This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: C. Palmer-Patel
Unpacking Parental Rights in the Wake of Roe Versus Wade, 1973
Content Warning: rape, abortion, forced birth, infertility, miscarriage, incest, cannibalism, abduction, child abduction, child abuse, and pedophilia
Epic fantasy is well suited for exploring real-world concerns of heteropatriarchy and imperialism as it is a space where these structures are, not only common, but expected and frequently even accepted by audiences of the genre. Epic fantasy is particularly noted for its patriarchal anxieties as the hero is often a lost heir, one that is a descendant of a noble lineage. This conference paper will examine fantasy texts produced by American authors in the wake of Roe versus Wade (1973), posing each text as a response to real-world anxieties and concerns about parenting rights. Forming the first part of preliminary research for a much larger research project, this podcast will briefly survey conception, motherhood, and fatherhood in the following novels: David Eddings’ Guardians of the West (1987), Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince (1988), Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope (1983), Phyllis Eisenstein’s Sorcerer’s Son (1979), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mist of Avalon (1982), and Phyllis Ann Karr’s Frostflower and Thorn (1980).
About the Author: Charul (“Chuckie”) Palmer-Patel is founder and Co-Head-Editor of Fantastika Journal. Her first monograph, The Shape of Fantasy (Routledge, 2020) investigates the narrative structures of Epic Fantasy, incorporating ideas from science, philosophy, and literary theory. This paper is an early draft for a chapter in her next monograph, Negotiating Motherhood and Maternity in American Fantasy Fiction (Edinburgh University Press).
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 4 : Blurring Bloodlines, which will take place at 4:25 PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Charul Palmer-Patel, or Chuckie, as she is known. Chuckie is founder and Co-Head-Editor of Fantastika Journal. Her first monograph, The Shape of Fantasy (Routledge, 2020) investigates the narrative structures of Epic Fantasy, incorporating ideas from science, philosophy, and literary theory. This paper is an early draft for a chapter in her next monograph, Negotiating Motherhood and Maternity in American Fantasy Fiction (Edinburgh University Press).
Hello. My name’s Chuckie and this podcast is the first part of a much larger research project which examines motherhood and maternity in Fantasy Fiction published by American Authors with the intent of investigating the place of women in imaginative literature as a commentary on the real world. My next monograph, Negotiating Motherhood and Maternity, will probe the difficulties of negotiating the identity of the mother within a feminist framework while simultaneously acknowledging the realities of living in a patriarchal society. Epic fantasy is particularly well suited for exploring real-world concerns of heteropatriarchy and imperialism as it is a space where these structures are, not only common, but expected and frequently even accepted by audiences of the genre. It’s an imaginative space where authors and audiences can play out anxieties and fears, and push them to the extreme. Simply put, you can get away with a lot in fantasy fiction, because you wave a flag of “well, it’s just fantasy” if anyone objects to the content. So, as a content warning, I’d like to state that this podcast will contain depictions of rape, abortion, forced birth, infertility, miscarriage, incest, cannibalism, abduction, child abduction, and child abuse. While not all epic fantasy contains this content, I’ve selected these examples specifically for analysis. So, for my first chapter, I’ll be looking at books published from 1973 to 89, or books published by American authors in the wake of Roe versus Wade. And for this podcast today, I’m going to go through a quick survey of 5 or 6 texts, looking at each novel as a response to real-world anxieties and concerns about childbirth and lineage and particularly in the case of Roe versus Wade, which allowed for US to legalise abortion in 1973, these texts seem less concerned with body autonomy, as the new ruling granted autonomy to all women, and instead is more concerned with parental rights, or, in the case of an unwanted fetus, does the parent have a right over the child and, if so, does maternal or paternal rights take precedence.
