‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ Made Awesome in Six Easy Steps

It isn’t difficult to imagine why Jane Austen would want to satirise a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is, despite its fine romantic imagery, the huge role it played in defining the Gothic novel and Mrs Radcliffe’s general awesomeness as a successful female novelist in nineteenth century England, a rather silly book. Its characters are tiresome cardboard cut-outs in the habit of spontaneously composing perfectly-structured poetry, which they sometimes recite (mercifully when alone); its plot is engaging, then thrilling, then utterly flat; and the author often doesn’t seem able to make up her mind as to whether she’s writing a novel, a treatise on the Sublime, or what Lady Bracknell would call ‘a three [four?] volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.’

Her Ladyship has determined that the task of reviewing this valuable, important, harmlessly fun and unappealingly preposterous book is far too large and complicated an assignment. She shall therefore undertake to suggest a few changes that might have made it a more entertaining read. Most of these would probably be unacceptable in nineteenth century society, would no doubt have seen the author excommunicated and forced into hiding, and will not take into account that Udolpho’s ridiculousness is entirely deliberate and appropriate to the genre at that time, but what matter? Her Ladyship is simply amusing herself.

Let us begin with a brief introduction to the characters most relevant to this little project.

Emily St Aubert: the novel’s protagonist. A sugary sweet, good as gold, virtuous, righteous, honourable, helpless little princess (not literally) with the constitution of a butterfly; overly fond of fainting and of trying to be rational.  She does, mercifully, have a strong but not overpowering spunk about her that prevents her from being utterly unbearable and even leads us to admire her every now and again, particularly in her confrontations with Signor Montoni .

Artwork by Three Panel Book Review on tumblr.

Artwork by Three Panel Book Review on tumblr.

Monsieur St Aubert: Emily’s father. Jean-Jacques Rousseau without the sulking.

Valancourt: Emily’s fiancé; the stereotypical passionate young lover. Self-pitying, narcissistic, eminently punchable, spends most of his time making Emily lose consciousness and feel dreadful about herself. He’s also good, then bad, then good, then not-so-bad-after-all, then good, and is simply not worth the trouble of puzzling it all out.

Madame Montoni: Emily’s aunt. Mrs Reed from Jane Eyre, only inclined to greed instead of jealousy (not that she’s without that either).

Signor Montoni: Madame Montoni’s husband, the novel’s villain. The most bearable character in the entire book, he is only rendered so by not possessing a jot of the golden virtue that most of the other characters possess ad nauseum. Callous, cruel, amoral, dissolute, brooding and greedy: stereotypical gothic bad guy.

Count Morano: Montoni’s friend; the embodiment of every bad thing the English have ever thought about Italians (lustful, overly-passionate, can’t take no for an answer, blah blah blah).

Udolpho not being the most popular book in the universe, we shall now take a look at a bland and poorly-written introduction to plot points relevant to our purposes:

Emily lives happily in Gascony with her parents; Emily’s mother dies; Emily’s father takes her on a tour by coach to the Languedoc and the Pyrenees; they run into Valancourt on the road; Valancourt and Emily fall in love on the road; Emily’s father dies on the road; Emily is put into the care of her heinous aunt Madame Montoni, who says that she can’t marry Valancourt, then that she can, and then that she can’t; Emily is taken away to Italy by Madame Montoni and her creepy husband Signor Montoni, who has an equally-creepy castle in the Apennines called Udolpho; they settle in Venice, where Emily meets Montoni’s dishonourable friend Count Morano; Count Morano never stops trying to get into Emily’s pants; Montoni tries to marry Emily to Count Morano, Emily refuses, Emily is told she will be forced to marry Count Morano; on the morning of the wedding, Montoni unexpectedly takes Emily and Madame Montoni away to Udolpho.

Artwork by zen_parvez-d5trhut

Artwork by zen_parvez-d5trhut

Udolpho turns out to be a terrifying edifice where supernatural things go bump in the night; Montoni turns out to be a bit of a jerk who is trying to force Emily’s aunt to give her fortune to him instead of Emily when she dies; Madame Montoni refuses to sign over her fortune; Montoni finds time, between his commission of various grievous crimes including getting drunk with his friends, associating with bandits and carousing with ladies of the night, to employ a number of cruel and unpleasant means to get his wife to succumb; Emily spends most of her time crying, fainting, wishing Valancourt would rescue her, and interceding with Montoni on her aunt’s behalf when the old lady has been nothing but a bitch to her; and…well. Her Ladyship does not intend to summarise the entire book.

Let us begin.

The Mysteries of Udolpho made awesome in six easy steps

Make Emily edgy.

Make her a more flawed version of Elizabeth Bennett; or make her someone who seems perfect, but is hiding something, or running from something; or if she absolutely has to be a stereotype, make her a tomboy. It’s a less annoying stereotype than that of the princess.


Cut down on the random poetry recitals.

Yes, making characters spontaneously write poems in their heads is a very original idea, but unless your characters are literary geniuses, oral poets, or from Middle Earth, it’s not realistic, and doesn’t even make us want it to be realistic.

Make Emily think about escaping Udolpho on her own steam.

Sure, it’s difficult to do any kind of spontaneous running when you’re trapped in a castle on a mountain. It’s not difficult to find out all you can about the surrounding country, or to know when the guard is changed, how many guards there are per watch, what routes they take, what weapons they carry, which ones are drunks, which ones are idiots, which ones fall asleep on duty (hey! I’m sounding like Arya Stark!). Even if it’s just the thought of bribing someone, stop all this waiting for Valancourt or Ludovico (the novel’s stereotypical Italian servant) bullshit and let the girl use her brain. Better still, let her try to run away. It’s a stupid idea without the aforementioned preparation, but at least she’d be rendered a little less pathetic.

