The Problem With "The Iron Ring"

by Robinson L

Robinson L encounters a critical lack of narrative inertia in Lloyd Alexander's 1997 children's fantasy.
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I couldn't in all honesty entitle this “The Precise Moment I Put Down Lloyd Alexander's The Iron Ring”; or even “The Precise Moment I Gave Up On Llyod Alexander's The Iron Ring” because I did actually finish the book, and the ending turned out better than expected. There was, however one aspect that still bothers me months after reading it.

A little background. The Iron Ring is a 1997 children's novel by US author Lloyd Alexander, best known for his Prydain Chronicles. Unusually for a book written by an Anglo-American, its setting is clearly modeled on Hindi India. Such a situation is fertile territory for cultural misrepresentation. Unfortunately, my own ignorance of Indian culture leaves me unqualified to assess whether Alexander's portrayal is accurate or not.

I'd be happy to discuss this aspect of the novel with anyone who a) has read it, and b) knows the culture Alexander is depicting well enough to judge whether he does it justice. It would also help clarify my main issue with the book, which we'll get to in a minute.

As the story opens, Tamar, king of the fictional realm of Sundari, and a kshatriya (member of the warrior caste) receives a visit from King Jaya of Mahapura. As host, Tamar agrees to play a game of dice with Jaya. Tamar's honor as a kshatriya demands that he keep playing, even as Jaya's stakes become more and more unreasonable, until at last, they are betting their own lives.

Of course at this point, Tamar loses. Jaya slips an iron ring on Tamar's finger and orders him to come to Mahapura, saying something suitably vague and ominous about how Tamar's life is now his property.

At which point, Tamar wakes up and it was all a dream. Or was it? The iron ring is still on his finger, and it all felt too real to've been just a dream.

Determined to learn the truth, and fulfill his obligation to King Jaya if necessary, Tamar sets out to find Mahapura leaving Sundari in the hands of his military commander, Darshan. He is accompanied by his friend and teacher, Rajaswami, a brahmana (English: Brahmin, the wise and priestly caste, higher in status than the kshatriyas).

On their quest, they are joined by the usual cast of quirky supporting characters, including a grand total of one female: the love interest, Mirri.

The problem I've had with reading the Prydain chronicles as an adult is that Alexander's characterization is really quite dull. I mean, you can see how he tries to give them flaws and quirks and little things to make them stand out, and yet somehow, they always feel two-dimensional and uninteresting.

That problem carries over to The Iron Ring: again, you can see how hard Alexander tries, and yet his characters never feel quite real, not quite alive, not quite fully-formed. This, however, is a problem with the book, and not the problem I allude to. I just thought I'd mention it.

Anyway, back to the plot. One of the friends Tamar makes on his journey is Ashwara, former king of the country of Ranapura. Ashwara's throne was usurped by his cousin Nahusha, and Ashwara himself was forced to flee along with his two brothers. Ashwara is gathering an army to fight Nahusha and Tamar pledges warriors from Sundari to assist Ashwara in his struggle for justice.

Nahusha is the main villain of the story, and about as stereotypical as you can get. Several times throughout the book, one of the characters will ask if Nahusha might try such-and-such a tactic, and then Tamar or Ashwara or Rajaswami or one of the other voices of tradition and authority will say “Of course he won't; that would be dishonorable.” And it always turns out that not only is Nahusha completely dishonorable and generally mustache-twirlingly evil, but every single warrior under his command is dishonorable enough to go along with it.

Eventually, big battle, Ashwara dies (surprisingly enough), and Tamar gets thrown to the corpse-burning pits. He escapes with the help of his friends, rallies Ashwara's forces, defeats Nahusha, spares him, almost gets killed by Nahusha's treachery, and then watches as Nahusha is killed by a bunch of animals he held captive in a death scene worthy of any Disney villain. Ashwara's brother becomes king of Ranapura, and his other brother takes over another kingdom which lost its king fighting for Ashwara.

