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Friday, 20 October 2017

The mirror crack’d

And moving thro' a mirror clear 
That hangs before her all the year, 
Shadows of the world appear…
Hang on, I’m about to completely lay waste to Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” in an act of shameless cultural vandalism. If you haven’t read the poem, I implore you to do so now before looking at the rest of this post. That way at least you’ll have encountered it first as Tennyson intended. There are two versions, but for my money the 1842 text is better.

All right, warnings duly issued, here we go. I was introduced to the poem in an English lesson in my second year at grammar school. My interpretation of what was going on portrayed the Lady as a visitor from another world whose ship had malfunctioned, stranding her on Earth. Seeing Sir Lancelot on her ship’s scanner, she identified his shield as containing some mineral or gem needed to repair the ship, but she could not tolerate exposure to Earth’s atmosphere and died before she could reach him.

I’d pity the English master I inflicted that science fictional analysis on (to the great amusement of the rest of the form) except that he later put me in detention for writing an essay that he deemed obscene. So, you know, screw him. Although come to think of it I suppose that does give me a kind of honorary membership of the oppressed artists’ club, a taste of the crushing fascist jackboot that wants to stamp on every freethinking writer’s face. Hmm. A useful lesson after all, then. Mind you, I’d still be tempted to do what De Milletail does to De Blayac in Ridicule.

Festering schoolroom resentments aside, it struck me that you could turn that interpretation of “The Lady of Shalott” into a fun little scenario for something like Pendragon. If you want to end it in a big fight, she could be a shapechanger or even a (lady) dragon, rather like Al Williamson’s classic EC Comics story “By George”.
Twists-in-the-tail like that are a bit passé, though – and hard anyway to get the twist across the the players. Having lopped off the dragon’s head, how are they to know it was a stranded space-traveller who only wanted to fix a broken fluid link? And if they do find that out, why wouldn’t they just hand it over to her?

Well, they could do that, and thus it's all wrapped up as an uplifting interlude, but my view is that the scenario needs conflict. How about if the item she needs to repair her vessel is Excalibur itself? That’s not getting handed over without a struggle. And to make it more interesting than a head-to-head fight, how about those “webs” she’s said to weave:
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights
Are those artificial constructs based on the people she sees in the scanner? “I am half-sick of shadows” – surely the lament of somebody who’s spent too much time playing on the holodeck. But she could use that web-weaving ability to create a simulacrum of one of the characters – or of Arthur, or Guinivere – to try to trick them into handing over the item she needs. Or she could be attended by a doppelganger of a knight known to the characters, either to establish her credentials or to trigger a feud with the real knight as a distraction.

The other question is: where is Shalott? Or at any rate, where is the lady/alien/visitor from? In my English class I was envisaging another planet. But maybe she's a time traveller? (That image above by William Holman Hunt strikes me as having quite a steampunk vibe.) Or might she be a Cthulhoid creature? An X-Men style mutant? A phantasmal shadow-version of Morgan le Fay? Over to you.

12 comments:

  1. I can't remember what episode it was, but I recall a Star Trek: TNG bit that had Picard and some alien in a dangerous situation where they had to work together. At the end Picard realized that the alien had set the event up to create a metaphor and allow them to open communication.

    I could imagine the webs and shadows being something the players have to solve and decipher to gain meaningful communication with the Lady. Then they find out that what she wants isn't easily given, but also find out that if she can't leave, others of her kind will come to effect a rescue or corpse recovery. And won't care much about collateral damage to the locals. So maybe they can't/won't give up Excalibur, but maybe they could obtain more of the ore that forged it. Which might mean a trip into Faerie or somesuch.

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    1. That's an interesting approach, and reminds me of a game that Chris Crawford designed that required the player to find a way to communicate and cooperate with an alien. The ticking clock element is a nice touch too.

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    2. The TNG episode was 'Darmok' in season 5. The Enterprise encounters a race of aliens that only communicate in metaphor. The captain of the alien ship was played by Paul Winfield, who also played the captain of the Reliant in The Wrath of Khan.

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    3. Only communicating in metaphor must make it a little hard to develop any kind of technology!

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    4. Maybe they sometimes use similes. "Like a bird soaring through the air" (flight). "Like the sun through a seeing glass" (laser).

      Or maybe the briefing was wrong and they communicate perfectly clearly among themselves but use metaphor when communicating with outsiders.

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    5. Wouldn't that be the worst circumstances for use of metaphor, though, considering that an outsider is least likely to share the same cultural tropes and interpretations? But certainly they couldn't only use metaphor among themselves -- to develop tech you need data lists, and hard data and metaphor do not mix.

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    6. Exactly right. It's possible that TV writers don't completely think through the implications of their ideas before airing them. In other news, the sun is hot and the ocean is wet.

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    7. Lol. The clincher will be whether TNG ever featured that race of aliens again, or whether they were created just for that one story and never appeared after that.

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    8. It's been a long time since I've seen TNG, but I don't remember them ever coming back. I'll fan-wank that they tried that crap on the Klingons and the Klingons eradicated them out of frustrated annoyance.

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  2. I am thinking that perhaps the Lady is an observer from another time, whose technology allows observation of the past only - a window upon a march of ghosts whose parade cannot be altered from its ordained route; people an arm’s reach away whom she cannot touch. Eventually she figures how to re-wire (all that spinning perhaps) the time- machine so that she can step outside it, manifest physically and interact with the people of the past; and goes gladly to her death amongst the living rather than living forever with their hollow shadows.

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    1. Oh yes -- that's a marvellous reading of the material, John, with so many ways to unpack it, too, for example as a metaphor for the whole idea of memory, and its end being to become another of the remembered dead.

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    2. Yes - the transmission of memory, like the transmission of inspiration through art; thanks, Dave. It is nice to join the generations who have been inspired by this poem, which is such rich source material. No wonder the Pre- Raphaelites were able to fill a gallery with their paintings on this subject !

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