Morgan le Fay: Evil Queen or Loving Sister? (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at the infamous “evil queen” of Arthurian literature, Morgan le Fay, and found that she’s too complicated of a character to warrant the stigma of pure evil. These complexities I labeled the “ugly” debate. This week, I want to offer some specific examples from the text, showing times when Morgan does acts that can be considered “bad”…but also times when her acts and motivations are more “good.”

Though, as I pointed out last week, medieval literature tends to be so plot-driven that it’s sometimes difficult to discern character motivations, there are times in Arthurian literature when the audience is aware of Morgan le Fay’s motives. One example of her “bad” side would be her jealousy toward Guinevere because of her own love of Lancelot.

Gawain_and_the_Green_Knight
When you think about it…it’s kind of amazing Morgan’s plan to kill Guinevere in this manner didn’t work

The few times we are explicitly given Morgan’s motives for her actions, we see a queen jealous of Guinevere, and there are several instances where Morgan tries to trap Guinevere or even cause her death via magic. One such instance is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Bertilak tells Gawain why his Aunt Morgan orchestrated the elaborate scheme of the Green Knight. He says that, while part of the ruse was meant to humble Arthur’s table (she thought them too proud), a secondary motive, the “icing on the cake,” as it were, was “to grieve Guinevere and to bring her to die/ aghast at that same ghoul with his ghostly speech/ with his head in his hand before the high table.”3 In other words, she’d hoped by disguising the man as a green giant, she would both prove Arthur’s knights prideful and frighten Guinevere to death. Two birds. One stone.

In another instance from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Morgan le Fay casts a spell upon a shield, which she gives to Sir Tristram in hopes that he will fight Lancelot. The shield, she tells him, represents Arthur, Guinevere, and a “knight who holdeth them both in bondage.”4 Her plan? To have Tristram fight this knight (whom Morgan knows is Lancelot) and expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair because “Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength.”5 The plot fails at exposing Lancelot as a false knight, but does succeed in allowing Tristram to dominate at the tournament. However, I can’t really fault Morgan for wanting to expose Lancelot–Lancelot is in many ways a “false knight.” What one can fault Morgan for is her petty, jealous motive.

 

Lancelot_and_Guinevere_-_Herbert_James_Draper
Lancelot and Guinevere (Herbert James Draper)–Gee, when you put it like that, no wonder Morgan couldn’t stand them

 

But at the outset of this post, I mentioned Morgan le Fay could not truly be categorized as “evil.” Rather, like most human beings, she is marbled, and for the most part, the medieval narratives treat her thus. There are two instances in particular which show Morgan le Fay using her magic for more positive ends. In one, she shows a side to herself that is just. A knight leads another knight behind his horse, bound and blindfolded, toward a lake. The two men cross paths with the Queen, and she asks the man on horseback who his prisoner is.

The knight explains he caught the prisoner sleeping with his wife, and now he was going to take the man to the lake and drown him, and then throw his wife in after.6 Morgan questions the prisoner–is this accusation true? The prisoner denies that it is, and says he is a knight of Arthur’s court and cousin to Accolon of Gaul, a man whom Morgan had loved.

“Ye say well,” says Morgan. “For the love of him, ye shall be delivered, and ye shall have

Drawing_of_a_Knight_on_Horseback
Drawing of a Knight on Horseback (Randolph Caldecott)

your adversary in the same case ye be in.”7 And with that, the prisoner is loosed and the other man is bound. Though the text does not say overtly, it implies that Morgan’s magic allows for this switch. The former prisoner then promptly throws his captor into the lake, where he drowns.

Morgan has, at this point in the story, fallen out of Arthur’s good favor. Yet, rather than tell them knight, “Hey, be sure you tell my brother what I did for you so that maybe he won’t be angry with me anymore,” she tells him, “Tell [Arthur] that I rescued thee, not for love of him, but for love of Accolon, and tell him I fear him not while I can make me and them that be with me in likeness of stones.”8 Their feud, then, isn’t ended there, though Morgan does send him a peace offering a few days later, which Arthur accepts, saying “but little” except that she is a “loving sister”9 (perhaps a bit sarcastically?). However, it’s worth noting that many of the knights were so angry with her words, they called for her to be burnt at the stake, and though it’s clear Arthur is angry, he is more willing to allow peace rather than continue their passive-aggressive argument. Their relationship, more so than the relationship between Arthur and his other sisters, is not much different from how we perceive sibling relationships today. They fight, but at the end of the day, they are family. Even if one’s a king and one can call upon demonic powers.

