Disney Reflections No.8: Never Trust a Wishing Star

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

Made in 2009, The Princess and the Frog marks the beginning of a new era. It is Disney’s first fairy tale to be set post-1900, the first to be set in America, and of course stars Disney’s first black princess. I was an adult when this one came out and only saw it once. Let’s see how it holds up to a rewatch.

The fairy tale: This movie is based on the fairy tale ‘The Frog Prince’ which I reviewed for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project alongside three other amphibian-themed stories. There are more of them than you might think.

http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20130709093254/disney/images/1/15/Princess-and-the-frog-disneyscreencaps.com-62.jpgThe film: It begins in New Orleans, in a house that’s pretty much a palace, in a bedroom that is the frothy pink dream of six-year-olds everywhere. Two little girls perch side by side, watching a seamstress finishing off a matching frothy pink costume while telling the story of a princess who kissed a frog and ended up with a handsome prince. Girl No.1 is Lottie, the intended owner of the dress, who cannot contain her delight at the happy ending. Girl No.2 is the seamstress’s daughter Tiana, who thinks kissing frogs is revolting. A chase ensues when Lottie traps her poor pet cat inside a frog mask and tries to make Tiana kiss it, while Tiana valiantly resists. Tiana’s mother wins my heart by rescuing the cat. Seriously, Disney, bullying cats is not amusing.

Tiana and her mother leave the sprawling mansions behind, catching the tram home to their own cramped little house, where Tiana focuses her remarkable powers of concentration on making the perfect pot of gumbo. Her dad, a passionate cook himself, is so impressed that he shares their dinner with the whole neighborhood. Later, he shows Tiana a picture of a glamorous restaurant and tells her one day they’ll be running a place like that. To prove it, he writes ‘Tiana’s Place’ across the top. She remembers one of Lottie’s fairy tales and scrambles to the window to wish on the evening star. All she gets is a frog. The universe has a childish sense of humour.

As an adult, Tiana has not given up on her dream, but she’s not relying on stars any more. Though her father has been lost to war, she is determined to open that restaurant and is working all hours to get there. The city of New Orleans gets in her way at every turn, from wannabe flash dancer musicians parading across her path to the dismissive cook at the diner where she waitresses. Her customer service ethic, and self-restraint in not dropping a coffee pot on the cook’s head, are awe-inspiring.

In direct contrast, Prince Naveen of nowhere-you’ve-ever-heard-of arrives in New Orleans to escape a fight with his parents, posing his handsome self for the waiting media then sloping off with a banjo to check out the local music scene and chat up pretty girls. His valet/ manager/ general dogsbody Lawrence trots sullenly in pursuit with the luggage. Lottie, who has not given up on her dream of snagging a hot prince, bursts into Tiana’s diner to share the glad tidings. Tiana’s had her own run-in with royalty, though she doesn’t know it – it lasted the two seconds it took for Tiana to roll her eyes at him.

She’s honestly not having a great day, what with the zero sleep and her friends trying to bully her into a social life she doesn’t have time for, but Lottie’s exuberant glee is an unstoppable whirlwind. Her doting father has invited the prince to that night’s masquerade party and Lottie, struck by inspiration, throws a small fortune at Tiana as payment for last-minute extra catering. The windfall is precisely what Tiana needs. She finally has enough money to buy her restaurant.

http://cdn2-b.examiner.com/sites/default/files/styles/image_content_width/hash/de/53/de53c0a5e09bea6e21697ae94967b58b.jpg?itok=WZ_HM7-0Which is not to say she can afford prime real-estate – the building she settles on is sort of a wreck. When Tiana’s mother arrives to celebrate the moment, giving Tiana her father’s beloved gumbo pot, all she can see are the cobwebs and rotting beams. Like Tiana’s friends, she thinks her daughter is working too hard and should be going out more, maybe finding a man…Tiana, though, is no stranger to fixer-uppers and sees an art deco masterpiece in the making. She patiently brushes off her mother’s hints. True love can wait – she’s got work to do.

Naveen, meanwhile, has pretty much the same thoughts only his version of ‘work’ is ‘run off with a bunch of buskers’. He’s the same brand of charming feckless as Lottie, only without the funds to back it up because his parents got sick of it and tied up the purse strings. Nor is Lottie the only one with designs upon the prince. A tall, mysterious man in a really menacing hat has been stalking Naveen all over town and now pounces, offering to read his future. Naveen holds true to form and bounces off down a dodgy alleyway with puppy dog enthusiasm. Lawrence tries to dissuade him, without success. Then he stops trying, because Mr Tall, Dark and Sinister – otherwise known as Doctor Facilier – is playing a double game. Laying out cards that promise a a financial windfall for Naveen, he deals a second hand to Lawrence, showing a life of ease and wealth…for a price. Both men agree. But as the spirits rise up to answer the fortune teller’s spell, Naveen realises just how dreadful a mistake he’s made.

The masquerade ball begins with no sign of its much-anticipated guest. Tiana is dressed up as a medieval handmaiden, dishing out cakes, while Lottie wears a grown-up version of the pink froth and panics over Naveen’s no-show. Her solution: wish on that star REALLY, REALLY hard. Tiana starts to point out http://img4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131106235226/disney/images/f/fc/Dibujo171,1.jpgthis may not be the most effective strategy ever when, because Lottie’s life works like this, Naveen appears from nowhere. Lottie whistles up a spotlight, tosses off some glitter and sashays off for her waltz. Tiana watches fondly, happy for her friend even if she doesn’t understand the dream at all.

Then her own dream is abruptly, brutally crushed by a pair of penny-pinching businessmen who calmly tell her that they’ve got a better offer for their property. She tries to chase after them, but gets knocked into her own cake stand instead. When Lottie dashes over to squee about Naveen, she sees her friend is splattered in icing and takes her upstairs, giving her a different dress. Too caught up in her own happiness to recognise Tiana’s misery, she then hurries back to the party. Tiana wanders onto the balcony, taking another look at that star. It’s got to be worth a try…

She gets a frog.

A talking, mildly lecherous frog. Reacting on behalf of all of us, she backs off and hurls Lottie’s old soft toys at it. Finally convincing her to stop, the frog explains himself – he is Prince Naveen, enchanted. If that’s so, Tiana wants to know who’s out there dancing with her best friend. Naveen doesn’t know – his priority is turning human again, and since he was also a fairy tale addict as a child, he has an answer. Tiana has to kiss him.

Thttp://online.wsj.com/media/princesskiss_E_20091213085142.jpgiana’s feelings on kissing frogs have not changed, especially not over-confident, pouty ones, but he’s a prince and she needs extra money to outbid her competitor so she screws up her nerve and goes for it. Poor Tiana. She has no idea, the movie’s only a third of the way through. Instead of turning Naveen human, the kiss turns her into a frog.

She is extremely not happy about this. The force of her rage sends both frogs spilling off the balcony, right into the middle of the party (and accidentally down Lottie’s dress). They escape on some balloons, and not a moment too soon, because the fake prince is none other than Lawrence and while he doesn’t particularly want Naveen dead, Doctor Facilier has no such compunctions. As long as Naveen’s blood marks the mask Lawrence wears around his neck, the enchantment will hold – but a free Naveen is a complication. And now, of course, Tiana is too.

Drifting around above a swamp, the prince and the waitress clear the air. He’s broke, she’s not a princess, they have absolutely no use for each other, and oh, while all that sniping is going on, the balloons have blown into a tree. A few seconds later, the frogs are face-first in the lagoon. This doesn’t improve their tempers. They try to continue the fight but everything wants to eat them and a grudging truce is in both their interests. They spend the night hiding in a hollow log, then in the morning Tiana builds a raft and Naveen makes himself another banjo from twigs.

His playing attracts the attention of an alligator. He does not want to eat anyone – he wants to fanboy over jazz. Naveen adopts him as an instant BFF, and expertly manipulates him into helping them find a more kindly disposed voodoo practitioner. After all, if a man can be turned into a frog, an alligator can be turned into a man, and then Louis can become the saxophonist he’s always dreamed of being. Tiana finds the pair of them very annoying. So do I. Naveen was sweet as a human being, but as a frog he’s a smarmy chauvinist with stupid pick-up lines. It almost makes Lawrence look good.

