A Polar Bear Journey

“You have travelled far, but the hardest part of a journey is always the next step.”
― Jackie Morris, East of the Sun, West of the Moon

There are some who argue that the fairy tale re-tellings genre are spoiled by already knowing the story and it’s ending. I say that the stories aren’t – it is not the ending of the story but the journey, and East by Edith Pattou certainly has a big journey, involving compasses, polar bears, ancient Seal tribes and a troll queen.eastL

East (also called North Child) begins with the marriage of Arne and superstitious Eugenia, which whom he eventually has seven children with. It is Eugenia’s belief that a person’s personality, and ultimately their destiny, is reliant on the direction that she was facing when the child was born – that is, a South-West facing birth is a South-West personality, and accordingly is named with the same SW initials. Eugenia neatly has a child for each point of the compass – until her favourite, East-born child, Elise dies, and she has another to replace her.

EBBA ROSE WAS THE NAME of our last-born child. Except it was a lie. Her name should have been Nyamh Rose. But everyone called her Rose rather than Ebba, so the lie didn’t matter. At least, that is what I told myself.

The Rose part of her name came from the symbol that lies at the center of the wind rose – which is fitting because she was lodged at the very center of my heart.

Having been told years earlier that a North child would be crushed by ice and snow, Eugenia is determined never to have a North child, and so when Rose is born, with ambiguity about her birth-direction hidden from her, and she is brought up being told that she is supposed to be an obedient, passive East child.

And so we follow Rose, that is, until one day a giant white bear comes to claim her; one who has watched her through her early life, and who is under an enchantment – and from there, Rose agrees to accompany him in return for health and prosperity for her poor family and sick sister. Pattou follows the original Norweigan story quite faithfully, although it is much more richly embroidered, in which we see the mysteries that Rose faces, and it is here that the real story beings and Rose’s real journey is revealed.

I loved the culture behind this story, that of the ancient tribe that Rose encountered, the Troll Kingdom, the history of compasses and mapmaking, and the stories behind the ship captains who carry Rose across the sea – each lend a story to the main one, showing Rose life beyond her parent’s icy gardens and the idea of love in different forms.

There are many versions of this story (including one being Beauty and the Beast), and I’m sure many of you will have read the story in one version or another. What makes this story more beautiful is the realism of it, the attention to detail in places, characters and culture that Rose is brought up in. While the Trolls and White Bear in the story have a sense of surrealism to them, which is both horrifying and magical, there is also a fiery character in Rose which shines through. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, then there’s several nonsensical troll words like Slank and Turik to twist your tongue on!

Edith Patou, East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: London 2005) pp. 528, £7.99

The Unspoken Rules of All Soap Operas

I don’t watch as much soap operas and those day-time tv series as much as I used to, mainly because they frown on watching television at my workplace (it doesn’t look good to have iPlayer running in the background of my reports, managers tend to frown on that), and also because after years and years of watching Eastenders, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks and Neighbours, I got sick of watching the same storylines being disguised and recycled with each generation.

How many times will Den die? Will Kat cheat again? More importantly, will she be wearing leopard-print while doing it? And how on earth do people like Tony from Hollyoaks and Ian from Eastenders convince so many women to marry them?

It got me to thinking about how a lot of TV’s soaps follow some unscripted rules which seem to be unchanging over the years – even if they’re disguised to reflect current issues. In the 80’s and 90’s there was a lot of controversy over story-lines like homosexuality and teenage pregnancy, these day the storylines will be about immigration, transgender issues, terrorism or just about Cornish pasties – but the results are the same, possibly because the soaps follow the same ‘rules’.

I expounded on some of my theories about soaps to a friend of mine and she urged me to share my theories so I can enlighten you all with them. Admittedly, her exact words were “write a post about it, it sounds funny”, but I’ll take that as a positive too. Read on follow soap-cynics, and tell me if you agree.

Rule #1: There is no such thing as a happy relationship or marriage.

No matter how long the ‘romance’ has been dragged out, and the suspense built up, when a couple finally ends up together or gets married, it will never last. I have yet to see a marriage which has lasted on any soap. Even those married couples who have supposedly been married for 50 years suddenly end up having problems with each other.