Make Emily see Valancourt for the self-obsessed little creep he really is.

Valancourt’s strategy, both in a fight and out of it, is to blame Emily for absolutely everything and then to use a diabolical kind of reverse psychology and paint himself in the worst possible light. This inevitably makes Emily feel awful, start crying and not want to lose him, and while we can certainly give her the credit of not yielding to most of his entreaties, she kind of spoils things by making it clear that she wants to. Then there’s the way that he talks to her, expresses his love for her and woos her, which is so disgustingly sentimental that even your standard male participant in a medieval courtly love relationship would find it either hilarious or distasteful.

If you absolutely have to pair Emily with someone, pair her with Montoni.

Turn it into an ‘irresistible chemistry between cruel older man and innocent young girl’ thing. And, if you want to be really original, don’t make her reform him or discover that ‘deep down he’s vulnerable and just wants to be loved,’ or anything like that. Keep him bad, and keep her good and virtuous, but unable to help herself: the sort of thing that Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber. For one thing, the sheer raciness of the idea would make the entire novel a thousand times more entertaining, and would provide a lot more opportunity for character development in Emily, i.e. she’ll have a choice between staying in a destructive relationship, or taking charge and walking away.

Yes, she’s in a castle in the middle of nowhere, but can’t we just pretend?

Make the ghosts real.


Or at least make us unsure that they’re not. A ghost story that provides rational explanations for every thrillingly creepy incident (albeit at the end, so it’s not that bad) is just plain disappointing. The triumph of reason is a very sensible and very noble literary theme, but in a gothic novel? It doesn’t really work unless it’s cathartic in some way, and though ghosts are laid to rest by the novel’s end, we aren’t seized by any kind of emotion or catharsis, because the author decides to devote a chapter to explaining everything. This would be fine if it was done through the mouths of the novel’s characters. What we get instead is an utterly-emotionless step-by-step provision of reasons why none of the shit going down is actually supernatural. It’s both yawnable and disappointing.

That being said, Her Ladyship has now adequately amused herself and is retiring for the night. I would say something to the tune of ‘Farewell, dear reader,’ but that would just be irritating.


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Book Review

Her Ladyship commits the not-uncommon indiscretion of reading Wolf Hall after Bring Up The Bodies, and begins to think, as she does sometimes.

Though Hilary Mantel’s publishers do her the great disservice of plastering the back cover and spine of her masterpiece with recommendations from two ludicrous sources who know less about literature than Sherlock Holmes on a good day (Kate Mosse and The Daily Mail); there is absolutely nothing else wrong with Wolf Hall. While Bring Up The Bodies resembles a hard, tightened fist, and a stunning, plummeting fall (or rise); Wolf Hall is like the hilly country of an open hand. It leads us on a merry chase across the years; racing ahead and occasionally doubling back on itself in its mercurial, yet impeccably-controlled portrayal of the rise to power of Henry VIII’s formidable First Minister, Thomas Cromwell.

Like its illustrious successor, Wolf Hall is sparse, but sprawling; sparse in its descriptions of externals, and sprawling in its characterisation; relying on reader imagination to drape the appropriate characters in silks, velvets, gold and jewels and only taking to the descriptions of such things when they reflect something about the character’s internal state. It is in the vivid representation of this internal state that Mantel’s true genius lies, as she takes us right into the heart of a man largely considered to be one of the cut-glass villains of Henry VIII’s reign and gives him his own voice. It is an extraordinary voice.

A powerful, distinctive and almost compulsively interesting protagonist, Mantel’s Cromwell is one of those characters that you constantly wish you could plonk down somewhere and talk to for hours. He is a man with a string of faces and identities that stem from the multiple countries, languages and cultures he has known from adolescence, yet he is also, firmly, himself; the beautiful, resounding ‘he, Cromwell’: a man in a perpetual state of learning and observing, but with a natural gift for applying that learning to intrigue, organised thought and getting his hands dirty that cannot be taught. He is fiercely well-educated and ruthless, but is just as fiercely human; his humanity not only extending to his family life, but to the way he constantly talks to people as he has had to do all his life; how he takes in, trains and raises up young men from nowhere in every part of his household that can be imagined; taking the time to identify each one’s particular gifts and to prepare them for the day that they may be called out of the kitchen and into the counting house; as he was as a young man. One of the best things about him, especially upon entering Henry VIII’s service, is his refusal to make pretensions at nobility or to claim to be from any other part of society than the one he stems from. He’s used to his descent being constantly ridiculed, but one nevertheless gets the feeling that he’s got a little black book somewhere up his sleeve, along with the knowledge that being a blacksmith’s son doesn’t stop you from ruling the world; even if everyone else is intent on thinking so.

As an author, Mantel has the rare ability to convey great passion, sadness and complexity through minimal, yet beautiful prose; stripping Tudor England down to the raw, violent blackness of its inherent self without accoutrements and without excessive romanticism; dispensing with appearances and leaving us with the truth; the insides; the organs; the blood of its characters and its era. The high quality of the prose works together with the glorious experience of seeing Tudor England through the eyes of such a fascinating and utterly unusual man to create a mesmerising read that draws you in from the very first page and makes it difficult to put Wolf Hall down until you’ve finished it.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Review)

‘Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring Up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.’