Perhaps the best example of this love-hate relationship is at Arthur’s death. He commands Bedivere to throw Excalibur in the lake and then to put him on a barge where there are “three queens,” one of whom says, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.”10 The implication is that this is Queen Morgan herself, come to her brother’s side. Her words make it clear that she wishes he had come to her sooner; then, perhaps, she could have helped him with her magic. As it is, he is too wounded even for her powers, and she ferries him toward Avalon from where, as the legend goes, he will return when England most needs a king.

The_Death_of_King_Arthur_by_James_Archer_(1860)
The Death of King Arthur (James Archer)

Women play no small role in Arthurian legend. And many of the female characters–perhaps, most especially, Morgan le Fay–are complex. Which is why it continues to surprise me when I read articles about how there are so few women in fantasy novels because medieval women did not live very interesting lives…so why would they exist as major characters in medieval-style fantasy novels? Yet, one only has to go to the medieval narratives themselves to discover a world in which women do more than sit at a spinning wheel and gossip. And if one digs a little deeper, going beyond the plot-driven narrative of a medieval story, one can even find women with motivations and desires strikingly similar to the motivations and desires people have today. At her core, Morgan le Fay is the good, the bad, and the ugly side of humanity altogether in a single person. Just like most of us, I’d wager.

 

  1. SGGK, stanza 99, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/GawainAndTheGreenKnight.htm#anchor_Toc178583491
  2. Malory, 346, http://www.heroofcamelot.com/docs/Le-Morte-dArthur.pdf
  3. Malory, 346
  4. Malory, 123
  5. Malory, 123
  6. Malory, 123
  7. Malory, 124
  8. Malory, 732

Morgan le Fay: Evil Queen or Loving Sister? (Part 1)

Every year in my British Literature classes, I teach an Arthurian unit. Every year, I mention King Arthur’s family tree, and his three sisters: Elaine, Margawse, and Morgana (or Morgan le Fay). The first two sisters rarely ever resonate with my students. However, when I mention the third one, they perk up and at least one student asks, “Wasn’t she evil?”

I suppose I can hardly blame them. I once thought the same thing myself. I mean, she was a magic user who used her “necromancy” to deceive various members of Arthur’s court; she tricked her own nephew (Gawain) into entering a beheading contest, where he was found to be less-than-honorable (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); she captures Lancelot and holds him in a cell (Le Morte D’Arthur); and let’s not forget the many times she tries to trap/kill/frighten Guinevere.

Given all of that information, the case for her does not look very good.

Arthur-Pyle_Queen_Morgana_le_Fey
Howard Pyle’s illustration of Morgana le Fey

And yet, one of the things I love about studying Arthurian literature is how marbled the characters truly are. We tend to categorize medieval romances by archetypes: the damsel-in-distress, the knight-in-shining-armor, the greedy dragon, etc. However, what makes that easy is the narrative structure of medieval prose.

When modern readers read a novel, they have certain expectations of plot, setting, and characterization. Yet, it would be wrong to superimpose those same expectations on a work of medieval literature. In fact, medieval prose spends very little time setting a scene or “digging” into the minds of a character. Medieval prose is typically concerned with one thing and one thing only: Plot.

Thus it makes sense that we can look at the surface-level of a medieval story and pick out archetypes–a plot is composed entirely of archetypes!

But, while plot is the most driving part of medieval prose, it isn’t the only part. There is characterization infused in a medieval narrative. It just happens to be quite subtle most of the time. In many cases, we can only read characters’ motives by judging their actions. Since this is meant to be a short blog post, and not a step-by-step retelling of the life of Morgan le Fay, I have chosen three examples of Morgan’s actions showing the good, the bad, and the ugly…in reverse order.

After Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon–who, even by the medieval accounts, was kind of a jerk–deceives Igraine into marrying him, one of his first acts as a new stepfather is marry off two of Igraine’s daughters, Elaine and Margawse.1 However, for reasons unknown, but perhaps because she was too young, Uther sends the youngest daughter, Morgan, to school in a convent, and “there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy.”2 This is the first inkling the reader has that Morgan knows magic. And she learns it at a convent, of all places.

Sandys,_Frederick_-_Morgan_le_Fay
Morgan le Fay (Frederick Sandys)

From a medieval standpoint, this is not a terribly unusual concept. The world existed in three realms: The Supernatural, the Natural, and the Unnatural. The Supernatural superseded the Natural world, existing before it and imposing its will on it. The Unnatural world is essentially a perversion of the Supernatural–it has powers of its own, but its powers exist in twisting the powers from above. The Supernatural and Unnatural Realms are at constant war with each other, but they cannot fight each other directly–they must attack through the Natural Realm. Thus is the Natural World constantly being assaulted by powers from below and powers from above.