Except the power is draining from that mask and while Lottie is about as self-involved as they come, she does notice when her suitor’s ear pops out to twice its usual size. He distracts her by proposing marriage. Wouldn’t you know, it works. She shoves him off to revel in the moment, then dashes off to start planning her wedding. Lawrence reverts to his own form and Doctor Facilier broods over his failing plan. He’ll have to ask for help from his friends on the ‘Other Side’…

Back in the swamp, Naveen is enthusiastically experimenting with catching mosquitoes while Tiana’s frog tongue betrays her chef brain and follows suit. They go for the same insect, their tongues get all tangled up and a very chatty firefly called Ray comes to the rescue. Calling up a cloud of friends, he leads them down the river towards voodoo queen Mama Odie.

His spell failing, Doctor Facilier makes a bargain with the spirits: once Lawrence has married Lottie, Doctor Facilier will kill her father and claim control over New Orleans through his money, allowing the spirits to take as many souls as they choose. They send monstrous shadows to track Naveen down.

They’re not the only hunters looking for the unfortunate frogs – a trio of incompetents more or less accidentally ensnare Tiana. Naveen employs his natural superpower of being unbearably annoying to distract her captors. The flush of success inspires previously unheard-of levels of amicability. While Ray and Louis recover from their own encounters (Louis had a bad run-in with a thorn bush), Tiana puts her own superpower to use and whips up ‘swamp gumbo’ with Naveen as her unwilling kitchen hand. He’s never had to cook for himself before, let alone anything else, and now he’s cut off from his parents’ wealth he’s feeling his lack of education keenly. Tiana gets over her initial amusement and shows him how to mince a mushroom.

While they’re eating, Ray introduces them all to his girlfriend Evangeline – who is that highly unreliable evening star everyone’s been wishing at, and not a firefly at all. No one has the heart to tell him this. His happy clueless adoration wakes a warmth in Naveen too, who ignores Tiana’s protests and teaches her how to dance. There’s finally an advantage to amphibian living: they can waltz underwater! Even as a frog, Tiana is gorgeous and Naveen lets himself get swept away by the moment, but Tiana slips out from his attempted kiss. Lucky for her, because the spirit shadows have caught up to them. Seizing Naveen’s ankle, they haul him off into the woods.

And are promptly crisped by several well-aimed bolts of lightning from the promised Mama Odie, a little old lady with a big attitude who lives in a boat stuck in a tree. She’s cooking gumbo too, in a bathtub for some reason. Maybe she has a lot of neighbours. She can do all sorts of magic things but won’t, since she thinks ‘it doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what you are’ – as long as you have love you’ll be FINE, is her attitude, and she all but shoves the two frogs together in a ‘now kiss’ gesture. Naveen gets what she means. Tiana doesn’t. Her eyes are still on the prize, her restaurant.

Mama Odie finally gets down to business. To be human again, they require one kiss of princess. It just so happens that Lottie’s dad has been chosen as King of the Mardi Gras Parade, which temporarily makes her a princess – just as she’s always wanted! – but only until midnight. Louis tries to bring up his own desire to be human, but Mama Odie tells him that’s not what he needs and shoves him unceremoniously out the door. I really don’t like her.

It’s fortunate they have Louis along, though, because he suggests they hitch a lift home on a steamer and while he’s aboard, he runs into a group of musicians who think he’s a really awesome saxophonist in a really awesome costume. He runs off to play with his new friends. Naveen, meanwhile, is fretting over his romantic feelings for Tiana. Showing an unexpected streak of creativity, he makes a ring out of wire and beads, manufactures a romantic table for two and plans a proposal. He doesn’t want to marry Lottie – probably wise, they’re way too much alike – but Tiana doesn’t realise he wants to marry her, distracted from the conversation as they pass the building she plans to be her restaurant. He sees that to make her happy, she needs that place – and to give it to her, he needs money. In short, he needs to marry Lottie after all.

Both women would have a thing or two to say about that thought process if they knew.

No sooner has he left Tiana alone than Naveen gets kidnapped by shadows again and brought to Lawrence, to feed the mask with his blood. Meanwhile, Ray spills the beans to Tiana, telling her about Naveen’s planned proposal. She shows a lot of enthusiasm for someone who could barely tolerate him twenty four hours ago and immediately assumes he’ll be on Lottie’s float, getting kissed human. Well, there is a prince there. Getting married to Lottie.

Tiana is heartbroken and when Ray tries to cheer her up, she lashes out, telling him Evangeline is only a star who can never love him back. He refuses to give up, going back to buzz in the fake Naveen’s ear – while the real Naveen, locked in a box at Lawrence’s feet, kicks up the biggest fuss he can. Just before the wedding vows are completed, Ray sets Naveen free and they trip Lawrence off the float. Naveen yanks off the mask; Ray flies away with it. Seeing the shadows pursuing his friend, Louis drops the sax and rushes to help.

Ray throws the mask into Tiana’s lap, triumphant. Telling her to take it and flee, he bounces wildly at the shadows, burning them with his light – but he is small, and Dr Facilier is not. Ray is swatted and stamped on. Louis finds his broken body. How is this G rated?

Running from the shadows isn’t working for Tiana, so she switches tactics and threatens to shatter the mask. Dr Facilier reacts by conjuring an illusion of her dream restaurant, promising she’ll have it if she hands over his talisman. He shows her father, who worked hard yet never got his dream…but for all that, Tiana’s father was loved. He was happy with his life. Also, it’s fundamentally immoral to enable identity theft.

Tiana tries to smash the mask, but a shadow intercepts it. Dr Facilier gloats. He’s stupid. She’s a frog; she has a tongue. Flicking it out, she recaptures the mask and this time breaks it into shards. D Facilier can no longer fulfill the bargain with his ‘friends from the Other Side’. He has no souls to give – so they take his.

The spell is broken. Lottie corners her groom to find him short, balding and more than twice her age. He runs before she has time to get angry, and gets arrested by her dad. Meanwhile, Naveen applies his winsome voice to explain the situation. Lottie whacks him with a book first, because she is Tiana’s best friend, but the magic word ‘prince’ catches her attention. She’s happy to deliver the kiss. Tiana gets there first, though; she understands why Naveen’s doing this, but while she wants her restaurant, she wants him there too. Far from getting upset about being excluded from the big romantic moment, Lottie gets all the feels and offers her congratulations. “I’ll kiss him,” she says. “For you, honey.” It’s so grown-up! Like, finding solutions and things!

Only they’ve left it too late. It’s past midnight – Lottie isn’t a princess any more, and they are still frogs.

Ray is dying. He gets to say his goodbyes, and dies with his eyes on Evangeline. His friends return him to the swamp, and to his family of fireflies. A new star flickers to life beside Evangeline. It would seem she loved him after all.

http://cdn.hipdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Tiana-and-Naveen-ready-to-get-to-work-Princess-and-the-Frog.jpgLater, Mama Odie performs a swamp wedding and the frog lovers kiss as husband and wife. More importantly, as prince and princess. That’s enough for the magic! They are transformed back into humans, in fancy wedding attire what’s more. They’re pretty casual about it, all things considered, more interested in getting back to the kissing. They have a second wedding for their human friends and family, attended by Naveen’s approving parents and a delighted media circus. Then, because this is Tiana’s wedding day, they go straight to work on fixing up her restaurant. Turns out she didn’t need extra money, she needed an alligator bestie to stand over the real estate men while they got over their sexist, racist uselessness and handed over the damn keys.

Once the restaurant is the big shiny palace Tiana always knew it would be, she puts Louis on centre stage to play for an admiring crowd, sets Naveen waiting tables (though she knows he’ll slope off to play ukelele with Louis) and saves tables for all her friends and family. Lottie finally gets to dance with a real prince, Naveen’s brother…who is six, but you can’t have everything! Tiana whirls off in Naveen’s arms, surrounded by a swirl of fireflies. You can take the frogs out of the swamp, but some friends are for life.

Spot the Difference: Basically everything.

