I was sick last week. One day I came home and slept for four hours. So I didn’t get a lot of new material. Also I decided to start doing these bi-weekly, since work has reached a more intense level and I really want to focus on writing my second draft of The Teutonic Doctrine.
What I’ve Been Watching: Milo Murphy’s Law
This show is made by the same minds behind Phineas and Ferb, and pretty obviously they were trying to go for something that was in the same genre and tone but with a completely different schtick. The protagonist, Milo, is still an unabashedly optimistic middle-schooler with a penchant for ridiculous shenanigans and a bizarrely in-depth scientific knowledge. Unlike the strangely lucky Phineas, though, Milo suffers from unusually bad luck, a curse of “Murphy’s Law,” where anything that can go wrong, will.
Most episodes are focused on a particular setting–a field trip, a boat ride, a ski rink–and how Milo handles the plethora of disasters that erupt around him. The show is centered about being prepared for the unexpected and rolling with–even enjoying–a life of chaos. Milo states that he prefers his adrenaline-pumped life of uncertainty to the boring predictable life of safety that others enjoy. But while this is certainly a positive attitude for him to have, and it’s certainly important to remember that nothing is going to go entirely according to plan, and it’s impossible to control all outcomes, I’m dubious whether an adrenaline-pumped life of chaos would actually be any fun at all. I’m reminded of a section of GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday,
“The poet delights in disorder only.” [said Gregory,] “If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”
“So it is,” said Mr. Syme.
“Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox. “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”
“It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. …what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.”The Man Who Was Thursday
It’s interesting, in fact, that a show like Milo Murphy’s Law, which is based on unpredictability and chaos, is less entertaining than the entirely predictable Phineas and Ferb, which was repetitive almost to the point of parody. Though of course, Milo Murphy’s Law has it’s own running gags and its own unifying devices, it’s hard to get a “feel” for the individual episodes, especially once the overarching plot gets going and everything else inevitably feels like a rabbit trail.
Still, it’s an interesting premise. The “Murphy’s Law” curse provides a useful in-story explanation for how things keep getting progressively worse, (a recognized writer’s trick.) And the chaos surrounding Milo helps you appreciate the sheer amount of work that has to go into making something go right, which is part of the point of the GK Chesterton quote above. You also see how deeply Milo treasures simple moments of tranquility like birthday parties and watching games. Despite the praise of a chaotic life of danger, it is, actually simple moments of peace that are valued.
One thing has to be said, the show is tightly plotted. An amazing amount of off-references come back in later episodes to play significant roles, and seemingly unimportant side characters are revealed to have whole stories associated with them. It’s really quite rewarding when all the setup episodes come together. And Milo’s charm does grow on you, after awhile.
What I’m Reading: Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book
It’s kind of a misnomer to call this Andrew Lang’s fairy book. The stories were actually compiled and edited by his wife Lenora. They called them Andrew Lang’s because Andrew Lang was a scholar of some repute at the time. Ironically, he became more famous for the fairy books than he ever was for his scholarly work, which annoyed him at dinner parties when people suggested he must not have time for any scholarly work, with all that he must be doing for the fairy books (There are nearly twelve of them of various colors)
Andrew Lang in general is an interesting man. He was a literary scholar who did indeed specialize in folk tales, and wrote an important essay against a learning German scholar who argued for the supremacy of German folk tales. As a fun little note, one of the major biographies written about him (the man specifically requested that no biography be written, but his wife consented after his death), was written by a Roger Lancelyn Green, who compiled various anthologies of dragon stories and Norse myths I read in high school. In the foreword he especially thanks “Professor Tolkien for his invaluable help and encouragement.” So apparently Lang was a scholar who Tolkien knew and admired (though he came long after him), which goes a way toward explaining his famous lecture “On Fairy Stories.”
There’s less info on his wife, but apparently she had some scholarly chops of her own, no mean feat in the early Victorian period. She doubtless had help from her husband’s myriad contacts and resources, but editing the sheer volume of stories still must have taken considerable work and dedication.