Hilary Mantel is one of those rare writers with such an exquisite ability to tell a story in the present tense that you spend most of her narrative blissfully unaware that she’s doing it at all. It is through this remarkable gift that Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, achieves everything that present tense writing is supposed to achieve, without all that tedious mucking-about in the suspense-driven, overly-staccato and pointlessly exhausting drivel that usually results when an author tries to do this without having the slightest idea how to do it properly. Mantel makes us live Thomas Cromwell, our extraordinary protagonist, and see things not just from his perspective but from within his consciousness – constantly on our toes, constantly watching, constantly questioning, and constantly doing whatever we must, hour to hour, minute to minute, to cement our position as Henry VIII’s new chief minister during the fall of Anne Boleyn, and to always serve our country well. Our lives often come to resemble an out-of-body experience as we twist and turn and adapt to the characteristics of each person we plot with or against. We are helped along by steering clear of strong emotion; doing this helps us to think clearly; but regrettably, like everyone else, we’re human, and sometimes; not often, but sometimes; cracks start to appear; and disappear just as quickly. And in the midst of all this there is England; a country reeling under the uncertainty of a new faith that is also the uncertainty of an old identity; England that is threatened and England that must be governed. And there is always Henry. He needs to be governed too.

Mantel’s Cromwell has the strongest and most distinctive narrative voice since Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; a charisma so powerful that it seems to rise off the page, but that is also unassuming and incredibly subtle; the charisma of a listener, not a talker; the charisma of a man observing his world from the inside, but also from the outside; an intelligent, cosmopolitan and multilingual blacksmith’s son in the midst of the aristocracy, who understands his surroundings, but will never succeed in getting his surroundings to understand him.

Through Cromwell’s steady and penetrating gaze, the gorgeous furnishings, costumes and pomp and circumstance of the traditional costume drama are stripped right down to the bone, and we understand, while watching the Boleyns’ fall through Cromwell’s eyes, that this period in history was never really about magnificent houses or beautiful costumes at all; but about the people who lived inside them, and what the landscapes beneath their skin actually looked like. The prose is perfect, the characterisation a work of genius, and the enormous cast of characters prodigiously juggled in a way that makes each pawn in its game distinctive and recognisable. A gorgeous, absorbing novel that fully deserves its Booker Prize, it makes those of us who have not read Wolf Hall want to go out and buy it immediately, and those of us who have to wish fervently that The Mirror and the Light was here already.

What Sansa would have done in Arya’s place.

My dear friend the Lady Héloïse and her inestimable sister the Lady Catherine recently planted a delightful seed in my head following my defense of Sansa Stark entitled What Arya would have done in Sansa’s place. Why not do it the other way round? I jokingly responded that the post would only have to be three words long: ‘Scream. Cry. Die.’ But then I began to think, as I do sometimes. Actually lots of times. Sansa is as strong as her sister, so why shouldn’t this work? Here is the horrifying and somewhat wacky barrage of ifs, ands, pots and pans reflections on the events of A Clash of Kings only, since going any further would pose a serious threat to Her Ladyship’s sanity.

Being a boy

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in the HBO series.

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in the HBO series.

The first and most immediate problem is how a beautiful and very conventionally feminine girl like Sansa could possibly convince as a boy. There are many examples in literature, however, of even very feminine women passing for boys in a variety of circumstances, from The Merchant of Venice to Les Misérables, so such a thing must be possible, at least in the world of fiction. But could Sansa do it?

To start with, she would cry her eyes out about her hair being cut short, probably not at the moment of the actual shearing (she’d still be in shock), but plenty of times after that. Unlike her little sister, she has breasts, so these would have to be continually restrained: having to do this on the road with no privacy could be a massive problem, but then we should also consider that Arya doesn’t take a bath once while in the same situation, a strategy that Sansa would also be forced to adopt. To call attention away from her face, she’d also have to be extremely dirty and almost supernaturally inconspicuous: even the most basic conversation or movement could blow her cover wide open unless she’s continually on the alert, something that she simply won’t be accustomed to and might not have the energy to do. We do know, however, that Sansa is admirably good at keeping her mouth shut, and would therefore be a whole lot better at taking Yoren’s advice that she keep to herself and not speak to anyone than her fiery little sister. We should also consider that fear and brute survival make thespians of us all. Sansa is a smart girl, if not particularly observant, and she’d soon realise that it would be in her interest to try as hard as possible to keep up the charade.  If she did not realise this, then Yoren would inevitably beat it into her. If this method worked with Arya (well, up to a point), then it’s not difficult to imagine that it would work with Sansa too.

On the road

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark.

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark.

Once she’s a boy, we need to think about how Sansa would adapt to life on the road, if she adapts at all. To give us a very general idea, let’s look at how Daenerys, of roughly the same age and social standing, coped with it at first after a lifetime of living in various palaces. Daenerys initially finds very little comfort in the considerable benefits of a tent at night, three Dothraki handmaidens to bandage her up, and horsemeat and sweetgrass on tap. She gets saddle sores that make dismounting and sitting down an agony, and endless blisters on her hands from holding the reins. But then she also has the comfort of Khal Drogo being a spectacular fuck, and the fact that she eventually gets used to being constantly on the move and even comes to relish it. We can put Sansa into roughly the same position: there’d be no fucking (sadly), but plenty of saddle sores from riding the mule and blisters on her feet from walking. She’d be absolutely miserable and would probably cry until she had no tears left. She’d soon recognise the need to stop crying following the inevitable ridicule and physical abuse from the other boys that would result and against which she’d be pretty much powerless, not having much of a will to fight back. Or she’d simply continue to cry and the whole situation would end with the boys somewhat morbidly accepting her constant tears, à la Weasel (the crying girl). A third possibility, and a bit of a foregone conclusion, is that Gendry would inevitably end up telling the others to lay off, him being a soft-hearted darling with a keen sense of justice, and that he’d probably take her under his protection, something that he tries multiple times with Arya with usually disastrous/hilarious results. Sansa’s first instinct would be to turn her nose up at him because of his low birth, but something tells me her circumstances wouldn’t permit this for long. Furthermore, if Gendry managed to work out that Arya was a girl, then doing it with Sansa should be child’s play. A fourth possibility is that Sansa’s wolf blood would emerge when stuck in a situation with people she’s allowed to hit without it being treason, and would eventually be pushed far enough to jump on someone and cause them grievous bodily harm. This would result in a beating from Yoren, but would also ensure that Lommy and Hot Pie leave her alone for the rest of her life. Whatever happens, constant tears, constant bullying and the horrifying memory of her father’s death would work havoc with Sansa’s untested fragility and she’d learn to take refuge in her mind very quickly, something that we know she’s prodigious at.