It is inevitable that there will be three possible outcomes in any relationship:
1. One of them cheats (which probably means nothing because the other one is likely to be cheating as well)
2. One of them dies (which forever immortalises them and makes them the perfect partner)
3.They just give up their relationship because it gets boring/one of them has to leave the country for obscure reasons/one of them turns gay (i.e. their relationship got boring and producers wanted to spice it up)

The best relationships have been the ones where one half of the couple is dead (probably because they’re too dead to argue or cheat) – in which case, the living half will remember the relationship with unrealistic fondness. Strangely enough, this doesn’t stop characters from having an impaired memory – the amount of times Pauline Fowler talked about her beloved (and belated) ‘Arfur’, despite the fact that he was a cheater and she was a husband-beater. Sounds like him being dead suddenly redeemed him.

Married and separated so many times, we lost count.

Rule #2: Everyone must visit the pub.

It doesn’t matter if you aren’t a drinker, every soap has a thriving pub which is at the centre of all business, drama and gossip, which means it’s a place that everyone eventually ends up being in the episode. Teetotal and/or ex-alcoholic? Why not go to the pub and surround your lemonade with some drinkers? Muslim and don’t drink? Down to the pub with you. Underage or with young children? Why not have a rest at the pub, there’s plenty of people to keep an eye on your children while you have a quick pint. Best of all, no one will ask you why you are at the pub at 11.00am, plus a possible pub lunch and a quick pint after your dinner too.

Some would argue that the pub is a great equalizer – the rich, poor, working class, middle class and people of all colours and ages congregate to the pub cos they all want a drink at the end of the day (or want to witness the latest debacle about to take place). But I’ll just say that the Queen Vic and Rover are too over-populated to be realistic, especially when you know most people would prefer to be at home in front of the telly (I wonder if there is a soap that the characters watch in Eastenders, something called The Market maybe).

Rule #3: Ian is always going to be a git.

I just don’t like him. ‘Nuff said.

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Rule #4: There should only be one taboo topic at any one time.

Every season in soap-world will have a new scandal going on, whether it’s affairs, crime-doings or someone ‘aving a go in the market. In order not to confuse us simple viewers, there’s only ever major story arc at a time, so that we can keep our bums on the edge of the seats without being distracted by other storylines. The downside of this is that a story can drag on for months until we stop caring. But it also means that you can watch a story about an affair in January, go on holiday for a couple of months, come back in April and the affair’s still going on. When it comes to ‘taboo’ topics which become major storylines like teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, immigration or similar issues, I can’t help but think that they’re dumbed down and simplified so that we are beaten over the head with the overall message.

Rule #5: There is always a loophole for characters to come back, regardless or how they leave.

Death is not a preventive factor because there’s always an explanation , even if it’s not a realistic one. We may have seen someone get shot/stabbed/go on the run for twenty years, but it still means that there’s a small lee-way for them to come back. Yes, you, Dirty Den, we’re looking at you. What do you think this is, the Resurrection?

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Rule #6: There is always a villain that we love to hate in every soap

It’s practically a requirement. In Eastender it’s Ian (for me), but there’s plenty of real ‘baddie’ characters to spice things up a bit. And there’s different strands of baddies too, whether it’s the gangster type;, the smarmy type who everyone hates; and, worst of all baddies, the ones who pretend to be good but have serial killer eyes and end up going cuckoo crazy before they get carted off in a wheely bin to a local asylum (which they’ll probably escape from). Think Annie from Sunset Beach, maybe.

Rule #7: The token ethnic person is never accurate.

I have a personal gripe about this because every time there has been an Asian, particularly a Pakistani character in a soap, they’ve never sounded or behaved like anyone I know. The Masoods are a classic example of unrealistic storylines which have either been lifted straight from a Bollywood serial or just made up by non-Asian people who think that Pakistani families are like this. Coronation Street was just as bad, although the only thing they got right was that the Indian family owned the corner shop. As for Emmerdale, well, I have yet to see any Asian people out in the fields.

