Tangled in Sequels

So, okay, I gave in and signed up for Disney+.  It’s not as if I needed the streaming service to see the Disney fairy tales, or Star Wars, or the Marvel movies; I have those on disc.  But there were these other things.  First, I wanted to see the Hamilton movie (just as impressive as it’s cracked up to be).  Then, since I was already subscribed for a month, I figured I’d check out The Mandalorian, if only to keep up my geek cred—it had taken me a while just to figure out where all the “Baby Yoda” memes were coming from.

By the end of the first month, I’d scanned the offerings and marked down a bunch of other things that I’d sort of wanted to see, or that I hadn’t known about but looked interesting, and now could get without paying more than I already was.  And I was off and streaming . . .

One of the unanticipated things I turned up was a set of ancillary videos related to the 2010 fairy-tale adaptation Tangled, Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story.  And thereby hangs a blog post.

A Tangle of Sequels

I’ve always been fond of the Tangled movie.  But the continuing story also turned out to be remarkably good.  As a rule, sequels to Disney princess movies tend to be humdrum affairs dashed off to exploit the movie’s popularity—though I must admit that I say this without having seen very many of them; ventures like The Little Mermaid II or Cinderella II:  Dreams Come True never seemed to deserve even a look.  (Frozen II is a decided exception.)

But the Tangled folks managed to pull off some impressive work in the follow-up media.  To discuss it in detail, of course, I’m going to have to deploy detailed spoilers.

Spoiler Alert!

In 2012 Disney released a six-minute cartoon, Tangled Ever After, which is basically a comic bit about the exploits of the animal characters during the wedding of Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Eugene Fitzherbert (who previously used the name of legendary rogue-hero “Flynn Rider”).  Nothing of interest there.

Rapunzel and the black rocks

However, in 2017 the Disney Channel debuted a 55-minute short film, Tangled:  Before Ever After.  As the title indicates, this story takes place before the wedding sequence.  The day before Rapunzel’s coronation, her lady-in-waiting, a tough-minded and capable girl named Cassandra, helps her sneak out beyond the kingdom’s walls to get away from the stress and chaos of the preparations.  At the site of the magic flower that originally gave Rapunzel’s hair its healing powers, they find a stand of mysterious pointed black rocks.  When Rapunzel touches one, more rocks suddenly sprout from the ground, forcing them to flee.  But Rapunzel’s hair, which was cut short and returned to its natural brown in the original movie, suddenly turns blonde again and reverts to its 70-foot tower length.

This business with the black rocks is the story’s “One Ring,” the MacGuffin that links the old story to the new and provides the plot driver going forward.  It isn’t explained or resolved in Before Ever After, but serves as the hook for the three-season TV series (2016-2020) that followed.  The series was initially labeled “Tangled:  The Series,” but in its second season was rechristened Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure.  Season 1 follows Rapunzel’s experiences in her parents’ kingdom; Seasons 2 and 3 take her and her companions on the road on a long-running quest.  Wikipedia has a handy list of the episodes.

Rapunzel's Tangled Adventures, opening graphic

The series is where most of the plot and character development occurs.  It concluded in March 2020.  At this point it’s pretty clear that no further follow-ons are necessary, though one can’t rule out the possibility (“never say never again”).  There’s also a stage musical (a version of the movie) and a video game, which I haven’t seen and assume are not in the continuity.  Wikipedia’s convenient overall reference for the Tangled franchise is here.

Opening Out the Ever After

The first challenge in making a sequel to a fairy-tale movie is what to do about the ending.  Traditionally, these stories end in a romantic happily-ever-after.  If the main characters marry at the end (or immediately afterward), we’ve resolved the romantic tension.  In addition, it may be hard to reconcile the vague vision of enduring happiness with the kinds of perilous adventures that would give life to a sequel.

The “before ever after” notion is thus productive.  The characters can have further adventures even before their happiness is, as it were, sealed.  We can stave off the fairy-tale ending, without subverting it entirely.  To ruin the romance would be opprobrious, diminishing the appeal of the original story; but there’s no reason it has to come to fruition (presumably in a wedding) at once.

It’s particularly easy to take advantage of this idea if the couple hasn’t actually become engaged in the original story (even though the audience knows perfectly well that’s going to happen).  Some reduced degree of romantic tension remains if the character still has to work up the nerve to propose, though the issue becomes more comical than dramatic.  (A similar tactic was used in Frozen II.)

Eugene proposes to Rapunzel

Thus, Eugene proposes to Rapunzel several times in the course of the sequels.  She doesn’t accept at once.  She wants to marry Eugene, but she isn’t quite ready yet.  This brings out the familiar “moral” that a girl’s future is not solely bound up in marriage.  It also makes psychological sense—and this is one of the ways in which the Tangled sequels intelligently carry forward the original storyline.  As other characters point out, Rapunzel has spent almost all her life locked up in a tower, never meeting another human being but her “mother” captor.  It seems hardly appropriate to expect her immediately to enter into a marriage.

Of course, Rapunzel could marry and still have adventures.  The story thus plays around with the notion that “happily ever after” means the end of adventures and of our interest in the characters—a notion I’ve criticized elsewhere.  It both dodges, and runs into, that trap.

