The 10th Doctor Really Is a Bastard

Author’s Note: This is a modified Skype rant I had after I finished up the Doctor Who episode “Human Nature”. It’s pretty belated, but what are you going to do? I hope you enjoy!

The 10th Doctor really is a selfish bastard, isn’t he?

The Doctor plays god. He can’t help it. He’s immortal, a Time Lord, practically a god. We could say he is a god, because gods can be destroyed, as he could be, it’s just very difficult.

The 9th Doctor did play fast and loose and he was TERRIFYING. He was a wrathful god. But there was…something softer there. There was something that understood the delicacy and depth of feeling. This can be seen especially in “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances”. For all the jokes there was a REAL depth there, and the Doctor was aware of it. You know he figured out Nancy was the kid’s mum, even if he didn’t say anything until the last bit. That was really a part of how he was: These extremes of emotion. There is this ire and wrath, but there is this extreme softness and kindness despite that. And, yeah, he was king of snark, but nevertheless…

Of course, you can see the writers were setting up for a romance between Rose and the Doctor throughout Series One. You can see it brewing there, especially on Rose’s side, but the 9th Doctor had a lot of bullshit in the way to really be cognizant of it, until Rose becomes a god herself. She’s the Bad Wolf. She scatters the words across time and space. And that was fucking dangerous, because it would burn her up and kill her, and it knocked the Doctor out of this maniacal state. He (for all intents and purposes) killed himself to make sure she was safe, that she didn’t die (he promised Jackie). You could argue he’d do that for anyone, but I don’t think so. The awe on his face when she comes out of the TARDIS and it’s revealed she had been leaving the clues all along, from this moment in time… That opens depth of feeling and the wrath is forgotten for a moment.

Then he regenerates, becomes the 10th Doctor, who is a different person in many, many key ways. All of a sudden, the romance is front and centre and really intense. It makes a kind of sense, because we saw the Doctor (as the 9th) in those last moments suddenly realize what this companion means to him. But we have this scene where 10th Doctor tells Rose immortals don’t get to have relationships because their companions are mortal. They die. They wither. That’s fucking painful. But, despite that, he makes the conscious choice to have a very intense relationship/romance with Rose.

And then that’s taken away.

That’s crushing, for both of them. And, wow, he was too much of a coward to just out with it and say he loved Rose even though he KNEW he had a limited amount of time? How heartbreaking for her. And you know the Doctor realizes what a derp he was, with that final shot (before Donna shows up). He was TOO CHICKEN to say how he felt. And he would never have a chance again. It was like Rose died. I mean, she will, but to him, since he can’t cross universes, she’s dead to him. That is over, too suddenly, really, for either of them. And he didn’t have the guts to say what mattered. So he’s back to being lonely, and that loneliness is so much harder now because he let himself get attached. He chose to put himself in a position where he would feel that devastating loss. What will he do?

He picks up the next mildly interesting girl he can, and, arguably, emotionally manipulates her into following him like a puppy because, you know, that kiss, and that TARDIS, and all that space and time. He can’t face the immensity on on his own, can’t stand to be alone, so he takes Martha around, after the stint on the moon, and she’s so enamoured of him. She puts up with his offhand and backhanded remarks. She puts up with the racism and sexism directed at her across time and space. But she gets even more short shrift: The Doctor doesn’t see her. She’s just a piece of meat along for the ride. He might care, in the way that he cares about life in general, if she gets hurt or could die; it’s not the same care he had for Rose in the least.

Which brings us to “Human Nature”.

Of course it’s painful for Martha to see John Smith (i.e. the Doctor, only locked away for safety in a human body and mind) falling in love with another woman because, wow, what was she this whole time? How strong is her memory? What had she been doing for him this whole time? It hurts her, too, when John Smith demands to know what good she is to the Doctor because, honestly, she’s not sure herself because he doesn’t even treat her like a person. Maybe that’s because he doesn’t want to get close to someone again, maybe it’s because he’s just lonely and needs someone to fill the space. But that is selfish. He consistently hurts her, and treats her like shit, and she takes it, because he’s the Doctor, and she loves him.

Then, as Joan Redfern says, on a whim, the Doctor is brought to this place in 1913 – except he’s not the Doctor. And John Smith doesn’t really give much of a shit about Martha – even less of a shit than the Doctor – but he does care about Joan. Deeply. He cares about the students, in his way. He cares about the shooting, the killing, all that. But he’s human. A human with strange dreams (and Rose even dominates there).

