For my December pick, I decided to go with an article that matches the season–my April article on Mary titled “Of Hope and Expectation.” I enjoyed writing this one because I love seeing how mythology and story structure help us better understand and explore the world we live in. When we use the phrase “life’s not a fairy tale” as some sort of platitude to mean “life doesn’t always end happily,” it’s because we’ve forgotten that not even all fairy tales have “happy” endings, or even expected endings. But they do have right endings. Just because the story ends unexpectedly does not mean it ends wrongly. And just because darkness seems to have won doesn’t mean it has. We are living a story right now. The belief in a meta-narrative gives us hope that, in the end, all will end right.
By Kristin Jacques, author of Ragnarök Unwound, forthcoming from Sky Forest Press
The Valkyrie has made a comeback in a big way. While this Norse mythological figure has cropped up from time to time in the modern era, the influx and influence of mythology in recent media has lifted the Valkyrie in a new direction. There is now an abundance of depictions in comic books, novels, television shows and blockbuster films, where the Valkyrie has become synonymous with the B.A.M. (Bad Ass Motha), the tough-as-nails female heroine. This archetypal heroine is a cornerstone in several genres, such as Urban Fantasy.
This representation is not a far cry from their Norse origins, though newer incarnations present a somewhat sanitized version of the original myth, focusing on the noble characteristics of these female extensions of the All Father. The hint of their dark origins is in the etymology of their name.
To break down the old Norse Valkyrjur, Valr referred to the slain of the battlefield and kjósa, meant ‘to choose.’ Valkyrie translated to ‘Choosers of the Slain,’ a title that not only encompassed their choice of which warriors were granted Valhalla status, but who would die in battle. Valkyries didn’t shy away from invoking some heavy-duty black magics to ensure their choices came to fruition. In Njal’s Saga, there is an instance of twelve Valkyrie gathered around a loom, weaving fate like the Norns, though their materials are far grimmer. Here, the Valkyrie use intestines for thread, severed heads for weights, and swords and arrows for beaters, while they gleefully chant their hit list. The Saga of the Volsungs compares the sight of a Valkyrie to ‘staring into an open flame.’ To the Anglo-Saxons, they were spirits of carnage.
At some point the representation shifted from ‘warrior’ to ‘shield maiden,’ and there, a fine distinction began to surface. Valkyrie served as projections, parts of a greater whole. The Valkyrie were an extension of Odin, but as the focus shifted to their nobler deeds, so too did their autonomy expand. Odin might dictate their choice of who died in battle, but the Valkyrie, such as Brunhild or Sigrun, chose their lovers. They chose mortals to favor and protect. They became susceptible to the vices and failings of mortals, just like other Norse deities. They became more human.
It was this association with fairness, brightness, gold, and bloodshed that has resurfaced in depictions of the modern Valkyrie. There has also been a bit of an amputation from the All Father. A single Valkyrie is a B.A.M., but she comes with a sisterhood. Recent Valkyrie representations include everything from Tessa Thompson’s very memorable kick-butt turn as Marvel’s Valkyrie in the third Thor outing to Rachel Skarsten’s Tamsin in the fantasy femme fatale brawl that is Lost Girl. [pictured: Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok.]
In Marvel’s hot take, the Valkyrie were an elite band of female warriors who served in Odin’s army, with Thompson’s character adrift and rudderless without her sisters. (Slight spoiler: she comes back swinging.) Here at least Odin is present, but the Valkyrie, particularly Thompson, have complete autonomy over themselves.
The Valkyrie in the Canadian fantasy drama Lost Girl give a fair nod to their dark origins. Here, the Valkyrie don’t answer to Odin at all, but to Freyja. They still have the soul-taker gig, but with a twist. The Valkyrie consider one another sisters, and they fight like sisters, though the hair is off-limits.
For my own depiction of Valkyrie in Ragnarök Unwound, I draw on the more bombastic qualities present in the myths and modern incarnations in the creation of Hildr—fierce, loyal, and quite literal. Isolated from her sisters, Hildr builds a new sisterhood with the other female characters of the novel to fight the good fight.
