[This is the first half of what became, unintentionally, a two-part review of Piers Anthony, the Xanth series, and one very forgettable novel. Today we consider Anthony and the sexual politics of his most popular series.]
We have an uncomfortable relationship with the Xanth novels here at Pornokitsch Towers. On the one hand, we read and loved the series during our collective innocent youths. On the other hand, they're awfully hard to stomach now that we're gumpy, persnickety adults. So we circle around them uneasily, equally interested in seeing how they hold up and - well, frankly, how hard they fall down.
I specifically chose to revisit Anthony's 1989 novel Man from Mundania for two reasons. I liked the book pretty well, when I last read it, about twenty years ago - but I didn't remember exactly why. I also recall finding it incredibly perplexing - again, without any memory of what, exactly, mystified me about it. Man from Mundania was one of the last Xanth novels I read; in the end, the perplexing overcame the series' likability and I moved on.
Rereading the novel brought it all back. Twenty years later, I'm no longer mystified by the novel, and I can see what I liked about it when I was eleven. But I don't like it at all now, for reasons that are equally clear: primarily, Anthony's sexual politics.
With his first Xanth novel, 1977's A Spell for Chameleon, Anthony created a fairly typical high-fantasy swords-n-sorcery setting, a romanticized pre-industrial, high-feudal world filled with magic and barbarians and monsters and ghosts and elves and princesses and, y'know, fantasy stuff. Every human has a single, unique magical talent - one man can fly, another can change the color of his urine at will. These abilities range from the quotidian to the prodigiously powerful, and the country is ruled by those with the highest-calibre talents. Anthony twisted his bog-standard setting by literalizing word-play, filling his fantasy land with puns ranging from the light to the groan-inducing. Night mares, for example, are shadowy horses that bring bad dreams to sleepers, and bread grows on breadfruit trees. Anthony also uses his fantasy setting to comment (usually more groan-inducingly than lightly) on modern life: the hypno-gourd is a squash with a peephole; the peeper becomes hypnotized by the moving images inside the gourd and is rendered incapable of looking away, eventually starving to death (that is, if he doesn't lose his soul while trapped "inside" the uncanny vegetable.) Xanth exists side-by-side with Mundania, the miserable "real world" you and I, dreary Mundanes, inhabit.
For the purposes of this review, I've structured the Xanth series into three "epochs." The novels that make up each epoch are similar in terms of tone and content, and markedly different from those of the other epochs. They occur chronologically; the first epoch is made up of the first two novels, the second of novels three through nine, and the third from number ten forward.
The earliest two Xanth novels, A Spell for Chameleon and The Source of Magic, are fairly standard high fantasy, with dark overtones and exceedingly mature themes. Anthony lightens the series' tone considerably with the third installment, Castle Roogna (1979), ushering in the second epoch, but the books remain essentially conventional high-fantasy fluff, swords-n-punnery without a lot of metanarrative commentary. By Golem in the Gears (1986), however, it's clear that Anthony is gearing up for another stylistic shift (moving into the third epoch). Perhaps in part because he'd become aware that his readership was skewing very young, Anthony began to change his focus and tone, ramping up the metanarrative commentary and using older children and teens as main characters.
As a young reader, it's easy to read Xanth on one level, and one level only - literally. The hypno-gourd isn't a thinly-veiled metaphor for television, but simply another layer in a dense and fascinating fantasy world. So too can Anthony's much-ballyhooed icky sexual politics escape notice; when one isn't reading particularly critically, they're merely another set of rules propping up an interesting make-believe universe. It's no wonder I liked the novels... then.
The major problem I have with the Xanth novels now is how Anthony approaches the question of sex in the series. With Xanth, Anthony becomes fantasy's creepy uncle. The sexual politics of his world aren't remotely progressive; indeed, the first Xanth novel is one of the more appallingly sexist things I've ever read.* In the first two epochs, Anthony's female characters are super-sexualized no matter what age, though they're generally toothsome under-eighteens with sexy legs and quick-fire tempers (their intellects range from dumb to "bright"). They bounce and jiggle their way through their narratives, lusted after by every male character. It's gross because women don't really matter except as sex objects, and it's fucking creepy because they're teenagers, for fuck's sake. This how it always works in Xanth; all the young human girls are always super hot, and all male characters want to have sex with them, almost constantly. (Unless they're old or ugly No one wants to have sex with an old woman!) The ethical heroes probably wouldn't take advantage of a woman, but the baddies (evil sorcerers, peasants, barbarians, Mundanes, goblins, demons, etc.), without any sort of ethical hangups, have no problem trying. The result is a series of novels wherein the threat of rape is a constant feature.
In the Xanth novels following the tonal shift of Golem in the Gears there is less threatened rape.** But Anthony's problematic sexual politics don't disappear; instead, they too transform. As he decreases the age of the male protagonists, he sublimates their urge to have sex, coralling sexual desire under the aegis of a concept he terms "the Adult Conspiracy." As a fuction of the Adult Conspiracy, sexually immature characters are obsessed with seeing each other naked, without understanding why they want to. Post Golem in the Gears, the Xanth novels primarily stop featuring adult main characters in favor of teenagers and older children. Which gives Anthony free reign to write teenaged male characters who are obsessed with spying on naked teenaged girls. It's a lateral move from sexualizing naked teen girls to fetishizing naked teen girls, and still creepy.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2, when we actually review Man from Mundania!
* That's the one where Chameleon's magic talent is that she shifts between beautiful/stupid and ugly/smart over the course of a month. She has no control over her talent, which is acutally a fundamental aspect of her being. Also, it's not a talent but a "curse." Geddit? Do you? Girls menstruate. And when they menstruate, they're ugly, unshaggable and bitchy.
** Oh, there's still the threat of rape in the third epoch novels. There's just a little less of it.
First epoch: high fantasy with puns. Fairly mature and dark. Exceedingly sexist.
A Spell for Chameleon, The Source of Magic
Second epoch: high fantasy with puns, but far lighter and more playful in tone and content. Sexual politics now a little jokier, though still very icky.
Castle Roogna, Centaur Aisle, Ogre Ogre, Night Mare, Dragon on a Pedestal, Crewel Lye, Golem in the Gears
Third epoch: Most of the high fantasy elements are gone. The narratives feature younger and more immature characters with winkingly contemporary concerns. Sexism has gone from dark to cutsey.
Vale of the Vole forward.
There are probably more epochs, but I gave up reading Xanth novels at The Color of her Panties. Possibly because I didn't to be seen in public reading a novel called The Color of her Panties. Or possibly because I simply didn't want to read a novel called The Color of her Panties.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2!