Epic fantasy is particularly obsessed with patriarchal lineage. You have Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, grandson of Thror, no mother or grandmother in sight. The genre is filled with heroes who are lost heirs, born of noble lineages, or lineages of power. Since my research is on maternity and motherhood, any book that contains overt depiction of the mother as main character end up highlighting that assumption of power, whether it be deliberately or unconsciously. In cases where it seems to be unconscious, that assumption of power is almost comedic. So, for example, take David Eddings’ Guardians of the West which was published in 1987; the book is the first part of the Malloreon series, and The Malloreon series is a sequel series to The Belgariad, which among other events, concerns the typical chosen hero who is a lost heir and reclaims his throne after saving the world. So, on one hand, when the sequel picks up and his people are concerned that the king and queen haven’t produced an heir, there may be legitimate cause for concern as the royal line was nearly lost. On the other hand, the hero doesn’t just turn out to be king, but a wizard, making him nearly immortal. So the need for an heir strikes me as unnecessary. This is never pointed out or mentioned by any of the characters. The plot of The Malloreon is triggered when the heir is kidnapped and the hero must go out to reclaim him. We’re never really shown the child’s perspective, even though he spends nearly a year away from his parents, so the focus the abducted child and the trauma he suffers is less pronounced than in similar narratives, such as Mattimeo published by British author Brian Jacques in 1989. Instead, the abducted child serves as a simple call for adventure, suiting Eddings’ style as he is famous – or infamous – for recycling stock narrative devices.
Child abduction is also a crucial event in Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince published in 1988. What’s interesting in this case is that, instead of serving as a trigger for the plot, it is utilised as a solution by the central protagonists. After 6 years of failing to carry a baby to term, the Princess Sioned, with an absolutely ludicrous proposal, actually suggests to Prince Rohan that he take a mistress to produce an heir quote “I’ve studied the law. There’s nothing that says your heir must be the son of your wife—only the acknowledged son of your body” (p. 350) – end-quote. After expressing shock, Rohan counters with the absurdities of practicalities, quote “And after the child is born, what then? Would you send its mother away? Or keep her here and watch her take precedence over you as the mother of my son?” – end-quote. In Rawn’s Dragon Prince, it isn’t strictly necessary for Rohan to produce an heir as his elder sister has born 4 sons, and the royal lineage can continue through her sons. And, in any case, as Roham himself admits quotes “It was entirely possible that a prince’s legitimate son would turn out to be a fool”. Despite this, Rawn delivers an ending where Rohan has a son and heir by his body, and not of his wife, without the necessity of him taking on a mistress that could replace the legal wife. Roelstra, the High Prince, who, himself, has 18 daughters and no heirs, plots with one of his legitimate daughters, the Princess Ianthe, to kidnap Rohan, drug him, and then, while drugged, Rohan thinks Ianthe is his wife and copulates with her. When he discovers the treachery, he violently couples with her again, in an attempted rape as punishment but one that is invited by Ianthe. From these two sessions, Ianthe becomes pregnant. And Sioned begins plotting to steal the child from Ianthe and kill the mother so that they won’t have to deal with the baggage of having the birth mother claim him as hers. Now as a reminder, Sioned is the protagonist in this novel. Rawn, I think, does a good job of making the audience fall in love with both Sioned and Rohan and root for them and their relationship, and to show you how horrible Ianthe and Roelstra are as comparison. So, when we get to this point, more than three quarters of the way through the book, I won’t say that the audience is divided by their responses to her actions, but it is, as I said at the start of this podcast, a great example of how anxieties can be pushed to the extreme. In a world where there’s magic and dragons, when the High Prince is a grade A asshole and his daughters will use and discard people according to their whims, how far will the heroes go to secure peace for their people? how far will they barter their own honour and sense of right and justice to do away with evil regimes?
Similar questions are posed by Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope published in 1983, where the first central protagonist overthrows a tyrant and must legitimise his usurpation by marrying and then publicly raping the 12-year-old Princess Asineth. Although this is the only evil act that Palicrovol commits, it is obviously a horrific one, and further begins a series of events that leads Asineth to becoming the villain of the piece, as she seeks revenge by sacrificing their newly born child and consuming his blood in a magical ritual which grants her unlimitless power. This is only the beginning of a complicated plot, so I won’t go into details. But I bring it up as the text draws attention to the ways in which forced marriages may operate as an act of legalised rape, allowing dynasty to cement blood lines without thought of personhood.