In other words, our world is filled with unseen magic.

Humans can access this magic, but at a great cost. The type of magic they access depends upon which powers they call–the powers from above? In Arthurian narrative, this is where priests, nuns, and certain other mystical creatures draw their power.

Or the powers from below? In Arthurian narrative, this is where the femme fatales, sorcerers, and other mystical creatures draw their power.

The “ugly” side, then, is this: Morgan’s motives in using magic are often unclear. She learned necromancy from a convent, which in and of itself seems contradictory–“necromancy” suggests a communion with the dead, the ability to conjure magic from below (“unnatural”). However, a convent suggests communion with the supernatural, and the ability to conjure magic from above. Whose side, then, is she on?

1280px-Henry_Fuseli_-_Titania_and_Bottom_-_Google_Art_Project
Titania and Bottom (Henry Fuseli)

Even her nickname “le Fay” is confusing. “Le Fay,” of course, means “the faerie,” and faeries in medieval lore are difficult creatures to pin down. They are not happy, cute little humanoids with wings who go about sprinkling “fairy dust” to help people fly (thanks, Disney). Rather, to the medieval mind, faeries were capricious, impish creatures who could hurt as well as help someone for no real motive or reason whatsoever, other than the fairy’s own whims. (A good example of this is Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream–Puck causes mischief for mischief’s sake) Just as one cannot always discern a fairy’s motivation, Morgan le Fay’s own motives are difficult to pin down. Thus, I propose when studying Morgan le Fay (or any medieval narrative, really), that we avoid the temptation to neatly categorize characters into archetypes. Just because Morgan’s motivations are at times hard to pin down does not mean she doesn’t have them. And it also doesn’t mean her motives aren’t good ones. Morgan le Fay is no easy archetype, and she certainly isn’t a sociopath.

To prove this, next week, I’ll explore a few of the instances where the text actually gives us her motives for actions–both the “bad” and the “good.” But at least, for now, we can avoid calling her “evil” or “femme fatale” and just call her “human.” That is, human…with a bit of fairy magic.

 

  1. Malory, 35, http://www.heroofcamelot.com/docs/Le-Morte-dArthur.pdf
  2. Malory, 35

Lakshmi: The Hindu Goddess of the Lotus Brings Prosperity

Worship Lakshmi and she brings forth a rain of gold coin. Offend her and she retreats, leaving the fields parched. After the festival of Diwali, devoted to Lakshmi, the Hindu often gamble madly to receive her pecuniary blessing. Humans have always been at the mercy of inscrutable fortune: the rains and the lucky throw.

So, it is no surprise that Lakshmi is one of the oldest and most popular goddesses. As a concept, Lakshmi appears in the Atharvaveda, a collection of beliefs and rituals addressing everyday life of the Vedic society. Composed circa 1000 BCE in Sanskrit, these are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Images of her appear on coins dating to the first century BCE. At Pompeii, an ivory statute of Lakshmi survived Vesuvius. And now, the Lotus Goddess resides in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain pantheon, still actively worshiped.

L2

Lakshmi is often called fickle – “Lola” – but one of the most common stories of the Lotus Goddess belies this charge. Indra, the warrior god, protected the world against demons. But when a sage offered Indra a garland of sacred flowers, he tossed them away. This offended Lakshmi who disappeared into the Milky Ocean. The world turned dark, the gods lost their powers, and the humans became greedy. The demons returned.

Indra sought the god Vishnu’s counsel. He, Lakshmi’s husband, advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean. Together, the gods churned the Ocean for one thousand years and at the end, Lakshmi rose from the waters as a beautiful woman atop a lotus flower. With her, Lakshmi carried immortality for the gods. Indra again could drive the demons away.

Lakshmi is all that is good and right in the world. She blesses women in childbirth and brings the rain to green the countryside. She loves and brings love. She is called the universal goddess, the female principal. Without her, the world withers. But prosperity does not come to the arrogant or the greedy. Like Indra, humans must work hard. With respect and humbleness, they must accept the gift of flowers. Only then will Lakshmi visit.

 

Cites:

“Athrava Veda,” Oxford Bibliographies,

http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195399318/obo-9780195399318-0008.xml (visited October 1, 2017).

“Lakshmi.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu/Lakshmi (visited September 29, 2017).