I am not fond of ‘The Frog Prince’. It is a punishment fairy tale, a young girl’s ingratitude taken as cause to trample all over her right to say no. Her father makes her take a creepy talking frog into her bed. It needs a lot of adaptation for a modern audience! And Tiana is perfect for that, because she is the kind of heroine who generally stars in punishment fairy tales – sure of what she wants, not apologetic about it, no patience to spare for time wasters – the kind of heroine I want to hug and make tea for.

Which makes it doubly frustrating when the story keeps critiquing her for being that driven. I mean, love is wonderful and overwork certainly is not, but Tiana wants to start a very ambitious small business and she’s almost there. This is when she needs support from her friends and family, not loud pressure to go out and look for a boyfriend too. She shouldn’t have to justify herself! The best thing about her friendship with Lottie, to me, is that Lottie – darling narcissistic cupcake that she is – has zero judgement when it comes to any of her friend’s life choices. Tiana can relax and be herself in her company, in a way she can’t with anyone else.

As for Naveen…well, both he and Tiana are considerably more enjoyable characters as humans. The prince is introduced a footloose, boyishly naïve charmer. As a frog, he’s pushy, selfish and kind of lecherous. It’s not clear how much of his condescension stems from sexism and how much is classism, but you can hardly blame Lawrence for hating the boy if he’s like that all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, Naveen is not a terrible character. He makes sense in context and grows up over the course of the story, gaining a sense of responsibility without losing that happy-go-lucky charm. His friendship with Louis is particularly sweet, and both end up actively supporting Tiana’s restaurant dream. There’s a risk in portraying this type of character in children’s media, though. With sexist male protagonists omnipresent in popular culture, are children going to pick up on the nuances of what is and what isn’t okay about his behaviour? It’s surely pause for thought when the hero of the movie comes out with rhetoric quite similar to that of classic Disney villain Gaston.

That said, Tiana is not obliged to calmly accept his presence in her life the way the princess in the original fairy tale does. She challenges, mocks and expects better of him, and even judgmental Mama Odie can’t make her change her mind about her priorities. I want more heroines like her.

Review – Winter Rose

Winter Rose – Patricia A. McKillip

Ace Books, 1996

Rois Melior was born on her father’s farm, but her heart belongs in the wood. She wanders there freely, familiar with its secrets and gifts, until one day a stranger emerges from a fall of light to claim a place in her life. His name is Corbet Lynn. Long ago, his father became local legend by killing Corbet’s grandfather in the old manor house and vanishing into thin air on a winter night. It’s said the Lynns are cursed. Corbet does not seem anything out of the ordinary – but Rois knows better. Entangled in Corbet’s terrible secrets, she soon realises the curse is all too real, and it endangers everything she loves most.

I will read really anything written by Patricia A. McKillip, who has the most gorgeous, lyrical style and a delightful wry wit. This is not one of her best books. The plot meanders, backtracking too often over the same ground, and crucial points are a little too mysterious to hold it all together – but for all that, it’s beautifully written, flavoured with several different fairy tales without being a direct retelling of any. It has a sequel of sorts in Solstice Wood.

The Sharazad Project: Week 34

Trigger warning: references to rape and murder, violent language against women

I started this story cycle with a lot of hope. Last week, the heroine was raped and killed and I started wondering if it’s worth continuing this project at all. I haven’t made up my mind about that yet, but I’m finishing this cycle either way, so back we go to the border where Abriza is lying dead and her loyal maid Marjana is holding Abriza’s newborn son. At this moment, an army comes thundering up, sent by Abriza’s father King Hardub. Somehow he heard that she had fled Baghdad and went to seek her out, only to find her corpse. He faints with the shock and grief. Congrats, story, you managed to make a hideous storyline that little bit worse!

When the king comes to, Marjana tells him what happened. He takes his daughter’s body home to his lands and, as her murderer is long gone, starts planning his vengeance on the man who raped her. He turns to his mother, Dhat al-Dawahi, for help. Abriza never liked her grandmother and it becomes immediately clear why, when Dhat al-Dawahi accuses Marjana of killing Abriza. Still, she’s on board with making King ‘Umar suffer. Insisting her son follow her orders to the letter, she sets her plan into motion.

Step one: acquire a group of beautiful virgins and the top Muslim scholars in the land to educate them. “‘Umar is naturally disposed towards loving girls,” Dhat al-Dawahi, by which I believe she means ‘he is a remorseless lecher who doesn’t give a damn about consent’. “He has three hundred and sixty six of them, to which were added a hundred whom you picked to accompany your daughter.” (Which means Abriza’s wonderful warrior girls are still there; this story just keeps going downhill.) “When the ones I want have been trained as I told you,” Dhat al-Dawahi concludes, “I shall take them and go off with them myself.”

When night fifty three begins, King Hardub has arranged the classes and settled in for his mother’s long game. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, King ‘Umar returns from a hunting trip to find Abriza gone. He throws a fit about it. When Sharkan gets home from his own journey, he’s simply told that Abriza ran away. However, he’s less worried about the girlfriend he professed to love and more preoccupied with the enormous amount of time ‘Umar is spending with his younger children. Sharkan makes himself sick with anger and jealousy. The following statement he makes to his father summarises this family perfectly: “Every time I see you showing close affection for my brother and sister and favouring them, I am filled with jealousy. I’m afraid that this may grow worse until it leads me to kill them, in return for which you will kill me…So, of your kindness, I would like you to give me one of your more distant castles, where I can stay for the rest of my life.”

He says those things. Out loud. His father thinks it’s a reasonable problem to have and gives him Damascus. Sharkan takes ‘Umar’s advisor Dandan – that guy who suggested ‘Umar use date rape drugs – and goes to rule his newly granted city. It’s probably lucky he leaves, because the younger children are now both fourteen years old, learning fast and taking Baghdad by storm. They are also developing a very promising rebellious streak. Prince Dau’ al-Makan decides he wants to go on pilgrimage to visit the Prophet’s grave, and when his father says he has to wait, he goes straight to his twin Nuzhat al-Zaman so the two of them can plan a getaway. The princess dresses as a man, gathers some money and sets off with her brother. They join a group of pilgrims on the way to Mecca, and once they’ve paid their respects there, Dau’ al-Makan takes a fancy to visiting Jerusalem. Nuzhat al-Zaman likes the idea, so off they go.

They continue travelling with a caravan of fellow pilgrims. Nuzhat al-Zaman falls sick with a fever but recovers; Dau al-Makan does not bounce back so easily. Despite his sister’s care, he grows weaker and weaker. She spends all her money on him until there is nothing left. Swallowing her pride and fear, she goes out to find work as a servant, so that she can support them both.

She does not come back. After two days, Dau al-Makan manages to leave the house and get to a marketplace, where his beauty and pathetic state inspire generosity in the local merchants. They offer him food and drink, then do a whipround to pay for his admittance to hospital. They entrust his care to the wrong man; the camel driver takes their money then tosses the half-dead boy on a rubbish heap. HOW DOES THIS STORY KEEP GETTING WORSE?

The rubbish heap is beside a bath-house – a furnace man working there finds Dau al-Makan  the next morning and mistakes him for a drug addict. Then he sees how young the boy is, and how beautiful, and conveniently remembers that good religious people are supposed to protect sick strangers. He takes the boy home to his wife, who is a competent nurse. Dau al-Makan begins to recover.

Night fifty four sees him rapidly regaining strength. His host and hostess certainly put in enough effort and expense, from copious quantities of chicken broth to sugary concoctions flavoured with violets and rosewater. They are spending two fifths of their daily income on keeping Dau’ al-Makan comfortable, and paragraph after paragraph is dedicated to Dau’ al-Makan’s diet. After a month of recuperation, he’s well enough to visit the baths. When they get home, the furnace man asks for his guest’s story. Tearful, Dau’ al-Makan explains everything and asks for help returning to Damascus. The furnace man insists on coming too, and his wife agrees to join them.

The journey begins on night fifty five. The couple have to sell everything they own to pay for a donkey, but are apparently so besotted with their prince they don’t care. It takes them six days to reach Damascus. They have only been there a few days when the furnace man’s wife suddenly falls ill and dies. It’s clear who was the decent caregiver in this trio.