It’s an understatement to call these stories “sanitized.” They’re maybe a step above Disney adaptations in terms of how much they’ve softened the violent moral tales of folklore. There’s still things like queens throwing themselves off rooftops and people being cooked in pots, but mostly they’re extremely clean. Characters also make anachronistic references to Christianity and England, unsurprising given the audience. There are also some… troubling (but again unsurprising given the time period) references to dark-skinned people being evil and/or ugly. In fairness, though, later books recounted fairy tales of Africa, Arabia, and the indigenous people of America. It’d be interesting to do a study as to what the impact of these later books were on Victorian society
I discovered the books during middle school through an off-reference in Ramona and Beezus, where an interviewed old woman comments on how she read “the Red Fairy book and the Blue Fairy book and all the rest.” I checked out a bunch of them from the library (I had a sweet setup with the library in my high school) and read through a bunch of them. At the time I was naive enough to think that the stories were being copied down faithfully.
There’s a fascinating meta-narrative to the stories, by which I mean that the more you read them, the more obvious patterns come into shape, even in stories from different cultures. Things always happen in threes (and the third is always the hardest), the youngest is always the lucky/beautifullest one, there’s often a break in faith between husband and wife which causes grief, the North Wind is always the one you have to talk to to really find someone who’s lost. There’s repeating ideas, like the shoes that help you go a day’s journey at each step, there’s repeating characters like the Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless (and the North Wind, obviously), there’s even near-identical stories, like “The Multi-Furred Beast” and “Donkey Skin.”
And while, again, they’re very sanitized from the originals, the question has to be asked what the “original” even means when speaking of an oral tradition of stories passed from one person to another and invariably changed in the retelling, with added or subtracted elements. Maybe “Donkey Skin” was the original of “Multi-Furred Beast,” almost definitely there were two or three smaller stories that were folded into it, or bits like the ring in the soup which were added from other stories.
So sure, the “original” stories involved a lot more gore and horror, but they were told to children who lived in a much scarier and gorier world. There’s no particular need to tramuatize kids unfamiliar with real wolves and real violence. Though I’m inclined to wonder if we shield children too much, and that they’re actually a lot more resilient than we give them credit for. (Then again, I remember staying up all night and sobbing to my parents because of the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz)
What I’m Playing: RagnaRock
This is my de-stress game right now, different from the others in that it’s not just an easy game to play for fifteen minutes and then turn off, but in that it’s a game that, once you get it set up, involves hitting things really hard for nearly a solid hour.
Allow me to explain.
RagnaRock is part of the “rhythm game” genre of VR games, which has always been a popular genre since the days of Audioshield. The mechanic in all these games is the same–do stuff in time to music–but the best give you a combined feeling of power and style. Pistol Whip, for instance, is advertised as being akin to John Wick in its ability to shoot crooks in time to music.
RagnaRock delves out its own little niche by specifically focusing on Nordic/Sea Shanty style metal songs. In it, the person is instructed to hit drums in time to the music–drums aboard a Viking longboat. The rowers will go faster or slower based on how “on-time” your hits are, and you can use combos to charge up special turbo bursts that allow you to go faster. There are multiplayer modes where you race other players, though as I’ve observed before, the multiplayer scene in VR is not great.
There’s six different “courses” to send your boat down, which are as much the fun as the song themselves. It took me a while to get used to Muspelheim, which incorporates a giant flaming giant who swings a fiery sword at your boat. But they provide a setting to the music and give you something to look at while you’re pounding furiously on the drums.
RagnaRock is a great game. The illusion of pounding drums works very well with the controllers, since you pull back your hand and feel the controller vibrate with what you assume is a hit on the drum. Perhaps the fact that it’s all movement in one direction makes the maps a bit… repetitive; I don’t feel it has quite the replayability of Beat Saber or Pistol Whip. But focusing on a specific genre of music gives it a special little bit of personality that other more abstracted rhythm games lack–the landscapes just lend so much more to the songs, and you feel like they were written specifically for that scenery.
It’s a wonderful pallette cleanser that helps me leave my job behind so that when I take off the headset, I can spend the rest of the evening without worrying about what happened at work today or what’s going to happen tomorrow. I’ve discovered a number of new bands through it. And it feels really good to hit something with hammers.