I do not think it was selfish for John Smith to want to live, to remain as he was. And Joan was right, John Smith was far braver than the Doctor. John Smith chose to die. And then—oh, and then!—the Doctor comes up to Joan and asks her to go with him. He has the audacity—the GALL—to ask her that, after all that happened. I like to think Joan felt as insulted and outraged as I was. She loved John. The Doctor, though he looks like John, is not John. He comes to her and plays with her feelings, asking her to come with him. I like to believe she was not uncongnizant of what Martha said, about being invisible, treated as second best, or even third best, and felt that was shit behaviour, too (despite time period prejudice).

The 10th Doctor is selfish and self-centred in his pain. In that pain he plays god with other people’s’ emotions. With Martha, whom he picks up because it’s better than being alone, and with Joan, because he can steal John Smith’s memories and feelings and, forgetful that Martha is even around, he can extend his hand to this other woman, manipulating her very real feelings. When John asks “What kind of a man is that?!”, a man who wouldn’t think of the contingency of falling in love, he’s right. What the fuck was he thinking? Probably he wasn’t, because love is pain.

For claiming to know and understand and love humans so well, the Doctor sure doesn’t act like it. To him, it’s as if their feelings are these malleable things, and they bend to his will. What are human feelings compared to those of a god’s?

This is likely going to piss a lot of people off, as I get the feeling the general consensus is the 10th Doctor can do no wrong. The 9th doctor was a snarky jerk, and a genocidal maniac when it came to it, but he didn’t emotionally manipulate people. I can see the 10th Doctor’s pain, but it bothers me, all these actions he takes because of it. Where the 9th Doctor’s ire was directed abroad, at the universe, the unjustness of fate and a sense of self-loathing, the 10th Doctor’s pain seems directed at people. He is relentless and heartless in every strike. That he might not see what he’s doing because of his pain is a dreadful excuse, because the Doctor should be better. Everyone loves him, in some way, but, to me, he is undeserving of that love.

He was a great man before. He became something else entirely.

I Want to Feel Totally Absorbed in Something Again

I want to feel totally absorbed in something again.

This is a thought I’ve been thinking, a feel I’ve been feeling, for some time, but was unable to put into words before now. Sean “Day9” Plott talked about this at the beginning of his “Day9’s Day Off” stream on Friday, June 3, and I was entirely struck by how he described in himself feelings I, too, was having.

He talks about how he played Fallout 3 for four days straight, doing nothing else, completely captured by the game. He talks about how he would play games to the exclusion of anything else, feeling entirely immersed and absorbed by it. He talks about how there is something wonderful when people can talk about how utterly taken in they were by the greatness of something… And he talks about how he just doesn’t get that feeling anymore. In an earlier stream, he mentioned how hard it was to even sit down and read something, even if the book was excellent.

This is something I’ve been struggling with myself for…months. If not years, in a manner. I have many interests. I love writing, I love reading, I love playing video games… And yet I find it harder and harder to be totally sucked in, so excited about something it’s all I want to talk about or do. Why is that? Why is this sort-of apathy happening?

I can’t say I have an answer, but I have a feeling it’s the existential ramifications of “adulthood”. I work a full-time job and have other responsibilities that I didn’t have (or not in the same way) when I was in college and grad school. I have so much other bullshit to think about and keep track of in my day-to-day life that it becomes hard to sit down and do something. “Real life” encroaches on my game time, even on my writing time. I can no more be absorbed in a world of my own making, the creative act, than I can be participating in the story created by another in words or on screen. Can that joy of youth ever be revisited? Can a total immersion in a thing ever happen again?

I don’t know. I fear such a thing is lost, never to be found again. And that makes me intensely sad.

Towards More Realism in RPGs

I love RPGs. They’re my favourite genre of video game. Probably because of the escapism they present (exploring and absorbing another world), but also because they grant the ability to create a character and characterise them as I please. I remember so clearly playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for the first time, a noteworthy thing because it was the first time an RPG gave me some choice (albeit limited) in how my character would react to things. It was a game changer (ha!): That a game would give your character a voice, and some modicum of choice, in interacting with other characters and the world.

Such “choices” have been necessarily rather limited, even as games advance (the coding must be a nightmare), but they have improved by leaps and bounds. It’s such an important mechanic to me. Where the Elder Scrolls games after Morrowind fail most is their lack of choice: In Oblivion and Skyrim, you just are the hero, you are special, whereas in Morrowind, before the final fight with Dagoth Ur, you have the choice to tell him how your character fits in with the world and story, and it might be you are Nerevar reborn – but perhaps you’re just in it for the killing. BioWare games have always showed promise in story-altering choice options, even if they don’t always succeed, and, occasionally, mislead you into thinking your choices matter at all.

