Teaching Dark Lord

jstallcup at juno.com jstallcup at juno.com
Tue May 14 15:33:36 EDT 2002

Ok, Philip had a whole list of questions that really helped me think
about how I'm going to approach the class tomorrow.  Let me try to answer
them altogether here, rather than spaced out below:

There are 14 people in the class; most of them had finished the book, but
some hadn't.  Some did like it, but they were not very vocal yesterday,
and I hope to encourage them to speak up tomorrow.  After I taught and
posted to the list, I started reading their papers, and one student wrote
on Dark Lord and offered some very useful analyses of it--so that was
more encouraging.  

Also, I did not show them that I was disappointed, nor say anything
negative about their reactions.  I reassured them that the book could be
hard going and they might like it better on a second read, and I also
emphasized that not everyone likes fantasy and that's perfectly ok.   My
teaching technique is usually to take what the students have to say and
run with it, adding information, poking them to take their ideas further,
getting them to play off of each other, reminding them of what we have
read in the past, etc.  I'm really careful not to be judgemental,
particularly about their personal reactions to books.  So what I said to
everyone here on the list is not what I said to them--I was venting a bit
because I couldn't vent at them.  Sorry not to be clear about that!  

I think I'll start by working the "not liking Derk" angle tomorrow in
class, because I had the same reaction Philip and Sally seem to have had:
 Derk's a realistic round, adult character who makes mistakes and
experiences marital problems that are very true to life.  This is a
pretty unusual thing in a novel for adolescents (even if there are round
adolescent characters, it is much more difficult to find round adult
characters).  So, this is one way, again, that dwj is playing with our
expectations.  Relatedly, one student also found it very problematic that
both he and Mara put the children into such danger; again, we'll be
discussing the issue of realism (mixed in with the fantasy).  This should
allow us to take off on a discussion of what she is doing in terms of
generic conventions in general, which I think will be the best way to
make them understand what is going on, even if they still don't like it!

Almost all of the students really liked--even loved--Mr. Was, which
really is an extraordinary book.  Hautman also plays with generic
conventions and form, but in some ways, perhaps, the main character is
more accessible than the characters in DL (partly because Mr. Was is more
focused), and overall, it is probably less complicated than Dark Lord. 
You have to have read Mr. Was to understand how odd the next statement
is, but ... my disdainful student thought Mr. Was was (let's see if I can
remember her exact words): trite and commonplace, I believe.  

Really, go read Mr Was, and I honestly think you'll get a big laugh out
of that.  

And one last answer:  snakes are often associated with evil, deceit,
temptation and so on.  You know, the snake tempting Eve and so on.  So I
think that dwj kind of keeps us off balance there; we aren't sure what to
think of Querida... come to think of it, she is deceitful!  HMM  more to
think about...  

Thank you all for your comments so far!   They will be helpful when I
tackle the class again tomorrow.  


On Tue, 14 May 2002 16:36:29 +0100 Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk writes:
> Jackie is reporting on her literature course:
> > for these last couple of weeks of class, we read another fantasy 
> novel,
> > Mr. Was, and a chapter explaining fantasy and science fiction in 
> our
> > textbook.
> Pardon my ignorance - I've never heard of Mr Was.
> > How else to say it? Almost to a person, they hated Dark Lord.  I 
> was so
> > disappointed!  Although I assured them that after we have 
> finished
> Oh, no!  I should think you might be!
> > discussing it, they should at least appreciate it, I'm not so 
> sure.
> > Several said that they had trouble getting into it (this was true 
> both of
> > die-hard fantasy fans and readers who don't like fantasy).  One of 
> my
> Have they all read the whole book yet?
> > fantasy fans who didn't like it also says that she doesn't like 
> Lord of
> > the Rings and feels really badly about not liking either this book 
> or
> > LotR.
> Well, I haven't read LotR _since_ I was an adolescent...
> I don't think she - or any _individual_ - should ever feel bad about 
> not liking
> particular books.  Some books are not for some people.
> OTOH almost a _whole class_ not liking DL is a tragedy!  (How many 
> students in
> the class, BTW?)
> > Another didn't like Derk and his habit of tuning out instead of
> > communicating with his wife.  Some said they felt like they 
> couldn't join
> Well, yes, that was one of Derk's problems.  Hey, a real character 
> with real
> flaws!  How novel!
> I could go on disagreeing with the things your students said, but it 
> won't
> help...
> > What do you all think?  I wonder if that is a general sort of 
> knee-jerk
> > reaction to fantasy.  This particular student has been a staunch 
> defender
> > of "the classics" from day one and has been very dismissive of 
> every
> > adolescent text we've read, so I suppose a disdainful reaction to 
> fantasy
> > is not so unexpected from her.
> I doubt it's a knee-jerk reaction against fantasy, but what did your 
> students
> think of the other fantasy you studied?
> > I know that the book is, well... odd, like so much of dwj's work.  
> One of
> > the things that she is doing is playing with our expectations of 
> fantasy,
> > and that's what I really liked about it and thought that they 
> would
> Well, I think she does that in most of her books.  In Dark Lord, 
> she's doing so
> a bit more explicitly, and I would have agreed with you in expecting 
> your
> students to appreciate it best.  I mean, if these young people are 
> going to
> teach literature, they should understand literary conventions, why 
> they're used,
> where they're useful, and so on, and should really appreciate a 
> fantasy that
> comes out and says "Generic fantasy conventions are messing up our 
> world!"  Oh
> well.
> > up their confusion.  Some of these expectations include 1. issues 
> of
> > gender roles, 2. adult/child relationships (what were those 
> parents
> > thinking???) 3.  symbolism (it's hard to tell what side querida is 
> on,
> > partly because jones makes use of negative symbols, such as 
> snakes, to
> > describe her) 4. particular themes 5.  language issues... etc.
> I think that these are all worth studying!  With luck, you ought to 
> get a really
> good discussion on the symbolism (why is a snake a negative symbol? 
> etc.), but
> you don't sound very lucky so far...
> Actually, I recently re-read DL and YotG.  YotG is one of DWJ's 
> funniest books,
> I think, but DL certainly has its moments.  And Scales is my 
> favourite dragon in
> all literature...
> Philip.
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