A common factor in these modern depictions is while the Valkyrie are singularly B.A.M., the Sisterhood is a force of nature. They draw strength from one another and in turn give their strength to one another.
This mentality of sisterhood carries over into women’s culture. We all want to be Wonder Woman. We want to be the B.A.M., but we are strongest when we lift each other. We raise our sisters on our shields. No matter the depiction, the world they inhabit, or who their boss is, Valkyrie are the Sisterhood of the Fierce.
Sources: The Saga of the Volsungs The Viking Spirit by Daniel McCoy Norse-mythology.org Lost Girl Thor: Ragnarok
Featured image: Arthur Rackham, “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: The Valkyrie,” 1910
“[Friendship] was a bond worth fighting for.” – Ragnarök Unwound
I have the pleasure of introducing this month’s theme—female friendship! We’re going to do things a little bit differently today. As you know, here on Unbound, I write about the depiction of women in fiction. As you may not know, I run a micro-press called Sky Forest Press. We focus on science fiction and fantasy novels with female protagonists and diverse casts. I chose to focus on this niche because it’s a little harder to find in the bookstore, especially adult epic fantasy with female protagonists.
That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Ragnarök Unwound, written by Kristin Jacques, author of Zombies Vs. Aliens and the upcoming Marrow Charm from Parliament House Press. Ragnarök Unwound is the story of Ikepela Ives, who is known as the Fate Cipher. The Fate Cipher’s job is to untangle the threads of fate. The only problem is Ives is the first part-mortal Cipher, and no one ever taught her how to use her powers. She runs away from her duty until one day, she can’t anymore. A Valkyrie locates her in a bar and pleads for her help in stopping Ragnarök, which has been set in motion. Jacques blends Norse and Hawaiian mythology for a truly unique tale filled with a unique ensemble cast.
Ives is an endearing protagonist. She’s a little bit snarky, a little bit messy, a little bit awesome. She deals with having one foot in the world of mortals and one foot in the world of gods—if not gracefully, then with an awful lot of heart. But the real charm of the book is the friendships she makes. At the beginning of the story, she’s already friends with Jules, a brownie. Along her journey to stop Ragnarök, she acquires Hildr the Valkyrie and Hel, the Goddess of Death, too (and a few boys, but that’s not what this post is about!).
And each woman is unique. Jules, because she’s a brownie, humorously loves cleaning, and she owes Ives a blood oath. That’s not why she sticks around, though. She sticks around because she’s friends with Ives, truly, and does whatever is in her faerie power to protect her. Hildr is a Valkyrie, a warrior from Norse mythology. She’s quite the opposite of Ives and Jules—stoic and unfamiliar with human customs. Even so, she proves her loyalty and does her part in stopping the coming apocalypse. Jacques puts a spin on Hel, the Goddess of Death, and portrays her quite differently from Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Here, she’s a gamer who doesn’t often visit the mortal realm because half her body is skeletal. With Ives, she doesn’t feel the need to glamour herself to appear normal. Even though the gang is up against nearly insurmountable odds, the strength of these friendships is what gets Ives through.
I love stories of oddball people banding together to save the world, and that’s really what attracted me to this story and why I wanted it for Sky Forest Press. I’m hopeful that you’ll enjoy it, too! Ragnarök Unwound will be published on January 8, 2019, but you can add it to your Goodreads list now. You can also check out Kristin and Sky Forest Press on Twitter.
[Featured image: The Ride of the Valkyrs by John Charles Dollman. 1909]
The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts are one of those dark spots of American history that continue to intrigue us even as they warn us about the dangers of mass hysteria and the necessity of due process. As is often the case, the history surrounding this has not been kind to some of these women. We remember the initial accusers—Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and others—as hysterical and attention-seeking, a view that Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible only solidified.
