The hero exists because

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“The hero exists because a crisis exists, a situation in which someone or something throws into question certain basic laws that have to do with the way the world functions.
If that crisis is averted – and this is common in all mass-cultural works – it is because from the very start it has been set up as a contradiction to which a way out can be found.” (p.91)

Ref: Ariel Dorfman (c1983) The Empire’s new Clothes; what the lone ranger, Babar and other innocent heroes do to our minds. Pantheon Books: New York

heroic friendship – Buffy and Harry

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“Buffy and Harry, unique in their powers and ordinary in their insecurities, have one major strength in common: their friends.” (p.75)

Comparing Harry Potter and Buffy, Rhonda Wilcox points out the importance of friendship in both these tales. She makes a valid point!

Firstly, her comparison: “A young person who has suffered parental loss moves to a new location and enters a new school, at the same time plunging into a world of magic and danger. This young person is forced to accept a role as a uniquely powerful challenger of dark forces, but is aided by an older advisor and both a male and a female friend. Humiliated by the everyday world, the young hero nonetheless grows stronger year by year fighting the dark forces in the hidden world of magic.” (p.66) Yup.

She argues: “Harry and Buffy are both heroes for whom friendship is crucial: Buffy survives in part because of her “Scooby Gang” of friends, and Harry depends on schoolmates Ron and Hermione. Perhaps this is the most important commonality for a hero of our technologically connected but socially strained time.” (p.67)

Furthermore, “the dissension within the Order of the Phoenix, like the seventh-season dissension among the Slayers and Potential Slayers, shows that such cooperation is not simple; it requires labor and self-knowledge, only gradually gained as these long stories progress.
Both of these long stories work with and move beyond traditional forms. Propp’s structures include a category for helpers, but as he defines them, they are often animals or objects. The goal in the structures he describes is marriage. But in the Harry and Buffy stories, friendship is not merely a means to an end (as the helper categorization would suggest); it is an end in itself. Every Harry Potter book thus far has ended with the rejoining of the friends and their subsequent separation for the summer holidays, with Harry’s longing to return to school and friendship. And while Buffy and Angel (and later Buffy and Spike) provide plenty of romantic steam, the series does not end with her matched to either. An examination of the structure of the episodes would show that those with happy endings [-p.76] are most often those which conclude with a group of friends.” (pp.75-76)

“Buffy, despite the voiceover which intones that she is the only one, actually repudiates patriarchal succession and the role of the lonely hero in favor of communal effort. The same can be said of Harry Potter. Put simply, these new heroes value and count on friendship as part of their heroism.” (p.76)

Ref: (emphases in blue mine) Rhonda Wilcox (2005) Why Buffy Matters: the art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. London IB Tauris.

When the hero hauls his ass into oblivion

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I just liked this comment (on dealing with ex-boyfriends in the post break-up phase) in the final Sookie Stackhouse novel:

“I’d never imagined feeling this way, but I couldn’t handle this emotional jerking around. I’d start to feel okay, then I’d get poked in the sore spot, like taking a scab off my knee when I was a kid. In books, the hero was gone after the big blowup. He didn’t stick around in the vicinity doing mysterious shit, sending messages to the heroine by a third party. He hauled his ass into oblivion. And that was the way things should be, as far as I was concerned. Life should imitate romance literature far more often.

If the world operated according to romance principles….”

Ref: near the end of chapter 15 Charlaine Harris Dead Ever After

Boredom in spy novels

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Writing about the heroes of spy stories, Cawelti and Rosenberg once declared:

Whatever stirs the hero from his lethargy at the beginning of the adventure, commitment to a cause, patriotism, or simply ‘the right,’ impels him once the action is underway.” (p.104)

I find it quite a provocative statement – and I wonder how it applies to other spy fictions.

Slightly further on, they add: “Ambler’s Kenton plays a more modest role [than Hannay in Buchan;s The Thirty-Nine Steps], seldom being more than an interested bystander while the Zaleshoffs and their agents recapture their crucial documents: Kenton’s role remains minor, though he gradually becomes deeply committed in the spook war around him. It is a scenario which tells us that though we readers are not professionals, such adventures are possible in the most routine of lives, and it enables us to see what events motivate men, from ennui to engagement. It is the pattern Ian Fleming will use again and again to show us how his jaded superagent psyches himself up for yet another mission. It is the condition of Childer’s Caruthers, suffering through “the dismal but dignified routine of office, club, and chambers’ (The Riddle of the Sands, p.16), who will shortly risk his life to discover the riddle of the sands. By these means does an author signal the reader that the forthcoming adventure will be compelling. This movement, from boredom to involvement, is so prevalent and so natural a thrust for this genre, that we need not worry about direct attribution; it is simply one of the best ways to tell and adventure story. It prepares the reader for the exciting adventure to come, signaling that the author is about to exit the everyday-life world into the dark and dangerous universe of spy wars.” (p.104)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Ambler and Greene

