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On the Palantír and Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards

Katie

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palantir

The last few chapters of The Lord of the Rings have felt a bit like a victory march. Since the unexpected triumph at Helm’s Deep, things proceeded along a consistently optimistic path. Everyone celebrated their success in “The Road to Isengard.” They reunited with old friends in “Flotsam and Jetsam.” And they confirmed their victory over Isengard in “The Voice of Saruman.” Things felt cheerful, and relatively relaxed: an unexpected dynamic for the close of a second act (after all, third-act dawns tend to look brighter thanks to the second-act darkness that comes before). Things seem calm. And then Pippin looks into the palantír.

The sudden shift in tone and momentum that results from this event shocks Book III out of its more lackadaisical pace and reorients the narrative. It’s an old trick – triggering a disaster (or near-disaster) just as soon as things seem safe and promising. But Tolkien utilizes it well here. Not only does Pippin’s encounter with the palantír inject the narrative with a shot of adrenaline, but it does so in a thematically coherent and satisfying way. It touches on the dangers and necessity of inquiry. It takes a look back to Saruman. And – maybe most importantly – it paves the way for Book IV, for Frodo and Sam.

The Palantír and Sauron

Pippin’s theft of the palantír and his experience with it happens quickly. The entire encounter with Sauron lasts perhaps half a paragraph. It’s an interesting storytelling choice: Tolkien dispenses with the possibilities inherent in playing out the drama of the encounter live, and instead lets what occurred slowly unspool itself to the reader.

To the reader, Pippin looks into the orb, sees some lights, and then something happens – he goes rigid, he cannot look away, he screams. It’s obvious that something is wrong. When Gandalf rushes up to him Pippin cries out in a “shrill and toneless voice” and shrinks back from Gandalf. “It is not for you Saruman,” he says. “I will send for it at once.”

When you know what’s happening, the impact of those words hits home immediately. But when you’re reading for the first time, the real import of what just happened only reveals itself as Pippin begins to tell the story of what happened:

 I saw a dark sky, and tall battlements…And tiny stars. It seemed very far away and long ago, yet hard and clear. Then the stars went in and out – they were cut off by things with wings. Very I big, I think, really; but in the glass they looked like bats… I tried to get away because I thought it would fly out; but when it had covered all the globe, it disappeared. Then he came. He did not speak so that I could hear words. He just looked, and I understood.
“So you have come back? Why have you neglected to report for so long?”
I did not answer. He said “Who are you?” I still did not answer, but it hurt me horribly; and he pressed me, so I said: “A hobbit.”
Then suddenly he seemed to see me, and he laughed at me.

I found this passage to be fascinating. Tolkien has always been adept at crafting dream sequences, or pseudo-dream sequences. They feel enough like little myths in the center of a story that he slips into a distinctive, comfortable style: dark skies, tiny stars, tall walls. Things are evocative, but disconnected. This scene adopts this style fully, but as the readers makes their way through it, it becomes underlined by a distinctive sense of urgency. Rather than just a dream or vision of some kind, it becomes increasingly obvious that the danger is real. Pippin is in communication with Sauron himself.

Sauron’s depiction here is also really interesting. He is offhand and awful, casually cruel and powerful. His first line of dialogue makes him sound almost like a vaguely-annoyed middle manager. Nothing he does is overtly awful or overwhelming or terrifying. But at the same time, these three little lines of dialogue make him seem far more unsettling than Saruman ever was (despite the latter’s more desperate attempts at grandeur). Sauron here is casual, flippant. He doesn’t seem to care much that Saruman has not reported – he doesn’t even initially realize that he’s talking to someone different. When he asks Pippin who he is and doesn’t receive an answer, he doesn’t bother with cajoling or manipulation. He simply hurts him. And when he does get an answer, he just laughs.

It’s the inverse to Gandalf’s laughter in the last chapter. Gandalf laughs when a malicious spell is broken without success; Sauron laughs when he feels it has broken someone else. Tolkien doesn’t try to articulate how awful Sauron is, how powerful or full of grandeur. He just makes him cruel.

palantir

“We have been too leisurely. We must move.”

