Fantastic Subtexts and How (Not) to Write Them: Magic, Marginality, and Metaphor in the Potterverse

CONTENT NOTE/SPOILER ALERT: This post involves critical discussions of racial violence, queerphobia, child abuse, and child mortality. It also contains spoilers for the Harry Potter series and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Continue reading “Fantastic Subtexts and How (Not) to Write Them: Magic, Marginality, and Metaphor in the Potterverse”

Whose Lane is it Anyway? On Writing and Researching from a Position of Privilege

The other day, a very good friend and colleague posted this tweet:

When I saw this, I giggled. And then, I cringed. I cringed because I recognized myself in it, in the way I’ve sometimes approached both my day-to-day interactions with people who aren’t cis men, and even my own academic research.

I’m researching the ways that fantasy, as a genre, can provide narrative ground for women and LGBTQ+ people to contend with religious traditions that have historically been less than inclusive, to put it very mildly. And while I do fall into the ‘G’ of ‘LGBTQ+’, the broad focus of my study means that I have very different privileges and experiences from the majority of the people in my bibliography. (As a side note, I don’t think I’ve always done the best job of representing that on this blog.) Not only am I a white, cisgender man, but I’m also active in a progressive, but still mainline, Episcopal church—something to which many women and LGBTQ+ people have either been denied access or from which they’ve had to abstain out of concern for their own safety and well-being.

As can be expected from this, I’ve learned by making a lot of mistakes in my research and writing, and in the way I’ve discussed my ideas with other people. And yet I still find it important to do academic work on topics outside the protected bubble of my own whiteness, cis-ness, and maleness. In this post, I want to share some things I’ve learned about how to responsibly account for differences of privilege in your academic writing.

First of all, your ‘lane’ is not the same as your identity. The phrase ‘stay in your lane’ has become a popular one in the world of activism, and it’s a phrase that’s as often misunderstood as it is invoked. A friend of mine, a novelist, takes issue with the way it’s sometimes used or understood for the same reasons ‘write what you know’ can often feel like bad advice. For those of us in positions of privilege, ‘stay in your lane’ can feel like a taboo against ever engaging with intersectional politics of liberation in the same way that ‘write what you know’ is often misunderstood to mean ‘write about what you know’.

Of course, if I believed that either of the above were true, I’d not only be out of a job, but also abdicating my responsibility to transform my own consciousness and challenge my own oppressive assumptions. Just like the advice to ‘write what you know’ really means to find some way of identifying with your writing, no matter how removed from your own experience it may be, staying in my lane is about examining what my identity is and how I position myself within broader political aims. Staying in my lane means things like resisting the urge to explain or narrate someone else’s experience (especially to them), realizing that my perspective is not the most important one and de-centring it appropriately, listening to and amplifying marginalized voices in responsible ways, and using that knowledge going forward to transform and unsettle the privileged spaces I inhabit on a day-to-day basis. In academic terms, this can look like being mindful of whom you cite when, holding the privileged among your bibliography accountable for what they say and do, and bringing to light scholars who may be obscure due to marginalization.

Whatever it may look like, the key to ‘staying in my lane’ is this: it has less to do with how I define myself and more to do with the work I’m doing and how I approach it. Let’s look back at the tweet my friend shared. This is important for several reasons. The first is that continually asking, ‘Am I a good ally?’ plays into the fragility of privileged identities. As a white man, I have a pathological need to think of myself as virtuous. If I can maintain that image of myself, the thinking goes, then I never need to challenge the stories we’ve heard since birth: that I’m the hero, the civilised, the victorious, the morally upright.

Asking questions about my identity as an activist, instead of about the work of activism, fails to be liberating because it re-orients the focus away from other people’s liberation to my own ability to maintain the status quo regarding my self-image. This is also the impulse behind people whose rallying cry is, ‘not all [x]’; both responses to activism make the conversation about privileged people’s validation. This need for validation also demands that people in already vulnerable positions undertake vast amounts of emotional labour and waste time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. This is especially important to keep in mind in academia, where it’s incredibly easy to see scholars as disembodied minds and where interactions with other scholars are often seen as opportunities for networking and self-promotion.