The World and the Plot

Varian, alchemist with goggles
Varian

Since the continuing story takes Rapunzel into new territory, both within and later beyond the Kingdom of Corona (which turned out to be a somewhat infelicitous name for this year, however appropriate for a princess), it was also necessary to expand the world.  The writers carry out this worldbuilding exercise with enough novelty to earn some credit.  For example, one of the new secondary characters is a young alchemist named Varian.  Although his alchemy is technically magic, he firmly takes the position that it’s science, not fantasy.  He thus adds a sort of steampunk vibe to the whole business.

Picture of Adira
Adira

The second season of the series introduces a secret society of crack warriors who are in some way protecting or defending the source of the black rocks.  An enigmatic woman named Adira provides them with clues, along with ominous nonspecific warnings, and occasionally ends up sparring with the suspicious Cassandra.  She and other members of the “Brotherhood of the Dark Kingdom” sometimes end up opposing or challenging the main characters, though they are basically on the same side.  This secret society’s stance is reminiscent of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The most striking element of the plot is the long-running plot arc, which begins with the black-rock episode in Before Ever After and isn’t completed until the final episode of the series.  The black rocks are tied in with the “sundrop flower” that originally gave Rapunzel her powers, so they link back neatly into the original movie.  Keeping such an über-plot going over sixty episodes is a challenge, and the writers lay in enough complications and reversals to make it work.

This long-term development isn’t perfectly uniform.  There are one-off episodes sandwiched in, often with throwaway plots (Max the noble steed is threatened by a competing evil horse!  The queen’s annoying sister shows up for a visit!).  Nor do the “side quest” episodes always make sense.  In one show (Season 2 Episode 6), Rapunzel and Eugene decide to go off on a “date” while the group is encamped on the road in the middle of nowhere.  (Butterbur in The Lord of the Rings:  “Well, you do want looking after and no mistake:  your party might be on a holiday!”)  At the same time, these one-offs do sometimes have a point.  The “date” introduces some characters who eventually turn out to be crucial to the plot.  For another example, in a primarily silly episode (S2 E18) which turns most of the characters into toddlers, we get a fairly interesting lecture on parenting styles, courtesy of Rapunzel and Eugene.

The metaphysics, the “theory of magic,” is somewhat murky.  Rapunzel’s “sundrop” and the “Moonstone” source of the black rocks have a sort of yin-yang relationship, but the Moonstone power is sometimes presented as evil, and sometimes as merely complementary.  Rapunzel’s long hair, as restored in Before Ever After, has lost its power to heal, but has now arbitrarily become invulnerable—uncuttable—just like the black rocks.  The conclusion of the story does make some degree of sense, though, so this particular worldbuilding weakness isn’t fatal.

Captain Quaid and citizens in Vardaros
Captain Quaid’s return

The story is willing to deal with serious issues.  For example, the story introduces some genuine moral dilemmas, as when Rapunzel has to break a promise to Varian in S1 E16, which leads to no end of trouble for everyone.  Some cogent sociopolitical points are raised, unlikely though that seems in a cartoon, in the second and third episodes of Season 2.  Rapunzel and her followers want to reform the city of Vardaros, whose citizens have collapsed into a state of mutual distrust and predation.  Rapunzel’s effort to use sheer niceness to show the inhabitants a better way doesn’t work:  the locals don’t trust these strangers.  Instead, Rapunzel and company have to convince the former “sheriff” everyone trusted to come back out of retirement and lead the reform.  The success of this strategy is still a bit cut-and-dried, but for two 24-minute episodes, it’s handled pretty well.

Other character developments can also be surprisingly sophisticated.  The scheming girl Eugene was supposed to marry ends up being reformed—but she still steals the party’s money; she doesn’t suddenly become sweetness and light.  An entire episode (S1 E2) is devoted to showing that, even though Rapunzel is so adorable that everyone loves her, there’s one old guy in Corona who doesn’t—and he’s a good guy, respected by everyone, kind and helpful; he just doesn’t especially care for Rapunzel.  And the moral of this story is that you don’t have to make everyone like you—a good thing for a young viewer (or even an older one) to recognize.

The sequels are thoroughly genre-savvy—a good platform for ringing new changes on the stock fairy-tale conventions.  In S2 E 23, the characters are threatened by “…lethal, inescapable traps.”  An array of nasty spikes springs up—and immediately crumble into ruin.  “They’re old,” one character remarks, pinpointing one of the silly aspects of Indiana Jones-type adventures where centuries-old mechanical devices work perfectly without deterioration.  And at the end of the second season, the characters walk into a whole series of classic Star Wars and Lord of the Rings tropes in succession—surely on purpose.

Carrying On the Characters:  Rapunzel

The most interesting aspect of the Tangled sequels is the treatment of Rapunzel herself.

Rapunzel’s role in the movie is that of a “fish out of water” character—the naïve newcomer to the world, to whom everything is new and fascinating.  That’s one of the things I like about the movie.  Another is that she faces this brave new world outside the tower with kindness and wonder, though not without a sensible caution that’s sometimes deployed against the wrong targets, for comic effect.  It isn’t by accident that Eugene calls her “Sunshine.”

Although she has to deal with progressively more fearsome and even heartbreaking problems as the series goes on, Rapunzel doesn’t lose that essential innocence.  Yet, imperceptibly—and that’s the artistry—through the second and third seasons, she develops into the genuine leader of the group.  She becomes capable of making difficult decisions.  She isn’t intimidated by threats.  When she has to take over governance of the kingdom, she falters at first, but later on becomes perfectly capable of running things without her parents.  The changes are highlighted in the “dream trap” episode, S2 E19, where the matured Rapunzel speaks with her earlier self.

