Oh, Where Have You Been: A Chain of Influence from “Lord Randall” to Iron & Wine

For this post, we’re going to look at three songs which I think share a pretty direct lineage. I encourage you to give all three tracks a listen if you don’t know them already. (And if you do know them, give ’em another listen anyway. They’re all good songs!) Some of the similarities and differences will likely be apparent even going in cold, while others I think become clearer after some discussion.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s start our deep dive.

I. “For it’s now that I’m dying…”

The first song is the early-modern English folk ballad “Lord Randall.” As with basically all folk ballads passed down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the song that you can find. I’ve gone with Jean Ritchie’s recording because I’m fond of her voice, but what I’m about to say applies to pretty much any version of the song that you might come across.

“Lord Randall” tells the woeful tale of its title character. Our young man has been in “the wild wood” with his true love, who made him “eels boiled in broth” for dinner. This dinner appears to have had an ominous effect, because his bloodhounds “swelled and they died,” and upon returning home his mother deduces that he’s been poisoned. In his final breaths, Lord Randall wills his possessions to his parents, while to his true love: “I’ll leave her hellfire,” for she is the killer. It’s an old-fashioned murder ballad, and one that turns on a mystery to boot.

To get a good handle on the song’s form, let’s take a look at the first stanza.

“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh, where have you been, my handsome young man?”
“I’ve been to the wild wood. Mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary with hunting, and I fain would lie down.”

On a skeletal level, “Lord Randall” uses a loose variation of long meter, where each line of the quatrain has four strong stresses (“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?”) I say “loose,” because the third and fourth lines of each stanza arguably have five stresses each, but as Ritchie sings them the middle-most accents (“Mother” and “and,” respectively) don’t get the same emphasis as the others. Also of note: “Lord Randall” doesn’t rhyme, but rather uses consonance to link the ends of each line sonically. The constantly changing vowels may sound awkward to modern ears, but I’d argue that the lack of perfect rhymes fits the tragic subject matter.

One might also note that “Lord Randall” is dramatic in nature, by which I mean it presents itself as a dialogue between two characters. Each stanza begins with Lord Randall’s mother asking a question about her son’s recent journey, and ends with Lord Randall’s response and a plea that he’s tired and “fain would lie down.” In this song, much of the conflict is driven by an imbalance of information: the mother is in the dark, and her son is reluctant to tell her the whole truth.

A final noteworthy aspect about the song’s structure is its heavy use of refrains. The second halves of both of the mother’s lines are repeated in each stanza (“Lord Randall my son,” “my handsome young man”), as is most of the son’s dialogue with some variations. This heavy repetition makes the song’s dialogue highly stylized, if not ritualistic, but it also gives the song’s narrative an interesting progression. Even though the mystery continues to unfold in the listener’s ear, it simultaneously keeps turning back to previously stated niceties. The story is both linear and cyclical.

In terms of the narrative, what I find most compelling about “Lord Randall” is the gradual change in the title character’s attitude from start to finish. It’s easy to read the son’s responses to the mother’s questions as attempts to end the conversation. “Let’s stop talking,” he seems to say, “I want to go to bed.” Once the fact of his dying comes out, though, he stops trying to shut down the dialogue. Instead, he starts speaking performatively, his words assigning goods and fates upon his relations. At the moment of his death, he finally takes action.

II. “I’m a-goin’ back out…”

Let’s jump now from early-modern England to the mid-20th-century United States. Released in 1963 as part of the seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” occupies a unique position in Dylan’s early discography. The song is a mixture of Dylan’s three primary impulses from this period: the socially-conscious songs that made him famous, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”; the impressionistic, more personal lyrics he would start fully exploring on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964); and, our main focus here, the canon of English-language folk songs that drew Dylan to the Greenwich Village scene in the first place.

As we did with “Lord Randall,” let’s take a look at the opening stanza to get a sense of the form:

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?”
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains.
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
I’ve been ten thousands miles in the mouth of a graveyard.
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

The influence of “Lord Randall” should be apparent. Just like the earlier folk song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a piece of dramatic poetry, between an unidentified parent and their “blue-eyed son” who has been out in the world and experienced a great deal. The parent’s dialogue in particular calls to mind “Lord Randall,” with the repetition of “Oh, where have you been” and the affectionate terms for their child.

When the blue-eyed son starts speaking, though, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” starts to deviate from its model. While Dylan’s song maintains the loose, four beat rhythm, it does not bother with the strict consonance of its predecessor; in fact, it forgoes similar end sounds entirely. Instead, the song’s organizing principle is parallel syntax: each line begins with the same construction of “I’ve + [verb]” (except in the final stanza, which includes “Where…” statements as well). More so than popular song, the piece resembles free verse poetry in the vein of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. It’s an unconventional choice, but that syntactic repetition still gives the piece a strong sense of musicality.

Further, as you’ve no doubt noticed, the son’s dialogue in each stanza is far more expansive and variable than it is in “Lord Randall.” In the folk song, the son always speaks two lines at a time, and if you factor out the refrains his responses are quite curt: “I’ve been to the wild wood,” “I dined with my true love,” etc. By contrast, the son in Dylan’s song is someone given to rambling. Not counting the closing refrain (more on which later), the son’s parts in each stanza range from 5 to 12 lines. The strictures of the folk song literally cannot contain this character’s speech.

And just what does the blue-eyed song have to say? Well, as is often the case with Dylan’s lyrics, there isn’t really a coherent literal scenario. This is no murder ballad, with a clear and causal narrative. Instead, the poem is organized around a series of associative leaps. It’s not a travelogue, but a creatively arranged list of impressions. Still, one can often see links between one image and the next. The first stanza, for instance, uses number as a jumping-off point (“twelve misty mountains,” “six crooked highways,” “seven sad forests”), while in the second stanza the “black branch with blood” precedes hammers “a-bleedin’.” As with much of Dylan’s work, the point is not to pin down one true meaning, but rather to play around with what has been suggested.