There's a couple more chapters of Tamar and co. wandering around till they reach Mahapura and King Jaya. There's also a completely pointless subplot concerning a ruby which it turns out at the end has the power to kill or raise the dead, but, of course, gets destroyed immediately after we learn this, so what's the point?

The confrontation with King Jaya is the big moment, the part where we finally learn what this whole quest was about. (Of course his game with Tamar wasn't really a dream: a mixture of illusion and a sleeping spell placed on everyone in the castle except Tamar.)

It turns out that Jaya was manipulating the quest all the way through (big surprise), and that he was also, thanks to his magical illusion powers, approximately 95% of the incidental characters the main and secondary characters encountered throughout the story (some of whom I guessed at the time, others I did not).

The all-important question is, of course, “why did Jaya do all this?” I had originally thought that the whole quest was just a big lesson for Tamar about not putting personal honor before public duty. In his initial dice game with Jaya, Tamar admitted that if he lost the amount of treasure Jaya proposed for their bet, the people of Sundari would be impoverished. Yet he accepted the bet because honor demanded it. This guy would rather hold onto his honor than protect the well-being of his people? Yeah, I'd say he needs to reorganize his priorities.

His kshatriya's honor consistently got him into trouble throughout the book—although on occasion it did seem to point him toward the correct path, too—so it wasn't unreasonable to expect a lesson of pride and honor to be the point of the quest. In fact, from a discursive perspective, I'm a little disappointed that it wasn't, as it means Alexander pretty much ignores Tamar's irresponsible prioritizing.

From a plot perspective though, the real answer was much better than Teaching Naïve Young Ruler an Important Lesson About Life. Jaya, knowing Nahusha's ambition would eventually take him well beyond just Ranapura if left unchecked, orchestrated the whole thing to defeat him. (This too has a morally compelling angle, as it means Jaya didn't set all these terrible events in motion just to make a point to a young, over-proud king.) Better yet, Jaya reveals that Tamar was only the last of many kings he visited and convinced to play his game. He never seriously expected anything out of Tamar; he was just covering all his bets.

This, to me, is a really great concept. It means that nobody thought Tamar was particularly special or anything, or that it was his “destiny” to do great things, or any other such self-satisfied nonsense. No, all his accomplishments were entirely his own, and in defiance of expectation, rather than in alignment with it. Which just makes him and his quest all the more heroic.

I would've been even more pleased with this twist, if something in the middle of the book hadn't already soured it for me.

It started in a scene before the big battle. Tamar and Rajaswami pass a shmashana, a ceremonial pit where the bodies of the dead are cremated. Working there is a chandala, a person so low, they are entirely outside the caste system—we in the West are perhaps more familiar with the term Dalit.

Rajaswami warns Tamar not to touch the chandala, or he will break his caste and be reduced to a chandala himself. Of course, after Ashwara's death in the first battle between his and Nahusha's followers, Nahusha sends Tamar to work with the chandala in the shmashana. Alexander does a nice job of depicting Tamar's reaction to being touched by a chandala and breaking his caste, starting with denial and attempts to rationalize away his change in position and progressing slowly to acceptance.

All well and good. Then the inevitable rescue occurs, with Rajaswami and the Obligatory Love Interest swooping in to pick up Tamar and return him to his quest. The book doesn't really go into the implications of caste on the O.L.I., but since she has no life outside of Tamar anyway, the point is moot.

There is however, a scene when Rajaswami first appears and Tamar warns his old friend and mentor not to touch him, lest he break caste. Rajaswami ignores the warning and immediately hugs Tamar, as their friendship means more to him than caste.

This is nothing less than what we, the readers, are trained to expect, but it's still rather touching, considering that Rajaswami had earlier been portrayed as a little over-proud and a bit of a stickler for caste propriety. But it makes sense that their disastrous defeat at Nahusha's hands gave the old brahmana a badly needed priority check.

In the next section, however, the story really hit the fan. Rajaswami and Tamar's O.L.I. lead him to the encampment where Ashwara's younger brothers, Kirin and Skanda, are rallying their allies for another round with Nahusha's forces. Among these allies is a contingent of warriors from Sundari, led by Tamar's military commander Darshan.