“Lakshmi.” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religions/hinduism/deities/lakshmi.shtml (visited September 29, 2017).

Invoking Lakshmi: The Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony. Constantina Rhodes. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. Mary Beard. London: Profile Books LTD, 2008.

Featured–Florence Nightingale

Though we typically go with ancient and medieval women, when one thinks of “compassion,” it’s hard to think of any other figure in history than Florence Nightingale. When I spoke of Esther, I said that compassion requires three things: humility, bravery, and faith.

Florence Nightingale embodied all three of these traits in her exhibition of compassion. She was humble–she preferred people support hospitals to giving her praise; she was brave–she was willing to do a job no one else was willing to do (in a notoriously dangerous war zone), just so she could serve the ill and dying; she was faithful–she served without ceasing and had faith that her work would not be in vain.

To learn more about this woman of modern compassion, I recommend checking out her video and bio on The History Channel.

Florence_Nightingale

 

Portrait By Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873.External link: The University of Texas at Austin > PORTRAIT GALLERY > IMAGEThis painting was made based on the photography Image:Florence Nightingale 1920 reproduction.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21234

Compassion “For Such a Time as This”

Etymology is a hobby of mine. I not only relish the history of people, but I also relish the history of the words they use. So when I thought of this month’s theme–“compassion”–I wondered where such a word even came from.

Of course, compassion implies more than just a strong feeling–what we usually think of when we think of the word “passion.” It usually means a call to action–the feeling must drive the person in some way to do something. To have compassion is to not just feel sympathy, but act upon the sympathy one feels.

Spirit_of_Compassion
The Spirit of Compassion
(1931) Raynor Hoff

Which brought me back to the etymology–where does this word even come from? if “com” means “with,” and “passion” is a “strong feeling,” does compassion mean to do things with a strong feeling?…Yet I am passionate about writing; I am passionate about relationships; I am passionate about leaving a better world. I would say I do most things “with passion.”

But that does not always mean I am compassionate.

“Com” could more nearly be translated as “together” while the root of the word “passion” is Latin passio, “suffering; submission.”

Compassion–Suffering together.

Perhaps even…With submission to suffering.

Compassion is more than a feeling; it is a belief held so strongly that one must submit oneself to suffering in the effort to alleviate, or even share, another’s pain. It is willingly shouldering a burden that isn’t one’s own.

Compassion–I not only suffer for you; I suffer with you. If your pain is in my power to alleviate–even if it causes me physical or emotional torment–I will do whatever I must.

Then why, on a blog dedicated to praising active heroines, would we choose such a subject of abject humility?

I, for one, believe in the old paradox that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be

Spirit_of_Compassion2
Spirit of Compassion as a Doctor (Epcot)

last,” even though our modern society does not do a very good job of lifting up the humble. However, come to think of it, no society in history has done a great job of recognizing those people among them who daily lay down their lives for others. Sometimes it seems as though the loud, the proud, and the pompous receive all the praise.

But those who are compassionate know that praise is not warranted or required. The compassionate do not show compassion out of a need for praise or desire for reward; in fact, if they did act out of such motives then, by definition, they would not be compassionate. They would be opportunists. Compassion is not, and cannot, be about tit-for-tat. Compassion is about seeing the humanity and brokenness of another, and joining in that humanity and in that brokenness.

Compassion involves, by necessity, an act of humility. The focus of being compassionate is not to reap rewards or call special attention to oneself or one’s own pain–or even the pain of another. True compassion is silent, unassuming. It is caring more for the good of another than for one’s own good. It is kneeling down to bring another up.

Compassion also involves bravery and faith that the act of submission to suffering will lead to an alleviation of the same.

This was the hardest month I’ve had yet in terms of choosing the woman in literature or history about whom I wished to write. However, when I truly thought about the meaning of the word “compassion,” and determined that compassion by definition involves humility, bravery, and faith, one woman kept repeating over and again in my mind: Queen Esther.

Esther
Queen Esther (1879) Edwin Long

During the time of the Persian Empire, Esther was a Jewish exile living in Babylon. In her time, the Persian king was a man named Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes. Esther is perhaps most well-known for winning a beauty contest–when the king wants to choose a wife–because he deposed the last one for refusing to come when he called her (Esther 1:19)–he calls all the virgins in the land to him, and ultimately selects–you guessed it!–Esther (2:9).

She wins the contest and gets a literal crown…that came with some small measure of power.