Still, the song does end on one clear note: the speaker has to keep telling their story. There is some bleak event on the horizon, that “hard rain” the speaker keeps returning to in the closing refrains. What that hard rain signifies is, of course, not stated, but whatever it is, it calls for a response. Thus, in that last stanza, the conversation shifts from the past to the future. “Oh, what’ll you do now?” the parent asks, and the son says he’s “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” He will return to the world, as grim as it is, and deliver his message:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.

Like “Lord Randall,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” ends on an active note for the speaker, in this case, laying out a plan for the future. But the tones seem quite different. There’s no resignation present here, no reluctant acceptance of death. The son does not give into that hard rain, does not say he “fain would lie down.” Instead, it ends with optimism, so much so that the verse even indulges in some concluding slant rhyme couplets. Dylan has taken the raw materials of “Lord Randall,” and used them to tell a totally different story.

III. “I dreamt of that sound…”

The link between “Lord Randall” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is pretty : the latter directly lifts the structure of the former. The link between “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and our final song for today, on the other hand, is more speculative on my part. A quick Google search tells me that I’m not the first to make this connection, but it’s entirely possible that the similarities here unconscious rather than intentional.

With that disclaimer out of the way: let’s move up to January 2011. It’s my senior year of high school, and I’ve been conversant in Bob Dylan’s music for about two years. Sam Beam (better known as Iron & Wine), a singer I’ve just become familiar with, has released his fourth studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean. The lead-off track, “Walking Far from Home,” is an emotional power-bomb of song—one that still gives me chills—but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard something like it before. A few listens later, and it hits me: it’s a rewriting of “Rain.”

Like Dylan’s song, “Walking Far from Home” strings together an associative list of images detailing a journey out in the world, with heavy use of parallel syntax to organize things. The speaker has seen everything from “children in a river” whose “lips were still dry” to “a bird fall[ing] like a hammer from the sky.” Once again, there’s no clear narrative here, but rather a series of impressions building to a climax.

Yet for all the similarities in content, there are some significant differences in structure. Take a look at the opening stanza here:

I was walking far from home,
Where the names were not burned along the wall.
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small.

First off, for the first time in our discussion we have perfect rhyme in a stanza, with “wall” and “small” helping to form an ABXB rhyme scheme. This already sets it apart from both “Lord Randall” (consonance) and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (unrhymed). Second, while it’s possible to squeeze or expand lines into the four-beat pattern of its predecessors, that involves stressing words against the manner in which they’re sung. It’s a rhythm perhaps reminiscent of the ballad, but not committed to it. Third, the use of refrains only survives in the “echoing” final lines of each stanza, so the effect of cycling through a linear story has mostly been cut.

But the most significant structural change can only become obvious when the song is viewed in totality: there’s no dialogue. The speaker is the only one, well, speaking in the piece, and they’re not even implied to be addressing anyone in particular; there is a “you,” but the relationship between speaker and addressee is left vague. In that regard, Iron & Wine goes further than Dylan in making the “Lord Randall” narrative ambiguous. Not only is the content of their speech rendered impressionistic, as it is in Dylan’s song, but also the circumstances of their speech are left unstated.

I think this move, turning the dialogue of the previous two songs into an internal monologue, helps to explain the shift in how this song ends. The speaker in “Walking Far from Home” doesn’t conclude with a performative utterance like Lord Randall, nor does he resolve himself to a future course of action like the blue-eyed son. Instead, he uses the final verse to suggest that he’s come to a personal revelation because of his travels: he “saw a wet road form a circle / And it came like a call, came like a call / From the Lord.” What was once a movement toward external-facing action has now become the spark for inward-facing change.

IV. “Join me in song…”

To wrap this all up: why should we care about any of this? What difference does it make if we can trace contemporary indie music all the way back to early-modern folk songs? Isn’t this all just academic, all just trivia?

Well, partially. I did start writing this because I merely found it interesting. But I do think these songs offer us a lesson in how to use past works for inspiration. You’ve likely heard the expression, “Everything’s a remix,” that is, all art is a reworking of something that came before it. I think that’s true in the broad strokes, but it can miss the most important part of remixing: making what’s old into something new.

We can see that in these three songs. A 17th-century balladeer’s tale of murderous betrayal and motherly affection helped Bob Dylan to write a impressionistic call to action in politically stressful times. In turn, that song may have sparked Iron & Wine to write about an intimate form of salvation along a similar journey. These songs are, ultimately, in conversation with each other. But “in conversation with” does not mean “repeating.” There is little “remaking” here, and much more “making new.”

So, if you find yourself in a writing rut, you can look to a past work, figure out what makes it tick, and then write your own version of it. Just don’t be afraid to go unexpected places with it.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece and would like to hear me yammer on some more about Bob Dylan, I wrote another blog post last year about the use of masculine and feminine rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” that you might find interesting.

The Dark Comedy of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”

Until recently, if you had asked to me summarize the mood of George Orwell’s writings in one word, that word would be “terrifying.” In his two best-known works, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949),  Orwell’s depictions of totalitarian regimes are so plainly stated, with his prose possessing the bare minimum of ornament, that each spirit-crushing event in those novels comes across as inevitable. One leaves those books with a dull pain all around the heart, even if it’s accompanied by the urge to resist the coming catastrophe.

Homage to CataloniaRecently, though, I’ve started to revise that assessment, now that I’ve read through what is probably his third best-known book: Homage to Catalonia.

