Return of the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

I am watching this one on DVD, which means I’m getting all the digital enhancements George Lucas could not resist. By the way, have I mentioned yet that I love the opening credits? It wouldn’t work for most cinema, but in Star Wars it’s like getting a Galactic newsreel before the movie starts, and means the actual characters can get straight to the action because we know what’s going on.

After the destruction of the Death Star, imperial forces have redoubled their efforts to crush the Rebellion. Darth Vader’s obsessive interest in Luke Skywalker has made him a prime target and so Luke, together with a small group of rebels, have gone to ground on the remote and inhospitably icy planet of Hoth. They use a native species called tauntauns for transport in the difficult terrain. Luke is riding one in a reconnaissance mission – he is now Commander Luke – when he sees an imperial probe land in the snow on a nearby ridge. He mistakes it for a meteorite, but goes to check it out anyway and is attacked by a huge white-furred predator called a wampa. It kills his tauntaun and hauls Luke back to its den.

Han, also out on recon, gets back to base safely. The Falcon has been damaged and Chewbacca, doing the bulk of the repair work, is prickly and frazzled. He and Han intend to leave Hoth and the entire rebellion as soon as the repairs are done; Han has a price on his head until he pays off a debt to Jabba the Hutt, and he never planned on becoming a freedom fighter anyway, but Leia is deeply disappointed in him. She gives him chilly sideways looks until he comes over to say goodbye.

He’s decided she fancies him, probably so that he can pretend he’s not crushing hard on her. She’s trying to overthrow a dictatorship and can’t believe he’s running out on her when the Rebellion needs help so badly. They yell at each other in the middle of the corridor while Rebellion personnel edge tactfully around them, clearly used to this sort of thing.

It’s possible Chewie doesn’t share Han’s desire to get away, because he’s gone and taken apart some key components of the ship behind Han’s back. Which means Han is still there when Leia sends C3-PO and R2-D2 as her go-betweens to tell Han that Luke is missing. Han immediately hits papa bear levels of anxious and goes out into the tundra to find Luke himself, despite the onset of nightfall and the rapidly dropping temperature. It’s lucky he does, because Luke is in deep trouble. He’s been hung upside down from the cavern roof in the wampa’s lair while it devours his poor tauntaun, his lightsaber stuck in a snowdrift just out of reach. Drawing on the Force, he pulls it into his hand just in time to cut himself down and disable the wampa before it tears him apart too. So he’s not going to get eaten, but the odds look good that he’ll freeze to death.

The temperature drops so low that the shield doors of the base have to be closed. Leia is quietly frantic. Chewbacca is less quietly frantic. R2-D2 and C3-PO make dire and quite unhelpful predictions. Lost out in the snow, Luke has a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who tells him to go to the Dagobah system to learn the ways of the Force from a Jedi Master called Yoda. Luke is currently a bit more interested in just staying alive, but fortunately Han shows up at that moment. Less fortunately, definitely for the tauntaun, Han’s mount keels over, killed by the cold. Han cuts the poor beast open to push the now mildly delirious Luke into its innards, which is revolting but means he’ll keep warm enough overnight to survive.

The next morning, rebel pilots go out to search for the missing men and bring them back to base. Luke is given medical treatment and gets a stream of anxious visitors, but Han and Leia predictably make the whole thing about their – whatever their relationship is and Leia tries to drive home the point that she is not interested in Han by grabbing and kissing a very surprised Luke. It’s not like Luke objects, he smirks at Han afterwards, but this is so uncomfortable to watch. When did Lucas decide to make those two siblings, before or after he decided to have them kiss?

Also, unrelated, Han’s pick-up lines are really bad. Chewie finds the whole thing hilarious.

An imperial code is picked up, transmitting from Hoth. Han goes to check it out and the probe self-destructs at his first shot. The rebels prepare to evacuate, but a fleet of Star Destroyers are already on their way, led by Darth Vader himself. It’s clear that everyone aboard the command ship is weirded out by Vader and his Force-induced hunches, but when he doesn’t agree with a general’s attack strategies he’s prone to choking them to death from the other side of a communication screen, so it’s safer to keep your opinions to yourself.