Assuming that she somehow survives the Night’s Watch’s skirmish with Ser Amory Loch and company, which would be almost impossible for her without help from Yoren or Gendry, the subsequent capture of the survivors would inevitably lead to her being exposed as a girl. Once this is revealed, it would take a miracle amount of mud on her face and in her hair to prevent her from being raped on multiple occasions, which would make her more emotionally-dead than murder and torture made Arya, because both her body and her soul will have been violated. The result, taking into account that the foundations of Sansa’s mental strength are sturdier than those of Casterly Rock, would be the emotional repression of her experiences and the creation of a dangerously numb individual who could explode at any second, exactly how dangerous her numbness is being contingent on whether or not she is sexually assaulted.


Tom Wlaschiha as Jaqen H'ghar.

Tom Wlaschiha as Jaqen H’ghar.

I subscribe to the ‘Jaqen is Syrio/the Faceless Men are watching Arya’ theory, so the chance of Sansa even meeting Jaqen is pretty slim. If we look at the situation outside this theory, however, it’s not difficult to imagine Sansa being induced into a conversation with him. Sure, she won’t detect the whiff of blood and death on him that attracts Arya, but Sansa is invariably good at detecting a handsome face. But would the acquaintance proceed beyond there? This depends on whether or not she decides to save Jaqen, Rorge and Biter, thereby instigating the three kills situation. So would she save them, were she in a position to do so? Personally, I think the answer is a bit of a no-brainer: Sansa has a good heart, and wouldn’t let anyone burn alive if she could do something to stop it.

But if Sansa has such a good heart, would she agree to return three lives to the Red God in exchange for those she stole? This depends on an awful lot of speculation based on more speculation done in the preceding paragraphs, but let’s give it a go. Sansa doesn’t have Arya’s eye-for-an-eye mentality, but if she’d been raped on the road, she simply wouldn’t be in a position to approach her experience with the awe-inspiring disinclination to murder or castrate her rapists that one sometimes sees in modern-day victims of rape. She will have experienced the horror and the sheer evil of what has been done to her with no chance of help, comfort or justice. If we think about how Joffrey narrowly escapes being pushed into the dry moat in A Game of Thrones, we can see that Sansa is all about taking revenge, and bloody revenge, if the motivation is strong enough. Jaqen can give her that revenge. If, on the other hand, she decides to use her kills to fry bigger fish, or if, by some miracle, she has escaped being raped, then that very same incident at the dry moat leaves us in no doubt that she’d be more than willing to wait as long as it takes and send Jaqen off to King’s Landing to murder Joffrey, Cersei, and probably Ilyn Payne as well.


Artwork by peteandco on fanpop.

Artwork by peteandco on fanpop.

It isn’t a stretch to imagine that Sansa’s attitude to being a servant at Harrenhal would be much the same as Arya’s: scrubbing floors till your hands bleed and getting the occasional clout around the head is better than being brutalised, but not so much better that escaping is not to be considered. We could also argue that the Sansa of the show would probably go red and pass out instead of protesting Gendry’s fighting technique while surreptitiously eyeing his abs, but let’s be serious now. First things first: would it occur to Sansa to use her three kills to blackmail Jaqen into helping her get the Northmen out of Harrenhal? Sansa isn’t the kind of person to actively chase down trouble, as Arya is. Furthermore, this particular incident positively sings of the natural creativity and ruthless cunning that are an integral part of Arya’s character, so no. Let us not imagine Sansa as a purveyor of Weasel Soup. But what about escaping? Arya’s escape with Gendry and Hot Pie in A Clash of Kings is an entirely spur-of-the-moment decision, arrived at when Arya, sparring with herself in the godswood, hears the sounds of wolves howling outside the castle walls and becomes convinced that they are calling to her. All the Stark children share this affinity with wolves, but Sansa is the least wargish among them because her direwolf is killed, thus cutting off the most basic mental link with wolves, and eventually with other creatures, that Arya and Bran both learn to exploit. Lady’s being a shade, however, doesn’t remove the primal connection with wolves that exists in Sansa, and it’s rather nice to think of both Stark girls being pushed towards freedom by that same affinity with the North that runs deep in both of them. Should we choose to be cynical, however, precisely the same type of escape (trick a groom, steal some swords and food, kill a guard) is possible on any night of the week, howling or not, and can be accomplished by any group of people with one individual of moderate intelligence among them. The murdered guard does pose a slight problem, as A Clash of Kings puts the knife that kills him in Arya’s hands. Would Sansa do it, though? Here’s the answer: Sansa would do it if she was desperate enough, Gendry’s Baratheon blood would probably make him cave the poor man’s head in with his hammer at the first sign of trouble, and Hot Pie, well…no. Hot Pie couldn’t kill anyone.

Here ends the craziness and the insanity. Valar Morghulis, all.

Featured image is by peteandco on fanpop.

What Arya would have done in Sansa’s place: being the ramblings of a young lady who adores both Stark girls and is rather sick of the above notion being used to favour one at the expense of the other.