I’ve been making my way through a playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and through it I’ve come to remember how much I enjoy being given choice in dialogue and in action. I especially appreciate that, many times, silence is an option, choosing not to intervene. Of course, they system has its faults. I dislike choosing an option only to realize that it’s not actually what I had intended by any means, even after careful consideration (as when I choose to tell a character I don’t trust them and it comes across super aggressive and combative). Sometimes the romance dialogue options are a bit non sequitur and strange, which leaves something to be desired.

Minor quibbles aside (I haven’t yet run across a major one), I got to thinking about how interaction with the other characters (the NPCs) could be improved. Some major events happen – some very traumatic events – through the course of the story, and your character is expected to hold up under all that pressure like the Goddamn Hero ought to be. While I enjoy being a complete badass, I like my characters with faults, with failings, with feeling. The Great Big Hero Who Is Troubled By Nothing And Brushes Trauma Off Like Dust is not an archetype I particularly care for. Sure, I want my character to be, in some way, a hero, but I want to see the fallibility that would come with such things as being thrown into a leadership position, suddenly responsible for so many lives, facing death a few too many times.

For me, there should be options to explore that fallibility. There should be an option, when you talk to an NPC, to one of your followers, to talk to them about what you’re going through, get their advice (or maybe comfort, especially from a romance option). Sure, within those options there should be one to brush things off like the Big Damn Hero, or you could ignore the dialogue altogether as you choose, but for me it would enhance the realism and the characterisation – not only of my character but of the NPCs as well. Maybe someone thinks less of you because you express anxiety for those under your command, or maybe someone else thinks better of you for talking to them about your feelings. The possibilities are myriad. You would learn a little about yourself, and the other characters and, presumably, they would learn something of you, too.

There have been many times in my playthrough I wish I could sit my character down with one of their followers and say “I don’t think I can do this”. Maybe in a future game the question “why me?” won’t be left to silence, locked with imagination in my own mind. Maybe one day there will be a game wherein I can play a truly badass, but fallible and fractured, hero.

Champion of the Balance: Chaos, Law, and The Doctor

I’ve been watching Doctor Who with my friend Lenore. We started with the 9th Doctor, and we’ve come up to the third season, the second season of the 10th Doctor. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I’ve been enjoying talking about it with Lenore. At her insistence, I’m writing this post, which is more or less a distillation of a bunch of things I’ve said as I’ve been watching the show.

I enjoy “reading” shows, applying theory or even other fictional universes to make interesting conclusions or entertaining mashups in my mind. As I’ve been watching Doctor Who, I can’t help but think of Michael Moorcock’s multiverse, especially the concept of the Champion Eternal. The Eternal Champion exists in all times and dimensions and worlds, and is a champion of the Balance – the delicate equilibrium in the eternal conflict between Law and Chaos. The most famous of aspects of the Champion is probably Elric of Melniboné (my favourite), but there are many, many others.

I seem to recall, somewhere, that Mr Moorcock made a comment about how the Doctor could be seen as an aspect of the Eternal Champion, but I cannot for the life of me find the quote now. And this has always been hovering about my thoughts as I’ve been watching. I can see the grand canvas of cosmic conflict, with the Doctor mediating for Balance, attempting to keep extremes in check so to preserve the universe.

The Eternal Champion

The Doctor, as an aspect of the Eternal Champion, serves to maintain the Balance of the universe, even if he does not say so explicitly. But each regeneration of the Doctor (each version, if you will) has a different personality, a different angle, and a different way of serving the Balance against forces of Law and Chaos. The 9th Doctor is Chaotic in aspect: Darker, angrier. The 10th Doctor is more Lawful, with a set code that must be followed. This difference is starkly illustrated after the defeat of the Sycorax. The 10th Doctor reacts with anger, questioning the morality and position of the Prime Minister for committing genocide against an alien people who were retreating, even though the action was made, by the PM’s logic, to protect the Earth. The Doctor punishes her for her transgression, undermining her political position with one well-placed phrase. This seems so very much the opposite of the reaction the 9th Doctor may have had. While he may not agree with the method, I do not believe he would have challenged it. He, after all, was willing to commit genocide to protect the universe, and was not above commanding death on those creatures that were cosmically dangerous – which earns him some praise from the Last Dalek.

The 9th Doctor is an unstoppable force, with a fuzzier moral code than the 10th Doctor, who is the law, though they both serve the same end: keeping Law and Chaos from gaining supremacy in the universe. Nowhere are Law and Chaos so distilled, and seen so clearly, as in the Cybermen and the Daleks. Both forces desire the same thing: The universe to reflect their respective visions.

Law

The Cybermen are the ultimate avatars of Law. They are all the same, copies of each other, with the same impulse to obey and convert (“upgrade”) the world to their own image. They take away emotion and purpose. They are rank upon rank of the same beings, austere, unfeeling. They would bring the universe to sameness, to the stagnation that comes from every single thing being alike. When their mission is done, all will be as it should be.