Her husband cheers himself up by going sightseeing with Dau’ al-Makan. They come across a wealthy procession and, upon inquiry, learn it is a gift from the governor of Damascus to King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. Dau’ al-Makan starts crying at the mention of his father’s name; his companion joins in with thoughts of his dead wife. It takes a long time for the two men to pull themselves together – finally, Dau’ al-Makan shares his decision to accompany the gift caravan and tries to bid farewell to his friend, who point blank refuses to leave his side. Well, by now he’s sacrificed every other part of his life in the prince’s service, so that’s fair enough.

But what of Nuzhat al-Zaman? Against my better judgement, I’m getting attached to her. That day when she went out to look for work, she came across an old man accompanying five Bedouin across the desert. Seeing her beauty, he stalks her until she reaches a narrow point in the path, where he ambushes her. His first question is whether she’s a slave. Is it too much to hope he’ll die a horrible death very soon?

“By your life,” she says, “I implore you not to load me with any new sorrows.” Oh, honey. You deserve better than this story. He tells her he had six daughters but somehow has lost five of them, and is seeking a companion for the grief-stricken youngest girl. Nuzhat al-Zaman is in a terrible position – she needs the work, but she also needs to take care of her brother. She tries to explain this to the old man without revealing her identity, and agrees to be his daughter’s companion only if she can return to her brother at night.

Well, it will ASTONISH you to learn that the old man has no daughter, that he merely wants to abduct Nuzhat al-Zaman, and the moment they’re outside Jerusalem that’s precisely what he does. Realising she’s been betrayed, she screams and screams until her captor threatens to kill her. “You ill-omened old man, you greybeard from hell,” she hisses, “how could I have looked for protection from you when you were betraying me and wanting to torture me?” He calls her a whore and hits her. The next day, when she asks where they are going, he beats her so badly she passes out. She whispers desperate poetry to herself and the man relents a little – he tells her the beating was all her own fault for daring to talk, that if she’s lucky he’ll sell her to a man as kind as himself, and gives her a FUCKING SCONE.

Night fifty six brings us to Damascus. All roads lead to Damascus. The slave trader goes to visit his contacts and tells potential buyers they should pretend to be caring for the girl’s brother, to calm her. FUCK THIS STORY. And it gets worse. Once they’ve established her beauty and virginity and the rest of that nonsense, the merchant most interested explains what he wants her for. He has business with Sultan Sharkan – yes, Nuzhat al-Zaman’s older brother, the one who wanted to kill her – and thinks a slave girl will make a nice sweetener.

When she meets her intended buyer, Nuzhat al-Zaman has gone well beyond despair into a kind of frozen resignation. The merchant looks a better bet than her captor, so she speaks politely to him, though she makes no secret of her misery. The merchant offers a sum of money. The slave trader throws a tantrum, saying he’d rather keep the girl for menial farm labour than sell her for that. The merchant soothes him and asks to see the girl’s face; the trader says he can strip her naked for all he cares. Seriously, why has lightning not fried this man by now? If random ifrits can be struck down by the heavens, WHY NOT HIM?

Night fifty seven begins. The merchant asks for the girl’s name and she tells him, though she does not add her title. She also tells him about her sick brother, for whom she holds great fear. Overcome, she starts sobbing and her captor runs up to hit her again, knocking her unconscious. The merchant may not be a particularly good man, but he’s the best rescuer Nuzhat al-Zaman is going to get. As she comes to, she promises the merchant that she will kill herself if she has to stay with her captor another night. The merchant keeps upping the price he’s prepared to pay, but the slave trader wants more. Eventually, the merchant threatens him with unwanted attention from the local officials. The slave trader accepts the terms and returns to Jerusalem to look for the princess’s brother, but thankfully doesn’t find him.

In night fifty eight, the merchant takes Nuzhat al-Zaman home, offering her fine clothes and jewels. In case you think this is out of the goodness of his heart, let me disillusion you. “When I take you to the sultan, the governor of Damascus, you let him know the price for which I bought you,” the merchant tells her, “tiny as this was in relation to your worth. When you come to him and he buys you from me, tell him how I have treated you and ask him to give me an official letter of recommendation which I can take to his father.” The princess bursts into tears. The merchant, realising that Baghdad is a trigger for her, asks if she would like to contact someone there. She tells him that the only person she knows in Baghdad is King ‘Umar; that she was brought up with his daughter, was a favourite of his in fact, and if the merchant wants that recommendation he’d better let her write to the king herself.

GO GIRL.

She writes the letter, using her real name and telling her father that she’s with the governor of Damascus. I really, really hope her plan works.

The Sharazad Project: Week 33

Trigger warnings: rape, drug use, murder

Night fifty one saw Sharkan and Abriza arrive in the territory of Sharkan’s father, the notoriously warlike king ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. As prince and princess ride towards Baghdad, they are met Dandan and an escort of soldiers. When they reach the palace, Sharkan greets his father and reports on the unexpected events that – for once in this family! – averted a war. Thanks to Abriza, the king now knows his concubine Sophia (mother and educator of his young twins) is an emperor’s daughter. Sharkan gushes a bit about his girlfriend’s bravery, and the king wants to meet her. He sends away his son and courtiers so they can talk in private, at which she uncovers her face and he reacts the same way Sharkan did the first time he met Abriza, with blatant staring.

Because he’s a king and can give away whatever he wants at a whim, ‘Umar promises Abriza a palace of her own and an allowance for each of her warrior girls. He then brings up the gems that ignited his interest in this conflict in the first place. Abriza hands them over with calm ceremony and departs, leaving him worryingly infatuated.

Okay, at this point I think it is worth a reminder – Sharkan knows he has a little sister, Nuzhat al-Zaman, who is now six years old, but is still unaware of her twin Dau’ al-Makan, because this family is only good at conquering places and shocking at communication. ‘Umar wanted the gems to protect his three children. He gives Sharkan one and explains his intentions for the other two. Sharkan is appalled to learn he has a male rival for his father’s throne, and casts his gemstone aside. ‘Umar reminds him he’s still the heir, not to mention leader of the army. A little embarrassed but still insecure, Sharkan reclaims the gem and goes over to Abriza’s new palace. He shares his fears, not only that he has a contender for power but that his father is so taken with Abriza that he might demand she marry him.

“You must know, Sharkan,” Abriza tells him calmly, “that your father has no authority over me and cannot take me against my will, while if he were to take me by force, I would kill myself. As for the three gems, it had not occurred to me that he would give any of them to any one of his children, for I thought that he would store them among his treasures.” If Sharkan really doesn’t want his gem, she would like it back. Once she has it, she shares her own concerns. Now that her father has common ground with the Byzantine emperor – both have lost their daughters to Sharkan’s family, though under radically different circumstances – it’s probable they’ll cast aside their personal enmity and unite against King ‘Umar. Sharkan tells her not to worry, she can stay as long as she wants.

“If you treat me well,” she replies, “I shall stay with you, while if you treat me badly, I shall leave.” I so much hope that’s true. Sharkan leaves still stewing over succession issues, while his father goes to bestow the other two gems on the royal twins. They are thrilled with their pretty presents and go to show their mother. The king, however, has a bone to pick with her. “Why, in all this time, did you not tell me that you were the daughter of Afridun, emperor of Constantinople, so that I might have honoured you more, as well as being more liberal to you and giving you higher rank?” It’s a good question. Sophia tells him she doesn’t need any more than she has, with her comfortable place in the palace and her beloved children. I don’t know whether that’s sincere or not, but it pleases the king to hear and he gives her a palace too. How many does he have, that he can just toss them out like sweets? She gets a full household too, with everyone from attendants to doctors to astronomers.

Unfortunately ‘Umar still obsessed with Princess Abriza and gives her no peace. She patiently responds to all his overtures with the same statement, “King of the age, at this time there is nothing that I want from men.” Her polite refusals only make him more determined to win her over, because he’s a horrible person who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. He summons his vizier to complain about being friend-zoned and Dandan, who I shall now HATE FOREVER, suggests that ‘Umar drug and rape her.

