Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus. It's Complicated.

If Christopher Columbus had a Facebook status, it would be "It's Complicated."

Why?  When I first started teaching, 13 years ago, it was all "Columbus discovered America!  Hooray!" 

Somehow since then, the sentiment even in elementary school has become a more cautious "Columbus wanted to find a new, faster route to the Indies, but he bumped into the Americas by accident.  When he got there, he thought he had reached the Indies, so he called the people Indians.  So, really, the Native Americans that he called Indians were here first, but Columbus let the rest of the world know that they were here.  Got that?"  (To complicate things further, try telling this to a class of 6 year olds comprised mostly of Indian children.  From India.)  A lot more complicated, if also a lot more accurate.

(We won't talk about the day when we tell them that Pocahontas' true story did not end quite like the Disney movie).  Although we don't get into this in first grade, some people - adults, presumably - take a bit more disgruntled approach to Columbus.

So.  Christopher Columbus.  Hero?  Villain?  Something in between?  There are two sides to every story.

In the musical Wicked, Elphaba (the Wicked Witch) calls the Wizard out for being a phony and not a wizard at all.  He replies that the people of Oz gave him the name Wonderful (as in Wonderful Wizard of Oz), so he just went with it.  He's trying to convince her that she can do the same.


I never asked for this

Or planned it in advance

I was merely blown here

By the winds of chance
I never saw myself

As a Solomon or Socrates

I knew who I was:

One of your dime a dozen


Then suddenly I'm here

Respected - worshipped, even

Just because the folks in Oz

Needed someone to believe in

Does it surprise you

I got hooked, and all too soon?

What can I say?

I got carried away

And not just by balloon:


They called me "Wonderful"

So I said "Wonderful" - if you insist

I will be "Wonderful"

And they said "Wonderful"

Believe me, it's hard to resist

'Cause it feels wonderful

They think I'm wonderful

Hey, look who's wonderful -

This corn-fed hick

Who said: "It might be keen

To build a town of green

And a wonderful road of yellow brick!"

(spoken) See - I never had a family of my own. So, I

guess I just - wanted to give the citizens of Oz everything.

ELPHABA(spoken) So you lied to them.


(spoken) Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of

things that aren't true. We call it - "history."

(sung) A man's called a traitor - or liberator

A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist

Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?

It's all in which label

Is able to persist

There are precious few at ease

With moral ambiguities

So we act as though they don't exist

They call me "Wonderful"

So I am wonderful

In fact - it's so much who I am

It's part of my name

And with my help, you can be the same.

Is he wonderful?  Terrible?  Perception is a funny thing, and a lot of books like Wicked have been cashing in on telling very compelling "other sides" of the story.  Giving the traditional villain the chance to be heard and the backstory to explain why deeds perceived as evil may not have been that at all, or may have been misunderstood, or may even have been forced by the traditional hero.  A while back, before I started this blog, I was working on a WiP in that genre.  My Columbus lessons today made me think of it. 

A good story is more complicated than good guy/bad guy.  Thoughts?


Misha said...

I completely agree.

The villain in my story is absolutely convinced that what he is doing is right...

As for Columbus, love him or hate him, if he didn't get there first, someone else would have.

And it wasn't the person that sparked all the bad stuff as much as the way that Europeans believed they could act in that time...

Old Kitty said...

I think real life and world history should be extremely complicated and extremely complex and many faceted - and we draw conclusions based on results and factual evidence.

As for fiction - having a complex hero and a dashing villain are always compelling! Take care

Alexandra Crocodile said...

No one is bad all the way through, so complexity is good!

Also, a viking was in North America 500 years before Columbus. Theyæve found viking settlements in Canada. So there. Leiv Eiriksson, you rock:)

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post. Love the dialogue - so fun! :)