All of this would be enough to shock the chapter into motion. Gandalf realizes immediately that haste is of the essence (thank goodness we’ve left the Ents behind). Even after the palantír, though, there’s a sense of safety. Through a mix of sheer luck and hobbit toughness, Pippin managed to get through his encounter with Sauron unscathed (nice job, Pip!). If anything, their situation has improved. Gandalf no longer feels the need to probe around the palantír and possibly expose himself; Sauron is distracted by the fact that he thinks a jewelry-laden hobbit is likely locked up in Isengard. Aragorn takes guardianship of the palantír, leaving it in good hands and setting up some of the events of Book V.

And then the Nazgul arrives:

The bright moonlight seemed to be suddenly cut off. Several of the Riders cried out, and crouched, holding their arms above their heads, as if to ward off a blow from above: a blind fear and a deadly cold fell on them. Cowering they looked up. A vast winged shape passed over the moon like a black cloud. It wheeled and went north, flying at a speed greater than any wind of Middle-earth. The stars fainted before it. It was gone.

It’s another great description, deploying that most Tolkien-y of Tolkien-prose-tricks, long sentences punctuated by one or two short ones as the end. And the havoc that it causes is amazing. It can be easy to forget how much of a holding pattern Sauron has been in for the entire book, how much he felt like a distant, abstract threat. This was only compounded by Saruman’s increased prominence.

But then, in the space of three pages, we have Sauron speak to Pippin and a Black Rider flying over the camp, blotting out the stars. Gandalf seems frantic – in the space of a few minutes he changes plans, splintering the company into three and flying off into the night at high speeds, Pippin in tow.  It’s a great end to Book III, a sense that danger and uncertainty has broken over the camp like a sudden, unexpected thunderstorm.

“All Wizards Should Have a Hobbit or Two in their Care”

Two more final points before we finish up. First – I appreciated how hobbit-centric this chapter is. It feels fitting for the book as a whole and it serves nicely to set up a more hobbit-heavy future for readers. Merry mentions Sam by name (the first time anyone mentions either Frodo or Sam in a while). Through the palantír, Sauron thinks that Pippin is the ringbearer. And near the chapter’s start, Gandalf mentions to Merry that he and Pippin were likely of great interest to Saruman, and weighed heavy on his thoughts.

The focus on hobbits – plus the sudden, unavoidable reorientation towards Mordor and Sauron – serves nicely to set up Book IV, which will backtrack to our other two hobbits, who’ve never let Mordor stray too far from their thoughts. It’s subtle, but it is a nice balancing act by Tolkien that he was able to make this chapter function as both a capstone to this book and a transition to the next one.

And finally, I also just really enjoyed Gandalf and Pippin together in this chapter. Their scenes together are always really delightful and they bring out the best in each other as characters. But I also appreciated how Pippin’s little arc in this chapter functions as a counterpoint against Saruman’s. It isn’t hard to read Saruman’s story as one that condemns overeager inquiry – he’s always trying to create, mold, shape, investigate. Gandalf even seems to confirm that “Alas for Saruman!” he says in reference to the palantír. “It was his downfall, as I now perceive. Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves.”

palantir

And at first, in this chapter, it feels as if Pippin is falling into a similar pattern. He’s resentful at the chapter’s start that Gandalf would not be more forthcoming with his information. When Merry chides him not the meddle in the affairs of wizards – “for they are subtle and quick to anger” – Pippin responds with exasperation. “Our whole life for months has been one long meddling in the affairs of wizards,” he says. “I should like a bit of information as well as danger.”

Pippin seems to be ultimately punished for this attitude: his curiosity exposes him to an all-powerful dark lord (and Gandalf yells at him). But at the same time, there’s a caveat to this message in the chapter’s coda. As Gandalf and Pippin ride towards Minas Tirith on Shadowfax, Pippin peppers Gandalf with questions. And Gandalf answers, willingly.