They are the most terrifying Whovian villain because of this. They operate by logic and cannot be reasoned with. Upgrade or die, though whatever you choose matters very little to them. They don’t care if you choose to be blasted or have your brain ripped out and put in a metal carapace to join their ranks. Law is austere and crystalline, with no personality, no differences, only dead world upon dead world, beholden to cosmic Order.

Chaos

The Daleks are the cosmic opposite of the Cybermen, avatars of Chaos. While the Daleks abhor and shun emotion, and the low ranking take orders from their superiors, the leaders of the Daleks have different personalities and, indeed, the Emperor himself graduated from merely a general to a “god”, cultivating and mutating genetic material over eons to rebuild his army of Dalek drones to set loose upon the world. The sameness of the Dalek vision is not austerity, but entropy: Once all life is wiped out, what purpose then is left for them? Disorder burns itself out and fades.

I find the Daleks the more compelling villain in the Whoverse, for they do, indeed, seem sad creatures locked up in metal shells with only one purpose: to destroy all living things by any means necessary. They are fundamentally disordered, showing intense feeling even if they shun emotion, foreshadowing a universe they conquer snuffing itself out. They have their own logic, but they may or may not destroy you immediately, for they are aware of the use one or another creature may have to them, regardless of its affiliation. They are also not above utilizing the technology of other species to their ends, which is in contrast to the Cybermen, who merely follow where the way is made.

Balance

Neither Cybermen nor Daleks win the day, in part because of the Doctor’s machinations, but because, too, they are each weak to the other force in some way. Chaos and Law, constantly vying for power over one another. We see this in the epic throw-down between Daleks and Cybermen which begins with verbal insult, then dissolves to outright war. Neither can accept the other’s presence. (Though the Daleks were correct: The Cybermen are better at dying.) But the Daleks must have some kind of ordered hierarchy to achieve their aims, and the Cybermen cannot account for nor predict entropy within their own ranks. (Observe how the director of Torchwood was able to thwart total assimilation with her mantra “I did my duty for Queen and Country”.)

This is only a quick overview of the essence of a hundred conversations as I’ve been watching the show. I’m curious to see how the scales tip as the series continues on. I wonder, too, if the constant back and forth, distilled from a cosmic, mythic height, into episodes in quick succession (even if we accept traveling across time and space in an instant) won’t reach its own point of critical and ultimate sameness.

Thákbúrz: Construction of a Speech

It seems like a hundred thousand years ago I shared my Black Speech proof of concept video. I spent a good three or four hours doing research, then another four or five constructing the speech, starting from simple sentences in English, working backwards. The recording and editing didn’t take that much time, but, all told, it was a good day’s work – and I was quite proud of it. I still am quite proud of it.

I said I’d write about how I did it, and give a translation for what was said, both of which I never did, partially out of self consciousness and partially because life has a way of stomping all over my projects indiscriminately.

There are very few primary sources (that is, from Tolkien himself) on Black Speech. I get the feeling he didn’t like it at all, but whether because it was an “evil” language, or because the sounds were grating to him I am uncertain. As far as primary sources go, there are, of course, the Ring verse, and also a curse spat out by a Mordor orc in The Two Towers. Aside from a couple notes Tolkien made, that’s all one has to go on for a reconstruction.

Now is probably the time to make clear that my Black Speech project is by no means an attempt to reconstruct the “true” or nearest to “true form” that Tolkien intended (if he ever had in mind a fuller language than what he took down). I am tipping my hat to the Professor and basing my work off what exists, but you will not find here a “reconstructed” language. However, I would not call it “neo-Black Speech”. It is a fan-work, certainly, but based off of my own readings and interpretations of Tolkien’s work, specifically my reading of Sauron himself (which is a post for a later time, though some of my opinions are likely clear in what follows).

How did it begin?

I began the project by gathering what information I could find, which basically all came from Ardalambion’s Orkish and Black Speech page and my own memory. I utilized the wordlist, and refreshed my knowledge of the extant grammar, based exclusively off of the Ring verse. While there is the curse of the Mordor orc, I chose not to use it for my own project. As there was a language (Orkish) before Sauron tried to teach his servants Black Speech, I didn’t feel that I could disentangle true Black Speech from the previous Orkish. Why not assume that Sauron’s captains adopted Black Speech whole hog? Because I highly doubt that that would have been the case. (It was a nice ideal for Sauron to have a lingua franca amongst his captains and servants, but I feel like he would have had a hard time enforcing the adoption of it, especially with some many thousands of years of Orkish already in place.)

After compiling the wordlist, writing out the phonology, and getting an idea of a skeletal grammar, I wrote out what I wanted to translate in English.