Phyllis Eisenstein’s Sorcerer’s Son published in 1979 takes an almost opposite view. Here, the sorcerer Rezhyk irrationally decides that the sorceress Delivev is out to get him. He arranges to have his most powerful demon impregnant her with Rezhyk’s seed, so that it may reduce her power for a few short months and give him enough time to create wards of protection. However, Gildrum, the demon tasked with the charge, falls in love with Delivev, and the remainder of the story concerns their son Cray, and his quest to discover his lost father. It’s a refreshing take on the lost heir motif, one that is complicated as while Rezhyk provides the sperm, he has little to do with parentage, and, in fact, orders Cray killed later in the book without any sign of remorse. Demons are also sexless, able to take male or female human forms, but having no genders among themselves, so the story is also refreshing in the ways it presents parental rights in terms of a queer relationship. While the story does not concern inheritance and the right to rule as with my other examples, it still serves as an important example of claiming parentage.
These themes are complicated in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mist of Avalon published in 1982, because of the author’s own history. As a disclaimer, I’m not incorporating biographical analysis in my discussion of these texts, but it’s hard to avoid with authors like Bradley and David Eddings; Eddings was found guilty of abusing his adopted children, locking them in cages and physically beating them; he and his wife were jailed for a year in 1970. In Bradley’s case, following her death, Bradley’s daughter, Moira Greyland, accused her of sexual abuse from age 3 to 12, and in aiding her father, who was convicted for child molestation on several counts. I won’t go into details, if you’re interested, I’d suggest Greyland’s biography of her mother which was published in 2017; The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon. I bring it up because with The Mists of Avalon it’s extremely difficult to practice a “death of the author” approach and divorce the analysis of text from the known biography of the author. There are many, many casual references to the male-female sexual partners being compared to mother-child relationships. So, for the purposes of this podcast, I only managed to re-read half of the book. It’s nearly 900 pages and I found it difficult to stomach reading these casual allusions. I had to keep taking breaks. But I persisted in reading it because it’s an important text, in that it was very influential at the time. It’s recognised as being the first text to focus on the female characters of the Arthurian myths, which triggered a movement in fantastika circles moving more aggressively into placing women at the forefront of their narratives. I wouldn’t say that these were strong female characters, because actually all the characters of Mists of Avalon – in my opinion – are insufferable. But they’re human, which might be more important than simply being strong.
Like the other books I’ve discussed, The Mists of Avalon shows an obsession with lineage too, but here, it’s not simply an obsession with patriarchal lineage, but, matriarchal lineage. The Lady of Avalon, Vivian, has Morgaine and her half-brother Arthur take part in a ritual marriage where they take the place of God and Goddess a rite which culminates in copulation. Their identities are only revealed to each other after the event takes place and they react in horror. Vivian’s reaction to Morgaine’s anger and pain is baffling, she contends that “sin” is a Christian device, and doesn’t have anything to do with the Goddess. Quote “Did I leave you for too long among the Christians, after all, with their talk of sin? […] Think, child. You are one of the royal line of Avalon; so too is he. Could I have given you to a commoner? Or, could the High King to come be so given?” (p. 191) end-quote. So, Vivian’s defense is that the royal line of Avalon cannot be diluted – what this translates to in practical terms but is never baldly spelt out is incest, being unable to dilute blood means you have to keep it in the family. But the characters never discuss that, never discuss how their instance of purity of bloodline dictates incest as – not only necessary – but expected. when Morgaine realises she’s pregnant, her instinctual response is to ‘cast it out’ or abort it, and Viviane commands quote “You shall not. The royal blood of Avalon is not be cast aside” (p. 228) – end-quote. Morgaine ultimately decides not to abort her half-brother’s child but decides that as the child was conceived through ritual marriage, that quote “The child now in my womb – I resolved this firmly – had not been gotten by any mortal man. He had been sent to me by the King Stag, the Horned One, as was lawful for the first child of a sworn priestess” (p. 231) end-quote. So wrapped up in this discussion of incest and abortion is from the question of where one’s moral compass originates, which is highlighted by the theme of two contending religions, the patriarchal women-hating Christian religion and the matriarchal women-as-superior Pagan religion.