First published in the United Kingdom in 1938 and in the United States in 1952, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s personal account of his time spent fighting against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Given the dire subject matter, I assumed that the mood of the work would match that of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And indeed, Homage to Catalonia often leaves me despondent and feeling brutalized by the progress of history.

But it also shows, somehow, that Orwell is also quite adept at dark comedy.

I don’t want to say that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are entirely devoid of humor. The former in particular has some nice comical moments—I mean, it is a satire, after all. In particular, I’m thinking of Squealer’s justifications for the privileges the pigs seize for themselves, which read as though he’s crossed Pravda with Pangloss. But that humor takes place on the level of language; there’s not much humor on the level of situation. And, one may ask, how can there be? Those situations are rather deathly.

Yet in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell finds exactly that: scenarios which, by their sheer absurdity, get the reader to chuckle, though perhaps with a deep, doubtful sigh right afterward. I first noticed this fairly early on, near the end of Chapter III, where Orwell recounts a few instances where, by carelessness or miscommunication, he and his comrades almost die from friendly fire. Each near-miss merits a muted trumpet in the mind’s ear. The last sentence of the chapter neatly summarizing things: “In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible” (p. 37).

Now, in a war narrative, the presence of dark comedy is not exactly a revelation; the literature of war is riddled with spots of black humor, with the jokes soldiers tell as temporary relief from the strain of duty. What makes Homage to Catalonia interesting, I think, is how it uses that humor for more than just comic relief or satiric commentary. These moments of dark comedy are pivotal to understanding Orwell’s personal journey in the book.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from near the midpoint of the work, just before the turning point of Orwell’s fortunes. In Chapter VII (or Chapter VI in later editions which turned Chapter V into Appendix I), Orwell recounts a significant military operation he participated in, a mission to attack and raid a Fascist redoubt as part of the effort to capture the city of Huesca. After Orwell’s party manages to break through, Orwell spots a “shadowy figure,” one of the Fascists, and gives chase:

I started after him, prodding my bayonet ineffectually into the darkness. As I rounded the corner of the hut I saw a man—I don’t know whether or not it was the same man I had seen before—fleeing up the communication-trench that led to the other Fascist position. I must have been very close to him, for I could see him clearly. He was bareheaded and seemed to have nothing on except a blanket which he was clutching round his shoulders. If I had fired I could have blown him to pieces. But for fear of shooting one another we had been ordered to use only bayonets once we were inside the parapet, and in any case I never even thought of firing. Instead, my mind leapt backwards twenty years, to our boxing instructor at school, showing me in vivid pantomime how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles. I gripped my rifle by the small of the butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out my reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little distance we proceeded like this, he rushing up the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there—a comic memory for me to look back upon, though I suppose it seemed less comic to him. (p. 92)

First, let’s consider this passage in isolation. Even if you don’t find this scene especially humorous, one can still see the elements of solid farce here: Orwell bumbling about with his bayonet, the possibility of mistaken identity, and the fact that the man Orwell is chasing “seemed to have nothing on except a blanket.” And the chase itself, with the two men running on different levels as Orwell keeps coming oh-so-close to stabbing his target, wouldn’t feel out of place is a silent slapstick movie. Throw on the understatement at the very end of the paragraph—no kidding “it seemed less comic” to fleeing Fascist—and the result is a sustained moment of comic relief. It’s the sort of anecdote one could whip out at a party without causing much consternation in the audience.

Within the context of the narrative as a whole, though, the humor of this passage is less relieving than it is deflating. On multiple occasions leading up to this sequence, Orwell states that one of his desires in fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War is to kill a Fascist. In Chapter IV, after he realizes that in his first three weeks in Catalonia he’s fired a grand total of three shots, he remarks: “They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist” (p. 41). He’s less contemplative there than impatient, an impatience that reappears near the end of Chapter V/Appendix I: “When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist—after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct—and I had killed nobody yet, had hardly had the chance to do so” (p.70).

So here finally comes Orwell’s chance to do his part in the anti-Fascist cause: no more waiting around in the trenches, no more risking enemy fire just to gather firewood. He’s part of an assault on a Fascist redoubt, he finds an enemy combatant ripe for the gutting…and it’s a guy who appears to be fleeing from him half-naked. I obviously can’t know how exactly Orwell envisioned his first chance to kill a Fascist, but I’m fairly certain that running around like a farmer chasing a fox off his property with a pitchfork was not part of the fantasy.

But that implication of the passage is merely disappointing. There’s another aspect to it that strikes me foreboding, perhaps even tragic. Up to this point, I haven’t touched on that peculiar flashback Orwell has before he begins his thrusting campaign in earnest, the one where he remembers his boxing teacher telling war stories. On first read-through, I wasn’t sure what to make of that little diversion, but after thinking through the context some more, I think I have an angle on it.

First, there’s something trivializing about that flashback. At the moment Orwell has a chance to capture some military glory, his thoughts turn not to, say, the heroes of ancient mythologies, or to some iconography from war propaganda, but rather to a memory of schooling. Instead of going high and noble, he turns low and common. Further, the flashback represents how most people encounter combat: in abstractions, either secondhand through testimony (the war story), or in ritualized, rule-bound contests (the boxing lesson).

Second, the boxing instructor’s war story, while framed as a personal triumph, comes in the context of ultimate failure. The instructor tells (or rather, pantomimes) of “how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles,” referring to the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916, which was a notable exercise in futility for the Allied forces in World War I. They spent almost a year attempting to seize control of the Dardanelles, the strategically-important strait connecting the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, en route to capturing the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, before giving up after having gained virtually no ground following the landing at Gallipoli. One can see a parallel between Orwell’s situation and the instructor’s: while the raid on the Fascist redoubt is a minor success, the greater anti-Fascist cause will prove a bloody calamity.

