Tuesday, January 7, 2020

'Mouse Guard and the criticism of spectacle-obsessed fantasy'

I recently came across this wonderful article by Dan Silva about some of my avoidance for might-makes-right fantasy battles in Mouse Guard. I wanted to share his writing and thoughts with you.

Mouse Guard 
& the criticism of spectacle-obsessed fantasy
by Dan Silva

Last October, I began reading Mouse Guard, a series of graphic novels by David Petersen about members of an organization of cloaked sword-wielding mice who protect their (literally) tiny civilization from the dangers of a world full of predators. There are three main books (Fall 1152, Winter 1152, and The Black Axe, a prequel) with a fourth currently in development, a side series of collaborative stories called Legends of the Guard, and collection of one-off stories released for Free Comic Book Day, most of which have been collected in the book Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales, and the two which have not been collected in hardcover format are available as readings on Petersen’s Youtube channel. There is also a tabletop RPG built in the Burning Wheel system, a common point of introduction to the series for many. A movie based on the first book was to be released by 20th Century Fox, but was cancelled a week into production following the Disney merger.

In the series, and in the Free Comic Book Day stories in particular, a recurring theme can be found. The stories contain a sort of rejection to the violent spectacles typically found in fantasy pop-culture. Three stories in particular emphasize this: Thane and Ilsa, Service to Seyan, and Piper the Listener, and the lessons they impart coalesce into the third volume, The Black Axe.

Thane and Ilsa, and the unimportance of superiority
Cover art for The Tale of Thane and Ilsa (Source:Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales)

Stories all throughout pop culture will emphasize the importance of major characters by making them stronger or more skilled at something than the average person. It’s the basic concept behind entire genres. While such a ubiquitous writing concept is not inherently bad, it has manifested in ways that can taint the way people interpret pop culture. People will judge characters based solely on their “usefulness” in fight scenes. Superheroes are only as interesting as their competence, characterization be damned. Protagonists in video games and anime will often have “is good at everything” as their only defining trait.

Source: Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales

The story of Thane and Ilsa, like most of the Free Comic Book Day stories, is framed by a main series character being told a story as a child. In this case, a teenage Sadie (a guardmouse seen in the first two volumes) is told a story by her concerned father about the importance of love in response to her being overly familiar with the patrons of his tavern. In his story, a female mouse named Ilsa with unparalleled skill in all trades is sought after by would-be suitors. To resolve this, she holds a tourney of skills and trades to see who is deserving of her love. Although Ilsa is never critical of their skills, nearly all of the would-be suitors eventually quit, distraught in their inability to best her in her skills.
Eventually, after nearly all the suitors have been weeded out, Ilsa offers a final challenge: a dangerous journey out of and back into the territories (the realm the mice live in) ending in a swim to an island where she would be waiting. Only one mouse is able to commit to this journey, a boatcrafter named Thane. Although a fine boatcrafter, he lacks any other skill beside loving Ilsa. He had failed at nearly every task and simply remained in the competition out of a refusal to quit. He struggles throughout the journey, barely making it to the end, and crafts a boat to the island instead of swimming. In his mind, he sees this attempt as pathetic, and that he is unworthy of Ilsa’s love.

Source: Baldwin the Brave and Other Stories

Upon arrival, the following exchange is had:

On the Isle of Venn, he found her waiting and she nodded at him lovingly. He cried and exclaimed, “I am here, but I should not be, for I did poorly and cannot match you in any deed.”
“Then why are you here?” she asked.
“Because I love you.” he said.
And she replied, “Then your love is bigger than all of the tasks. I can cook, and smith, and swim, and fight enough for the both of us, but it would be a poor union if I also had to do the loving for us both.”

In the final panel, Sadie’s father reveals the two mice in the story were himself and her mother. He intended to teach Sadie that he had not “won” his wife through accomplishing feats, but that it was his commitment to love that led to their marriage, as opposed to Sadie’s fantasy of being whisked away by some dashing rogue she met in a tavern. A wandering hero, if you will.

Service to Seyan, & the deromanticizing of the wandering action hero

Source: Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales

A classic fantasy archetype is the wandering action hero, who travels the land fighting evil and righting wrongs. Stories throughout history have made this sort of character the hero, perhaps given them some allies to journey alongside, but just as often make them a loner who cannot be bested in a fight. This is especially common in video games and tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, as such games are typically designed with combat in mind first and all other parts second. This has led tabletop RPG enthusiasts to dub such characters “murderhobos” as they are often effectively homeless and typically solve all their problems through murdering the villains.

Service to Seyan is framed by a young Gwendolyn (The matriarch of the titular mouse guard, effectively the head administrator of the group) asks her adoptive mother, Leah, of her late birth mother, who she misses despite having never met her. To dissuade her concerns. Leah tells her about Seyan, the afterlife of mousekind where heroes like her mother rest, and a story of one such hero.

In the story, two mice arrive at the gates of Seyan and are instructed by it’s gatekeeper, Sefatus, to tell of their victories and sacrifices. The first mouse is Ragnier the Hunter, a legendary warrior mouse who slew countless predators with unparalleled might, even travelling outside the territories to slay bigger and larger beasts to keep them from entering. He is, essentially, a traditional fantasy protagonist. Ragnier is confident he will be permitted into Seyan, as his victories are ones few mice can claim and his sacrifices can be found scarred across his body.

