Below are some of my thoughts about Erzebet Barthold's story "How Billy the Conqueror Took Back the Greenwood," and some bonus thoughts about those thoughts. Having as of this writing read the story >5x, I assume everyone in the world is also familiar with it, specifically the readers of the below. The same principle is at work when a two year old, blocking the TV with his or her head, believes his or her family behind him or her can see the screen just fine, because he or she can see the screen just fine.
The earliest significance is in the first paragraph, beginning "Billy had ruled the Greenwood ever since Mr. Woodward, one day during lessons, had told a story about William the Conqueror..." I want to return later to the unpleasant use of the past perfect tense in the sentence. The significance, however, is the author's scrupulous avoidance of pronouns referring to Billy, for the purpose of offering a surprise: "Billy liked this king--they shared the same name, or at least they did now that Billy had made it clear that she was not to be called Wilhelmina." Italics are mine; that is the first pronoun referring to Billy. Is it porcine of me to admit that I thought Billy was a boy, even though it's certain by any reasonable measure that the author actually intended for the reader not to know? Am I an oversensitive millennial to feel guilt going right into this story? Whose fault are these feelings, mine, Erzebet Barthold's, society's, or one of the four other possible combinations?
As an internet kook, I feel it is my duty to point out that, including those with its German spelling, Wilhelmine, a total of seven people by that name are listed on a noted online encyclopedia's article "Wilhelmina," while a total of fifty-one people are named "William," illustrating the fact that, because the vast majority of Billies are boys, I am not a bad person, or a pig, for assuming Billy was a boy in the beginning.
No amount of reasoning on this topic could free me of my guilt, and in that mindset I read on, distrusting both the author and myself.
I think the whole story could have done with a quick scan for the unpleasant overuse of the past perfect tense, and a vast quantity of other revisions that I am going to spend pages and pages delineating, but the story is 4,574 words long, and, at three cents a word, was sold to the online fantasy magazine Grendelsong for $137.22.
This is the second sentence of the story: "Mr. Woodward was a spindly old man who on Monday mornings insisted the children sit down in a musty shed behind his house for their education, most of which bored Billy to tears."
"Bored to tears" is not a phrase the author made up, and it is so overused that it inhabits the minds of 95% of all English speakers, roughly, including the author, who in my opinion could have produced new thought while simultaneously characterizing this Billy girl. Here are a few alternative ways to describe Billy's boredom that don't have the disadvantage of meaning almost nothing and accidentally characterizing this emphatically brave and strong character as a crybaby:
a. "...most of which so bored Billy that she found herself imagining the knots in the shed's wood as the face of the owl that hunted in the fields." This owl is mentioned throwaway-ly later in the story.
b. "...most of which bored Billy, who was more of a fighting-and-mud sort of girl, which is why she became so interested when Mr. Woodward began his lesson on William the Conqueror."
c. "...most of which bored Billy."
It's not even like the author is incapable of describing boredom such that the readers aren't just fed stock phrases their stomachs are already full of. Later in the story there's a pretty good sentence: "The rest of the day passed in a misery of boredom."
I can't help but feel that, foolishly, I'm incapable of doing more than mere fiction workshop homework here; that is the only way I know how to analyze fiction, but this isn't a rough draft, it's a story that hundreds of millions of people can read, that the author was paid almost twelve dozen dollars for (or £96.98 as of 3/12/2016), and that my thoughts about which were not solicited nor can I imagine are they specifically welcome or of very much use. Is there a better way to analyze this story? Should I leave this sort of thing up to professional fiction reviewers, none of whom, as of the above date, have yet reviewed "How Billy the Conqueror Took Back the Greenwood?"
As for the title, my body is telling me that 'took back' wants to be 'conquered,' but that would make the title absurd. I don't know how this could have been avoided.
Mr. Woodward explains "that traces of [William the Conqueror] could still be found in the north of England," which is another unclear statement that I probably am being more critical of than it deserves. It seems to imply vaguely that maybe his progeny inhabit the north of England or something. Stylistically, on its own, it could also imply that Anglo-Saxon assassins, hateful of the Normans, blew William the Conqueror up such that his body parts were scattered all over the north of England, preserved in bogs, and unearthed now and again by tweed-donning peat-diggers.