Some women, like Tituba, we barely remember at all, and what we do is hardly accurate. She’s been immortalized in works such as Miller’s or Marion Starkey’s 1949 book The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials, both of which depict her as the cause, however unwittingly and indirectly, of the witch hunt. Starkey suggests that, “in the absence of the elder Parrises, Tituba yielded to the temptation to show [Betty and Abigail] tricks and spells, fragments of something like voodoo remembered from the Barbados” (Starkey 30). She goes so far as to say she put Betty under “the spell of an evil, thrilling dream” (30). Neither is Miller concerned with historical truth when he suggests that hysteria arises because Samuel Parris catches his daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail, in the forest with Tituba, dancing and “traffick[ing] with spirits” (Miller 10). He then says to Abigail, “I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She were swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!” (10)
Essentially, both Starkey and Miller attribute the cause of the hysteria to Tituba’s otherness, whether she’s simply telling the girls stories from her home of Barbados or deliberately teaching them “voodoo.” In reality, we know very little about Tituba. But in her 1986 novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé blends history and fantasy in order to give Tituba a fully realized narrative.
After her mother is hanged for stabbing her master in self-defense, Tituba learns about healing herbs from a woman on the island named Mama Yaya. Mama Yaya also teaches her that “death is merely a passageway and the door always remains open” (Condé 124). Throughout the novel, Tituba is able to talk to and consult with her dead loved ones, her mother and Mama Yaya among them.
As E.J. wrote about Baba Yaga, the witch Condé presents is just as adept at healing as at harming. “I was born to heal,” Tituba says, “not frighten” (12). In death, Mama Yaya warns her that even though she won’t be able to escape the white man’s world, she needs to use her powers to serve others and not for revenge.
This is tested when Samuel Parris brings Tituba and her husband, John Indian, to Massachusetts as slaves. Here, the story becomes familiar. Tituba grows fond of Parris’s wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Betsey. They’re sickly and have little stimulation, so she makes herbal remedies to help them feel better and entertains them with stories about Barbados. It’s Abigail, though, who learns of Tituba’s innocent acts and turns their intentions sinister. Eventually, she’s the one who leads Betsey and the other girls in the accusations.
Condé deliberately ties the girls’ accusation of Tituba to her blackness. In Salem Village, the adults view Tituba and John as having “close connections with Satan” simply because of their skin color. Betsey and the rest of the girls pick up on this belief and eventually turn against Tituba. Later, once Tituba has left Salem Village, she learns that “[t]he girls were being manipulated by their parents. It was all a question of land, money, and old rivalries” (129). She was merely a scapegoat, like many “witches” throughout history. Witches make easy scapegoats because, as K.P. wrote, they live on the outskirts of society while challenging the power structures in place. Tituba was an easy target because of her otherness. She was black and had knowledge the villagers of Salem couldn’t fit into their worldview.
In different parts of the novel, “witch” is defined differently. The girls, before they’re afflicted, define a witch as “someone who has made a pact with the devil” (61). Hester tells Tituba what Cotton Mather says of witches: “Witches do strange and evil things. They cannot perform true miracles; these can only be accomplished by the visible saints and emissaries of the Lord.” (96)
It’s not until late in Tituba’s story, when yet another man has demanded yet another thing from her, that she realizes the truth. “Everyone gives that word [witch] a different meaning. Everyone believes he can fashion a witch to his way of thinking so that she will satisfy his ambitions, dreams, and desires…” (146)
Therein lies the truth of this novel. A witch can’t define herself. Society always does it for her. Tituba doesn’t think of herself as a witch until she’s called one by others. People like Abigail Williams demand unreasonable things from witches, and when these demands can’t be fulfilled, they turn on them. Witches hardly ever get to tell their story, which is part of the reason audiences latch onto stories like Elphaba’s in Wicked. Similarly, in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé gives Tituba the voice she’s been denied all these centuries.
Condé, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. The Random House Publishing Group.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Penguin Books.
Starkey, Marion. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. Anchor Books.
My apologies to the reader for the really bad pun in the title. I just couldn’t resist.
I have a very vivid memory from childhood. I was four or five, and I was sitting in the living room of our apartment watching The Little Mermaid on VHS. My dad was on the couch watching with me. I don’t remember how I felt about the movie up until this point, but I do remember the moment that terrified me.
