middle brother syndrome in British fantasy literature

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about Edmund Pevensie (here is an example) because he is one of my favorite fictional characters, even though he spends most of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a selfish brat.  (Selfish brats are easy to identify with, at least for me.)  In one post, I paired him with Percy Weasley because they both suffer from the same condition: both are middle children who feel they’ll never live up to their older siblings’ perfection and who need to assert their superiority to their younger siblings, so they end up betraying their family (in Edmund’s case) or at least betraying their values (in Percy’s case).  And both are, prodigal son-like, restored to their families, but not before suffering humiliation and loss.

Just the other day, I realized there’s another character in British fantasy literature who fits in with these two.  I’m teaching Peter Pan in children’s lit this week, so I’ve been immersing myself in the story and its context for the past few days: watching the Disney cartoon and Finding Neverland, reading a biography of J. M. Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys called The Real Peter Pan, and even bringing my flying Peter Funko Pop to my office, where he’s currently about to take off from a stack of books (including a volume of Barrie’s representative plays) on my desk.  And now I have just one question for you: Can we give a little love to poor overlooked John Darling?

John is, unlike Edmund and Percy, an exact middle child, the second of three.  And though he seems, unlike them, to have a good relationship with his siblings, I always sense a subtle bitterness toward Wendy for her obsession with Peter Pan (John’s natural rival in age and leadership ability—notice how annoyed John gets when Wendy won’t let him sit in Peter’s chair) and a bit of jealousy of Michael for being everybody’s cute little favorite.  And there is that moment where John comes perilously close to signing up for a life of crime with Captain Hook; it’s only when he finds out he’d have to forswear loyalty to the King that he refuses.  Note that he doesn’t seem, in that moment, to care about abandoning his family—just about being a bad British citizen.  Doesn’t that sound like Percy?  John has that same self-importance—and, related to that, desperation to be seen as grown up—that we see in our other two examples.  The detail Barrie includes of John “seizing his Sunday hat” before flying out the nursery window is brilliant—it confirms our impression of him as a stolid, middle-aged, middle-class banker in a ten-year-old’s body.  (The Disney movie really plays this up, giving John a fussy little umbrella and a prodigious vocabulary.)  And that’s why my heart melts when I’m reminded that he is still a boy, a tired and homesick boy who is ultimately very glad to go home.

One reason I love all these characters is that everyone else seems to either forget about them or hate them.  I’ve never been a middle child or anyone’s brother, but I know what it’s like to wish to be taken seriously, so I feel for these boys, selfish and self-important as they may be.  Can you think of anyone else who might fit into this category?

Mafia zombies at Downton Abbey

Every once in a while I like to write a post about the Godfather saga, even though I know that many of my readers have never seen the films, because I hope that, eventually, you’ll recognize that your life is sadly lacking and you’ll actually watch them.  (And you have a great opportunity coming up to watch the first movie!  Fathom Events is showing it in select theaters on June 4 and 7!)  In the past, I’ve told you what The Godfather has to do with Thor and with An American Tail, and today I’m going to tell you what it has to do with The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey.

I started thinking about writing another Godfather post this past weekend, even before I found out about the June screenings.  It was on my mind because I found a $5 used, good condition record album of Nino Rota’s iconic score to the first film, but also because I was thinking about a screenplay I want to write for a buddy road-trip tragicomedy set during the early days of the zombie apocalypse.  One of the themes of this screenplay (which currently exists only in my head) is that human beings are inherently valuable, regardless of what they can contribute.  This concept is sorely lacking in zombie lore, in which characters are so often rated based on the apparent usefulness of their skills.  Because of this value system, we end up with characters like Eugene in The Walking Dead, who is so afraid of being rejected by the braver and more skillful people whose group he wants to join that he concocts an elaborate lie to establish his usefulness to the world.  If you can’t prove your worth, the logic says, you’re the first to be thrown off the proverbial ship.