Counter to this, staying in my lane also means bearing in mind that the ideas I encounter from marginalized voices are born out of day-to-day, embodied experiences. The people I cite may have published their work at personal risk to their careers or their livelihoods. They may have published their work while caring for children or loved ones or participating in direct social action. This should make a difference in how I share these ideas in my own writing and how I interact with other scholars professionally. In these cases, it’s not simply enough to amplify marginalized voices; it’s also important that we take consideration for how to present them ethically so that marginalized people are protected and well-represented. How we do this will vary greatly depending on the type of research we’re doing, but the key is this: if our goal is liberation, then the dignity and well-being of those whose liberation we’re trying to support should be our top priority.

Finally, staying in my lane means that I should know my limits and be open to my own voice being called into question. Once, I was presenting a paper on The Left Hand of Darkness, a speculative novel about the limits of gender in which the majority of characters are non-binary, at a conference where there were likely to be lots of trans* and non-binary people attending my panel. What I didn’t want to do was stand at the front of the conference room and cissplain people’s own identity politics to them. So after a few of my non-binary friends, family members, and colleagues offered (important side note that no one owes you their time in checking your work), I had them look over my paper to see if there was anything I’d missed. Lo and behold, there were a few places where I’d inadvertently name-dropped complex issues which—while connected to the themes of my paper and important in their own right—I didn’t have time to do full justice in my half-hour talk. On other occasions, friends—in both academic and non-academic circles—have rightly called me out on the way I’ve talked about certain aspects of my work.

Admitting limits and shortcomings is uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to do in academic writing, which so privileges having everything neatly fit together like a well-oiled machine. But it’s also worthwhile and leads to more productive conversations both within the academy and outside its structures, where so much politically-motivated writing aims to reach. There are still limits to my work that I’ve become painfully aware of but have no idea what to do with yet, but I’ve accepted that naming these limits and being attentive to them is a crucial part of my writing process.

I want to close by reflecting a little bit on the implications all of the above has had for my own work and my writing process. When I started thinking about what I wanted to research for my PhD, I had two goals in mind. The way I had been writing about religion in my academic writing up to that point no longer felt adequate either for the personal changes I’d gone through since I started my Master’s or anything I’d learned in the classroom during that time. Additionally, I was tired of writing about books that centred white cis men after my Master’s introduced me to a myriad of diverse authors. This was how I came up with the initial idea of a study that would take a deconstructive approach to religion in fantasy texts in order to make way for a ‘feminine’ embodiment of the divine.

As I did more and more of my research and talked to more and more people, I realized that deconstruction alone wasn’t going to be enough. Deconstruction is vital to a number of liberative projects both inside the academy and in the public sphere; taken on its own, it’s also a branch of theory dominated by white cis men, and as such a lot of deconstructive writing has all the requisite shortcomings that accompany that. After growing increasingly dissatisfied by the end of the first year of my PhD with the way I was writing about all of this, I knew my perspective had to shift. I spent last summer reading up on the various ways women of colour and trans* scholars—among them Gayatri Spivak, Jack Halberstam, bell hooks, and Marcella Althaus-Reid—have expanded and critiqued Derrida’s deconstructive project in their own liberative pursuits, and this in turn expanded the scope of my thesis.

Where I am now is a thesis with a planned structure to lay bare this process instead of hiding it by using a common motif found in a couple of the key novels I’ve chosen to focus on. Till We Have Faces and The Passion of New Eve both feature characters descending into layer upon layer of caverns, and this mirrors their experiences of spiritual and sexual transformation. Each chapter of my thesis will introduce a deeper ‘layer’ of discourse that both expands and troubles the themes I discuss in the previous chapter. This makes for a difficult writing process that requires a lot of careful attention, but my hope is that by exposing my own thought process and its limits and leaving it open to questioning, I’ll end up with a final product that not only holds me accountable as an author but also invites other people to challenge my claims and conduct their own readings.

Do you find yourself having to check your privilege in your academic writing? If so, how have you dealt with it?

Failure Fiction: The OA and the Healing Breakdown of Narrative

‘[I]f myths are lies breathed through silver, the silver is more important than the lies, and the body’s breath more important than either.’