A similar underlying theme occurs in Phyllis Ann Karr’s Frostflower and Thorn published in 1980. On the very first page, the swordswoman Thorn decides she needs to find a “borter” so that she can get rid of the fetus she’s carrying. Thorn’s a hired mercenary and no one’s about to hire a soldier who’s heavily pregnant. She doesn’t have the money for a proper physician, so she needs to find a back alley borter. Thorn meets the sorceress Frostflower who wants to buy the baby from her. At this point it's just a fetus, so Thorn is suspicious, quote “You want it for some kind of sorcering? […] “Or do you just want to eat it?” Frostflower was welcome to it for a meal—probably a lot better than the mold and dung sorceri usually ate in their retreats—but it was Thorn’s grub and she’d be damned if she would let it used in any kind of weather-blasting or plague-spreading spells” (p. 7) end-quote. So, by page 7, the audience gets a good idea of what kind of rough world we’re in, where aborting a child to eat it is preferable to carrying it to term or to aborting it to use for evil purposes. But instead of aborting it, Frostflower performs a spell so that Thorn carries the baby to term in just a few hours, delivering a healthy baby for Frostflower to adopt. Thorn agrees to accompany Frostflower and the baby back to her home to protect her, because a sorceress with a baby is immediately suspect of child abduction. Sorceri can only keep their powers if they’re virgins, so if they want to pass on their knowledge to the next generation, they have to adopt. The territories around them are controlled by farmer-priests, who function as both lords and priests. While on their journey, Frostflower and Thorn come across a farmer-priest Maldron, who is performing a conception ceremony with one of his wives, Inmara, as she has been having difficult with infertility. Maldron decides that Frostflower stole the baby, so he has his warriors chase them down and take both Frostflower and the baby hostage, Maldron deciding that if Frostflower confesses to stealing the boy and revealing who his true parents are, he’ll reward her by letting her live as a new wife, or maybe a secret mistress. While rescuing them, Thorn once again asserts to Inmara that she is the child’s birth mother and that Frostflower grew him through sorcery, quote “Is he not the sorceress’s child? Has she not risked her life to give him birth? What laboring mother would exchange her childbed for Frostflower’s sufferings?” (p. 164) end-quote. Despite this declaration, confirming Frostflower as the mother of the child through adoption, Maldron decides to take back the baby, declaring quote “Better that we should keep him than allow him to grow up among the sorceri. Inmara, it is an act of piety to keep him from their retreats!” (p. 207) end-quote. So here, Maldron frames child abduction as spiritual rescue, pitting their Gods against the evil acts of the God of Sorcery, and, moreover, despite not having any connection to the child, he’s in no way the biofather, he still claims possession of the child, simply by right of power.
You can see the similar themes between these texts; who has the right to parentage? And how the answer to this question is determined by the moral compass presented in the text, which, in turn, is dependent on the fictional religion created by each author. Even the Mists of Avalon, I would say, which depicts Christianity, is a fictional religious world, as there never was a Lady of Avalon as head of a matriarchal religion, so the contention between the two religions, which forms the heart of the book, is a fictional struggle. In its sister genre, Science Fiction, the literature may propose solutions to anxieties of infertility in the form of, let’s say, ectogenesis; of course, this too is complicated, as the ethics of technology is never straightforward, and I’d recommend Technologies of Feminist Speculative Fiction edited by Sherryl Vint and Sumerya Buran as a good primer in the analysis of these sort of works. However, unlike Science Fiction, I would hazard to say that Fantasy doesn’t propose solutions to these anxieties of infertility at all. When magic is used in lieu of technology, it is simply as parallels for common technologies that the reader may already be familiar with, for example, herbs for abortion or conception to take the place of pharmacology. Fantasy is not a genre which extrapolates or proposes new technologies. But what Fantasy does instead is focus on the anxieties and situations that pushes a human to the extreme, that pushes a hero to the extreme – a character that has an overabundant level of honour and morality and shows the lengths that they will go to deal with issues of the body which is out of their control – whether it is infertility and their hopes of a child, or the opposite in ridding themselves of an unwanted pregnancy. While in every text, transgressions are made against the body of the hero – tricking them into pregnancy or stealing what is bodily there’s – the heroes in turn contemplate what lengths they will go – what transgressions they will make – to bring about a peaceful resolution and domestic bliss. In doing so, these texts allow audiences to extrapolate on their own anxieties, raising the question of how far would you go to achieve body autonomy or to possess a desperately wanted child?