I just spent the last two and a half days devouring an online English translation of Mo Dao Zu Shi (Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. The translation, by “K”, can be found here at Exiled Rebels Scanlations. The book is the basis for the 2019 Chinese television series, The Untamed, currently on Netflix. I’ve now read all 113 chapters, but am saving the bonus chapters for “later.” I recently wrote a blog, Wild About The Untamed, after watching the series four times but prior to reading the book.
I have so much to say about this series–and now the book as well–that I plan on writing several blog posts about The Untamed, from a variety of different views (magical practice, sexology, as a fantasy writer myself, etc.). But first I’d like you to understand why I am blogging about something as seemingly trivial as a Netflix series while enduring the fear and smoke of California’s third largest wildfire ever (which is burning part of the county where I live) as well as dangers of Covid-19 and the incompetence of my federal government. I live alone. Earlier this week I packed my car in case of evacuation. Fleeing a fire in a small car, at my age and with seven cats, will not be easy. (So far I have not had to do this–though others have.) So yes, I have become completely absorbed in this particular xianxia fantasy in order to cope with several existential threats and to control my racing mind. But even if I weren’t menaced by all of the above (including my racing mind), I’d still be as fascinated and transfixed.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to convince any of my close friends to watch The Untamed, so I’ve no one with whom I can “geek out” about the series. For those who have not yet experienced this magic, I feel the same sense of pity that I feel for anyone who has not read Lord of the Rings or watched Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. Is it any wonder then that I am writing a blog? This is what prolonged social isolation does to a person…
But let’s move on to some of the reasons I love The Untamed and the novel so very much.
The Trickster Archetype
I mentioned in my previous blog that the “trickster” character of Wei WuXian (aka Wei Ying and Yiling Patriarch) is what attracted me first. I am always captivated by trickster characters and spirits, including the consumate trickster, the Norse god Loki Laufeyjarson (and his Marvel counterpart). Tricksters are mischevious. They are typically outspoken and seldom mince words. They are more apt to slash with them if necessary. They get into precarious situations, often due to a finely tuned sense of their own honor or obligations. They solve problems using their wits but can fight if necessary. They see through hypocrisy and frequently challenge it. They are charismatic. They know their own value. They are seldom deferential enough to authority figures, even when not challenging them overtly. They seldom deign to explain themselves and their actions, so that even their closest companions misunderstand them. They can be fiercely loyal to just a few. They have power and they often wield magic that is considered dangerous, demonic, or somehow wrong or indecent. They attract harsh punishments and social criticism. Tricksters often drive the plot.
Wei WuXian, the “demonic cultivator” of the series, is a classic trickster. He is all of the above. In the book, this characteristic is even more pronounced. He is particularly compelled to prod and poke at Lan Zhan (aka Lan Wangji and Hanguang-Jun), his taciturn companion in swordplay and sorcery, but many of his tricks and jokes backfire. Try as he might, Wei WuXian cannot use obnoxious behavior and guile to undermine or escape his destiny. (I’m giving no spoilers. You can interpret “destiny” as you wish.)
Beauty, GHOSTS, DESPOTS, AND GHOULS
The xianxia world of The Untamed is beautiful. The buildings, costumes, ceremonies, and lotus-filled lakes calm my spirit and refresh my eyes. If I was a child watching this series, it would live in my imagination forever. As an adult, my imagination is also captivated (but “forever” is a shorter time).
But this world is not without its perils. Sociopathic despots rule it and the cultivator clans are governed by authoritarian prudes, wealthy libertines, and stern macho warriors. Resentful ghosts and lurching zombie-like “puppets” threaten armies and villages. Queer love can barely speak its name. And female characters spend a lot of time cooking and serving food, but not eating. (And why do I feel I’ve just described a Republican utopia?)
I also appreciate the beauty of the martial arts choreography. The actors who play Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan (and the others) make it all look effortless, which means of course that (1) they all spent untold hours perfecting their moves and (2) that the film editing is amazing. I particularly like how Lan Zhan’s words and face may often be closed, but his movements with sword and his magical instrument, the guqin, are eloquent and expressive. His actions taken to protect Wei WuXian are always prompt and decisive, though his words and face may rebuff Wei’s overtures. Wei WuXian also provides physical complexity in that he can switch from a lighthearted mood to a stern fighting mode at a moment’s notice. This is also reflected in the choreography.
As an American of European ancestry, I know I miss many markers of cultural significance. How could I not? The translator of Mo Dao Zu Shi does explain a few things, however, and I am grateful for anything that helps me understand more about what I’m watching and reading. However I do think I managed to understand some of the personal and emotional symbols, even during the first viewing. The producers and writers of The Untamed had to be careful how they portrayed the relationship between Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan, and so relied on elements with clear–but not explicit–meanings or they scripted ambiguous reactions to explicit meanings. This is a good article about some of the main symbols (Lan Zhan’s headband, rabbits, chickens, etc.) and how they are used.
The development of the complex relationship between Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan is of course the main attraction. Superficially it’s a classic “opposites attract” story, but the characters also share many similarities. Both are held in high regard for their abilities (though Wei is controversial first due to his cockiness and later for his demonic cultivation methods). Both are also generally regarded as beautiful men in a culture which obviously values looks. Both are “second” in rank in their cultivation clans/sects. Both are well educated. Both have lost parents at a young age and have been treated harshly, even abusively, by adopted or extended family members. Both are also emotionally and sexually inexperienced, though Wei WuXian likes to pretend he is not. So this is a story of first love as well as a love we imagine will last as long as the two cultivators seek immortality.
There are other types of relationships, love stories, and passionate (but presumably platonic) pairings depicted in The Untamed. There are two wandering cultivators who have a loyal friendship and a common mission to help those who need it–their way of life almost serves as a foreshadowing of the life waiting for Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian, should they commit to each other. Sibling relationships are important and complicated. Parents are either missing or inadequate. Lan Zhan’s brother becomes close to someone who rises in the world (who is therefore acceptable) while Lan Zhan’s partiality for Wei WuXian–even before his “fall”–is regarded as unfortunate and wrong.
Nothing could be more unlike The Untamed than the 1938 film of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. However those who know Pygmalion might understand me (maybe) if I say The Untamed has a transcendent moment equivalent to “fetch me my slippers, Eliza.” You have to see both to understand.
The book explained some scenes and elements in the television series that I could not understand. I am so glad that an English translation is available online and I feel a lot of gratitude towards K, the translator. This is in addition, of course, to what I feel for the author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and to all who brought these characters and their world to life in The Untamed.
I have always had special interests which keep me curious, happy, and occupied. The Untamed fits in with so many that I have already: magic and animism, all forms of human sexuality and gender identities, trickster tales, and epic fantasy. And I have such pleasure in the story itself and its characters. That pleasure alone–during these dreary days of pandemic isolation and smokey skies–is worth everything.