Rapunzel on horseback, brandishing hair

She even becomes a capable fighter in her own right.  Rapunzel uses her long, indestructible hair like Indiana Jones’ whip, as both a weapon and a tool.  Of course, this is cartoon physics.  This slender girl hurls around what’s essentially a 70-foot rope without any issues of strength or leverage; it catches onto things and releases them just as she wishes, like Indy’s whip.  The hair only gets in her way, or is used against her, when the plot requires it.  It never frizzes or becomes unruly (fortunately for everyone nearby).  Nonetheless, her trademark feature, which seems a romantic beauty mark at first glance, transforms her into a melee fighter, who can hold her own in a scrap.

While Rapunzel is no longer a magical healer, she does gain the ability to use ‘sundrop power’ over time.  This power is erratic and not dependable, but it does rise to cosmic levels at the point where she can blow up an entire landscape at the end of Season 2.  TV Tropes rightly cites her under the Films–Animation section of Badass Adorable.

The really remarkable thing about this maturing process is that Rapunzel is not altered out of recognition.  She retains that essential sweetness of character that made her so likable in the movie.  To depict a character who is both powerful and “nice” is difficult, and rare.  When we have a chance to see the character visibly grow into that maturity, with both continuity and change, the writers’ achievement is noteworthy.

Carrying On the Characters:  Others

Not all the other characters fare as well.

Romantic interest Eugene, in the sequels, gets somewhat dumbed down or, in TV Tropes’ term, “Flanderized”:  turned into a caricature of himself.  His vanity, a nicely balanced flaw in the movie, becomes tiresome when played out in every episode.  His capability is uneven:  sometimes he’s clever, sometimes clueless; sometimes he’s a formidable fighter, sometimes ineffective—as the plot may require.  This is a classic problem in a continuing series, where different writers may produce inconsistent characterization.

Rapunzel’s parents, also, are not too well managed.  In the movie, they’re merely props:  the welcoming family to which Rapunzel can finally return at the end.  In the series, we’re told that her mother, Queen Arianna, was once a sort of adventurer herself—but we see little of that.  Her father, King Frederic (what a promising name!), tends to play the overbearing, irrationally restrictive father, generally as an obstacle to Rapunzel’s self-assertion.  The two of them tend to fade out almost entirely toward the end of the series to give Rapunzel sole center stage.

Cassandra
Cassandra

The great prize among the new characters is Cassandra.  Her edgy but loyal personality makes her a perfect foil for the sunny Rapunzel.  That same sardonic cynicism makes it plausible when she veers from the path of righteousness and aligns herself with the enemies at the end of Season 2, a development that is carefully shaped over much of that season.  In particular, she highlights an aspect of hero-stories that doesn’t get much attention.  What happens if you’re not the Chosen One?  If the whole motion of the plot is toward Rapunzel’s destiny, how does the henchperson feel whose role is simply to support the main character?  Doesn’t she have a destiny too?

The series as a whole shows a certain bias toward what we might call the “Arthas Effect,” a plot staple in the World of Warcraft game:  an initially good character becomes corrupted and turns into a major villain.  The two most prominent secondary characters, Cassandra and Varian, are both subject to this kind of transformation at different times.  The basically positive tone of the Tangled story is borne out by the fact that each eventually repents and returns to the side of good.  But the “turn to the Dark Side” motif helps keep the tale from becoming too optimistic or Pollyanna-ish.

The Romance

The Tangled sequels honor the original movie’s romance.  We see from the very beginning that Rapunzel and Eugene do get married eventually.  But that aspect is sidelined in such a way that the impetus of the romantic interest is largely lost.

During the entire first season, Rapunzel and Eugene hang around the castle, waiting for—what?  We noted above that Rapunzel puts off the wedding, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But her reasons remain rather vague, and we don’t see much of the longing or attraction I’d expect from a couple of young people who are very much in love.  It’s as if the writers every now and then remember that there’s supposed to be a love affair going on, but mostly take that to be understood.

The diverging development of the two characters also creates a somewhat unsatisfying disparity.  While Rapunzel develops in power, competence, and maturity, Eugene has no comparable character arc.  As a result, by the end we may ask ourselves whether he’s really sufficient for her.  The lovers are “unevenly matched,” a problem I’ve noted before.

Rapunzel with Eugene and Cassandra

Conclusion

The key theme of the extended Tangled story, as I see it, is that power and innocence are compatible.  You can be a consummately nice, caring, pretty, cheerful sort—and still have the determination, endurance, capability, and courage to fight what needs fighting.

Rapunzel is not the only example of such a seemingly-paradoxical character.  But the writers were able to take advantage of the extended development of the TV series to showcase in detail how a person can grow to take on that mantle.  It’s something we always need to see more of.

Books About Building

Conflict and Challenge

The “conflict” we expect in a story can take many forms.  External, internal; protagonists against themselves, against other people, against nature, against society.  If you grew up on adventure stories, as I did, you may tend to focus on showy external struggles—wars and battles.  (Explosions!!)  Even more so if your formative reading included comic books:  the first question for a new issue was always, who is Spider-Man fighting this month?—even if there might be more long-term interest in the issue’s developments regarding Spidey’s love life or character development.

But in some stories, or parts of stories, the focus is on building or making something, rather than fighting something.  The underlying engine of such a story might better be called challenge than “conflict”—a struggle to achieve some definite end product, rather than to defeat an adversary.  It’s a sort of engineering story, rather than a crisis—although there may be crises along the way.