Han and Chewbacca are still trying to fix up the Falcon when Luke passes by underneath to say goodbye. There are enough lingering looks in this scene alone to justify the Luke/Han slash out there, and to make me doubly irritated that Luke and Leia are related because this would make a perfect OT3 (that’s fanfiction talk for a three-way relationship, incidentally). Leia is busy prepping her pilots on how to get out in one piece – the rebels have ion cannons and a powerful energy shield, but that’s not much against an imperial fleet. Whoever makes it out will meet up at the rendevous point. The first rebel transport gets away but on the ground, Vader has sent in AT-ATs, war machines so big their movement makes the ground shake. Luke is among the pilots sent out to deal with them.

Side note: the imperial commander leading the AT-AT assault? That actor played the last of the Jagaroth in the Doctor Who story City of Death. The more you know!

Leia won’t leave with the rest of the evacuees, running communications with a skeleton staff until Han comes to physically pull her away. The energy shield is hit and the base starts to collapse. Vader and his stormtroopers sweep through the tunnels and the Falcon gets airborne just in time, propelled by Han’s persistence. But the repairs were not completed; the Falcon can’t make the jump to lightspeed. There’s a fleet of tie-fighters on its trail and an asteroid field dead ahead. Given the choice of literal rocks and a hard place, Han goes with the asteroid field.

Leia is very, very unimpressed. Han’s pick-up lines remain terrible.

Meanwhile, having done all he can on the battlefield, Luke takes off on his own to follow Ghosty-Wan’s directions. He lands in the middle of a swamp on Dagobah. He won’t be getting his ship out of there again in a hurry, and now he’s soaked to the skin on a mildly inhospitable planet with swamp creatures that want to eat his droid. R2-D2 is very, very unimpressed.

Luke glumly sets up camp with what supplies he can salvage. He’s quick to pull his gun when an unexpected visitor appears. It’s a little green person in a robe who mocks everything Luke says, which is fair, because Luke is being a bit snobbish. “I’m looking for a great warrior,” he tells his visitor, who pokes around Luke’s things and aggravates R2. “I’m looking for a Jedi Master!” Luke adds, exasperated. That gets more of a reaction. He is led to a little hovel in the swamp, where he is fed stew and told to be more patient.

The Falcon is hidden in one of the larger asteroids while C3-PO talks to it, ascertaining exactly what repairs are needed for a jump to lightspeed. Han finds Leia irritably working in a nook of the ship and starts needling her again, like he just can’t help himself. “Admit it, sometimes you think I’m all right,” he tries. She grudgingly acknowledges he has his moments, but calls him a scoundrel. He takes that as a compliment, and takes her hand too. “I happen to like nice men,” she says, not sounding too sure about it, and he responds with, “I’m nice,” before kissing her. C3-PO ruins the moment by barging in with news on the repair work and Leia walks out, unwilling to add her complicated feelings for Han to the very long list of things she has to deal with.

Vader is ordered to make contact with his Master. This is the first time that the Emperor appears in person in the original trilogy and he doesn’t do idle chatter. He, too, has sensed the disturbance in the Force and is confident enough in his grip on Vader to theorise that Luke is ‘the offspring of Anakin Skywalker’. The Emperor is determined to get rid of Luke before he becomes a Jedi. Vader wants to turn him to the Dark Side, and gets permission to try.

Luke, meanwhile, is sick of his host’s giggly non-answers and throws down his bowl in exasperation. The facade of silliness suddenly drops. Yoda was testing his patience, and Luke just failed. Which is unfair, I think, because Yoda hasn’t fought in this war for a long time – Luke is a key player in the Rebellion and his time is measured in other people’s risks. Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice stands up for Luke. “For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi,” Yoda snaps, not remotely disconcerted at arguing with a ghost. He critiques Luke’s age, his reckless streak, his restlessness, while Obi-Wan inserts gentle phantasmic rebuttals to each argument. “I’m not afraid!” Luke says at last, desperate. Yoda turns a very unpleasant look on him and promises, “You will be.”

In that moment, you can see him remembering the frightened little boy who was ‘too old’ for training, and hating Luke at least a little bit for it. Yoda was never as serene as he thought he was.