The Speech

And then came the messy part. It’s really rather inelegant, to be honest: Throwing together sounds and then keeping track of the grammar (plurals, participles, adjective markers…). I had to back track a number of times because I ended up forgetting that suffix -i marks plurals, or that I had already made a word “shadow”. Or I would get stuck on an idiomatic phrase. Looking over the speech now (with a number of weeks between) I see a number of mistakes. Really embarrassing mistakes.

But let’s get to the real fun. Here is the speech, as I read it in the video:

Thú dáshi kaz thran. Kin nainiku, agh tháknui sidiz. Thú sidan thran, agh zaugh akaz. Kha pa ghu dáshi thar.

Pa laidi burz hárzagh thar, thid marnkra thashui khraz. Thú rathkranuthú rakúni burz skris.

Ska dunkhithú thar.

Thú tát shuz dránat khis, kha ishidathú rakún khishagh thar, zorum narnkra.

Thú krimprad igh zagatrad thagthar, zi thú shaikrad thar.

Dul sithar ska. Skaru sitharad.

Thú zaughthún, galdthún, rúhthún lúkad. Thú thúthún Tárzhag thar.

Thú skanai rit skud shakthar.

Ash nazg durbatulûk,
ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk
agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Can you guess what my favourite sounds are? (If you guessed /ð/ you’re on the right track!) You can see a little bit of transcription laziness on my part, too. Diacritics on vowels indicate length, and I started to use the acute on mine, rather than the circumflex Tolkien used, and I just never changed the circumflexes over. You probably also recognize words here and there: The Ring verse at the end, burz, agh, the krimp- in krimprad. But the majority of is of my own invention. You may also notice the distinct lack of /o/, save in zorum. Tolkien said o was rare (per a reference on Ardalambion), and so I decided to use it only with words of dread import. Zorum: Emptiness.

But to make this more clear, the broken down version is probably more helpful. This is how I translated my English to Black Speech:

I ancient vision-s remember. Light star-s-of, and soft/ voice-s. I warmth remember, and exquisite art.
Thú dásh-i ka-z thran. Kin nain-i-ku, agh tháknu-i sidi-z. Thú sidan thran, agh zaugh aka-z.

But DMPRON only vision-s be.
Kha pa ghu dásh-i thar.

DMPRON land-s dark wild-and are, still/already harbour-PRESPRT shadow-s great. I call-PRESPRT-to-me place-s dark shun.
Pa laid-i burz hárz-agh thar, thid marn-kra thashu-i khra-z. Thú rath-kra-nu-thú rakún-i burz skris.

NEG place-for-me be.
Ska dun-khi-thú thar.

I face fair to-wear be-able, but inside me shadow ice-and is, empty-ness gape-PRESPART.
Thú tát shuz dránat khis, kha ishi-da-thú rakún khish-agh thar, zor-um narn-kra.

I bind-PSTPRT or destroy-PSTPRT will-be, if I discoverPSTPRT am.
Thú krimp-rad igh zagat-rad thag-thar, zi thú shaik-rad thar.

They understand not. No one will-understand.
Dul sithar ska. Skaru sithar-[r]ad.

I art-mine, craft[magic]-mine, power-mine possess. I mine-own Master be.
Thú zaugh-thún, gald-thún, rúh-thún lúkad. Thú thú-thún Tárzhag thar.

I never again thrall shall-be.
Thú skanai rit skud shak-thar.

Ash nazg durbatulûk,
ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk
agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Now, it has been a number of years since I’ve done any real linguistic exercise, so this is a really messy, lazy version of what I ought to have done. In fact, I couldn’t remember a lot of the abbreviations so I just made them up. It’s a really haphazard thing! And there are a lot of mistakes (for example, I’m really not sure rathkranuthú is in the right place, or that it is correctly modifying rakúni.)

But I suppose the more interesting question is: how did I choose words and word order? Saying that I “just did whatever” is a rather poor answer, and not entirely correct. You may notice that agh is often appended to words in a list. I stole this grammatical quirk from Latin, because I thought the construction was interesting, and sounded a bit poetic. There are Elvish loan words, namely in Tárzhag, “Master”, where the tárz is directly related to tar, high. (Tárzhag is a compound word, high-something. If I wrote down what hag was supposed to be, I can’t find it. I’m pretty sure I intended it to be an ugly word, because of Sauron’s resentment and anger for Morgoth.) There are also some words stolen from Earth languages – namely gald, which is taken from galdr in Old Norse.

I really quite like the sound of thúthún (“my own”, literally I-mine). That was a stroke of genius. I have no idea if it will stand up to further scrutiny, but I like how it ended up sounding.

Is it complete?

