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Friday, June 29, 2012

What makes a queen?

Assuming a reading order of The King's Peace, The King's Name, and The Prize in the Game, the reader first meets Elenn ap Allel in The King's Peace, when she arrives in Tir Tanagiri as Urdo's queen. Thus for two books we see her only through the eyes of Sulien, who likes Elenn but doesn't understand her very well. They are two wildly dissimilar specimens of womanhood. It isn't until The Prize in the Game that the reader finally gets a glimpse into Elenn's head, as well as viewing her through the eyes of other characters who know her well and yet not at all. The reading order of these books doesn't really matter that much, but I imagine that reading The Prize in the Game first would be an interesting experience. Regardless, Elenn's complexities are hinted at in the Sulien duology and elaborated on in full heartbreaking spectacle in Prize.

Elenn is a queen who has been raised to be a queen. She has never thought of being anything else; indeed she admits this to her friend ap Ringabur, a lawspeaker of Tir Isarnagiri. However, that conversation is also notable for Elenn considering her options (as a warrior, a lawspeaker, or an oracle) and then deciding that yes, being a queen is actually what she does want to do. Her sister Emer is more akin to Sulien, though again very different in significant ways, in that all she's ever wanted is to be a warrior and dreads the thought of being a queen, though ultimately she is forced into it. Emer and Elenn approach queenship from vastly different perspectives. Emer is doomed to her crown, having married Lew ap Ross when she believed her beloved, Conal ap Amagien, had been killed; though she is a good queen for her people, she is at heart a warrior as well as being a woman in love (Conal isn't really dead, of course), and these traits combine to sometimes cause her to do things which confuse Sulien and enrage Elenn. On the other hand, Elenn is on the surface the quintessential fairy-tale queen: fantastically lovely, with songs and poems written to her beauty, composed at all times, capable of small talk and soothing the egos of important men, intelligent and savvy and generally good at running the day-to-day nuts and bolts of a castle. Indeed, the first we hear of her is a description of her beauty from Gwyn ap Angas, who opines that Elenn is "strictly the decorative type" of woman; in Prize Conal compares Emer to her sister, with Emer coming out on top for having "more wit than hair"; and Sulien confirms Elenn's beauty when they first meet--but in that same meeting, Elenn's first words within the text of The King's Peace are a polite, pointed speech in which she tears the Jarnish lord Alfwin a new one for refusing to meet with Sulien and Marchel, two of Urdo's war-leaders and most trusted personnel (Alfwin's words: "Women don't conclude alliances." To his credit, he becomes more used to the Tanagan way of doing things when his niece Alswith becomes a decorated warrior and king in her own right). Clearly there is more to Elenn than her nearly supernatural beauty. She is trained in fighting and chariot driving as a matter of being an Isarnagan noble, but the martial arts are not where her interests or strengths lie. When Urdo marries her he gets not only an alliance with a kingdom of Tir Isarnagiri but also a woman bearing every queenly aspect and accomplishment.