Yoda’s ‘training’ involves yelling into Luke’s ear about the consuming tendencies of the Dark Side while Luke carries him around the swamp like a grumpy green backpack. “There is no why,” Yoda informs him, which explains everything that went wrong with the Jedi Temple, ever. ‘Do or do not, there is no try’ is also a really crappy philosophy. Getting fed up with Luke’s perfectly reasonable questions, Yoda sends him into a corner of the swamp where the Dark Side of the Force is very strong. Luke sees an alarmingly convincing vision of Darth Vader there, duels with it and beheads it, only to see his own face under the helmet.

In the asteroid field, Leia sees something pass outside the cockpit window and goes out into the cave with Han and Chewie to find out what they’re dealing with. The ground is wet and unstable. There are winged rodent-type things called mynocks attached to the hull, but the real problem is that they’re not in a cave at all – it’s the mouth of a giant space monster. They’re lucky to get out of there alive.

Vader has other plans for catching them, however. He calls together a gang of bounty hunters to track down the occupants of the Falcon, his only stipulation being that they are brought in alive. “No disintegrations,” he says chidingly to Boba Fett, like maybe they’ve had this talk before. This being a post-prequels edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Fett has been dubbed over to match the New Zealand accent given to his childhood self in Attack of the Clones.

Hiring the bounty hunters looks like wasted effort, since the Falcon still can’t jump to lightspeed and a Star Destroyer is right on its tail. Showing just how sneaky he really is, Han turns around and lands on the Destroyer’s hull, going undetected. Leia is a bit impressed. The Falcon floats away when the Destroyer dumps its garbage, undetected. Han decides to go to ground with an old gambling buddy, Lando Calrissian, who runs a mining colony called Cloud City.

Yoda is back to Force aerobics but Luke is more worried about his ship sinking irretrievably into the swamp. Instructed to pull it out with the Force, Luke manages to draw out part of the wing before it’s too much for him; exhausted and frustrated, he walks away from Yoda’s lecture, only to see Yoda lift the ship free of the water and bring it to land with his mastery of the Force. Well, he only has nine hundred years of experience! More experimentation gives Luke a better grasp on the ability, but his more receptive mental state brings him a vision of the future and a sudden fear for Han and Leia’s safety.

Han doesn’t get a warm welcome on Cloud City. They are escorted in to land by security spacecraft and there’s an ominous pause before Lando comes storming out wearing a jaunty blue cape and a grudge. Turns out, the Falcon was originally his before he lost it to Han in a bet. He then dismisses the whole thing with a laugh, hauling Han into a hug, greeting Chewbacca cheerfully and hitting on Leia. She’s quite amused by Han’s reaction. As they walk through the city complex, Han and Lando catch up but C3-PO wanders off and gets shot. Only Chewbacca notices his absence, because Chewbacca is the best, but the pieces of C3-PO are swiftly concealed before he can find them.

Luke is leaving Dagobah, driven by worry for his friends. Yoda tries to convince him to stay and the ghost of Obi-Wan returns to make the same argument. Both are afraid that Luke will be captured by the Emperor if he leaves now and do not believe he is strong enough to take on Vader, but Luke promises to return when he can and goes to save his friends. Yoda bitterly remarks to Obi-Wan that all Luke’s training has only made the situation worse; Obi-Wan points out the dearth of other options, but Yoda only replies, “There is another.”

This scene makes it clear that they both fully expected Luke to quietly study on Dagobah after receiving a warning that his friends, basically his family at this point, were in immediate danger. Yoda may be an extraordinary master of the Force, but he sucks at all things emotional. As for Obi-Wan, he really should have known better.

Meanwhile, on Cloud City, Lando continues to flirt with Leia via a fresh and elegant new outfit (I assume he gave it to her, it’s not like she’s had time to go shopping) and has his people complete the Falcon’s repairs. Han is in a great mood. Leia isn’t.

“Something’s wrong here,” she says angrily the second Han comes near her. “No one has seen or knows anything about 3PO. He’s been gone too long to have gotten lost.” Leia is also the best. Han attempts to calm her down with a kiss on the forehead and assures her he’ll talk to Lando before they leave, but she does not trust Lando and when they do leave, Leia is returning to the Rebellion – and Han isn’t.

While this conversation is happening, Chewbacca is ransacking a scrapyard and finds C3-PO’s dismembered body on a conveyer belt. He bundles all the pieces up, despite the proprieter’s objections, and takes them back to the others. Lando arrives while Leia is fuming; he gets her chilly politician face, but she’s too polite to refuse his invitation to refreshments. Or maybe she’s just hungry. Who knows what the kitchen on the Falcon is like.