Scrutiny with this level of specificity of a work no doubt risks seeming like, or being in reality, flawed criticism of the "Anna Karenina is bad because it wasn't about werewolves" or "I Was A Sixteen Year Old Werewolf Boy is bad because it was about werewolves" variety. Also look at how brave I am, sniping at this story behind the uterine walls of anonymity. How novel it is to log onto the world wide web and write something negative on it.
The title of the story refers to the town as "the Greenwood," as does the first sentence. I don't trust the author enough to assume that she consciously dropped the definite article off the town's name, beginning at the end of the first paragraph and continuing forever. I am more inclined to believe that she wasn't paying attention, and then got $137.22. Maybe 'the Greenwood' is the name of the woods, and "Greenwood" is the name of the town. This is a nuance in the story I don't think I'm required to assume. If an author uses clichés like "bored to tears," it can make a reader assume the author wasn't thinking very hard, and the reader thus becomes prone to less charitable assumptions about other anomalies, such as where the hell that definite article went, the one showcased in the title of the story.
Would it explain this endless diatribe were I to point out that Grendelsong rejected a story of mine? If I admit that, will my criticisms of Barthold's story seem weaker, more likely the petulant complaints of a spoiled, avaricious, talentless white boy than the perplexity of a person who once believed he was reasonably familiar with the difference between good and bad writing? Have I unconsciously revealed how profoundly naive I am about something? If so, what?
I don't appreciate the use of the word 'eccentric' in the sentence beginning, "Greenwood was an eccentric village flourishing on the edge of a broad forest..." I feel the characterization of the village is both false and stuffed down my throat. At best, as the story itself reveals, Greenwood is a seriously plain village with one or two mildly eccentric characters. Consider this description:
Greenwood boasted a baker, a butcher, a smithy, and a seamstress, and unlike the other villages in the region, no lord took a tithe from its harvests. From morning to dusk, folks—many of whom were related—bustled around on their business, visiting, calling out hellos, gossiping, or trading.
Here is another description: "Billy's father was one of the five men on the village council, a tradition so old that no one could remember how it began."
And another: "[Patch the smith] shod all the village horses and kept the tools in working order..."
These descriptions make it clear that Greenwood is actually a completely generic village that hardly wavers one molecule away from any medieval fantasy trope whatsoever. Where the author gets the gall to describe such a prefabricated town as eccentric is where I plan on getting all my future gall. It doesn't even have an eccentric name, like Swineshead Wood or Wistman's Wood or Piles Copse. I know I used the same percentage above, but I feel as though 95% of this story is already in everybody's brains.
Toward the end I believe we can infer the detail that the hut of the antagonist "Old Nana," appeared on the 'village green' at this earlier part of the story: "...woosh, a gust of wind blew Jack's hat off and four of [Billy's] soldiers broke formation and ran."
"'Nana's here,' Jack, her best spy, said before he too fled the green."
The appearance of the hut is the only way to explain how, at the end of the story, Billy knows exactly where to go to confront the antagonist in her hut. However Billy's immediate reaction totally confuses this tenuous--and at best merely possible--inference: "Billy shaded her eyes and surveyed her territory, looking first for Mrs. Bower, who spent most of the day in her garden searching for snails." Rather than to marvel at this newly-materialized, evil, and no doubt highly describable hut, Billy's first impulse is to see if some faceless character is de-verminizing her garden.
So maybe I got it wrong, and the hut is somewhere else. If so, how does a.) Billy know where to find the hut at the end, and b). Jack know, merely by a hat-snatching gust, and not a new weird hut, that the antagonist has arrived? Are such gusts known by people in general to usher evil fairies unto the gusts' locations? Is my fairy-lore lacking? Is that the problem?