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According to Cawelti and Rosenberg, “Eric Ambler and Graham Greene transformed the spy novel irretrievably. In tone, in characterization, in theme as well as in the episodes and plots used to express all of these features, the genre changed from the naive to the sinister, from a story of adventure to one of treachery and betrayal. These important novelists, whose writing careers span World War II, were themselves altered by that cataclysm, but also helped bring about those changes that now characterize the genre. Ambler’s early novels, those written before England’s active entry into World War II, are modeled on the plots and for the most part  the characters of his predecessors.” (p.101)

Writing of Ambler’s politics – and particularly the novels, Passage of Arms (1960); Doctor Frigo (1974); The Levanter (1972); State of Siege (1956); Dirty Story (1967); The Light of Day [aka Topkapi] (1963) – Cawelti and Rosenberg observe: “The partisan politics of the real world are absent from all of these novels; Ambler has always placed his character in the borderlands of danger, the natural habitat of the spy and international intrigue. In these marginal areas the law is weak and order is shaky. Everything is in flux, and nearly everything is possible. This vision of liminal regions owes its debt, ultimately, to Cooper’s The Spy. Before World War II the Balkans was the area of greatest intrigue, the Mediterranean in general a close second. After the war, the non-man’s-land fraught with danger and the lawlessness that inspired intrigue and duplicity had shifted: for Ambler, as for so many other spy novelists, it was the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.” (p.110)

Ambler’s postwar phase makes few concessions to the directions taken by other spy story writers. He lacks le Carré’s deep questioning of clandestine agencies per se, Len Deighton’s [-p.124] glibness and fast-moving action, Trevanian’s sadistic cruelty, and Fleming’s and Hall’s fascination with technology. Ambler and Greene brought the spy novel a long way toward respectability. Ambler has disciplined himself in telling an engaging story of intrigue and suspense. …Greene has from the first seen the deeper implications raised by the existence of spies and their trade in an open society. He has explored the role of clandestinity in our world and has, perhaps deepest of all, scrutinized the values of loyalty and patriotism, obligation and commitment. More than any spy novelist (in his case especially, a writer who has written spy novels), Greene has returned the spy novel to the mainstream of contemporary fiction. It began as a story of adventure, moved to become a genre in its own right, and by the excellence of some of its most accomplished practitioners is moving back into the main currents of what is simply good fiction.” (pp.123-124)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Buchan

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Cawelti and Rosenberg write:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the secret agent adventure had begun to assume a definite shape in the work of writers like Kipling, Stevenson, and Conrad. A number of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories came close to being accounts of counterespionage activity, and on the eve of World War I, in ‘His Last Bow,’ Holmes came out of retirement in order to foil the plots of a German agent. But it was the generation which came of age in the early twentieth century that made the spy story a major literary archetype by producing masses of formulaic spy adventures (e.g., Rohmer’s Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, LeQueux’s Secret Service, Wallace’s Four Just men) as well as a number of more complex fictions involving espionage as a theme (e.g., Childer’s Riddle of the Sands, Kipling’s Kim, and Conrad’s Secret Agent). The Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan span the distance between the popular spy adventure and the novel of espionage. Like the popular stories, Buchan’s tales are deeply romantic; his hero is a gentleman amateur, definitely one of that breed later labeled “clubland [-p.80] heroes.” His enemies are supervillains who represent the threat of non-British races and cultures to the English hegemony. Their complex criminal organizations, like the international criminal syndicate of Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, threaten the very heart of the homeland. With the help of a few other gentleman friends, however Buchan’s dauntless hero is invariably able to uncover and defeat the supervillain’s plots, saving the empire for the time being. Though his hero antagonists sometimes lapse into the manichean simplicities of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchy and Sir Dennis Nayland Smyth, Buchan’s moral earnestness, his sense of humor, and his concern for literary values make his Hannay stories the very model of the early twentieth-century spy story.” (pp.79-80)

Buchan, more than any other writer, assembled the formula for the modern secret agent story.” (p.80)

If Richard Hannay were only a typical clubland hero defending British social tradition with the help of higher powers, Buchan’s work would doubtless have faded into the oblivion that has swallowed up most of his contemporaries and followers like Dornford Yates and Sapper. However, Buchan also responded in his fantasies to a more contemporary sense of ambivalence about the social and religious tradition. While he worked to resolve this ambivalence through characters like Sandy Arbuthnot, who remains a cool British aristocrat despite his total involvement in Eastern ways of life, the fascination with the new forces unleashed in the world remains an important undercurrent of Buchan’s fantasy. Though his works of adventure are optimistic on the surface and he imagines a revitalized Christian social tradition able to overcome the threats of the twentieth century, his stories also reflect on a deeper level a sense of the critical failure of modern civilization and a yearning for a more glorious, simpler, and more mystical way of life. On this level, he still speaks to some of the major currents in the fantasy life of men in the twentieth century. The modern spy story, even in the cynical and despairing [-p.100] intrigues of John le Carré and Len Deighton, has come to express this kind of feeling still more strongly. Thus Buchan was instrumental in giving both a model of form and an inner spirit to the story of espionage, giving it through his vision of the world a capacity to express in terms of contemporary international politics and intrigue the yearning for a lost world of fullness and heroism.” (pp.99-100)