Bringing up the Gallipoli campaign also highlights the tragicomic irony of war. As Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” (p.7). The Gallipoli campaign was supposed to be easy—aren’t all such operations?—as the battle would be waged against Ottoman forces that UK leadership believed were wildly inferior to British might. The result was a costly, diseased-ridden quagmire. By the same token, Orwell enters the Spanish Civil War with such simple purpose: he’s going to kill a Fascist and help defeat Fascism. Only after living with the conflict for some time, after enduring the bitter cold nights and the injuries of war and the Communist Party’s sabotage of the anti-Fascist effort, does Orwell learn the complexity beneath that simple purpose.

It is not for nothing that Chapter VIII, a summary reflection following the successful raid on the Fascist redoubt, ends with the bleak sentiment: “And after that the trouble began” (p. 107). In the subsequent chapters, Orwell will live through the street-war for the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona, the suppression of the P.O.U.M. and the mass arrests of its members, and a bullet through his throat that almost robs him of the ability to speak.

Yet for how bleak this all sounds—and is—the mere presence of dark comedy in Homage to Catalonia suggests one final thing about Orwell’s work here: there is still room for hope. This isn’t Nineteen Eighty-Four, where one suspects Newspeak is a language incapable of intentional comedy as well as political dissent. That Orwell can find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom. Indeed, while Orwell grows disillusioned with the Communist Party as an institution, his time spent in the P.O.U.M. camp makes his “desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before” (p. 105). Even when the fight is hopeless, a cause may still be worth pursuing.

If you enjoyed this look into the literature of war, you may also be interested in my analysis of Thomas Moore’s Irish melody, “The Minstrel Boy.”

Murder Mysteries and Relaxation

I don’t watch very much in the way of television, so I don’t know what it says about my taste that Father Brown is one of my favorite shows. Inspired by the detective stories of G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown follows the adventures of the parish priest of the fictional English town of Kembleford (played by Mark Williams). As someone who spends much of his day inside a confessional booth, Father Brown is well-versed what drives people to commit heinous crimes, and he uses that insight—along with some genre-requisite sleuthing—to crack the case and, hopefully, save the guilty party’s soul.

This being a detective show, Father Brown has meddled in a fair number of police investigations. As of 2018, there have been 70 episodes of Father Brown. That’s 70 crimes for the priest to solve, which is an absurdly high number for a village in the English countryside. And the majority of those crimes are murders, which means that on a “homicides per capita” basis, the Cotswolds of this universe might as well be a war zone.

Now, it’s a common joke among mystery fans that, if all the murders on these British detective shows happened in real life, the countryside would be completely depopulated within the year. That the premise for a show like Father Brown in ridiculous is neither a new observation nor an interesting one. Rather, I’m more interested in my emotional response to all this murder.

A murder mystery can elicit all sorts of emotions from the audience. For one thing, the whodunit arouses one’s curiosity—even the name of the genre is a question. For another, there’s some vicarious thrill-seeking in following the detective as they track down the killer, aware of the peril they potentially face. There’s even an element of escapist voyeurism to murder mysteries, as they tend to involve aristocratic families in very fancy houses. All these are reasonable sounding guesses for what I might get out of Father Brown, but none of them hit the mark. No, I just find the show relaxing. This demands the follow-up question: how can a murder plot be relaxing?

The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. My mother, to name just one example, will binge through reruns of Criminal Minds or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when she’s home sick from work, or she’s just finished unpacking and is tired from the trip. Why would my mother and I, when looking for a show to unwind to, pick, out of all possible subjects, murder?

A big reason, I suspect, relates to the form of a murder mystery. An episode of a show like Father Brown or Criminal Minds is a self-contained entity: it starts with a crime, ends with an arrest, no loose ends or hooks for the next episode. There’s no feeling of confusion going in or unsatisfied curiosity going out. These episodes will also follow a fairly set formula for getting from crime-to-arrest: a cold open showing or setting the stage for the crime, the detective or cops arriving on scene, the ups and downs of the investigation, the reveal, etc. If you watch one of these shows when it’s first broadcast, you can practically set your watch based on where you are in the narrative. That predictability may sound boring, but I think of it as more like the progression of rhymes in a sonnet: comforting in how it chimes.

Still, that only explains the appeal of formula television, not murder mysteries specifically. The same principles would apply to a medical procedural or a multi-camera domestic sitcom. What gives a murder show its particular soothing charm?

Brianna Rennix offers up a possible answer to that question. In a recent essay for Current Affairs, Rennix, who also finds murder mysteries relaxing, suggests that the appeal of a show like Poirot (her detective show of choice) lies in how it presents the act and effects of a murder:

[T]he Genteel Murder Mystery is about taking something horrific and making it charming, cushioning it in several layers of gauze, blunting all its sharp edges. It’s about shielding ourselves psychologically from a spectrum of human experience that, if we were fully conscious of it, would probably poison whatever sense of hope or pleasure we derive from our luckier experiences.

In Rennix’s view, when the audience for a Genteel Murder Mystery watches these sanitized depictions of murder, they can come to see the fact of murder as “an anodyne triviality,” which is much easier to deal with than, say, the six o’clock news. Why not unleash untold suffering upon the fictional Kembleford if it makes living in the actual world more bearable?