It’s a nice correction. Or maybe better, it’s a nice nuance. When Gandalf asks Pippin what he wants to know, this is how he responds. “The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas,” laughed Pippin. “Of course! What less?” Pippin’s knowledge is rooted in a desire to understand; Saruman’s in a desire to shape and to acquire. It’s such a key difference in Tolkien.  As Gandalf said, “all wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care.”

Final Points

  • I had forgotten (or never knew?) the etymological connection between Osgiliath and stars. It’s such a lovely name for a city.
  • Another rare Tolkien naming failure: Tirion upon Túna. The first half is good; the second half is not.
  • “A beautiful, restful night,” said Merry to Aragorn. “Some folk have wonderful luck. He did not want to sleep, and he wanted to ride with Gandalf – and there he goes!” Merry was honestly on fire this entire chapter. Merry is so great.
  • I found it really sweet that Gandalf’s desire to look into the palantír and remove it from Sauron’s control was not based on pride or a conflict of power. Gandalf just really wanted to use it to look back at Tirion and Fëanor.
  • The last bit of this chapter has always stuck with me: “As he fell slowly into sleep, Pippin had a strange feeling: he and Gandalf were still as stone, seated upon the statue of a running horse, while the world rolled away beneath his feet with a great noise of wind.”  It somehow manages to be peace and ominous at the same time, though I couldn’t tell you how.
  • Prose Prize: “Ents in a solemn row stood like statues at the gate, with their long arms uplifted, but they made no sound… Sunlight was still shining in the sky, but long shadows reached over Isengard: grey ruins falling into darkness.” It feels fitting to give the Ents one final appearance, before the Company move out of Isengard, and to make that final appearance feel so picturesque.
  • We’ve made it to the end of Book III! It’s been such a delight talking about Tolkien to all of you. I’m looking forward to continuing it with Book IV – I was really fond of this section of The Lord of the Rings when I was younger, so I’m excited to see how it holds up on this read-through. We’ll check in on Frodo and Sam around mid-July. I’ve missed them!

All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of Gandalf and Pippin riding to Minas Tirith is courtesy of Ted Nasmith.

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.

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Book Review: Shattered, by Lee Winter

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I’ve been looking forward to reviewing another book by Lee Winter for a while. Her book, The Red Files, about a May-December relationship between two journalists on the case was an engaging read, and I expected nothing less from this book. This review does contain minor spoilers, but more in regards to craft than content.

Shattered leans into Shattergirl, a first-generation alien/superhero who has gone off the grid. Lena Martin, an alien tracker, is tasked with finding Shattergirl and figuring out where she’s been for the last 18 months. From this premise, we follow Lena to Socotra, otherwise known as the Island of Bliss, to track the missing superhero and figure out how to bring her in.

I expected that this book would take much longer to get to the point. Often, when reading a book where one character must find another, the author labors under building up the mystery character, with the detective character spending chapter after chapter following false leads, missing connections. The tension of the book is contingent on finding the mystery character. What this often leads to is a pacing issue, where the action of the story is backloaded, leading to a tedious start, an arduous middle, and frequently an unsatisfying ending. Winter, however, is far too deft of a writer to do that to us. She instead, comes out in front of the pacing issues, and after setting up the world with only as much detail as the reader would need, makes sure that a quarter of the way in, we’re at the tension of the story.

What works more than anything in this story, is the tension between Shattergirl (who goes by Nyah once she warms up a bit) and Lena. Lena, who poses as a writer so as not to immediately give herself away, begins to interrogate Nyah. And while it is revealed that Nyah knew all along that she was indeed a tracker, the sharp tongues and wit between the two sets the stage for further relational development.

Winter has the ability to profoundly flesh out a character without dropping information. Characteristics are dropped in during moments of suspense, without much staging, allowing for a roundness that I don’t usually see unless I am 5 books into a series. The way characters are painted allows for broad strokes, providing only the most necessary and relevant information first, then going in with finer detail later. This allows for the plot and action to take center stage, and for the characters to be more complimentary.