The king likes the idea. Of course he does. He gets the strongest sleeping agent he can find and that night, while he is drinking wine with the unsuspecting princess, he drugs her wine. Within less than an hour she’s out cold. The story would like us to believe ‘the devil tempted him’, but no, he’s a man accustomed to having whatever he wants and taking it no matter what. He rapes Abriza. When he leaves, he sends in one of Abriza’s maids to clean up, not even ashamed of what he’s done. I cannot describe how utterly heartbroken I am at the direction this story has taken, or how enraged I feel.

Marjana does what she can for her unconscious mistress, then waits with her the rest of the night. As Abriza comes to, she vomits up the sleeping agent and demands to know what happened to her. Realising what ‘Umar did, Abriza locks herself away and refuses all visitors – hearing the rumour that she’s ill, the king has the fucking gall to send her medicines, there are not enough profanities in the world to describe the wrongness of it. Having got what he wanted, he finally leaves her alone.

Abriza, it turns out, is pregnant. Humiliated and despairing, she tells Marjana how helpless she feels, how badly she wants to go home but how she now doubts her welcome there. Marjana, unable to comfort her, can only offer her full support. “I want to leave at once in secret,” Abriza says. “No one is to know of this except you. I shall go to my father and mother, for when flesh is putrid, no one but the family can help.” “What you are doing is good, princess,” Marjana agrees.

In another humiliating blow, Abriza is no longer strong enough to defend herself now she’s so close to labour and has to hire a guard for the journey. Marjana suggests one of the slaves assigned to guard their palace. His name is Ghadban and he’s black, as so many slaves in these stories are. Marjana vouches for his bravery. If he agrees to serve Abriza, he’s promised a solid financial reward and the freedom to marry whoever he likes. She doesn’t take to him at their first meeting, but makes her offer regardless. He, like every other man she encounters, is immediately obsessed and agrees at once.

Because the layers of awful in this story are many and varied, he’s treacherous underneath it all and plans to kill the two women if they don’t make good on their promises, taking their money for himself. In the meantime, he brings mounts for them all and the journey commences.

Abriza is within a day’s journey of her own lands when she goes into labour. She has Marjana help her from her horse and act as midwife, but in a spectacularly stupid, racist, disgusting turn of events, Ghadban chooses this moment to demand she have sex with him. That wakes the rage Abriza has been without for so long. As night fifty two begins, she tells him that she will give birth and afterwards, if he can overcome her in battle, he can do what he likes. If he doesn’t shut up right now, she’ll kill herself. Ghadban doesn’t give her the chance. He cuts off her head, takes her money and rides away, leaving Marjana to hold the motherless newborn beside her mistress’s corpse.

I…don’t know where to begin. I am so angry and upset right now that it’s probably best I don’t. Right now, I’m reconsidering whether to continue with this project at all – if that’s the kind of story I’ll get, it’s not worth my time. I intend to conclude this story cycle before making that decision. Feel free to offer your perspectives in the comments.

Lakes and Liars: Deconstructing a Retelling

I tend to have a slightly prickly relationship with myths and legends, probably because I’ve read too many of them. My feelings about King Arthur and his knights are pretty muddy since on the one hand it’s this grand sweeping drama with knights and quests and sorceresses – these are a few of my favourite things – plus the Arthurian legends have inspired a remarkable number of fantasy books and what’s possibly my favourite poem ever, Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallott. On the other hand, Arthur is sort of a jerk and almost all of the women around him are characterised as untrustworthy because sexism. Then there’s Merlin, the very definition of the elderly mentor trope, down to the long beard and general tendency to speak in riddles.

http://www.entertainmentwallpaper.com/images/desktops/movie/tv-merlin37.jpgSo when I first heard about the BBC series The Adventures of Merlin, my reaction was a vague ‘what’ and it went in the ‘probably will irritate me’ mental box. To be honest, that’s where most Arthurian retellings end up, and Robin Hood ones too. A few months ago, though, I caught some of the series repeating on TV and liked what I saw, enough to start from the beginning. That was the start of a five season binge watch plus a fanfic feeding frenzy and it happened to coincide with me writing a speech about fairy tale retellings for an event at my local library. In this post I will be talking about the process of a retelling, using Merlin as an example of how it can be done well, and how you can really stuff it up. It will be absolutely ridden with spoilers and forceful opinions. You have been warned.

So Small For Such a Great Destiny

The really wonderful thing about folklore is that there’s so much of it, and it’s soaked so deep in the cultural subconscious that as a storyteller, you can play with it in all kinds of ways without losing that instinctual punch of recognition. Everyday names and phrases can become weighted with centuries of symbolism when the right context is evoked – and because everyone knows the context, at least vaguely, a writer can have enormous fun playing with the reader’s expectations. The same goes for most classic literature, actually, hence the unending parade of Jane Eyre adaptations and Austen spin-offs.

http://i2.cdnds.net/12/40/618x478/uktv_merlin_s5_e1_4.jpgThe first ingredient you need to produce a good retelling is an original concept, a way to make the old story new again, such as adapting the setting, altering the character dynamics or coming at the story from a previously neglected perspective. Merlin winds back the myth of King Arthur to when the legendary monarch was a headstrong young man and in an extra twist, makes Merlin the same age. While he’s still most powerful sorcerer in the land, that is unfortunately the land of Uther ‘I Execute All Things Magical On Principle’ Pendragon and thus Merlin must keep his gifts secret, while using them to keep Arthur alive long enough to succeed the throne. Morgana Le Fay is the king’s beloved ward; Guinevere is her loyal serving maid.

When we first meet Merlin he’s a gawkily adorable teenager fresh from his small village and overawed by the magnificence of Camelot. Even the sight of what’s presumably his first public execution can’t crush his optimism. Born with an innate and irrepressible gift for magic, it comes naturally to him to use that gift for anything from rescuing an old man from a deadly fall to moving a cup closer when he’s tired. It takes a lot of explaining for him to understand how dangerous that habit is. Gaius, the court physician and Merlin’s guardian in Camelot, moves into the elderly mentor role by training him in spellcraft while Kilgarrah, a dragon imprisoned in the caverns beneath the castle, gives cryptic advice whenever necessary. And sometimes when it isn’t.

http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/project-m/images/b/b7/Tumblr_mj0foit3ZX1qmlksgo1_500.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20130818003216Arthur, meanwhile, starts out as an entitled, arrogant bully with daddy issues and great hair. Merlin has no reason to like him throughout the entire first episode – reasons to actively dislike him, in fact, given that the second time they meet Arthur beats him up very efficiently in a messy street duel – but he doesn’t even hesitate to save the prince from a vengeful witch who has infiltrated Camelot. It’s an interesting moment, because it’s the first time we see Merlin use his magic to kill. He doesn’t have time to think, only react, and he instinctively protects Arthur, who is helpless against the witch’s spell.

It’s also important to me because it sets up what will be Merlin‘s status quo. Magic users are relentlessly persecuted yet when it comes to an actual fight, only another sorcerer is a true opponent, leaving the mundane citizens of Camelot (including its knights and royal family) as collateral damage.

In a Time of Myth and Magic

Deciding on setting is a crucial aspect of writing a retelling. A story is always shaped by the place and period of history in which it plays out and even entirely fictional settings need some grounding context to make them plausible. Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings are historical reimaginings, such as Juliet Marillier’s heart-wrenching Daughter of the Forest, set in medieval Ireland, or The Tower Room, in which Adele Geras plays out Rapunzel in a 1960’s boarding school.

Merlin is a teen fantasy TV show based off a very old, very much embroidered legend. Going in, I didn’t expect the teeniest grounding in historical fact, which is lucky because Merlin glories in anachronisms and absurdities, from Prince Arthur announcing he’s ‘going undercover’ to the giant scorpions that apparently infest the woods. The setting is a sort of Dark Ages default: horses, flaming torches and a rigid social structure. Appointed Arthur’s manservant after the witch incident in episode one, Merlin struggles to comprehend how entrenched these class boundaries are. Unfortunately, the script writers struggle with it too.

