Part of the GRRM Reading Project.
Content warning for discussion of sexual violence, rape, and necrophilia.
In the ’70s, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote three stories set in what he called corpse worlds. In these planets, corpse-handlers transmit their will to brainless bodies, controlling the actions of these corpses for whatever ends necessary. Meathouse Man is the third and last of the corpse-handler stories; the previous ones being Override (1973) and Nobody Leaves New Pittsburgh (1976).
The story had a difficult publishing history. Originally conceived for Harlan Ellison’s The Last Dangerous Visions anthology, it was rejected. Then, according to Martin,
“So I set down and ripped the guts out of the story and rewrote the whole thing from page one, and this time I opened a vein as well, and let the blood drip down right onto the paper (…) I was wounded, and in a lot of pain. I put it all into ‘Meathouse Man,’ and sent the story back to Harlan.”
…only to be rejected again. At this point, Martin considered giving up on Meathouse Man, but he had already put too much work on it. He sent it to other markets, finally publishing the novelette in Orbit 18. It’s probably the most well-known of his corpse-handler stories, even getting a comic book version several years later.
Martin still finds Meathouse Man painful to reread, calling it “easily the darkest thing I’ve written.” That’s no light title considering the themes and tropes that he likes to explore in his fiction (although, to be fair, he said this before writing A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons).
Does the story earn this title? Well…
In the Meathouse
Meathouse Man follows the journey of Greg Trager, a corpse-handler. Trager is skilled at his job, but has little in life other than spending his days controlling corpses to mine ores in the crapsack world of Skrakky. He dreams of something better, of feeling alive, of falling in love. Yet he’s also afraid, insecure, alone.
Initially pressured by his colleagues, Trager becomes a customer of meathouses-brothels where the sex workers are corpses that respond to their clients’ thoughts. Meathouses are an ambiguous experience for him, bringing him a sexual satisfaction that no real woman could match, while also intensifying his feelings of loneliness and disgust.
Trager’s life starts to change when he meets Josie. The two become friends and he falls in love with her. This love makes him feel more alive than ever before, but also brings him a new type of agony. Struggling with his fears and insecurities, Greg finally confesses his feelings for her. She rejects him, while also urging him not to lose hope.
Time passes, and Greg has a better life and a better job in Vendalia. He shares his dreams with his friend Donelly, and one day meets and falls in love with Laurel. Unlike Josie, Laurel reciprocates his feelings and the two enter a loving relationship. Donelly also falls in love with Laurel, and GRRM wastes a perfect opportunity for writing a polyamorous relationship. Instead, Laurel leaves Trager for Donelly.
Trager never recovers completely from this loss. Josie advises him to keep on hoping, but her words have lost their power. Other relationships feel meaningless to him, other people feel distant.
“How many times can you speak them, Trager wondered, speak them and believe them, like you believed them the first time you said them? Once? Twice? Three times, maybe? Or a hundred? And the people who say it a hundred times, are they really so much better at loving? Or only at fooling themselves? Aren’t they really people who long ago abandoned the dream, who use its name for something else?”
Eventually, he gives up. He becomes a corpsemaster in a gladiatorial arena, a job he otherwise considered a repulsive use of his corpse-handler skills. And he finds a new lover: a corpse he can control just like the ones in the meathouse.
Hybrids and horrors
I make no secret that I’m a huge fan of horror stories. Horror messes with us in a very personal way, and I find fascinating to see what each person considers to be scary, disturbing, horrific. Defining genres in fiction was never an easy task, but few genres exemplify this difficulty better than horror. So much of what repulses or draws people to horror stories is entirely subjective.
Furthermore, authors are often aware of genre conventions and may purposefully break them. They will mix and match different genres, bringing unexpected elements and creating something that is neither this or that. Martin is one of such authors, actively seeking to mix different genres in his writing. His horror stories evoke horror tropes and horror feelings, but are rarely pure horror.
This is very in line with his personal views of the genre, something he discusses in the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs:
“Good horror stories are about larger things. About hope and despair. About love and hatred, lust and jealousy. About friendship and adolescence and sexuality and rage, loneliness and alienation and psychosis, courage and cowardice, the human mind and body and spirit under stress and in agony, the human heart in unending conflict with itself. Good horror stories make us look at our reflections in dark distorting mirrors, where we glimpse things that disturb us, things that we did not really want to look at. Horror looks into the shadows of the human soul, at the fears and rages that live within us all.”
For Martin, horror is not the focus, but the wallpaper. Meathouse Man illustrates this vision very well, using a few horror elements and some truly horrific scenes to frame what is essentially a story about heartbreak and loneliness.