All three are duly warned of Tamar and Rajaswami's chandala status and all three display equal indifference to breaking caste as they rush to congratulate their friends. Kirin and Skanda both make pithy statements about how friendship and strength of character matter more than caste. Darshan comments that as a military man, he “never put stock in that sort of nonsense” anyway.

There are so many things wrong with this scenario, I don't know where to start. While not equipped to evaluate for cultural accuracy, I can say with authority that from a narrative viewpoint, it's complete bollocks.

Alexander spends a significant amount of time in Parts 1-3 of the book building up the importance of caste in the world of the story. The point he obviously intends to make is that caste is really just a social construct, and a rather horrible one at that. It says nothing about who you are as a person—any more than skin colour or sexual orientation—and that's what really counts.

Fair enough, except that as soon Alexander has made his point, he changes everything around so that caste literally doesn't matter. Tamar is not reviled even momentarily for being a chandala, nor is Rajswami, nor Darshan, nor Kirin, nor Skanda.

Even though Darshan has broken his warrior caste, no one so much as raises a question about his suitability to continue fighting, much less commanding the forces of Sundari. Apparently, not only do Sundari's kshatriyas have no problem following a chandala, there's also no social or religious restrictions on them either.

After Nahusha's karma inevitably catches up with him, the people and laws of Mahapura raise not even a half-hearted objection to a chandala (Kirin) ascending to kingship. The kshatriyas of Chandragar—whose king died in the previous battle—go them one step better and even invite a chandala (Skanda) to become ruler.

And needless to say, Tamar, though a chandala remains king of Sundari.

It seems that in Alexander's Not-India, the caste system is just influential enough to obsess those with caste privilege like Rajaswami, and to be strongly implicated in a sharp division of labour, while not quite influential enough to get anyone else to give a flying frak about it, or to enforce the division of labour in any way whatsoever. That's a very specific level of influence.

No wonder Darshan was so casual about caste-breaking, since the consequences of doing so are entirely nil.

It's also interesting to note at what point in the story we are first introduced to the “not quite important enough” clause, i.e. at the exact moment the previous logic of the caste system threatened to inconvenience our heroes. At which point we learn that not only is the caste system unenlightened, but that hardly anybody puts any credence to it anyway, despite its continued pervasiveness.

Afterward, the topic just goes away, to the point that when the characters learn the original chandala was just another of King Jaya's countless disguises, the question of whether Tamar and all the others have actually broken caste or haven't doesn't even come up. Tamar does mention that he'd like to build a world where a person's caste doesn't matter. Apparently, he hasn't cottoned on to the fact that said world sprang fully into being just at the point when his caste-breaking was in danger of having long-term effects on the plot.

Now I'll admit, being the radical democrat (small “d”) that I am, I would've found it more personally satisfying if Tamar had lost his position and been left an ordinary human being, rather than a member of the social elite and a dictator, if a benevolent one. However, my complaint is not that Alexander defies my political views, but that he breaks his story's internal logic to do so.

Were I feeling really uncharitable to Mr. Alexander, I might compare this attitude with the widespread delusion—particularly among the upper classes—that we can abolish underprivelege without abolishing overprivilege. Eliminate unfair racial disadvantages for people of colour without simultaneously eliminating unfair racial advantages for whites. The myth, in short, that we can have our cake and eat it too.

It's also a cheap thing to do to a story. Lloyd Alexander missed a perfect opportunity to get in some great social commentary about the crushing, humiliating, degrading, dehumanizing experience people like the chandala go through in the real world—maybe even comparing it with the experience of people of colour or those living in poverty in the United States.

He also passed up a goldmine of story drama. We all know the best way to make a character heroic is to place more and harder obstacles in their path. A character hopping stones in a river is nothing special. A character leaping a crevasse, catching the opposite ledge with their fingertips and scrabbling up to safety is impressive. A character doing all that with a crazed spider-monkey on LSD strapped to their back is even more impressive. And so on.