On the way, Lando explains that Cloud City is too small to attract the interest of the Empire and is not a part of the Mining Guild, flying under the radar as much as it can. So all that about him being a stable and responsible citizen these days is a total front. “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever,” he tells Han. The next pair of doors they go through lead into a banquet hall, where Darth Vader is waiting.

Han shoots him. Well, tries. Vader Force-yanks the gun out of his hands and Boba Fett emerges along with a squad of stormtroopers to surrounded the rebels. Lando admits, bleakly, that the imperial forces arrived just before Han did. While it’s a terrible betrayal, Lando has a lot of people to protect – an old gambling buddy and a group of strangers are the sacrifice he’s prepared to make. Han understands that. He takes Leia’s hand and they face Vader together.

Chewbacca is imprisoned in a cage thing with the bits of C3-PO and he distracts himself by starting repairs. I love him so much. Han receives nastier treatment; he’s tortured while Lando paces unhappily outside. Boba Fett, also listening to the screams, wants to take Han to Tattooine, where Jabba the Hutt still has a bounty on him, and he’s unconvinced Han will still be alive once Vader is done with him. It’s the first Lando’s heard of that arrangement, but honestly, what was he expecting to happen? That Vader would have everyone sit down for an actual civilised lunch? Though Lando is angry and ashamed, he knows better than to confront Vader directly.

When the torturers are finished with him, Han is thrown into the cell with Chewbacca and Leia is pushed in behind him. “They never even asked me any questions,” Han says dazedly, while the other two hover over him anxiously. Lando comes in to pass on the deal he’s made: though Han will be taken by Boba Fett, Leia and Chewbacca will stay on Cloud City under arrest. He’s heard that Vader is really after ‘someone called Skywalker’. Han’s torture was just bait to draw Luke in. That knowledge is enough to shift Han from grim resignation to hazy rage and he punches Lando, whose security immediately lay into him. Lando calls them off and leaves.

Vader is preparing a carbon freezing chamber with the intention of incapacitating Luke for transport back to the Emperor. It’s an unexpectedly level-headed plan from him; a human statue can’t pull unexpected tricks, the way Luke always does. To be sure that the basic facility available on Cloud City won’t damage Luke permanently, Vader even organises a test run first…on Han. Boba Fett is assured compensation if it doesn’t work out.

Chewbacca tries to fight back. Han shouts him down, begging him to stop, to save his fight for protecting Leia. She moves to Chewie’s side and gives Han one last kiss before he’s dragged away. “I love you,” she tells him. “I know,” he tells her sadly, and keeps his eyes on her as he’s lowered into the freezing chamber. Chewie howls his despair as the fumes rise. When Han emerges from the chamber, he is frozen in carbonite like the effigy on a tomb. He’s survived the process and is in hibernation; there is nothing anyone can do as Boba Fett takes him away. Hearing that Luke has just landed, Vader orders the chamber be reset and breaks his deal with Lando, demanding that Leia and Chewbacca be taken to his own ship.

When Luke makes his way into Cloud City and a battle is staged to lure him in, Leia screams “it’s a trap!” as she’s dragged away. He proceeds with caution. Vader appears before him in the carbon freezing chamber and Luke faces him, lightsaber drawn. Vader’s first attack is more experimental than anything, testing Luke’s abilities. After all, Vader is a master of this weapon. But he has one huge weakness: he’s a terrible judge of people. Lando is a deal-making, rule-breaking, loophole-finding type of a man, and he bends his morals where necessary, but after seeing the atrocities of the Empire up close and personal, he won’t be a party to this any more. He arranges an ambush with his personal security, whisking away Leia and Chewbacca before they reach Vader’s ship.

The second Chewbacca’s restraints are removed, he attempts to throttle Lando and Leia all but cheers him on. Lando manages to choke out directions, offering a chance at stopping Boba Fett before he leaves with Han, and Chewbacca reluctantly releases him. On the frantic dash across the city, the Falcon crew are joined by R2, who got left behind when Luke met with Vader. C3-PO, strapped to Chewie’s back, rapidly catches R2 up on recent events.

They do not arrive in time to rescue Han; now all they can do is rescue themselves. Lando sends out a warning across the city, advising his people to get out before the Empire takes full control, then he leads the way to where the Falcon is docked. R2 accesses city security to engineer an escape route. Pursued by stormtroopers, they take off.

