Legosity

So far, I have described my thoughts about ozamataz up to the point where I asked whether one could attract that kind of self-sustaining fan participation, and if so, how. This is also the point at which the Muse, or the Guardian Angel, or the Collective Subconscious, or Something, stepped in. Perhaps it was the Great Oz himself.

Having worked out something of the nature of ozamataz, I asked my brain: ‘OK, brain, what is it that makes some things have ozamataz when others don’t?’

And my brain, without missing a beat, obligingly answered: ‘Legosity.’

I was duly annoyed, for I then had to figure out what legosity was. My brain is cryptic and has no manners, and seldom troubles to explain itself.

The one thing my brain did deign to tell me is that legosity has something to do with Lego. This made sense on the face of it. Lego toys have an ozamataz of their own. They have inspired movies, games, theme parks, and of course, the imaginations of millions of children the world over. The manufacturer’s recent habit of producing specific single-purpose Lego sets like model kits, which hardly fit together with other Lego and are hardly intended to, is most regrettable. These kits tend to take up shelf space at the toy shops and displace the kind of Lego that you can really play with. But the original bricks and doors and windows, Lego people and Lego cars and Lego trees, and so on – those are still available, and you can do anything with them. Nowadays, you can even buy Lego with moving parts and electric motors, and build Lego machines that can be controlled via computer. There are Lego robots in the world, and serious men with doctorates in the hard sciences have been known to play with them.

As the unfortunate history of the kit-model kind of Lego shows, it is not so much the brand name, or even the mechanical ingenuity of Lego that gives the toys their unique quality. It is the concept. At bottom, Lego consists of a whole range of bits and pieces, all designed to fit together easily and without fuss, so that they can be used to build anything the imagination can conceive. You do not have to be a skilled carpenter, or a watchmaker, or know how to build ships in bottles, to build houses and cities and fairy castles out of Lego. The skill in your fingers (especially a child’s fingers) ceases to be a limit on what you can achieve, and the mind is set free to soar.

Even the name Lego is well chosen, and means, I think, more than its inventor intended. We are assured that it comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, ‘Play well’. But it is also Latin and Greek, and in those languages the word has a wide and subtle range of meanings that reach right down into the guts of the human psyche.

In classical Greek, λέγω means ‘I put in order, I arrange, I gather’: which are certainly things that you do with Lego, and indeed with any toy worth having. It also means ‘I choose, I count, I reckon’: the basic methods by which the creative process works on the raw materials furnished by the imagination. It means ‘I say, I speak,’ and even ‘I mean’. And – most important of all, for our present purpose – it means ‘I tell a story’.

Stories, in whatever medium, are more complex than toy bricks, for they have extension in time as well as (imagined) space. They move, within their own confines, or they do not exist at all. But the tropes and elements and imaginative bits and pieces that go into a story function very much like Lego bricks. You can spend years of your life inventing a monster that will metaphorically express the horror of death and the fear of lost identity; or you can dip into the barrel of Lego bits and fish out a ghost, a zombie, or the vampire’s enslaved and unwilling bride. Every story ever written, probably, uses some of this conceptual Lego; for some of the pieces are older than writing itself.

If I wanted to make up a bogus etymology for legosity, I would pretend that it did not come from Lego at all. I would choose the Latin form, lego, which means ‘I choose’, and ‘I gather’, and also ‘I read’ (originally in the sense of reading aloud). I would make up an adjective legosus, which would mean ‘well-chosen’ and also ‘worth reading’; from which one naturally gets the abstract noun legositas, which goes into English as legosity – and there you are. But I shall not dissemble. I got the word from my brain, and my brain got it from Lego.

Legosity, then, is the quality that makes an idea go easily into stories. Things that have legosity tend to connect together easily, like Lego bricks. They are adaptable and reusable; their play-value is not exhausted in one telling. There are thousands of stories about Robin Hood, and tens of thousands about vampires. Kings and queens, heroes and villains, monsters, perils, and things of nameless dread: these are some of the simple bricks that have gone into stories from time immemorial. They are conceptual Lego, and they are free for anybody to use.

Because they are free, they are taken for granted; because they are not original, they are not striking. They don’t contribute to any story’s ozamataz. The Wheel of Time contains barrels of conceptual Lego, swiped or stolen or recycled from every great story-cycle known to Western man: which, I believe, was the author’s intention. But it has precious little originality. When you take it apart to play with the pieces, you find that all the pieces are somebody else’s. From Dune, you have the secret magic sisterhood that controls the fates of families and nations, the Bene Gesserit (renamed Aes Sedai); and the shockingly male creature that sets the world on its ear by having access to the magic and ignoring the sisterhood, the Kwisatz Haderach (renamed Dragon Reborn); and the wild desert-dwelling people who have a hard-won lore of their own, with whom nobody can tangle and not regret it – the Fremen (renamed Aiel). From Tolkien – well, the very first page of Jordan’s interminable saga mentions ‘the Third Age’ and ‘the Mountains of Mist’, and if that isn’t straight-up theft with the serial numbers left in blatant sight, I don’t know what it is. Nobody writes Wheel of Time fan fiction – at least none worth speaking of – for The Wheel of Time is itself fan fiction, in which all the fandoms collide together.