What struck me most about this book was the angle of looking at celebrity and heroism. The way Lena’s perspective changes through the book, both in response to her job and to Nyah reflects that of the reader. Lena can’t be bothered to have a personal life because she is renowned in her field, leaving her only with the soft reminder of humanity in her apartment neighbor. Nyah, who is adored by the world as a hero, is burdened with the pressure of trying to save everyone, and crushed by the weight of the vulnerable ones she can’t save. Lena, who spent her childhood admiring Nyah for her heroism, is knocked down a peg to the reality of what heroism really looks like.

In a book filled with grace and profound observations, I wish more than anything that this book was longer, or that it had a movie deal or something. Winter has a way of crafting stories that feel real and raw and cut past genre or the obvious direction a book could go in. My only criticism for such a short book is waiting for the other shoe to drop. This book builds itself up to the highest peak, and with thirty pages left, you as the reader are left wondering where exactly all this build up is going. I won’t say that it doesn’t have a satisfying ending, because it does, but the reading experience is certainly unique.

You can find Shattered by Lee Winter by clicking here.

*An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Lee Winter as Lee Winters. This has been corrected and we regret the error.


Images Courtesy of YLVA Publishing

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Christopher Tolkien, Gil-Estel, Has Retired From Tolkien Estate

Dan

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I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae a han noston ned ‘wilith.

It is a busy time in the world of Tolkien. Fresh off the announcement that Amazon will produce a new series based on The Lord of the Rings, a perhaps more significant change has occurred. According to theOneRing.net Christopher Tolkien, for decades the editor of his father’s work and arbiter of the Tolkien legacy, has stepped down from his role at the head of the Tolkien Estate. While not a shock to some, thanks to his statement in the preface of Beren and Lúthien that “this is (preemptively) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writings,” it still feels like the end of an era.

There From The Start

Considered the undisputed chief scholar of Tolkien, Christopher has been a part of the creation of Arda since he was a child. As a young boy, he was told the tales of Bilbo Baggins that, after his incessant demand for consistency force his father to write the stories down, became The Hobbit. He served as a sounding board for The Lord of the Rings and, when he was 25, became a member of the Inklings, the Oxford University literary society that also included C.S Lewis, Nevill Coghill, and Charles Williams. And those famous maps of Middle Earth adorning walls, book covers, and body parts? All drawn by “C.J.R.T” a.k.a Christopher John Reuel Tolkien.

Editor and Guiding Hand

But it was his contribution to Tolkien’s lifelong project and arguably magnum opus The Silmarillion that truly ensured Christopher’s importance within his father’s legacy. Gathering up over fifty years of notes, scribbles, and drafts that his father had made over the years, Christopher set out to edit it together into what he hoped would be close to his father’s vision. With character names changing from paragraph to paragraph and an entire legendarium to try to distill into a narrative, it was no easy task. Thanks to editorial decisions that have proved controversial, even ones that he himself later debated, he was able to put the pieces together and release The Silmarillion in 1977, four years after it’s author’s passing.

He followed it up with his edited collections of his father’s writing, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle Earth-the molten metal from which The Silmarillion was cast. For the first time, fans could see characters like Sauron, Gandalf, and Elrond develop over time. He also released, in the new millennium, more compact and edited works from his father like The Children of Húrin and the aforementioned Beren and Lúthien. He has also helped release some of J.R.R Tolkien’s non-LOTR work like Beowulf The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, and The Fall of Arthur. 

Critic and Fierce Protector

In recent years, he has become known for his tight grip on his father’s legacy in the aftermath of an explosion of interest thanks to the Peter Jackson film trilogy of the Lord of the Rings. When said trilogy was announced, his opinion was that the films would lose the “essence” of the film. In a 2012 interview, he further declared the films to have “gutted” the book, calling them “making an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds.” His views on Jackson’s The Hobbit films was seemingly even lower, raising legal objections with New Line and in the aftermath declaring that The Silmarillion would not be touched for “a very long time.”