The basic set-up works fine. Merlin’s habitual insubordination is rather charming; he’s genuinely terrible at the duties of a manservant, as Arthur frequently reminds him, but their dynamic is based on that push and pull, constantly testing each other’s boundaries. Gwen’s working relationship with Morgana is similarly consistent – there’s much more trust but also a clearer understanding of the rules, which makes sense as Gwen’s lived in Camelot all her life. Both Arthur and Morgana have a tendency to flex their authority when they’re angry or insecure, but strong bonds of loyalty and respect bind all four protagonists throughout the first two seasons.

That Uther shares no such respect for his social inferiors is made clear early on – I mean, he’s willing to let a servant die just to win an argument with his son – and it’s strongly implied that the nobility tend to share his attitude. That’s not really shown, though, as we see almost nothing of Uther’s court beyond the small circle of main characters, so there’s not much in-universe social context against which to judge a character’s behaviour. Laws are fairly arbitrary, obviously invented solely to serve a plot point. When Arthur has borderline breakdowns in seasons four and five over whether he’s changing too much too fast, it looks like panic rather than the political insecurity of a young monarch who doesn’t have the full support of the nobility. Why? Because we barely see the nobility. Traditional upper class values are represented by Arthur’s treacherous uncle Agravaine, who advocates things like executing one’s cheating girlfriend, and visiting nobility who are almost always the villain of the week in disguise.

Am I taking this too seriously for what is, as I said, a teen fantasy show? Probably! But therein lie two more problems. The first, a younger audience deserves decent plots and coherent world-building every bit as much as adult viewers do. Also, Merlin never really settles into an intended demographic. A good deal of the humour is distinctly childish, damaging character development in favour of clumsy slapstick, while other storylines delve into grim and ambitiously emotional places. When writing a retelling – when writing anything – it’s crucial to have a consistent tone. Merlin never achieves that.

There are also all kinds of in-world details that the show never gets around to explaining properly, like why a monarch who despises magical creatures as much as Uther would keep a dragon on his crest (tradition, I assume, it’s the reason behind a lot of stupid things that happen in Camelot, but no one ever asks the question) or how, in fact, a magic-hating monarch could manage to slaughter dragons wholesale when they can only be killed with magic. How exactly does he perpetuate a reign of terror against sorcerers when a lone magic user is capable of lifting a hand and simply flinging grown men about like ragdolls? As Lloyd Alexander put it: “Once you have a magical object, the magic has to be limited. If it isn’t, you will end up having logical problems. For instance, if you have an invicible weapon…the story is over. Whoever has it, wins!”

Uther’s systematic oppression of magic users raises all kinds of real-world comparisons, of course. Minority groups have been (and are being) persecuted for everything from religion to ethnicity to sexual identity, and it is a classic genre trope for magic users to suffer injustice for their difference, as people suspected of sorcery have throughout history. To draw that parallel, however, you have to offer an in-universe power balance or what’s meant to look like bigotry ends up looking like perfectly reasonable terror.

For example: every one of the second-generation royals on the show suffers at least one serious violation caused by magic. Vivian is enchanted to adore a man she could hardly manage civility toward before, Elena is possessed by a Sidhe and Mithian is terrorised by acts of magic. It’s usually played off as comedy, but Arthur is inflicted with two ‘love’ spells, leading to wildly uncharacteristic behaviour, and Uther goes so deep under the influence of a troll that he literally cannot see what’s in front of him. In both cases it’s nothing short of sexual assault. In season four, Gwen’s old love for Lancelot is re-awakened by a magical bracelet and neither she nor Arthur ever find out that her betrayal was no choice at all. Both Gwen and Uther suffer a mind-altering magical torture, in Gwen’s case leading her to a second involuntary betrayal.

It’s logical to assume many mundane citizens have suffered similar injustices. There was that time a dead sorcerer tried to conquer Camelot with gargoyles, and how about when the cursed cat girl with wings went on a killing spree? Even our hero, Merlin, is capable of abusing magic. In order to rescue Arthur from an attack on Camelot in season four, he uses an enchantment that reduces his king to childlike dependence. It’s well-intentioned, but a massive breach of trust that he then exploits by berating Arthur while he can’t defend himself.

Crucially, there seems to be no method for mundane humans to protect themselves from magic. Only sheer force of numbers can overwhelm a powerful sorcerer, and even then there’s the question of containment. Prison doesn’t work, they can just blast their way out. Keeping hostages is a possibility…if you’re a morally bankrupt monarch with inexhaustible resources. If Arthur had ended up legalising magic – as I feel the show should have allowed him to do – he’d have had a nightmare enforcing his policy.

The magic of Merlin is bound up with the highly non-specific ‘Old Religion’, another minority group persecuted by Uther Pendragon. They have a lot of prophecies that really only exist to bully everybody into various plot positions (there’s an episode in season five when a group of priestesses known as the Disir try to blackmail Arthur into religious conversion which, as an atheist, was very unsettling to watch). This is symptomatic of the show as a whole: magic is always a plot point, and a messy one at that.

I write fantasy. This exasperates me NO END.

The Once and Future Queen

It’s a double-edged sword, recreating a familiar and beloved character, because the biggest fans will be the most impossible to please. Me, for instance! I adore fairy tale retellings, have ALL THE OPINIONS and can be consequentially brutal about what I don’t like. I can’t say I’ve ever had that level of attachment to the Arthurian legends, but I have a defined sense of what they are to me: a sun-drenched vision of greenwood and golden fields where shining knights ride toward tragedy and lovers passionately express their devotion through sword fights and early death. It owes an enormous amount to ‘The Lady of Shallott’, and the medieval-esque picture books I loved as a child.

The wonderful thing about a retelling is that you are meant to challenge and surprise. That’s the point.

http://i2.cdnds.net/11/37/618_tv_merlin_ep01_06.jpg The central quartet of Merlin are Merlin himself, Arthur, Morgana and Guinevere, though she’s better known in the show as Gwen. She probably experiences the greatest level of reinvention. Traditionally the nobly born queen at the centre of a kingdom-crippling love triangle, in Merlin she’s a blacksmith’s daughter, Lady Morgana’s maidservant and the most sensible, down-to-earth person on the show. She’s very beautiful, yes, but it’s her honesty and sense of justice that catch Arthur’s attention. She’s also mixed race, the most noticeable part of a diverse casting trend. Merlin doesn’t hit every note right on this front, but it isn’t for lack of effort. While she does technically cheat on Arthur with Lancelot, it is not her conscious choice, nor is it the beginning of Camelot’s downfall – she repairs her relationship with Arthur like a grown-up and after his untimely death, goes on to rule the kingdom alone.

Gwen is marvellous. She deserves treble the amount of screen time she gets.

However, in what’s entirely a script-writing failure and no reflection on the actress whatsoever, Gwen’s romances with both Arthur and Lancelot are clunkily constructed and move forward in awkward bounds with little effort at emotional development or shared experiences in between. Even after their marriage, Gwen and Arthur share minimal plot space and Arthur is always slightly on ceremony with her. ‘Epic romance’ is not a low-maintenance concept. Placing two attractive characters in the same space and adding violins won’t cut it; it takes a careful arc of development to make that romance feel earned, and shortcuts are very obvious.

The Problem of Morgana

Morgana is introduced as a clear-cut heroine, a warrior princess with a fairy tale face. She is a loved and loving part of the Pendragon family (with all the getting locked up in dungeons and inventive assassination attempts that involves), close to Arthur and Gwen, fond of Merlin, brave in the face of Uther’s fury the way no one else can be. That neither she nor Arthur knew they were related during their prickly season one flirtation (which later shifts into a far more sybling-like dynamic) neatly acknowledges the incestuous storyline of the traditional legends without demonising either character – though Uther is either an idiot for not recognising his charges’ sexual chemistry or a criminally irresponsible guardian for knowing how they felt and valuing his reputation over an intervention. Or both! Uther is a multi-tasker.

In five seasons Morgana goes from a khttp://images-mediawiki-sites.thefullwiki.org/03/1/6/1/53271911102010124.jpgey member of Team Good to its primary antagonist, from Gwen’s best friend to her torturer, from having Arthur’s back to stabbing it. It’s a big twist, to put it mildly, and not carried off with particular elegance.