However, Esther was Jewish, and not Persian. A dangerous heritage. At the behest of her guardian, Mordecai, she doesn’t reveal her ancestry to the king.

So the plot thickens. Haman, the king’s adviser, does not like Mordecai because he will not bow down whenever he (Haman) passes by, so Haman devises a scheme to have all the Jews in the land eradicated (3:6). When Mordecai hears about this, he puts on sackcloth and ashes to weep for the fate of his people. Esther’s response? “She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them” (4:4). Then she tries sending one of her men to Mordecai to ask him what is wrong. When Mordecai explains the edict and pleads for her help, Esther is frightened; if she goes to the king without first being called, her life is forfeit (4:10). Mordecai replies by saying that she is the one with the power and position to help “and who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14). Her argument is that she is powerless; Mordecai’s argument says the opposite.

Faced with this choice, Esther decides there is but one option. She has compassion on her people by telling Mordecai to fast and pray for three days, as she does the same, and at the end of those three days, she would go to the king to plead on her people’s behalf: “And if I perish, I perish” (4:16).

Though the word “compassion” is not used, we know from Esther’s response that she humbles herself–by fasting and praying with her people, she willingly abandons her position as queen in order to suffer with them. For those three days, she says, they will suffer together.

Her response is also brave. She recognizes the danger and the potential torment, even death, that she will receive if the king does not have mercy on her. Yet the suffering of others drives her to action, gives her motivation. And she is willing even to perish for their sake.

Finally, her response is faithful. Her loyalty to her people is firm. She will not leave them to die, and though she could easily claim her position as queen and turn her back on her people, leaving them to suffer without her, she does not do this. Rather, she says they will pray and fast for three days, and then she will go to the king “even though it is against the law” (4:16).

“And if I perish, I perish.”

She could only make such a bold statement if she was humble, brave, and faithful. But she could also only make such a statement if she loved her people. And that, to me, is the most compelling, and mysterious, aspect of compassion. Compassion is born out of love. Not duty, not a desire for fame, or a desire for gain. To be truly compassionate, we must be willing to get into the dirt with someone else; to feel cuts and bruises with someone else; to give up our desires in order to aid another; to give up our own comfort and safety to reassure another.

There is no other rationale for doing such things than unconditional love.

To finish the story of Esther, the king grants her petition and does not order her execution. She pleads her case to the king, and when Haman tries to plead with Esther, the king believes his adviser to be making a move on his wife, and instead orders Haman’s execution. But Esther’s trials are still not over; she makes one more petition to the king: To reverse Haman’s order and not kill her people. The king grants her petition.

And so it seems Mordecai was right–Esther was placed in her position “for such a time as this.” She loved her people and was moved to compassion; she chose to suffer with them, when she could have chosen comfort. Her love was an abiding love.

In our “times such as this,” when suffering abounds, may we find such a love. And may we shine its light in our compassion for others.

 

Work Cited:

New International Version. The Holy Bible. https://www.biblegateway.com/

 

 

Otrera: The First Queen of the Amazons

Demigoddesses were rare in Greek mythology. The few mentioned tended to be some variety of nymph. One exception of that trend were the Amazons.

Hippolyta is a notable figure in Greek mythology made all the more famous by the Wonder Woman franchise, but she was not the first queen of the Amazons. Her mother, Otrera is most frequently credited with founding the Amazon nation.

Amazons
Departure of the Amazons (Claude Deruet)

In some versions of the myths, Otrera is the daughter of the eastern wind and consort to Ares. In others, she’s a daughter of Ares. She is credited with the creation of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

In short, she was an awesome figure in mythology. So why haven’t more people heard of her?

I made it my mission to change that by incorporating her into my Aphrodite trilogy. Her matter-of-fact level-headedness was a much-needed addition to Medea’s tragic naiveté and Aphrodite’s divinely skewed view.

VR

Here’s one of my favorite scenes featuring Otrera:

“OKAY, LET ME get this straight,” Otrera said the next morning as we were getting ready.

Aphrodite and I rolled our eyes at each other and moved to either side to give her some counter space in the bathroom. If the three of us had to share a cabin with only one bathroom, at least it was a big bathroom. A mirror ran the length of the entire wall, reflecting the crowded strip of marble-patterned countertop and two sinks. A space about as wide as a hallway separated the countertop and the wide Jacuzzi tub, and the walls of the bathroom and shower stall came together to form a semi-private room that tucked the toilet out of view.

Otrera had taken the news that Aphrodite was a goddess in stride, but when it came to the plan Aphrodite and I had come up with, Otrera had been “getting this straight” all night and most of the morning.

