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Artemis Fowl : The Arctic Incident
Eoin Colfer
London: Puffin Books (Penguin), 2002.
£6.99, 288 pages, ISBN 0-670-91344-8.

Virginie Douglas
Université de Rouen

The Arctic Incident is the second part of the trilogy about Artemis Fowl, the thirteen-year-old criminal mastermind, by Irish author Eoin Colfer. All the most memorable characters from the bestseller return: Artemis, the boy genius with a tendency to do evil, Butler, his faithful bodyguard and an expert at martial arts, Captain Holly Short, a young female elf who works as a police officer for the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance) in the fairy subworld, her grumpy yet good-hearted boss, Commander Root, their associate high-tech specialist and gadget supplier (reminiscent of James Bond’s Mr Q), centaur Foaly and — last but not least — the incorrigibly elusive, resourceful thief, the farcical character of mud-eating, wind-breaking dwarf Mulch Diggums.

In the first part, Colfer had indeed managed to get in a few obvious plugs for a sequel, occasionally referring to “another story”. Like many other contemporary authors of children’s or young adults’ books, he has recently had the opportunity to learn that series are especially successful at the moment: international successes like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy give proof of that.

In his opening adventure (reviewed in Cercles), Artemis had contrived a clever plan to kidnap a fairy (Captain Holly Short) in order to get a large amount of gold out of “the People” as a ransom and restore his family fortune, which had been declining since his father’s disappearance during an expedition to Russia. The father had then been presumed dead, but in the second part the son, who will not give up all hope, uses the newly-acquired funds to try and locate Artemis Senior. When it turns out that the Russian Mafia holds his father prisoner, Artemis knows he needs help (preferably supernatural help) if he wants to rescue him. On the other hand the fairy people, who have dwelt under the ground ever since living in harmony with humans became impossible long ago, have to face internal strife in the form of a particularly forceful goblin revolt: the LEP officials are aware that human assistance would be all the more valuable as the rebels rely on illegally imported human equipment. Former enemies Artemis and Holly are therefore led to team up and cooperate to achieve their respective goals.

There is no doubt that Colfer’s books have been capitalizing on the recent revival of fantasy. After the craze for witches, which had begun in the 1970s (long before Harry Potter) with authors like Diana Wynne Jones and her Chrestomanci novels, fairies have become all the rage in the children’s book market. Eoin Colfer exemplifies this new trend and there are other forthcoming books on the subject:
Faerie Wars by Herbie Brennan, a novel recommended by Colfer, which will be published in February 2003 by Bloomsbury, is one of them. There was therefore an opportunity to tap the fantasy market and the Harry Potter hype. Besides, as far as the latter is concerned, the ever increasing length of the Potter novels makes it difficult for Rowling to keep up the pace of her production and while the first four books were published yearly from 1997 to 2000, the fifth instalment of the series (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) will not come out until 2003, which leaves Rowling’s fans looking for replacements in the meantime. Another element showing Colfer’s commercial opportunism lies in the fact that, like so many other recent fantasy books, the Artemis Fowl novels are crossover books, intending to appeal both to children and to adults.

But at least Colfer does not try to disguise his attempt at reaching commercial success. Unlike Rowling, he has no literary ambition in the sense that his trilogy only aims at being a good read and at selling well. His novels do not purport to be works of art. They lack literary sensitivity, being mainly made up of dialogue and action, with no descriptions and therefore no atmosphere despite the thrill of the plot. Indeed the book could almost be a screenplay. But this, far from putting Colfer at a disadvantage, serves his purpose: Artemis Fowl and its sequels are meant to be made into a movie tie-in, which is confirmed by the fact that the film rights have already been sold to Miramax.

Thus the simplicity of the style and lack of depth are one of the main criticisms that could be made about the book. The focus on the fast-paced narrative prevents the creation of a convincing world, although Colfer’s imagination is rich and vividly creative. For example, the episodes taking place in Northern Russia could have happened anywhere, as the details about the landscape are so scarce in spite of the mention of the snow and cold.

Yet even if the second part of the trilogy still reveals a literarily unambitious approach, there can be said to be some improvement in that Colfer makes better use of irony in The Arctic Incident. The wide range of intertexts had already been present in the first adventure. As in the opening novel, the author draws his references not strictly from literature but rather from popular culture, making the most of the means of expression and new media teenagers are familiar with — mainly television, the cinema, video games or the Internet: significantly the numerous allusions to James Bond (especially recurrent in this world-spanning second adventure, taking the main characters from Ireland to Paris and then to Russia via Los Angeles and the fairies’ underground world) are more reminiscent of the films than of the books. But in the sequel the distance between the referent and its new interpretation is more clearly highlighted and therefore more accessible to a young readership. The action-film formula in particular does not seem as literal as in the first part. The protagonist himself becomes wary about obvious movie clichés, encouraging the reader to do so in his turn. For example Artemis recurrently thinks of well-timed or cynical cues he could easily have uttered if he had been a character in an action film but now realizes that they are inadequate or impossible to say in the reality he is experiencing in the diegesis.