Let us imagine for a moment that Arya hadn’t been so fortunate as to be picked up by Yoren at Ned Stark’s execution (well, how fortunate this event actually was is debatable). What if she’d been taken by the Hound instead, or denounced by someone in the crowd, or even recognised by Joffrey, who is unlikely to forget her face as long as he lives? She’d end up back in the Red Keep (she’d kick, scream and inflict multiple injuries, but she’d still be powerless and in a state of shock) and very likely be locked up on the other side of the castle from Sansa and kept apart from her, if we know Cersei at all. Once the door is bolted behind her, she would be in exactly the same situation as Sansa. True, she wouldn’t be engaged to marry dear King Joff, but as a Stark, she’d still be wide open to his ‘punishments’ every time Robb wins a battle; these would probably go worse for her since her awkwardly androgynous looks wouldn’t make Joffrey tell his Kingsguard to leave her face alone; and she’d eventually be condemned to marry Ramsay Bolton; and we all know what he did to poor Jeyne Poole.

‘If Arya were in Sansa’s situation, she’d handle it so much better,’ are frequent criticisms of Sansa that I’m just plain tired of, so the point of this post is to imagine what would happen if Arya were in Sansa’s situation and see what pops out at the other end. Of course, there will be things I don’t think of. There will be plotholes. But we may find that the two sisters aren’t really so different after all if you put them in the same boat.


Period immediately after Ned’s death

Catelyn observes to herself at one point that if Arya is still in King’s Landing, Cersei is very likely keeping her far away from the public eye; Arya not being the type to sit down and behave. This fact would also leave Arya wide open to deliberate, obvious attempts to get her to sit down and behave by breaking her; the first and most obvious being to lock her up. Arya is a deep brooder, and it takes a lot to make her cry. So brooding is probably what she would do locked up in whatever room she’s been put into. Escape would be her first thought, which she’d probably attempt almost immediately with something brave but hopeless, like trying to shove the guard over when he delivers her food. If you think of how little mind the Kingsguard pay to Sansa’s nobility when beating her, it isn’t hard to imagine that Arya would probably get a backhand for her trouble from an ordinary soldier. She might refuse to eat after that, but then it would occur to her that eating would keep her alive to take revenge, à la Jaime Lannister. Thoughts of revenge would then lead to the first draft of the List. She’d inevitably be dragged off to see Cersei for a pep talk and an ultimatum to behave or be chastised. The latter would most likely result in Arya spitting in Cersei’s face and attempting to smash her head in with the nearest heavy object. She’d be whipped at that point without being given the option of a whipping girl (which she’d turn down anyway). Cersei wouldn’t dare allow her to attend court, so she might be spared Sansa’s ordeal of being forced to look at Ned’s head on a spike: either that, or Joffrey would give himself the sadistic pleasure of reliving the torture a second time, with another Stark daughter. If the latter, Arya would very likely manage to break Joffrey’s nose before it could occur to the Kingsguard that she might attempt such a thing. They’d grab her soon enough, however, and she’d end up whipped again, and back in her room. Then she’d cry.

Artwork by revived-from-the-ashes on tumblr

Artwork by revived-from-the-ashes on tumblr

Once the initial shock has worn off

I’m guessing Arya isn’t just going to change her mind and cooperate, so the only times she would see the light of day are very likely when the…let’s say monthly ritual of trying to get her to behave inevitably results in a beating, or Joffrey takes it into his head that someone needs to be punished for Robb’s victories. Something tells me he wouldn’t be averse to having both Stark girls stripped and beaten in front of him. The Kingsguard would learn quickly that Arya fights back instead of pleading; so whereas Sansa usually cries but takes her beatings like a good girl, Arya would have to be restrained (we know her well enough to perceive that she’d try anything from grabbing a poorly-placed dagger to simply running off, half naked or not). This means that her entire life would effectively alternate between long periods of isolation and vicious beatings. The problem here is when this way of living would eventually break her, the definition of ‘break’ being key here. Think of the horrors that Arya experiences, the torturing she witnesses and the killing that she sees, hears and does in the books. Do these things ‘break’ her? Think about the stereotypical image of a ‘broken’ person: ‘running on autopilot’, emotionally numb, not caring if they live or die. Yes, Arya definitely has a powerful survival instinct and does indeed care whether or not she lives or dies: she has a List of kills to do. But what about her emotions? Arya’s primary feelings when considering herself and her life are shame, fear and anger, which lead to a sort of lack of consciousness that she is human at all, and that dreadful pronouncement that she has a hole where her heart used to be. There’s a precarious, artificial calmness on the surface and in her mind that can be shattered at any moment, the ever-present fire inside losing none of its intensity. But because she fears being kicked out by the Faceless Men (and because she genuinely wants to join them), she’s no longer free to do anything she wants. She can’t be herself anymore, both literally and figuratively. So she’ll present an outward mirage of calm: inside, she’s terrified, alive, with no idea what to do about it and no idea how to find out except to keep on living, and learn. Sounds a lot like Sansa, doesn’t it?

Back in our imaginary universe, alternating between confinement and beatings may very well be a longer process than murder and torture in the books, but they would eventually have the same ultimate effect in turning her into an automaton that’s also a ticking bomb. At some point, Arya would realise that she stands a better chance of escaping and surviving by keeping her mouth shut, cooperating and observing. When this would actually occur is anyone’s guess, though after the Red Wedding seems most likely, for obvious reasons. And when Arya would eventually come to this decision, she would have to do what Sansa does every single day: smile, be polite to every Lannister she sees, participate in court life, pretend she’s a guest instead of a hostage and pray that she doesn’t get killed. A life of walking on broken shards of glass that would be a serious challenge to her already-tried nerves (remember she won’t have had the emotionally-hardening experiences of A Clash of Kings onwards and will also be suffering from cabin fever) and very likely turn her into a quivering wreck with an inexplicably strong survival instinct. In other words, it’d turn her into another version of Sansa.