But is it more horrific than Martin’s other stories that also explore these themes through a darker lens? Is it that much worse than The Second Kind of Loneliness or This Tower of Ashes? I confess I would hesitate to call this story horror at all, if not for one element.
Not her but it
Corpse-handling is a deeply problematic practice, something Martin seems to be aware of. The very concept of using the bodies of formerly living people raises questions about dehumanization, objectification, and consent. But Meathouse Man also suggests an even more unethical origin for these corpses:
“For the freighters carried cargoes of men, criminals and derelicts and troublemakers from a dozen worlds bought with hard Vendalian cash (and there were darker rumors, of liners that had vanished mysteriously on routine tourist hops). And the soaring towers were hospitals and corpseyards, where men and women died and deadmen were born to walk anew.”
And nothing illustrates the horror of this concept better than the meathouse. Not only because it’s a symbol for Trager’s darkest moments, but also because in the meathouse scenes we gaze into the dynamic and implications of the corpse worlds.
The opening scene is probably the piece of Martin’s writing that made me most uncomfortable to date. As a woman, I found that scene a painful reminder of how we’re often viewed and treated in real life. Martin couldn’t have predicted the whole debate surrounding sex robots, but it was impossible for me not to associate it with the corpse women.
The idea of having female bodies at men’s disposal, to be used as they wish with no regards to these women’s feelings or opinions, is an awful naturalization of male feelings of entitlement over women. And I’m not sure how much Martin was aware of the implications here.
On one hand, he seems to invite us to question this woman’s condition and the ethics of the act:
“The others had gone to other rooms, had left him alone with her (no, it, not her but it, he reminded himself, and promptly forgot again).”
On the other, expressions like “female meat” emphasize her condition as an object to be used and discarded. This condition is almost eroticized, shown as part of the appeal of the meathouses. Trager’s use of these female bodies is also narrated in excruciating detail:
“Trager was drained and satisfied, but he had more time left, and he was determined to get his money’s worth. He explored her thoroughly, sticking his fingers everywhere they would go, touching her everywhere, rolling it over, looking at everything. The corpse moved like dead meat.”
What is the purpose of including such graphic descriptions of what is essentially sexual violence? Martin seems to be aware of the problematic aspects of the act, but does he really address them in the narrative? How much of this violence and dehumanization is not purely used as background for a story told from a male point-of-view?
With that in mind…
Martin’s Moping Males
The benefit of reading Martin’s stories in more or less chronological order is that we gain a new angle on his choices for characters, plot, and themes. Meathouse Man is a personal horror story; Greg Trager’s descent into darkness and refusal of reality and human connections. These elements were already present in stories like The Second Kind of Loneliness and This Tower of Ashes, but here they feel much more of a conscious choice from Trager’s part, making it all the more horrible and heartbreaking.
Martin believes that “the human heart in conflict with itself” is the only thing worth writing about. Conflicted his characters are, and their struggles are relatable. Trager’s pain and the questions he asks himself will find echo in many readers’ thoughts and experiences. We also follow his journey from the beginning, gaining a better understanding of what he wants and who he is as character. We learn of his hopes and dreams, we get involved, we root for him, and ultimately we lament his choices.
Still, at this point I have to confess I find it a bit exasperating to read so many stories about men brooding because they didn’t get the woman they wanted. It’s a pity because each story is interesting in its own right and brings a different approach to the same themes. Together, however, they make an uncomfortable pattern.
My all-time favorite A Song for Lya also centers in loneliness, love, and the incapacity for humans to perfectly understand and complement each other. But there are a few elements that make Lya work that are lacking in Meathouse Man and the other stories.
For one, the title character of A Song for Lya is a relevant and complex character in her own right. While the story is narrated by and ultimately sides with Robb, there’s never a sense that Lya’s choice was incomprehensible. The story doesn’t judge her for it, and it’s all the more powerful because of that. In Meathouse Man, and Loneliness and Tower before it, the perspective of the female ‘love interest’ never gains the same weight.
The Second Kind of Loneliness and This Tower of Ashes take place after romantic rejections, and we learn little of the women involved in those relationships. They’re heavily idealized, just like Josie and Laurel in Meathouse Man. Everything we see of these characters is filtered by the male gaze and related to their effect on the lives of the male protagonists. Their individuality is not important, their opinions and desires don’t matter. They exist to heal or ruin these male characters.
What gives A Song for Lya its emotional core is precisely that it never presents love as the ultimate solution for human miseries. Love here doesn’t conquer all, and realizing the limitations of human connections is the hard lesson the two lovers learn and react very differently to. Conversely, Meathouse Man and the other two stories reinforce the idea that the love of a good woman would be enough to heal all the loneliness and pain of the male protagonists. Love will give them life, will bring them to the human world, will fill the void inside them.