This observation from Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories is made in reference to Till We Have Faces, but it could just as easily apply to The OA, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s trippy, hyper-inventive, frustrating, boundary-smashing hot mess of a Netflix series. Centred on Prairie Johnson, a blind woman (Marling) who goes missing from her Michigan suburb for seven years only to return with her sight mysteriously restored, The OA hops across genres and locales as Prairie, who now calls herself ‘the OA’, recounts her life’s story. The show has invited no shortage of scrutiny since its surprise release on the 18th of December, with viewers and critics polarized as to its strengths and flaws and entire message boards and subreddits dedicated to fan speculation. (Warning: here be spoilers. Proceed with caution.) Continue reading “Failure Fiction: The OA and the Healing Breakdown of Narrative”

New Year Update

A (very belated) happy New Year to everyone reading this! I’ve just about gotten back into the swing of regular thesis work and am very excited to be diving back into research after a restful break. I’ve also got some exciting new posts planned for this blog; in addition to continuing the ‘My Favourite Fantasy Texts’ series I’m also planning posts about my most recent obsession, Netflix’s new series The OA, as well as the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In the meantime, I thought I’d give some stray thoughts on all the other fantastical art and media I’ve encountered over break but don’t have enough to say about for a full-length blog post.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was…okay-ish? I went in wanting to like it a lot more than I actually did (since I adored The Force Awakens), and the public discourse surrounding the film makes me genuinely wish I could see what other people find so compelling about it. It’s certainly in the running for the most beautifully directed film set in the Star Wars universe; Gareth Edwards gives all the environments of the film a lush life and texture of their own to complement the intriguing, underutilised worldbuilding, and he has an eye for unsettling grandeur. Ultimately, though, the film is let down by a story that feels like a series of fetch-quests enacted by paper-thin or inconsistently written characters. Jyn Erso is hard-edged and cynical or wide-eyed and idealistic depending on what’s convenient for the plot at the time; her character arc in particular seems to be the victim of extensive re-shoots and script rewrites. It’s hard to be compelled by this rag-tag group of outsiders banding together when they barely speak to each other except to dole out clunky exposition. That, coupled with the simplistic plot, made me feel like I was watching someone else play a video game for most of the film. On the plus side–Coruscant flashback notwithstanding–it seems like Disney is on its way to disavowing the prequel trilogy as canon, which is perfectly fine by me.

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On New Year’s Eve some friends introduced me to the animated miniseries Over the Garden Wall, which is an utter delight that I’m wondering why I didn’t discover sooner. The story follows two brothers, Wirt and Greg, as they become more and more lost in a forest populated by surreal beings and begin to uncover the plight of a mysterious Woodsman and his connection to a creature known simply as the Beast. Patrick McHale’s storytelling is imbued at every turn with poetic ruminations on love, loss, depression, and childhood, and the worldbuilding evokes an unholy marriage of Hayao Miyazaki and Mark Twain with its nods to nineteenth century Americana, quick wit, and fantastical elements that are by turns marvellous, elegiac, quietly unsettling, and downright horrifying. Woven through all of this is a gorgeously eclectic folk-opera soundtrack. Hilarious, off-the-wall inventive, and oddly moving, Over the Garden Wall is entirely unique.

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I don’t have much to say about A Monster Calls yet, as I’m still slowly digesting and processing it, but the scene midway through in which Conor is forced to confront his grandmother in the living room he’s just destroyed had an unexpectedly devastating effect on me. The tears started flowing then and didn’t stop for the rest of the film. It’s the kind of film where the credits began rolling and the lights went up … and the entire audience sat riveted to their chairs, in hushed silence.

That’s enough for this week, I think; look out for more updates soon!

My Favourite Fantasy Texts #3: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

There’s no denying it now: winter is very near at hand. In Glasgow the temperature outside for the past couple weeks has stayed consistently below 0°C, and the days are getting shorter. The time of 2:30 p.m. sunsets is upon us and much of the day is spent in darkness. In my own Christian tradition, this time of year is set aside to meditate on profound absence, on creation unfinished, on the hope against all hope for a dreadful and wonderful grace that is still yet-to-come, that may not come, that is already here, that is always somewhere other than where we have looked.

In this frigid and dark time of anticipation, I can think of no better text to talk about than Ursula K. Le Guin’s groundbreaking 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Set on the wintry planet of Gethen, whose androgynous inhabitants experience great fluidity in gender and sexuality, the novel’s speculative worldbuilding and themes, radical in 1969, seem more relevant than ever now. As politicians continue to police trans and gender-nonconforming bodies in public spaces, with no promise of things getting any better following the most recent U.S. presidential election, Le Guin’s rich parable of a society not premised on a binary understanding of gender provides both welcome consolation and a provocation to action for the reader.