Just think of the possibilities Alexander passed over. Think how much harder Tamar's quest would've been if his own side shunned him as a chandala, an outcast, an untouchable. Think how much more difficult his task would've been if, along with a brutal tyrant and the occasional rakshasa, Tamar and his friends had to contend with the discomfort, suspicion, and outright hostility of practically all the other humans they encountered. And think how much more heroic Tamar would've been if he'd come through despite these additional obstacles in his path—especially if he'd kept his faith in humanity intact along the way.

I may have mentioned in passing that I know bugger all about Hinduism and the caste system in India. Therefore it is just possible that an Indian reading The Iron Ring would find this unexpected shift makes perfect sense. Maybe the caste system really has had that very specific level of influence at some point in Indian history. I doubt it, but I'm prepared to give Alexander's scenario some slight benefit of the doubt.

This is not to say that he's off the hook. As a Western author writing in a Western language for predominantly Western readers, Lloyd Alexander had a responsibility to write in such a way as to make his story comprehensible and coherent to his readership. Since most of his readers do not have significantly more knowledge of the caste system than I do, the burden is on Mr. Alexander to explain how such a blatantly counterintuitive—to Western minds, anyway—social system can possibly work ... if it even does work that way, which I doubt.

At best, Alexander fails to explain sufficiently the mores of the culture he writes about. At worst, he violates those mores and several rules of good writing for the sake of plot convenience. Either way, The Iron Ring suffers for it.
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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 17:00 on 2009-08-03
if it even does work that way, which I doubt

It's good of you to be skeptical. It doesn't work that way. At all.

From the description you've given, there are plenty of cultural misconceptions and incorrect portrayals, of which the complete Fail about the caste system is only one. (Another is what seems to me to be an insertion of a medieval European chivalric honor code -- 'honor' in traditional Hindu cultures is much more closely tied to the concepts of dharma and karma and noblesse oblige (disclaimer: I could be wrong, I don't know as much about this as I'd like)). It sounds like I'll have to read the book, because, as you say, at the very least he's presenting them wrong.

I've seen a couple of instances of this before, where Western authors grab the caste system as a convenient way to indicate social stratification between characters that will be broken down anyway because some plot / character development point is naturally more important, and it never fails to piss me off. That kind of cultural appropriation and deliberate imposition of a Western value system is insulting and condescending.

Now, from my point of view, the caste system is a fairly horrid cultural construct, and I'm glad that the Indian government is doing what it can to break down those barriers, but I'm not happy with a white man telling children that caste is a load of nonsense that none of the 'good guys' would ever think about. Hell, I don't think I'm comfortable telling people it's a load of nonsense, since my ancestors gave that up a few centuries ago when they decided they'd had enough of Hinduism.
Robinson L at 03:00 on 2009-08-04
'honor' in traditional Hindu cultures is much more closely tied to the concepts of dharma and karma

That may possibly be my fault, actually. The characters do talk a lot about karma and dharma. It's just that, as a white Western male who knows next to nothing of either concept except the fortune cookie pop culture versions. Therefore it could be that Alexander got it at least somewhat right and I just mangled the interpretation, drawing what I do know (which is heavily influenced by medieval European chivalric honor codes) in trying to make sense of it. Um, possibly.

Uma Narayan has made a strong argument for progressive Westerns not to withhold criticism of that which is truly inhuman in non-Western cultures, but finding a way to do so without going into cultural misappropriation and demonisation (still lacking a better word for that) still eludes me.
Rami at 03:44 on 2009-08-04
Nothing wrong with fortune-cookie versions, so long as they're right! They're not desperately complex concepts, and what you know is probably most of what there is.

Karma is, basically, "what goes around comes around" -- the lesson that whatever you do has ripple effects and consequences and that these must be accepted and faced. Dharma is rather more important and complex -- it translates as sort of divine rightness, and in the caste system it includes the rightly performed duties of one's station.