What This All Could Mean

The biggest question is all this? Whether the Amazon deal is a direct result of Christopher giving up the reins. The estate still counts among its members Christopher’s younger sister Priscilla Tolkien as well as multiple Tolkien grandchildren. But Christopher was always the chief arbiter and, with his orthodox control gone, will the Amazon deal be the first of many? The Tolkien legendarium is ripe for the very cinematic universes that Hollywood is currently desperate for. For better or worse, the new management may seem more amenable to adaptations and expansions than Christopher ever was.

As it is, it’s important for fans to thank Mr. Tolkien for his service to his father’s legacy and we all wish him a very happy retirement.

Nai tiruvantel ar varyuvantel i Valar tielyanna nu vilya.


Image courtesy of New Line Cinema

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Racism and Some Sexism in Woman Who Rides Like A Man

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Image Courtesy of Athenum Books for Young Readers

The Woman Who Rides Like A Man makes me look at the premise of these articles and cringe. Trying to find the evolution of feminism in a book with a hearty dose of racism and sexism is… hard. Very hard. The fact that it reads like Pierce is trying to be sensitive to these issues and is failing makes it worse. To be  fair, in 1986 when this book was published, it probably would have seemed more progressive. Pierce including characters of another race and being respectful of them was outstanding for that time period. But, time marches on. Things that were once seen as progressive become backward. So you read about racism and sexism in a mostly feminist series from a consistently feminist author.

Nothing exists in a vacuum and we can’t look at anything outside of our current lens. But, this is the one time Pierce makes this mistake so egregiously. She gets better, and actively addresses these issues again in one of her most recent books.

Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for The Woman Who Rides Like a Man and both of the books covered in previous articles. I am also white, so I may miss several more subtle examples of racism in the text or even in my interpretations of it. If I make mistakes because of this, please let me know so that I can fix them.

Introduction

This is the first book in the series that does not center around Alanna gaining her shield. As such, Pierce breaks the mold a little and then goes on to break it a lot. Woman Who Rides Like a Man starts with Alanna and Coram in the Great Southern Desert. They left the palace after Alanna killed her great enemy, Duke Roger. Alanna’s goal was to become a knight so that she could go and have adventures, so adventure is what they’re looking for. They run into some bandits and defeat them with the help of the local Bazhir tribe.

They eventually join that tribe, although Alanna has some difficulty with the Shaman. Akhnan ibn Nazzir, said Shaman, views Alanna as a witch and demon because of sexism. They quarrel and Alanna winds up killing him in self defense. This means she has to take his place until she can train his replacement. Alanna decides that the replacements will be three young children she befriended who have the magical Gift. Ishak, the one male trainees, overreaches his Gift and dies for it. The other two girls survive and become Shamans in turn.

Jonathan, Myles, and Ali Mukhtab arrive at the tribe’s camp. Jonathan learns from Ali Mukhtab and becomes the religious leader of the Bazhir. Myles adopts Alanna. Jonathan and Alanna quarrel and it ends their romantic entanglement. Alanna goes to visit George in Port Caynn, and the two of them begin a romantic entanglement. George then goes back to Corus and faces rebellion in the Court of the Rogue. Alanna returns to the hill country around the desert and saves documents from a friend of the tribe’s leader.

What this Book did Right:

Alanna’s Character Development

Unfortunately this section is very short. For a book series that is supposed to be centered around Alanna, this does very little to advance her character. Alanna says two things that she has learned, at two points in the story, but I find these hard to believe that these are new to her.

Alanna and Female Friendship

Halef Seif, the leader of the tribe of Bazhir that adopted Alanna talks with her after she returns to the tribe. He says, “you’ve discovered you like your own sex?’ ‘How can I not like other women?’ Alanna inquired. … I don’t feel nearly as odd about being female as I did before I came here.” (265). Alanna, through the positive female interactions that she had during the events of this book, has developed a more positive view of her gender. This is great and ultimately feminist to love and appreciate women for what they do and who they are. Alanna mentions that when she disguised herself as male that she didn’t talk much with other women.