Put some more of these in Coronation Street.
Rule #8: Time is irrelevant in soap operas and doesn’t run at the same speed as real life.

Don’t try to make it make sense of it, it’ll only give you a headache. A character may find out she is pregnant in May and then be ready to give birth just two months later, pay no attention to that, it’s just producers speeding up time for us. Similarly, a baby will grow into a toddler and suddenly get replaced into a teenage character in a couple of years (I may be exaggerating here, but still). And if it’s highly convenient that Christmas day in Soap World is on the same day as real life, well that’s just clever timing.

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Rule #9: Every character has potential to have a huge (translation: stupid) secret

This ‘secret’ will cover a storyline that will drag on for weeks until we stop caring and the producers are forced to do a ‘big reveal’ so they can try to save the storyline and make us all interested again. Usually the secret is something like having a criminal past or that they’re really someone’s secret mum, or that they were the one who stole Dot’s sandwich. Admittedly, there have a been a few interesting storylines in the past, like the secret serial killers, the complicated affairs and the random storylines which make no sense but which still are fascinating. At the core of soap operas, the moments we all hang on for are the ‘Big Reveal’ parts, the moment everyone finds out something that we knew all along – even if it’s a boring secret.

Rule #10: I can’t think of any more rules so here’s a picture of a cute turtle.

Look how cute it is.

That’s all I could think of folks, I know some of these are silly and some of you might not agree with these, but a lot of these are silly and down to the fact that I watch a lot of rubbish TV which doesn’t always make sense, so I may have done some over thinking here!

Next up, clichés and rules about Bollywood films (and Indian TV serials) – expect some silliness!

Fairy Tales & Long Tails: The Top 10 Most Famous Literary Villains

I’ve always found villains in books to be fascinating, whether it’s because of their glee when they’re causing havoc, their deeply fascinating intellectual psych or whether it’s because they’re just downright entertainingly evil in a way that the heroes are never allowed to be. Maybe it’s also because the villains symbolise the free, uninhibited sides of ourselves that do all the things we’d want to do if only we didn’t have that darn conscience. Although for those of you listening to that pesky voice telling you to burn stuff…er…that might not apply.

Here’s my list of Top Ten in no particular order:

1. Lord Voldemort (or Tom Marvolo Riddle) – Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
This is a pretty disturbing character, showing how magic can go to one’s head (and burn off your nose to make you look like a cocaine-user in the process). Lord Voldemort is a sinister wizard, intelligent, manipulative and quite charismatic – a lethal combination which works well to gather followers who are willing to destroy, murder and battle in his name. With people being afraid to say his name out loud, he is almost comparable to a mythical legend whose actions have a long-lasting, although terrible, legacy. The film adaptation did justice to his creepiness, showing a ruin of a man with barely any humanity left and a consuming ambition to win – not to mention a seriously worrying face problem. Dentist, anyone?

2. The Grand WitchThe Witches, Roald Dahl
An old hag severely in need of a face-lift, The Grand Witch is the ultimate scary witch with features that you never even knew about until you read this book. Bald, blue-spitted, wonky teeth, square feet and with about a hundred other maladies which also sound suspiciously like something a lot of old people might suffer from (hate children, always telling children to take a bath), the Grand Witch has ambitions no less than to rid the population of their greatest pests – children. Quentin Blake captured the look well, using sinister looking figures with scary eyes and wonky noses to make us think twice about every other strange woman who offers us sweets in the street. Not that I ever took sweets, Werthers Originals were never my thing, hmmph.

3. Count DraculaDracula, Bram Stoker
The original of the Gothic bloodsuckers, this character is surprisingly understated in the actual book itself, rather than the Hammerstein-style, blood-spatter and gore we often see today. Nor is he like the sexy-pire seen in Angel and Buffy, with their techno-gadgets and sparkly stakes. Dracula is a Transylvanian aristocrat who uses dreams, charisma, manipulation and intelligence to fool the hero, Jonathan Harker, and manages to get very bitey with Mina, his fiance/wife. What follows is a difficult journey to hunt down a cleverly hidden vampire who is difficult to defeat.
Not to be confused with Vlad the Drac, the vegetarian vampire, who incidentally also is a pretty nifty dancer too.