Bob the Builder

We Are Legion coverAlmost every possible kind of conflict can be found in Dennis Taylor’s “Bobiverse” science fiction novels:  We are Legion (We are Bob), For We Are Many, All These Worlds (2016-2017).  (Looking them up, I’m pleased to see a new sequel, Heaven’s River, is now out in audiobook form.)  The series touches on a whole range of SF tropes, from first contact to space war to ecological catastrophe.

Bob Johansson, software magnate, dies in the 21st century and wakes up a hundred years later as a sapient computer program, intended to be the guiding intelligence of an interstellar probe, like a computerized version of Jerome Corbell in Niven’s A World Out of Time.  Once under way, however, Bob strikes out on his own, becoming involved with rival probes from another country, the evacuation of a failing Earth, and (eventually) honest-to-goodness aliens.  His probe is equipped with 3-D printers and other gear that allows him to “clone” himself—build new ships run by copies of the Bob program.  Each Bob instance takes a new name and, once running independently, develops a slightly different personality.  Hence the book titles:  we eventually have a whole armada of Bob spaceships, single-handedly—if that’s the right description—planting new human colonies and conducting interstellar wars.

But you don’t bootstrap your way into an armada overnight.  A good bit of the story, especially in the early parts, requires Bob to balance multiple demands.  How much of his productive capacity should be directed to manufacturing new Bobs, and how much to hunting down dangerous opponents?  Or transporting human refugees to new worlds?  To make matters more interesting, some of the Bobs specialize in research, coming up with new scientific discoveries that need to be engineered and adapted for others’ use—as time, transport, and communications permit.

Part of the fascination involves how Bob gradually builds up a sort of interstellar network of cooperating AI ships.  (Of course they cooperate; they’re all Bob.  Sort of.)  How he does this, what difficulties and complications he runs into, is as intriguing as the more exotic or action-oriented sequences.  It’s very cool to see one lone intelligent probe gradually develop into an entire star-spanning civilization.

Building Ships and Planets

Rissa Kerguelen coverF.M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen books (1976)—published in various combinations—are the saga of a young woman who starts out as an enslaved orphan under a vicious tyranny on Earth, and ends by bringing back a space fleet to overthrow the tyranny.  She allies herself (both militarily and maritally) with the equally formidable Bran Tregare and the Hulzein family, who share that goal.

When I say “space fleet,” I’m not talking about thousands of massive ships.  This is a bunch of modest-sized spacecraft manned by an assemblage of quirky, anarchic individuals—more like a Star Wars rebel fleet than an Honor Harrington space navy.  Much of the middle section of the story is taken up with the long-term preparations needed for the eventual battles.  Rissa and Tregare redesign and refit their stolen spaceships for combat; pull together the aforesaid individualists into a functional fighting group; and gradually, cautiously, get to know and love each other, after a battleground marriage for political purposes.  That simultaneous slow build of machinery, financing, and relationships is as engrossing as Rissa’s initial escape from the “Total Welfare” system or the ultimate invasion of Earth.  Even the engineering problems, solved in the context of these budding relationships, hold my interest throughout.

Or take Heinlein’s juvenile novel Farmer in the Sky (1950).  Teenaged Bill Lermer emigrates with his family to Ganymede, which is being terraformed into a habitable site for Earthly settlers.  The big moon is completely barren, devoid of life.  The “terraforming” involves not just big technology, like the atmosphere plant and heat trap, but also the creation of soil suitable for farming, inch by inch.  Rock has to be ground into soil, then seeded with Terrestrial microbes, earthworms, and the like, before the first crop can be planted.  This process, which Bill sees at ground level—he’s a farmer-to-be, not a planner or engineer—is endlessly fascinating, though no doubt the details would differ if the book were written today, with seventy years’ more knowledge about the solar system.  It left me with an abiding sense of how complex the web of geological and biological factors really is, underlying something so seemingly simple as dirt farming.

Building a Business

Not that you have to go to Ganymede to find a narrative about constructing something new.  I recently mentioned R.F. Delderfield’s “Swann saga.”  The hero (and the heroine) here are building up something apparently mundane:  a trucking business, using the newfangled horseless carriages, to connect the railroad network to the small towns and hamlets of Victorian England.  The characters tumble in and out of various conflicts, but the underlying thrust of the story is about the growth of a business.  We see its material factors—vehicles, storehouses, roadways, Adam Swann’s unique organizational planning gizmo—but, more importantly, the varied people whose talents and peculiarities contribute to the success of the whole operation.  Building a business enterprise can be as rewarding as building a spaceship—or a planet.

Working Girl, Tess at conference tableOccasionally this kind of constructive work also crops up in a modern corporate context.  My catalogue of movie favorites contains only two stories I can think of that convey some of the excitement—the romance (in both senses of the word)—of big business.  The Secret of My Success (1987), with Michael J. Fox and Helen Slater, is mostly a knockabout farce, but we do respond to the infectious enthusiasm of Fox’s character.  What makes him more engaging than the other “suits” is that he’s excited about the idea of serving customers and making a productive business grow.  Similarly, in Working Girl (1988), we’re mostly taken up in the plucky struggles of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill to break the glass ceiling of the secretarial pool; but we can also admire the artistry and accomplishment of the radio broadcasting merger deal she puts together.