I like Rennix’s essay quite a bit, and I think that this “anodyne triviality” angle has some legs to it. One potential problem, though, is that it might be too generalizable to other genres of television. For example, might we say that a medical procedural does the same thing to life-threatening ailments that whodunits do to murder, making a certain “spectrum of human experience” more palatable? If there are people who turn to medical procedurals rather whodunits to relax, then I’m not sure Rennix has identified something inherent to murder mysteries, but rather to a particular style of storytelling.

We might be running up against a problem in philosophy known as the paradox of tragedy: why is it that we often derive from pleasure from representations of things we would find displeasurable is real life? It can be difficult to come up with a solution to the paradox of tragedy that isn’t applicable to art in general (e.g., we can draw pleasure from the skillful narrative craft of a tragedy, but that’s true of all stories and not just tragedies). A few years ago, Philosophy Tube made a video about this paradox as it applies to the horror genre, which frames the debate in an approachable way.

We’re not going to resolve the paradox in a casual blog post, so I’m going to leave this one open to you. Do you find murder mysteries and the like relaxing, and if so, why do you think that is? Let me know in the comments!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another post about Father Brown that I need to get around to writing.

If you liked this post, you might also like this older piece I wrote about the ethical experience questions I had while playing the idle game classic, A Dark Room.

My Last Charles Village Festival

I shall be leaving Baltimore very shortly, and I can’t say that I’m especially nostalgic about that. I came here as a Johns Hopkins graduate student, so the university has been my community far more than the city has been. And even if that weren’t the case, I am at heart a homebody; getting out into the world, it just isn’t me.

In fact, I only know about this bit of local flavor because I happen to live literally across the street from it.

The Charles Village Festival is a two-day fair of sorts in Baltimore’s Wyman Park Dell, held on the first weekend of June every year. You’ll find more or less what you expect there: arts and crafts vendors, food stands, kids’ activities, a 5K race, and so forth. But for me, the big draw has always been the live music.

Although, my first summer in Baltimore, “the big draw” was more like “the big gripe.” See, the tunes at the festival get so loud that if I recognize a song, I can sing along to it from my fourth floor apartment. That’s admittedly nice every once in a while (who doesn’t want to shout the chorus to Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So”?), but I like peace and quiet, and after awhile even the crowd-pleasers wear out their welcome when heard through closed windows.

Of course, the festival wasn’t going anywhere, so eventually that weekend I set aside my annoyance and waltzed on down to the dell. And I had myself a good time, even though as a temporary resident of Charles Village I felt like an interloper. It was kind of crowded by then; I remember having to peer through some overlapping tree branches to see the main stage. But the tunes were lively throughout. I especially enjoyed hearing the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band, which for the record exists. Their version of the country standard “Big Spike Hammer” ended up inspiring a poem for one of my MFA courses, so if nothing else, the festival gave me that.

And last year’s festival served as my indoctrination into the cult of Steely Dan, when local tribute act Technicolor Motor Home (taken from a line in “Kid Charlemagne”) closed out the proceedings. It was a weird experience, hearing a tribute band for a group I knew basically knew nothing about. Going in, I knew Steely Dan for “Do It Again,” and I’d probably heard “Reelin’ in the Years” without registering it, but beyond that, nothing. But the locals’ musicianship on the main stage enraptured me, and I’ve slowly been delving deeper into the Dan ever since.

(That recording is from several years prior, but “My Old School” was probably my favorite performance from last year’s set.)

But I think the musical highlight of festival tends to be the kids from The Music Workshop, a private music school in Baltimore. In various configurations, they play covers of popular rock songs between the main stage acts. (That cover of “Say It Ain’t So” I mentioned above? That’d be them.) It’s not they are the best at what they do, but they’re charmingly unpolished—like pint-sized Crazy Horses—and seeing kids bring some energy to yet another rendition of “I Won’t Back Down” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” always warms my heart. And gets my foot tapping.

The Pseudonyms
They’re called The Pseudonyms, and their front woman has some good stage banter.

Rain is threatening to hang over the entire weekend, so I don’t know how much more of the festival I’ll be able to see. (I sure hope it holds out late tomorrow: Technicolor Motor Home is supposed to wrap things up again.) Just in case that’s the last of it: I’m gonna miss you, Charles Village Festival.

No matter how loud you get on a Saturday morning.

Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”: An Analysis

Walt WhitmanI’ve indirectly talked about Walt Whitman on this blog before, when I applied his introduction to the original, 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass to the 1938 film If I Were King. But I’ve never discussed any of his actual poetry. Much like John Dryden, the last poet whose work I analyzed, most of Whitman’s best-known poems are both long and dense. Think “Song of Myself” or “I Sing the Body Electric.” As such, he doesn’t lend himself to the casual blog treatment.

Still, I think it’s time I give this central figure in American verse his due. As such, let’s take a quick dive into one of his shorter gems, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” The text is as follows:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider” provides us with a perfect example of what’s called an emblem structure. A poem using an emblem structure builds an argument in two parts. In the first part, the speaker describes an object in some detail; in the second part, they reflect on the meaning, the significance, of that object. What starts out like a still life soon becomes a metaphor.

Now, unlike the octave-sestet structure of a Petrarchan sonnet, say, there’s no rule dictating where the shift in an emblematic poem will occur. However, in the case of Whitman’s poem, the two parts of the argument are very easy to spot. The first stanza gives us the description of the object (a spider spinning its web), and the second stanza gives us the speaker’s reflection on the object (how his soul is like the spider). The first lines of each stanza even act as signposts, introducing the subject of each stanza so the reader can track the speaker’s thought progression.

So how is the soul like the spider? Let’s look at how Whitman presents the spider. Before the creature even appears in the body of the poem, we learn that our subject is both “noiseless” and “patient,” which is a calming pair of adjectives, and though accurate, perhaps not the first things we think of when we hear “spider.” In the second line, the speaker gives us the spider’s situation: “on a little promontory it stood isolated.” There’s our starting premise: a spider, all alone, sitting calmly on the ledge.