4. Lady MacbethMacbeth, William Shakespeare
Quite possible one of the coolest villains, both in level-headedness and erm…levels of awesomeness, Lady M is a very memorable female anti-hero who isn’t quite villain nor heroine. Unlike her weaker-willed other half, she’s a strong character and willingly pushes her hubby onto meet her higher ambitions (who WOULDN’T want to be Queen, eh?) Although she’s finally reduced to a hand-wringing wreaked, unravelled by her own imagination and visions of blood, she’s proof that behind a successful man is a pushy woman who may not necessarily always be his mother.

5. SauronLord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
This villain is more than just a big eye in the sky, it’s a FIERY, angry eye in the sky. Unlike the more subtle, politically-charged eye of Orwell’s Big Brother, this eye is constantly searching for the One Ring which will bring him better broadband quality and more Sky channels. Or something like that anyway.
Makes you want to buy some eye drops for the poor, cranky thing.

6. IagoOthello, William Shakespeare
Another of ole Billy Shakespeare’s creations (yes I’m a fan of Mr S, as you can see), this time of a master of the manipulative mind-changing and seed-sowing. And he’s not very nice to his wife either.  Iago is the epitome of the whispering devil on your shoulder, being careful to side-step any actions which could land himself in trouble while always encouraging the worst in others for his own entertainment and jealousy. Racist, jealous and sexist, this is a pretty nasty character, and not someone you’d want to your pet guinea pig to in case he micro-waved it out of pure spite.

7. Professor MoriartySherlock Holmes Casebooks, Arthur Conan Doyle
Moriarty is the ultimate brainy villain, designed to be Sherlock’s perfect arch-enemy to match his wits. Always in the middle of a network of thieves, spies and murderers, Moriarty represents chaos and villainy, always escaping away in the background without being caught in an exasperating slippery way. Mind you, this is from the Victorian period where people were so prude they’d put pieces of fabric around table legs to hide any potential scandal from looking at…well…it’s legs.

8. The White WitchThe Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
With her shares in the Turkish Delight Factory, a questionable hairdo and a face seriously in need of some make-up to liven it up, the White Queen is another female delight who does the usual tyrannical thing of keeping the land in ice and terror. Oh, and turns anyone who defies her into stone. While her social skills need some serious dusting, her levels of scary-ness and witchy-ness are pretty up to scratch. My sister dressed up as the White Witch once, all she did was wear a white dress and put a white scarf on her head and she won the prize for best dressed costume. I went as Alice in Wonderland but just about managed a blue dress and a random apron which nobody understood what I was meant to be. I’m guessing the long black Pocahontas-hair didn’t help much.

9. The JokerBatman, Bob Kane
Although technically a graphic novel villain rather than a literary villain, I still think the Joker deserves his place in this Hall of (obscure) Fame. Having several facets to his personality, and being seen as genius, insane, evil, criminal and heck, even funny (well, he IS the Joker), he is arguably one of the most famous and fascinating villains in graphic novels which has been interpreted and re-interpreted by so many. I love the fact that several actors have made this role their own, each representation unique to the other, and yet still open to others to be re-invented. Not sure I approve of his crazed make-up style, but you gotta love the jokes : )

10. President SnowThe Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
I had to mention this sinister fella, due to all the hype recently from both the books and the film adaptation, and it can be agreed that this blood-breath’d and rose-obssessed President is one you certainly wouldn’t want to cross paths with. Cold, politically inspired and willing to sacrifice anyone to make an example, this is a character who uses brutal, Battle-Royale style games to keep the country in check. While his motives are continually questioned throughout the novel, he is a character that is hard to feel sympathetic for, simply because he’s just a smug git.

There are, of course, hundreds more villains out there that I’ve missed out (otherwise I’d be here all day), but to me, these are definitely the ones which come to mind when I think of ‘villain’ in the traditional sense. Oh and I’d like to make an honoury mention to Dahl’s The Twits simply because they always made me laugh, and they look like half of my family does first thing in the morning :).

Any more literary villains you think there are worth mentioning?