Luke is losing his duel. The lightsaber skitters out of his hand and he’s edged into the carbon freezing chamber, but he’s learned a few useful tricks from Yoda and levitates straight out again, retrieving his weapon. Vader goads him, telling him to release his anger. He uses the Force to hurl heavy debris at Luke and by the time they return to hand-to-hand fighting, Luke is in very bad shape. They have moved onto a walkway, a precarious place for a sword fight. Vader corners Luke and in one easy stroke, slices off his hand.

He thinks this is an appropriate time to remind Luke of his potential and the awesome career he could have with the Dark Side, like a sadistic guidance counsellor. He offers to complete Luke’s training so that they can bring order to the galaxy together. “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father,” he says, deceptively mild. “I am your father.” Luke is devastated. Vader pushes his advantage. If Luke joins with him, they could take down the Emperor together. The perfect family bonding activity!

Luke chooses to fall instead, down the endless chute at the centre of the city. He winds up hanging off a weather vane, seriously wounded, bitterly cold, emotionally wrecked and alone. In his extremity, he reaches out to Leia with the Force. She asks Chewbacca to turn back and search, disregarding the danger; Chewbacca snarls at Lando when he protests and follows Leia’s directions. They collect Luke just before he falls.

Leia takes him to the Falcon’s somewhat crude medical bay and returns to the cockpit, where Chewbacca and Lando have just discovered that the hyperdrive still isn’t working. Lando yells that it’s not his fault. Chewbacca bellows what’s probably a really foul-mouthed insult in Wookiee. Leia is beyond fed up. It genuinely isn’t Lando’s fault, though, Vader’s people disabled the hyperdrive as a precaution and the Falcon tells R2-D2 so. I love that scrappy, argumentative little R2 gets along better with Han’s ship than C3-PO.

Luke staggers into the cockpit, looking like the walking dead. Vader is talking to him through the Force, insisting that it is DESTINY for them to work together. The Falcon is almost in range of Vader’s tractor beam, but R2 reactivates the hypderdrive in time and the Falcon disappears. Everyone on board the imperial Star Destroyer cringes as the thwarted Vader stalks away.

From there, the Falcon heads for a proper medical facility where Luke’s injuries can be treated. Leia stays with him. Lando changes into what looks like Han’s second favourite outfit and arranges with Luke and Leia to rendevous on Tattooine. Chewie appears to have got over Lando’s betrayal; for the time it takes to find Han, anyway. A robotic hand now fitted to his wrist, Luke comes over to stand with Leia as she looks out into space. They’ve taken losses, but they’ve got each other. That is a combination not to be messed with.

I have doubts about all the parallels drawn between the original trilogy and the prequels. Did severed hands really have to run in the family? What all those lines of correlation do, though, is really drive home the differences between Vader and Luke. Even as Anakin Skywalker, Vader could not handle defeat and his response to painful revelations was catastrophic. He had so few genuinely beloved people in his life that he put each of them on a pedestal of mixed love and awe, and the prospect of losing any of them shook him with an almost existential terror. Luke is not like that. He grew up in a stable home where his personhood was respected and his abilities were nurtured instead of exploited. He makes friends easily and accepts his loved ones for who they are; even while he’s dealing with his own emotional crisis, he lends what support he can to Leia, and she gives what she can in return. And neither Luke nor Leia have it in them to just give up.

Review – The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club – Genevieve Valentine

Washington Square Press, 2014

In a 1920s speakeasy, where people of all creeds and classes come for illegal liquor and scandalous dancing, it’s not uncommon to leave your name at the door. All anyone knows about the ‘Princesses’ is that they’ll dance all night, and they’re not to be crossed. The twelve girls are a beautiful, wild enigma. The eldest sister, Jo, has worked hard to keep it that way. If the truth ever came out, it would destroy their fragile freedom. But how long can she hold it all in balance?

I think I may have read more retellings of ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ over the past few years than any other fairy tale, and have written one myself, so it is a story I have particularly strong opinions about. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club lived up to all my expectations. It’s tightly woven and beautifully written, with a bittersweet, dreamlike atmosphere. I have a particular love for retellings that successfully relocate the story to an entirely different time and place, and 1920s New York was an incredible fit for this one. Working with a necessarily large cast of characters, Valentine managed to give each sister a strong individuality, as well as fleshing out a group of fully formed secondary characters in what’s really quite a short book. I did not want to put it down; it’s one of the best fairy tale retellings I’ve ever read, and I know I’ll read it again.