The works or franchises that I mentioned earlier, the ones that have long-lived and fruitful fandoms – the ones, as I put it, with ozamataz – all have this in common: they have original toys. They contribute new conceptual Lego to the barrel. ‘Who can invent a new leaf, or a new story?’ Tolkien asked – and then answered his own question, by inventing a whole botanical garden of new leaves, and resurrecting old ones that had been forgotten since the Middle Ages. It is this quality of primary invention – the new ideas, the new toys – that I shall refer to as ‘legosity’ hereafter. And I shall refer to the ideas or toys themselves as lego, with a small L, to distinguish them from the (trademarked) building toys.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has had ozamataz for more than a century, has this kind of legosity in abundance. Everybody in our culture knows the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears; but few people know that the Three Bears were invented less than two hundred years ago by Robert Southey, or that Goldilocks was added to the tale at a later date (to its great improvement). Everybody knows the legos of the first Oz book; and everybody attributes them. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion; the Good Witches of the North and South, the Wicked Witches of the West and East; the Silver Shoes (which became Ruby Slippers in the movie, the better to show off in Technicolor); the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City, the Munchkins, the Land of Oz, and of course, the Wizard himself, hiding behind a curtain while he dazzles the world with special effects – all these things are part of our popular culture, and we know exactly where they came from.

You can go through each one of the works or franchises that I listed in ‘Ozamataz’, and identify the bits that give each one its legosity. When I perform this exercise, I find myself marvelling at the sheer richness of our storytelling heritage – the vast and delightful variety of legos that our imaginations have to play with. So—

From the original Star Trek: the U.S.S. Enterprise; Starfleet and the Federation; Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons; warp drive (very differently imagined from the point-to-point ‘jump drive’ then common in science fiction); phasers, photon torpedoes, communicators, tricorders; the transporter beam; the Vulcan Nerve Pinch.

From the original Doctor Who: Timelords and the TARDIS; regeneration; sonic screwdrivers; the Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians, Sontarans; the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, which is narratively important, because it sets boundaries on the kinds of paradoxes that so many time-travel stories have snarled themselves up in.

From Star Wars (the first film only): Darth Vader, droids, Jedi Knights, light sabres, Storm Troopers, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, jawas, dogfights in space, the Force, and of course Mos Eisley, the ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’, of which the cantina was merely the most theatrical part.

From The Hobbit (leaving aside The Lord of the Rings): hobbits; Gandalf; Thror’s Map, with its runes and key; the Stone-trolls; Elrond Half-elven and the Last Homely House; orcs and the Great Goblin; Beorn the skin-changer, the Eagles, the Wood-elves; Mirkwood, Lake-town, the Lonely Mountain; and of course Smaug the Magnificent, Chiefest of Calamities.

You can, I am sure, make lists of your own, from the fandoms you participate in, and from things you know to have ozamataz; and they will probably bear a fair resemblance to the five I have given.

Let us look over these lists a little more closely, and see what they have in common, and whether we can draw any conclusions from that.

To begin with, you may notice that the lead characters of each work are not included. There are several reasons for this. In fantastic fiction, the protagonist is often a sort of Everyman, a Jack the Giant-Killer (who is not a giant himself) or Alice in Wonderland – a relatively ordinary sort of person with whom the reader can easily identify, and to whom all the fantastic new inventions can be revealed and explained one by one, so that we can follow along. There is another kind of protagonist, the larger-than-life kind, who participates in the legosity of the story himself. Bilbo is a very minor example of this, for he is a hobbit, and we have to be introduced to the concept of hobbits; but he is so very much like a solid English squire of the nineteenth century, or the earlier twentieth, that he is encountering all the other marvels of Middle-earth for the first time, and therefore serves as our Everyman once we have got him soundly introduced. Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Robin Hood, are all examples of the larger-than-life leads.

Let us take Superman as an easy case to analyse. Much of the legosity of the Superman comics is embodied in the lead character himself; but he has to be unbundled. ‘Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound’: there we have three legos to start off with. Moreover, Superman can fly. He has X-ray vision. He is vulnerable to Kryptonite. He is really Kal-El, the last survivor (so far as we knew at the outset) of the catastrophe that destroyed the planet Krypton. He has a secret identity as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter on the Daily Planet. We can easily take Superman to pieces in this way, and each of the pieces can be reused and recombined independently. So it is not the character of Superman who is a lego, but each of his salient qualities taken individually.

In the same way, Luke Skywalker begins as a farm boy, and only slowly learns to become a Jedi Knight. Dorothy is an ordinary little girl from Kansas before the cyclone transports her to the Land of Oz. Captain Kirk is thoroughly familiar with the workings of his own ship, but for the most part he discovers the new lego bits along with his audience, as he boldly goes where no man has gone before. It would seem that we can make a general rule: Protagonists themselves are not legos, but their special attributes can be legos.

What else do we find? Supporting characters can be legos by nature, either because of their abilities or because of their kinds. Gandalf starts off, in The Hobbit, as a lego by ability: he is a Wizard, and can do various kinds of interesting magic, and is moreover a kind of walking travelogue, who can instantly explain to the other characters what kind of trouble they are getting themselves into. (He had to go away in the middle third of the book, by narrative necessity. Having him around would have made things too easy for Thorin’s Quest.) In The Lord of the Rings, it turns out that Gandalf is a lego by kind: one of the Five Wizards, the Istari, the messengers (angels, literally, in the etymological sense) from the West, sent to oppose the evil of Sauron.