Castaways and Escapes

Construction in the midst of a crisis can become an epic in itself.  In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide (1933), much of the story is taken up with the desperate challenges the protagonists must overcome as they race against time to build the spaceship that will enable them to escape Earth’s destruction.  (Pay no attention to the 1951 movie version, which is a catastrophe in its own right.)

When Worlds Collide coverThe oncoming disaster adds dramatic tension to an effort that would be heroic even if it were undertaken without that threat in view.  We see the thousand dedicated people of Cole Hendron’s “cantonment” working on the massive project; striving to obtain the necessary resources as civilization begins to crumble around them; making the scientific breakthrough they need to control atomic energy for their engines; defending the ship against attacks by mobs reverted to barbarism; and rejoicing in immense relief when they find they can construct a second ship that will allow all of them, not just a fraction, to escape Earth’s doom.  Even the momentary pauses to describe the design of the ship, or the careful preparations to take along the necessary plants, animals, and knowledge to recreate Earthly life on the new world, are engrossing in the context of the mighty achievement.  In fact, after all this build-up, the actual brief space-flight is almost an anticlimax.

The whole subgenre of castaway or “desert island” stories almost automatically incorporates themes of making and building, often by ingenious improvisation.  In an earlier post I mentioned Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), a childhood favorite of mine, and Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955).  Disney fans may recall the impressive treehouse of the Swiss Family Robinson movie (1960), faithfully re-created at Disney parks.  In more modern renditions such as Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Castaway Planet series, the main characters are similarly involved in carving out a place to live in an otherwise uninhabited locale.

Resources and Technology

Civilization VI screenshotThe interest of stories like these is akin to the way we enjoy playing certain kinds of games, those with a “resource management” feature.  I am, for example, perpetually fascinated with Sid Meier’s famous Civilization games.  In managing a selected civilization throughout its history, we can get into wars with other “civs,” whether they are run by the computer or (in some versions) by another human player.  But war is not essential to winning the game, as it is in chess.  Exploration, the founding of new cities, and scientific development are vital, and offer other ways to win.  While the danger of war with other cultures adds an important spice to the game, I find I’m more interested in discovering new places and developing a well-functioning culture.

Similar features can be found in other popular video games—Starcraft, Warcraft (but not World of Warcraft, which is a role-playing game), Settlers of Catan.  Even the venerable Monopoly fits this description to some extent.  To the extent to which these games are focused on winning, we do engage in a conflict; we seek a higher score than our competitors achieve.  But sometimes it’s a relief to play a game that doesn’t directly involve fighting.

I mentioned scientific development in connection with Civilization.  Researching how to make new sorts of units and improvements is crucial to that game.  (By contrast, in Monopoly all we need to build houses and hotels is money, and monopolies.)  Stories about building frequently involve playing out the consequences of a new technology, if only because new tech opens new opportunities and hence new fields for development.

The Ring Of Charon coverOld-time space operas sometimes touched on this factor, but tended to short-cut the extensive work of implementing a new technology in favor of getting directly to the action.  E.E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne (1965), last of the Skylark tetralogy, alludes briefly in chapter 8 to the impact on Earthly industry of the fantastic scientific advances in the previous volumes.  But those changes hardly have an impact on the story.  We see a slightly more gradual and plausible development in a couple of books from Roger MacBride Allen, The Ring of Charon (1990) and The Shattered Sphere (1994), where a newly discovered artificial gravity technique gets put to use in progressively more advanced ways.  Even the Delderfield Swann series mentioned above is based on the new opportunities created in the 19th Century by railroads and the internal-combustion engine.

Blessed are the Peaceful Makers

The peculiar enjoyment of stories about building comes, I think, partly from the sense we share with the characters of accomplishing something.  The action of the story is constructive rather than destructive.

Granted, we’re perfectly willing to applaud destruction too, in a good cause.  (Take that, Death Star!)  And stories of violent conflict are perfectly suited to give us edge-of-the-seat thrills that are harder to come by in narratives of making.  Still, we don’t always want an adrenaline rush all the time.  It can be quietly satisfying when we don’t have to focus on winning a war, or on the danger of losing something dear to us and the desperation of defending it.

Witness house raising sceneThe satisfaction of successful making came up in a post last Christmas about the appeal of concreteness, whether in baking cookies or in building ships (as in the denouement of Pretty Woman).  Both construction and destruction are sometimes necessary:  “A time to build up, a time to break down.”  But building responds to a different facet of our humanity than destroying.  A good story may speak to one or the other, or to both.

VOTE!

Representation

In America, we have a presidential and congressional election coming up in November.  I want to take a moment out to incite every American to vote.

Every now and then, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of first principles.  In a democratic polity—a “republic” in the sense used in American law and political theory—the people of the polity govern themselves.  (Please note that these terms are “small d” democracy and “small r” republic.)  The way we do this, in a representative government, is to elect representatives.  Since those representatives make most decisions as to law and government, voting in elections is the primary way in which we govern ourselves.  It’s kind of a big deal.

The Crucial Hero(es)

In America, voter turnouts, even in presidential elections, tend to be relatively low.  Why would people skip their key chance to take charge of their government?  I suspect much of this failure to take part in governing ourselves stems from a combination of things:  inertia (it takes some little trouble to register and vote), plus a pervasive sense that my one vote doesn’t affect the outcome.  Why make the effort if it doesn’t matter?

The logical flaw in this understandable attitude is that things can matter in the aggregate, even if any one item is not the sole decisive element that changes the outcome.