This greater deliberateness in the use of references does not only favour a playful use of allusions to other books or media, it also allows the contrasting of physical and intellectual power, of reality and fiction. Artemis Fowl, who is such a tech genius when he is in front of his laptop, is derisively described as behaving in a pitiful way whenever he has to step into physical action. The difference between facing a trial in a video game and facing it in reality is emphasized, leading to a reflection on the discrepancy between reality and fiction, which is particularly relevant with teenagers. Showing children and adolescents how not to confuse the real world with the virtual or fictional world has been one of the aims of a new kind of didacticism in children’s books, in an attempt at limiting the current tendency of visual media to make violence seem commonplace and serious events seem of no consequence to young people. Another instance, also concerned with computing, is Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), where a boy’s actions in a video game directly affect reality.

If Colfer’s second book is more satisfying than the first in some ways, it shows a certain lack of unity. There are some inconsistencies in the plot. The arctic incident of the subtitle only seems a minor episode compared with the goblin rebellion. Moreover, it is not clear whether the human boy Artemis, or the young (by fairy standards, since she is eighty) fairy Holly, is the real hero/ine of the story. Colfer himself appears not to be sure. Establishing the boy as the protagonist of the trilogy by making him the eponymous character of the books may simply have been yet another way of offering a counterpart to the Harry Potter books.

The careful reader can also detect some disturbing elements, which were not noticeable in the first novel. The problem in Colfer’s books may not be the physical violence (which has been widely commented upon) as much as some underlying ideological violence. It seems to me that the pervasive resort to violent action does not matter so much, especially as it is put into perspective. Although there are plenty of weapons in the books, few characters actually die, even among the villains (DNA cannons, for instance, put enemies to sleep for a few hours rather than kill them). Serious wounds can easily be cured thanks to the reviving power of fairy magic. But Colfer may seem politically correct in many ways, especially through his concern for the environment (the People can hardly bear the pollution created by humans), there are still instances of ideological violence, which are much more unsettling. Some aspects of the book in particular can be interpreted as having racist undertones. The sense of a hierarchy between the different races inhabiting the Lower Elements is reinforced by the fact that the goblins, who are tricked into rebelling by a couple of dangerous criminals, are recurrently thought of — both by the goodies and the baddies — as intellectually inferior and worthless creatures: “goblins are dumb. I’m not insulting them. It’s scientifically proven. Brains no bigger than rats.” (69) In the traitors’ headquarters some weapons can even be programmed to go off automatically against certain races, more precisely in this case against the goblins once they are not needed any longer.

As for the apparently feminist approach of the book (and sure enough Holly is often seen as superior to Artemis), it does not completely cancel out a certain kind of sexism in its description of the fairy girl as a sexually attractive character especially when she goes into action and behaves recklessly. She appears as a literary counterpart of Lara Croft, and I am not sure this is entirely ironical: “Captain Short was extremely pretty in a dangerous sort of way. Black-widow pretty. Artemis was expecting puberty to hit in approximately eight months, and he suspected that at that point he would look at Holly in a different light.” (223) There is also a negative female character in this book, a very pretty one too, Opal Koboi, described as a “precocious, headstrong and beautiful” (74) young fairy, “Daddy’s girl”, a kind of naive computer genius who childishly enjoys the power her intellectual faculties endow her with and fails to realize that she is herself being exploited by the arch villain ex-LEP officer Briar Cudgeon.

Perhaps the weaknesses of Eoin Colfer’s book could be summed up by saying that the author does not seem to know exactly what his trilogy is driving at. His books seem to take the middle course because they lack purpose. Does Colfer want to imitate the Harry Potter model or to challenge it? Does he aim at being innovative or at drawing his inspiration from the past? The mixture of traditional and modern elements, which incidentally is not as new as it has been said to be (C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series published in the 1950s, with its blend of Celtic, Greek and contemporary mythologies, was surely at the back of both Rowling’s and Colfer’s minds when they wrote their novels), is indeed one of the common features between the two best-selling authors. Other similarities lie in the blockbuster marketing of the books and in the fact that they undoubtedly appeal to reluctant readers, especially teenage boys.

At the same time the Irish novelist intends to open a new, post-Potter era by dissociating his books from Rowling’s best-seller. The main element through which Colfer tries to be original and counterbalance the Potter model and children’s books in general consists in making the hero bad and cruel. Artemis Fowl is first described as a criminal, a villain, a foul (Fowl) character, therefore seemingly setting a precedent in children’s literature. But in the second part of the story, Artemis begins to show signs of losing some of his wickedness and ruthlessness. How can this change be accounted for? Already in the first book the young criminal did not prove as utterly bad as the author wanted us to believe he was. The sequel confirms this failure to create a character who might be at once evil and attractive. The hero cannot help becoming better and better, and the reader can only assume that he is going to turn into an angel of generosity and reliability in the third part.

So it seems Artemis’s evilness was again mainly a trick to provoke the commentators of children’s books (supposedly accustomed to certain moral standards) into writing outraged reviews, thus making the book even more popular. I found that moral values (whether defendable or not) pervaded this sequel even though it pretends to be immoral in making its hero a crook. In The Arctic Incident, the main characters, who first decide to fight on the same side because they have common interests in doing so, gradually develop a sense of loyalty and comradeship, which is expressed for instance when, in battle, they take risks to rescue one another.

Therefore Artemis Fowl can seem disappointing by not living up to the status of the anti-hero he claims he is. In moral terms at least he has become an almost decent character, although by physical standards he is sometimes teasingly ridiculed for his shortcomings. What does the third book hold in store for the reader? Let us hope that Eoin Colfer will bank on his assets — his inventiveness, the fast pace of his lively, wildly comic narration and his skill at story-telling — to give new depth to his protagonist.

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