To add some context, I happened to be a pretty adventurous child who wasn’t afraid of much–no monsters in my closet or under my bed. No night terrors or fear of the dark. But the most scared I ever remember being as a small child happened toward the end of The Little Mermaid. It’s the moment when the sea-witch Ursula’s identity is revealed, and suddenly, she begins to grow…and grow…and grow. I remember screaming, “Daddy, turn it off!” as I covered my eyes with my hands. I didn’t watch The Little Mermaid for probably another ten years.
To date, no mythical or fairy tale creature terrifies me quite like the witch. She can steal your voice; your life; your very soul. The Slavic Baba Yaga is particularly fearsome–her house stands on chicken legs. And, well…there’s just something not quite natural about a house that’s stilted on two chicken legs.
Witches. Are. Terrifying.
And yet, one of the little-known (or little emphasized) points about the fairy tale witch is that she’s as likely to help as harm. In a Russian version of Cinderella–“Vasilisa the Fair”–Baba Yaga threatens to eat Vasilisa if she does not do as she’s told; however, Vasilisa does as the old woman requires, and it is through her patience that Baba Yaga helps her to marry the Tsar in the end.
This doesn’t make Baba Yaga good; but it does show how even the witches in these stories have their own codes of honor and are perhaps more nuanced than we often give them credit for.
In Japanese folklore, there’s the Yama Uba who, like Baba Yaga, can be harsh, but will also help a lost traveler or bestow wealth on the needy. I have heard the argument that the witch in “Sleeping Beauty” isn’t all bad–she puts the girl to sleep, after all, rather than kill her. Perhaps even she had a modicum of feeling?
Fairy tale witches–like everything else in a fairy tale–serve more as symbols than independent characters. Though, what they’re symbols for has stirred a great deal of debate.
Some argue that witches are women who represent an independence that society fears; that she is the unbridled power of women.1 Some argue that witches represent the fears of the female protagonist–the part of herself that she represses, but a very real, tangible image of what she has the potential to become.2 Still others say that the witch is a symbol of the negative aspects of femininity–rather than nurture children, she eats them; rather than create healing herbs, she dabbles in poisons and harmful potions.3 Perhaps the fairy tale witch is all of these, or at least a mixture of some.
What I think is interesting to point out when trying to determine the role of the fairy tale witch is the etymology of the word itself. For one, the word is so old that determining its exact etymology is difficult. The OED marks it of “indeterminate origin,” but that doesn’t stop there from being theories. On the one hand, it could be cognate with the words “wicked” and “wicce” (meaning “bad”). On the other, it could be kin to the words “wizard” and “wise”–both words with positive connotations.4 In many early English manuscripts, the word was used interchangeably to refer to a woman who dabbled in dark magic or a woman who used healing herbs to save someone’s life. It seems that the English language has long recognized the nuance and the duality of the term, even if they more often associate the word with the former rather than the latter.
And yet, all of that seems to be consistent with what we know of fairy tale witches themselves. They can be malicious and malevolent, seeking to harm two poor children lost in the woods or poisoning their stepdaughter with a shiny red apple. But they can also be good, helping a young maiden escape her evil stepmother and find love or casting charms of protection when it suits her purposes. But perhaps it is her unpredictability or perceived capriciousness that causes the word “witch” to give us such uneasiness. I can’t say for sure.5
Yet, I can think of no other fairy tale character as nuanced or as complicated as the witch. Even within the confines of the fairy tale universe, she stands apart as independent, making decisions as they come; wielding her skills and talents as she pleases. Whether or not this is a “good” thing, I don’t know.
As we read in K.P.’s post, crops and harvest were inescapable concerns of life in ancient civilizations. Today, unless we’re farmers of some sort, we think about the harvest less, but it’s no less important. However essential it is to human life, it’s not exactly the stuff of heroic sagas. Unless they’re writing about a farming family or community who might be devastated by a bad harvest, authors tend to stay away from this theme. Usually, the closest fantasy comes to mentioning it is by making the protagonist an idealistic farm boy who’s somehow the long-lost son of the king and therefore is “the chosen one.”