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum deliver the virus in Independence Day (the movie)The stories that inspire us, and help form our attitudes, tend to undermine this recognition and subliminally support our reluctance to participate.  A story is more dramatic if everything comes down to the actions of one, or a few, people.  If James Bond doesn’t pull off this next stunt, the World Will Come To An End.  Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, alone, deliver the computer virus that takes down the mother ship in Independence Day, which conveniently disables all the rest; the entire tension of the plot is funneled through that one bottleneck, as it were.  A few superheroes save the universe—well, half of it—in the Avengers movies.  In Netflix’s just-released Enola Holmes movie (mild spoiler), the heroine’s actions save the one person who casts the deciding vote on a British reform act.  We love this trope.

The desire to make everything come down to a few people’s desperate actions can even warp the adaptation of a story.  A number of small, but annoying, changes in the plot of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies seem to stem from a tendency to have every crucial point depend on the actions of the nine members of the Fellowship.  For example, in the books, the Ents meet and decide the time has come to attack Isengard.  In the movies, the Ents decide not to act—until Pippin and Merry maneuver Treebeard to where he can see Saruman’s wanton destruction of the forests (on the absurd assumption that the Shepherd of the Trees didn’t know about that already).

Pippin lights the beaconIn the books, Denethor sensibly sends a messenger from Minas Tirith to Rohan to call for help.  But the movies leave it to Gandalf and Pippin to fire up a beacon that transmits the call to Rohan.  (The fact that the lighting of the beacons is one of the most terrific scenes in the whole series doesn’t entirely mitigate the plot diversion.)  When the Corsair ships sailing up the Great River to Minas Tirith turn out to contain relief for the city rather than further invaders, the movie makes this just Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, along with the faceless army of the Dead—rather than a whole array of human reinforcements from South Gondor, as in the books.

Aggregates and Bottlenecks

But when we return to the mundane world, we have to put aside this tempting way of telling a story.  We don’t often see this pattern of world-saving heroic acts.  We find instead that crucial changes depend on the combined actions of innumerable people, all doing the right (or wrong) things.

Milo Manara honors heroic women

Milo Manara honors heroic women

The present moment can provide us a heightened appreciation of these unnoticed individual actions.  The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic saw an outpouring of support rightly directed to the unsung heroes—doctors and nurses and medical technicians, grocery store clerks, people who make toilet paper—unsung because they are too many to spotlight individually.  (Although individual acts of appreciation are still a just way to honor those continuing acts of undemonstrative service.)  Indeed, everyone has to act in concert if the pandemic is to be contained.

Peter Jackson’s Gandalf gets the underlying point right in one of the Hobbit movies:

I have found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps [sic] the darkness at bay.  Simple acts of kindness and love.  (The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey (2012), at about 1:42)

We must all be heroes now.

Of course, going in and making some marks on a piece of paper doesn’t feel much like heroism—even less so than wearing a facemask.  Perhaps it feels a little more dramatic when we’re braving the chance of coronavirus infection to cast our ballots.  And if that way of viewing our action as a daring deed spurs us to act, by all means indulge!

But in this kind of case, the only way to achieve anything is by small actions, each of which contributes to a whole.  The entire set makes a difference; but there can’t be an entire set unless there are individual acts.  In voting, as in picking up one’s trash, or in the innumerable actions that make up a free market, we must carry out the individual actions to produce the aggregate effect.

Turning the Tide in Real Life

If we need further encouragement, we can look to the additional fact that even one vote, or a few, can sometimes make the crucial difference.

Virginia Board of Elections draws lots to decide tied electionRight here in Virginia, we had an election in 2017 that resulted in a literal tie:  an equal number of votes for each candidate.  A purely random action had to be used to break the tie.  “Each candidate’s name was placed in a film canister; those were then placed into a bowl and one name was drawn.”  (NPR, 1/4/2018)

Even a few votes, even one, can make the critical difference, as recounted here and here—notably including “the year 2000 U.S. presidential election, decided by a few hundred votes in the state of Florida”  (Jared Diamond, Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), “Further Readings” for ch. 16, p. 556)  Over and above my contribution to the whole, I cannot know in advance whether my vote might not be, in fact, the deciding factor in a hotly contested election.

Moreover, even if the outcome of an election might be clear without my vote, adding to the total is not pointless.  In today’s atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, the clearer and more decisive the result, the less opportunity there will be to cast doubt on the results.  Every vote added to the total reduces the number of people who will be convinced that the results are false, and thus directly supports the rule of law.

This concern also bears on the notion of voting for a third-party candidate.  In the upcoming election, many people may be sufficiently dissatisfied with both major parties to be motivated to cast their ballots for a third-party contender.  It might feel virtuous to spurn both parties and “vote one’s conscience” in favor of a candidate who cannot win.  But in practice, that action will only serve to make the results less clear, at a time when clarity is vitally needed.

L’Envoi

Voting is much trickier—even perhaps a heroic act, as noted above—in these pandemic times.  Nevertheless, there are avenues available by which all of us can safely exercise the franchise.

Drop box for ballotsFor my own locality in Virginia, here’s a guide to voting early, voting by mail, and voting on Election Day.  The local paper has a Web site on How to Vote, by state; I haven’t researched that reference in detail, but it may be useful.  Here are three articles on drop boxes for ballots.

I urge every eligible voter to take part in this crucial action of self-government.  Unless you’re actually in the hospital in a coma (or the like), there’s no excuse not to participate.