I started thinking about The Godfather because the world portrayed in those films has a similar value system.  Despite all the lip service paid to family and loyalty, you’re not valuable simply because you’re human; you’re rated based on the kind of man you are.  (And I use the word man very deliberately.)  If you want to survive, you have to be in charge, and if you want to be in charge, there are a couple of characteristics you need to have.  You have to be cold, which is why the hot-headed Santino would not have made a good Godfather.  (We see this clearly and tragically in the first movie.)  You have to be hard, which is why nobody ever even considered asking the soft-headed and -hearted Fredo to be the Godfather.  (Even in that patriarchal culture, I suspect they would have given that title to Connie before they gave it to Fredo!)  If you don’t have these qualities, you’re expendable.

I was also thinking about Robert Duvall’s character, the one who was sort of unofficially adopted by Don Vito and who grew up to be the family’s lawyer.  (I always forget his name.)  There’s a lot of talk about him being just like one of Vito’s sons, but the truth remains that he’s on the family’s payroll and therefore in that awkward (and ultimately dangerous) employee zone.  His position is roughly analogous to that of Tom Branson in the later seasons of Downton Abbey, who’s both the embarrassing Irish Catholic son-in-law (whose wife isn’t even alive to give him a blood connection to the family) and the family’s estate agent, and therefore still uncomfortably close to being a servant, even if he eats upstairs now.  Although I want to think well of the Crawleys, I suspect that if Downtown Abbey were set in a vendetta culture like that of The Godfather and things started going south, Tom would be the first to get…well, tommy-gunned.  That was a bit of a rabbit trail, but my point is that valuing people based on who they’re related to is just as flawed as valuing people based on a narrow set of culturally valued skills.

My point in this entire post (besides to suggest the most epic multi-world fanfic ever) is that when we stop believing that people are valuable just because they’re people–not for what they can contribute–that’s when we start beating people to death with barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bats and having our hitmen shoot our brother in the back while he’s defenselessly fishing (and those are just the things that happened on Downton Abbey! j/k).  Every one of us will encounter situations in which we feel like there’s absolutely nothing we can contribute.  And in those moments, we need to be able to know we’re safe just because we’re people.

another brother story

You guys know I like stories about brothers, right? Well, today I wrote down a story that’s been living in my head for a while, and the characters are two brothers. This is a portion of a much longer piece I’d like to write someday–I think it would be best as a screenplay–about a tough drifter type, with the unfortunate name Percy, who has to spend Christmas with his tight-knit family (aunts, uncles, and four male 20-to-30-something cousins) in a small town in England. The portion I’m sharing with you today is from early in the narrative, before anyone knows there’s a long-lost cousin. It introduces the characters and lets you know what Percy will be getting into when he comes on the scene. I apologize in advance–this post will be longer than my usual.

“Before you say anything, I’m not William Wallace; I’m a Pict,” announced John Sinclair as the kitchen screen door slammed behind him.

His brother Brian looked up from the fortress of bar exam prep guides that had once been their parents’ kitchen table.  Blue paint covered John’s freckles, and a kilt covered not very much of his legs, which were slightly purple from the cold outside.  “I didn’t think the Picts wore natty white button-ups,” Brian smirked.

“It would have been more accurate to go shirtless,” John conceded, plunking down a stack of essays onto the counter.  “But that would have been totally inappropriate.”

“I don’t think your 15-year-old girl fan club would agree,” Brian retorted, flashing a rare trickster smile before returning his gaze to a tightly-scrawled sheet of notes.

“You’re mental,” said John, getting a Coke out of the refrigerator.  “Say, that reminds me.  You were locked in your room–”

“–the spare room.”

“Well, yeah, same thing; it’s your old room, isn’t it?”  John looked at his brother quizzically, but Brian was fixed on his notes.  “Anyway, you were up there last night when I told Mum and Dad about my date.  I mean, there’s not much to tell, but you’re always interested in my romantic exploits.”  John concluded with a rueful laugh that clearly indicated that the last term was hyperbolic.

Brian looked up.  “I’m always interested in you acknowledging the existence of anyone who isn’t a blood relative or a student.  Tell me more.”