Uma Narayan has made a strong argument
And I agree with her. But I think you've got to understand something to be able to criticise it well, and I wouldn't expect the target audience of a children's book in the US to be making informed judgments about comparative religion...
Arthur B at 06:44 on 2009-08-04
Uma Narayan has made a strong argument for progressive Westerns not to withhold criticism of that which is truly inhuman in non-Western cultures, but finding a way to do so without going into cultural misappropriation and demonisation (still lacking a better word for that) still eludes me.

I suppose that the critical step which Alexander seems to have fumbled here is presenting the issue without making the characters seem like backwards superstitious idiots for buying into the cultural features in question in the first place, and either finding some way for your characters to convincingly have second thoughts about the matter in question which remains culturally appropriate or simply have them accept it as the way things are, and accept that they might not look absolutely perfect and bright and shiningly virtuous as a result.

It sounds like Alexander fails on both points, based on what Robinson's said; the way in which Tamar's caste problems are handled are completely unconvincing and aren't really culturally appropriate, and they make everyone look stupid for having cared about caste up to that point.

I can't believe that in a belief system as multifaceted and complex and just plain ancient as Hinduism, with all its many different schools of thought, that nobody ever came up with a strong critique of the caste system as it was applied which Alexander couldn't draw on to find a culturally-appropriate way to challenge the idea, or at least something more convincing than "Someone we like and respect touched an Untouchable!" "Oh, well, it's obviously OK when he does it..." In fact, a quick check of Wikipedia tells me that there were a heap of major figures and movements in the past within Hinduism that rejected caste.

(Also, if you throw Buddhism into the mix you essentially have a homegrown Indian critique of caste right there - arguably the whole point of Buddhism is to get off the caste/reincarnation treadmill. Roger Zelazny uses this point to good effect in Lord of Light, which at least one Hindu acquaintance of mine has endorsed as being pretty darn true to the subject matter.)
Rami at 16:38 on 2009-08-04
Yep, you make a good point -- even in the last century, the founders of independent India (notably Gandhi and Ambedkar, off the top of my head, but there were others) wrote loads on the subject of caste, and I don't doubt much of that is available in English. (Most of it was probably written in English to begin with, being aimed at the British ;-)). So Alexander doesn't have a lot of excuses for getting it wrong.
Arthur B at 17:00 on 2009-08-04
Hmm, I was thinking of precolonial critiques of caste, since they would probably make more sense in the context Alexander was writing about, but using Ghandi's arguments could have also worked - it would be more accessible (being crafted, as you point out, to educate and convince a mass audience of Westerners rather than to argue with coreligionists), and it'd point kids in the right direction to learn about modern Indian history.

But I should probably leave further comment to someone who's actually read the book. Lloyd Alexander's been highly recommended to me for a while, but I think I'll start with the Prydain Chronicles; they might be set closer to home, but the reviews I've seen are pretty glowing. As it stands The Iron Ring seems to go beyond racefail and straight into "bad writing" territory, with established character traits melting away at the behest of the plot...
http://serenoli.livejournal.com/ at 17:59 on 2009-08-04
Hinduism is diverse enough that any number of opposing view-points you want to draw out can be accommodated. For example, there were plenty of very popular poet-saints in the pre-colonial era who criticized the caste system and who were influential enough that their poems and their ideas became incorporated within Hinduism. So for example, devotion to a god was considered an equalizing force which made caste meaningless. I'm not sure how that philosophical view would translate into a practical social setting, but as you point out - just exploring how it would do so would have made the plot that much more interesting. And if he didn't want to get into that because it would change his story too much, it was much better he didn't introduce the Dalit side-plot to start with if it was going to turn out irrelevant in the end.
Dan H at 10:08 on 2009-08-07
Been away from the site for a bit (blame WoW) so I've just found this.

Like ... well pretty much everybody else here, I'm really not comfortable with the idea of a white guy writing a book which criticises a cultural system that neither he nor his target audience have any contact with.

Responding to various points in no particular order:

Rami says:

Now, from my point of view, the caste system is a fairly horrid cultural construct


I think this is one of those weird perspective issues. By modern standards, caste systems are kind of messed up, but no more so than - say - feudalism. Heck as I understand it the basis of a caste system is that your status in society is determined at birth which is ... well ... not exactly uncommon in most cultures actually.