The magazine is called Grendelsong, and I just read Tolkien's commentary on Beowulf, so extensive as to outdo the poem on which it comments many times over in terms of length, so I am putting these two elements together here, to write a commentary on a story that's longer than the story itself. This is easy since I'm inflating this commentary's length with various tangential admissions of guilt and bias, as well as, in this current paragraph, an explanation of the commentary's length.
Certain types of reactions and interactions get recycled throughout the story. This makes the characters less distinct from each other. Billy is said to like the smith Patch, "because he kept a pocket full of sweets and was always willing to share them," which is perfectly fine; it takes the edge off of Billy's dislike for the iron at the smithy and assures us that her dislike for iron is nothing personal against the smith.
Later, Billy goes to Mr. Woodward's house. He is frightened, and so Billy doesn't "expect the usual offering of sweets from Mr. Woodward." This recycling of the 'adult giving the kid candy' detail makes me think that the author can only come up with so many positive interactions between adults and children. There's probably no point in my suggesting that the author change Mr. Woodward's habitual gift to visiting children to something an eccentric schoolteacher might think children should have, like carrots, because her reuse of the candy detail earned her $137.22, the repetition of which amount in this essay is I'm sure becoming rapidly pathetic, tearing away at what little shielding there is around my fragile, childish psyche.
On three occasions in this 4,574-word story, a character's face, to illustrate intense but bottled-up emotion, either blanches or blushes:
a. Color-to-pallor: "Billy didn’t miss the look that passed between her parents, or how the color had drained out of her mother’s face."
b. Pallor-to-color: "[Mr. Woodward's] normally pale cheeks turned red..."
c. Color-to-pallor again: "[Jack] blanched when he saw [Billy]."
Despite the inversion, Mr. Woodward blushes for the same reason Jack blanches; they're both scared of Billy. Am I being uncharitable? Is it warranted to think that this face-effect is monotonous and reveals a scarcity in the author's imagination of methods to illustrate restrained fear? Am I bad for not assuming the author made this same decision over and over again for a reason I am not informed enough to understand? Should I offer up a couple other alternatives? Am I trying to show off?
a. "[Mr. Woodward's] normally quiet hands were fidgeting with each other."
b. "[Jack] smiled falsely and timidly when he saw [Billy]."
Mr. Woodward and Jack have some sort of anatomical-reaction union; filing away their parallelizable face-color changes, please consider the following two passages:
"'Ah!' Mr. Woodward said as his eyes lit up."
"Jack's face lit up--he liked a compliment."
I don't think the author was considering the meanings of the words she was writing. These passages are only a few hundred words away from each other, and to use such a specific, basically figurative image to describe what eyes do and then what a face does confuses the mental picture. At least one of those events should have been described differently, more specifically, with more reality, with less reliance on stock phrasey shorthand that someone else first wrote hundreds of years ago to describe something 100% unrelated.
I was tempted to write "At least one of those events should be described differently," but this isn't a rough draft I'm discussing--what a greenhorn I am, never having reviewed a work of fiction in its final, permanent, paid-for stage. I don't understand why I feel I'm not allowed to dislike this story for these reasons. Should I have more confidence in my own opinions about writing, the same amount, or less? I would have more confidence if I'd ever been paid $137.22 for one of my stories, because my heart correlates financial success with artistic success. But if that's the case, why don't I trust that the author must be working on an artistic level to which I, due to my artistic failure, have no access?
Speaking of eyes, right near the point when Jack's face lights up, he, with "his face pinched and his eyes frightened, looked around..." It might count as nitpicking, or delousing, for me to say that eyes themselves aren't frightened, because they are mindless entities, and mindless entities can't be frightened. This is one of those sentences that won't confuse readers as to its intended meaning any more than it will confuse readers as to its actual meaning, that the two light-sensing organs in Jack's face are scared of Billy, presumably along with Jack's mind, for a total of three scared entities.