Sweet baby spider horse, no. Even this explanation isn’t really complete (I haven’t included the phonology or anything, as I plan to revise it). As this stands, it is rife with mistakes (which one would actually expect) and it is incredibly simple. There is a lot more work that needs to go into it before it could even be considered decent. And that’s alright, because, indeed, I don’t think a language is ever complete. It’s always evolving and, when you’re constructing one, there’s the constant revision process. (Even Tolkien was constantly adding and revising.) Languages are only static once they’re dead.

Concluding remarks…

So, there you have it, my fast and mildly lazy process of conlanging. I’ll leave you with the side by side – original English and final Thákbúrz (“speech-dark”). As I mentioned above, much of this is reliant on my own reading of Sauron, and much of the lore surrounding him (which will be a later post). I conceived of the little speech as an explanation of his frame of mind when he forged the Ring. When I have more of the language, I’ll write one better.

Thú dáshi kaz thran. Kin nainiku, agh tháknui sidiz. Thú sidan thran, agh zaugh akaz.
I remember visions of long ago. The light of the stars, and soft voices. I remember warmth, art of exquisite skill.

Kha pa ghu dáshi thar.
But these are visions only.

Pa laidi burz hárzagh thar, thid marnkra thashui khraz. Thú rathkranuthú rakúni burz skris.
These lands are dark and wild, harbouring still great shadows. I shun the dark places that call to me.

Ska dunkhithú thar.
But there is no place for me.

Thú tát shuz dránat khis, kha ishidathú rakún khishagh thar, zorum narnkra.
I can wear a fair face, but inside is shadow and ice, a hole that will never be filled.

Thú krimprad igh zagatrad thagthar, zi thú shaikrad thar.
I will be imprisoned or destroyed, if any discovered me.

Dul sithar ska. Skaru sitharad.
They do not understand. No one will understand.

Thú zaughthún, galdthún, rúhthún lúkad. Thú thúthún Tárzhag thar.
I have my art, my craft, my power. I am my own Master.

Thú skanai rit skud shakthar.
I shall never be a thrall again.

Ash nazg durbatulûk,
One Ring to rule them all,
ash nazg gimbatul,
One Ring to find them,
ash nazg thrakatulûk
One Ring to bring them all,
agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
and in the Darkness bind them.

The Last Empress of Melniboné

I has having a think the other day…a rather compelling think.

I just got the second installment of the French Elric of Melniboné comic, and, as Elric is one of my favourite characters of all time (if not, perhaps, my absolute favourite), I found myself considering how “meh” the female characters generally were. (The comic fixes some of these issues, which I applaud.) And then I began to wonder why there weren’t any female characters like him in general. I realized that a female Elric would be “unacceptable” amongst the “general readership” of epic fantasy. Elric is a complete asshole, drug addict, sometimes petty, antihero – but he is still likable in some way. He’s compelling. A female Elric would be considered a complete bitch, or, perhaps “too masculine” for all the same reasons that make male Elric interesting. This made me a little sad, especially as I, for one, wouldn’t care about the gender either way. I imagine other readers wouldn’t care either.

Then I decided to try something.

Here is my experiment: Below is the second chapter of Elric of Melniboné, except all the genders are swapped. Names are not changed, and there are a couple instances of words being flopped (brother for sister, for example) to reflect the gender swapping. Other than these changes, the writing is all Michael Moorcock’s.

‘And how do you enjoy the ball, cousin?’ Elric asked, aware that Yyrkoon’s melodramatic presentation had been designed to catch her off guard and, if possible, humiliate her. ‘Is the music to your taste?’

Yyrkoon lowered her eyes and let her lips form a secret little smile. ‘Everything is to my taste, my liege. But what of yourself? Does something displease you? You did not join the dance.’

Elric raised one pale finger to her chin and stared at Yyrkoon’s hidden eyes. ‘I enjoy the dance, cousin, nonetheless. Surely it is possible to take pleasure in the pleasure of others?’

Yyrkoon seemed genuinely astonished. Her eyes opened fully and met Elric’s. Elric felt a slight shock and then turned her own gaze away, indicating the music galleries with a languid hand. ‘Or perhaps it is the pain of others which brings me pleasure. Fear not, for my sake, cousin. I am pleased. I am pleased. You may dance on, assured that your empress enjoys the ball.’

But Yyrkoon was not to be diverted from her object. ‘Surely, if her subjects are not to go away saddened and troubled that they have not pleased their ruler, the empress should demonstrate her enjoyment…?’

‘I would remind you, cousin,’ said Elric quietly, ‘that the empress has no duty to her subjects at all, save to rule them. Their duty is to her. That is the tradition of Melniboné.’

Yyrkoon had not expected Elric to use such arguments against her, but she rallied with her next retort. ‘I agree, my lady. The empress’ duty is to rule her subjects. Perhaps that is why so many of them do not, themselves, enjoy the ball as much as they might.’