From here, though, things start moving. Line 3 presents us with a syntactical ambiguity. “Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding” is parallel to the previous line, so we instinctively make the speaker the agent of everything in the phrase. In this case, that would mean the speaker is considering “how to explore the vacant vast surrounding.” But the subsequent line clarifies the agent here is the spider, not the speaker. The spider “launch’d forth filament” with goal of confronting the emptiness before it.

Whitman has put the still life into literal motion, and if line 5 is any indication, it’s a perpetual motion at that: “[e]ver unreeling…ever tirelessly speeding.” It’s also a motion the spider itself generates, for it launches the filament “out of itself.” Here we have all the material needed for a metaphor. All Whitman needs to do is to make the target of that metaphor explicit.

Indeed, the parallels between the first stanza spider and the second stanza soul are extensive. The “measureless oceans of space” that the speaker’s soul is “[s]urrounded, detached” within recall the “vacant vast surrounding” that the spider faced, as does “ceaselessly” bring us back to “tirelessly”: neither being’s efforts will end anytime soon. And of course, the soul’s actions are those of the spider as well. Just as the spider spews out its silk, the soul is always “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.” The soul’s efforts are even likened to the spider’s material: it shoots out a “ductile anchor,” a “gossamer thread.” Just what the soul is seeking to achieve may be nebulous—and what great metaphysical mystery isn’t?—but we at least have a sense of what the soul’s actions are like. And that’s probably more than we could say going in.

Something else I’d highlight is how Whitman’s musicality perfectly reflects the actions of both the spider and the soul. Now, Whitman is of course famous as a pioneer in free verse, but free verse doesn’t reject meter, merely the rigidity of fixed forms. It embraces the flexibility of everyday speech while still elevating it to the level of verse.

Specifically, the first stanzas’s use of falling rhythms, of trochees (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) and dactyls (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables), embodies how the spider must reach out into the unknown emptiness before it. The repetition of “filament,” of the spider’s instrument of exploration, is the most overt instance of this: “filament, | filament, | filament, | out of it | self.” But it continues into the subsequent line: “Ever un | reeling them, | ever | tire | lessly | speeding them.” The switch to trochees is a nice touch here, tightening the rhythm right at that most determined phrase: “ever tirelessly.”

As an exercise, you might go through the second stanza of the poem, and see if Whitman uses the same musical underscoring for the soul as he does for the spider. If so, then we have a consistent “pattern” (however unpatterned it actually is) for soundplay in the poem. If it’s different, what does that change tell us about how Whitman sees the soul in comparison to the spider?

What are your thoughts on “A Noiseless Patient Spider”? Feel free to share your opinions and analyses, or to suggest more classic poems to give this sort of treatment to, in the comments.

The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,

And the food had been transfigured,

Changed into a weak, old whiteness,

Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.

More Than Transcription: Why the Smallest Details Matter

In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short sketch “The Replacement,” from his 1962 collection Snapshots, a teacher repeatedly commands his young students to be mindful of the punctuation in their reading passage, interrupting them to point out the presence of a comma, the absence of a period. The goal is to get the students (and, by extension, you the reader) to “pay attention to what you are reading,” “to understand what you are reading.” Whether the teacher is successful is debatable: near the end of the piece, a student reads with exaggerated emphasis on the punctuation but “in a voice as devoid of expression as his classmate’s.”

A recent essay by Benjamin Obler over at Electric Literature got me thinking about that Robbe-Grillet sketch. Descriptively titled “How Writing Closed Captions Turned Me off TV for Good,” the essay details Obler’s experience in the world of caption writing, and how it affected his perceptions of the craft of writing and of television.

I’m not so much interested in Obler’s observations regarding the formulaic nature of television writing—I don’t watch enough scripted programming to have an opinion on it—as I am in his account of the caption writer’s values:

The Caption Writer is some kind type of linguistic intermediary between a machine and a hearing-impaired person or an English-language learner or a noisy room. Accuracy is the CW’s watch word. Verity. The CW is impartial, using punctuation and presentation to represent the speaker’s imperfections, emphases, uncertainty, directness or indirectness. Their ennui, their—

Writers will be familiar with Gustave Flaubert’s concept of le mot juste: the exact right word for a given situation. The caption writer, in Obler’s account, must strive for what we might call le caractère juste. To convey the audio track of a show through written text, one must fine-tune every aspect of the transcript: where to place a comma, when to use all-caps, how to describe a grunt.

These are not skills that necessarily come easily to a narrative prose writer. Even when a character in a short story or novel is based on a real person, all their qualities are ultimately creations of the author. There is no preexisting character to describe inaccurately. Not so with captioning, which requires an almost intuitive understanding of what the writer is hearing. As Obler puts it:

…all the Norton anthologies in the world could not teach me the difference between PHEW and [sigh], or a [disbelieving scoff] over an [exhales heavily], or the fine gradations on the surface of what I thought was a humdrum HMM and ho-humm MM-HMM.

Obler finds writing to this level of accuracy and precision to be quite a slog, and for good reason: it’s being applied to work that is not his own. Caption writing is socially necessary work, but it’s exhausting and it comes with no recognition (stations often cut away to commercials, Obler notes, before the captioner’s credit has time to load.) Why should he care if Sitcom Dad’s exasperation merits an “ugh” or an “ughhh”? What is Sitcom Dad to him?

But what if Sitcom Dad were his creation? In that case, I feel that the captioner’s commitment to accuracy, while being no less exhausting, would be far more rewarding. There’s a certain joy in rendering on the page what was so clearly heard in the head, in seeing one’s own idea so perfectly realized.

