Robin Hobb

Of Catalysts and Sacrifices

I have finally—finally—finished the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. And now I know why I read paranormal and urban fantasy over straight fantasy. I think I'd been seduced into a false sense of security that as long as I avoided George R. R. Martin, I didn’t have to worry about harsh reality intruding in my fantasy novels. What's that joke about good old George? That he doesn't use Twitter because it would only give him 140 characters to kill off?  Well, Robin Hobb proved that an author need not kill her characters in order to break the hearts of her readers. I invested countless hours in this trilogy—it's long—and I kept reading because I was desperate to unravel the mysteries she weaves and see how the story comes together in the end. And Ms. Hobb makes good on her promises; she resolves her mysteries in a clever and original  manner, which is all well and good. But there was little satisfaction to be had at the end of the series (although I understand that there are other books with the characters of the Fitz and the Fool, but I'm taking a break from all things Hobb for a bit). I find myself unutterably sad at the way it all turned out. As one of the main characters is called, I felt like the Sacrifice--leaving my reader's sweat and tears on the altar of these books. Which makes them great, I suppose, just not what I had been looking for. Too fine for my tastes, perhaps. Too demanding to be truly entertaining. Too heartbreaking to be called escapism.

But that is not what this post is about, I'm sure you will be shocked to learn.  In these books, we are introduced to the concept of the Catalyst, a hero prophesied to come to save the world, which is, of course, a common theme in true fantasy stories. And, like most of those destined to save the world in the fantasy genre, this Catalyst is not much to behold at first glance. In the eyes of his co-conspirators, he is but a green child who knows neither his skills nor his strength and fumbles around from pillar to post, ignorant of what he does, succeeding only by accident, seemingly. It is a well-worn device, but well played in the hands of a master storyteller like Ms. Hobb.

But what of this concept of the Catalyst who comes to change all things?  I found this idea compelling, pulling me back again and again when I didn't think the books were so deeply embedded in my psyche. But they were, and I found myself wondering whether there was any such person or even event in my life, coming to change all things. I thought of my husband and my children first, of course, followed quickly by my mother, all of whom certainly changed all things for me.

I thought also of my former career in national security, and of events that served as catalysts in the truest sense of the word—events like 9/11 in recent memory, and Pearl Harbor in the more distant past. What does it mean to change all things?  I think it means to turn the world on its axis and shift the perspective of all who inhabit the area. It means that we all see through new eyes that which has always been there, but was perhaps not understood.

I thought of things that have not occurred—and hopefully won't—projecting into the wreckage of my future and worrying about that over which I have no control, like illness or injury visiting me or my family, or additional attacks, worse than those that have already happened—involving weapons of mass destruction or the crippling of our infrastructure and financial institutions through cyber warfare or EMP.  And then I realized that Ms. Hobb had put me in mind only of negative catalysts, influenced as I was by the despair of the denouement of her series (which some may have found uplifting, but in which I found only desolation).

What about vehicles of change that are positive and inspiring?  Isn't that an equally valid definition of catalyst?  In fact, isn't it true that it has been my goal and joy to be an agent of positive change in the lives of those I touch? It is true. I am very conscious of working explicitly to help my friends and colleagues, and sometimes even strangers, as I do through this blog, to think and reflect and do the hard, uncomfortable thing for the sake of forward movement in life and love and work and play. I want to be the fire under someone's ass, spurring everyone I encounter to right action, even when it is difficult or frightening.

I love the idea of being the catalyst in others' lives, coming to change all things, to help tilt the world on its axis, in a good way, and help people understand choices they didn't think they had and to discover strength they never dared hope they could poses. Change is always hard, yes, and often painful. But it's always been my objective to help others shoulder the burden of short-term discomfort to achieve the greater good. All things are possible with help, and I love offering the hand of friendship and support to those seeking to better their circumstances.

A catalyst can be cataclysmic or constructive. Both aspects are valid. And after reading about the Catalyst in the Farseer trilogy, I'll aspire to creation over catastrophe every time, although that aspiration is itself a fantasy, as nothing is ever all good or all bad. But it's time to shrug off the depression of these books—as impactful as they were—and return to the world of my exultant HEAs, so that I might rest more easily in my thoughts as I seek a respite from my life among my beloved books and the ease and comfort to be found there. Usually.