‘I do not follow you, cousin.’

Cymoril had risen and stood with his hands clenched on the step above his sister. He was tense and anxious, worried by his sister’s bantering tone, her disdainful bearing.

‘Yyrkoon…’ he said.

She acknowledged his presence. ‘Brother. I see you share our empress’ reluctance to dance.’

‘Yyrkoon,’ he murmured, ‘you are going too far. The empress is tolerant, but…’

‘Tolerant? Or is she careless? Is she careless of the traditions of our great race? Is she contemptuous of that race’s pride?’

Dyvim Tvar was now mounting the steps. It was plain that she, too, sensed that Yyrkoon had chosen this moment to test Elric’s power.

Cymoril was aghast. He said urgently. ‘Yyrkoon. If you would live…’

‘I would not care to live if the soul of Melniboné perished. And the guardianship of our nation’s soul is the responsibility of the empress. And what if we should have an empress who failed in that responsibility? An empress who was weak? An empress who cared nothing for the greatness of the Dragon Isle and its folk?’

‘A hypothetical question, cousin.’ Elric had recovered her composure and her voice was an icy drawl. ‘For such an empress has never sat upon the Ruby Throne and such an empress never shall.’

Dyvim Tvar came up, touching Yyrkoon on the shoulder. ‘Princess, if you value your dignity and your life…’

Elric raised her hand. ‘There is no need for that, Dyvim Tvar. Yyrkoon merely entertains us with an intellectual debate. Fearing that I was bored by the music and the dance – which I am not – she thought she would provide the subject for a stimulating discourse. I am certain that we are most stimulated, Princess Yyrkoon. Elric allowed a patronising warmth to colour her last sentence.

Yyrkoon flushed with anger and bit her lip.

‘But go on, daer cousin Yyrkoon,’ Elric said. ‘I am interested. Enlarge further on your argument.’

Yyrkoon looked around her, as if for support. But all her supporters were on the floor of the hall. Only Elric’s friends, Dyvim Tvar and Cymoril, were nearby. Yet Yyrkoon knew that her supporters were hearing every word and that she would lose face if she did not retaliate. Elric could tell that Yyrkoon would have preferred to have retired from this confrontation and choose another day and another ground on which to continue the battle, but that was not possible. Elric, herself, had no wish to continue the foolish banter which was, no matter how disguised, a little better than the quarreling of two little boys over who should play with the slaves first. He decided to make an end to it.

Yyrkoon began: ‘Then let me suggest that an empress who was physically weak might also be weak in her will to rule as befitted…’

And Elric raised her hand. ‘You have done enough, dear cousin. More than enough. You have wearied yourself with this conversation when you would have preferred to dance. I am touched by your concern. But now I, too, feel weariness steal upon me.’ Elric signaled for her old servant Tanglebones who stood on the far side of the throne dais amongst the soldiers. ‘Tanglebones! My cloak.’

Elric stood up. ‘I thank you again for your thoughtfulness, cousin.’ She addressed the court in general. ‘I was entertained. Now I retire.’

Tanglebones brought the cloak of white fox fur and placed it around her mistress’ shoulders. Tanglebones was very old and much taller than Elric, though her back was stooped and all her limbs seemed knotted and twisted back on themselves, like the limbs of a strong, old tree.

Elric walked across the dais and through the door which opened onto a corridor which led to her private chambres.

Yyrkoon was left fuming. She whirled around on the dais and opened her mouth as if to address the watching courtiers. Some, who did not support her, were smiling quite openly. Yyrkoon clenched her fists at her sides and glowered. She glared at Dyvim Tvar and opened her thin lips to speak. Dyvim Tvar coolly returned the glare, daring Yyrkoon to say more.

Then Yyrkoon flung back her head so that the locks of her hair, all curled and oiled, swayed against her back. And Yyrkoon laughed.

The harsh sound filled the hall. The music stopped. The laughter continued.

Yyrkoon stepped up so that she stood on the dais. She dragged her heavy cloak around her so that it engulfed her body.

Cymoril came forward. ‘Yyrkoon, please do not…’ She pushed him back with a motion of her shoulder.

Yyrkoon walked stiffly towards the Ruby Throne. It became plain that she was about to seat herself in it and thus perform one of the most traitorous actions possible in the code of Melniboné. Cymoril ran the few steps to her and pulled at her arm.

Yyrkoon’s laughter grew. ‘It is Yyrkoon they would wish to see on the Ruby Throne,’ she told her bother. He gasped and looked in horror at Dyvim Tvar whose face was grim and angry.

Dyvim Tvar signed to the guards and suddenly there were two ranks of armoured women between Yyrkoon and the throne.

