02 April 2007

Spelling It Out with Piers Anthony

I read A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony, because a well-read writing-group friend noted some similarities between its premise and the situation I was exploring in a new project. I hadn't read any Anthony before, though I knew the name--which says little about my knowledge, considering what a striking pen name it is.

A basic challenge for any fantasy writer is imagining and then conveying how the magic works in a given story. Like a building constructed with visible struts, this novel makes that task one of its running themes. The protagonist, Bink, is constantly meditating on and discussing how animals, vegetables, and minerals in his homeland use magic; whether limitations on magic are biological or merely cultural; what magical powers are useful and what merely decorative; etc.; etc. Indeed, at the end of the book, protagonist Bink gets the job of researching the land, called Xanth.

Most of Bink's conclusions involve magic as a survival tool, developed through natural selection. Yet many of the book's magical details are based on puns rather than such biologic logic. For example, centipedes five times larger than normal are nickelpedes, though that would make sense only in an American context. (Then again, characters say "okay" and eat chocolate-chip cookies, and you can't get more American than that, right?) As a fan of the Oz series, however, I can hardly complain about episodes shaped around puns.

I can complain about the portrayal of women, however. I hadn't read the complaints about sexism in Anthony's novels until I'd reached the end of A Spell for Chameleon and reached my conclusions. But I see from web postings that such criticism has been voiced for decades now, perhaps since the book was published in 1977. And based on this one volume, I think the pattern goes beyond sexism (discriminating on the basis of sex) to full-blown misogyny, portraying women as essentially changeable and conniving.

Three female characters appear in many scenes throughout the book:

  • Sabrina, Bink's longtime girlfriend. She's pretty and smart, and Bink starts out devoted to her. It's hard to see why, however, since Anthony never really portrays her or their relationship in a lively way. That makes it harder to empathize with Bink when they break up. And how does that happen? He suddenly realizes that she was only interested in his magic. So after returning, magic and power intact, he fobs her off to a woman-hating friend.
  • Iris, a magician with immense power in creating illusions. She's very beautiful (whenever she wants to be), smart, and extremely ambitious. She tries to seduce Bink to gain power. When he stands up to her, she becomes his enemy. At the end she marries someone else to become queen, but since her husband likes Bink, she acts friendly, even fawning, toward him.
  • Chameleon, a woman whose physical attractiveness and intelligence wax and wane according to (I'm not making this up) her menstrual cycle. I really think it's hard to depict a trait as more fundamental to women than tying it to female biology. Did I mention that Chameleon can be either very beautiful or very intelligent, but not both at the same time? Or that when she's smart, she's especially clever at deceptive tactics? Or that when she's very beautiful, she's mindlessly devoted to Bink? Of course, he chooses her to marry.
So the book's three major women are all either deceptive or completely mutable.

There are some more fleeting female characters as well, without those particular traits: Bink's mother, a widowed mother he meets, another manly hero's dead wife who also happens to be a mother,... You get the picture. A female centaur lets Bink cop a feel and yet remains anatomically unavailable; she's the one female who can be both pretty and smart without being fundamentally unreliable.

Other critics have noted details that I let pass: the sex scenes that make A Spell for Chameleon adult rather than YA fantasy (and make it obvious that Anthony's definitely a breast man); a trial that seems to excuse what we'd now call "date rape"; how, according to readers of later books, all three major women above become shrewish wives. Nor would I require Anthony to show women as warriors, as Tamora Pierce does, or authority figures (Iris has ambitions to rule, but the land's magical landscape itself works to prevent that).

Indeed, I think it's clear that Anthony portrays his major female characters as naturally capable. The problem is that they're all naturally capable of alluring deception.


Anonymous said...

Ah, this brings back memories ... These books were all the big hot rage when I was twelve. For about a year or so, I loved them -- before the puns started to get so stale as to be inedible.

I recall that even then, the author's wearyingly boobalicious understanding of gender -- of women -- seemed tawdry, or, as we probably put it at the time, "wicked icky." It seemed very leering old man. (Though note that didn't stop us from reading the series.)