Before I go any further in discussing this text, a brief note on genre is in order. While some nitpicky souls may insist that, what with the spaceships, interplanetary politics, and talk of genetic experiments, Left Hand would more accurately be classified as sci-fi, many aspects of the novel’s worldbuilding would be just as at home in a straightforward high fantasy novel. My own research tends to follow Brian Attebery’s claim that ‘[t]he interesting question about any given story is not whether or not it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of these things’. My reading of The Left Hand of Darkness as fantasy ultimately has less to do with any set of criteria for genre categorization than it does with the fact that the things I find most interesting and rewarding in this text are the things brought to light when I read it as fantasy.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth on a diplomatic mission to Gethen on behalf of the utopian Ekumen of Known Worlds. Initially, Genly is bewildered by the Gethenians’ lack of a fixed sense of gender and their alien social systems, commenting,

‘Though I had been nearly two years on [Gethen] I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing [them] into those categories so irrelevant to [their] nature and so essential to my own.’

(Note on pronouns: while the novel’s original text uses male pronouns in reference to Gethenian characters, I tend to use singular ‘they/them’ pronouns in accordance with Le Guin’s 1987 annotations to her essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?’) Throughout the course of the novel, however, Genly comes to a greater understanding of his would-be allies through his time with an elusive religious order, his failures to navigate Gethenian politics, and his eventual exile from society alongside disgraced politician Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.

One of the most striking aspects of Left Hand is the way in which Le Guin repeatedly and consciously undermines the authority of her narrator. Not only does Genly betray misogynistic attitudes at times—such as early on when he misreads Estraven’s actions as duplicitous because of their perceived femininity—but the narrative itself is routinely interrupted by other voices. Gethenian folk legends, excerpts from religious texts, journal entries from Estraven, and reports from previous Ekumenical voyages to Gethen serve to call Genly’s outsider perspective into question and form a rich, dense mosaic of motifs, themes, and images that the novel has no interest in falsely organizing into a unified whole. Tracing these recurring ideas within the text and connecting the dots is a big part of the pleasure I gain from reading this novel.

This multifaceted approach to storytelling is a big part of why Gethen feels like one of Le Guin’s most lived-in worlds. Le Guin’s worldbuilding is always fascinating to examine from a theoretical perspective. Here, her society with ‘no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive’ anticipates the work of feminist poststructuralists like Hélène Cixous, who theorizes that our binary construction of gender both influences and is reinforced by other binary relationships in language and thought. But unlike the settings of Le Guin’s more straightforwardly allegorical works, such as The Dispossessed, Gethen is sprawling, expansive, and intricately detailed, existing for its own sake; every landscape, environment, and character hints at a life far beyond the confines of the narrative.

Every time I revisit The Left Hand of Darkness (I’ve been keeping an emergency copy by my bed for the past month), I fall in love all over again with its vistas, beautifully realized through prose so dense that at times it reads like poetry. The red sandstone palaces of Ehrenrang, the roaring fire in Estraven’s house, the hospitality of rural Karhiders, the stifling comfort of Orgoreyn, the squalor of Pulefen labour camp, the vast glacier over which Genly and Estraven escape imprisonment … all these landscapes have lingered in my imagination to both console and disturb. By far my favourite portions of the novel concern Genly’s time with the Handdara, ‘a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed’.

The Handdarata’s particular form of mysticism goes a long way toward informing the novel’s hope for a politics defined not by hierarchy, but by an irreducible I-Thou relationship. Genly eventually comes to understand that his mission is ‘[n]ot political, not pragmatic, but mystical’, requiring reverence toward differences in culture as well as gender and sexuality. His coming heralds more than just a political alliance; it defers toward a future of mutual understanding that is already present in the interplanetary solidarity of the Ekumen, but still yet-to-come in his own relationships with others.

With its nuanced explorations of gender, politics, religion, and science, The Left Hand of Darkness embodies the best of what speculative fiction has to offer, proving that escapism and social consciousness need not be at odds with one another. Gethen is a world I foresee myself revisiting over and over again, and Le Guin’s words have spoken light and warmth to me on many a cold, dark night.

