Grow or die: What happens when a story’s protagonist doesn’t change?

Alexander Dreyman

Alexander Dreymon stars at Uhtred of Bebbanburg in The Last Kingdom. Image courtesy Carnival Film & Television.

Fishermen love a good fish story, especially the one that got away. I was hooked by the BBC America television series The Last Kingdom, but the hook is loosening and I may spit it out. Why? Because the writers made a huge narrative mistake.

Premiering in 2015, The Last Kingdom stars Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a dispossessed Saxon noble who fights, often reluctantly, for a united England envisioned by the ninth century king of Wessex, Alfred the Great. The series is based on novels by Bernard Cornwell, who counts the historical Uhtred as an ancestor.

I’m halfway through season two, but I’m fast losing interest. It’s too bad, because this historical drama dives deep into each of its characters, from the intelligent, fearless warrior Uhtred to the pious, visionary Alfred. Each of the series’ minor characters are multi-dimensional, all fully fleshed by uniformly good performances. With a forceful plot driven by internal court intrigue and external enemies—the Viking raiders that still frighten English children—The Last Kingdom presses all my buttons.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Unfortunately, the series stumbles badly in episode three, when Uhtred returns after an enemy in an allied camp has him seized and sold as a slave. After six months as a galley slave a la Charleton Heston in Ben Hur, Uhtred is broken in body and nearly in spirit.

The protagonist is the biblical Jonah after the whale vomits him out.

Herein lies the rub. One of the great joys of reading and watching fiction is seeing how a character changes over time. How do his experiences within the story change him? What does he learn? This mimics the normal growth of most people; I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, due in part to my unique experiences as a worker, a husband, a parent, and as a writer. Good fiction compresses this universal process.

In The Last Kingdom, Uhtred goes through a horrific experience as a slave. Up to this point, the character of Uhtred is predictably immature and self-serving. By the time he returns, he has lost virtually all his dignity as a man and a nobleman, feels responsible for the death of a companion, and is nearly handed over to his ultimate enemies, the Danes. His recovery is slow and painful, physically and emotionally. He is the biblical Jonah after the whale vomits him out.

The experience poses fascinating questions, broad and narrow. What happens to your personality when abuse is routine and escape from captivity is out of reach? Will Uhtred understand how his womanizing hurts himself as well as the women he’s lost? Will he see that theft as a way of gaining wealth invites deadly retribution? How does this experience affect his view of life?

The answer: Not at all. A short time after his rescue from the slaver, Uhtred kills the man who orchestrated his betrayal. It’s a murder that shocks everyone, except Uhtred. Even if he hadn’t been sold into slavery, Uhtred might kill his enemy, because that’s what he does. It’s who he is. What’s more, he resumes his former life without offering the audience any reflections on his experience or more importantly, change in his behavior. No reference is made to the experience in succeeding episodes; Uhtred is the same warrior who fears nothing, chafes at his obligations, and acts almost entirely out of self-interest.

It’s hard to believe that a human being could go through six months of degradation without some damage that affects how he lives afterward. It’s a scenario for hopelessness, suggesting humans are forever trapped by their own prejudices and habits, and not even a daily brush with death can alter the course of a life. While one could argue this reflects real life, it makes for a disappointing narrative, because nothing emotionally substantive has changed after 11 episodes. A viewer could almost turn from liking Uhtred to not liking him, and perhaps abandoning him.

I have a few more episodes to go, and the producers could still redeem themselves with Uhtred showing that he is not the same man he was when he lost his family in the early episodes of season one. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure I’ll make the time to see how he fares in season three.

Netflix has yet to announce a season three for The Last Kingdom.

Hey, Tacoma. I’m making a rare appearance at Foss Waterway Seaport!

Lighthouse Guide cover image

I’ll be talking about the Fyddeye Guide to America’s Lighthouses and its companion guide Dec. 10, 2016 at Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma.

It’s been years since I’ve made a public appearance, but my friend Wes Wenhardt, the executive director of Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma, asked me to give a talk. I’ll be at FWS 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, December 10. I’ll be speaking about some of my favorite Puget Sound maritime heritage attractions listed in my books.