Places and things can also be legos. Spaceships are a kind of generic lego; we use them without attributing them to any particular creator. But the Millennium Falcon is a new lego in its own right: the rickety, patched-together old smuggler’s ship, not the least bit elegant or streamlined or futuristic – space travel’s answer to the rusted-out jalopy. The Death Star, the space warship so huge that it can be mistaken for a moon, becomes an original lego by sheer force of scale. Things blow up in space battles, but the power to blow up a whole planet becomes a threat of a different kind. Mirkwood is a lego – the very name tells us what kind of trouble to expect there, and Tolkien delivers abundantly on its promise. Mordor, too, is a lego, the terminally diseased and polluted country, ‘dying but not yet dead’, where tormented nature is an adversary in its own right – the country whose very name sounds like murder. Lothlórien, the enchanted elfland where time stands still, is a lego, some of whose properties I have used for other purposes myself.

Technologies and ‘magic systems’ – a hateful phrase, for magic and system are two things that seldom go well together – are also common types of lego. The phaser is not just a zap gun, but a gun that can be set to stun: that is, a lethal weapon that, by a deliberate exercise of prudence or mercy, can be used non-lethally. The light sabre is not just a fancy sword, but the Jedi version of a Swiss Army knife: it can cut through metal or deflect blaster fire, and yet be safely and unobtrusively stowed upon one’s person. The Force is a lego, and not just a fancy name for ‘psi’, because of its quiddity, its determinate and often inconvenient nature. A Jedi controls the Force, but the Force also controls him. It has a light side and a dark side, and if you make a habit of using the dark side, ‘for ever will it dominate your destiny’.

There seems to be a kind of critical mass for legosity. To develop ozamataz, it seems, a work needs to have something like ten to fifteen good, solid legos that people will readily remember and enjoy playing with. This, I think, is what sets apart the major imaginative works, the ones that have their own fandoms and ozamataz, from merely successful books or films that never give rise to that kind of audience participation.

Some examples: The chestburster from Alien is a fine and memorable lego, but it is the only new lego in that movie; the rest is a recycling of common science-fiction tropes. You can easily play with chestbursters by combining them with legos from other sources (Alien Vs. Predator), but the world in which they originated does not have enough of its own legos to be worth playing in. Back to the Future has many fans, and several legos of its own – the time-travelling DeLorean, the flux capacitor, the ‘Mr. Fusion’ converter kit – but most of the story is constructed from existing pieces, so it does not inspire further creativity and has never really developed its own fandom.

There are, sadly, some properties that have abundant legosity, but have been blocked from developing ozamataz by some fatal flaw. A good cautionary example is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Stephen R. Donaldson is one of the world’s great lego inventors. From the first book alone, I can think of a good dozen. Since most of my Loyal Readers are not Donaldson fans, I shall give a brief account of each, and what gives it the power of legosity:

  • The Land. This place, the setting of the series, is virtually a character in its own right; the whole country is almost sentient. It is a place where good and evil, health and sickness, are as plainly visible as red and green; where every tree and river, every rock and patch of soil, is alive with the organic magic called Earthpower.
  • The Council of Lords. This is not merely a collection of wizards, but a kind of church or mandarinate of wizardry, in which the leaders are linked by telepathy and by a common vow to serve the Land.
  • Kevin’s Lore. Not just a ‘magic system’, but a very complex and weird set of what you might call magical scriptures. It was encoded by its creator in the Seven Wards, each of which contains the clues that will help you find the next. These Wards range from a locked box full of scrolls to a living being constructed out of pure Earthpower.
  • The Giants. These are not ordinary fairy-tale giants, not monsters or villains. They are a race of long-lived seafarers, who love to tell long stories, and to laugh even in the face of tragedy. Their motto is, ‘Joy is in the ears that hear, not in the mouth that speaks.’
  • Stonedowns and rhadhamaerl. About half the humans in the Land live in Stonedowns, villages where all the tools and utensils of everyday life are made of stone, and manipulated by the stone-lore called rhadhamaerl. Even the fires are fuelled by a magical stone called graveling.
  • Woodhelvens and lillianrill. A Woodhelven is a village built in the branches of a single giant tree. As the Stonedownors use stone for every ordinary purpose, the Woodhelvennin use wood. They even have wooden knives, which work because of the lillianrill magic that awakens the Earthpower in the wood.
  • Lord Foul the Despiser. The principal villain of the piece, Lord Foul is trapped in the Land, and wants to destroy it so that he can escape. Failing that, he seeks to torment the Land’s people so horribly that they will destroy it themselves, just to put him out of their misery. He hates every form of life and existence, possibly including his own, and is very good at laying the kind of double-bind trap that TV Tropes calls a ‘Xanatos Gambit’.
  • The Ravers. These three malevolent spirits have no bodies of their own, but work their will by possessing others. They can flit from host to host, using their stolen bodies to kill, destroy, and wreak havoc. The people of the Land call them by (Hebrew) names that refer to different aspects of Hell, but the Ravers name themselves by the (Sanskrit) words for different forms of enlightenment.
  • Ur-viles and Waynhim. These two strange races were created by a mysterious people known as the Demondim. They are outside the Law, since they were constructed, not born; their DNA, so to speak, is entirely artificial. The ur-viles are black, eyeless, and sorcerous, and serve Lord Foul because he gives them lore and genetic material to continue the Demondim breeding program. The grey Waynhim have renounced all that, and devote their lives to serving the Land in their own peculiar way.
  • The Staff of Law. This rune-carved staff both embodies and controls the laws that govern the Earthpower. It has, roughly, the power of life, death, and transformation over anything that exists by Law – that is, anything that has its own determinate nature. (Later on in the series, the Staff is destroyed, and Very Bad Things Happen.)
  • The Illearth Stone. A source of almost infinite power, the Stone warps and diseases everything it touches. It is a kind of Instant Mordor in a can.
  • White gold. This metal, not found in the Land, contains ‘the wild magic that destroys Peace’. It is right outside of the Law; it is ‘closed’ to the second sight of the Land’s people, so that they cannot perceive it as either good or ill, but only as an enigma.