Do I have to explain why this idea is harmful? Why specifically the notion that men need women to fix them emotionally is harmful for all genders? Maybe the real horror was the toxic views on masculinity we met along the way.
As Martin’s stories become longer and more complex, I feel the need to collect those orphan thoughts about them:
- Martin experiments a lot with structure in Meathouse Man. Some readers may dislike the results, but I found them refreshing. I especially like how he approaches the dialogues with Josie and Donelly, keeping just the keywords. It’s a way to avoid what could otherwise sound like a very cliche exchange, plus in hindsight it gains a new layer as we learn these words have lost their power for Trager.
- Martin’s charm is often in details, and I like how he only refers to Trager by his first name in scenes that show his emotional connection with other characters.
- There’s a reference to “Old Earth,” which makes me wonder if this story is also part of the Thousand Worlds universe. Couldn’t find any other evidence for this, does anyone knows for sure?
- The whole idea of “fucking corpses” reminded me of one of the darkest passages in A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s interesting to think of this scene paired with the meathouse scenes and consider the evolution of Martin’s views on female objectification.
- The meathouse scenes were far from the only problematic element of the story. Martin’s description of the black corpse that Trager fights in the arena made me super uncomfortable as well, as did the associations between fatness and unattractiveness that permeate the story. Our boy still has a long way to go.
What are your thoughts on the story? Have you checked the comic book version as well?
Next month we’ll visit Martin’s “first pure fantasy as a pro”: “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr.”
Creator Corner: Interview with Author Mirah Bolender
A few weeks back, my city hosted a week-long book fair, complete with panels, book readings, sales, and a whole bunch of other goodies a book nerd like me can’t get enough of. Of course, I couldn’t stay away from the panel entitled, “Fearless Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” That’s my peak aesthetic. While there, I got the pleasure of listening to debut author Mirah Bolender talk about her debut novel, City of Broken Magic. I also managed to snag an ARC (advanced reader copy) of her book, and she graciously consented to do an interview with me. If you like fearless female protagonists and magical bomb squads, you’re going to want to check out City of Broken Magic.
Gretchen: What got you into writing? Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer or come to it more recently?
Mirah Bolender: I’ve been writing since childhood. My uncle recently unearthed an old photo album of me at 10 years old, with the note that “Mirah wants to be a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.” The exact direction hasn’t always been clear, but the writing always has been.
G: What drew you to writing fantasy in particular?
MB: Almost every single piece of media I enjoy is fantasy or science fiction. It always feels fresh, inventive, or engaging, and I’m a sucker for inventive world building and fun characters. Fantasy provides a much wider playground. Also, I can’t write nonfiction to save my life.
G: I’d love to know more about the moment it clicked for you that you wanted to write this specific book. When did you realize, “I have a novel?
MB: I cannibalized a lot of old story concepts to fill in gaps. Since the original piece began as a prompt, it wasn’t very balanced and catered more toward checking off boxes, but the more I eliminated the newer, stranger bits, the more I realized that the makeshift mortar worked. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a five-year-old idea finally work in a plot, and I had about eight of these old threads coming together. I really wanted to see where it led, so I kept writing, and kept writing… 75,000 words later I realized this was becoming a monster itself and I loved it!
G: The setting for City of Broken Magic is early industrial/late 19th-early 20th century, was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?
MB: The characters came first, so the world was shaped in response to my first image of them and the equipment they used. I wanted the setting to be modern enough to accommodate what I had, but also not too modern as to limit the fantasy aspect. A lot of times when a fantasy happens in contemporary times, it becomes limited by the real world—by locations, by politics, or otherwise. I wanted there to be no illusions that this was operating in a completely different world, and I wanted the freedom to explore from a blank slate.
G: City of Broken Magic features what amounts to a magical bomb squad, how did you come up with that idea?
MB: It actually came through multiple steps. My original concept had the monsters less substantial, nightmares to be driven off by sunlight. I changed it up for a story prompt in class—“A day on the job,” where it became a more physical monster. Then where did it come from, if not a nightmare? The more I wrote, the more the context came together to become what it is now.
G: This is a two-parter, but they go together: 1) What is your favorite thing about your primary characters? 2) Summarize each of them in a sentence of 20 words or less, if you can.