Chameleon's predicament is based on an oft-repeated mediaeval trope: the Loathly Lady (from Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, "Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle," etc.). But, as you intimate, there isn't much new or revisionist about Piers Anthony's treatment. Except that he adds a sweaty sheen of wink-beneath-the-disco-ball 70s bawdry.

In fact, I think a strong argument could be made that "Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle" is more even-handed and generous in its treatment of female characters than panty-hose wearing Bink and his narrator.

I suspect that one of the reasons, frankly, that the series appealed to kids was that in general, its adult characters had all the gravitas and maturity of volleyball cadets in a 60s beach-blanket movie.

About the system of magic: I dimly remember the author, in an interview, saying that he conceived of Xanth when a fantasist insisted -- at a conference or in a how-to book or something -- that the good fantasy writer had to define his magic carefully and limit it only to certain items so the world didn't get out of control. So Piers Anthony promptly set about creating a world where everything, indiscriminately, was magic. I admire the cussedness, I guess.


J. L. Bell said...

The sheer ubiquity of magic in Xanth is one of the appealing elements of A Spell for Chameleon. I could see how it might wear out one's credulity after several volumes, but I was far from my limit.

And speaking of limits, it seems significant that although Anthony might break all the "rules" about types of magic, strength of magic, creatures who exert magic, and so on, he still imposes a limit on each character. Everyone can do one and only one magical act. So the world remains enough in control to produce a plot.

When I got to the first nude scene, I realized that A Spell for Chameleon was indeed that relative rarity for its time, an adult fantasy. And I kept waiting for the characters to start acting like adults. And waiting. Perhaps if I shared Anthony's interests, I wouldn't have felt so impatient.

Folks can find The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle through this site from the University of Rochester. Compare and contrast.

I was rather expecting Chameleon's story to end with her enjoying beauty, brains, and a good man all at once, in the classic Beauty and the Beast/Ruth Plumly Thompson way where we learn that inner beauty is what really counts, and by learning that lesson get to enjoy outer beauty as well. But no. We last see her in this book as stunning and stunned, married to a man who seems awfully pleased by how this has turned out.

Anonymous said...

I recently re-read A Spell for Chameleon for the first time in several years, and I was also stunned by how misogynistic it was. From the constant ogling of each female character to the discomfort of the "date rape" trial you mention, Anthony really establishes a worldview that is hostile to women as thinking, rational beings.

I've pointed out some of the more egregious examples in a review, "To Ogle an Ogre," on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I recently read Piers Anthonys A Spell for Chameleon for my Science Fiction class, and while I do agree there are many misogynistic and sexist parts to it I think it is unfair tp say that it only goes one way. The men on the story get a lot of steryotypes fron Mr. Anthony as well.

Bink is a smart nice looking stong young man. But the small things that he lack means that he is not a MAN. He is missing a finger and as far as he knows lacks a magical talent , these little detail overshadow his many good qualities. So basically you need to be perfect to be a real man.

Sowing your wild oats. Men want women to be in their power. To be beautiful and work for them. Wouldnt yo consider that high expectations. That whole thng is perverse

Many of the men in the book are hostile and agreesive. Example: Chester who probably would have killed Bink of Cherrie had not come along at the erfect moment. The three brats in North village are always creating destruction and turmoil, and are uing their powers to bully those that cant defend themselves (Bink). Even Trent has his hostile moments.

And dont forget The Good Magician Hunphery. He is short,old and ugly. He resembles a dwarf. He takes credit for knowing all when really he only asks the question to a demon. He is greedy. What kind of person has a whole year to give up for one guy without being payed. His greedyness leads to his Laziness, he uses the people paying him back to do everything for him. He wont even make his own house. all he does is sit around all day and read.

Men are non trusting. Crimcbie hates all women. But he bases it all on one woman (his mom). Bink cant trust a pretty and smart girl. Why cant guys trust?

So to rap it up ill say it again the book can be taken in more then one way. Reas it again and you'll probably see that poers anthony doesnt hate women. He hates everyone.

MWchase said...

Not that I think commenting now will accomplish anything, but dang it, I want to.

Two wrongs don't make a right. (It's even weirder to imply they do when they're of different character and degree.)

I mean, you wouldn't try to rebut someone talking about health code violations in a restaurant by pointing to the previous decade's record and saying "Well, at least they're consistent."