Perhaps I should have come to a conclusion about whether Old Nana's hut appeared in the beginning or not, rather than flip flop about it in front of you like a fish, but I think I've made up my mind: the hut appeared, explaining why Billy can find it immediately the very first second she undertakes to look, and indicating a gigantic error in the shape of the omission of any description at all of a weird hut that magically appears after the wind blows. With that settled, let me point to this section:
Of course [Billy'd] heard stories about Old Nana--all the children had. Old Nana will get you. Old Nana will put you in her pot and cook you. Old Nana will fly away with you, and you'll never see your parents again. Billy scoffed at such nonsense. It would take more than some old witch to scare the Conqueror. The other children had said they didn't believe it either, but now that she was here, it looked like they weren't taking any chances.
One could read Billy's scoffing at such nonsense as not believing it, but to see a feared being arrive in a magic hut, yet to remain unconvinced even that the being might at least want to 'get you' is skepticism of the most extreme and unwarranted degree. This is why I feel that when Billy scoffs at the nonsense, she is scoffing at the danger Old Nana is said to pose, which is more reasonable bravery for a child of Billy's character. Then we're told that the other children swore that they didn't believe the stories, but then the author uses an inexact cliché, "it looked like they weren't taking any chances," rather than an exact original phrase "they had been 100% convinced by the sudden appearance of a weird hut."
So far I think my issue above is of the most debatable value, and I would like to make another admission, that I am extremely jealous of Erzebet Barthold for her sale to Grendelsong of her story "How Billy the Conqueror Took Back the Greenwood," while my story was passed up. This essay may not be the most sincere-seeming place to congratulate Ms. Barthold on her sale, because I didn't like the story at all, but I feel guilty about my negative reaction towards the story and don't want anyone to get mad at me because I am very sensitive to people having negative reactions towards the things I write. The idea that anyone would get mad at me over this essay also reveals what an overinflated sense I have of my opinions' power to affect anybody's moods. Also, who can say without crossing their fingers that they didn't enjoy a story they read >5x and then spent their entire Saturday afternoon writing a five-thousand-word diatribe against? Am I still allowed to say I didn't like it?
Some of the narration is supposed to be childlike, as if from the point of view of Billy herself: "She tried to sleep, honestly she did..." for example. Perhaps also--when Billy realizes that she is a fairy, and thinks, "...she was nothing like William the Conqueror, because he was a human and she was not," which is illogical considering that there are plenty of things that are not each other but are like each other, for example humans and fairies--the author is offering the sort of thought process that might occur in the mind of an eight year old. This would be clever and nuanced, but the story's carelessness in other places makes me more convinced that the author just wasn't thinking very hard about what she was writing.
However other parts of the story are definitely not childlike no matter what, and I should probably say that this is the sort of subtle imperfection that I feel uncomfortable bringing up, as many of my stories must certainly be convictable of the same. At the end, when Old Nana--whose complete stasis in the story make her seem about as formidable as a tired old ewe, which stasis I'll discuss shortly--is finally described, as not "old, as her name suggested--" The author means that she doesn't look old, surely--mustn't she be older than eight, as it was eight years ago that she'd been last seen? Consider that to an eight year old, everyone 10+ looks old. We can perhaps infer that Old Nana looks like an eight year old.
When Billy learns that the antagonist might be involved in tricks and bargains, she thinks to herself, "Two can play at that," which is 5/6ths of a stock phrase. Though pretty close, it's admirable that the author showed enough restraint to stop herself from completing the cliché here, which makes it all the more a shame that, after Billy vanquishes the antagonist with a trick of her own, she says, "I only did to her what she’s been doing to you all along! It was all a trick, a nasty fairy trick, and two can play at that game." This completion of the cliché makes it seem like the author simply couldn't hold it in, the way she almost did before. I wonder, if she had completed "Two can play at that game," to begin with, whether it would have manifested a second time. The residue of the psychic tension the author felt in not completing a stock phrase was left in the story rather than raked out of it in the next draft.