If Otrera noticed our eye-rolling, she didn’t comment on it. “You want to do something stupid in hopes that if you get Narcissus angry enough, you’ll get thrown into the hidden hospital wing. Then you’re going to search the top-secret, guarded lab and find the Lord of the Underworld while you’re in there. Once that’s done, you want to have Medea teleport all the weapons and poisons away before summoning a pissed-off goddess to our island?”

“I’m open to other ideas.” Aphrodite’s lips pulled back in a way that somehow looked more like an animal baring its teeth than a smile.

My hand paused midway between my powder compact and my face as I studied Aphrodite in the mirror. She still looked like Elise, but she’d changed somehow. Maybe it was just because I knew who she was now, or maybe it was just that she was covered in scabbing scrapes and fading bruises. But she didn’t look like the demigoddesses I’d seen. There was a quiet power to her. A determination. The shock had faded and left something, someone, dangerous in its place. Someone other.

I’d never seen her at full strength. The poison had already leached away most of her powers before we met. But now, I found myself wondering. Was she like them? Poseidon and Persephone? Was she so filled with power that she almost seemed to glow with it? Was my attempt to join the Pantheon, my proclamation that I was what came next, laughable to her? Swallowing hard, I resumed applying my makeup, suddenly self-conscious.

Rein it in a bit, Medea. Right. I could feel myself over-attaching to Aphrodite. Latching on to her like I had Jason, far too much, far too fast. Normal people didn’t do that. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself. If you build her up too much, you’re setting her up to let you down. But it was like a train hurtling toward a broken bridge just beyond the bend. I saw the disaster looming, but I couldn’t seem to make myself jump the track.

Otrera remained unimpressed. “You do realize they’re just as likely to kill you as lock you up if you do anything too drastic, right?”

“If Narcissus lets me die, he loses his scapegoat,” Aphrodite reasoned, scowling when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. “And he definitely can’t let any harm come to Medea. She’s his escape route.”

What did she look like when she wasn’t disguised as Elise? I tried, and failed, to imagine her without her tousled hair that somehow made the just-out-of-bed look unobtainably sexy. Her gold skin was darkened with bruises, cuts, and scrapes, her hawkish eyes perpetually narrowed with frustration or anger. Every feature was so uniquely her that I couldn’t imagine her looking like anyone else. How had I ever mistaken her for the model in all those pictures? Her every mannerism was different from the Elise behind the makeup tutorials I’d watched before her arrival on the island.

“If they cross any major lines,” Aphrodite continued. “If they do anything they might actually look back on and regret, then Narcissus risks losing the crowd.”

“Let’s assume you’re right.” Otrera reached under the cabinet for her lotion. “What happens once you get thrown in there? You’ll be under guard, and you’ll be locked up. How does that help us get off the island?”

“That’s why she has to get locked up with me.” Aphrodite jerked a thumb toward my reflection in the mirror. “She’s linked to the Steele and the poisons. I can talk her through ‘porting them away once we’re behind the shield.”

I nodded, like my input held any weight with either of them.

It should. It had during the chaos of yesterday, but now that they’d both latched onto their own idea of the best way to handle things, no one else’s input mattered. Not each other’s, and definitely not mine.

Hush now, sweetie, the grown-ups are talking, their tight faces seemed to say when I interrupted with questions or suggestions. It wasn’t right. My input should be the be-all and end-all. Not only was I the linchpin in Aphrodite’s plan, but I was the method of escape in Otrera’s. Part of me resented the way they dismissed me. Like just because I was younger than them—well, physically in Aphrodite’s case since she was only what, three?—my ideas were somehow invalid.

But unlike Jason, I could tell I was more than a tool here. They might just see me as a naïve kid, but I mattered to them as a person. So maybe I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was still leagues ahead of where I left.

Last time you were willing to settle for “better than where you left”, you ended up impregnated by a lying psychopath who used your blood to torture people. Maybe it’s time to set your standards higher.

“Why not just shred the shield?” Otrera stepped back from the counter. “Medea said she could teleport through the shield protecting the island. The one protecting the hospital can’t be much stronger.”

Medea is right here, I wanted to point out. Instead, I studied myself in the mirror, searching for what they saw when they looked at me. Dark hair; strange, frightened eyes; young; small for my age. I wouldn’t take me seriously either, but at the moment, I was stronger than either of them.

Shouldn’t that count for something? My fingers itched to write in my journal. Everything was so much clearer when I wrote it down. But I hadn’t had a chance. They’d been right here all day, all night, all morning. Writing about them while they were just a few feet away felt wrong.