Buchan’s heroes were very much in control of their destinies, so it seemed, for despite the danger that continually threatened him, Hannay always extricated himself with relative [-p.114] ease: with a cunning disguise, the lucky discovery of an explosive carelessly stored in the barn in which he was imprisoned, that glib and oily art which enabled him to pass himself off as a political orator with almost no preparation. And his supreme confidence in himself is shared by those around him, even staff officers of the admiralty, who incredibly permit Hannay to take command of the operation to crush the Black Stone. Ambler’s and Greene’s early heroes are rather ordinary, far less than heroic amateurs, undistinguished people caught up in intrigues in which they need professional help either from the police or from friendly agents. And they are more believable for that.” (pp.113-114)

Those characters who seem most real to us, who seem to have lives quite independent of their fictional plots, have been invested with complexities and ambiguities that lift them out of the formulaic plots where we found them. Thus does the writer of formula fiction charge his characters with life.” (p.114)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

Spy stories: a background of conflict

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The setting of the secret agent adventure is quite different from the detective story or the Western. Whether the action all takes place in one country or the agent is sent on a secret mission from one country to another, the background is a conflict of international political interests. The spy story pretends to take us behind the scenes of world events as they are seen in newspapers or history books. It shows us secret conspiracies which apparently determine the fate of nations. A paranoiac aura typically tints the tale. Hidden secrets are everywhere. The innocent-looking office building is actually the headquarters of a secret society plotting to bring on another war; the respectable, seemingly harmless professor is really an enemy agent; the quaint teashop harbors a secret radio which gives instructions to a network of spies; the letter inviting Smith for a weekend in the country is a code message to assassinate the prime minister. Nothing is what it seems and everything is potentially dangerous. Only the agent knows something of the truth.” (p.55)

In addition to its background of international conspiracy, the secret agent formula usually centers around a particular military or technological secret. Alfred Hitchcock liked to refer to this element as the ‘MacGuffin.’

It’s the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after. I’ll tell you about it. Most of Kipling’s stories, as you know, were set in India and they dealt with the fighting between the natives and the British forces on the Afghanistan border. many of them were spy stories, and they were concerned with the efforts to steal the secret plans out of a fortress. The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only  thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or the secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. (Truffaut, Hitchcock, p.98)

Hitchcock’s insistence that the MacGuffin is an artistic device emphasizes one important point about the setting of the spy story. Although it is usually based on current historical situations, the background of the spy story is just as much a landscape of the mind as the country house of the classical detective story or the frontier town of the Western. Spying is an important activity of the modern state and contemporary espionage organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency operate in dangerously irresponsible secrecy, but espionage does not have the same world-shaking importance as the direct and open clash of national interests. The future of the world probably does not depend on real-life counterparts of Richard Hannay or James Bond. Indeed, the secret agent’s fictional milieu with its omnipresent hidden secrets and conspiracies presents a picture of the world which is probably half reality and half extension to the international scene of the gothic castle with its hidden passages, secret panels, and lurking conspirators.
Two other common elements of the spy story reveal its original connection with gothic fantasy: the innocent hero and [-p.57] the supervillain. The gothic story commonly dealt with the trials of a heroine who whether by accident or design, was involved in the plots of some devious villain. Similarly, one of the perennially favorite spy heroes is the innocent amateur who stumbles by accident into the midst of an espionage conspiracy. This figure who, like the gothic heroine, enacts the nightmare of involvement, discovery, and realization that he is trapped and must play out the game to its end was a favorite character in the thrillers of John Buchan, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler. Although the innocent amateur today seems to have become less characteristic of the genre than the professional agent, he still plays a role in many of the most successful and popular examples of the form….” (pp.56-57)

“[Both amateur and professional agents] play out the heroic role of accepting and accomplishing a secret mission. In the case of the amateur spy, the mission is forced upon him, whereas the professional accepts it voluntarily.” (p.57)

“The tradition of the secret agent adventure has been particularly rich in colorful and exotic villains who, like their gothic grandfathers, are often more interesting than their heroic opponents and victims. [Various spy story villains] and Ian Fleming’s wonderful gallery of spectacular rogues – Goldfinger, Dr. No, Le Chiffre Sir Hugo Drax, Ernst Stavro Blofeld – contribute as much, perhaps more, to the reader’s pleasure as [the spy hero such as] James Bond. This particular emphasis on the villain seems to be a central feature of the spy thriller. In the classical detective story, the character of the villain is distinctly subordinated to his complex method of carrying out the crime. In the Western, the villain usually has a far less distinctive and colorful character than the hero. But in the secret agent story, even if the antagonist is not portrayed as an exotic master villain, the enemy organization plays a far more important role. In general, this strong treatment [-p.58] of the villain functions to give one the sense that the hero is isolated and alone in the midst of overpowering and seemingly omnipotent enemies.” (pp.57-58)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London