Another thing Arya would certainly have done in Sansa’s place is attempt to escape. Since we should give her the credit of being able to hold out for at least a few months, if not longer, we should consider the possibility of Littlefinger’s scheme to spirit Sansa away after Joffrey’s wedding either including or excluding her. Both are possible. Littlefinger might only be interested in the eldest Stark girl for obvious reasons and therefore not pay much heed to leaving the youngest behind. But then he’d also have a considerable hand of cards in his pocket if he had both Stark girls under his control, so he might very well take them both (and hopefully put someone apart from Ser Dontos in charge). His decision to take Arya along would no doubt be motivated by how much he would stand to lose from her marriage to Ramsay Bolton. We’re never told if he knows about this, or if the idea had even been conceived of when he first started making his plans…nah. Even if he did know about the Bolton marriage, the temptations of the intrigues he could hatch with control of both Stark daughters would be too great to resist. So Arya goes along. Then what? While it’s impossible to answer this question without getting dangerously close to inventing instead of speculating, the point is still the same: we have both Stark sisters traumatised and emotionally-repressed, pawns in a game they don’t understand, both ‘handling’ their situation in the same way. Tiptoeing, swallowing fear and escaping.

So while our imagining of Arya’s journey to living as a ward of the Crown that executed her father may express greater stubbornness and courage than Sansa’s acceptance of her situation, it wouldn’t really qualify as ‘handling it better.’ ‘Handling it better’ seems to denote a greater strength of mind or a greater control of emotion, neither of which Arya possesses in greater quantity than Sansa, who has endured all the agony of her situation without snapping or going mad. Our imagining of what Arya would do in the Red Keep following Ned’s death is the long way round to the same result; a noble but pointless reaction that few characters but Brienne would applaud.

Featured image is by vici-mercedes on fanpop

The Belgariad and the Malloreon: The Dream Cast

Last month her Ladyship attempted to cast The Moonstone; this month she’ll be following a tribute to David and Leigh Eddings with some imagine-casting of The Belgariad and The Malloreon. Though it was the wish of David and Leigh that their work never be adapted, many fans find it hard to resist fooling around like this at least once. Her Ladyship sets herself the additional challenge of having only one sentence in which to defend each proposed cast member.


Thomas Brodie-Sangster.


If the producers want to avoid jolting the audience around with multiple actors playing Garion at the different stages of his life, Brodie-Sangster is the actor they should pick: he’s capable of being sweepingly charismatic, adorable and everything in between, which should be of considerable help both with portraying Garion’s destiny and his eminently practical personality.

Asa Butterfield.


He’s been taking on simultaneously complex and movingly simplistic roles since he was nine, from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to Hugo, making this already-eminent soon-to-be former child actor a formidable potential Garion.


Gary Oldman.


Yes, he really is that old now: Oldman’s done a lifetime of powerful flamboyance and weirdness mixed up with career-defining and moving performances in Immortal Beloved and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which, together with his expressive face and quietly dominant presence, would have no trouble in showing us how Belgarath effortlessly commands simply by slumping down a flight of stairs.

Rupert Graves.


Having played every mood from hyperactive in A Room with a View to paranoid schizophrenic in Law and Order: UK, the naturally charismatic Graves would easily capture Belgarath’s wit, cheek and sarcasm as well as his power, wisdom and grief.


Eva Green.


Apart from being almost supernaturally beautiful, her allure and acting style are both very mature and very youthful, two contradictions that embody Polgara’s condition as an immortal.

Emilia Fox.


A brilliant and endearingly lovely actress, her work on Silent Witness was highly psychological (indispensable when playing an immortal character) and she has experience playing a mother figure thanks to her work on Merlin.

Lara Pulver.


One of the most effortlessly photogenic and inexplicably alluring actresses out there, she’s brilliantly played a dominatrix concealing sentimental tendencies in Sherlock and a single mother juggling parenthood with MI5 in Spooks; both of these representing aspects of Polgara’s personality.


Kevin McKidd.


While he perfectly embodies Durnik’s ‘look’ as an unexceptional, ordinary person, McKidd is also blessed with great acting skills, subtlety and a vivid mastery of facial expression that could only succeed in bringing to life Durnik’s journey.


John Rhys Davies.


Through his work on The Lord of the Rings and the Indiana Jones movies, we know that he can play tough and battle-hardened extremely well, together with the surprising gentleness and sentimentality that crops up in Barak’s character – suits Barak’s look, but might be too old.


Emun Elliott.


A relatively unknown actor gifted with charisma that makes the corners of your mouth turn up, his work on The Paradise and his brief appearance on Game of Thrones have shown us that he can do flamboyant sarcasm as well as profound grief: too good-looking for the part, but that can easily be rectified.


Rupert Friend.


His work on Chéri has proved that he’s capable of doing cruel, his work on The Young Victoria that he can also act the lover: these would both be indispensable in Hettar’s bloodlust for Murgos and relationship (or whatever it was before they got married) with Adara.


Georgie Henley.


The Narnia films and her striking cameo in Jane Eyre have proved to us that this is a dazzling, expressive actress who acts straight from the soul; the fact that we haven’t seen her since either of these productions may have blinded us to the fact that she is now a gorgeous young woman who could play Ce’Nedra in her sleep.

Lucy Boynton.


Her delightful and funny performance as feisty tomboy Margaret Dashwood in 2008’s Sense and Sensibility, together with her elven features, suggest that she’d be able to portray both Ce’Nedra’s charm and her many annoyances.


Toby Jones.

010CRE-Toby-Jones-001In addition to having the right look and the approximate right height, Creation and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reveal Jones’ skills at playing intensely angry and crotchety, Titanic (2012) his ability to be heartbreakingly human: perfect!