MB: I think my favorite things about my primary characters are how easy it is to write Laura, and how fantastic Clae is for grumpy exposition. Sometimes I’ll start writing another story and have to stop and say, Wait a second, I’m writing Laura all over again. She’s become my default character voice and it’s hard separating from it. If I were to summarize them, they’d be:
Laura: “Come back here and say that to my face!”
Clae: “Bite off more than you can chew and then CHEW IT!”
G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or like the creative juices aren’t flowing?
MB: Revisiting anything I enjoy helps. Last year I was watching Return of the Jedi on TV, and I had the strongest urge to create something even half as cool… after that I wouldn’t put down my notebook to pay full attention to the movie. It doesn’t always give you a direction, but sometimes that excitement is all you need to kickstart motivation again.
G: As a debut author, what was the most useful piece of advice you were given during the writing, querying, or publication process?
MB: Ironically, the best piece of advice was that I can ask for advice. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been phenomenal in teaching and supporting me through the publishing process, but, like in every piece of work, there’s inevitably one or two details that slip through the cracks— what seems obvious to the experienced isn’t always such to me. So long as you’ve done some research and are genuine in your questions, there’s no reason not to ask for more details. If you know more about how things work you can better do your job, which will help them do their job, and together you can succeed! Sometimes I get bogged down by the mentality of ‘I can’t bother anyone,’ so they reach out to check in on me and make sure everything’s okay.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
MB: City of Broken Magic is actually the first planned in a series, so I’m working on book two at the moment.
G: Oooh, that’s exciting! Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
MB: If you’re writing, try to keep track of your old ideas. It could easily be that you just haven’t found the right setting for them yet.
G: Thank you so much for the interview!
MB: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me.
About Mira Bolender
Mirah Bolender graduated from college with majors in creative writing and art in May 2014. A lifelong traveler, she has traveled and studied overseas, most notably in Japan, and these experiences are reflected in her work. City of Broken Magic is her debut fantasy novel.
City of Broken Magic will be available for purchase later this month, on November 20th, though you can read an excerpt over on Tor.com to get you hyped up. Stay tuned for a review, which will be released on publication day.
Images Courtesy of Mirah Bolender and Tor
Past Looks Back from Terrier
Terrier contains many firsts for Tamora Pierce. Published in 2006, it surprises the reader with the first person journal format. Previously Pierce used close third person, but this works’s for Beka’s story. It also gives the reader their first glimpse into Tortall’s past. Pierce sets this book in 246 HE, almost two hundred years before her other novels. This also is her first police and crime novel. While she dabbled in crime in the Alanna books, and mentioned the Lord Provost, now she tells us how the police system in Tortall works. Or, used to work, we hope.
Spoilers for all of Terrier and for all of Pierce’s other novels.
So, What Happened?
Terrier opens with a flashback to George’s youth. Eleni bailed him out of the Guard station and told him about his famous Guard, then called Dogs, ancestress. Then we jump to 244 HE in the past, where we meet Tunstall, Clary, and the Lord Provost. The Lord Provost tells how he caught a gang of Rats, because eight-year-old Beka Cooper tracked one down.
Then, we see Beka on her first day of Puppy training, where she’s assigned to work with Tunstall and Clary as her mentors. She stumbles initially, given her shyness and overconfidence. But eventually, she grows into her job. Beka also connects to a friend from her past, Tansy, who’s married to the grandson of the most corrupt landlord in Corus. A killer called the Shadow Snake killed Tansy’s son Roland. Tansy gives her a strange stone that her husband claimed would change their fortunes. Beka and her Dogs discover that it’s fire opals, mined by Crookshank, Tansy’s grandfather-in-law.
Through her magic with ghosts and dust-spinners, Beka tracks the opals and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank killed 17 people to keep his opals secret. Beka befriends Rosto, Kora, and Aniki, new members of the Rogue’s court from Scanra. She divides her time between the opals, and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank blames the Rogue for Roland’s death, and the kidnapping of his grandson.
Eventually, Beka discovers the location of Crookshank’s mine, and the Dogs move in. They rescue the current work crew, dig up the dead crews, and arrest the guards. A riot starts the next day after the news of Crookshank’s mine breaks. Rosto locates the Shadow Snake and Herum, Tansy’s husband. They rescue Herum, and discover the Shadow Snake was Yates Noll, and his mother, ‘the kindly’ baker. The book ends when Rosts becomes the new Rogue.
Past and It’s Benefits
Present and Past with Pounce and Poverty
One of Pierce’s successes is how she links the present and the past together. She does this several ways, through character links, and through class links. The most obvious character link is Pounce. Pierce draws on the emotions regarding the cat and constellation that followed Alanna from In the Hand of the Goddess on. Pounce also follows Beka, and we see how this spirit cat became who he was for Alanna. She uses him to tie us to Beka and her story. Pounce also grows in this story, being somewhat cattier than in Song of the Lioness. “Pounce trotted past the newcomers, carrying a black kitten … I cannot let you maul me about. Do it to him.” (427). In doing so, we see how his patience grows from past to present.
