Susan Cooper

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Tue Oct 28 18:51:08 EST 2003


Charlie replied to Robyn:

>I think there is an elitist element - I
>> was going to say racist, but I suspect it is actually more an intellectual
>> superiority thing - in the books. Cooper is clearly oblivious to this,
>> because there she is preaching about racism in Silver on the Tree, when
>> Will's family are all morally superior to the father of the bad boy who
>> has been bullying. I say she's oblivious because there's this message about
>> the Old Ones preventing evil, but never any sense that they should reflect on
>> their methods.

(To put in a small murmur here: if it is elitist actually to *be* morally
superior in the matter of not attacking a small and defenceless child,
mob-handed, simply because of the skin-colour of the child, and to find
such attack indefensible, then I would be glad to think that it will cease
to be elitist because it will become a norm, but until it does become a
norm I think I prefer the elitist position to that of the bullies; and if
to say so is preaching, my Quaker schooling tells me that every single
person has the right and indeed the duty to speak up if the Spirit moves
'em.)

>I am doubtful about the last part of this - as I've said in other posts -
>but I do agree that the Old Ones form an elite - just as wizards to in
>Potterworld, and the Fantastic Four do in Marvel Comics World and in general
>anyone with special gifts (whether magical or not) does in our own world -
>at least within a given context (Domingo may be in an elite qua musician,
>but a sorry pleb qua plumber, for instance). Whether that makes them elitist
>is another matter, and more a question of the attitude they take to other
>people and their own abilities, I'd have thought.

Ain't dat de troof.  But I'd say it's not the only criterion for being a
perceived elite or perceived as elitist: if someone simply *is* better at
something, they may not personally make a point of this or rub anyone
else's nose in it, but may still be condemned as elitist by some other
person with a chip on the shoulder.   In other words, elitism may be very
little to do with the person being accused of it, and a great deal to do
with those doing the accusing.

>Seems to me that elitism could come in several forms, the most blatant being
>a 'Yah boo, I can travel through time and you can't and that makes me better
>than you' kind of attitude. I just don't see that in Will or Merriman, to be
>honest. But there is a slightly subtler form of elitism which you might be
>able to accuse them of, in their sense of noblesse oblige - the Light Man's
>Burden perhaps. Without straying into postcolonial studies too far, I'd have
>thought it was worth comparing the Old Ones' withdrawal from the human world
>to the withdrawal of a self-consciously benevolent colonial power (e.g.
>Britain) from some 'backward' nation after it had set up a rudimentary
>democracy, civil service, etc. You can just about manage on your own now,
>chaps.

I think the thing to remember about the Old Ones is that it is absolutely
clear that they were not volunteers: they were conscripts.  Will had no
choice about being born the seventh son of a seventh son.  Nor did he have
any choice about being on one side or the other: his eleventh birthday came
round, and he was faced with "pick a side and fight and/or die" at the age
most kids have to worry about whether they'll do ok in their first term at
a secondary school.  I didn't notice there being many perks to the job,
apart from the limited glory of knowing it was worth doing; and at eleven,
I don't think I would have found that  compensation for the sheer terror
involved, and the isolation, and the realisation that it was up to me,
suddenly, to protect the people who until that moment had been my
protectors: big brother and father and mother all of them suddenly my
responsibility instead of me being theirs.

And they do remain in some ways part of the human stock from which they
have sprung, I think.  There are points at which Will is definitely just a
small boy for a bit, and Merriman is taking pleasure in the human business
of scholarship without the need to be a Responsible Old One.

>Hmm. How far that comparison (which I only just thought of, I admit) can be
>pushed probably depends on the Light's motives for taking on the protection
>of humanity. I think we will view them differently depending on whether they
>did it a) because the universe is just set up that way; b) as benevolent
>outsiders, from pure pity and a wish to be of help to humanity in its hour
>of need, or c) from some self-serving motive we never get told about. If
>it's a) - and I suspect a) is the answer we're meant to come up with - then
>we might not be able to call them elitist in even the Light Man's Burden
>sense, because in protecting humanity they'd just be 'doing what they do'.

If [c], is helping the species of which they are a part self-serving?  I
mean, they are human in origin, born of human parents, with human emotions;
if wanting to stop the Dark from being in charge is self-serving, so is the
work of any human researcher who looks for a cure for cancer even though
s/he doesn't happen to have the disease personally nor have close friends
or relatives who have it.

I'll discount [b] also, because I think they are part of humanity; just a
part with unusual talents.

I'd be inclined to go with [a] because it seems they are not even elected,
just lumbered with the job whatever they may feel about it.  I don't see
them as "elite" so much as "exiles"; they can have no real homes, nobody
they can afford to love or care about (look how Mary is made a hostage, and
indeed the whole community Will cares about), and nobody but another Old
One with whom they can ever really communicate.

Oh help, there's a horrid moment in C.S. Lewis' *The Magician's Nephew*
that is the reverse of this.  Uncle Wossit is trying to get Digory to join
the magical dabblers, and he says "Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely
destiny", and Digory sees through it and realises that it just means that
his uncle thinks he is entitled to do whatever he wants to get whatever he
wants.  The Old Ones really *do* have a high and lonely destiny.  It
doesn't seem to me that there is very much in it for them, when it comes
down to it.  Our reaction to them makes it fairly clear that they can't
exactly hope for a great deal of sympathy, even, if they ever let ordinary
humans know what they are.

Shades of *Slan*, or *Methuselah's Children*, or any of dozens of other
books in which someone has to come to terms with being, not by their own
choice, part of a group who are hated because they are different and are
perceived as having some advantage over the rest of the world.

That's where I came in....

(But I still think that taking away Rowland's memory at the end, against
what he has said, is wrong, both morally and artistically.  I can't put my
finger on why it so offended me; it did, and not being sure why also
offends me!)

>Not quite satisfied with that, but it'll have to suffice. My thoughts are in
>flux today - like Montaigne I offer not being but transit!

Never expected to wish for Montaigne to be put in charge of the railways.  ;-)

Minnow


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