If I read the review correctly, the book seems to end with the main character losing his caste (which is okay because the caste system is silly and outdated) but still becoming king (which is also okay because absolute monarchy is apparently *not* silly and outdated). It seems to end up with nasty overtones of "look at those silly things that foreign people in hot countries believe".

Robinson, L adds:

Uma Narayan has made a strong argument for progressive Westerns not to withhold criticism of that which is truly inhuman in non-Western cultures, but finding a way to do so without going into cultural misappropriation and demonisation (still lacking a better word for that) still eludes me.


The BBC South-Asian Comedy show Goodness Gracious Me had a sketch about that. It went something like:

South Asian Woman: "Help, my husband is trying to kill me"
Well-Meaning Brit: "I'm sorry, but for all I know that might be an essential part of your culture"

Basically it's a very difficult line to walk, because I think it's very easy for us open-minded western types to fall into what is actually a very patronising way of thinking. Trying to be tolerant, we wind up saying "oh the poor things don't know any better".

Part of the problem, I think, is that it's very easy to identify everything that a member of a culture does with the culture they come from, and therefore either excuse the individual or condemn the culture, depending on where you fall in the political spectrum.

To take an example, a couple of years ago there was a lot of talk in the British news about "honour killings" - there were a couple of well publicised incidents of South Asian families killing their daughters' boyfriends for transgressing some kind of scary foreign code of behaviour. The tabloids spent a lot of time shouting about how awful this was, and how those dirty foriegners have to learn that our culture is right and theirs is wrong.

The thing is, though, the same sort of thing happens in the west all the time, it's just instead of calling it "honour killing" we call it "murder" or if it's racially motivated a "hate crime". People kill each other for stupid reasons and "you were going out with my daugter and I didn't like you" is actually pretty high on the list. It's just that when immigrants do it, we assume they did it because they were immigrants.

Basically I think the best way to deal with this sort of thing is to condemn individual actions (chopping people up with machetes is not okay) and to make as few assumptions as possible about the cultural context they're grounded in.
Arthur B at 10:31 on 2009-08-07
I think this is one of those weird perspective issues. By modern standards, caste systems are kind of messed up, but no more so than - say - feudalism.

The feudalism comparison is an exceptionally good one; I think a lot of problems arise here when people analyse and criticise other people's cultures or histories but don the rose-tinted glasses when looking at their own. Alexander's brush with the caste system in the time period in question might have come across better if it was part of a consistent pattern of pointing out the downside of living in History - say, if the Prydain Chronicles had included a savage critique of serfdom - but it doesn't sound as though that's the case (especially since he disses caste but lets absolute monarchy off the hook).

This is one of the things which made me stop reading Feist and Wurts' Empire Trilogy. The first book was fine, because it depicted a culture based mainly on a mix of South Asian influences without judgement; Kelewan is the way it is, and the characters just have to deal with it.

The problem came in the second book, where the characters from Midkemia show up, and pseudo-medieval Europe is compared to pseudo-medieval South Asia, and wins because Feist and Wurts blatantly cheat on its behalf. The big sticking point is Kelewan's happy embrace of slavery, which is depicted as an abomination, but apparently Midkemia has no comparable institution; there are no such thing as serfs, so far as I can tell, just happy prosperous peasant farmers. Feist and Wurts basically give Europe a free ride for no good reason, and as far as I can tell the plot of the rest of the trilogy is about how the female protagonist decides that Slavery Is Wrong through her interactions with her love interest and manages to save the Empire by making it operate more like the way white people run things. Gah.
Rami at 16:36 on 2009-08-07
one of those weird perspective issues. By modern standards, caste systems are kind of messed up

Of course, it's not just modern Western values that throw a harsh, unfavorable light on caste systems -- people have known they're messed up for a long time. Buddhism's one particularly ancient example, and Islam has historically had a lot of conversions due to its egalitarian, caste-free message.

but don the rose-tinted glasses when looking at their own

Wait -- you mean Western history wasn't really like one big Disney movie of happy peasants and singing mice?
Arthur B at 17:01 on 2009-08-07
Wait -- you mean Western history wasn't really like one big Disney movie of happy peasants and singing mice?