Pierce also uses her ties to the past significantly. She opens the book with Eleni bailing out a young George. Eleni tells him about, “Rebakah Cooper … She was a fierce and law-abiding and loyal, my son. All that I want for you. … Steal and you shame her.” (6). Afterwards, Eleni asks the Goddess to guide him on Beka’s path, instead of the theiving path he eventually takes. By utilizing irony here, as well as at the end, when Rosto plans to build the Dancing Dove, we see how the universe connects past and present.
Also in Eleni’s prologue is the revelation George started stealing because she couldn’t afford to feed them enough. This ties into the other theme that ties present and past together, that of poverty. Beka is the first POV from the lower class since Daine, and Daine talked mostly to the nobility. She counts coppers, and worries about rent. Even though the Provost fostered her, she remains part of the lower classes, which provides valuable insight.
Women’s Rights – Knights, Priestesses, and Pedestals
Lady Knight Sabine of Macayhill proves one of the most influential secondary characters in all of Terrier. She is the first lady knight that we meet that never once is treated differently because of her gender. Alanna struggles with acceptance of her gender. Kel succeeds only despite prejudice against female knights. With Sabine, we see the age that inspires them, where lady knights were never doubted, never disparaged for their skills. Sabine rescues Beka from a tavern brawl that would have killed any other Puppy. She helps Tunstall, Clary, and Beka track down Crookshank’s mine and harry Duwall, one of the Rogue’s chiefs. Her fellow knights and nobles respect her. It’s immensely refreshing.
We also see respect for women’s rights in the religious arena. Fulk often sexually harasses women. When Beka’s Dogs ask him to identify the fire opal, he harasses Beka. They stop him. Clary threatens to send him before the Goddess’s temple. Tunstall clarifies. “At the last eclipse, the Mother of Starlight temple chose Magistrates. Goodwin’s now the Goddess’s Magistrate … She signs a writ, and the warrior [ladies] with the sickles come for him.” (86). While violence against women remains a problem for Tortall, past and present, it’s a step in the right direction. It shows the slow steps of progress.
Finally, in a more meta-textual level, women now have the right to be villains. There’s equality between evil women and evil men for the first time in Pierce’s novels. Roger, Ozorne, Blayce, Rubinyan, all male. Now, the Shadow Snake is the primary antagonist, and she’s Mistress Noll. Yes, we’ve had female secondary antagonists, Imajane, and Delia come to mind. But if you put women on pedestals and don’t let them be flawed, then you’ve only entered another phase of misogyny. Pierce takes steps to correct this here.
The Past and It’s Problems
The thing that shocked me most in Terrier was the depiction of slavery. After the very successful Trickster’s Duology, to include slavery and to not even mention freeing slaves dissapointed me. In addition, this is the first we hear of any slavery being in Tortall’s past. While the importance of not whitewashing history is clear to me, Pierce simply could have not included slavery in Terrier and in Tortall’s past. Not only is it slavery, it is child slavery, and state sponsered slavery, and a complete reversal of the slave positions of Scanra and Tortall.
Child slavery proves a significant problem, when Beka investigates the Shadow Snake. She uncovers people who sold their children and claimed the Snake took them, or children genuinely taken for the slave trade. “Slave taking is disliked in Corus, but it isn’t illegal. Kidnapping children without their parents’ leave is illegal though.” (79). To clarify, parents can sell their children into slavery, but other people cannot. It is morally disgusting, and Beka prostests it only minimally.
We know the Crown sponsers slavery because not only is there a, “Ministry of Slave Sales” (384), but illegal slave markets get broken up by Beka and the Guard several times. The ‘illegal slavers’ set up a stable to “look like a proper slave market.” (384). After seeing Aly destroy the slave markets in Rajmuat, after seeing a rebellion that freed slaves, this grows intolerable. Scanra also doesn’t have many slaves since they can’t feed free citizens, let alone enslaved ones. Given that slaves work most of the farms in Scanra in the present, it feels Pierce merely flipped Scanra’s present with Tortall’s past to make the past darker. That doesn’t sit well with me. It shows insensitivity on issues she handled well previously.