Or, if one prefers to write without a plan, such fine-tuning is a way to discover a voice, landscape, or gesture—or should it be a lilting “a voice, or a landscape, or a gesture,” or a curt “a voice, landscape, gesture”? Play around with it for a bit and you’ll find the answer.

Perhaps that why the teacher’s lesson in “The Replacement” reads like pointless drudgery: the only prize from the precision he demands is fidelity to the text. There’s no discovery in the reading process. There’s no understanding of how history would be different with a comma instead of a period.

Rhyme in Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”

This week, I’d like to talk about one of my all-time favorite songs, Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” and about how it uses different kinds of rhyme to reinforce its meaning.

First released on Dylan’s 1965 masterpiece album Highway 61 Revisited, “Queen Jane Approximately” seems to have a very straightforward rhyme scheme. It’s composed of five stanzas, each following an abaBB pattern, where the capital letters represent the refrain line (“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”). It’s a pattern only slightly removed from the classic ABXB pattern of the ballad, one of the fundamental forms in poetry and music.

However, the abaBB pattern only tells part of the story. The rhymes all have stress placed on the second-to-last syllable, while the b rhymes have stress placed on the last syllable. For an example, let’s consider the first stanza:

When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? (lines 1-5)

As you can see, Dylan alternates between these two kinds of rhymes, poly- and mono-syllabic. But what good does knowing that do us when it comes to analyzing the song?

To see how the rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” reinforces the meaning, I’m going to consider two ways of conceptualizing these sorts of rhymes. The first way is to think about them is in terms of the masculine/feminine distinction.

Masculine rhyme, in traditional English-language poetics, refers to a rhyme in which the stress falls on the last syllable. All monosyllabic rhyme pairs (e.g., “dog” / “blog”) are examples of masculine rhyme, but so are polysyllabic rhyme pairs like “deny” / “reply“—effectively, the actual rhyme there is “-ny” / “-ply.”

Feminine rhyme, on the other hand, refers to a rhyme in which the last syllable is unstressed, but the second-to-last syllable is stressed. The classic example is “sharing” / “caring.” (Note that something like “sharing” / “sing” would not be a true rhyme, because the stress patterns don’t match up: the former ends unstressed, the latter stressed.)

Now, the masculine/feminine distinction plays into a restrictive view of gender norms, in which masculinity is coded as strong and femininity as weak, which is why the terms are (slowly) falling out of favor. Yet that wouldn’t necessarily prevent the distinction from providing a useful framework for approaching the song. Indeed, I can imagine a song that alternates between feminine and masculine rhymes, as Dylan’s does, in order to encode the text of the poem as a dialogue: the “female” voice speaks, then the “male,” and so forth.

Alas, such dialogue encoding doesn’t really apply to “Queen Jane Approximately.” To start with the obvious: the song is wholly in the voice of the speaker, with Queen Jane as the addressee. In fact, Queen Jane doesn’t even have much of a voice in the speaker’s description of her. She is spoken to (“…all the bandits that you turn your other cheek to / All lay down their bandanas and complain” [16-17]) and she is spoken of (“…your father to your sister he explains / That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations” [2-3]). But she doesn’t speak much herself, and when she does try to communicate with others, she is ignored (“…your mother sends back all your invitations” [1]).

You might argue that, by systematically inserting feminine rhymes into the song, Dylan can still imply a conversation between Queen Jane and the speaker. But it’s hardly clear that either Queen Jane or the speaker even wants to be part of a conversation. After all, in the final stanza the speaker pitches himself as “somebody you don’t have to speak to” (23). If Queen Jane and speaker ever get together, it will take the form of a one-way lecture—in other words, the exact thing they’re doing now.

Granted, this line of inquiry has helped to shed some light on the song, but only in how proposed framework doesn’t fit the situation. So rather than using the masculine/ feminine distinction, I would suggest we approach the rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” with a rising/falling framework instead.

At first, this proposal seems like a mere relabeling of terms: all masculine rhymes are rising rhymes (the meter of a line “rises” when it ends with a stressed syllable), and all feminine rhymes are falling rhymes (the meter “falls” with an unstressed syllable). However, these different terms have different implications. No longer are we think of the rhymes in terms of gender, and therefore people. Rather, we can think of the rhymes in terms of “direction,” where rising is positive and falling is negative.

Note that each stanza of “Queen Jane Approximately” follows the same, two-part syntactic structure: “1) When [X], 2) won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” The first part describes a series of conditions, and the second suggests a course of action in response to them. Let’s consider the both parts of that structure in turn.

When the speaker lists off the background conditions of Queen Jane’s life, it sounds thoroughly unpleasant. Given that she is always referred to as “Queen Jane,” we can safely say that she holds (or at least, believes that she holds) a high station in the world, yet she is being subjected to constant torment. This has all the makings of a declension story. When even “the flower ladies want back what they have lent you,” you have fallen from the heights (6).

As it happens, every stanza’s “when” clause contains both of its falling rhyme words. Queen Jane’s world is dominated by these weak, unstressed endings, which match her apparent fall. It is true that each “when” clause also contains a rising rhyme word, which could somewhat dampen that effect. But Dylan tends to pick words with negative connotations for that position (“vain,” “pain,” “complain”), so the semantics tend to drown out the sound.

But while Queen Jane, literally and aurally, spends most of each stanza in descent, the refrain offers the prospect of restoration. The line “Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” not only proposes a solution, it also ends emphatically: “Queen Jane” easily scans as a spondee (two stressed syllables). The refrain not only ends with a rising meter, it seemingly compensates for her previous declines.