This essay certainly isn't flawless; the above sentence suggests that residue be raked out of something. I considered for a moment changing "raked" to "wiped," or some method more effective in removing residue. Try to rake residue away, the likelihood is that you'll just add more residue F.C.O.L. I've been interchanging the terms 'cliché' and 'stock phrase,' which I'm not certain are interchangable. And those are just imperfections I caught; there have got to be dozens or hundreds of them, equally as justifiably dislikeable as in "How Billy the Conqueror Took Back the Greenwood," that I'll never bring my own attention to.
My heart is telling me that I'm the one with the gall if I think I can complain so bitterly about a story without ever having written even one single flawless story myself. My stories normally have at least one blunder, two or three mistakes, and five or more inaccuracies. And yet when I consider the great likelihood that there are fiction reviewers/critics/analysts who have negatively treated a story, who have written flawed stories themselves, eagerly I blow dust from the old adage "pobody's nerfect."
And speaking of dust, in the section when Billy visits Mr. Woodward at his home, the parlor is described as "piled high with papers and books, more than Billy ever imagined existed. A soft layer of dust covered everything, including him." Italics are mine. I thought that deserved italicization because of what a strange and striking image it is--that of a man who's been so still for so long that dust covers him just as it covers his books doesn't escape the mind so easily. But he hadn't stayed still very long, he'd just come to the door to greet Billy and lead her into the parlor, so most of the dust probably would have fallen off if the author was interested in making the details of her story cooperate with each other. And besides, Mr. Woodward's whole demeanor in that scene is nervousness, a demeanor that has no place in a person so still that dust settles on him.
Later in that scene there's an action that conflicts with the dust-image and on top of that is a cliché: "Something shattered in the small room Mr. Woodward called a kitchen. Mr. Woodward practically jumped out of his seat."
Things shatter in our kitchens all the time, and only if we are tense and fictional and under the pen of authors who aren't looking carefully enough through their imaginations do we ever get anywhere near jumping out of our seats. Mr. Woodward is tense, and there's no doubt about that, so why is there dust on him? It should either have been removed in the next draft or Mr. Woodward should have been made a stalwart, fearless character who, despite an attack on his town by the antagonist, still manages to sit still for long enough to gather dust, as if he is one of his old books.
The antagonist, who I have been referring to as that because I am slightly embarrassed to write the words 'Old Nana' for reasons that are unjustifiable and for which I feel guilty, is completely static, is bewilderingly absent from her own appearance at the beginning of the story, and is immediately and vaguely vanquished at the end. The only hint that she and her hut materialized in front of the children when the wind blew Jack's hat off is his assertion, "Nana's here." I asked the question "where?" and have had to infer like crazy to determine that she appeared in front of the children, because such a crucial and potentially imagery-rich detail as the materialization of a scary hut is absent from the scene. All but Billy run off in fear from what we can only infer would have been one of the story's most compelling features. Billy looks around and the author describes several of the more boring things she sees, then Billy, fearlessly, says to herself "Huh... Guess I'd better go home," a reaction repeated a few hundred words later:
"'Look,' Billy’s mother said, "'the day is almost over anyway. Stay in now, and we’ll see how things are tomorrow.'"
"'Tomorrow, yes,' her father mumbled."
"'Huh,' Billy said..."
4,197 of the story's 4,574 words pass before the antagonist actually appears in the story, all prepared to act in some way or another, and then Billy dispels her basically immediately. She is as passive a character as ever there could be: her most action-like quality in the story is her reception of the iron pot, which technically is not an action at all but a passion. Passive is the word for the sort of character she is. Readers don't even have to be big boys or girls to lack any fear of the antagonist, which makes it difficult to swallow that all the town's adults are so terrified of her the whole time.
Another reason not to be scared of her is the lack of detail in the bargain she made with the town: as far as my five readings have communicated to me, Old Nana every so often will gather a human child from Greenwood and replace it with a fairy child and, if the child discovers that he or she is a fairy, the antagonist will ruin the community's crops. Why this magic-hutted fairy should have any interest in human children or this boring town isn't clear, or even hinted at very effectively, nor is why she came just then, nor why she is so mean.
