually tell a cynic from an optimist depending on if they like or dislike the Cinderella story.

I like to think of Cinderella’s cynics as ugly-stepsister-caricature types who are so jealous of Cinderella’s beauty, long-suffering, kindness, friendships, and good fortune that their only excuse is that Cinderella is an impossible standard (because they are inferior themselves). I see more good than bad. But that’s just me.

The sad part is, cynics use Cinderella as a blanket excuse to reject all happily ever afters. But not every happy ending follows the Cinderella model, as I’ve pointed out. Hope, esperanza, is the common thread. Cynicism seems to me to be the lazy way out the more I read. A cynical ending is simply one where the author didn’t go far enough to discover the hope, and if he had gone just a little bit farther, he might have found it. Happy endings are tough to find and to pull off, but well worth the payoff.

And so I leave you with this book recommendation, Esperanza Rising, a riches-to-rags story that is like Cinderella in reverse. I promise there will be a happy ending, but you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what kind of happy it is.

*Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is about a girl from a well-to-do Mexican family who is forced to move to America and become a field worker in California after a devastating family tragedy.