I’ve published two maritime history guidebooks, The Fyddeye Guide to America’s Maritime History, and The Fyddeye Guide to America’s Lighthouses. I published the books in 2010 and 2012 respectively because no comprehensive, single-volume travel guides existed for U.S. maritime heritage attractions, including maritime museums, tall ships, and lighthouses.

Copies of my books will be available for sale at the presentation. Foss Waterway Seaport’s address is 705 Dock Street in Tacoma. Hope to see you there!

Have you visited Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma?

Review: Augments of Change salient in a time of racial tension

Augments of Change cover

Augments of Change

America is going through another paroxysm of racially tinged violence, reminding everyone of our failure to reconcile our history with our ideals. In my own lifetime, the country has experienced urban riots (e.g, Watts in Los Angeles), violence after the Rodney King verdict, and last week, two more in a long string of deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by the mass murder of five Dallas policemen by a African-American assailant with a military-style assault rifle. It’s as if a murderous virus is spreading through the culture.

The news has left the country morose and pessimistic. People feel that the issues of race, as well as related issues of immigration and income inequality, will never be resolved or mitigated. As citizens of a democracy, we’ve entered a time of madness when everyone whom we don’t know and don’t agree with is The Other. We’ve lost the ability to listen to and respect other views. Demagogues such as Donald Trump say out loud what many people feel, forgetting that civilized behavior in the public sphere requires a certain suppression of thought and feeling in order to get along without fearing someone will strike back in anger. Respect and tolerance are out of style.

Speculative fiction writers have long tried to tell stories of race. In an genre dominated until recently by white men, only a few black voices have stood out, among them Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and N.K. Jemisin. Less well-known in the sci-fi mainstream is Kelvin Christopher James, whose most recent novel, Augments of Change, takes the myth of race, as well as it taboos and tropes, and turns it on its head. His unique voice brings a new clarity to race as an illusion that influences daily thought. Continue reading

Why is it so hard to save our maritime heritage?

Kalakala

1935 ferry Kalakala in Tacoma. Photo by Joe Follansbee.

The news I dreaded for years arrived this week. The 1935 Kalakala, the only art-deco ferry ever built, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is headed for the breakers. Its death was slow, painful, and probably inevitable. It’s passing should not be a surprise. I listed it as endangered in 2011 and 2012 on my old Fyddeye website. The ferry is one of a handful of decaying large historic vessels, which include USS Olympia and SS United States, both in Philadelphia. Our national patrimony is rusting away.

For a generation in Seattle, Kalakala’s sleek design and quirky behavior stood for a city of chance-takers and idea-evangelists long before the Space Needle was built in 1963. I got to know her after the sculptor Peter Bevis rescued her from oblivion on tide flats in Kodiak, Alaska in 1998. That was the beginning of her end. I was at the auction when the 276-foot “silver slug” was taken away from Bevis in 2003. The new owner, Steve Rodrigues, had big dreams, but no money and even less political savvy. He blames her final disposal on a “conspiracy” among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the State of Washington, and the cities of Tacoma, Seattle and Kodiak. The facts are simpler: He neglected to pay her bills, and ownership fell to Karl Anderson, a Tacoma businessman. He’s had enough of her; she’ll be shards of metal by the end of this month. Continue reading

A New Heritage Area in Washington State?

Maritime Heritage Area announcement

Congressman Derek Kilmer of Washington State discusses a proposal to create a Washington Maritime National Heritage Area on Puget Sound and nearby waters.

I’ve been monitoring efforts to create a maritime heritage area in Washington State that would cover Puget Sound (including Seattle), the Strait of Juan de Fuca between the U.S. and Canada, and the Pacific Coast of Washington State. This week, two Washington State congressmen, Derek Kilmer of the 6th district and Denny Heck of the 10th district, announced their intent to introduce a bill to designate the region’s shoreline as the Washington Maritime National Heritage Area. During an event at the Foss Waterway Seaport museum in Tacoma, Washington State’s historic preservation officer, Allyson Brooks, said Sen. Maria Cantwell would sponsor a version of the bill in the U.S. Senate.