Diversity and the Watsonian Lens
On a Doylist level, the amount of diversity in Terrier show’s Pierce’s advancing commitment to intersectional feminism. Take Sergeant Ahuda, the chief of the Guard Post where Beka trains, for example. “She is a stocky black woman with some freckle and hair she has straightened and cut just below her ears. Her family is in Carthak, far in the south. They say she treats trainees the way she does in vengeance for how the Carthakis treated her family as slaves.” (25). While the last sentance is dubious, she still remains a POC woman in charge of several dozen people. That’s wonderful, and Pierce develops her more than she did Sarge, in The Immortals Quartet.
In addition, Pierce shows people of color moving around Corus. “[The Rogue]’d foreigners with him, two Yamanis with their hair in topknots. With them stood the Carthaki who’d had Kayfer’s ear my first knight at the Court.” (399) Bazhir also move around the streets, though in a slightly more insular fashion. This reflects their isolation in Woman Who Rides Like A Man. This amazes from a Doylist sense, that Pierce moved so far from that contentious book.
But, in a Watsonian lens of thinking about books, it proves problematic. The diversity here only highlights the lack of diversity in her first series. Song of the Lioness doesn’t even mention non-white characters until the third book, and I find that depiction contentious. Something had to change between Tortall’s past and the present we see here that changed Tortall’s opinion of people of color. We know it results from the chronological evolution of Pierce’s feminism, but still. It also makes you wonder what happened that Lady Knights no longer were accepted. It may be this question is answered in the next too books. But still.
Police Novels and Modern Feminism
I don’t believe it especially controversial to mention that for the last decade or so, we’ve started having conversations about police brutality and corruption. It spawned movements, endless articles, and websites devoted to tracking cases of brutality and corruption. So, this makes it hard to see feminism and feminist movements in Police and Crime novels like Terrier. From our perspective now, we see a novel such as Terrier that contains moments of ‘police’ corruption and brutality, and find it difficult to endorse. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at.
Thankfully, no police brutality against unarmed and disenfranchised victims occurs in Terrier to my judgement. I might miss something, but the closest thing to brutality I saw lies in the ‘nap tap’. “All of us love that hammer blow of baton against jaw, even if it doesn’t always knock a Rat out. Goodwin has the city’s record for the highest number of perfectly delivered nap taps that end with a Rat carried away, stone unconscious.” (192). Beka hesitates at one point about hitting a tavern brawler that is attacking her with her baton, fearful that she’ll seriously hurt him. They do use riot gear at one point, when a riot forms when the news of Crookshank’s mines gets out. But those two moments are the closest the Provost’s Dogs in Terrier come to modern worries of police brutality.
Unfortunately, corruption proves differently. Someone kills a Dog that gambled with weighted dice, and Beka sympathizes with him. “Of course there are crooked Dogs. I can name two handfuls myself. … I do not like that he was crooked. But he’d still been a Dog.” (201). The insular community of the Dogs allows some exceptions for bad behavior if the perpetrator was a Dog.
Corruption also comes in the Happy Bags. “Other Dogs collect Happy Bags from each business that wants to know otherwise ill-paid Dogs will watch over them with diligence.” (92). In addition they collect from the Rogue which buys some peace between his Court and the Dogs. “Not taking offense over a bit of briber, are you? … On the very night your Dogs are here to collect their bribes from the Rogue. … That’s different. That’s for all the work every one of us does, to keep the streets orderly.” (107). But it’s not just for keeping the streets orderly. Dogs get personal bribes as well as the institution of the Happy Bag. And their bribe from the Rogue is not only in repayment for public order, but also keeps the Dogs away from several places. Places where the Rogue hides stolen goods, and where Yates hides from the Dogs.
The Dogs get funding almost entirely from the Happy Bags. Beka does not have a single qualm about the bribes that fund her work. She simply accepts it, and in some way the reader accepts it as well. Or they would if the conversation over police didn’t become so strident in recent years.
The mostly non-existent brutality and the blatant corruption make it difficult to read feminism in this book. After all, intersectional feminist groups spent years discussing and protesting this kind of behavior.
Overall, I believe that Terrier continues Pierce’s trend of increasing feminism. The way she includes diversity, even though it creates a Watsonian problem, convinces me of that. The depiction of slavery remains problematic, but I believe that her overall attempts at feminism trump that. It’s also balanced by the central nature of slavery in the Trickster’s Duology. However, the depiction of police corruption makes this book a harder sell to the modern liberal audience than when Pierce first published it.
Hopefully, Pierce’s expanding feminism continues as we enter the books that I have not yet read or reviewed.