It’s been suggested that her path to villainy was set in motion by meeting her half-sister Morgause and that possibly Morgause ‘mandraked’ her (the same magic Morgana later uses to warp Gwen’s loyalties). That’s a compelling idea, but has some fairly major flaws. Morgana was drawn to Morgause the moment she met her. Even if their blood relationship turned out rather tenuous, what with the paternal switch-up, Morgause showed a strong loyalty to Morgana and a fiercely protective streak that continued right up until her death. Morgana might not have understood entirely what Morgause wanted from her at the end of season two, when she became the conduit for a powerful sleeping curse upon Camelot, but she put herself willingly into Morgause’s hands and had a better chance than anyone at working out what was happening once the curse took effect. Yet she did nothing to protect her family, her home or her people.

The problem with Morgana is that no one in Camelot takes her seriously. Uther mistakes her criticism and later, her rage, for girlish naivete. Gaius chooses to drug and dupe her, hoping to suppress her powers, rather than trust in her ability to handle them. Partially to protect her, it’s true, but also because she is a complication he doesn’t want to deal with. Arthur remembers acts of kindness that were actually acts of manipulation; Gwen mistakes flashes of malice for humour.

The signs are there right from the start. In the second episode of season one, when Arthur is placed into competition with the formidable knight Valiant, he gets the most support from Merlin and Gwen – neither of whom has much to like about him yet apart from his good looks and athleticism. Morgana, meanwhile, has a spat with Arthur and declares she wishes Valiant would win. Gwen takes it as a joke, even when Morgana insists it’s not. Later, Morgana helps Arthur defeat Valiant with quick thinking and a sharp sword; her instinctive loyalties to her adoptive family are strong. But when they break, they break irreparably.

Morgana is not kind or sweet. She’s driven. It is a classic Pendragon trait – from her father’s anti-magic crusade to Arthur’s obsessive need to save the day – and like all Pendragons, personal drama tends to triumph over practicality. Morgana is devoted to the people she lovesuntil she loves someone else more. She despises injustice, but as she comes to grips with her magic, that drive is warped into a brutal need to prove herself worthy of Camelot’s throne by murdering anyone who gets in the way. Right from the start she’s willing to fight and lie and scheme to get what she wants. She is Mordred’s rescuer rather than his mother and wants the throne for herself, not the boy.

None of this makes her evil – actually, it’s what makes me like her. Beauty and charm and badassery are not a surefire recipe for heroism; ferocity and cunning do not automatically make a villain. Unfortunately, a mix of plot contrivance and narrative mismanagement frequently make Morgana’s plans look unnecessarily over complicated at best and appallingly incompetent at worst. Her arc of character growth and descent into a monomaniac power struggle just happens too damn fast.

This is partially remedied in seasons four and five. Despite her determination to see him dead, Morgana is still struck hard by Uther’s death, and she’s shaken by encountering Arthur. She wants Gwen at her side, even if brainwashing is the only way to keep her there. Though she does not understand Merlin’s real position at Camelot until the end, she wants to understand what makes him tick. These are the kind of grace notes that give a character depth.

The problem isn’t that Morgana became a villain. No one in this show keeps their hands clean for long: Arthur was the sword hand in a genocidal regime, Merlin nearly destroyed Camelot by releasing a vengeful dragon, both kill countless times for what they see to be the greater good. Even Gwen can be ruthless when necessary. The problem is that Morgana wasn’t the spectacularly excellent villain she could have been.

It’s indicative of a wider trend in the show. Each season’s primary antagonist is female, with a fairly reasonable grievance against Camelot, but their actual plans tend to be messy and incoherent. The legendary Nimueh is given almost no backstory and wasted on just one season. Morgause fares a bit better, keeping a more consistent tone, but the link between female power and villainy is unnervingly consistent, backed up with season one’s Sophia, season three’s Catarina, season four’s Lamia and in season five…well, take your pick, there’s Sefa, Kara, Eira, the Disir.

I certainly don’t think it’s intentional. There are great female characters who get positive arcs, including Elena, Mithian, Annis and Merlin’s mother Hunith. And I delight in a well-crafted female villain. But in a show dominated by male characters, not to mention male authority, there’s not enough balance.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

As I mentioned at the start, I have never cared that much for Merlin and Arthur in the legends. Nor, for that matter, in most retellings I’ve encountered. Colin Morgan gives Merlin a quirky, vulnerable charm, no easy task when Merlin is blasting his enemies away every other minute. Bradley James, meanwhile, infuses the legendary king with such genuine warmth and complexity that even the U-turns of conflicting scripts and some seriously unnecessary slapstick couldn’t ruin the character for me. Let’s be honest, he may be a mighty warrior, but this version of Arthur rules mainly through personal charm and a headstrong inability to accept to word ‘impossible’. Also, Merlin does his level best to get rid of anyone who so much as makes him sad.

The initial passionate dislike between them rapidly gives way to a loyalty that is staggering and a little scary in its intensity. Off the charts chemistry gets cemented by an entire first season that’s basically them rescuing each other from all things under the sun while everyone looks on indulgently.

(SERIOUSLY. Merlin’s mum spends an entire episode assuring Merlin that Arthur cares about him; Gwen and Morgana gossip about them and Kilgarrah insists their bond is inescapable. Camelot is full of closet romantics.)

Were these events taking place between male and female protagonists, it would be almost certainly be the set-up of an endgame romance. Bearing in mind Foz Meadows’ fantastic article on proof of love in fictional relationships, it’s difficult to argue that this isn’t precisely what happens. Arthur and Merlin get the most screen time of any two characters, share an incredibly intimate level of domesticity, see the worst and best sides in each other. Arthur’s relationship with Gwen depends heavily on Merlin filling in the gaps and she casually accepts Merlin’s presence in all kinds of private situations, including their wedding anniversary picnic. In episodes where Arthur and Merlin are kept apart, they spend the entire time pining, sulking or searching for each other. The finale has Arthur dying in Merlin’s arms, using his last breaths to thank him, and Merlin patiently awaiting his king’s prophesied return. That, right there, is unmistakably the arc of a romance.

Of course, the show never acknowledges this openly, because we can’t have nice things.

This Land and All Its Peoples

Which brings me to the subject of diversity. This is an important aspect of retellings, since literary history has not been kind to the experiences of anyone not white, straight, male and/ or cissexual. When retelling a familiar story, it’s much more interesting to explore the neglected possibilities rather than re-treading the same old ground.

As I’ve already said, Merlin makes an effort with racial diversity. There are characters of colour in a variety of major and minor roles, including several knights. Unfortunately, none of those knights make it to the end of season five. That could have been handled better.

As for sexual diversity, well, there are no openly gay characters. Instead we get deniable subtext: Arthur and Merlin’s entwined destinies, Morgana and Gwen’s close and eventually badly twisted bond, Princess Elena’s romantic uncertainties, Gwaine’s flirtation with Merlin. The characters most strongly coded as gay (i.e. openly express attraction towards someone of the same sex, are not in a pre-existing relationship with someone of the opposite sex – like I said, burden of proof is STUPID) are antagonists: the Witchfinder, a war-mongering rival king and his creepy jester. All the most positive relationships go under the official label of friendship.

Stories about friendship are fantastic. We can never have enough of them. But if they have the chemistry, structure and narrative space of a romance, it’s doing everyone a disservice to pretend they are something else.

For the Love of Albion

So where does this particular retelling take us? The Arthurian cycle is, at heart, a tragedy and Merlin holds true to its source material. Each of the central four protagonists ends in heartbreak. Arthur falls on the battlefield at Camlann without having united the kingdoms of Albion. Merlin, for all his sacrifices, fails to save his beloved king and is forced to wait for his return from Avalon. Morgana dies bitter and unmourned. Gwen inherits a throne through the death of her husband, and peace through the death of a woman who was once her closest friend. No one gets trapped in an oak tree or fades away in a convent, but loss permeates season five in a way that you’d never have predicted from watching season one.

The saddest thing, to me, is how seasons four and five focused heavily on the personal troubles of Camelot’s heroes rather than the political events that would have given weight and purpose to all that tragedy. Arthur’s policies as king are frustratingly vague; he ends the persecution of the druids and intervenes in the attempted execution of an accused witch, but magic is still illegal and he’s openly distrustful of sorcery. He has alliances with several fellow monarchs, yet it’s clearly not the legendary union. He only learns about Merlin’s magic at the very end of his life. Prophecy, it turns out, is a kick in the teeth.

