There's a theory that I see underpinning a lot of discussions about fanfiction, or fiction in general, that seems to flow along the lines of "it doesn't matter what we say - it's just a story." You get the same thing in developing games: "Stop freaking out so much. It's just a game." But it's not just a game. It's not just a story. While your players or readers are in the midst of it - that story is their reality.
And isn't it worthwhile to confront, explore, and learn about real-life issues through this medium that's as real as reality gets, but lacking the real-life consequences we'd run into if we actually did the action (stab the man) or said the words (confess your love)?
Recently, I rewatched Schindler's List, and since then I've been distracted with the idea that the real tragedy behind WWII isn't just the millions of deaths, but the fact that people don't acknowledge that it took place. How many times have we played a game or watched a movie or read a book in which Normandy Beach is stormed, where Stalingrad is sieged, or even watched as huge numbers of people were rounded up, forced out of their homes and relocated, and yet the word "holocaust" is never spoken? The piles of dead bodies are rarely on the screen. The emaciated children behind the fence are rarely the subject matter. They're just a backdrop.
I want to change that.
The basket swung heavily under her arm, and she felt the weight like an accusation. With an anxious glance around the street, she tucked the loose folds of the cloth more securely around the food underneath.
"Got your extra rations?" The voice was syrupy sweet, but venom and barbs were there, too, and Bella only stopped because it would be rude to keep walking. Turning to face the speaker with a forced smile, she saw the lean face of her cousin, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. She'd only been married the previous summer, and was still very pleased with herself for her new husband.
"Yes, Lobelia. Thank you for asking." She hesitated, suspicious that her cousin might be about to reveal yet more information that would make her feel terrible. She was right.
"Glad to hear it's going where the extra food's needed. You with no husband and no children." She caressed her stomach pointedly, and Bella closed her eyes for a moment, as though the pain were physical, rather than emotional. As quickly as hobbits were inclined to breed their females, it was a bit of a surprise that it had taken her so long to conceive, but she couldn't blame either Lobelia or Otho for trying to delay it. This wasn't the sort of world she would want her children born into.
"Do you have your basket with you?" Bella asked at last, opening her eyes again and attempting to banish the sting of loneliness behind her eyes. "I'd be happy to share."
The other woman's face scrunched up as though she'd smelled something awful, and for a moment Bella thought she might refuse. Perversely, she hoped that Lobelia would refuse, just so she would have an excuse to force generosity on her. But Lobelia had never been one to turn down free food or free goods. Or pass them up when they were easily pocketed.
"As a matter of fact, my basket is only just down here. If you wouldn't mind..." Lobelia trailed off with a sycophantic smile, then retreated to fetch her basket. Rather than letting her go and return, Bella followed silently, and simply handed her the full basket when they reached her door, taking Lobelia's empty basket in return. There was that "I've smelled something revolting" expression again. Bella's smile was more genuine this time.
"I have enough at home for just me. You and Otho ought to have a nice meal now and again." She turned to leave before Lobelia could come up with a really nasty retort.
The market seemed empty as Bella passed back through it again, trying to keep her sighs to herself. It would be a lean week, without that extra food to bolster her failing pantries, but she wasn't assigned to work in the fields, either, so she would count her blessings. Passing through the south gate toward the Hill and her own Bagshot row, she looked west and east, past the squat brick houses where the farming families lived to the fields. It had once been grass, endless and green over the gentle hills. Now it was corn, wheat, tomatoes, cabbages - broad leaves and slender stalks and sprays of green in patchwork as far as she could see. Figures in brown moved among the rows of tender young shoots, stooping to pull a weed or bending to sprinkle water from a heavy jug as the unseasonably hot spring sun glared down at them from the cloudless sky. It would be a hard season for all.
She turned off the main road and passed through the low hedge gate onto Bagshot Row. There were five goblins lounging against a leaning fence in the shade of a spreading oak - on of the last on this section of road.
It would be hard for all except them and their ilk.
Setting her jaw, Bella kept her eyes on the ground and stretched her legs to walk a little faster, hoping to get past them before they said anything or asked anything of her. The dust rose around her feet and settled on the honey-colored hair that covered her toes as she walked. They let her get almost past them, grunting and laughing to one another as they watched her through slanted yellow eyes.
"Gonna be hard to fix us our lunch without no food," said one of the goblins, pushing himself up away from the fence. He wouldn't follow her out into the sun, not in earnest, but she knew ignoring him would only bring trouble. Trying not to shiver at the sound of his guttural voice, she stopped and turned to face them, bobbing a curtsy.
"There's food in the pantry, sir. I'll be happy to fix something for you and your companions, if only you'll give me a chance to step inside."
The goblin's face was wide and swarthy, his eyes narrowed to yellow slits as he squinted against the bright light he wasn't designed to endure. They were probably only out here at all because their commander had kicked them out of their barrow. They called him Gojhnak, or just "Captain," and though Bella didn't see him about, she had no doubt the orc was somewhere nearby.
"Seems to me it's a little strange, Little Rat, for you to go all they way to market, jus' to come back with an empty basket. What's the matter? Lost your appetite?"
Bella knew she was in trouble. This goblin was looking for an excuse to punish her, and she didn't have a way to get out of it.
"I'm... afraid I'm not feeling very well." Her voice quavered as she spoke, and she hoped they would identify it as a symptom of illness rather than fear. "I oughtn't have gone in to market at all, but I had hoped I would find something to settle my stomach." It was no lie at this point that she did feel ill. Being under that malevolent yellow gaze, and feeling the eyes of his four companions was enough to make anyone sick. Especially a lone female. As if to spite them, no goblin had yet succeeded in filling a hobbit woman's belly with his child, and many guessed it was because goblin-folk were incompatible with the race of halflings - thank the Valar for that. It didn't stop them from trying, though.
"Get back to your hole, Little Rat," he sneered at last. "And bring us our lunch."
"Yes, sir." She bobbed another curtsy and hurried away, her heart pounding in her chest. Bag End seemed vacant from without, and she prayed fervently to whatever gods were listening that it was as it seemed. Whether goblins stayed in her home or not on any given day was more the choice of Captain Gojhnak than anyone else's, and if he was making an effort to put his troops out in the sun it was possible, just possible, that he hadn't let any stay indoors.
Cautiously, she opened the chipped and battered green door, listening intently as she stepped inside.
The hall was empty, and she didn't hear anyone in any of the nearby rooms. With a sigh of relief, she closed the door and hung her shawl on one of the many pegs installed so long ago by her father, preparing for the many guests he and her mother would host after their wedding. Slowly, Bella set her basked down on the old wooden chest and gazed up at the pegs. There were 19 of them in all, for the 20th had been broken more than a year ago when two goblin soldiers had started a brawl in the hallway. She wondered at her memories, so vague now, of a time when having guests was a common occurrence - or at least, the sort of guests that would use those pegs as they'd been intended.