Rupert Penry-Jones.


Despite being a great actor, Penry-Jones has a kind of natural gravity about him no matter which role he plays: the former would lend weight to Mandorallen’s exasperating chivalric philosophy, the latter would be useful when the greater subtleties of the character begin to be exposed.


Lee Williams.


Something tells me Williams would do well as an enthusiastic young idiot, and the moving expressiveness of his performance in The Forsyte Saga means that he could easily cream the awful moment when Lelldorin loses his cousin Torasin in battle.


Adrien Brody.


An actor of astounding versatility, it’s mainly Brody’s role in The Brother’s Bloom that made me imagine him as Relg: sullen, melancholy and with huge eyes, you can easily imagine him crapping on about sin and portraying Relg’s (slow) psychological transformation once he meets Taiba.


Timothy Spall.


Spall has spent a lifetime playing slightly odd, eccentric characters that are also human beings: this makes him perfect for Sadi’s transformation from perpetually-high and powdered eunuch to clear-minded joker and master poisoner.


Nathaniel Parker.


We’ve seen from Merlin that Parker, who suits the physical description of Zakath almost perfectly, is more than capable of playing ruthless, bloody and frightening; we’ve also seen from Stardust that he’s equally good at playing soft-hearted and vulnerable, and packing a big emotional punch in a short space of time.


Adelaide Clemens.


A brilliant young actress starting to come into her own after Parade’s End, Clemens is excellent at being sweet and innocent, but also at taking no shit, something that comes in handy for Cyradis on many occasions, however polite she may be.


Karen Gillan.


In Doctor Who, Gillan is endlessly entertaining at being charming, cheeky and sexy, which should provide hours of fun in her many exchanges with Silk and her fewer, though equally naughty ones with Zakath.


Fanny Ardant.

Fanny Ardant_Callas Forever
While not as young-looking as the Salmissra of the books, Madame Ardant is brilliant at playing the sultry temptress: I also think Garion being tempted by a sexy older woman would be very refreshing.

A Tribute to David and Leigh Eddings


‘On a quiet hillside some distance from the struggle taking place on the north bank, the simpleminded serf boy from the Arendish forest was playing his flute. His melody was mournful, but even in its sadness, it soared to the sky. The boy did not understand the fighting and he had wandered away unnoticed. Now he sat alone on the grassy hillside in the warm, midmorning sunlight with his entire soul pouring out of his flute.

The Malloreon soldier who was creeping up behind him with drawn sword had no ear for music. He did not know – or care – that the song the boy played was the most beautiful song any man had ever heard.

The song ended very suddenly, never to begin again.’

                                                                                                           – David and Leigh Eddings, Enchanter’s Endgame.

It is now almost four years and six years respectively since the deaths of David and Leigh Eddings, the formidably imaginative, articulate and talented husband and wife team (though they preferred the term ‘co-conspirators’) that brought us such great fantasy epics as The Belgariad; The Malloreon; their two prequels; The Tamuli, The Elenium and The Redemption of Althalus. Through a discussion of The Belgariad and The Malloreon, the two works with which she is the most familiar, Her Ladyship pays tribute to the Eddingses’ inestimable contribution to the world of fantasy literature and mourns the gaping hole they have left behind.

Reading The Belgariad and its sequel The Malloreon is an unforgettable imaginative experience; the descriptive style of the writing appealing so vividly to the senses that when crossing the perfectly flat, never-ending grass plains of Algaria, you feel the wind as it hits your face from the force of travelling across all that open space. In the Vale of Aldur, you listen to the silence broken only by the sound of trees, and feel peace wash over your entire being as you comprehend Aldur’s presence in this place. In Riva, you smell rock, the sea and salt; in Cthol Murgos you feel your retinas popping out at the garishness and just plain ugliness of the architecture, and in the swamps of Nyissa, you curse at the humidity and swat at the insects before realising that the whole world is beautiful: ‘you just need to know how to look at it.’

David and Leigh Eddings were the best world builders since Tolkien, and no contemporary fantasy writer has equaled them yet. While their world is every bit as complex as those of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin, for example, there is none of the exhausting and often exasperating voluminousness of these last two: the Eddingses are capable of expressing what they wish to express in a quarter of the page space that Jordan or GRRM would take, and on top of this, they do it better. National traits, tendencies, industries, likes and dislikes are so well integrated into the story through plot and especially through character that even the most casual Eddings fan will be able to tell you, when asked, that Alorns would chop an enemy in half without blinking an eye but would never dream of poisoning him; that Arends are not to be trusted with anything and I mean anything that would require even a sparkle of brainpower; that one should never ask a Tolnedran for a favour unless you’re willing to pay (a lot); and that trying to keep a secret in Drasnia is completely and utterly impossible. You’re very likely being spied on by spies who are being spied on by other spies. The Eddingses spread this gorgeous complexity across northern and southern hemispheres and an entire world map; each separate kingdom, culture and people completely unique. Who could forget the marble majesty of Mal Zeth, spreading as it does across an entire valley, or the opulent, artificial beauty of Melcena, where even the mountains are manicured? Think of the gorgeous, impossibly huge natural mountain loveliness of Kell, the mournful ruins of Vo Wacune and the towering castle walls of Vo Mimbre. Think of the immense subterranean labyrinth of caves where the Ulgos sing a constant hymn to their God UL, their song reverberating off the walls forever, travelling from one network of caves to the other. These are the Kingdoms of the Alorns and the Angaraks, and their intricacies and subtleties are infinite.


It takes impressive characterisation to accomplish such a melting pot of cultures in such a short space of time (well – if you can call twelve books a short space of time), and the Eddingses’ characters are unique in that almost all of them are traditional fantasy types that have been transformed into thinking, feeling, three-dimensional human beings.