These are all striking and engaging legos, with immense play-value; and the Covenant books, back in the day, sold millions of copies. Yet there is relatively little in the way of Covenant fandom, and hardly any fan fiction or other signs of ozamataz. Partly, this is because Donaldson himself is jealous of his creation, and has made it known that he does not like other people to play with his legos; and his fans, unlike those of some other authors, generally respect that. But mostly, it is because the Thomas Covenant books are flawed, and the name of the flaw is Thomas Covenant.

The protagonist of the series – you cannot possibly call him a hero – is one of the most repulsive characters in modern fiction, and that is saying something. To begin with, a protagonist is supposed to be a character with a problem that he wishes to solve; but Covenant has a problem that he cannot solve, and he has invested his whole identity in the proposition that it is insoluble. He is a leper, and in the 1970s, when the books were written, leprosy was still an incurable disease; historically, it had the same kind of stigma that AIDS has had in more recent times. To help him survive, he has been trained in a rigorous discipline that puts physical self-preservation above all else. ‘You cannot hope for a cure,’ he is told. So when he is transported to the Land, where a cure is possible, he flatly refuses to believe in any of it. When his leprosy is apparently cured by Earthpower, he thinks he is dreaming, and rapes the young girl who gave him the cure.

This is the point at which thousands of readers threw the book against the wall, never to pick it up again.

For those who remain, the story becomes a dreary slog through Covenant’s self-loathing and self-pity, occasionally redeemed by his efforts to save the Land. He is uniquely equipped to resist an enemy called ‘the Despiser’; everyone already despises him, himself included. Lord Foul cannot manipulate him with despair, because he is already living without hope. This is ingenious, if you like, but it is also very depressing. The sort of people who build up fandoms and generate ozamataz, as a general thing, do not care for dreary and depressing stories. Most of them give up on the Covenant books before they even get to the fun bits. They are repelled by the lead character, and never find out about the legos.

So it does seem that the protagonist, who is never a lego in his own right, has a vital role to play in legosity. The lead character in a story or series, we might say, has to be a good playmate. He has to be someone that the reader likes to identify with; someone who plays with the legos himself, and whom the fans can imagine playing with them in different ways and combinations. A child can play at being Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker. Nobody with a healthy disposition would play at being Thomas Covenant.

Of course, it is perfectly possible for a work to have a likable protagonist, clever worldbuilding, and a barrel of perfectly wonderful legos, and never catch on with the public. Examples are hard to give, for obvious reasons. The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson, is an instructive case. Hodgson’s very strange and arresting novel was published about a century ago, and unlike the Oz books, attracted no interest and virtually no audience. It did not help that it was written in a strange, mock-archaic style, weirdly at odds with the far-future setting. Still worse, it was a fantasy aimed at an adult audience just when Modernism was getting its literary grip, and fantasy was generally thought to be fit only for children.

But what legos it had! The Last Redoubt! The Watchers! The Air-Clog! The Earth Current! The Abhumans! The Diskos! The Night Land itself, where the sun has been extinguished and the earth is overrun by alien monsters, is a more powerful bit of lego than anything in H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself described The Night Land as ‘one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written’. It deserved a following, and just lately, thanks largely to the efforts of the late Andy Robertson, and to the brilliant (and professionally published) fan fiction by John C. Wright, it has finally found one. But for a hundred years, it languished in obscurity, because it lacked one crucial element: luck.

To an extent, an author can make his own luck. This is far truer now, when anyone can publish an ebook and make it available to the whole Internet-connected world, than in Hodgson’s day, when books had to be expensively printed, and distribution was difficult and dodgy. As recently as ten years ago, a book could go out of print in months or even weeks and be forgotten, seemingly for ever. But now we are living in wonderfully different times. The sheer overabundance of books (and films, and TV shows, and games) available to us is daunting. But we need not be daunted as authors; for our audiences know how to find us, if we know how to make ourselves findable. Other people have written more ably than I ever could about the problem of discovery; but I shall, I hope, have something to say about that, from my own angle, another time.

Meanwhile, I can say this with confidence: There is not much truth in the slogan, ‘Build it, and they will come.’ But if you can get your work discovered, it is quite fair to say: ‘Make the legos, and they will build.’ Legosity leads to ozamataz, just as surely as seeds lead to plants. Not every seed is viable, and not every viable seed falls on good soil. But every tree and blade of grass grew from a seed; and every fandom with ozamataz grew because a story had legosity.

Comments

  1. I believe The Princess Bride has ozmataz and legosity. Some of the legos include secondary characters like Fezzik, Vezzini, the Dread Pirate Roberts. Prince Humperdink, the six-fingered man, and Inigo Montoya. then there are things like Pit of Despair, Rodents of Unusual Size, the Fire Swamp, The Cliffs of Insanity, the holocaust cloak… I could go on and on. I think it explains the enduring nature of its fandom.