Dreaming in Their Language: Arrival and the Time of the Other

SPOILER WARNING: If you have not yet seen Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and still want to, close this window, go to your nearest cinema, and see it ASAP. This post contains mega-spoilers for the film.

Last week was rough. It had only been a week since He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was elected to be the next President of the United States and already I was watching my home country from afar as it transformed into (even more of) a racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, queerphobic, xenophobic police state. I found it hard to concentrate on any one thing for very long as I tried to balance teaching and essay-marking with checking in with vulnerable friends and family from a distance, trying to resist the silencing voices that were coming from the political right and middle, and fighting off a nasty bout of tonsillitis.

So on Wednesday, my marking done and my seminars for the week finished, I was in desperate need of a two-hour respite in a dark room in front of a giant screen. I had heard many great things about Arrival (it’s a mainstream sci-fi film about linguistics! and one that lets fifteen minutes pass before a white man even utters a syllable!), so I hopped on the subway into town, bought a ticket, and settled into my seat hoping that the intriguing sci-fi narrative promised by the trailers would calm me down for a while.

There’s a moment, midway through Denis Villeneuve’s beautifully crafted film, in which Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finds herself becoming dislocated in time. The film’s storytelling, which until that point follows a fairly linear—if slightly stylized—structure, suddenly begins to unravel, with even basic conversational scenes fragmented by jarring jump-cuts and disorienting insertions of what we’re led to believe are flashbacks (more on the latter in a bit). Concerned, Louise’s research partner Ian (Jeremy Renner) asks, ‘Have you been dreaming in their language?’

Louise is an expert linguist, recruited by the U.S. military to try to communicate with the Heptapods, aliens who have arrived in twelve spaceships at twelve different sites around the globe. Where they’re from and what they want is unknown, and many of the world leaders working to puzzle this out suspect that the Heptapods are planning an attack or an invasion. This puts Louise under immense pressure to get the information she needs from them as soon as possible.

Louise herself has different ideas, however. Noting the immense gulf that likely exists between the grammatical structure of English and a language that is wholly other, she rejects the (perhaps unintentionally) oppositional tactics that have been employed by the U.S.’s allies (Chinese linguists, for example, have been communicating with the Heptapods using mahjong tiles) in favour of a more careful approach: one that, from a certain point of view, may be read as deconstructive. Starting hesitantly, from square one, Louise and the two Heptapods that have landed in the U.S. (nicknamed ‘Abbot’ and ‘Costello’) begin exchanging brief written messages in their respective languages. What Louise gradually learns about the Heptapods’ language may at first seem like intriguing, but non-essential, worldbuilding. Upon closer examination, however, it’s essential for understanding the film’s themes as well as its literal narrative.

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Written Heptapod is not bound by time. Its characters, signifying meaning rather than sound, all occur simultaneously in open, circular structures that articulate complete thoughts. This is why Louise, as she becomes more and more deeply immersed in her analysis of the language, gradually becomes un-stuck in time. The film cites the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity as the in-story reason why this happens (shout-out to my linguist friend who later explained to me that the way Sapir-Whorf actually works is a little bit more complicated than that), but from an interpretative standpoint, this element of the film also resonates strongly with the ethical impulses underpinning deconstruction and the notion of différance.

In a moment when global politics are so dominated by xenophobic immigration policies and the resurrection of fascism, Arrival is incredibly timely in the way it systematically dismantles the fear of difference so commonly found in the alien invasion subgenre. Rather than the hostile plan for colonization that the majority of the film’s characters expect from the Heptapods (often citing, in classic H.G. Wells fashion, western civilization’s imperialist history), their mission turns out to be a benevolent one of exchanging language for the purpose of building an alliance not only between human and Heptapod, but between all the nations of Earth. Each of the twelve nations visited by Heptapods is given a twelfth of their language, requiring researchers worldwide to cooperate in order to decode it.

Given the current events to which Arrival is, in part, a response, it’s important to note that deconstruction draws heavy influence from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose notions of radical hospitality and ethics of alterity (or otherness) were a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. For him, western society was in desperate need of ‘a logic other than that of Aristotle, of a thought other than civilized’. What Levinas therefore proposes among the ruins of Enlightenment philosophy is ‘a philosophy of dialogue that cannot not be an ethics’, in which ethical responsibility is determined not by abstract, theorized principles but by an encounter with the other. This responsibility requires not only an attention to the suffering of others, but also a recognition that they are radically other and separate from ourselves, not to be located within any universalized, transcendent humanism.