Actually, it was, but only because of the ergotism.
Jamie Johnston at 00:20 on 2009-08-08
(Long, sorry!)

I've read the article and the comments with great interest and have been trying to work out what I think about it all. I'm still not entirely sure, but I think what I think is this: novelists who use historical or quasi-historical settings (and in that I include yer average medieval-Europe-but-with-dragons-and-trolls-and-magic fantasy world) far too often fail to understand both the society and the world-view they're writing about. This tends to manifest itself in writing unconvincingly about the way the society operates while also being crassly judgmental about its culture and simultaneously importing modern Euro-American culture into the minds of the characters.

It's surely elementary that you have to understand how a society works in order to write a convincing story set within it. That means understanding both the beneficial and the pernicious operations of its various institutions. In a civilized society no well-established institution is totally devoid of positive aspects. Slavery allows a non-industrial society to support a class of privileged people who have the leisure to govern, to create or commission art and literature, and often to conduct warfare which increases the society's wealth and thus improves the standard of living of everyone in it: this doesn't mean slavery is good, but it does mean that you can't suddenly abolish it in that society without causing a severe economic crisis. The feud acts as a powerful incentive for families and other small social groups in a society with no pervasive system of public law-enforcement to control their own members and restrain them from violence for fear of retaliation: this doesn't mean feuds are good, but it does mean that you can't suddenly ban them in that society without inviting an epidemic of unrestrained robbery, rape, and disorder. I don't know what exactly were the beneficial aspects of the caste-system in pre-modern India, but I'd wager a lot of money that there were enough of them that for a handful of kingdoms to completely ignore the rules of that system as they seem to do in Alexander's crypto-India would have resulted in fairly massive upheaval; yet he apparently implies that there will be none. And even to readers without any particular knowledge of how the caste-system works this feels unconvincing.

It's obvious that a judgment about anything one doesn't understand is almost bound to be crass. It's extremely easy and also almost totally meaningless to criticize a system of social practice and moral belief on the basis that it fails to meet the standards of a completely different system of social practice and moral belief. A North Korean could write a novel exposing modern British society as individualistic and capitalist, and it might even be pretty accurate and well-researched, but it would be an impressive critique only to someone who already believes that individualism and capitalism are Bad Things: any judgment from an external point of view is only going to convince people who share that point of view. But what's more, even the other North Koreans who read that novel and agree with its critique of British society probably won't find it compelling art. They won't be able to relate to the degenerate, selfish, soulless characters, they won't find themselves sharing the hollow bourgeois aspirations of those characters, and they won't be sorry to see those characters come to the lonely ends they clearly deserve. If, on the other hand, our hypothetical novelist actually gets into the heads of her British characters and sees their society from their point of view, and takes her readers in there with her, she will create a compelling work of fiction that can also stand as a judgment on that society that will be all the more compelling because it is based on sympathy. What condemns a society more comprehensively than pointing out that it fails by its own standards (as all societies in some ways do)?

The same is true of the characters themselves. It's far, far too easy to do what Alexander seems to have done in The Iron Ring, namely to mark his 'good' characters out as 'good' by having them suddenly abandon the moral standards of their own culture and adopt modern Euro-American ones. On a purely pragmatic level a writer with an eye on literary greatness should want to avoid this because it limits the universality of the work: it will make sense to the modern Euro-American reader, who will instantly recognize that the characters who shrug off the caste-system without a second thought are the Good Guys, but chances are it'll just baffle a reader in rural Tanzania or 23rd-century Germany. But more importantly, it's never going to ring true even to its intended audience. We know instinctively that this isn't what really makes a great moral figure. A moral hero is someone like Jeremiah, Luther, Ghandi, or King, who says to society, "You are being false to your own ideals". Someone who simply ignores social norms and does whatever he thinks fit, on the other hand, is not a hero but a psychopath.

