Living for the Revel (catvalente) wrote,
Living for the Revel
catvalente

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The Rhetorics of Avatar

I've been reading The Rhetorics of Fantasy, which is awesome and thought-provoking, and while laid up in bed with the ow this morning, it occurred to me that the Prester John book (which is actually called The Habitation of the Blessed right now though I don't think that's at all right, which is why I keep calling it the Prester John book) is a fascinating play on her taxonomy, without me even realizing I was doing it.

There are three narrators and a frame narrative--the frame, a Swiss monk discovering documents, is an intrusion fantasy, where the world of PJ intrudes on his own and he has to deal with its implications and synthesize his experience and the truth or untruth of his discoveries. The section narrated by Prester John is a portal fantasy, where he enters a suddenly fantastic world (I talked to Gary Wolfe about this book ages ago and he laughed and said "It's nice that you're branching out into science fiction--that's a first contact story!"), the section narrated by Hagia the Blemmy is an immersive fantasy, where she dwells within a world that's normal to her. It's almost all four, but given the story itself I don't think I can squeeze liminal fantasy in there. Maybe in the second book, when the action moves to Jerusalem. Maybe not. (Hee, hinting!) The final narrator, Imitihal, is kind of a Mother Goose of the end of the world character, more immersive than anything else.

But thinking about all this--and being excited about wedging moar critical filigree into this book--has lead me back to a thorny issue in the plot.

Now, I have no intention of seeing Avatar. I'm not a sucker for effects, I'm a sucker for story, and I just don't care about 3D. I know the story and I don't want to see it. White man becomes part of the tribe is a shit story, no matter how you spin it, and reading nihilistic_kid 's review was quite enough.

And yet, I'm faced with Prester John, which is unavoidably that story.

I don't really know what to do about it. It's part of the portal fantasy sub-genre in a way: stranger arrives, becomes not a stranger, saves the world, which obviously needed the Awesome Hero to be saved, even though the people with actual powers and investment in their own damn world were there all along. What these people need is a honky/human. Prester John doesn't save the world he finds, in fact, he rather dooms it, but there is no getting around the colonial/imperialistic underpinnings of this story, (and maybe all portal fantasies), especially given that historically, Prester John was the banner boy for actual colonials, who shoved aside the Ethiopian king looking obsessively for the white Christian king that was surely there. So much of why I wanted to take on this mythos was to show the world that must have existed before he appeared, the world that was more than Prester John's kingdom, that had a name and a life beyond him.

How do I make it not-offensive? How to I engage head-on with this issue? I'm not sure. Firstly, John is not really a white man in my mind--though in some sense this whole issue can be summed up in the question: Is Prester John a white man? He is certainly a Christian man, but already a Nestorian heretic and I've given him a history in Constantinople, rather than Germany or wherever, a position in the Eastern Church. I see him as liminal in his own world, living between two Christian churches and the Muslim world as well. Racially, I see him as conglomerate, as were many in that region: Turkish, Greek, Persian, with an unfortunate dash of crusader in there somewhere. But I can't see him as white the way he was assumed to be when the Letter appeared in 1165. Frankly, I don't think he'd be writing love notes to Emperor Comnenus in Constantinople if he was European. His assumption of the locus of power would be different. But that's all my speculation, and my instincts when world building. Like The Orphan's Tales, since I'm writing an Asian (continent) story covering Asia Minor to India, white people are pretty thin on the ground. But I don't think that matters--he's still Other to the fantastic world. He's still the imperialist West. And how do I avoid the "native folk are naturally peaceful hippies with no problems before the white man shows up" trope when half the point of John's existence is that he corrupts, and tries to convert, and screws everything up? Things are pretty awesome over there. I think I can handle that half without Fern Gullying the whole thing, but I'm still bothered by PJ himself, and wondering how to make That Story not That Story.

I guess I do really prefer immersive fantasies--I despise the quest to get home and the rejection of the fantastic inherent even in Sam's preference for the Shire, let alone Dorothy and Kansas. I want the world to be jeweled. I have no patience for portal heroes desperately clawing to get out of Awesometown or turn it into something else.

Obviously, that's why I'm not writing any immersive fantasy for the foreseeable future. Sigh.
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