The Highest Form of Humor

Puns are of course the highest form of humor.  But why?

A Mixed Rep

I am deliberately flouting the usual claim, of course, that puns are the lowest form of humor.  (That judgment seems to have been traced back to several sources, including Samuel Johnson.)  The appropriate response to a really good pun is considered to be not a laugh, but a groan:  the better the pun, the louder the groan.

On the other hand, the use of the pun has weighty, even punderous, examples on its side.  The art of punning goes back into ancient times.  Shakespeare himself is estimated to have used over 3,000 puns in his plays.  Even Jesus, as is frequently noted, founded his church on a pun:  “We read in Matthew 16:18: ‘Thou art Peter (Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra), I will build my Church.’”

In Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, bluff Captain Jack Aubrey is frequently derided by more sophisticated characters for his delight in puns.  I recently ran across a mention in Treason’s Harbour, ch. 2 (p. 45):

. . . Meares, who was only a commander.  A brilliant play upon this name occurred to Jack, but he did not give it voice:  not long before this, on learning that an officer’s father was a Canon of Windsor he had flashed out a remark to the effect that no one could be more welcome aboard a ship that prided herself upon her artillery-practice than the son of a gun, only to find the officer receive it coldly, with no more than a pinched, obligatory smile.

Treason's Harbour coverPersonally, I thought the “Canon” joke both funny and clever; but then, I’m not the one being called a son of a gun.  The attraction to puns is characteristic of Jack Aubrey, though, given his innocent enjoyment of simple pleasures and general good humor (badly represented in the movie version).  I note that even Wikipedia cites an Aubrey pun as an example.

Chain Puns

Those with agile minds can have great fun ‘running a topic’ with rapid-fire pun volleys.  I recall staying up late one night on a high-school retreat with some buddies and Father Bill LaFratta, who outdid us all in puns on a subject like ‘cars’ (and may be responsible, or reprehensible, for my subsequent descent into pundom).  Our family has occasionally gotten into text message exchanges that build off one another, on topics like, for example, Dungeons & Dragons.

David:  Come to think of it, Marx could work as an orcish name . . . and orcs could serve well as the meanies of production.

Rick:  “Keep your head down . . . there’s an orcish Marxman over there, I just saw an arrow go by.”

David:  He was just advocating for an equitable distribution of health.

Rick:  Or death.

David:  And the archmage leading the orcish jacobins could be robes-pierre.

Rick:  And hoping the audience gets the point of his argument.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon coverScience fiction writer Spider Robinson is extraordinarily fond of (and good at) wordplay.  At Callahan’s Place, the fictional bar in his series of stories, Tuesday night is set aside for trading ever more appalling puns on a given topic.  I’m not even going to attempt to reproduce Robinson’s groan-worthy inventiveness; check the stories out for yourself!

Shaggy Dogs and Feghoots

Then there’s the story that ends, after an elaborate build-up, with a pun—a variant of the shaggy dog story.  Snoopy, at his typewriter, occasionally indulges in one of these, as in a recent Peanuts reprint (8/3/2020).  Ideally the pun-ch line will include multiple puns, so as to make a fitting topper for the build-up.  I fondly recall the quintuple pun about immortal porpoises, presented in different forms here, here, and (under the rubric of “dad jokes,” naturally) here.  As in that case, getting the punch line may require knowing some particular phrase or quotation, on which the conclusion of the story is a takeoff, and thus become dated; for example, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  (On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the original phrase in the porpoise pun:  the joke version makes clear enough what the original would have been—at least for comic, as opposed to legal, porpoises.)

The Compleat Feghoot, coverThere’s an entire category for short stories whose conclusion is a pun:  “Feghoots,” named for a series of science fiction stories by Reginald Bretnor, “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot.”  A favorite of mine that isn’t mentioned in the Feghoot article is “The Holes Around Mars,” by Jerome Bixby, who was also (incongruously) responsible for the chilling story “It’s a Good Life,” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode.  The “Mars” story, however, is just good fun all the way through, featuring a spaceship captain addicted to puns, and ending with—Well, I see the text of the story is available at Project Gutenberg, so I’ll let you find out for yourself (if you dare).

Tom Swifties

Tom Swift and his Diving Seacopter, coverTom Swift was the lesser-known science-fictional counterpart to the young detectives Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  All three series were ghost-written by various authors under the auspices of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  Given the provenance, the books were, let us say, not esteemed for their literary style.  In particular, the Tom Swift books were prone to using adverbs, especially adverbs ending in “-ly,” to decorate the supposed plainness of simply using “said” in dialogue.  There’s an example of such dialogue at the Wikipedia page.

A “Tom Swiftie” is a pun in which a speech adverb of this sort is used to make a pun on the rest of the sentence.  By convention, the speaker is always “Tom.”  Hence:

“Close the refrigerator door,” said Tom coldly.

“The man is dead,” said Tom gravely.

But we can get more inventive than that.

“Let’s invite Greg and Gary!” said Tom gregariously.

“We’ve arrived at the camp,” said Tom attentively.

As a dedicated reader of the “Tom Swift, Jr.” series in the 1960s, I’ve always been fond of this variant.

Puns of Opportunity

But we may get the greatest satisfaction from hitting upon a pun unexpectedly.  When a never-before-heard pun evolves naturally out of a conversation, surprise adds to the fun of the sudden (in)congruity.

