23 December 2010


Beyond the Magnanimous Masters

Santa this, Santa that. The debates I've been running into lately have reminded me that Norman Rockwell isn't quite out of my system just yet. One final face off now--the very last one, I promise, as it's probably already out of yours.

Santa Claus vs. The Discovery

Anyone who says there is no common ground between fantasy and reality needs some more imagination. (I'm assuming he already has a sense of humour.) Above we have a Santa as all little children must picture him in their minds and a discovery about the same Santa that all not-so-little children eventually make. This was the pair that actually inspired the whole smackdown--although I had to sacrifice it for the Thanksgiving-themed paintings. Seasonal reasons, you know.

Your votes and thoughts are totally welcome in the combox, as usual,
although they can't count as votes now. =P

By the way, you noticed that the "100+ Followers, 10+ Friends" Giveaway
now has a winner, right?

Anyway, Santa is cool and all, but I think I should put in a word for his elves now. I mean, we all love the guy with the cool suit, the amazing vehicle, and the glory that comes with closing the deal--which is also why Batman is so popular--but Santa is a leader who comes with a very hardworking team--like countless cute little Alfreds. And where would he be without his elves to sort the mail, make the toys, feed the reindeer, and keep his sleigh in excellent condition? He wouldn't have half as much time for his Naughty/Nice executive paperwork, I tell you! And it's not easy being an elf, either. If you've ever been in a toy store right before Christmas, then just multiply that mayhem by about a million to have a hint of what Santa's workshop is like for a whole month before Christmas. "Santa's Elf" is an extremely high-pressure job. Yes, the workload is virtually non-existent at other times of the year, but that hardly makes up for all the concentrated stress of December. And don't ask me how I know all this. I just do.

To the elves of the world, who are loved by St. Joseph the Worker, I dedicate this list:

My Top 5 Merry Minions

1) The Oompa-Loompas (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl)

People who work in candy factories supposedly lose all their desire to eat the lollies they have a hand in making--no matter how delectable these were to them when they began. Human nature, etc. None of that for the cheerful, childlike Oompa-Loompas, for whom working in Willy Wonka's world-famous Chocolate Factory never gets old.

They make what we love, love what they do, sing while they work, and still manage enough mischief to keep us from relaxing completely in their presence: the Oompa Loompas make fantastic elf variants. But they are vehicles for satire as well, and Dahl doesn't hold back in his Middle Grade morality play of a novel.

For there is something of both historical slavery and modern child labour in the creation of these little characters. It is both wonderful and troubling that Wonka has to "import" an entire tribe of Oompa-Loompas from their own native country, where he claims they had a terrible life being hunted down by whangdoodles and were "practically starving to death" because their own food was so hard to come by. And how convenient for him that their favourite food in the world is the cacao bean: all he had to do was promise endless chocolate (i.e., cacao to the power of infinity), and he had himself an entire workforce that would never threaten to form a union.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a capitalist fairy-tale which raises questions worth mulling over.

2) The House Elves (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling)

We first hear about House Elves in the second Harry Potter book, but it isn't until this fourth installment that we see the great role they actually play in the wizarding world. Apparently, the biggest wizarding houses (which include boarding schools) all come with an elvish staff that do most of the cooking and cleaning. Some elf families stay with the same wizard families over several generations. And these hard workers are never paid for their services--a discovery which so horrifies a Muggle-born witch that she starts the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare.

Not that she can recruit many other members: those actually born into the wizarding world think she's totally misguided. As they tell her, House Elves like being House Elves. They live to serve and are content to be "paid" with the praise of their wizard masters. (The song Be Our Guest from Disney's Beauty and the Beast is playing in my head now. I'll bet House Elves sing as they work. The Oompa-Loompas certainly do!) Every other wizard agrees that it would make the elves miserable to be "set free." Obviously, the democratic ideal of equality is just a Muggle shibboleth.

Yes, there is one House Elf who was liberated from his old master and is given fair wages (and a day off!) by his new one. The other House Elves look at him as if he is carrying a disease. And when they learn that a witch wants to set them free to be like him, they are seriously insulted. And really, as nice as some ideals are, we shouldn't fix a social order that isn't broken.

3) Eloi (The Time Machine by H.G. Wells)

When I was putting this post together in my mind, I knew the Eloi would have to be on it, being such a well-known example of people who only "live to serve" but couldn't be happier with their lot. Then again, of course, they are a little less than minions: they are practically cattle. That is, they live to be served . . . to others . . . at meals.