    The stickiness of the concepts of the Rocky Horror Picture Show I will leave to someone else.

    • The really cool lego in The Princess Bride, to my mind, is the book by S. Morgenstern, of which the novel is supposed to be a ‘good parts’ abridgement, and which the grandfather in the film is reading to the kid. It’s very meta – I think Jorge Luis Borges would have approved – but in a thoroughly fun and accessible way.

      And let’s not forget Miracle Max.

    • The stickiness of the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s concepts stems directly from the fact that they are all borrowed as well. RHPS is nearly as derivative as the World of Time (says a guy who married a women he meant while he was playing Rocky in a cast).

      I think two things kept it from being as derivative as Jordan:

      1. It was just enough out of sync time wise. While it embraced a love of B-movies it was drive-in movies of the mid-fifties to late sixties. By the time it appeared the stock B-movie was what we now call grindhouse. This allowed it to “hide” its theft a bit better.

      2. Although the boundary pushing of the sixties had started it wasn’t nearly as mainstreamed so you could very transgressive with very little and you could do it with a wink instead of deadly seriousness. Even in the early 80s when I went continually as a HS student RHPS was very transgressive. Now it is prime time TV. Also, its transgressiveness is with a wink. We’re supposed to make fun of the transvestite not worry about offending the trans community.

      So combine the great deal of fun some winking transgressiveness can provide with tropes just a bit pass their sell-by date and you get RHPS.

  2. On my blog I once described the reason I disliked the TV show “Elementary” was that it lacked the mytheme of Sherlock Holmes. Making Watson a woman (and Holmes interested in romance) is to destroy the relationship between the characters. For one thing, you can’t imply that Holmes is REALLY superior to Watson: That would be racist and sexist, and is not allowed.

    So Watson is turned into Holmes’ protege and equal, which is a bastardization of their relationship in the books. Watson IS the sidekick, but Lucy Liu herself flat-out admitted that she did not intend to make her Watson a sidekick. The relationship is destroyed.

    Not only that, by making Holmes interested in romance and Watson female (and having both of them be unmarried, which is how the early, half-decent years of “Law and Order: SVU got away with this), it is literally impossible to avoid the possibility of Holmes and Watson getting into a sexual relationship. Literally impossible. The show does a pretty good job, I suppose of avoiding it, but the fact that this possibility exists is an immediate problem in and of itself.

    Watson as detective-in-training, as opposed to sidekick, and Holmes as a man interested in romance, destroys the mytheme of Sherlock Holmes; his relationship with Watson is so central to the series that to kill it is to kill the idea that this is anything but a typical detective procedural, if a decent one.

    You can have good Holmes stories without Watson present, but you can’t put Watson in a dress, give him an entirely unrelated personality and motivations, and expect us to believe it’s the same character. Even the buffoon portrayal by Nigel Bruce at least keeps to the mytheme of the stories, as does Martin Freeman’s portrayal (the best person to ever portray the role), as does Jude Law’s portrayal, as does Wilson from “House”‘s portrayal. “Elementary” does not, and in large part for that reason it is very much inferior version to BBC’s “Sherlock”

    • Stephen J. says:

      I can’t disagree with your remarks, but in all fairness I must observe that they do seem simply to boil down to, “I don’t like these characters or their relationship because they’re not the same as the originals.” To which my wife, who very much likes both Elementary and several different film versions of the original Doyle stories, and who is a considerably more blunt-spoken person than myself, would probably say, “Well, duh.” Miller’s Holmes and Liu’s Watson are not Doyle’s Holmes and Watson, despite sharing a lot of the trappings and, I would suggest, more of the essential characteristics than you suggest; for some viewers the shared trappings and characteristics will be enough to catch one’s interest despite the differences, for others they will not.

      It’s worth pointing out that Liu’s Watson and Doyle’s Watson are alike in one very key aspect: they are the ideal surrogate for their intended audiences. Doyle’s Watson was a gentleman of heroic character and admirable profession who was just slow enough off the perceptiveness mark that the average Strand reader could sometimes beat him; Liu’s Watson is a woman with enough independence and intelligence to please female TV viewers (women today are much more resentful of being persistently portrayed as “dumber” than a man; even Penny on The Big Bang Theory, while often lost by the male nerds’ scientific geekery, always puts them in their place when it comes to actual human relationships), while still showing enough attractiveness and loyalty to make her admirable to male viewers, and she has enough character flaws to make her (in principle) sympathetic and believeable to modern viewers who no longer believe in truly heroic protagonists.

      Some of the changes also follow near-inevitably on the decision to change setting, rather than sex: in Victorian times a practicing physician could in principle take time out to adventure and still support himself, whereas today no doctor could spare the time either from his job or his ongoing training to do so, hence Liu’s Watson becomes an ex-surgeon who provides live-in counselling to addicts. This also gives a perfect reason for spending time with someone as annoyingly, smugly superior as Holmes is consistently depicted as being: it is a professional obligation for which Liu’s Watson has no alternative, until she gradually realizes she finds his work fascinating in itself (a perfect parallel for the audience being asked to put up with a dislikeable or unsympathetic protagonist until that protagonist becomes interesting despite that dislikeability).