The Magic of Mothers

The magic of mothers.png

I'm reading Robin Hobbs' Farseer Trilogy. It is a departure from my normal fare, as it is neither paranormal nor urban, but rather straight up fantasy. I'm enjoying its quiet pleasures, the depth of the character development, the slow roll-out of the world building, which is sufficiently original to be interesting but not so alien as to feel like I'm learning a whole new language and way of thinking. There are no vampires to be had, but the zombie apocalypse is imminent, at least in a manner of speaking. So I am content.  The books focus on a royal bastard named Fitz. We meet him when he is six years old and abandoned at the castle, where his father, the crown prince, resides. He has no real memories of his mother--she is a shadowy figure who smelled good. Essentially, she is completely out of the picture.

I have long noticed the widespread plot device of the missing mother. It is rampant in children's stories, especially those promulgated by Walt Disney, who I am convinced was a misogynistic SOB with serious mommy issues. Have you ever noticed that pretty much all of the original Disney movies and most of the newer ones rely on the dead mother motif? Let me see, Bambi--dead mother, Cinderella-- dead mother, Snow White-- dead mother. In the more recent oeuvre, we have The Little Mermaid--dead mother, Finding Nemo--dead mother, and in Brave, the heroine turns her mother into a bear. Nice. But I've digressed in order to vent my spleen against the evils of Disney (except for Disneyland--the one in California, not Florida, which I love with an irrational passion borne of happy childhood memories--some of the only ones I have-but I've digressed again--back on track we go).

Despite my whining, as well as my personal experience, I understand why this plot device is so rampant. Mothers matter. In a visceral, indisputable way. If, in a story, the mother is MIA, that absence paves the way for all sorts of adventures and misadventures that would never occur under the watchful eyes of mom-which really do exist in the back of her head as well as in her face.

Mothers see all, they know all, even when our kids believe we haven't the faintest clue. The bond between a mother and child reminds me a bit of that described in Ms. Hobbs' fantasy novel, where her hero, Fitz, has the magic of the Wit, which allows him to bond completely with an animal, see out of his eyes, hear with his ears, feel his pain, joy and excitement. It can be like that for mothers with their children. We bleed with them, rejoice with them, and their pain--emotional as well as physical--  is magnified in our own hearts and bodies. We would gladly spare our progeny the difficulties of reality, but we don't. Or, at least, we should not.

Just as escape from reality cripples the addict and stunts the growth necessary for successful living, so too does maternal protection backfire. We must allow our children to fail and to experience the consequences of their actions so that they learn to live with what is, rather than what they wish it would be. It serves no one to participate in delusion and denial. I've written about the dangers of that path here.

As we mothers do the right thing, however, and sit on our hands instead of reaching out to help our beloved children, we may wonder what the point of being there is all about. If we allow our kids to trip and fall, why is Disney so bad with all his dead mommies?  What is the proper role of a mother in the unfolding of the life of her child?  

I'm sure it will shock no one that I've invested a tremendous amount of thought to these questions. Being a mother is the one role in which I cannot fail. I birthed these children and I owe them the very best effort I can put forth in all of my many, many imperfections. That's what the therapy jar is for, of course. Seriously, though, I am constantly wondering about the location of the line between serving as a safety net to smooth out the edges of my children's mistakes, and leaving enough sharpness to teach them what they need to learn.  How much should I allow them to get away with so that they don't feel like I'm Big Brother, or the NSA, monitoring their every move?  When is it appropriate to soothe their wounds, and when to let them protect their pride?  I'm sure I step over these invisible lines with regularity, but God knows I try hard to avoid the cracks.

Mothers are here to watch and reflect back to our children their triumphs and achievements and to offer nurturing arms to hold damaged ones while the worst of the pain passes. We are the mirrors that show our kids that they are loved no matter what--even if we don't like their choices or behavior.  That kind of love changes a person. Not having it makes its mark too, as I've discussed before once or twice. The security of a mother's love is the bedrock on which the foundation of a well-adjusted, confident adult is built. Confidence and security, in turn, nurture compassion, kindness and generosity, as well as an ability to trust and experience intimacy without the fear of bad things happening when we acknowledge and expose our vulnerabilities.

So, mothers make magic. Their existence is alchemical and their absence becomes a crucible of transformation as well. There is a reason so many stories rely on the elimination of the maternal influence to explain far-reaching consequences.

I hope you were good to the mothers in your lives on Mother's Day. Actually, my hope is that we don't need Hallmark holidays to spur us to right action on any given day. But such reminders are good to help focus our attention on that which we can sometimes take for granted and should not. Have you kissed your mother today?