Camelot will be fine. It has Gwen. But it isn’t really Camelot the viewer cares about, it’s the characters we followed to get there, and all of them end in grief.

Long Live the King

The story, however, doesn’t stop there. Because along came the fans, and with them the wide world of fanfiction. ‘Tis a glorious sight to behold.

Fandom is a remarkable middle ground. The material still belongs to the original creators, but it becomes the playground of its audience and there is genuinely no limit to what they’ll do with it. What results is a kaleidoscope of the inventive, the intelligent, the hilarious and the flat out weird. It’s kind of beautiful.

The fic for Merlin is a fascinating concept from a reteller’s perspective because it’s a mix of reimagining the show and reimagining the legend and both at the same time. ‘Canon’ stories take place in the fictional world established by the show, some trying valiantly to mesh it with history while others plunge headlong into fantasy. Modern AUs translate familiar plot lines into a different setting, imagining the lives the characters might lead in the modern day; historical AUs take place during different periods, including the Regency, Victorian England and both World Wars. There are even mash-ups transposing the characters into another fictional universe, such as ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Princess Bride’.

A retelling always responds to the flaws the author perceives in their source material. Issues not addressed in the show, and sometimes in the legend, can be addressed in fic and different solutions offered. Side characters never granted much narrative space are allowed to shine; non-traditional romantic relationships, some between characters who never meet in the show, take centre stage. Slash pairings may not appeal to every reader, but there’s no denying that they are a necessary defence against a traditional media that still refuses, on the whole, to acknowledge non-heterosexual relationships in anything beyond minor parts and throwaway references. It’s all a matter of perception, but those perceptions sometimes make a great deal more sense than the canon line.

Every legend, folk story and fairy tale has multiple iterations for a very simple reason. People tell the stories they need to hear. What works for one time, one place, one audience, must evolve for each generation. It is the reason classics are adapted time and time again; the reason for adaptations and reinventions. Stories are wild things. They are meant to change, and grow. Above all, they are meant to be shared.

The Sharazad Project: Week 32

Last week we learned that my beloved wrestling princess is named Abriza, that she inexplicably returns Prince Sharkan’s ‘affections’ (I remain unconvinced he’s capable of anything as considerate as affection) and that by protecting him from her own father’s knights, she’s become obliged to go on the run with him. If he takes her advice and turns his army around instead of marching straight into a wrathful emperor’s trap.

“Praise be to God Who has favoured me with you and has sent you to save me and my companions,” Sharkan tells her, kissing her hand gratefully, probably the only sensible thing he has ever done. Abriza instructs him to arrest the emperor’s envoys, if they are still in the camp when he rejoins his men, and extract from them confirmation of the emperor’s intentions. “After three days, I shall join you,” she adds, “and we shall enter Baghdad together.” Before Sharkan leaves, she reminds him not to forget their pact.

I have read too many fairy tales for that not to sound dreadfully ominous.

She embraces him, offers a few lines of sentimental poetry and lets him go. He rides across the meadow and meets with three other horsemen – expecting trouble, he draws his sword, but then recognises his vizier Dandan and two emirs who are presumably part of his army. Having found their lost prince, they want to know what he’s been up to. He explains about Princess Abriza and Dandan tells him that the envoys have already returned to their master. In great haste the four men head for camp, setting off before the emperor’s army can descend on them. After nearly a month of hard marching, they cross over the border into the lands of Sharkan’s father, where they feel relatively safe. Sharkan travels at the rear with a hundred riders, just in case, while Dandan moves on ahead with the bulk of the army.

Sharkan is riding through a narrow mountain pass when dust on the road behind tells him the long-expected confrontation has arrived. A hundred armoured horsemen, ‘like grim lions’, approach and command Sharkan’s men to throw away their weapons or die. This is the wrong way to handle Sharkan, who has spent his entire adult life conquering places in his father’s name. He screams out abuse at the invaders and orders his own men to attack. In the ensuing battle, the Franks – because that’s apparently who the horsemen are, I understand absolutely nothing about the alliances in this war – fight ferociously and night falls with no victor. Only when it’s too dark to see do both sides retreat with their wounded to rethink their strategies.

Sharkan’s men tell him that the Franks are led by a fearsome warrior who could have slaughtered them all if he wanted but fights with such honour that he won’t take on the injured for a killing blow. Sharkan plans to ride out in formation the next day, while the Frankish commander decides his men should take on the enemy in single combat.

The next day the Franks send forth a herald and one of Sharkan’s men rides out to meet the challenge. A Frank warrior acts as representative of the invaders, and rapidly takes Sharkan’s soldier captive. This sets a precedent for the rest of the day – different Franks take turns as challenger, and by the time the day is over they’ve captured twenty of Sharkan’s people.

Sharkan is furious with humiliation. The next day he intends to ride out himself, but is preempted by the Frankish commander. This man is mounted on a black horse, dressed in blue satin and iron mail, his face clean-shaven and very beautiful. He rides to the middle of the battlefield and calls out in Arabic, “Sharkan, son of ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, you who have taken fortresses and laid waste lands, I challenge you to fight one who shares the field with you. You are the leader of your people and I am the leader of mine. Let whichever of us overcomes the other command the obedience of the other’s men.”

The commander has not even finished speaking before Sharkan, enraged at being outmaneuvered this way, has ridden out to fight. They are both exceptional warriors, ‘like two mountains clashing or the collision of two oceans’, and battle all day without either gaining the upper hand. Sharkan reluctantly admires the skill and mercy of his opponent. Another day of duelling gets them nowhere. On the third day, the Frankish commander is thrown from his horse. Sharkan, who doesn’t give a damn about mercy, is about to finish off his opponent when the commander shouts, “Sharkan, this is not knightly behaviour, but the deed of a man who has been overcome by women.”

IT’S ABRIZA! MY FLAWLESS WARRIOR PRINCESS. She’s still teaching him how to fight, and he’s still clueless. “I wanted to test you on the field,” she tells him, “and to see how you could stand up to blows given in battle. All my companions are virgin girls. They have overcome your riders on the battlefield and had my horse not stumbled and brought me down, you would have seen how strongly I can fight.” Sharkan is helpless in the face of her glory. “Praise be to God for our safety,” he says, “and for my meeting with you, queen of the age!”

Abriza orders her girls to dismount and release their captives. “People like you should be treasured by kings to help in times of peril,” Sharkan tells them, and has his own men bow to Abriza. I almost like him right now! The united party rides on for six days, until they near Baghdad. Then Sharkan asks the girls to remove their Frankish warrior attire and dress in traditional female clothes instead. Night fifty one begins with him sending several of his men into Baghdad with a message for his father, announcing his return and Abriza’s arrival. Oh, Abriza, I hope this works out for you.

Review – Drowned Vanilla

Drowned Vanilla (Café La Femme No.2) – Livia Day

Deadlines, 2014

Tabitha Darling did not go looking for intrigue. Being hunted through the Botanic Gardens by a gunman you thought was a friend kind of sapped the fun out of detective work. She has enough to do, anyway, trying to run a crime-free café, not-exactly-date a policeman and single-handedly convince the world to give up vanilla. Investigating an internet celebrity’s disappearing act is entirely her friend’s Xanthippe’s idea – chasing the story to a sleepy rural town can be safely blamed on Stewart. Then a corpse shows up in the local lake. There are a lot of people who want answers, and a lot of people telling lies. But feeding people until they spill their secrets? That’s all Tabitha.

The sequel to Tasmanian cosy mystery A Trifle Dead, this is the same cheerful, frothy fun – I was given a copy for my birthday and it was exactly what I needed. Tabitha Darling is vibrant, irrepressible and just the right amount of grumpy. The story is very light and playful overall but has an edge of seriousness when necessary. The third Café La Femme novel is Keep Calm and Kill the Chef, scheduled for release next year. There’s also an e-book only mini-mystery set between the first and second books, The Blackmail Blend.