Today, I promised myself. I’d make time today. I had to get my thoughts in order before we did anything. When I turned my head to look at Otrera, my neck objected with a phantom pinch of pain. Scowling, I rubbed at it. Last night, I’d been unable to stomach the thought of sleeping in the bed Jason and I’d shared after I abandoned him to the Pantheon. So, I’d pulled out the couch bed. Otrera had spent yesterday afternoon rearranging Jason’s office space, also known as most of the living room, to make room for her mattress. That was smart of her. The damage from the uncomfortable night of tossing and turning on the couch had long since healed, but the memory still hurt.

Aphrodite claimed my bed. After changing my sheets and complaining about the lack of pillows, she’d sprawled out on the king-sized bed with nary a thought to me or Otrera and crashed until she woke up in the middle of the night screaming bloody murder. Otrera and I both pretended that hadn’t happened, but I desperately wanted a few minutes alone with Otrera to talk about what we’d heard last night. The way Aphrodite screamed, how long it had taken her to calm down. I’d never heard anything like it before, and I never wanted to again.

Aphrodite sighed, stepping back from the countertop, apparently giving up on her reflection. “Look, they are going to know the second we mess with the shield. But if Medea and I can get ourselves placed behind the shield, they won’t know anything is wrong until they’re disarmed.”

“It’s a matter of seconds,” Otrera argued.

“Assuming she’s back at full strength,” Aphrodite replied, like “she” wasn’t standing right next to her. “I don’t know how long it takes to recover from moving a land mass.” The twist in her lips told me what a stupid idea she thought that had been.

But it had worked, hadn’t it? It had hurt like hell, but it had worked. I arched a brow at her in my reflection.

“If we try it your way,” Aphrodite said to Otrera, “we risk alerting everyone to what we’re doing, then being stuck there with no way to ‘port ourselves or the weapons out. With my way, it’s all one shot. If it doesn’t work, no one even knows we tried, so we live to try another day.”

“It’s a moot point at the moment,” I reminded them, finally working up the nerve to speak. “I’m still pretty burnt out from moving the island yesterday.” Feeling the power missing from my body last night was part of what had kept me tossing and turning. It was like a physical ache. After a few hours’ rest, I could feel some growing tendrils within me, but not enough for what Aphrodite was talking about.

Concern flickered in Aphrodite’s eyes, and she nodded, her face dead serious. “We can’t risk draining your powers completely. So we’re going to have to wait a few days.”

Days?” Otrera objected. “Yesterday, we were looking at escaping this island as soon as possible. Why not get out of here as soon as Medea’s recovered, then teleport back in when her powers are completely back? Hell, let’s meet up with the Pantheon and bring one of them with us if you’re worried Medea can’t manage all of that. Everyone wins! We’re safe, you’re reunited with your . . . brother.” Otrera cringed as though she’d tasted something foul.

Aphrodite glanced up at the ceiling as though she was praying for patience, and I wondered who that particular prayer would be directed to.

“I told you last night, divine genetics—”

“Don’t work that way,” Otrera said by rote. “They pass on power. The incest taboo is a human thing that makes total sense because of the way mankind works, but you’re all different and special. Yadayadayada. I’ve spent the last two and half years of my life on an island full of super inbred demigods. I’ve heard the spiel. It doesn’t mean it’s not gross.”

I fought back a smile. I’d always wanted to live out scenes from my favorite TV shows. And now, here I sat, listening to my roommates, my two best friends with wildly different personalities, who cared about each other more than they dared to admit, gripe at one another. I realized that as long as I ignored the death, the destruction, and the terrifying stakes, this was the happiest I’d ever been.

“You wanna know what’s gross?” Aphrodite challenged.

I stepped in before there could be actual bloodshed. “Otrera, if we do it your way,” I pitched my voice loud to drown out their bickering, “they won’t owe us. And you and I need them to owe us.”

“Exactly,” Aphrodite said. “An entire island popping up in Poseidon’s domain isn’t going to go unnoticed for long. Once he finds us, the rest of the Pantheon will follow. If we neutralize the threat before they get here, it will be better for everyone.”

Otrera still looked like she wanted to argue, but a glance at her watch cut her off short. “I’m on breakfast duty today.” She scowled at the watch, as if she could make it turn back time through sheer force of will. “Do not—” she held up a finger to me and Aphrodite in warning “—do anything stupid until I get back.”

