The Bookworm and the Angry Man: Deconstructing Elaine and Johan

4 Oct

One reader, after finishing the draft of Full Circle, commented that the Bookworm series had been a rehearsal for Schooled In Magic and that Elaine was an early version of Emily. I disagreed with the assertion at the time and I still do. In many ways, the ethos of the two universes are quite different and Elaine and Emily are very unalike. I deconstructed Emily earlier, so I thought – in honour of the final book – that I might as well deconstruct the core characters of Bookworm.

Elaine grew up in an orphanage; she was, quite literally, found on the steps. (This was unfortunately quite common in the past; unwanted children would be passed to orphanages almost as soon as they were born.) Like pretty much every other child who grows up in a community with dozens of children and relatively few adults, Elaine suffered from a lack of attention; she learned rapidly not to expect much, if anything, from life. This trait was only made stronger when she went to the Peerless School; she was pretty much on the bottom rung, so weak she could barely be called a magician, and she had no reason to expect she could rise. Unlike a counterpart of Hermione Granger, who could reasonably turn talent into a career even without connections, Elaine knew she was going nowhere.

Her early life shaped the development of a personality that could best be called unambitious. Starved of attention, she turned to books; she found a job at the level she felt she could handle and dived into it. She was friendly, naturally, but she respected the privacy of everyone around her to an unhealthy degree. (She never realised that Daria was a werewolf until midway through Bookworm.) Again, this came from the orphanage; orphans, trapped in close proximity, learn rapidly to treasure what privacy they have. Elaine never held any great ambitions; indeed, the best she felt she could hope for was a quiet life.

This changed, a little, after she became the Bookworm. She believed, with good reason, that her days had become numbered; the knowledge in her head made her a danger to the state and it was quite likely she’d be killed out of hand (or exploited) if anyone found out what she’d become. Her behaviour became a little wilder, particularly when she started using the knowledge herself; she even thrust herself forward into a brief love affair because she believed she had nothing to lose. Defeating Kane – and discovering her father’s identity – undermined her new personality, however, because she was going to live. She pretty much reverted back to type, although being given the post of Head Librarian made it harder for her to bury herself in her shell.

In one sense, Elaine is a solid personality. (I’d actually say, in many ways, that she’s a great deal more mature than Emily.) She may not be ambitious, but she isn’t unstable either; she rarely loses her temper, even when pressed to the limit. Given time to think and plan, she’s actually quite hard to beat; when she’s taken prisoner twice in the later books, she breaks free rather than wait for someone to rescue her. She’s motivated, in many ways, by duty; she takes little joy in her work (particularly the bits that involve working with people), but she does her best to carry out her responsibilities.

(Light Spinner understood this weakness very well. Part of the reason she appointed Elaine to her Privy Council was to try and encourage Elaine to engage with men and women of considerable influence. She trusted Elaine not to develop an agenda of her own.)

The part of her life that Elaine does enjoy is figuring out how to produce new spells. It was something she couldn’t study at the Peerless School because she lacked the raw power to actually do something with her talent. Gaining a unique insight into how magic actually worked (in essence, learning how to program HTML directly instead of through an editor) did wonders for her self-confidence. Where she ended, in the series, is where she wanted to be, except she didn’t know it.

And so we come to Johan.

Elaine is solid; Johan veers between near-adulthood and a childlike mentality more suited to someone half his age (he’s 17 as of The Very Ugly Duckling.) He can be calm and understanding one moment and raging in fury the next. He’s the sort of unbalanced personality that most of us would regard as dangerous even without magic. And his personality, too, was shaped by his early life.

Johan of House Conidian was the second child of parents with staggering magical (hence political) power. However, unlike his six siblings, Johan was (seemingly) born without any sort of magic. He could not hope to defend himself against mistreatment from his family; his mere existence, in many ways, was an embarrassment. Powerless children are generally killed by their own families – the reason for this is discussed in Full Circle – and his elder brother made it clear to Johan that, one day, his own family would probably kill him. (Johan had good reason to believe that Jamal, when he became the Conidian, would make erasing Johan from the family’s history his first priority.) Johan grew up in a nightmarish position that only grew worse as he aged.

For one thing, he was effectively a prisoner; he was rarely allowed past the grounds (when they were living on the estate) and the doors, when they were living in the Golden City. For another, he was his sibling’s favourite test subject for the jinxes, hexes, curses and other general nastiness. Johan was the ultimate bullying victim – the one who might rant and rave, but could never hope to fight back. Imagine yourself the third son of Superman and Wonder Woman, born without powers. Your life would suck even if your siblings didn’t think it was a good idea to fly you up so high you couldn’t breathe and drop you.

Making it worse, perhaps, was the awareness he could have a good life, if only he could get away from his siblings. Unlike Elaine, Johan does have drive; he could have joined the engineering crews building the Iron Dragons, joined a merchant skipper’s crew, become a soldier … he could have done anything, provided it required no magic. Yet he is alternatively treated as a chew toy or a cripple, either bullied or regarded as a mental defective. Johan’s main objective is to get the hell away from his family. Can you blame him?

There’s also, to a very great extent, a considerable degree of sexual frustration. Johan knows – no one made any attempt to hide it from him – that Jamal is fond of having his way with the family’s maids – and the maids are quite willing to service him, on the (probably wrong) assumption that sleeping with the young master will be good for their careers. They don’t, however, put out for Johan. His isolation and exclusion from the rest of his family is easy to see and none of the maids want to risk the anger of the rest of the family by reaching out to him. Like all teenage boys, Johan wants sex (and has the same issues about not quite understanding what he wants) and is denied it. This is bad enough in the real world; it’s worse when one feels one is being denied because of someone one can’t control.