A writer can enjoy the same effect when they come up with an unplanned witticism.  The unexpectedness may not be evident to the reader, who may assume the author carefully set up the line, but the writer knows better.

Japanese painting of a carp

Utagawa Hiroshige, Suidō Bridge and Surugadai (1857)

I remember the delight with which I happened upon a clinching line for a scene in The World Around the Corner.  In their online game, the characters have come upon an underground pool inhabited by a talking fish, the Carp of Doom.  (I think I chose “carp” based on a hazy recollection that carp were renowned for wisdom in some Asiatic mythologies.)  The fish gives them directions for the next stage of their quest, which, naturally, starts out by taking a tunnel from the underground cavern.

“Clear directions for once.” Badon gave a cheer. “I like it. Onward, up the carpal tunnel!”

Dana wished very much that Badon were physically present. She’d like to throw something solid at him…

 

The Virtues of Puns

So, puns are fun.  Why am I motivated to call them a high form of humor?

I locate the root of humor in incongruity—things don’t fit together as we expect them to—with the proviso that when things do fit together in an unexpected way, more neatly than we would have supposed, that in itself is a kind of incongruity:  as a child might laugh with pleasure in discovering how puzzle pieces make a picture.  Puns fit this basic concept.  When words don’t work the way we anticipated, but make a new whole (the connection between the two meanings) in an entirely different way, we do tend to laugh with glee—unless we’ve been socially conditioned to regard the proper response as a groan, of course.

Puns are clever.  They reward inventiveness and agility of mind.  (In this respect, they share common ground with creative problem-solving and “thinking outside the box.”)  They’re also playful; they take words lightly and turn them topsy-turvy.  We might consider puns and other wordplay as the intellectual equivalent of kids playing on a jungle gym, turning and stretching and going upside-down.

There’s an interpersonal aspect as well.  In chain punning or following a subject, the participants play off each other.  As in other forms of witty banter, one person’s last remark is the jumping-off place for another person’s next remark.  Thus, there’s a certain form of cooperation involved, like that of a volley in tennis—and, just as in the tennis match, an opportunity for one-upmanship and “counting coup” as well.  I love hearing someone else make a good pun, but I can’t deny that I’m also immediately searching for a “Can you top this?” response.

Geniality

Charlie Chaplin's Little TrampThere’s a subtler factor too.  A great deal of humor involves a kind of overt or covert meanness.  Puncturing human dignity and pompousness is a classic formula for humor; but doing so tends to involve some degree of pain or humiliation.  When someone—especially a well-dressed man in a top hat—slips on a banana peel, we laugh at the incongruity but ignore the bruised hip and the embarrassment.  Sophie Kinsella’s romantic comedies are great fun; but they frequently involve her heroines in extraordinarily embarrassing situationsCharlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character combined humor with pathos.

I would not go so far as Michael Valentine Smith, of Stranger in a Strange Land, who finally comprehends the laughter of Earth people as a response to pain (ch. 29):  “I’ve found out why people laugh.  They laugh because it hurts . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”  Pain isn’t essential to laughter; maybe to rueful or ironic humor, but not all humor.  Still, Mike has his finger on this much truth:  humor often does play off pain.

Puns, though, are innocent of this painful aspect.  Only words are harmed or abused.  No people have to be embarrassed for a pun to succeed; it’s only language that gets twisted and skewed and made to do unnatural things.  Even when a pun responds to a “straight line,” it doesn’t normally reflect badly on the previous speaker.  The pun is recognizable as a flight of fancy based on a perfectly innocent phrase, not on the human being who uttered it.  And when people are volleying puns back and forth, each line serves as the straight line for the next flight.  It brings to mind the reference to a nonhuman species of habitual jokesters in David Brin’s The Uplift War (ch. 85):  “To a Tymbrimi, the best jokes were those that caught the joker, as well as everybody else.”

The Downsides

Still, a pun is not always entirely harmless.  The punster’s affectionate ‘abuse of words’ can lead to excess.

For one thing, as with other forms of wordplay, punning requires familiarity with the language.  Wikipedia, discussing the rhetorical use of puns, observes:  “A major difficulty in using puns in this manner is that the meaning of a pun can be interpreted very differently according to the audience’s background and can significantly subtract from a message.”  For the same reason, puns are likely to be untranslatable.  The connections between words, their similarities in sound or written form, will not be the same in another language.  This kind of problem occurs in translation generally, as noted by my critique buddy Blandcorp in a recent blog post.  It affects puns along with all forms of art that depend on the specific nuances of words.

It’s also possible for puns to be abused in social situations.  I learned early on, when I took up punning as an avocation, that simply responding to people’s remarks with a stream of puns wears out its welcome pretty quickly.  (In extreme cases, one might find one’s conversational partners inclined to take punitive measures.)

The reason is that a pun, by its nature, derails the conversation.  It diverts our attention from the meaning of a previous remark to its verbal form.  A momentary side trip of this sort may be entertaining, depending on the context.  But if I keep repeatedly making these side trips, I’m getting in the way of the conversation other people are trying to have.  I would be frustrating those who are trying to talk, because the puns interfere with making sense in the language.

It’s one thing, then, to pause with like-minded friends to engage in a pun war (or pun festival).  In ordinary conversation, though, puns are best used sparingly, like seasoning in a dinner dish.  (A pun out of season goeth before a fall, we might say, or even before a winter of discontent.)

In other words, we should pun with moderation, as in all things—even in the highest form of humor.