So I guess my suggestion is that a writer should always write from inside the society that forms his or her setting, which involves understanding how it works, seeing what seems good (and bad) about it to the people who live within it, and going no further in judging it by external standards than to lay bare truthfully what might be regarded by an observer from any other culture as its flaws and virtues. That seems to me about the right balance between the two extremes that Robinson and Dan have mentioned in their last two comments. It's also basically how any writer will naturally write about his or her own society: with understanding and sympathy but also with the objectivity that any writer of fiction must exercise in order to avoid setting the story in MarySueVerse. And that in itself provides a more or less bulletproof defence for the writer: you can't say much more fair than "I'm writing this historical / foreign / made-up society just the same way I'd write my own". The trouble is that involves both an immense amount of research (and here I follow Robert McKee in using 'research' to include the work needed to construct an internally consistent, detailed, and plausible fictional society) and a sort of cultural empathy equivalent to the personal empathy needed to write an individual character but deployed on a much larger scale. Which is a tall order, and may well be why I so rarely find myself satisfied by historical fiction or fantasy.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2009-08-08
Of course, it's not just modern Western values that throw a harsh, unfavorable light on caste systems -- people have known they're messed up for a long time. Buddhism's one particularly ancient example, and Islam has historically had a lot of conversions due to its egalitarian, caste-free message.
Just as there have been many Muslim critics of some of the more unpleasant features of Establishment Islam for centuries before Western colonialists stuck their noses into it. Just as every society is false to its ideals to some extent, there are always from within as well as without that society to rebuke it's moral failings.

(Long, sorry!)
Bah, I can spot an amateur when I see one.

I don't know what exactly were the beneficial aspects of the caste-system in pre-modern India, but I'd wager a lot of money that there were enough of them that for a handful of kingdoms to completely ignore the rules of that system as they seem to do in Alexander's crypto-India would have resulted in fairly massive upheaval; yet he apparently implies that there will be none. And even to readers without any particular knowledge of how the caste-system works this feels unconvincing.
Yeah, that's basically what I was getting at. Something I tried to say in the article but didn't quite figure out how to articulate is that systems of social stratification like the caste system always play an embedded societal role. You can't change them without drastically altering the structure of society as a whole. (... Which I suppose leads back to my political radicalism, but let's not get into that again, shall we?)

But what's more, even the other North Koreans who read that novel and agree with its critique of British society probably won't find it compelling art. They won't be able to relate to the degenerate, selfish, soulless characters, they won't find themselves sharing the hollow bourgeois aspirations of those characters,
Here, at least, I think Alexander did fairly well ... or he would have, if he'd just followed through. The characters in The Iron Ring—though more than a little cardboard—were not soulless, nor any more degenerate or selfish than other people, less than most.

He really did convey the feeling that the caste system is all part of the culture, and that it makes perfect sense to the people within it.

It isn't so much that they "abandon the moral standards of their own culture and adopt modern Euro-American ones." It's more that as soon as Tamar has come to the conclusion that the caste system is immoral from his cultural perspective (and this revelation could very well be culturally accurate) he finds out that nobody else gives a toss.

I could believe it is a culturally important Indian critique of the caste system as related by a white Westerner. (I could also believe it's a Eurocentric critique of the caste system by a white Westerner.) Either way, the unquestionable problem which even a no-nothing like myself can spot is that Alexander ruins the critique by defanging the caste system of any sort of social impact. (And if there's no social impact, what's there to critique?)

The trouble is that involves both an immense amount of research (and here I follow Robert McKee in using 'research' to include the work needed to construct an internally consistent, detailed, and plausible fictional society) and a sort of cultural empathy equivalent to the personal empathy needed to write an individual character but deployed on a much larger scale. Which is a tall order
Very tall, but—I would argue as an aspirant author myself—it is the writer's burden. If you want to write about other societies—and there are many compelling reasons to do so—you have to get it right.
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