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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Distressing damsels

With title credit to the inimitable Carrie Fisher, all the damsels in the Sulien books are somewhat distressing. Certainly Sulien herself, who is called a demon by followers of the White God and a walkurja (valkyrie) by the Jarns, is about as distressing a warrior as one finds in fantasy literature; her tendency to laugh and scream during battle combined with her fighting prowess and great leadership make her an amazing character of strength, while her bluntness, simple desires, and social ineptitude make her an appealingly human one. Marchel, another female praefecto, is fanatically religious, a fearsome fighter and great horsewoman, and ultimately a traitor who kills surrendered enemies--there is much that is distressing about her. Emer, queen of Dun Morr, is a celebrated charioteer and warrior of Tir Isarnagiri, who drives the greatest Isarnagan fighter, Black Darag, in his fight against the warriors of Connat, and raises her daughter to become the greatest armiger of her time. And on the side of fearsome non-fighters, because well does Walton understand that "strong female characters" doesn't always mean "strong female characters," there are women like Veniva, Elenn, Morwen, and Garah: Veniva (Sulien's mother) is called "the last of the Vincans" and is devoted to keeping the fires of civilization alive in Tir Tanagiri: she insists that her children learn to read and write, and puts much stock in the great Vincan traditions and laws; Elenn, of course, is the ultimate queen and a woman of many varied and useful skills; Morwen is also a great queen and likely a good mother in her way, if also a sorceress who consumes souls to fuel her power; and Garah, loyal Garah, is talented with horses and healing, becomes a skillful queen, and it is stated that she coordinates the mail system in Urdo's kingdom, with an undercurrent of possible espionage work (this might just be my wishful reading).

There are only two instances in which any of the women of the story can be said to be in distress: first, the opening of The King's Peace, when Sulien is set upon and molested by Jarnish raiders, and second, near the climax of The King's Name, when Elenn is under Morthu's hypnotic spell. In both cases it is by the efforts of the women themselves that they are freed (though Sulien receives some assistance from her brother Darien before he is killed by the raiders). Elenn, fulfilling all the outward steretypes of a fairy tale princess, would seem to be the damsel most likely to be in continual distress, but this is not the case. Despite what Conal and Emer think of Elenn at the outset of The Prize in the Game, both ultimately come to view her with understanding, if not exactly liking. Princesses in fairy stories are often damsels in distress, requiring rescuing from a slew of monsters, evil witches, and knights with ill intentions. They are almost without variance rescued by knights with good intentions, whom the princesses duly marry. In the Sulien books, we see a few of these tropes in the cases already mentioned, as well as when Elenn is "rescued" from Tir Isarnagiri and her horrible parents (seriously, Elenn, get rid of your parents, they are revolting) by marriage to Urdo, an honorable knight if there ever was one. Maga, Elenn and Emer's mother, certainly fits the bill of evil sorceress, as it is hinted that she intends to force Emer to do what she wants by use of magic, and uses Elenn as the ultimate pawn in her game of war with Oriel. However, Walton's books give more time and attention to why Maga and Elenn act the way they do, and the emotional as well as physical consequences of their actions, where most archetypical fairy tales show the trapped princess from far away, in the view of the prince/knight, and then her happy rescue and romantic wedding. Analysis within the text is rarely given to the princess's mental or emotional state. In the case of Elenn, although Sulien doesn't always understand her queen, she provides enough details about Elenn's behavior so that, in conjunction with what Emer and Conal feel about her and the details the reader receives firsthand through Elenn's passages in The Prize in the Game, we as the audience understand and feel for Elenn deeply (I hope. Honestly if you don't, you are probably a Borg).

In The Prize in the Game most heavily and somewhat in The King's Peace and The King's Name, much narrative time is spent in Elenn's mind, such that the foreword for Prize states that if you don't understand why Elenn does what she does by the time you've finished reading, Walton washes her hands of you (I paraphrase). Indeed that book specifically and the triptych in general seem a response to both the familiar fairy tales of old as well as more modern reworkings; the Sulien books are a skillful blend of age-old tropes and contemporary considerations. Elenn can be both the princesse lointaine, the faraway princess and the distant queen on the hill, as well as being a savvy diplomat, a frightened yet proud wife and daughter, and a beloved queen, and answerable ultimately to her own lights.

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