All of that is to explain why this month, I had to get a little creative when it came to keeping with the theme. I’m going to look at Soul of the World, the first book in the Ascension Cycle, an epic fantasy series by David Mealing. The world is inspired by the European settlement of North America. On the coastline are the colonies of Sarresant, including the capital city of New Sarresant, whose culture is reminiscent of France. To the south are the colonies of Gand, reminiscent of England. To the west of the colonies is the Great Barrier, which separates them from tribes indigenous to the land, among them the Sinari, from which one of the protagonist hails.
Crop harvests are certainly of concern to characters in the story. In fact, the New Sarresant colonies are experiencing food shortages, which help foment the growing revolution against the monarch in Sarresant proper. Although this is an important aspect of the world-building, I’m focusing instead on the harvesting of magic. The book deals with multiple systems of magic instead of the standard single system. The main system I want to look at is one wielded by Erris, one of the three main protagonists.
Erris is a binder, which means she has the ability to “bind” different energies found along leylines to either herself or others. Here’s an excerpt from her perspective: “Beneath the camp she saw the familiar network of leylines, a crosshatch of energy pulsing with colors and forms. Three she recognized: the green pods of Life, the red motes of Body, and the inky clouds of Death. All the others were gray haze, indiscernible from one another and useless if she tried to bind them. There were six known leyline energies: Body, Shelter, Life, Death, Mind, and Entropy.”  And each binding offers specific gifts. Of the bindings Erris can use, Life enhances her senses and heals wounds, Body enhances her strength and speed, and Death enables her to sever enemy bindings, thus rendering them ineffective.  The more energies a binder has access to, the more powerful and sought-after they are.
There are a finite number of energies, and binders can use only what they find in the natural world. There’s no creating bindings, but it is possible to discover them, and that’s part of what the colonies of Sarresant and Gand are fighting over. “Conquest and colonies brought the great powers gold and trade, but more important, discoveries of new bindings. The academics argued larger claims of territory led to a stronger leyline grid, able to retain a broader spectrum of energies and bolster the gifts of those who could tether them. It had proven true, though, even in her lifetime. The Thellan War, five years before, had resulted in a select few of Sarresant’s binders gaining access to Entropy.”  Part of Erris’s challenge is that the Gand commander has found a new energy, which Erris refers to as Need or Hope. When Erris realizes she, too, is one of the rare binders who can access it, she has to learn to control it on her own with no one and nothing to guide her.
What I think is interesting about this magic system is exactly why I chose to write about it for this theme. In many fantasy books, the causes and conduits of magic are relatively intangible—incantations, mysterious power only certain people or races can tap into, abilities given by the gods. But here, Mealing uses the natural world to influence this magic system. Body is plentiful where there are mass crowds of people, Entropy is caused by decay and chaos within the natural world, and Life is found near men and beasts. The energies don’t simply exist in nature; they arise from within the environment itself, which means binders like Erris basically harvest what nature offers to them. Only in this case, instead of crops, it’s energy.
In a different storyline concerning a different magic system, we learn that these energies aren’t the only things that can be harvested. A Sinari woman named Llanara gains the companionship of a kaas, a dragon-like animal who has access to magic based on a color system. For lack of a world-specific term (at least in book one), I’m calling it “color magic.” Toward the end of the book, during an attack on a neighboring tribe, she finds out about a new color. When the women of the village retaliate against her attack, Llanara’s kaas, Vekis, subdues them with merely a thought.
“What was that?” [Llanara] whispered to her companion. “What did you do to stop her?” Black.
“Black,” she murmured to herself. A new gift. “It takes away the magic of others?”
“Vekis, I would know more. You harvest it from killing our enemies?”
More silence. A maddening trait. It meant she was close, so close to understanding. 
Vekis and the other kaas are reluctant to reveal their secrets, but if Llanara is correct, his black power doesn’t come from nature. Rather, it comes from draining the magic of others. Vekis’s color magic and Erris’s power to bind are similar in their operation—in that the user needs sources of energy to draw upon—and yet vastly different in their targets. In this respect, they form a dichotomy—if not of good and evil, then at least of neutrality and evil. When Erris and other binders draw upon energy within the environment, they’re using the available natural resources, which can replenish over time. When Vekis and other kaas use their power, though, we infer that it’s less than natural and, consequently, negative. Through the use of both, Mealing creates an interesting shorthand for readers and makes it clear that the heroes are ones who ally with the natural world instead of abusing it.