Ladies of Legend: Ragnell and Lyonet

References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, originally published in 1907) by Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005) by Howard Pyle, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Introduction (from Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, 1995, taken from the University of Rochester website) by Thomas Hahn,,, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin

When I was growing up, I read two books that introduced me to a pair of remarkable women at King Arthur’s court, and I’ve never forgotten them. The first was a picture book called Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady (Walker Books Ltd., 1987) by Selina Hastings, vividly illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. The second is The deeds of the nameless knight (Ladybird Books Ltd., 1977) by Desmond Dunkerley and illustrated by Robert Ayton. There is a certain undeniable romance to the imagery of a knight in shining armour, but up close and personal it can be quite a lot more complicated, and these stories are about women who knew that better than anyone.

The ‘loathly lady’ is a folkloric archetype present in several Arthurian stories, but it takes centre stage in a ballad called ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’ (also spelled Ragnelle) that survived to the present day in a 16th century manuscript. In this ballad, King Arthur goes out into Inglewood to hunt with his knights but leaves them behind in the pursuit of a fine hart. He succeeds in catching and killing it, only to be caught and threatened with death himself by the vengeful Sir Gromer-Somer Joure, whose lands were given over to Arthur’s nephew Gawain in what admittedly does sound a lot like nepotism. Unarmed, Arthur tries to negotiate with promises of redress, but Gromer-Somer Joure instead sets him a challenge. Arthur must return to Inglewood in twelve months time with the answer to a riddle: what do women everywhere love best? If Arthur has no solution, he will lose his head.

Gromer-Somer Joure is obviously one of those men who believes women possess a hive-mind. His plan hinges upon Arthur’s cast-iron sense of chivalry; once the challenge is accepted, the king can’t simply show up for the meeting with an ambush of knights to ensure it goes his way. He returns to his court at Carlisle in such a low mood that Gawain insists on knowing what is troubling him. He takes an optimistic view of the bargain Arthur has made. At his suggestion, the two men ride off in different directions to try out the riddle on everyone they meet, and compare notes afterwards. Some people think that what women want most is beautiful clothes, while others claim it is courtship or affection, but Arthur is not satisfied with those answers. He decides to return to Inglewood, in the hope of finding some clue.

I don’t know what he was hoping to find, but what he gets is a woman on a white horse, who gives every appearance of having been waiting for him.

According to the translation of the ballad from Medieval Forum (a translation which is taken from Middle English Romances, edited by Stephen H. A. Shepherd) the lady’s face is “red and covered with snot, her mouth huge, and all her teeth yellow, hanging over her lips. Her bleary eyes were greater than a ball, and her cheeks were as broad as women’s hips. She had a hump on her back, her neck was long and thick, and her hair clotted into a heap. She was made like a barrel, with shoulders a yard wide and hanging breasts that were large enough to be a horse’s load. No tongue can tell of the foulness and ugliness of that lady.” Later she is described as having “two teeth on each side like boar tusks the span of a hand: one went up, the other down. Her wide, foul mouth was covered with grey hairs and her lips lay lumped on her chin; no neck could be seen.”

She may not have beauty, but she has plenty of confidence. She offers Arthur the answer to his riddle in return for the promise that Sir Gawain will be her husband. “I am not wicked!” she assures Arthur, but he is deeply unhappy about the whole business and can make no guarantee beyond appealing to his nephew – and while he trusts Gawain will want to help him, he does not want to foist so unappealing a bride on him. “Sir King,” the woman responds, “though I am foul, even an owl may choose its mate. I’ll say no more. I will meet you here when you have made your decision, or else I believe you are lost.”

Farewell, lady foul,” Arthur says bitterly as he turns for Carlisle. “Yes, sir,” she retorts, “there is a bird men call an owl, yet I am a lady.” In medieval bestiaries, the owl is the harbinger of death, making this statement less than comforting. She tells him that her name is Dame Ragnell, ‘who has never yet beguiled man’, a statement I shall assume indicates virginity, though it could also be another attempt at reassurance regarding her motives.