Viewed in this light, “Queen Jane Approximately” is not merely another classic Dylan sneer-song, à la “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Positively 4th Street.” It becomes comforting, albeit a bit patronizing. No matter how far one falls, it’s still possible to rise for a strong finish.

Thoughts on “A Dark Room”

The first time I played through A Dark Room (browser version available here), there was a moment early on in the game—the village was still small, I had yet venture onto the dusty path, most everything was still mysterious—where I started to question my own virtue. Not my character’s virtue, but mine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those who haven’t played it: A Dark Room is an online/mobile text-based game, published by Doublespeak Games in 2013, which slowly reveals its true nature over the course of play.

You begin, naturally, in a dark room, with only one possible input: “light fire.” But from single point of interaction, the world quickly expands. Quoting from Michael Thomsen’s account of the game in The New Yorker (full article here):

After stoking the fire a few more times, you have a new option: collect wood, which can be used to build a cart. Once a cart is built, you can make traps and set them in the surrounding forest, and soon you’re collecting cloths and furs, which can be used to build more huts to attract others to your small enclave, allowing for the collection of even more fur and meat. You can begin to see a structure emerge from the fragments, but where that structure will lead you remains impossible to predict, and so the compulsion to keep pressing little word buttons becomes stronger.

It’s those “others” Thomsen alludes to here that I’m interested in, the villagers who take refuge in your growing community. The start of A Dark Room feels profoundly lonely. The only company you have is the builder, a stranger who stumbles into your now-lightened room who says that she can, well, build you things. Once she starts erecting huts, though, the town’s population starts to grow. A “stranger” here, a “weathered family” there: it all adds up. You as the player-character can then start assigning those villagers tasks, such as gathering wood or hunting.

When villagers began to appear in my first play-through, I was glad for the presence of extra people, even if those people were, in fact, nothing more than a number and a job description. When a wild beast attacked the village and killed several of them, I felt something resembling guilt. I, the de facto leader of this village, had failed to protect my neighbors, and now there was no evidence they ever existed.

This emotional connection did not last very long.

Around the time my village hit a population of twenty, when I had started assigning villagers to cure meat and tan leather (for reasons I was not yet clear on), another wild beast attacked. Rather than feeling guilty or sad this time, though, I was merely annoyed. The number of gatherers in the village plummeted, meaning it would take so much longer to collect enough wood to build a workshop (for reasons I was also not yet clear on). The only other option would be to re-assign the other workers to gathering, which of course meant a trade-off in resource gathering: more wood at the expense of meat, fur, etc.

Right then, in a brief flash of insight, I realized that I had stopped seeing the villagers as text-based representations of people, and had started seeing them as resources. They were merely means to my own still-unclear ends, sacrifices to some vague notion of “progress.” And then, as if that sudden doubt never occurred, I went back to pressing buttons, back to accumulating resources.

After all, there was so much of this world that had yet to unfold.

This is, I concede, not a grand revelation about the nature of player/non-player character relationships. Games consistently take an instrumentalist approach to NPCs. They are resource gatherers, quest givers, and of course, enemies. That the villagers have no lives and no function beyond their job descriptions is hardly a surprise.

What I do find surprising, though, is that the subtext of “NPCs have only instrumental value”—which is not even a subtext of the game, really, more a convention it happens to use—is brought to the level of text in the mobile version of A Dark Room.

The browser version of the game, as developed by Michael Townsend, does suggest that the player-character is a villain in the narrative of the game. They’re one of the so-called “wanderers” who conquered this world and have left it in ruins. You eventually find a spaceship in the wilderness, your ticket out of this hellscape. It’s been badly damaged, but it could be restored, and you find it fortunate that the “natives,” people like the villagers, haven’t figured out how to yet. One could read a colonialist narrative onto that story, but the game does not directly implicate the player (as opposed to the player-character) in that narrative. It’s just too oblique in its story-telling to do so.

It wasn’t until Amir Rajan adapted A Dark Room for iOS that the game’s critique of the player’s actions became overt. In the early goings—coincidentally, near the point when I had that flash of doubt—the builder begs you to stop overworking the villagers. When you keep pushing them to gather wood anyway, the game overtly relabels them. They are no longer “villagers.” They are “slaves.”

The player’s instrumental approach to the NPCs has consequences, which is certainly uncomfortable, as Rajan notes in an interview with Brian Riggsbee (full interview here):

The web version didn’t have any of the builder commentary or the slave transition…It’s funny actually, someone reached out to me on Twitter about the slaves transition and how “it wasn’t his choice.” He was pretty angry about it. His Twitter profile background was that of Fallout: New Vegas, where you can literally [be] part of a slave-driving army.

It’s all fun and games until the game points out that your progress has come at the expense of someone else’s autonomy.

To include the slaves transition was an editorial decision on Rajan’s part, an act of interpretation as well as adaptation. But does it pull the adaptation too far from the source material? Hardly. If anything, it simply reinforces the in-game narrative. Just as the wanderer uses the people they conquered to serve their own ends, the players use the NPCs to gradually satisfy their curiosity.

After all, how else can this story unfold?

Baseball Highlights: Aesthetics and Context

Over at ESPN.com, Sam Miller recently wrote an article entitled “Dig the long ball? Here’s why home run highlight videos are the worst”. Clickbait title aside, Miller’s article has some solid points about why home runs might not make for the best highlight reels. I especially like how he draws attention to the hard cut which invariably comes when broadcasting a home run, breaking the flow of what is really a continuous action. (Compare that to a defensive highlight, where the cut serves as an act break: the batter makes the contact, then the fielder catches it.)

Continue reading “Baseball Highlights: Aesthetics and Context”