I wonder what contemporary issue inspired the darker part of Wells' imagination, when he divided future human civilization between the childlike Eloi and the savage Morlocks. For it is clear that neither race evolved due to mere chance. There is another satire of mankind here, and the fact that this novel has never been out of print is proof that it is a successful satire.

We readers of the present know that we carry the seeds of the Eloi in our own selves: whenever we exchange a freedom for a comfort, for there's really nothing wrong with making life a little bit easier for ourselves (Right?)--we edge closer to a future as something worse than slaves.

We also, for that matter, carry the seeds of the Morlocks, making me wonder whether it is cunning masters who create minions or complacent minions who create masters. Either way, the implications aren't pleasant. (Which explains why we Muggles, born into Wells' world, react to House Elves with some reservation: we don't want to fall into an analogy and find ourselves the Morlocks.)

4) "Capitalist Serfs" (Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand)

In one of Rand's non-fiction books (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, if I remember correctly), she said that the labour pyramid which shows a single industrialist at the peak, with different levels of employees as an ever-widening support base, should really be turned upside-down. For it is the industrialist who created all those jobs in the first place: it is really he who supports everyone else, with the power of his mind. You know, like the legendary Atlas: strong enough to hold up something so much larger than himself.

The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are similar "titans" "gods" of industry, who build not just businesses, but also (following Rand's chain of reasoning) civilisation as we know it. The minor characters come in two sorts: the employees who are envious of the heroes' success and think they are entitled to an equal share of the profits, and the minions who acknowledge and admire the greatness of their superiors, feeling entitled to nothing but an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. (Not much room for real psychology here, aye?)

My favourite among her capitalist serfs are those who are not even working for the company they have sworn fealty to: the retired railroad men of Taggart Transcontinental, some now elderly, and the sons of current employees, some still in school. Having heard the threats leveled against the new John Galt Line, they arrive--unsummoned, unpaid, and fully armed--to guard the first train on its tracks. Like a new kind of militia--or a new order of knights--they share the great heroes' charge into glory.

Rand gets it most right when she makes it medieval.

5) Little Green Men (Buzz Lightyear of Star Command)

But let us end on a light-hearted note, with some toys! I almost went with the Cobra Vipers of G.I. Joe, which were popular action figures long before the LGM started cramming up toy store shelves . . . but then I learned that in the second cartoon's canon, some LGM are actually employed in Santa's Workshop. And how could I ignore that on a list like this?

If the Eloi are a little less than minions, the LGM are a little more: they are the inventors and engineers of Star Command, which could never protect the galaxy from the nefarious designs of Emperor Zurg without them. And every valiant space ranger on the front lines knows it.

What makes the LGM most interesting is their "Uni-Mind," which makes them think and act as one (to surprisingly non-creepy effect) and without which they are confused, incompetent and useless . . . but still cute!

If you're wondering what the satire is here, you'll have to zoom in much closer than usual: Star Command is not a reflection of the world, but of a child's playroom. And the LGM are a kind of twist on the box/bucket of identical toy soldiers (the direct ancestors of the Vipers), which take orders only from the "Uni-Mind" of the child playing the game. They are not there to engage the foe in battle, but to make the odds of battle more interesting. They represent the resourcefulness of a young mind, to which everything in the world can be recruited into play.

Image Sources: a) Santa Claus by Norman Rockwell, b) The Discovery by Norman Rockwell, c) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, d) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling, e) The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, f) Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, g) Buzz Lightyear of Star Command DVD


Lesa said...

No, I didn't know the giveaway had a winner!!

I'd sure like a few minions-- my spouse would say that I already have one-- but one great big lazy minion just isn't enough!!

Interesting perspective as usual--I like all your minion picks-- I'm familiar with all but the serfs. Don't forget the minions in 'Despicable Me' they are awful cute too? And the brownies in Fablehaven? they are similar to the house elves now that I think about it.

EegahInc said...

Enough of my psuedo-artsy analysis, I'm going with Santa because I haven't had any caffeine in a year and he reminds me of the old collectible Coke bottles. I miss my throat-burning, heart-palpitating jolts of caffeinated goodness. Wah!

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

Enbrethiliel said...


Lesa: Oooh! I remember seeing the Despicable Me minions in the trailer; but since I didn't also watch the movie, I didn't recall them in time for this post!