This doesn’t make Johan look very good, from our point of view. Unfortunately, it’s also realistic.

Finally, perhaps, Johan had no way to displace his feelings.

Displacement may or may not be a psychological term (I am not a psychologist). It occurs when the victim becomes the victimiser – but only when the victim takes it out on someone (or something) who is actually innocent. The brother, bullied at school, beats up his little brother; the husband, told off by the manager at work, takes it out on his wife when he gets home. This is neither healthy nor decent behaviour, but it is understandable; primal therapy attempts to come to grips with the core problem by encouraging the victim to vent. Johan could neither take his feelings out on the people responsible for his misery or pass them on to someone else.

[The only way to explain how Vernon and Petunia Dursley treated Harry Potter throughout the Harry Potter series is to assume that they’re displacing their helplessness onto Harry, even though Harry bears no responsibility for their problems. By any reasonable standard, their conduct is both evil and insane; they’re definitely abusive to Harry and spoil Dudley rotten. This makes sense if one realises that they feel helpless to escape their true tormentors – Dumbledore and the magical world.]

So, Johan has anger issues. Actually, that is something of an understatement. By the time we first meet Johan, much of his anger has been buried under tight self-control. Like several other bullying victims, Johan tried hard to suppress his own feelings. To a very large extent, he succeeded; he has far better self-control than many other people. What he didn’t do was come to terms with his feelings, which he would have needed to do in order to lay them to rest permanently. Every so often, that veneer of control would crack.

And then he develops his powers.

Johan’s reaction to this is surprisingly muted. Some readers have commented that he misses obvious solutions to his problems; simply put, he isn’t used to using magic. He may have escaped the worst of the ‘learned helplessness’ condition, but he still doesn’t grasp that he can use magic now. His sole goal is still to escape his family; he clings to Elaine and hides in the Great Library because he is so obsessed with one goal that he cannot conceive of any others.

Elaine is, in many ways, the perfect person to handle Johan. She does empathise with his condition (as a very weak magician, she understands his frustration) and, at the same time, she isn’t overbearing or threatening. Johan doesn’t cringe away from her, nor does he puff up and try to fight. Elaine’s solid personality provides the stability Johan desperately needs. As she was the first person to show him any real kindness, he probably devotes himself to her a long time before he falls in love with her.

And then his family starts trying to lure him back into their clutches.

Johan is torn between the desire not to have anything to do with his relatives and the prospect for lording it over them. His inclination to lash out at them – accidentally turning Charity into a rat – is mixed with an understandable fear that his newfound magic will vanish, leaving him as weak and vulnerable as before. Their meddling in his life – including an attempt to organise his marriage – only makes him hate them more. And yet, he still has problems comprehending just how much the community is beginning to fear him.

It isn’t impossible to strip someone of their magic, but for a single magician to do it … Johan, in his attempt to protect and avenge Elaine against a Dark Wizard, terrified everyone. (For Johan, attacking magic is attacking what made his family so much more powerful than him.)

And then Jamal almost kills Elaine.

Johan, believing Elaine to be dead, loses it completely at this point; he lashes out at his brother, rendering him powerless (correctly judging this would be a fate worse than death) and attacks Conidian House itself, depowering his father and ripping the family’s reputation to shreds. If Elaine hadn’t talked him down, it is likely he would have done a great deal more damage. As it was, Elaine saw to it that everyone believed Johan had died and made plans to leave the city with him. This pretty much cemented Johan’s loyalty to her.

It’s important to note that Johan is actually much more respectful of the Levellers than almost everyone else in the series. Johan would probably have joined, if he’d been given a chance; he certainly recognises their value and the simple truth that one doesn’t need magic to be dangerous. In one sense, at least, Johan is capable of showing empathy for others, something that prevents him from becoming a monster.

Johan matures considerably over the final two books in the series. Having to deal with a coup in the Golden City (and escaping the Emperor) helps, but so does the slow process of coming to terms with his powers. He is unable to resist the temptation to be unpleasant to his younger sisters – who view him as a terrifying danger, after he tore the house apart – yet he realises he’s acting badly after Cass, who he’d come to respect, pointed it out in a post-mortem letter.

Of all the characters in the series, I would argue that Johan was the only one who got what he actually wanted. Becoming an engineer, finding ways to do things without magic, may seem odd, but his perspective is different. Johan will always be a little scared of his powers, a little reluctant to depend on them; technology, primitive as it is at that point in time, offers scope for something more. He never wanted to become Grand Sorcerer, or Family Head, or any other title. All he wanted was to carve a life out for himself.

You could say this is a small aim, if you like, but aims don’t have to be big. <grin>

11 Responses to “The Bookworm and the Angry Man: Deconstructing Elaine and Johan”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard October 4, 2015 at 10:41 pm #

    Very Good and yes small aims can be pleasant as much as big aims. [Smile]

    Oh, one question for possible future stories in this universe.

    Is there a way to spot a potential “wild wizard” before they gain their power?

    Somebody might wonder if new Johans could be found and used.

  2. Jordan M October 5, 2015 at 2:52 am #

    have you written any other series like schooled in magic and bookworm? I really enjoy reading this genre

  3. vitor rocha February 11, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    The burnig question christopher: The universes of book worm and schooled in magic are the same? i see too many similarities.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard February 11, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

      I’m not Chris, but Chris has said several times that they aren’t the same world.

      • chrishanger February 14, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

        They’re different universes.


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