However, I don’t see this as new character development, because we see this happening before in the series. Alanna goes to Eleni Cooper, and Eleni teaches her how to dress in a female manner. The two of them spend a good amount of time together. We also meet Rispah in this book, who is George’s cousin, and well acquainted with Alanna beforehand. Alanna mentions that she’s friends with several sex workers in Corus when discussing whorephobia associated with Bazhir customs of modesty. Because of this we know that Alanna is friends with women, and has been for a while.

There is nothing wrong with Alanna spending time with more female characters. It’s wonderful, having several female characters that can talk to one another and support each other as the women in Woman who Rides Like a Man do. However, when Pierce presents it as something entirely new to the series, that I take issue with.

Alanna and Magic

Another thing that Alanna says she has learned over the course of the year that this book covers, is that she has accepted her magic. She says, shortly before the end. “I was afraid of magic, partly because I was sure it couldn’t be controlled. … I guess I’m not afraid of my Gift anymore. I’m the one who wields it.” (283). Alanna’s Gift, her magic is inborn within her. Being afraid of herself isn’t healthy.

But, as with Alanna’s relationships with other women, this is a beat that has already been covered in the series. In the first book, we see Alanna use her magic after hiding it for a year. She heals Jonathan from the Sweating Sickness, something no other healer has done. Alanna uses her Gift again to heal during the Tusaine war in the second book. Alanna even takes lessons in magic from Duke Roger, uses it to fight in him during their duel. She and Jonathan use magic to be victorious in the Black City at the conclusion of the first book. Alanna learned this lesson years ago.

Yes, Alanna has learned how to use her magic better and more frequently here. But she has conquered these fears before, and it’s a retread of a thread from the first two books, not a revelation as it is made to seem.

When a book series does character development really well it hurts when that strength falters. Compare this book with In the Hand of the Goddess. There we see Alanna conquering three of her deepest fears, Duke Roger, Love, and the Chamber of the Ordeal. It’s fantastic character development wrapped in a coming of age story. But in Woman Who Rides Like a Man Pierce reduces Alanna’s character development to repeating lessons she has already learned.

Alanna and Jonathan

As has been covered before, I did not enjoy the relationship between Alanna and Jonathan. I felt the power dynamics that existed between them made the romance unhealthy. This book informed part of that reading of the text. Jonathan asks Alanna to marry him, and Alanna hesitates. There are several chapters where she ponders the responsibilities that would be hers if she accepted and the freedoms she would lose. Quite reasonably she demands time to think about it, which Jonathan grants.

Alanna’s problem with Jonathan’s proposal is that she cannot separate his proposal to her with his desire to rebel against his family. Or from his desire to rebel against the cultural norms of Tortall. She’s concerned it’s not sincere that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, and just marrying her as something selfish.

Jonathan proves that fear right after he becomes the Voice of the Tribes. He orders Alanna’s things packed before he gets a solid yes from her. “How dare you take my acceptance for granted?” (202). Jonathan says Alanna kept sleeping with him, so her answer was yes. Alanna brings up affairs he had with other Court Ladies. It ends with, “And they know how to act like women!’ … ‘I refuse to marry you.’ … ‘I think I’m well out of a potential disaster!’ … ‘Find yourself someone more feminine, Jonathan of Conte!” (203-4). This ends the relationship between the two of them.

Jonathan’s romantic relationships in this book are reactive rather than intelligent. He wants to marry Alanna to rebel against his heritage. He then goes on to court Princess Josiane, in a scene from his POV reacting against, “that – female in the south.” (206). This is not a healthy way to court anyone, and Pierce shows that toxicity in the text.

