Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Last Unicorn--a Study in Gender in Fairy-Tale

I recently just reread Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, and I strongly recommend that if you haven't already, you read this. You aren't allowed to call yourself a fantasy-lover if you haven't read this.

This story is very self-aware, meaning it's a story that knows it's a story. Despite what you may be thinking, this is not at all annoying or distracting. The characters willingly (or at least, reluctantly) take on their prescribed roles as dictated by the standard fairy-tale formula. You have the hero, the lady, the magician, the less-pretty lady, and the witch and her curse. Prince Lir even points out that "'The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story'" (180). Though these roles are archetypes, Peter S. Beagle manages to create a magical story which immerses the reader. Even the side characters are amazing: Mommy Fortuna and King Haggard being prime examples of greed and hunger, finding happiness in trickery, capturing real magical creatures and containing them, finding joy only in their control of these magical beings.
Prince Lir is a self-made hero, but he only becomes a hero to impress Lady Amalthea (who the unicorn becomes when Schmendrick "saves" her from the Red Bull). He tells Molly Grue that "'For her sake, I have become a hero--I sleepy Lir, my father's sport and shame--but I might just as well have remained the dull fool I was" (129). Lir has become a hero--in this case, a masculine archetype that goes around slaying dragons for his lady. The lady has transformed him through no effort. She does not acknowledge him; she just exists beautifully, and her beauty has inspired him to become heroic.

Lir is an excellent character to examine because of his transformation. He was a prince with no accomplishments before the Lady Amalthea appeared at his father's castle, and once he became a hero he (forgive this next comment) found his balls. However, that distanced him from the female species:

It was not [Lady Amalthea's] dream that chilled him, but that she did not weep as she told it. As a hero, he understood weeping women and knew how to make them stop crying--generally you killed something--her her calm terror confused and unmanned him, while the shape of her face crumbled the distant dignity he had been so pleased at maintaining.
He became a man for her sake, yet when she behaves in ways that confuse him (in what he perceives to be unladylike behavior) she "unmans" him. Ladies are supposed to be hysterical sobbing creatures, waiting for a hero to swoop in and kill something to make them happy again. The reason I cannot be upset with Peter Beagle for Lir's misconception is because of two reasons: one, the rest of the characters follow fairy-tale law as well, becoming the characters they're supposed to be because that's what the story says they're supposed to be; and two, the Lady Amalthea is not a swooning prescribed "lady." However, this is due to her being a unicorn turned woman--she is a higher, purer form of woman because she's a magical perfect being encased in woman flesh. She is beyond lady, which unsaddles Lir and his limited understanding of the female creature.

This should upset me as well, but once again Peter Beagle saves himself toward the end of the story with Molly Grue. When we first meet Molly, we come to understand that she's not perfection, she's not particularly beautiful (though I am always finding the beauty in the ugly simply by the words used to describe said thing):
"I don't know what he is maself," Jack Jingly rumbled. He began to tell the story of the Mayor and the hat, but he had hardly reached the roaring descent upon the town when he was interrupted by a thing thorn of a woman who came pushing through the ring of men to shrill, "I'll not have it, Cully, th soup's no thicker than sweat as it is!" She had a pale, bony face with fierce, tawny eyes, and hair the color of dead grass (69).
She is a shrill-voiced woman, cooking for a band of dirty men, but also is described almost as a shrew. She is the antithesis of the lady the unicorn becomes: "Dress and dirty hair tattered alike, bare feet bleeding and beslimed, she gave him a bat's grin" (69). She dirty and scrawny; she's not even wearing shoes. To further her distinction between Molly and the unicorn, I would like to point out this passage:
But Molly pushed him aside and went up to the unicorn, scolding her as though she were a strayed milk cow. "Where have you been?" Before the whiteness and the shining horn, Molly shrank to a shrilling beetle, but this time it was the unicorn's old dark eyes that looked down.
"I am here now," she said at last.
Molly laughed with her lips flat. "And what good is it to me that you're here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?" With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart. "I wish you had never come. Why do you come now?"[...]
The unicorn made no reply, and Schmendrick said, "She is the last. She is the last unicorn in the world."
"She would be." Molly sniffed. "It would be the last unicorn in the world that came to Molly Grue" (71).
The unicorn represents purity in her white beauty, whereas Molly Grue is dirty, spoiled and aged.

Now, the part where Beagle saves it: "But Molly Grue only laughed and shook her head till her hair came down, and she was more beautiful than the Lady Amalthea" (209). Despite all her "flaws" she still manages to surpass a unicorn trapped as a woman in beauty--but I feel that this is because Molly Grue's depth surpasses Lady Amalthea, who is just the semblance of a woman.

Works Cited:
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: ROC, 1991.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Intolerance of Orson Scott Card

Update: I found this courtesy of Yonmei over at Feminist SF - The Blog! Apparently Mr. Card's opinions were quite the opposite more than twenty years ago, which can be found here and here.

What does one do when an author with phenomenal talent turns out to be a disgusting excuse for a human?

I was just reading my favorite feminist blog today, and was pretty much horrified by their newest thread about Orson Scott Card. I read Ender's Game years ago, I think it was actually in high school (not for class or anything, but because I had heard good things about the book) and was amazed by it. The overall sadness, the encompassing futility in war, and the corruption of the innocent blew my mind. I also read Ender's Shadow and was even more compelled to love these books, and continued with Speaker for the Dead. These novels were amazing. However, it has been some time since I read them, so maybe it was just me in my sub-educated naivety that I thought they were so amazing (please note that this is around the same time that I first read The Belgariad).

At any rate, it's disappointing to find out that one of your influences has such detestable beliefs (China Mieville, please do not fall from the pedestal on which I've placed you, I beg of you). I actually find that this is more disgusting than David Eddings' sexism. I mean, Mr. Card states

Already in several states, there are textbooks for children in the earliest grades that show "gay marriages" as normal. How long do you think it will be before such textbooks become mandatory -- and parents have no way to opt out of having their children taught from them?

And if you choose to home-school your children so they are not propagandized with the "normality" of "gay marriage," you will find more states trying to do as California is doing -- making it illegal to take your children out of the propaganda mill that our schools are rapidly becoming.
Who the hell decided that heterosexual people are normal? Probably the same assholes that decided that "white" is normal. I must say I love Mr. Card's ironic quotes around "gay marriage."

I can't believe that we're still arguing about these issues. People are people and they are attracted to who they are attracted to, and have the same human rights as everyone else. Why are we still "othering" people that don't fit the "norm" (see, I know how to use "quotes" as well, sir).

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Many of our greatest authors were disgusting beyond their work: Shakespeare (if not a homosexual, then certainly homosocial) was racist (show me a work by him that isn't...seriously, I don't believe one exists); Chaucer was a rapist (not that I like Chaucer to begin with, but at least I can point that out every time someone wants to lavish him with praise); and James Joyce was anti-Semitic. And, I will not play favorites here: Baudelaire had a touch of the racism as well, though his favorite lover was black (it's a little creepy how he fetishized her body).

I don't understand why people act as if gay people sprouted from no where. I've met people who actually think it's a decision, and that it's only "gained in popularity" in the last 20 years or so.

Yeah, because gay people didn't exist until a decade ago. Tell that to the Romans, asshole.

Oh, and if the majority got its way every damn time, I doubt we would have anything remotely resembling progress. Orson Scott Card points out that
These judges are making new law without any democratic process; in fact, their decisions are striking down laws enacted by majority vote.

Well, maybe the majority isn't always right. Civil Rights Movement, anyone?