John pulled out a chair and sat down at the fortress.  “Well, we had a coffee, and she told me about working in London, and about this blog she just started, and I told her…” he paused, trying to remember the conversation, “…about how my students loved it when I came to class in a toga…”

“Bet she thought that was sexy.”

“Actually, I think it weirded her out a bit.”  Brian snorted; John didn’t seem to notice.  He was searching his memory.  “Then I told her about how you were home for the holidays, and how you’re almost a barrister…and I told her about how Peter’s coming home for the holidays, and how he’s writing his thesis on Dickens…and I told her about how Harry’s auto shop has a name from Shakespeare.  People find that interesting, don’t you think?”

Brian sighed.  “What I think is that this girl, woman, whatever she is–doesn’t give a flying fig about your brother and your cousins.  I think I know where this story is going.  Go on.”

John shrugged.  “That’s about all.  We finished our coffee, and she said I was really nice.  That’s it.”

“Yeah, that’s right, John.  You’re really, really nice.”  Brian shook his head and returned to his notes.

“But what does that mean?”  A twinge of desperation made John’s voice crack slightly, and he leaned across the table toward his brother, knocking a book off its stack.  “You say that word like she said it, like it’s some sort of code word.  What horrible thing does ‘nice’ mean?”

Brian rubbed his forehead like it hurt.  “You’re very intelligent, and you look like Eddie Redmayne.  That’s why women go out with you.  But you’re kind of like a child.  That’s why they only go out with you once.”

“You obviously know so much about this,” said John in a voice so toneless that Brian couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic.  John was rarely sarcastic.  So Brian asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

John looked at the ceiling.  “It means…remember when Aunt Susie said you looked like Andrew Garfield?”

“Yeah, so?  She’s weird.”

“She was right!  Any woman would go out with you.  And yet I don’t see you in any long-term relationship.”

Brian gestured at the stacks of books surrounding him.  “I’ve been a little busy, haven’t I?  Anyway, you don’t know what I do when I’m not here.”

“Probably the same thing you do when you’re here, huddle up with your books like some kind of Gothic mad scientist.”  John took a swig of his Coke, and Brian went back to his notes.  There was a long silence.

“Oh, speaking of Aunt Susie!” John said suddenly.  Brian jumped in his chair.  “You know we’re all going over there this evening, because Peter’s coming home?”  The desperation had gone as quickly as it had come; John looked like an unusually cheerful Pict.

“I don’t think I’m going; I need to study,” Brian said, not looking up.

“Oh, come on.  You’ve been studying all day.  Don’t you want to see Peter?”

“I’ll have plenty of chances to see him between now and the new year.  But listen,” Brian pointed his pencil at his brother and gave him a significant look, “lay off Peter about moving back here, will you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean.  It’s not just you; it’s everybody.  Every time Peter’s here, you lot are on him about what he’s going to do after graduating.  If I remember correctly, last time you practically had him a job lined up at your school.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” John said.

Brian shook his head and looked back down at his notes.  “Well, I hope it’s nothing to Peter, too.  Just remember he’s a grown man and he can live wherever he bloody well wants to.”

John put his Coke can down slowly and looked at the top of Brian’s head for a few seconds before he said, “Oh, I see.  This isn’t about Peter; this is about you.”

Brian sighed and put his face in his hands.  “Okay, yeah.  This is about me too.  Every time I come here I feel like I’m being smothered.”

“Then why do you come here?” It was hard to tell whether this was a challenge or a sincere question.

“Because it’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not some sort of monster with no familial affection.  I like you, and Mum and Dad, and…everybody, most of the time.  It’s just this town.  It feels like some sort of evil magnetic force sucking everybody back into its vortex of mediocrity.”

“A little dramatic, don’t you think?” John asked with a puzzled laugh.

“Well, look at Harry.  It sucked him in, didn’t it?  In London he was hanging out with real, live literary critics.  The man was brilliant.  I mean, he still is brilliant.  But here he is, fixing cars at Gad’s Hill Auto Repair.”

“Harry likes fixing cars,” John retorted.  His face was still blue, but his ears were turning red.  “And anyway, he wanted to come back here to be around people he knew.  He didn’t want to be alone in London after–”

“Oh, I know what everybody says,” Brian interrupted.  “Harry moved back here because he got divorced.  Well, you know what I think?  I think that’s part of the reason why he got divorced–because he wanted to move back here with his mum, and his wife had the good sense not to want to come to this depressing dump.”

John glared at his brother.  “Don’t you dare say that to Harry, ever.”

Brian threw up his hands.  “What do you think I am, some sort of prat?  Of course I wouldn’t say that to his face.  But it’s true, and I think you know it.”  Brian was quiet for a moment, writing on his notes.  “And you…well, we already talked about you.”  He relapsed into silence.

John finished his Coke.  Brian scanned his notes.  Neither brother spoke for a long time.  Then John said, “I have to go get this crap off my face.  But I want to say one more thing to you.  I know you think I’m some sort of developmentally arrested sad-sack.  But I like my life.  I’m happy, Brian.  And if you’re happy…well, you’re doing a pretty good job of hiding it.”  John got up and threw his Coke can in the recycling bin.

Brian didn’t look up until John was halfway up the stairs.  “All right, I’ll go to the thing for Peter tonight,” Brian yelled.  “Will that make you happy?”

John stopped on the top step.  “You never listen to anything I say,” he said.  “I told you, I am happy.”  He went into the bathroom and shut the door.


The Weasley fanfic, part 2

Another result of going to LeakyCon is that I temporarily lost my inhibitions about writing fan fiction.  I wrote the following story on the plane ride home.  It’s loosely a sequel to a very sad story I wrote last year.  But unlike its predecessor, this story has dialogue.  So I’m looking for feedback about the three characters as manifested through their voices: Can you tell them apart?  Do they sound like men (something I always worry about)?  Do they interact like brothers?  And–this is very important to me–do you like them?

That fall, the Weasley men, including Harry, spent a weekend at Shell Cottage.  Everyone kept finding reasons to propose toasts to Fred and tell each other what he would have been doing if he were there.  Fred’s absence wasn’t the only thing that made the old easy camaraderie impossible to recreate.  Charlie had just moved back to England and was out of step with the family in little ways–nothing significant, but he would forget things, like the fact that Bill didn’t like pumpkin juice.  Ron sometimes retreated inside his head or had long whispered conversations with Harry.  Percy was very quiet and unnecessarily deferential.

But there were plenty of happy moments that weekend, and one of the best was on the last night when they built a bonfire on the beach and ate supper out there, telling embarrassing stories from when they were kids.  When it started getting dark, Arthur, Bill, Ron, and Harry went inside to talk to their wives and girlfriends by Floo network.  The wind had begun picking up when the sun began to set, and there was a definite chill in the air as George walked across the sand toward the fire, where Percy was still sitting.

“I brought you your pretty little jumper,” George said and threw a grey pullover at his brother’s head.

“Too kind of you,” said Percy with a wry face.

“Where’s Charlie?” George asked.

“He’s down there trying to skip rocks in the ocean.  Which I’m pretty certain is impossible.”

In the twilight George could just make out Charlie’s stocky figure.  “Well, let’s go tell the poor lad he’s getting himself all worked up for nothing.”  He started walking down toward the shoreline, and Percy followed, pulling on his sweater.

Charlie was, indeed, hurling bits of shingle into the choppy water.  “Oy!” George called.  “What are you doing that for?”

Charlie turned and wiped his wet hands on the back of his jeans.  “I dunno.  Something to do.”

“Well, come along with us.  I need to talk to you two gentlemen.”  George started walking backward along the edge of the water, facing his brothers.

“Is this about how strange Ron has been acting?” Percy asked.

“No, this is about how strange you two have been acting.”  Charlie and Percy looked at each other.  George turned around and fell into step with his brothers.  “Listen, I need some advice.  I have this brother who’s just moved back to the country, supposedly because he wants to be with his family, but we all really know it’s because he’s after Rubeus Hagrid’s job.”

Charlie snorted.  “Your brother sounds like a real git.”

George nodded emphatically.  “That he is.  Anyway, Hagrid won’t retire until he’s dead, and that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  So my brother needs some gainful employment for the meantime, and he hates working in an office.  That’s problem number one.”

“Well, maybe I can help you with that,” said Charlie.  “But can we walk up to the fire?  I’m freezing.”

“That’s because your trousers are all wet,” Percy said.

“Yes, Mum,” said Charlie.

“Stop fighting, kiddies,” George said, angling back toward the bonfire.  “Let me tell you about my second problem.  I’ve got this other brother who hates his job.  He’s working at the Ministry, in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office.  But that’s really not his kind of work, and besides, that whole big dark ugly building has given him lots of bad memories.  But he doesn’t want to quit because he feels like that’s his only option, and he doesn’t want to hurt Dad’s feelings.”

Percy had stopped walking.  “I never told you any of that,” he said.

George shrugged.  “You didn’t need to.  You’re an open book, mate.”

Percy shook his head and walked faster to catch up with his brothers.  They had nearly reached the bonfire.

“Now, here’s the third and most important piece of my little story,” said George.  He didn’t add anything until they had all sat down by the fire.  “All right.”  He ran his fingers through his hair, which meant that there was something he didn’t know how to say.  This rarely happened.  “Listen, I know it’s stupid to say things like ‘I know Fred would have wanted this,’ because how can we really know.”

Charlie mumbled an agreement; Percy nodded.  “But I spent nine months in the womb with him,” George went on, “so if anyone has a right to say stuff like that, I guess it’s me.  And”–he ran his fingers through his hair again–“I think Fred would want me to open the shop back up.”

“I think that sounds great–” Charlie began to say something awkwardly affirmative, but George kept going.

And, I think it would be nice if my unemployed brother and my unsatisfactorily employed brother would join me in business.”

“Oh,” said Percy after a brief pause, evidently dumbstruck.  “In your joke shop?”

Charlie laughed.  “I think you’ve just blown out little prefect’s mind.”

“Yes, in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes,” said George, quite seriously.  “It’s always been a family business, you see.”

“But surely you don’t expect us to–invent joke products?” Percy asked.

“Heaven forbid,” George said, finally cracking a smile.  “No, I’ll do the inventing, and you two can do the boring things like running the till and making sure we don’t go bankrupt.”

“Oh.”  Percy’s expression relaxed.  “I can do those things.”

George grinned.  “Also, Charlie, I’m hoping you can use your international connection to help me get hold of some rare magical items.”

Charlie looked very impish all of a sudden.  “Do you mean like dragon stuff?”

“Among other things,” said George.  “Rumor has it that you and your Romanian colleagues have been known to engage in some serious mischief.”

“That may be true,” said Charlie with a lopsided smile.  “I confess nothing.”

There was a silence, and then George asked, “But will you tell me later?”  Charlie and George burst out laughing.

Percy finally allowed himself a small smile, though he still looked overwhelmed.  “So we’re going into business, then?”

“We are going into business, lads,” said George.  “And I think the sooner the better.”

“We should shake on it,” Charlie said.

Percy, thinking this was a good idea, leaned over to shake George’s hand.

“Or you could just give me a hug, you two jobless gits,” said George.

And that’s what they did.


Last night, as part of my recent Robert De Niro fascination, I watched Raging Bull, an unrelenting film about the humiliating self-destruction of a boxer who has Othello-esque jealousy issues.  I don’t necessarily recommend that you watch it for fun.  It is a great piece of film-making, though.  It was directed by Martin Scorcese, who is good at stripping attractive Italian-American actors of their dignity (cf. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator).

I’ve been ruminating since last night on the final scene of the movie, in which De Niro’s character, Jake LaMotta (a real person, BTW) is preparing himself for an event in which he plans to recite from a variety of authors including Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.  (Don’t ask how that happened; it’s complicated.)  While looking in a mirror at his ravaged face and rapidly aging body, he quotes at length, and with proper attribution, from the “I coulda been a contender” scene in On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando (who, along with De Niro, played Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather and II, respectively–irrelevant movie nerd fact).  In that scene, Brando’s character is essentially blaming his brother for the failure of his prize-fighting career.  So when LaMotta quotes those lines, he is not only commenting on his own downfall as a fighter but also touching upon his fraught relationship with his own brother, who was his manager until they had an ugly falling-out.

Anyway, I didn’t plan to say that much by way of introduction to a poem I wrote this morning, but I always say more than I plan to say.  The poem, which is called “Fraternitas” (brotherhood), includes allusions, some more overt than others, to not only the two above-mentioned sets of brothers but also some other pairs you might recognize.

I coulda been a contender

But I’ve been walking around my whole life with your hand grabbing my heel.

I could have been king

But you were born first

And Dad liked your noble deeds better.

You said, “Let us go out to the field,”

And you beat out my brains

My manhood

My heart

And you left what was left over

A bad imitation of a man

A second son

Even if I came out of the womb first.

I blamed it on our parents

I blamed it on a woman

But it was you

It was you

You were the one who shot me in the back

And sucked out what nourished me.

But we’re brothers.

Of course I love you.

A tasteful fanfic

So…you see how long this post is, and you’re probably thinking, she’s already broken the resolution she made just yesterday.  But this is an exception.  I’ve been intending to post this story since last Thursday, when I had a rare dispensation of writing inspiration.  That night, I wrote a short story about a guy who finds some of his lost confidence in a bakery (I’m looking for a more traditional distribution channel for that one), and I still had enough leftover writing high to dash off another quick story before I went to bed.  This second one is a Harry Potter fan fiction.  But put images of a Draco/Harry romance out of your mind; this one is in good taste, and nobody acts out of character.  Be warned, though: you might cry.  A few readers already have.

Fred Weasley’s funeral was eventful, something no funeral should be.  They had it in the back yard of the Burrow, exactly where Bill’s wedding had been a year before.  Charlie walked in late because he had forgotten how to get to the house, which made his mother cry even harder than she was already crying.  Ron didn’t say a word all day; he just stared out into the middle distance with red-rimmed eyes.  George wouldn’t look in the casket, and people kept starting when they saw him, as if they’d seen a ghost.  He kept his head down during the funeral and completely disappeared during the part when everybody came up and greeted the family.

Percy disappeared in the middle of the funeral itself; his dad eventually found him sitting on the kitchen floor, sobbing about how he shouldn’t be there and nobody wanted him there, and how that explosion should have killed him instead of Fred.  Mr. Weasley didn’t know what to say, so he waited until Percy stopped crying and then led him bodily out to where the funeral was still going on.

Ginny, who seemed the most composed of the family, made a brief speech about how lucky she was to have so many brothers, and how she loved them all, but Fred had taught her how to play Quidditch, and how he’d always said to her, “Be safe and be good, little sister,” and she’d say, “You too,” and they’d said it not even an hour before he’d died.  Ginny had inserted oblique messages into her speech for certain brothers, but Percy wasn’t even there when she said the part about putting the past behind them, and Ron was completely checked out when she talked about trying to get along better with her brothers and not argue so much.

Bill felt torn between Fleur, who felt like an outsider even though she had the proper surname, and his mother, who looked very alone when Arthur was off chasing down their missing sons.  The people who didn’t have the proper surname felt extraordinarily out of place.  Harry had wanted to sit with Ginny, but Hermione thought the front row should be family only, so the two of them hovered restlessly in the second row.  There were only a few others: some random extended family members; the awkward neighbors, the Lovegoods; Angelina Johnson, an old Quidditch teammate who had gone out with Fred once or twice.  All the others who would have come were busy with losses of their own, or reluctant to leave their loved ones.

At the end of the day, everyone was so tired they didn’t even want to eat.  Mrs. Weasley cooked anyway.