Image Courtesy of Random House
The Field of Cormallen
About three years and 1,123 pages later (oh my god), we’ve finally made our way through the traditional climax of The Lord of the Rings. The Ring has been destroyed, Sauron’s blown away on the wind, and we get a nicely eucatostrophic crying party on the Field of Cormallen. But we still have, in my copy, just shy of one hundred pages to go. This is good. I am prepared to start fights with anyone who disagrees.
The Field of Cormallen is concerned with aftermath: those which are to be explored and those which are not. After the brutal and grinding efforts of Frodo and Sam are complete, the destruction of Sauron and his far-flung works is startlingly easy, dispatched of in a paragraph or two (this is something both Mytly and WanderingUndine pointed out in our discussion of “Mount Doom”). But the personal and psychological ramifications of the past thousand pages are just starting to unspool and will be the focus for the rest of the work.
The Lord of the Rings isn’t allegorical. Tolkien will roll over in his grave and send you a ghost slap for thinking it. But it is concerned almost entirely with individuals over systems. It’s Tolkien’s strength and arguable weakness, and I think one of the things that most definitely sets his work apart from subsequent fantasy (particularly any fantasy that sits anywhere in the realm of the label “gritty”). With the Ring destroyed, Sauron and his works are largely obliterated off-screen. With the major threat removed, Aragorn settles relatively simply and easily into his kingship. There is very little question of logistics.
This isn’t because Tolkien didn’t think about these issues. His letters show an awareness that Aragorn’s kingship was largely grounded in personal charisma and context, and that—particularly after his death—the kingship of Gondor and the stability of Middle-earth would quickly come into question. But this simply isn’t what Tolkien cared about, and never really has been. We’ve talked before about how, on nearly every level, the struggles that Tolkien’s characters face are psychological, moral, internal things. The external threats—up to and including Sauron—are simply narrative facets of those internal dilemmas. It’s sensible, then, that denouement of The Lord of the Rings will be about the internal consequences. For all of our characters, but especially for our hobbits. And most especially, for Frodo.
The Field of Cormallen
Tolkien’s whole theory of a proper faerie story hinges on the concept of eucatastrophe, as we’ve touched on many times before. And the Field of Cormallen is the pinnacle of the concept, the whole chapter functioning as a sharp, unexpected turn from the darkness that had come before. After two chapters of torment and devastation everything is suddenly soft, quiet, and feels oversaturated with light and color. It’s the narrative equivalent of a sudden gasp: such an unexpected boon, a joy that pierces like swords.
When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled sent.
They stepped out of the beech grove in which they had lain, and passed on to a long green lawn, glowing in sunshine, bordered by stately dark-leaved trees laden with scarlet blossom. Behind them they could hear the sound of falling water, and a stream ran down before them between flowering banks, until it came to a greenwood at the lawn’s foot and passed them on under an archway of trees, through which they saw the shimmer of water far away.
Sam awakes in Ithilien to an impossibly pretty and peaceful scene (just down the road from the waterfall fort where he and Frodo experienced their last bit of real peace). Gandalf is there, laughing, his beard “gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight.” Sam jumps up and laughs, and cries, and when he asks Gandalf “is everything sad going to come untrue?” you almost believe that it will, or could.
This only continues when Sam gets his wish granted almost immediately on the Field of Cormallen and hears himself lodged forever into songs and tales; it continues when he and Frodo run up to Strider who reminds that “it is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me?” And maybe most of all when the Fellowship reunites (mostly) and stays up talking together late in the night, entirely unthreatened by Black Riders or orcs or any other immediate or obvious danger.
At last the glad day ended; and when the Sun was gone and the round Moon rode slowly above the mists of the Anduin and flickered through the fluttering leaves, Frodo and Sam sat under the whispering trees amid the fragrance of fair Ithilien; and they talked deep into the night with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf, and after a while Legolas and Gimli joined them.
It does seem like everything sad could come untrue. But that’s not the sort of book we’re dealing with.
Frodo at a Distance
The events of the last two and a half books have obviously made their marks on everyone. Aragorn and Gandalf are more elevated, distant and super-human (since, well, they both technically are). Merry and Pippin utterly baffle Sam with the three inches added to their height and their new status as knights of Rohan and Gondor. Legolas’s sea fixation has only grown:
To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me.
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves of the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices of the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressea, in Elvenhome that no man can discover
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people forever!
Lil’ Melancholy Kid Katie had a lot of feelings about this poem. While I want to make fun of Legolas for sounding like a kid who studied abroad by the ocean for the first time and is applying to MFA programs (or like the inverse of the coastal snob who moves to the Midwest and can’t stop looking down at the Great Lakes), but my heart wouldn’t really be in it. Yearn away, buddy.