 Mealing, David. Soul of the World. Orbit, 2017. Loc. 3089.
Harvest is a time of celebration and plenty. It is a time when the wealth of a civilization pours forth, is stored, stacked, preserved and consumed. For many ancient civilizations, the crop itself was an embodiment of the death of the god, the sacrifice of a male deity in order to feed the masses. Leaving a mother goddess, who is represented by the earth to go through the winter months solitary. In the ancient Greek world, the mother goddess Demeter must relinquish her daughter Persephone to the underworld for the winter. The world transforms from fruitful to barren for the season.
As desolate as this sounds, there is more to it. According the Hymn to Demeter, a text important to the Eleusinian Mystery cult, the goddess was indeed desolate without her daughter. She was in great mourning when Hades stole away her daughter Persephone. When Demeter later stayed at the hall of a great queen, she remained depressed and despondent, unable and unwilling to find joy in anything. “Unsmiling, not partaking of food or drink, she sat there, wasting away with yearning for her daughter…”[i] This story is horribly tragic. This is about a mother’s loss, one that she could do nothing to change.
You’re probably wondering when I’m going to start talking about partying. The feast of Thesmophoria was exactly that, a party that was meant to reenact the exchange between Iambê and Demeter. Oh, and this party had one very specific guest list – no one else but adult women.
Seeing Demeter’s state, Iambê, true to her nature began to tease the mother goddess by telling jokes. Her use of humor brought a smile to Demeter, then eventually the mother goddess found herself laughing and enjoying herself. “Iambê, the one who knows what is dear and what is not, started making fun. Making many jokes, she turned the Holy Lady’s disposition in another direction, making her smile and laugh and have a merry thûmos.”[ii]
How does this fit together? How can a mother, stricken with sorrow over the loss of her daughter, find it alright to laugh, to find some measure of happiness?
The ancient Greek women who attended the Thesmophoria reenacted Iambê’s actions by telling jokes of their own. The feast was meant to be fun, a place to let go of social graces and to bring laughter, including raunchy jokes. It was a moment to let go of pain, responsibility and burden. Temporary release, but a release nonetheless.
Without the presence of men and children, these ancient Greek women were free from labels that were defined women’s roles by men and family. She is a woman, among women. In the Hymn, Iambê demonstrates camaraderie with Demeter and dearly wishes to please the mother goddess. She wishes to give Demeter some joy, any joy in a difficult time. Today, there is plenty of scientific evidence of the healing effects of laughter, it is even used by counselors and psychologists as a technique to help patients. Modern humorist Erma Bombeck said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Most comedy today hits on painful experiences, with witty observations that reveal how absurd the truth really can be.
So each year, women in the ancient Greek world got together, had a party and sought to make each other laugh. There is much more to the rituals and celebrations of the Eleusinian Mysteries and a great deal of it remains…well, a mystery to us. However, the Thesmophoria remains my favorite. Perhaps it’s because a part of me wishes we had something just like it today.
Imagery is one of the most important and versatile aspects of fiction. Especially in fantasy, we tend to default to symbolizing goodness with light and evil with darkness. Just consider Star Wars (which I classify as space fantasy). Not only are the villains aligned with the literal dark side, but the major bad guys—Darth Vader, Palpatine, even some stormtroopers—are decked out in black. Anakin’s clothes start out as tan and light colors but slowly turn darker as he approaches his alliance with the dark side itself. Visually, this can be fantastic shorthand, and not just in movies. We use it in fiction all the time, too.
Outside of the black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries, though, darkness embodies uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. What could be more uncertain and uncomfortable than the prospect of what happens to us after we die? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for millennia, as evidenced by the some of the stories that have survived thousands of years. One of the most well known in the western world is the Greek myth of Persephone, sometimes known as Proserpina or Cora.