Belgarath, the saga’s mighty wizard, is a case in point. Though portrayed in much Eddings cover art to be a cardboard cutout of Gandalf, right down to the white robe, he’s actually a superbly original departure from stereotype. At approximately 7000 years old, he’s past caring about a lot of things. This is exemplified by his continual sporting of an ancient tunic spotted with last century’s grease, which he ties with a bit of rope, and, having been unable to find a single pair of shoes that is adequate to his needs, mismatched boots. He is also partial to large quantities of ale at all hours of the day and night, and to ladies seeking to provide recreation in exchange for money. He’s crotchety, cheeky to kings and peasants alike, and a ruthless, sometimes cruel enemy. On the surface, he’s comical, rude and extremely useful in a tight spot. Only those close to him know of the suicidal depression he suffered after the death of his beloved wife Poledra and how it caused him to initially neglect his twin daughters Polgara and Beldaran, causing him suffering and guilt that persist to this day and that he hopelessly attempts to ignore. The great wizard is thus a human being who suffers like other human beings and loves like them too: he doesn’t waste time hanging around attempting to look wise.

Another feature of the fantasy epic is the light-footed master of humour and sarcasm. Function: comic relief, thievery and fighting. When inserted into one end of the Eddings imaginative machine, this stereotype is spit out at the other end as Silk, whose name should appear on every ‘greatest fantasy character ever’ poll in existence. A Drasnian prince who discovered an early affinity with his kingdom’s national industry (spying), as well as the emptiness of titles and honours, Silk is arguably the greatest spy alive. Capable of changing identity as well as his facial features and voice at a moment’s notice, he can talk himself in and out of any situation and place, cannot be held by any prison for a great length of time (well, there was that one time when we started to get worried); is a master observer (and consequently a great cheat at dice), a deadly fighter, a financial genius (from street level to corporate level) and can blend into any crowd or group of people like a ghost. He also enjoys irritating his friends to distraction (and his enemies to worse) with his biting wit and relentless sarcasm, and has become so confused by the vast number of identities he’s assumed over the years that he often doubts who he actually is. All of this is fairly standard fantasy, and indeed fairly standard fiction, stuff. But like Belgarath, a significant portion of his life has been dominated and marked by tragedies and disasters. Not only is he under the obligation to lie constantly to his mother about the extent of the horrific disfigurement and blindness she suffered during a plague, he also (in The Belgariad) has the misfortune to fall deeply in love with his uncle the King’s young wife Porenn, a fact that is so awfully obvious in his consistently sarcastic behavior towards her that none of his friends can bear to mention it. The scene in which Silk, dead drunk and alone following one of his dreaded visits to his mother, cries like a child in Porenn’s arms, is possibly one of the saddest things ever written. So while Silk may have grown out of a fantasy type, his character is far from stereotypical.

Ce'Nedra artwork by moonstruckmusings on tumblr

Ce’Nedra artwork by moonstruckmusings on tumblr

The sagas’ female characters are also portrayed with great subtlety and allure, the Eddingses poking continual fun at the subservient position they occupy in Alorn and Angarak society by providing us with a stream of powerful women that make some of their male ‘superiors’ (notably the otherwise enlightened King Anheg of Cherek) froth at the mouth at the use of ‘powerful’ and ‘woman’ in the same sentence. There is, of course, the eternally resilient and beloved Aunt Pol, whose renown and power transcends her gender; there’s Porenn, the Queen Mother and Regent of Drasnia, a political genius and of appropriate shrewdness for the ruler of a nation of spies; there’s Cyradis, the fragile young Seeress whose choice will determine the fate of the universe; and of course, Liselle, who possesses equal skills in combat and espionage to Silk and rather charmingly specialises in strangulation. One notices that Liselle is the only one of these formidable ladies who knows her way around a sword, and though others like her exist (like Garion’s cousin Adara), the vast majority of Eddings women find a way to transcend gender roles that do not involve sword play, and stay ordinary women for most of the time. Aunt Pol has lived large sections of her life in a state of permanent domesticity as she guards the bloodline of the Rivan king in obscurity, something that she has come to cherish just as much as the ideals that motivate her in the fight against Torak. Lady Tamazin, one of the wives of the psychopathic Murgo King Taur Urgas, overcame her terror of her husband for one night to be with a person she felt a profound connection with: Silk’s father. And let’s not forget about Ce’Nedra, who liked to scream, cry, go shopping and count money, activities which she briefly suspended to raise an army, wear armour and win a war without fighting in it, before going back to screaming, crying, shopping and counting money. Notwithstanding this rather original approach to feminism in fantasy, which advocates the importance of ordinary people during extraordinary times, Eddings women are also portrayed with astonishing realism and insight as to how women really think and feel, a quality that is considerably lacking in conventional fiction, both at the time The Belgariad and The Malloreon were written, and today. Wikipedia assures us that we have Leigh Eddings to thank for this aspect of the sagas’ narrative strength, which makes me only too happy that her considerable contribution to David Eddings’ work is now being recognised by printing both their names on new editions of their work (though getting photographs of her online is apparently impossible).

The Belgariad, The Malloreon and their two prequels Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress are magnificent and awe-inspiring testaments to the heights to which imagination can soar, to the detail it can acquire and to the way in which great writing can bring a reader into that vision, so that they don’t just see it: they touch it and feel it as well. The many kingdoms of the fantasy genre are somehow smaller without David and Leigh, veering like some huge pendulum between the mythological and the modern. The Eddingses’ works are unique in that they strike a perfect balance between the two. They’re consequently epic beyond description, moving, eccentric, despondent and very, very striking, as much a cinematic experience as a literary one.