Thanks for the tip about the brownies. When I was in first or second grade, I remembered reading about the folk belief that if you leave a bowl of milk and some bread out at night, a brownie will clean your kitchen for you.

Oh, I've had The Shoemaker and the Elves in mind lately, too--for seasonal reasons. ;-)

Eegahlnc: LOL! Merry Christmas to you, too! =P

Thanks for voting. Although I've officially (finally!) dropped Rockwell, I think I'll be doing more of these face-off polls in the future. What everyone has to say is more interesting to me than what I have to say!

Paul Stilwell said...

Santa Claus is my vote! That stupid kid. Shouldn't have been snooping around his parents' dresser. That's what happens.

Now I can picture an "image within an image" picture of the same kid with the same expression in the same setting, but holding a copy of the Saturday Evening Post with the image of the same kid holding the Santa suit on the cover.

You know, I remember this storybook from childhood about a little guy in the fridge who is responsible for the light being turned off whenever you close the door.

Enbrethiliel said...


Snort! That was just one of Rockwell's many Santas. I ended up going with this one because he's not fully dressed yet, and I thought that went with the suit in the drawer.

Yeah, that poor kid. He was probably looking for the presents from his parents and ended up with more than he bargained for. But yeah, he deserved it. I'm a bit surprised he's not more popular, though, as we can all (presumably) relate to him. (And if the Hipster Catholics get their way, we will be the Last Generation.)

How did you find out? (Me? I just woke up a few days before one Christmas and found myself grown up. A quieter sort of tragedy, with no comedy at all.)

You know, that little book of yours explains everything. I always wondered about the broken light in my family's fridge, and now I know: the little man moved out!

Paul Stilwell said...

I was guilty myself of having snooped around for presents as a kid. In my stupidity I was lucky to never come across a Santa suit. Then again, I was even luckier that my dad never dressed up as Santa (OMG, I have enough trauma in my life).

I, like you, never had a "finding out" experience. Though it wasn't as distinct as your waking up one morning grown up was. There was definitely a point where I knew, but didn't want to tell myself.

Enbrethiliel said...


I never snooped. You could leave my present under the tree for a month, and I wouldn't even pick it up and shake it. I liked being surprised.

I was also intensely gullible. My grandmother came home with some lovely toys from the shops one day and told me, "These are for your cousins Winkyn and Blinkyn" (or whatever; she used fake names anyway); and I was still surprised when I tore open the paper on my presents and found the same toys underneath. =P

A point where you knew but didn't want to tell yourself. Oh, gosh, that sad boundary between here and there . . . I think I spent five minutes on that threshold, squealing like a stuck pig.

Paul Stilwell said...

My snooping was restrained. It would have killed me to know specifically what was there, but I wanted to know that *something* was there. The sight of boxes or bags was enough - for titillation.

My sister and her husband went to California once and stopped in at some amusement park that had life-size dinosaur models, done up like real dinosaurs, and took photos of each other running away from them as though they were real. When they came back they showed me the photos, telling me they were real. I gobbled it up without any doubts.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'll bet it would be fun to watch Jurassic Park with you.

I mean that in a nice way.

Paul Stilwell said...

Yes, even the sequels! Ah, the good old days when it first came out...the T-Rex scared me very much, not to mention the raptors. The one with the frilly wings that come out from the sides of its head was terribly vivid for me. I think about the film now and realize Spielberg could have done so much more - as a way of topping Jaws so to speak. But he didn't. I still feel a subtle disappointment over that first showing of the brontosauruses when they first come to the island. Maybe he just wanted to get the first unveiling over with, and not build it up and cause an even greater disappointment. I mean, it wasn't disappointing so much, but it seemed kind of abrupt, or something.

Enbrethiliel said...


I remember my mother telling me what it was like to watch Star Wars in the theatres when it first came out. Despite the fact that it wasn't in 3D, people were ducking and weaving in their seats. Of course, by the time I got around to it, I wasn't very impressed. =P (It took years . . .)

Now why do I suspect that the next generation will look at me funny when I talk about watching Jurassic Park in the theatres? Will those velociraptors still be that scary in another ten years? I honestly believe so . . . but I'll have to watch the movie again. I last saw it maybe seven years ago, and have made a point of avoiding it since because I must have seen it twenty times by then and had grown sick of it. But the time feels ripe again . . .