      My own cynical observation on the landmine of changing Watson to be female, unfortunately, is that in the age we live in there is absolutely no way to prevent an audience perceiving sexual overtones in any relationship, or sexualizing any character — people have sexualized not only the relationship between Sam and Frodo in LOTR and the relationship between Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Freeman’s Watson, but even the relationship between the Winchester brothers on Supernatural; and the new Star Trek movies have apparently decided that Vulcans are now perfectly capable of sexual activity outside pon farr, even if (presumably) their appetite for it is normally much less prevalent and much more easily dismissed than humans’. If the goal is to create a character relationship incapable of being sexualized I can only say that I no longer think this possible for modern Western audiences, so in some ways I would rather see it presented as a healthy possibility on-screen rather than an obligatory silence in which all sorts of unhealthy options can boil pruriently and purulently off-screen.

      • I can’t disagree with your remarks, but in all fairness I must observe that they do seem simply to boil down to, “I don’t like these characters or their relationship because they’re not the same as the originals.”

        That is not at all what I said. Freeman, Jude Law, Wilson from “House” and Nigel Bruce are all different from the book Watson, but all keep the mytheme.

        You completely missed the point of everything I wrote: There is an essential core to these characters that must be kept to keep them recognizably Holmes and Watson, and to keep their relationship recognizably *their* relationship. Putting Watson in a dress and calling him Watson is a blatant lie.

        As for your point about romantic relationships, if you don’t see the difference between two people living with each other who are men and women and two of the same sex, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not modern society that sexualizes this, it’s God and nature.

        • Stephen J. says:

          Fair enough, I apologize for missing the point; I think you may have missed mine in turn, but I will still plead guilty to doing it first.

          Let me rephrase my question this way, then: If I had to boil down what I understood to be the essential core of the classic Doyle Holmes-Watson dynamic, it would be this: “A (relatively) ordinary person tells the stories of helping his utterly extraordinary friend solve crimes, and learns just how amazing the human capacity for reason and deduction can be in the process.” What in that dynamic is incompatible with making John into Joan? If that is not what you mean by the core dynamic, how would you describe it in a way that requires Watson to still be John? (Could you preserve the dynamic by doing the flip for both characters, e.g. Charlotte Holmes and Jane Watson?)

          If the complaint is that awareness of potential eroticization of the relationship spoils the dynamic of the original characters, the only thing I was pointing out was that keeping the sexes the same is not, these days, enough to exclude that awareness or that potential; perusing the fanfic of the BBC’s Sherlock makes that fact brutally undeniable with dismaying speed, I think. Even in the show itself, the frequency with which Martin Freeman’s Watson has to deny over and over again any homoerotic interest in Cumberbatch’s Sherlock becomes itself a kind of signal for that very interest, to viewers or critics of a certain mindset. Thus, if you can’t avoid modern audiences sexualizing the characters in defiance of their canon portrayal anyway, it doesn’t make much difference what sex the characters are in that aspect.

          • Watson is not Holmes’ chronicler only. He is his sidekick. You are trying to say that Watson is *only* necessarily a chronicler, when in fact this was never the case; he assisted Holmes.

            Lucy Liu has come out and explicitly stated that she did not mean for her Watson to be a sidekick. This is a perversion of the relationship.

            A woman cannot provide the physical assistance that John Watson could. Thus, the only way to make her the proper sort of assistant in a realistic way is to make her an intellectual equal, which is a disastrous inversion of their relationship.

            • Stephen J. says:

              “You are trying to say that Watson is *only* necessarily a chronicler, when in fact this was never the case; he assisted Holmes.”

              And I said as much in my definition: “An ordinary person tells the stories of helping his extraordinary friend solve crimes.”

              Of course the Holmes-Watson relationship is indispensable to the Holmesian mytheme; I simply don’t see how making one of the characters female necessarily changes that relationship to something utterly different and unrecognizeable. You seem to be saying that a man and a woman cannot have a platonic friendship based on shared interests, or at least can never have as “true” a friendship of this type as two men or two women.

              “A woman cannot provide the physical assistance that John Watson could.”

              Such as? I have not read Doyle’s entire Holmes corpus, but in my recollection the physical assistance Watson provided was far less often sheer brute fisticuffs (where John does have an advantage over Joan, though not as much as a Joan who can call police via cell and carry mace, a Taser and a modern firearm) than simply being a kind of go-fer, occasional battlefield chirurgeon and general sounding board.

              “Thus, the only way to make her the proper sort of assistant in a realistic way is to make her an intellectual equal, which is a disastrous inversion of their relationship.”

              Not necessarily; if the intellectual disparity in Sherlock’s favour over Joan is not as wide as Holmes’ over Watson’s in the original stories, the disparity in comparative maturity in Joan’s favour over Sherlock is much wider. Miller’s Holmes may be smarter than Joan, but Joan is wiser than Sherlock, thus allowing the characters to be emotionally equal while distinct — a critical change, I think, to allow modern audiences to get into it, especially in a TV show where you cannot have a “narrator” who makes up for his lesser role in the action through his greater presence via conveying the narrative.

              • And I said as much in my definition: “An ordinary person tells the stories of helping his extraordinary friend solve crimes.”

                An ordinary person is the sidekick of the extraordinary crime-solver. Liu’s Watson is admittedly, by the actress, not a sidekick.