What This Does Wrong

Character Development Ratios

The List of Male Character Development

  • Coram
    • Becomes a member of the Bazhir tribes
    • Enters into a romantic relationship with Rispah
  • Myles
    • Officially adopts Alanna
    • Has a ‘merchant-like’ interest in finance
    • His barony is wealthier than typical
  • Thom
    • Morals more carefully developed as he steals Alanna’s Gift for a major working
    • Enjoys court life an excessive amount and is socializing with Roger’s friends
    • Has been challenged to raise the dead by said associates of Rogers.
  • Duke Roger
    • Made magical weapons in his youth which are scattered all over Tortall
  • Ali Mukhtab
    • In addition to being the Governor of Persopolis, is the Voice of the Tribes, the central Bazhir religious figure
    • Has visions of the future which make him turn that title over to Jonathan
    • Has a terminal illness that means he will die within months
  • Halef Sief
    • Had a past friendship with a Bazhir woman with the Gift, which meant she had to leave the tribe
    • Learns to accept women as shamans
  • Akhnan ibn Nazzir
    • He advocates for Alanna’s death so that he will get a third of her belongings showing his interest in money
    • Selfish and protective of his role to the point where he will not train successors because he does not want any challengers
    • Incredibly sexist
  • Ishak
    • Learns to respect Kara and Kourrem as his fellow shaman trainees and women’s work as important
    • Is conceited about his powers and the fact he had a minor amount of training before Alanna
    • Overreaches himself with his Gift, leading to his death
  • George
    • Enters a romantic relationship with Alanna
    • Learn more about the structure of the Court of the Rogue
    • Learn more about his relationship with his mother, Eleni
  • Jonathan
    • Ends his romantic relationship with Alanna
    • Enters a romantic entanglement with Princess Josiane
    • Becomes Voice of the Tribes and views that as freeing

What Does This Mean?

As I mentioned above, Alanna doesn’t get much new character development in this book. In comparison, every single male character present for a decent period gets at least one new moment of development or meaningful experience.

In addition, Kara and Kourrem are the only other two female characters that get significant development. But their development is both the same, they learn to become shamans and take that place in the tribe. Pierce differentiates their characters, but they are on parallel journeys, as no other characters are. This blends their development together, making them more one development rather than many.

There are several female characters mentioned that do not get development at all. Our view of Eleni doesn’t change, and we don’t even meet Rispah before now. The other Bazhir women serve mostly as a gestalt entity described by Alanna, with one exception. Mari Fahrar is the first Bazhir woman who accepts Alanna, Kara, and Kourrem as shaman and shamans to be. This ‘change’ is facilitated simply by one conversation with them, and there is nothing in the text that suggests she was particularly prejudiced before. Admittedly, after Mari is convinced, she convinces the other Bazhir women to give them a chance, which allows for some development of the Bazhir women as a whole.

However, four female characters that all get minor development in contrast to several major developments to numerous male characters is dodgy. This ratio is difficult to see and not think of sexism. It’s not wrong for an author to develop her characters. But balance, especially in feminist works, is something you should strive for.

Racism, Colonialism and the Coding of the Bazhir

The Bazhir are a group of people loosely organized in tribes with only one major city. They live in the desert south of Tortall and the other civilized lands. Tortall conquered them two generations ago. There are tribes that are at peace with the Tortallans and those that are not. They are notably darker skinned than the civilized people, and the women wear veils that hide their faces. Their religion that loosely ties into that of the civilized nations but which they’ve added on other beliefs to. They have one person that serves as the center of their religion. What does that sound like?

If you answered Islam, the Middle East, or the Colonization of Indigenous people, then you can see the problems inherent with the culture that Pierce has created here.

There are many pieces that need to be addressed here, and it may very well be that I will miss some or misinterpret some. I will not be addressing everything that I caught in the book, only the most egregious things. I know that it will be impossible for some people to see the series as feminist because of the issues endorsed here. The fact that I can see this series as feminist overall despite this book is in some ways an expression of privilege. I hope this discussion will be educational for those who missed things, as I did when I first read this book at 12.

Racism and Colonialism

One of the major events in this book is chronicling Jonathan’s journey to become the Voice of the Tribes. The Voice of the Tribes is the central religious figure of the Bazhir. He gains several magical powers because of this position. The ability to commune with all of his people, to see the past lives of other Voices, and to know the date of his own death are some of them. The Bazhir are a people who are largely fractured into tribes, and the Voice is the one who binds them all as one people despite their division.