So far, it’s fairly easy to see how this relates to Arrival; sci-fi narratives about alien encounters are a well-established way of articulating human hopes and anxieties regarding how we view and relate to the other. But Derrida takes this a step further, and demonstrates that this radical difference that’s so essential to any act of genuine hospitality is linguistic as well as ethical. Coining the term différance so as to distinguish it from simple differentiation, he theorizes radical difference within language’s structure as the paradoxical condition for any dialogue or mutual understanding, not just in the differences between sounds or graphic symbols and their assigned meanings, but also in the way they’re spaced out and separated by time.

So what does this mean for an alien race whose written language isn’t temporally spaced, and whose difference from the linear structure of many human languages literally causes moments to coalesce into a unified experience? This is where, to me, Arrival’s status as optimistic fantasy becomes most apparent—and to be clear, I absolutely mean that as a compliment. The film implies that the Heptapod writing system may serve as a kind of ‘universal language’, both literally and metaphorically uniting people across nations, across cultures, across time itself. The open, circular structure of the Heptapods’ graphematic symbols can be read to signify another of deconstruction’s key qualities: openness toward the future and the approach of the other. In short, the film dares to envision the connection with the other that deconstruction is much more hesitant and cagey about giving tangible representation.

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Temporal paradoxes abound in the narrative as Louise’s familiarity with the Heptapod language allows her to gain crucial insights from the future for preventing an interplanetary war resulting from various mistranslations of the Heptapods’ message for humanity. (Are they presenting humanity with a weapon, a tool, or a gift?) Throughout the film we’re presented with the recurring image of a lake framed in the doorway of a screened-in porch. The message is clear; we, the audience, are being urged, like Louise, to look toward a future horizon, receptive to the hope of future unity.

Yet wisely, Arrival doesn’t sugarcoat its message; as Jessica Lachenal has stated in her review for The Mary Sue, this isn’t a Hollywood liberal, ‘all lives matter’ kind of film. The eventual solidarity between human and Heptapod and unity among nations is hard-won, and there are lives lost. And openness to the future means being receptive to tragedy as well as triumph. We eventually learn that what were ostensibly flashbacks featuring Louise’s daughter who dies of cancer are actually flash-forwards, and that in order to embrace the hopeful future she has been shown through her newfound perception of time, Louise must also make herself vulnerable to this personal trauma.

Arrival is the kind of story we need—the kind of story I need—in the wake of everything that’s happened in 2016. It’s a year when we have seen ample evidence of language used as a weapon against the vulnerable, and in response many have used it as a vital tool for dismantling systems of oppression. Arrival, with its lyrical, elliptical approach to storytelling, reminds us that we also need language used artfully, offered as a gift, to dare us to dream of better worlds.

My Favourite Fantasy Texts #2: Owen Pallett’s Spectrum Mythos

‘You’ll hear it from arbiter, and lawmaker, and gaoler:

O, Spectrum! Is anything more beautiful than failure?’

This may not be the weirdest text among my favourite works of fantasy (hi, Angela Carter, we’ll talk about you soon), but it’s certainly the most difficult to parse. Taking the form of a song cycle spanning two albums by Canadian composer (and Arcade Fire violinist) Owen Pallett, the story is set in the land of Spectrum, where Lewis—a monster-slaying farmer with a penchant for violence and an ambiguous sexuality—contends with the will of a god named … Owen Pallett. Pallett sings the album’s dense, richly allusive lyrics as both Lewis and, on occasion, himself in god form (it’s not always clear which one), backed by lush, jaw-dropping orchestral arrangements.

That may sound like a lot to take in, and at first, it is, but that also means that both of these albums— titled Spectrum 14th Century and Heartland—are endlessly rewarding, with countless nuances and surprises to discover on each successive listen.

The first album, Spectrum 14th Century (released under Pallett’s former moniker, Final Fantasy), is mostly dedicated to worldbuilding. We learn some key details about Spectrum’s social (and importantly, sexual) hierarchy in songs like ‘Blue Imelda’, and are introduced to the great god Owen and his relationship to Lewis in ‘The Butcher’ and, my favourite song on this album, ‘Cockatrice’.