                You seem to be saying that a man and a woman cannot have a platonic friendship based on shared interests, or at least can never have as “true” a friendship of this type as two men or two women.

                I’m saying it’s much, much rarer and harder to believe.

                Such as? I have not read Doyle’s entire Holmes corpus, but in my recollection the physical assistance Watson provided was far less often sheer brute fisticuffs (where John does have an advantage over Joan, though not as much as a Joan who can call police via cell and carry mace, a Taser and a modern firearm) than simply being a kind of go-fer, occasional battlefield chirurgeon and general sounding board.

                It’s not always exactly what Watson does. He is meant to be Holmes’ back-up, and being intellectually inferior he has to be a convincing physical presence – which he is.

                Martin Freeman can pull it off partially because he’s an exceptional actor and partially because whatever your size, you’re just more willing to believe a man can provide physical back-up than a woman.

                Miller’s Holmes may be smarter than Joan, but Joan is wiser than Sherlock, thus allowing the characters to be emotionally equal while distinct — a critical change, I think, to allow modern audiences to get into it, especially in a TV show where you cannot have a “narrator” who makes up for his lesser role in the action through his greater presence via conveying the narrative.

                But wisdom doesn’t provide the sort of back-up such a character needs. Freeman’s Watson is, at least in some ways, wiser than Sherlock, but that’s not the reason he accompanies Sherlock on cases, nor is that what makes him useful.

          • If the complaint is that awareness of potential eroticization of the relationship spoils the dynamic of the original characters, the only thing I was pointing out was that keeping the sexes the same is not, these days, enough to exclude that awareness or that potential; perusing the fanfic of the BBC’s Sherlock makes that fact brutally undeniable with dismaying speed, I think.

            Right, but this is artificial and false. A man and a woman together? Whatever the fanfic writers tell you, it’s much easier to accept.

      • Consider this question, to help you understand what I mean: Why do I like BBC’s updated version of Sherlock Holmes, but not ABC’s?

        If you get why, you get the problem with “Elementary”.

        I’m not saying not to enjoy the show. I’m saying that Lucy Liu isn’t Watson and her relationship with Holmes does not keep to the mytheme of their relationship in the books.

      • Except at least something close (not being a Holmes fan I don’t know how close but it was a constant comparison) was done with Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Goren and Aimes are both single, both detectives, and she even has the “had to get used to him” aspect to the point of early on wanting a transfer.

        Yet we rarely believes Aimes was even close to Goren in terms of understanding the case until late in the episode when he’d already assembled and presented the key pieces (if then). There was also never any sexual tension as Goren clearly lacked romantic interest. The closest were with Nicole Wallace, the recurring villain (a Moriarity?), and Paula Gyson, the police psychologist from the last season rooting around in Goren’s head.

        So while for commerical reasons the pair from Elementary might be “necessary” I don’t see why you had to have that fallout.

  3. (This destruction of the mytheme, similar to what was done with “Wicked”, is also why I refuse to read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon”, despite the awesome title.)

  4. Stephen J. says:

    Continuing my reply to Malcolm’s last post above, as of 13:40 his time, since we have reached the nesting reply limit in the first exchange:

    “An ordinary person is the sidekick of the extraordinary crime-solver. Liu’s Watson is admittedly, by the actress, not a sidekick.”

    That’s because she’s his partner. The difference is, a sidekick is dispensable (Batman works perfectly fine as a protagonist without Robin); a partner is not (Holmes without Watson is as pointless as Watson without Holmes). And you do not have to be the equal of someone in a particular capacity to be indispensable to them.

    “I’m saying (a platonic male-female friendship is) much, much rarer and harder to believe.”

    It strikes me as more common and more believeable than Holmes himself as a character, to be honest. Why suspend one’s disbelief for Holmes’s IQ (or for the tolerance people extend his unpleasant personality in most modern versions), but not for his capacity to make connections with a female partner rather than a male?

    “Watson… is meant to be Holmes’ back-up, and being intellectually inferior he has to be a convincing physical presence… wisdom doesn’t provide the sort of back-up such a character needs.”

    I have to admit I think you are selectively remembering not only most of the stories but most of the filmic versions of the original Doyle tales. In what story does John Watson’s presence make a difference to the outcome that Joan Watson’s presence could not?

    And it’s worth noting that “wisdom” is not needed for Doyle’s Holmes because those were not the kinds of stories Doyle was telling. The televised series versions all have to do something Doyle never needed: they engage in actual character development and examination of the relationship in itself, rather than as merely the tacit backdrop to the mystery. I have not read all the Holmes corpus, as noted, but the only one I recall where Holmes’s personality is described as playing a significant role in the actual plot is “A Scandal in Bohemia”, where his underestimation of Irene Adler’s cleverness leads to one of his few defeats. Likewise, ongoing emotional conflict between Holmes and Watson is not part of any Doyle story I know, but it has to be part of an ongoing TV serial; audiences will not sit still for a story missing it these days. (Even Mulder and Scully spent large chunks of time at emotional odds on The X-Files.)

    I suppose I would finish by saying that I honestly don’t think the fundamental mytheme of the Holmes-Watson archetype is as fragile as you suggest, and I think it’s survived just fine in that show given the necessary changes imposed by the change of medium and setting. (Honestly, I think the portrayal of Moriarty on the BBC Sherlock does far more damage to the Holmesian mythos than anything Liu and Miller have done.) But I will cheerfully acknowledge my own subjectivity on this, so I will stop annoying you about it.