The second mouse is Alma, a cook who travelled the land feeding people delicious meals with whatever ingredients were on hand in exchange for shelter and protection. Generally speaking, she is the archetypical female secondary character. She feels her victories and sacrifices could not compare to Ragnier’s in the slightest.
To both of their surprise, Ragnier is denied entrance. His merciless slaying was not out of a desire to protect, but rampant bloodlust and a desire for a legendary reputation. Alma, however, is permitted in, for her kindness and willingness to help others were of greater help to all life. She even fed the surviving orphans of Ragnier’s rampages. Leah concludes the story by telling Gwendolyn that when her times comes, she too will join her mother in Seyan, she simply need to choose a method to help the world.

Source: Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales

A more traditional fantasy story starring the two would not question Ragnier’s life, and likely even celebrate it, and while Alma would not necessarily suffer for her kindness, she would be considered by readers to be of lesser importance, and narratively would more likely serve as an outlet for whatever manpain Ragnier would have. But Seyan is no Valhalla, and violence alone does not a hero make. But of course, in order for the wandering action hero to function as a protagonist, they need something to kill.

Piper the Listener, and humanizing the nonhuman

Source: Mouse Guard: Piper the Listener Reading

In fantasy pop culture, a protagonist will need large groups of enemies that they can kill easily, in great number, and without remorse. Popular picks include bandits, predatory monsters, and “evil races” (the classic examples being orcs and goblins). And of course, the latter two do show up to a certain capacity. The first chapter of Fall 1152 features the central protagonist, Lieam, slaying a snake (which compared mice are giant) and Winter 1152 alludes to a war the took place 3 years prior between mice and weasels, and heavily suggests the weasels were aiming for total genocide of mousekind. But as Petersen has continued his writing, he has aimed to make it clear that predators are not necessarily all evil as a whole and do not deserve to be treated as fodder, and a prime example of this is the 2016 free comic day story, Piper the Listener.

This story is a little different in its framing compared to the previous two stories, as the child mouse, Celanawe (pronounced Kel-en-awe), does not have anyone to tell him a story. In fact, the story begins with him writing in a diary that his family has grown distant since the untimely death of his sister. Instead Celanawe himself is telling the story, recounting it in the diary to occupy his mind in this difficult period of his life.

The tale tells of a mouse named Piper who sought to learn the languages of all beasts. While species closer in nature to mice speak roughly the same, the further away a creature got from a mouse, the more difficult they became to understand. In her travels, she comes to understand not only these beings languages, but their cultures. The mole concerns himself with the cooking methods of insects, while the duck complains about politics of waterfowl society.

Towards the end of her journey, she dares to learn the language of the snake, a natural predator of mice. While terrifying and requiring having to hide to even hear their words, she discovers snakes have rich history and culture, the one she listens in on reciting finely crafted poetry to themself. The story ends with Piper concluding “just because you cannot understand a creature doesn’t mean they haven’t anything important to say”.
The young Celanawe finds himself wishing to learn the languages of beast as well, hoping that they will provide him companionship in his lonely life. Unfortunately for him, his fate will be as far from that as possible.

The Black Axe, and the tragedy of being a hero

The third volume, The Black Axe, takes place many decades before the first two volumes (in which he is an old mouse) and opens with him as a guardmouse. He meets Em of Appleloft, who reveals herself to be a distant relative and begs him to help her retrieve The Black Axe, a legendary weapon passed down from mouse to mouse, with them taking up a persona of the same name in a Dread Pirate Roberts-esque fashion. He agrees when Em reveals that Bronwyn, the current matriarch and the love of his life, has sent him instructions asking such. This involves hiring a mouse named Conrad to take them across the sea with the promise of returning with a reputation that would earn him the position of the Captain of Captains (the leader of the port town they depart from).

The journey is long and perilous, and they barely manage to make it to their destination alive. Celanawe and Em meet with a ferret king, who agrees to return the axe in exchange for avenging his son who has died to a fox, with the condition that Em remain with him until Celanawe returns.
Celanawe is able to slay the fox, but Conrad gets his leg severed in the process. Nonetheless, Celanawe is victorious.

This is the last truly triumphant moment in Celanawe’s life.
After killing the fox, he discovers in doing so he has orphaned the fox’s pups.
He returns to the ferret king to learn Em was killed by an overeager healer wishing to better learn mouse anatomy, accidentally crushing her in in his hands in the process.
He travels back home to discover that Bronwyn was killed fighting a wolf a few days prior, and that to keep his journey secret, he had been declared In Damnatio Memoriae and all records of his existence destroyed.

He attempts to confide in his one remaining friend, Conrad, only to find out that Conrad hates him for severing his leg and because nobody believed the story he came back with.
With nothing left in life but a finely crafted axe and scarring from a series of traumatic experiences, there is only one thing left for him to do: take up the persona of The Black Axe, travel the land as a wandering action hero, slay beasts and other threats to protect the greater good, and ultimately, only be valued for his ability to kill things.

Source: Mouse Guard Volume 3: The Black Axe

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