‘Owen and I walk among the plots;

I’m guided by the slightest touch

with his fingertips upon my neck:

I’m made to be a marionette.’

It’s an ambivalent relationship from the start, charged with homoerotic tension and unclear motives from either party, and while the lyrics are somewhat cagey about following any clear narrative arc, they make the most of exploring every nuance of this strained relationship between the author and his (beloved?) creation. Lewis clearly speaks affectionately of his author, but his language makes him seem alarmingly codependent at times, and the apocalyptic imagery of ‘The Butcher’ suggests that Owen’s intentions in creating this world may not be entirely noble.

Things get even thornier on Heartland as Lewis perceives that Owen’s calling demands everything he has. ‘Midnight Directives’ and ‘Red Sun No. 5’ detail his abandonment of his life as a farmer and family man. Meanwhile, ‘Lewis Takes Action’ thrusts us into full-on high adventure as Lewis, armed with newfound magical powers from on high, takes it upon himself to liberate the people of Spectrum from their beastly overlords.

‘My every move is guided by the bidding of the singer.

The night is split by the whistle of my amber whip,

and the fire from my fingers!’

Amid the triumph, though, the darker implications of Lewis’s quest begin to rear their ugly heads. ‘Red Sun No. 5’ leaves it unclear whether Lewis is simply casting off the mantle of his former life or flat-out murdering his wife and daughter, while ‘Keep the Dog Quiet’ gives us more of Owen’s insatiable demand for human sacrifice. As the body count mounts and the orchestra swells to a frenzied cacophony on ‘The Great Elsewhere’, Lewis begins to question Owen’s commandments and tries to re-align the narrative on his own terms.

As all of this suggests, the Spectrum albums offer the listener plenty to ponder when not being bowled over by the staggeringly gorgeous melodies and Pallett’s unmistakable choir-boy tenor voice. The lyrics draw heavy inspiration from the work of French theorist Roland Barthes—not only his highly influential writing on the death of the author, but also the relationship between lover and beloved detailed in A Lover’s Discourse. Hyper-masculine and deeply religious, Lewis is Owen’s textual other in every respect, often presented as the literal object of Owen’s selfish and increasingly one-sided affection. Statues and people being turned to stone become motifs representing this throughout; at one point, Lewis slays a cockatrice—a mythic bird that petrifies its victims—and Heartland track ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’ contains this devastating lyric about artistic representation:

‘“I am overrated,” said the sculptress to the sea.

“I’ve been praised for all the ways the marble leaves the man,

and I was wrong to try and free him.”’

Yet unlike Barthes’ beloved, Lewis is the one given a voice for the majority of the song-cycle as he meditates on his agency (or lack thereof) and gains an awareness of his status as a fictional character. Our only direct glimpse into Owen’s own fractured psyche is ‘E is for Estranged’, a heartbreaking ballad in which Owen, accompanied by a gently lilting piano, imagines himself as a deadbeat father failing to connect with his creations.

The ethical responsibility of the artist is also called into question multiple times as Lewis is horrified and frustrated by, as he sings on ‘The Great Elsewhere’, ‘the indifferences of the storyteller’. Though Pallett himself tends to shoot down theological interpretations of his work, the subject matter inevitably invites reflections on divine sovereignty, determinism, and free will. While (SPOILER ALERT!) Lewis does eventually manage to overthrow Owen, the jury is still out as to whether he is ever truly liberated, or whether he can continue to exist at all without Owen’s creative impulse. It’s an ending in keeping with the rest of the song-cycle’s storytelling: elliptical, elusive, and less interested in surface-level plot details than in the deeper implications of the premise.

Spectrum 14th Century and Heartland are both undeniably dense albums, but they’re also immensely enjoyable. Owen Pallett seems incapable of writing a melody that isn’t an instant earworm, and his lyrics are as playful as they are poetic (I don’t know of any other songwriter who would reference the ‘all your base are belong to us’ meme in the middle of an otherwise darkly apocalyptic song). These are albums that have made a deep impression on me, and I never get tired of listening to them.

Heartland is available to stream on Spotify, and both albums are available on iTunes. Pallett’s music has also inspired a mostly wordless comic by Nick Thornborrow called The Songsmith’s Heartland, which is well worth a look; you can find it here.