    • That’s because she’s his partner. The difference is, a sidekick is dispensable (Batman works perfectly fine as a protagonist without Robin); a partner is not (Holmes without Watson is as pointless as Watson without Holmes). And you do not have to be the equal of someone in a particular capacity to be indispensable to them.

      That’s what I’ve been saying this entire time. Watson is not supposed to be Holmes’s partner. He is Holmes’s sidekick. The superiority of Holmes to Watson, at least in the realm of detection, is essential to the relationship. They’re not equals.

      It strikes me as more common and more believeable than Holmes himself as a character, to be honest. Why suspend one’s disbelief for Holmes’s IQ (or for the tolerance people extend his unpleasant personality in most modern versions), but not for his capacity to make connections with a female partner rather than a male?

      For the exact same reason we’ll accept warp drive in Star Trek but would find it ridiculous if Captain Kirk was able to breathe in space – it’s a more outlandish example, but the same principle applies.

      I have to admit I think you are selectively remembering not only most of the stories but most of the filmic versions of the original Doyle tales. In what story does John Watson’s presence make a difference to the outcome that Joan Watson’s presence could not?

      That’s not the point. Whether she could offer a different sort of aid or not, Watson is a distinctly masculine character.

      But more than that, as you pointed out very clearly, the relationship IS different. Maybe you’re right and that difference has nothing to do with being a woman – I disagree, but okay. But it’s a completely different relationship.

      Honestly, I think the portrayal of Moriarty on the BBC Sherlock does far more damage to the Holmesian mythos than anything Liu and Miller have done.

      I’m not sure how you could make that argument, considering that Moriarty was in a single story and mentioned in two others. His relationship with Holmes is a miniscule part of the series, and “The Final Problem” one of the canon’s worst stories.

  5. Of course the legos have to be fun to play with. I’ve ranted about children’s movies that flop because they’re a humorless slog. Some are due to the Thomas Covenant effect, but there are also fantasy worlds with pleasant enough protagonists, that have some cool ideas in them, but don’t invite the audience into that world because they can’t imagine themselves as The Chosen One or the world is so crapsack no sane person would want to pretend to live there.

    • the world is so crapsack no sane person would want to pretend to live there

      Would it be an unacceptably cheap shot to call that ‘China Mieville Syndrome’?

  6. Hmmm. . . .

    The thing about Wheel of Time‘s borrowings being an obstacle — a lot of readers probably read them first in Wheel. I have actually read bookstore recommendations that recommended Tolkien to people who liked Jordan. And I have heard of people who think Tolkien ripped off his successors, although not actually Jordan in the examples I’ve heard of.

    • The thing is, the people who are most likely to get involved in writing fan fiction and things of that kind – the people who generate ozamataz – are also the most likely to have read enough in the field to know that Jordan’s stuff is borrowed. Most of the fan activity I have seen surrounding Jordan’s works (other than complaining) was trying to guess what happens next, soap opera style.

  7. RandyJJ says:

    I think part of the reason that The Night Lands didn’t develop a following is that while it has a lot of Legos, it doesn’t have a cool picture on the front of the case by which to entice people into this particular box. By which I mean that it does not arrange its Legos into a pleasing story on the same level as many other works possessed of great Legosity.

    If you look at the short list of examples you gave, each of them (with the exception of the Diskos) is only a factor in the Night Lands themselves. But about 60% of the story does not take place in the Night Lands, but rather the lands between that and the Lesser Redoubt; lands that seemed to me, at any rate, to be a fairly generic lost world sort of setting. That is 60% of the story that is spent far away from the interesting bricks. I enjoyed the book, but I do feel that–outside of the Night Land itself–there was little about it that gave it an enduring quality.

  8. Patrick Stahl says:

    I started reading Jordan’s Wheel of Time in college. I took a lot of grief from my roommates over the romance style book covers. By the time I graduated, the series was still dragging on and my interest in the series started to wane. I still have a couple of unread hardbacks that I picked up in a discount bin.

    While I agree with the Jordan criticism, there was a time, maybe for the first four or five books, when the series was good. Even an unobservant reader like me picked up on the similarities between Dune, Lord of the Rings, and Jordan. But the story was good – it had good guys that acted like good guys. It had evil bad guys. There were some climatic battles and lots of action. Good and Evil were clear and the book didn’t suffer from the gritty realism, moral ambiguity, and weird sexual perversion that seems to be popular in modern fantasy.

    In other words, for a time, Wheel of Time was entertaining.

    I’ll offer my own Lego analogy. Tolkien is like the Super Star Destroyer Lego set. I’d imagine a lot of authors are intimidated by that. They know their own Lego creation will never be that awesome. Worried that they will be labeled as derivative they create one of those Architect sets that have a lot of specialty pieces can only be used to build the picture on the box. As a reader, my advice to an author would be to build a good spaceship, even if it’s not as awesome as the Super Star Destroyer.

    In case anyone doesn’t have boys, a good Lego space ship has lots of guns, cannons, wings, huge rockets and plenty of storage for the Lego pilot’s swords, pistols, and light sabers.

  9. Have you read any of Brandon Sanderson’s fantasies? I don’t know if he has inspired any fan fiction, but he definitely is very original and has ozamataz and legosity.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Best Related Work: Sad Puppies Bite Back, Appendix N, Legosity […]

Speak Your Mind

*