Together with her mother, Demeter, Persephone represents the natural agricultural cycle—the planting and sprouting of seeds followed by the maturation of the harvest. The last piece of the cycle, the coming of winter and dormancy of the natural world, comes later on, following Hades’s abduction of Persephone (courtesy of the earth splitting open and a golden chariot). In her grief for her missing daughter, Demeter ceases to perform her godly duties and allows the earth to wither.
When Zeus realizes he must intervene, he sends other gods as messengers to Demeter, but Demeter doesn’t listen. “Never would she let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter” . And so Zeus sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the underworld, but not before Hades gives her a pomegranate seed to eat, ensuring she must return to him. Rhea tells Demeter of the compromise:
Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. 
Though Persephone is allowed to live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, she must return to the underworld for the remaining four months. “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows. Nothing is real there. The ghosts’ existence, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.”  What must it be like to be like to be mistress of such a place?
I think that’s one of the questions more modern fiction, in the form of retellings and adaptations of Persephone’s tale, likes to explore. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fantasy novel that’s inspired by India and Indian mythology , but because every culture has myths exploring the mystery of death, there are obvious similarities to Persephone’s story. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Mayavati, the princess of Bharata, whose fate is to be married to death and destruction. In an effort to escape war and almost certain death, Maya pledges herself to Amar, lord of Akaran, “a kingdom of impossible power” and “a kingdom that all nations feared.” All too soon, Maya realizes that Akaran is really Naraka, the realm of the dead, and Amar is “the lord of justice in the afterlife” . As the story goes on, she must learn how to trust the man who decides fates and how she fits into his world.
A lot of times, when we retell myths or write stories inspired by them, we give more agency to the female characters, which is part of the reason we keep returning to them. As for why Persephone’s story in particular commands such attention, I think it has a lot to do with the liminal darkness of the underworld and the discomfort it inspires. We grow stagnant if we stay in one place for too long. Discomfort pushes us to change, and Persephone’s story is a clear representation of that process.
 Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods andHeroes. Warner Books, 1999. 53.
I am taking a hiatus from blogging this month so to kick off our “Lady Midnight” theme for August, I’ve decided to bring you three of my favorite “modern” books featuring women who walk on the dark side…
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
I’ve mentioned these books before in my post on the Morrigan. They’re loosely based on the Welsh Mabinogi, but one of the chief antagonists is a woman named Achren.
I say “antagonist”…but she isn’t always. One of the things I love about this series is that it shows motives may be marbled. Achren is a powerful sorceress who’s been upstaged by her former pupil, and she wants revenge. She’ll do anything to get it, even if that means killing the protagonist…
These books are more in the middle grade set (I first read them at age 12), but they’re also books I go back to again and again and again because the story and characters are just that compelling.
“It was then Taran saw [Achren] held a weathered branch of driftwood. She lifted it high and Taran gasped as in her hands it blurred and shimmered. Suddenly in its place was a dagger.” (The Castle of Llyr)
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
This one just got re-released with a new cover design! And Carrie did a post on Attolia not too long ago.
This is, technically, a series. And Attolia–as Carrie pointed out–does undergo character development (to be fair, so does Achren in The Prydain Chronicles). However, her portrayal in this first book is nothing short of chilling. The thief of the title, Gen, works for the King of Sounis, but she offers him a chance to work as her thief…or be executed for stealing from her lands. So, not much of a choice. She’s used to getting what she wants.
“‘You are promised to someone?’ said the queen in disbelief.
‘I am, Your Majesty,’ I said firmly[…]
‘Surely I am a better mistress to serve?’
‘You are more beautiful, Your Majesty.’ The queen smiled again before I finished. ‘But she is more kind.’
So much for discretion. The smile disappeared. You could have heard a pin drop onto the stone floor as her alabaster cheeks flushed red. No one could ever accuse the queen of Attolia of being kind.”
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Okay, so this one isn’t fantasy, but it is a bit historical. I do not want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read it, so I won’t spend much time here except to say that this book is an excellent look at the evils of hypocrisy.
“She didn’t want to die.