Yyrkoon glared back at the Lady of the Dragon Caves. ‘You had best hope you perish with your mistress,’ she hissed.

‘This guard of honour will escort you from the hall,’ Dyvim Tvar said evenly. ‘We were all stimulated by your conversation this evening, Princess Yyrkoon.’

Yyrkoon paused, looked about her, then relaxed. She shrugged. ‘There’s time enough. If Elric will not abdicate, then she must be deposed.’

Cymoril’s slender body was rigid. His eyes blazed. He said to his sister:

‘If you harm Elric in any way, I will slay you myself, Yyrkoon.’

She raised her tapering eyebrows and smiled. At that moment she seemed to hate her brother even more than she hated her cousin. ‘Your loyalty to that creature has ensured your own doom, Cymoril. I would rather you died than you should sire any progeny of hers. I will not have the blood of our house diluted, tainted – even touched – by her blood. Look to your own life, brother, before you threaten mine.’

And she stormed down the steps, pushing through those who came up to congratulate her. She knew that she had lost and the murmurs of her sycophants only irritated her further.

The great doors of the hall crashed together and closed. Yyrkoon was gone from the hall.

Dyvim Tvar raised both her arms. ‘Dance on, courtiers. Pleasure yourselves with all that the hall provides. It is what will please the empress most.’

But it was plain there would be little more dancing done tonight. Courtiers were already deep in conversation as, excitedly, they debated the events.

Dyvim Tvar turned to Cymoril. ‘Elric refuses to understand the danger, Prince Cymoril. Yyrkoon’s ambition could bring disaster to all of us.’

‘Including Yyrkoon,’ Cymoril sighed.

‘Aye, including Yyrkoon. But how can we avoid this, Cymoril, if Elric will not give orders for your sister’s arrest?’

‘She believes that such as Yyrkoon should be allowed to say what they please. It is part of her philosophy. I can barely understand it, but it seems integral to her whole belief. If she destroys Yyrkoon, she destroys the basis on which her logic works. That at any rate, Dragon Mistress, is what she has tried to explain to me.’

Dyvim Tvar signed and she frowned. Though unable to understand Elric, she was afraid she could sometimes sympathise with Yyrkoon’s viewpoint. At least Yyrkoon’s motives and arguments were relatively straightforward. She knew Elric’s character too well, however, to believe that Elric acted from weakness or lassitude. The paradox was that Elric tolerated Yyrkoon’s treachery because she was strong, because she had the power to destroy Yyrkoon whenever she cared. And Yyrkoon’s own character was such that she must constantly be testing that strength of Elric’s, for she knew instinctively that if Elric did weaken and order her slain, then she would have won. It was a complicated situation and Dyvim Tvar dearly wished that she was not embroiled in it. But her loyalty to the royal line of Melniboné was strong and her personal loyalty to Elric was great. She considered the idea of having Yyrkoon secretly assassinated, but she knew that such a plan would almost certainly come to nothing. Yyrkoon was a sorceress of immense power and doubtless would be forewarned of any attempt on her life.

‘Prince Cymoril,’ said Dyvim Tvar, ‘I can only pray that your sister swallows so much of her rage that it eventually poisons her.’

‘I will join you in that prayer, Lady of the Dragon Caves.’

Together, they left the hall.

Honestly, changing the genders does nothing to alter the story, nor does it dampen its tension or change how compelling it is. This, in itself, is very telling, I find. But changing the genders also shows flaws within the story. Granted, I knew some of these flaws from the beginning, the greatest of which is Cymoril’s passivity. It’s obvious enough when she’s a woman that she does very little, and her actions are impotent, unlike the male characters on the scene. But here, presented as a man, it seems far more obvious, if only because we’re so used to a foreground of active male players in stories.

I also noticed more the intense amount of of gendered language. For the purposes of this experiment, I swapped everything, including titles, but this is not how I could have written it myself. I would have kept “master” and “lord” for either male or female characters (which, perhaps, is simply a matter of personal taste). But there is the matter of the quarreling children metaphor, which in the original was “a little better than the quarreling of two little girls”. I would have used children, the gender neutral option. Moorcock chose “girls”, which, in the context, is rather denigrative, illustrating how silly and pointless the banter is. That tone remained somewhat when I changed it to “boys”, though the charge of disgust was far lessened than if it had remained “girls”.

In any case, it was an interesting experiment, and something I may play with more later. It doesn’t matter if Elric is male or female; the character and the story are what interest me most. I don’t see why we couldn’t have more female antiheroes. I don’t see why we can’t just have more interesting characters and compelling stories.

I wonder if this experiment will make anyone uncomfortable? If so, welcome to the background radiation of my life.