For a while I believed that the antagonist intended to blight Greenwood's crops if Billy were to find out that she was a fairy--I believed this because of the detail in the beginning that "the crops had never blighted." The antagonist was protecting the crops from harm as long as Billy didn't discover her own identity (the antagonist's motive for which effort I could not determine). However, Billy later explains that, "If all of what she’d said was true, she'd have taken me by now and both of us would be long gone... If I find out, your bargain is broken and Old Nana will take me home. Well, I am home. Greenwood is mine, and I’m not leaving—she is," which seems to mean that the antagonist wasn't telling the truth that she had power over the crops, in which case the crops just happened never to have blighted, or something.
Or maybe the antagonist had the power only to prevent the crops from blighting, but not to cause a blight. Maybe that's a fairy element I am merely ignorant about, so it's my fault. But if the antagonist were merely to withdraw her prevention--and let nature take its inevitable course towards an eventual blight--it seems like that would do the same trick. I think I can safely say that the reasons not to fear Old Nana go beyond the fact that she's not real, into the fact that her entire purview is not adequately described and is thus one hundred percent confusing.
My mom asked me why I wanted to write all this instead of my own stories, and I said I thought it would help my eye for flaws in the very stories I am not writing at this moment but was working on this morning. But why this story, period? I now ask myself. Does it have something to do with the fact that it was written by a woman about a brave and powerful girl with a normally male name? Does that bother me for some reason? If so, then I truly am as porcine as the swine in my nightmares whisper that I am as they chew off my ears. You don't see me writing anything negative about writing by men. I have to exhaust every possible reason I'm bad because anybody can read this essay and I don't want them to get mad at me or think I'm being unfair.
In one passage Billy says, "Where’s Ma?"
To which her father responds, "'Out getting milk. Ours has soured...'"
Billy later determines that the souring of the milk is evidence that she's a fairy, but "Out getting milk" makes it sound like Billy's mother has gone to the local Tesco or Costcutter for a litre of milk, when in fact we learn briefly much later that they have a cow and her mother is out milking it. The author passed up an opportunity to name a cow and make Billy's father sound as if he weren't conceived of in 2015, by saying something like "Out milking Wealhtheow. Our milk has soured..."
This is how Billy's final realization that she is a fairy is rendered: "Billy sat up as though a bolt of lightning had struck." It is its paragraph's first sentence. This is the next paragraph's first sentence: "Billy felt as though someone had punched her in the stomach." Both of these similes are overused, but the first one is especially egregious on the grounds that it describes a sudden insight in terms of lightning, which has got to be one of the oldest, most exhausted and unoriginal figures of speech on the scene. This is a perfect example of how so much of this story is already in our brains. Nobody who reads this story will be impressed by its union of lightning to insight, because that union has been made so many times that it slides right through the deep groove its endless repetition by every person ever has made in all of our brains. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that there's an infinite number of figurative ways to illustrate the eureka. Here are three ways:
a. "Billy sat up as though run through with a pin."
b. "Billy sat up as though she heard a mystery screaming as it died."
c. "Billy gasped as two carriages in her mind collided."
As I re-read the three above attempts at an improvement on "as though a bolt of lightning had struck," I feel that none of them are of high quality, no higher than as it is written in the story. A pin can't run you through unless you are a more traditionally-sized fairy, mysteries don't scream, and nobody immediately recognizes 'carriages' as meaning 'thought processes,' so perhaps my attempts to show off how talented I am resulted in failure.
It's not sarcasm that makes me say Erzebet Barthold must have made a better artistic decision with the lightning line than I made with any of my three attempts, it is the fact that my heart and my brain can never agree on a single thing: my heart tells me that the fortune she earned from this story means all her decisions were correct, and my brain tells me that the fortune she earned from this story was squandered by Grendelsong's finance committee because her decisions were incorrect. I'm petrified that this attempt to oscillate between communicating what I honestly believe in my heart and what I honestly believe in my brain comes off, in this essay particularly, and everywhere else in general, as communicating something other than what I honestly believe, but I'm veritably pounding with terror that these honest beliefs are both factually and morally wrong.
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