Ali Mukhtab knows that he is dying, has known when he would die since he became the Voice. He knows the day is nigh. He also knows that,

“[the northern] king will win if we continue to fight …

[the renegade tribes] will make peace and the Voice will bring

them into Tortall without a fight. We must accept the

King in the North; there is no other way. But we can do it

so that we never forget who we are. Prince Jonathan is the key.” (57).

It is understandable that Ali Mukhtab wants to keep his people safe and whole from a Watsonian perspective. He has future sight, he knows exactly what will happen, what destruction that will be meted out to his people if they fight.

However, a Doylist perspective reveals problems with this situation and this method of resolution. That the only way to save an Indigenous culture is to have a white man take the place as their leader is bad. That said white man will bring their culture in line with his own rather then respecting them is worse.

After Jonathan becomes the Voice he says to Alanna, “for the first time since I was named, I am free.” (197). He complains about his life as a prince being confining with too many responsibilities. Then he takes on responsibility for the saving of an entire other culture and views it as freedom.

It relies on so many racist and colonialist tropes, the White Savior, the idea of the ‘good oppressed person’ who just rolls over and accedes their agency to their oppressor, the idea that colonialism is inevitable.

Jonathan could have helped the Bazhir in a different way. He could have reversed the conquest. He could have brokered a peace treaty so that their peoples wouldn’t fight. Tortall receives next to no resources from the Bazhir anyway. The only thing Tortall gets from having conquered the Bazhir is bragging rights. Tortall just won a war against Tusaine, so giving the desert back to the Bazhir wouldn’t loose Tortall their strong image. Pierce chose to have Jonathan become the new leader of the Bazhir rather than any other options in endorsement of colonizing people of a different race.

Racism, Feminism, and Islamophobia

The Bazhir women wear veils, which codes their society is Islamic. Hijab is an issue that is hotly debated in feminist circles. There are many, many arguments about the nature of it. Is it feminist to wear it of your own free will? Is it just submitting to the will of a patriarchal society? There are a thousand questions and no concrete answers. The best discussion of Western feminism and feminism in the Islamic framework is Saba Mahmoods The Politics of Piety. For general questions about hijab and feminism I suggest you go there, as I cannot cover all the different facets of this question.

In the fictional universe that Pierce presents, we see these issues come up as well. Alanna becomes the first female shaman of the Bazhir, and forces the Bazhir to accept her apprentices into the tribal meetings. In doing this she maps her own notions of feminism onto a different culture. It is not bad that Alanna wants to emancipate other women, to allow them the same freedoms she has. Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a title that the Bazhir give Alanna, which shows that she exerts power amidst them in a masculine coded way.

Alanna refuses to follow the gender norms of the Bazhir, which makes sense because she does not follow all the norms of her own culture. However, the problem with Alanna is how she expects other women to behave. She mentions at several points in the novel that she wants Kara and Kourrem to stop wearing their face veils. The girls are mentioned as crying whenever Alanna brings it up, so she grudgingly stops. Feminism is about allowing women agency and choices of their own. They can choose to act in a traditionally feminine manner or to not. Kara and Kourrem have made their choices, and Alanna and the narrative do not respect that. The reason that they don’t is because feminism, especially second wave feminism, is not always immune to racism and Islamophobia.

Conclusion

Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a book that ultimately makes many mistakes. The balance of character development is askew, focusing overwhelmingly on the men rather than on the main character. There is racism, Islamophobia, and colonialism inherent in every thread of the world-building surrounding the Bazhir. However, there are some of my favorite payoffs in the series. Jonathan and Alanna breaking up, George and Alanna getting together, and Myles adopting her are some of my favorite moments in the series. But they are located in a book that has many problems.

The one comfort that I take from this novel is that after this, when Pierce returns to these issues, she does it right. It takes her almost twenty years, but she fixes her mistakes. So, in some ways I can place this novel as a product of it’s time, and use it as a reminder that change can occur. That feminism has become inter-sectional and more accepting of different viewpoints. That people can get better, because if Pierce was writing this now, I know she’d be looking at it from a different more compassionate perspective. But I also probably won’t re-read this book as often as I do the others in this series and all of Pierce’s other writing.

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