Maritime heritage enthusiasts and scholars have pushed the idea of a national heritage area in western Washington for about 10 years. If enacted, the area would fall under the National Park Service’s Heritage Area program, which oversees 49 similar areas across the U.S., mostly east of the Mississippi River. The areas promote local economic growth and preserve sites and landmarks with cultural and historical significance. Each area is managed by local officials, with no new regulatory authority over management or preservation given to the National Park Service. Washington State supporters see a heritage area as a major tourism draw, especially to rural counties. A small amount of money for promoting the area comes with the designation.

The Kilmer/Heck/Cantwell proposal raises the profile of a heritage area in Washington State, but the legislation’s immediate prospects in Congress are dim. The Republican-controlled House opposes any new law perceived as an extension of federal power, no matter how benign. A heritage area is mostly an honorific, and as Brooks pointed out several times, carries no new regulatory authority.

Opponents have prevailed so far. For example, a proposal to create a similar area around the mouth of the Columbia River failed after conservative local residents used the weak, but effective “slippery slope” argument: If you let the feds declare a heritage area, what’s to stop them from confiscating your land, taking your guns, making you sign up for Obamacare, and similar silliness. The GOP wants to reform the law governing heritage areas, but a bill to do just that is stuck in committee, and the website GovTrack.us gives that measure an 11 percent chance of passage. Even state lawmakers are leery of the idea of a heritage area; A measure in the Washington Legislature to designate a state version died in the state senate earlier this year.

Despite the good a maritime heritage area would do for local communities, DC politics will likely keep the idea on the back-burner for a long time. Cantwell might be able to push a bill through the Senate, but the House is another matter entirely. Kilmer and Heck are Democratic newcomers to Congress, and their influence is limited. It’s going to be a case of introducing legislation every year until the Congress moves left or the supporters get lucky enough to find a majority.

Disclosure: I’m communications director for Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, which could benefit from a maritime heritage area. Opinions expressed here are my own.

2nd Call from Heritage Groups for New Law

Virginia V, Arthur Foss, and Lightship No. 83

Virginia V, Arthur Foss, and Lightship No. 83 in Seattle. These vessels could be part of a new heritage area, if Congress passed HR 445.

Museums, historic ship owners, and preservationists in Washington State have called on the state’s congressional delegation to support a bill that could lead to a special maritime heritage area covering the coast and Puget Sound. Thirty-two members of the House–21 Democrats and 11 Republicans–are co-sponsoring HR 445, the National Heritage Area Act of 2013. The bill would authorize a National Heritage Area Program, which may include a new Maritime Washington National Heritage Area celebrating the maritime history of the state. None of the bill’s co-sponsors are from Washington State.

National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress to highlight the historical importance of specific geographic locations in the U.S. Although 39 National Heritage Areas already exist, HR 445 would formally define heritage areas and set out a formal process for creating one. The areas are administered by the National Park Service; most are located east of the Mississippi River. A similar proposal to create a heritage area near the mouth of the Columbia River died after local property owners argued the law might infringe on their property rights. Continue reading

Design for Seattle Maritime Education Center Unveiled

Artist's rendering

Artist’s rendering of planned Wagner Education Center at Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats

The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle has unveiled its plans for a $6.6 million education center next to its 37-year-old facility at Lake Union Park. In a statement released today, CWB says the wood, steel and glass education facility, designed by award winning Seattle architect Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects, recalls historic Northwest boatbuilding facilities. The education center will also serve as a modern “front door” for the museum, Lake Union Park, and the surrounding neighborhood. Construction is set to start by the end of 2013.

The design includes a dedicated youth classroom that can be converted to a sail loft, new gallery and exhibit space, and a new boat shop. The education center is the largest portion of a $9.5 million capital campaign aimed at improving CWB’s existing facilities at the south end of Lake Union. The addition will be named the Wagner Education Center after Dick and Colleen Wagner, CWB’s founders.

“This new facility will make it possible for even more people to come down to Lake Union Park and pick up a hammer or chisel or plane and find the joy when they make a boat with their own hands,” Dick Wagner said.

The CWB capital campaign has received support from the City of Seattle, King County, and Washington State, along with leadership gifts from business, individuals and private foundations totaling $6.7 million. CWB needs to raise $2.8 million to reach its goal. The design was unveiled at an annual block party for the South Lake Union neighborhood. More information about the capital campaign is available at the CWB website.

Source: Center for Wooden Boats