But really, I was most fascinated by Frodo in his chapter—or, more specifically, his relative absence. Although Frodo is largely at the center of all the celebrations, he is largely absent from the narrative itself. We skip Frodo’s awakening in order to focus on Sam’s. We get Sam’s reaction to the celebrations on the Field of Cormallen, his reaction to the tales and adventures of Pippin and Merry and the others.
I’d imagine this is largely because, had we gotten Frodo’s reactions to things, this would have been a very different chapter. On the slopes of Mount Doom after the destruction of the Ring, Frodo is hardly cheerful, as he gently puts down Sam’s desire to escape. It may not be Sam’s tendency to give up, he says, “but it’s like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes. We have only a little time to wait, now. We are lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape.” For quite a while, at this point, this has been Frodo’s absolute best-case scenario. He would fulfill his Quest, and then he would die. He does not seem to be afraid of this or even particularly upset by it: instead, he faces it with a calm resignation, thinking that this is simply how things have to be.
I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that Frodo doesn’t want to be saved. After all, he does seem happy to see Strider again, and to talk with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf under the trees. But it’s also not clear that Sam’s sense of eucatastrophe is shared with Frodo. Even with the Ring destroyed, his emotional status remains unclear and largely blocked off to the reader. Given what he’s just experienced, and what he’s lost, it’s hard not to look at the Field of Cormallen from Frodo’s perspective and feel something sadder, as the poor guy is dressed up in orc garb, saddled with an unwished-for-sword, then forced hear someone sing his trauma at him.
Not much of this is made explicit, of course. But given what’s to come, and how Frodo ended his last chapter, it’s intriguing to me how emotionally inaccessible he is to the reader and how during one of the primary celebrations of the book’s climax he remains inscrutable and tangential. It’s good groundwork for Frodo’s journey after this, and subtly highlights that the emotional and psychological aftermath of Frodo’s experience still needs to be unpacked.
The End of Evil
This interest in the Quest’s ripple effect on individuals is interesting in light of the fact that any large-scale or systemic ripples are almost entirely absent. Sauron himself is literally blown away by the wind:
“The realm of Sauron is ended!” said Gandalf. “The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.” As the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.
And this destructive is definitive and all-encompassing, leaving little-to-no mess to clean up.
As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing to hide in holes an dark lightless places far from hope.
Though Tolkien is doing this purposefully, I do have a lot of sympathy with those who find this unsatisfying. So much effort is put into the interiority and choice of the Fellowship that it seems… unfair, or narratively unbalanced, to have the forces of Sauron so utterly deprived of a sense of self that when the Ring is destroyed they begin to literally commit mass suicide. I don’t necessarily have a solution for this: frankly, at this point, an in-depth look at what happened to those serving under Sauron would be definitively out of place in terms of theme and tone. But I also think that criticisms on this front are warranted. And that it makes the applicability of Tolkien’s story seem limited, at least in this sphere.
- I was intrigued that Gwaihir and his brother were followed by “all their vassals from the northern mountains, speeding on a gathering wind.” I largely ignore the Eagles when talking about Tolkien because I don’t want to talk about whether they should have just flown the Ring to Mount Doom. But I am intrigued by the concept of Eagle vassals. How does air feudalism work.
- Gimli: “I love you, [Pippin], if only because of the pains you have cost me, which I shall never forget.” Harsh but fair.
- It’s very charming that on the day that he was honored as an international hero and the entire global calendar was reoriented around his actions, Sam is bummed he missed out on all those other neat adventures. Orcs, and talking trees, and leagues of grass, and galloping riders, and glittering caves, and white towers and golden halls, and battles, and tall ships sailing, all these passed before Sam’s mind until he felt bewildered. He even missed an Oliphant!
- Prose Prize: There was a lot of gentle, lovely prose this time around. Everything feels especially soft and kind after trucking across Gorgoroth for a few dozen pages. This is my favorite though: And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in through out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness. Joy like swords is about as Tolkien-y as one can get.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Everyone’s back together, so we’re retiring this little section this week! So, for the last time: as Frodo and Sam slept for two weeks Celeborn and Galadriel (having already repelled three assaults on Lórien) jumped up to Dol Goldur, destroyed it, and restored Mirkwood. Does this mean the spiders are gone too? In any case, the forest having been cleansed out of its name, Mirkwood is Eryn Lasgalen now, the Wood of Greenleaves. Presumably everyone else sings and cries and takes lots of naps in that dappled Ithilien sunlight.
- We’ll be back on November 15th for “The Steward and the King.” Please brush the dust off of your favorite Eowyn/Faramir fanfiction from middle school (Middle-school) and review it, it will be on the test.