...except one, and it's the big one: fertility. Every queen is assumed fertile until proven otherwise, and Elenn, sadly, is proven otherwise. In her years married to Urdo she produces no heirs, and only conceives once, miscarrying due to the subtle machinations of Morthu. This is the great sadness of her life,  perhaps compounded by a revelation in Prize that she was born "at the Feast of the Mother" (around the beginning of February, when the goddess Brigid was celebrated with the festival Imbolc) and felt a certain closeness to that goddess. Ultimately being infertile might have caused even more pain if Elenn felt that the Mother had forsaken her. Unlike the other Guenevers she is modeled on, she doesn't turn to any other man, whether out of grief, love, or belief that maybe Urdo is the problem. After the events of Prize, one suspects that childlessness is the final nail in the coffin of Elenn's self-esteem, given that  her mother Maga effectively whores her out to the warriors of Tir Isarnagiri in exchange for them fighting for Connat's side against Oriel, and Morthu later uses manipulations similar to Maga's to turn Elenn against herself. Worst of all, one of the warriors  used by Maga is Ferdia, the man Elenn truly loves and closest friend of Oriel's champion Darag. She is aware that he only marries her because Maga blackmails him into it; his sense of honor allows him to be shamed into the marriage and then into fighting Darag (as the text suggests, the person he truly loves). This knowledge is devastating to Elenn. The very things she has to hold onto, the things she has been raised to value--her beauty, her skillset, her position and responsibilities as a princess, her goodness and pliability--are used against her, first by her mother Maga, then by Morthu. In a horrible scene reminiscent of the events of The Prize in the Game, Morthu appears to have intentions to marry his king's wife, referring to her as "dear one" and other endearments, and attempting to kiss her as Sulien and  Ulf Gunnarsson watch helplessly. This scene, taken with an earlier one in which Morthu uses evil magic against Sulien, implies that Elenn's mind is undergoing a form of molestation stemming from Morthu; since we have no view into her imprisonment with him, it is unknown whether her body has also been violated. Morthu, like Maga, is able to exploit Elenn's upbringing and her beliefs about her status, position, and purpose, as well as her general isolation; despite the strides she has made with Urdo in terms of trust, once subjected to the brand of manipulation Morthu wields, Elenn's walls go right back up.

As Sulien, Darien, and Urdo state on various occasions, Elenn is the ultimate queen. She is everything a queen should be and everything Urdo could want in a partner, and he truly doesn't care that she has been unable to bear children, beyond his care for her heartache. But as the poem from which The Prize in the Game takes its title states, "they wear my favor but my arms are empty"; this can be taken to signify that though she has many husbands, they are never hers to keep (the warriors of Tir Isarnagiri are married to Elenn, then go to their doom at the hands of Darag, who is undefeatable--Urdo is rarely at home, being busy keeping his kingdom in order). Further, despite her many wedding nights, she has no children to fill her days and heart. Her arms are empty. In spite of this, the idea of Elenn visiting another man's bed is never brought up, either by her or by Urdo, who mentions it as an impossibility to Sulien; instead Urdo and Elenn are firmly loyal to one another, making Elenn's grief over her childlessness all the more palpable. In most Arthur stories, from the medieval romances onward, Guenever and Lancelot are--overtly or covertly--the cause of the downfall of Camelot. The Sulien books dispense with this plotline entirely (though a lesbian romance between Sulien and Elenn would certainly be an interesting interpretation, had Walton chosen to keep the Guenever/Lancelot relationship), though a subtle twist through rumors is presented: that Sulien and Urdo had an affair prior to Urdo's marriage, and Sulien's son Darien, the stand-in for Galahd--who notably is not known as "Darien ap X" but as "Darien Suliensson"--was fathered by Urdo. Elenn becomes somewhat obsessed with this rumor, her fears stroked by Morthu, though it is well known that Sulien eschews all sexual relationships. In another nod to traditional Arthurian stories, Morthu also encourages the rumor that Sulien's son is the product of incest between her and her brother (as Mordred was the product of Arthur and either Morgan or Morgause's incest). In a very moving scene, Emer and Sulien speak with Elenn and point out that if Darien isn't Urdo's son, then Urdo and Sulien were never lovers, and Elenn at last opens herself to the possibility of truth without fact.

Dispensing with the familiar story of Arthur's cuckoldry also dispenses with the crumbling of the kingdom. At the end of The King's Name, Morthu is defeated, the King's Law upheld, peace restored, and though Urdo has passed on, his crown passes to Sulien's son Darien. As Sulien relates at the beginning of The King's Peace, the Peace they created remained; this is not the story of Arthur and Camelot we are familiar with, but it is a pleasing newness, the idea of shining Camelot enduring to become a truly united land. Ultimately Elenn finds peace as well, reconciling with both her sister Emer and Sulien near the close of The King's Name and seeking solace in her relationships with them and her religion (true to legend, she enters a monastery and eventually becomes its leader). Knowing that Elenn is a woman with major trust issues, it is with hope and tenderness that Sulien suggests Elenn found "trust and healing" with the monks. As a reader, I hope she did too.

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