Aphrodite bristled at the order, but I shot her a quelling look as I followed Otrera through the tiny cabin. I couldn’t set foot in the living room without running into bedding. The three of us living here made for some pretty cramped quarters.

I loved it.

“We won’t,” I lied.

(From Book 6 of The Daughters of Zeus series, Venus Rising)


 

 

 

Part 1- Hua Mulan: East-West With Honor

p21118_p_v8_acIt’s not surprising that Mulan is my favorite Disney princess. My favorite female figures of history of have always been warriors, women who defied social norms. I particularly loved the idea that they could defend themselves and exert a power of their own. In a world of Disney princesses who need saving and who are most known for their beauty, Mulan stood out.

But she isn’t really a princess is she? While she’s included in the Disney princess lineup, she wasn’t born into or married to a royal family. She’s not particularly celebrated for her taste in frilly gowns, compassion or a singing voice. Her story is significant because she was a warrior and (by extension) because she did not follow gender expectations. In fact, she spends most of the film in armor. Despite this, I’ve noted that Disney merchandise opts to feature Mulan in beautiful gown instead of armor.

Before I dig all that up further, let’s look at the actual history of Mulan. First, let me assert that there are many tales about Mulan, some conflicting. Mulan’s story enjoyed a popular revival and reimagining in both the 16th and 17th centuries. For the sake of this article, I am focusing on the original “Ballad of Mulan” as recorded in the Music Bureau Collection, which was compiled in the 12th century, long after Mulan was said to have lived.[1]

Her surname and therefore ethnic origins are uncertain, sometimes she is referred to as Hua Mulan, but she could have easily been Zhu Mulan or Xie Mulan. During the period of the Wei Dynasty, a non-Han Chinese group, the “Ballad of Mulan” was written by an unknown author. We’re talking about the 5th or 6th centuries. Whether Mulan existed is also uncertain.

Gathering-Gems-of-BeautyNonetheless, in a time that male physical might and female beauty permeated stories, Mulan’s tale stands out as quite unique. By disguising herself as a man, she takes her aging father’s place in the army. This part is pretty familiar if you’ve watched the Disney movie. However, according to the song, Mulan’s military term is not a short one, in fact, she spends twelve years campaigning in the Khan’s army.[2] There is a clear connection to filial piety in Mulan’s actions. In order to save her father, she is willing to break with expectations and social conventions. While worth exploration, I would warn against focusing entirely on that element of the ballad. There is much more going on this tale. We are presented with an extraordinary, dualistic existence that discusses gender norms, breaking gender norms, earning of honor and loyalty to a noble philosophy.

Most obviously, Mulan challenges the idea that gender exists in binary, and more importantly that social roles are not necessarily gendered. Mulan’s comrades-in-arms, do not lose respect for her the moment they find out she is female. They are surprised, but after, “traveling together for twelve years,”[3] Mulan remains the same individual they have come to admire, who has proven herself over and over.

The ballad goes on to stress that Mulan embodies elements of both genders, “’I open the door to my east chamber, I sit on my couch in the west room, I take off my wartime gown and put on my old-time clothes.’”[4] If we use traditional Taoist ideology, east corresponds with yang—female and west with yin—male.[5] Mulan accesses her femininity, is open to it, but rests within her masculinity. She opens herself to the yang, but remains rooted in yin, yet chooses to remove the outward symbols of maleness and puts on female. To further stress common duality, the ballad closes with, “’The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip, the she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled. Two hares running side by side close to the ground, how can they tell if I am he or she?”[6]

The ballad seems to want the listener to understand that Mulan is female, but more than that, her actions are not male, that they are instead, simply honorable. The stress of the story focuses on Mulan’s nobility, grace and inner reflection.

In next week’s post, I will further discuss and analyze the ballad with special attention on military camaraderie and about female success in traditionally male spheres of influence. I’ll take a look at how the story of Mulan can give us insight into our own political and social issues. Maybe Mulan will save the today’s world too.

[1] Klimczak, Natalia. “The Ballad of Hua Mulan: The Legendary Warrior Woman Who Brought Hope to China.” Ancient Origins. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ballad-hua-mulan-legendary-warrior-woman-who-brought-hope-china-005084.

[2] Note, I say “Khan” here, the northern tribe title for a ruler, where the Disney film depicts the “Emperor,” which is a Han-Chinese title. Again, this is a story that does not originate from a Han-Chinese background.

[3] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Heaven and Earth: Taoist Cosmology.” The Art Institute of Chicago. http://www.artic.edu/taoism/tradition/b14.php

[6] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf