Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Black and White Characters or Three Things I Don’t Like About Boudica

S’up my pretties? Today is an extremely beautiful day,* I’ve spent it jabbing away at my keyboard all glassy-eyed and I’ve finished Boudica: The Secrets of the Druids. It turned out to be a nice book but contained nothing that awesome to get too excited about. Good enough for your 12-year-old niece or nephew interested in an introduction to Celtic life but not worth it if ze is looking for characterisations and plots with some depth to them. Apart from its setting and the fragments that included references to Celtic customs, the book wasn’t really much different from your average children’s adventure novel.

Daddy dearest
Boudica was a typical fiery tomboy with a mentor in her father and a mother who, of course, was not a mentor and didn’t understand her at all. I really don’t like this trope of girls aspiring to be like their fathers and dismissing their mothers in order to assert their individuality and difference. This is once again placing the masculine above the feminine, and making women’s struggles and achievements invisible unless they are accomplished in the “men’s sphere”. Why, oh, why can’t we have some mentoring mothers for warrior wannabe girls who are not necessarily warriors themselves but understand? Whose achievements are presented as examples worth aiming for even if they are not related to tasks considered masculine? Why does the father always have to be the ideal to be aspired towards if you are to be considered exceptional? What I mean is basically this except that instead of just lineage it’s the legacy to be upheld that comes from the father. Or this (just put dad in the “original hero’s” place).

Cartimandua rules, Boudica drools, or a whole tribe vilified
The only thing I dislike more than cardboard characterisation is cardboard characterisation of villains. I have a particular weakness for well-done characters with shades of grey in them, you see. Umbridge? Check. Bellatrix? Check. Snape? Check. Draco? Check. Scarlett O’Hara? Check. Wicked Witch of the West? Check. Mogget? Check. Becky Sharp? Check. Heath Ledger’s Joker? Check. Edmund? Check. Dracula? Check. Gollum? Check. And much as I hate to admit it, I once thought Anakin Skywalker was one of the most poetically (and prettily) tragic heroes of all time. These are all well-done morally ambiguous characters (with the possible exception of Skywalker, really Lucas, what the hell were you thinking?) with complex personalities. Cartimandua, the queen of the Brigantes tribe in Celtic Britain, is one highly interesting person from history who could’ve made an awesome morally ambiguous character. I view her as a great leader struggling to keep her position and secure her tribe’s future when both could be snatched away from her any second. She kept her head and all her tribe’s land while Boudica was lapping poison after getting her butt kicked by the Romans. And what does Caroline Corby do with her? She turns her into a malicious old nasty. Corby’s Cartimandua is very unpleasant to Boudica. Because a traitor like her must be cruel to children not her own. Because by making her as unpleasant as possible Corby doesn’t have to put much effort into making her a negative character. Because everyone must sympathise with the protagonists and hate the antagonists with the fury of a thousand suns. Because subtly nuanced characters don’t seem to exist in Corby’s world.

This happens even with Cartimandua’s daughter, Bridgette. Bridgette’s bratty, spoiled-but-whiny-and-weak, snooty act could shame any high school cheerleader from Hollywood. That’s a convenient way of making sure the reader doesn’t feel sorry for her when later


she is held at sword point by Boudica.


Like mother, like daughter. Both nasty. Both deserve what they get and a lot of contempt in addition.

And you know what? It gets better. It’s not just the mother and daughter, nastiness runs in the whole damn tribe! Boudica stays with the Brigantes for one entire year and never makes any friends that she’ll miss- except Culann. And guess what? He feels like an outcast among the Brigantes, doesn’t identify as a Brigantian and


ends up leaving them to search for his true tribe.

**Spoiler **

Way to go by the path of subtle Ms. Corby! Hendra, the woman who looks after Boudica while she stays with the Brigantes doesn’t come across as any worse than her mother, indeed, she feels better in two respects: she lets Boudica hang out with her friend and she tries to cover for her whenever she gets in any trouble with Cartimandua. The one or two Brigantians who get a teensy cameo feel normal enough. So why is the tribe presented as so despicable? Is it simply because it is the “traitor” tribe led by Cartimandua that refused to join the rebellion? That’s not realistic characterisation, that’s good ol’ dehumanising and depersonalising the enemy rearing its ugly head again, and Corby doesn’t even do that properly- Hendra seems likeable enough to me. I wonder why Boudica turns her nose up at her... Oh right she’s “the enemy”.

I don’t have any problem with Corby writing Boudica as the heroine and presenting her defiance of Cartimandua as the side to be rooted for. What I do have a problem with is putting Cartimandua forward as a two-dimensional spawn of evil without any motives worth serious consideration. Maybe I’m looking for depth of characterisation in the wrong place, after all, this is a children’s novel where a lot less character development hasn’t hindered many a book from becoming a good deal more popular than Boudica. I read Gone With the Wind for the first time when I was thirteen and what I instantly loved about it was that Scarlett was far from perfect, all of the characters were, and they were allowed to be so, without a thunderbolt from Zeus striking them down or an angel descending upon them and bearing them to Candyland. I really think so many children desire a lot more from their characters than they’re given credit for that it’s highly offensive to consider dynamic characters above their comprehension and needs. And in a book like Boudica it doesn’t have to necessarily add truckloads of pages, it can be done with a few small nudges here and there. For example, in this exchange, to show Cartimandua had legitimate convictions even if our protagonists disagreed with them, “venom” could have been replaced by “firmness”:
“Jodoc, [Boudica’s father] give this message to your king and Caradoc [rebel leader]. No Brigantian blood will be spilt to save the southern tribes. Do you understand?” Boudica was surprised by the venom in [Cartimandua’s] voice.
Calling her venomous makes Cartimandua an unreasonably vicious person, acting out of her own personal prejudices, instead of a capable leader making her decision. Oh well, at least someone gets the awesome in Cartimandua.

Yeah I’m very sceptical


Near the end, Boudica holds Bridgette with one hand while pressing a sword in Bridgette’s back with the other. Then she uses this to blackmail Cartimandua and Cartimandua complies. A twelve-year-old is holding another twelve-year-old with a sword poking in the captive’s back in a place full of warriors and nobody can do anything? Really? Really? No one can sneak up behind Boudica and grab her quickly? Remember, her sword is pointing at Bridgette’s back which wouldn’t make it fatal to drag Boudica away. The sword’s not across Bridgette’s throat, in which case it would be a load more complicated. Oh wait! I forgot! Boudica is Medusa come back to life! Carry on. Carry on. *Hurries away before Boudusa can glance her way with the soulfully burning eyes of burning doom.*


* At least it was when I began this piece. Now it’s turned back into the 100 C Delhi summer I know (and detest).

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