She couldn’t imagine wanting to die…
Death was for–the other people…”
Of course, if you want more historical takes, there’s always anything Arthurian, The Oresteia, The Aeneid, etc. But since I’m always sharing the ancient/medieval works, I thought it might be fun to share some modern classics, too! What about you? I’d love to hear some of your favorite books that feature some “lady midnights”!
For an avid reader, I’ve never been a huge fan of the so-called western “canon.” One of the biggest reasons is that it centers male stories. Consequently, one of the most interesting and wonderful things about contemporary fiction is how certain authors engage with those stories and challenge them by revisiting families tales from a female character’s point of view. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood looks at Penelope’s life before, during, and after Odysseus’s twenty-year absence. In Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin takes a minor character from The Aeneid and expands on her story. And in Ophelia, Lisa Klein seeks to give justice to a character who receives none in her original text.
I appreciate Shakespeare. What English major doesn’t? But even though it borders on the irreverent in literature circles, I always found myself drawn more to the comedies than to the tragedies. Not only are they more fun, but they tend to feature more women and to feature them in more prominent roles. Beatrice, Viola, Rosalind—they’re all admirable and enviable in different ways. Ophelia, though? Ophelia is a very different story. She always impresses on me a deep sadness.
My freshman writing course was focused on Hamlet. I’ve seen so many adaptations and interpretations of that play that I can’t count them all, but one aspect consistently bothered me in all of them—Ophelia. She’s really handed a raw deal. Throughout the play, she’s infantilized, mocked, and forgotten. To top it all off, she goes mad and she dies. Specifically, she dies in a horrific way that’s typically coded as feminine—drowning. It’s not shown on stage, but Queen Gertrude recounts to Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, what happened:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream….
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. 
Ophelia succumbs to grief and madness after Hamlet kills her father, Polonius. When she’s collecting willow leaves to make into crowns, a branch breaks and she falls into the brook. She sings while her clothes keep her afloat for a bit, not appearing to realize she’s in danger. Then she sinks. It’s a sad fate, even sadder when you realize someone must have been close enough to see this (in order to relay it to Gertrude) but they didn’t step in to help.
In “Beware of Death by Water: Women in Myth and Fiction,” Betty Krasne examines why women and water so often go together in fiction. Typically, for male protagonists, water symbolizes destiny and rebirth. For female protagonists, though, water represents both her passive nature and her inescapable, tragic fate. When Ophelia falls, she takes no action either to save herself from drowning or to hasten her demise along. She is no master of her own fate, but nor would we expect her to be when she has no mother to teach her the ways of the world. She is alone, but not by choice. Her death can be interpreted as the result of neglect from the very people who should love her most.
Water also symbolizes purity. After having her virtue questioned by those same people—Hamlet, her brother, and her father—Ophelia is essentially isolated, and that isolation drives her, in one way or another, to the brook. Whereas male characters can be metaphorically reborn in order to find happiness in the world, women “could regain lost esteem, cleanse themselves, by being reborn into the new world”  through drowning, according to Krasne. “Perhaps it follows that there is no woman as pure as a drowned woman—one symbolically purified once and for all.”  Does her death “purify” her in Hamlet’s eyes? Even if it does, he’s not the one I’m concerned about.
The passivity of Ophelia’s death coupled with later statements in the play that suggest it was far from an accident leave us with ambiguity. Did she fall, as Gertrude suggests, and was not in her right mind enough to save herself or even, in fact, realize the danger she was in? Or, as a gravedigger suggests, did she see death as the only way to escape the cage the men in her life had created for her? Either way, her drowning instills discomfort, one Klein attempts to lessen by having her escape it entirely. With her knowledge of herbs and medicines as well as help from Horatio and even Gertrude, she’s able to fake her own death and restart her life in a convent. Though she knows no one outside Elsinore, she can’t get any more alone than she was in the castle. By paying attention to her when no one else does, Klein portrays an Ophelia who is “the author of [her] tale, not merely a player in Hamlet’s drama or a pawn in Claudius’s deadly game.”  And even though it has to smudge the source material in order to get there, Ophelia is finally granted a just ending.