If so, it doesn’t help. Arthur returns to Carlisle feeling trapped and borderline suicidal, but when he tells Gawain of the offer, Gawain replies at once that he would wed Ragnell were she ‘a fiend, or as foul as Beelzebub’ in order to save his king. Arthur goes back to Inglewood less than a week later to accept Ragnell’s terms, with phrasing that emphasises the sexual coercion she has demanded (‘you shall have your desire in the bedchamber and in bed’). It’s a reasonable view to take – Gawain’s consent comes under significant duress, after all – but Ragnell is a woman of her word.

Sir, you will now know, without digression, what women of all degrees want most,” she tells Arthur. “Some men say we desire to be beautiful and that we want to consort with diverse strange men; also we love lust in bed and often wish to wed. Thus men misunderstand women. Another idea they have is that we want to be seen as young and fresh, not old, and that women can be won through flattery and clever ploys. In truth, you act foolishly. The one thing that we desire of men above all else is to have complete sovereignty, so that all is ours. We use our skill to gain mastery over the most fierce, victorious and manly of knights. So go on your way and tell this to the knight, who will be angry and curse the one who taught it to you, for his labour is lost. I assure you that your life is now safe, and remember your promise.”

Arthur goes to meet Sir Gromer, but instead of giving Ragnell’s answer right away, he hands over the massive accumulation of answers collected from around the countryside. If the right one is in there somewhere, Gawain need not marry Ragnell. This hope is in vain. Gromer reaches for his sword and Arthur, despairing, hurls out his last shot. “Here is what all women desire above all things of men…sovereignty, the rule of the manliest men. Then they are happy (so they have taught me) – to rule you, Sir Gromer.”

Burn. Which is literally how Gromer responds. “I hope that she who told you burns in a fire, the old nag,” he snarls, “for she was my sister, Dame Ragnell.” His own rules leave him no choice but to let Arthur go. The king meets Ragnell on his return journey and she reminds him of the marriage he promised her. No small wedding will do, either, and she’s not letting him out of her sight until the vows have been spoken. She enters the court at his side, insisting Gawain be brought to her at once.

The couple are soon betrothed. Looking on, the king and queen and all their court tactlessly bemoan Gawain’s fate. Guinevere tries to talk Ragnell into a quiet, early morning ceremony but Ragnell is set on marrying in the church before everybody and celebrating with a court feast, and her crimson wedding clothes are even finer than the queen’s. She also insists that all the ladies of the surrounding country attend the ceremony. Afterwards, she is seated at the high table and eats enough for six people, using her long nails to tear apart the food. Everyone is shocked at her uncouth manners, but she ploughs on calmly until the end of the meal, when she retires with her new husband to their bedchamber.

Gawain has his back to her when she speaks to him directly for the first time in the ballad. “Since we are married, show me your courtesy in bed,” she says. “…If I were beautiful, you would do differently…But for Arthur’s sake, kiss me at least. I pray you honour my request; show me how you can do.”

He turns around, determined to fulfill his vows, and finds a beautiful woman he doesn’t even recognise sitting on the bed. She lightly mocks his confusion; it is, of course, Ragnell. In this form he kisses her with enthusiasm, but she soon interrupts. “Sir, you must make a choice, as my beauty will not last. You may have me fair at night and foul at day in everyone’s sight, or fair during the day and foul at night. You must choose one or the other; which would you prefer to save your honor?”

Gawain is torn. Unable to decide which course would be best, he leaves it up to her. “Whatever you wish, I put it in your hand,” he tells her. “My body and goods, heart and every part of me is all your own to buy and sell, I vow before God.”

That is the right answer – a) because it’s not his body to make decisions about, and b) because it is the solution to Ragnell’s curse. She was enchanted by her necromancer stepmother to remain hideous until the best knight in England not only married her, but gave her rule over him. Which sounds pretty kinky, actually, especially when they spend the rest of the night ‘mak[ing] much joy’ (a.k.a., having excellent sex) and stay in bed until midday. By that point, Arthur grows concerned enough to come check on them. He fears that Ragnell has devoured his nephew; then Gawain opens the door to reveal Ragnell in her nightdress, red-gold hair falling down to her knees. “This is my wife, Dame Ragnell,” Gawain says smugly, “who once saved your life.” He tells her story, and interestingly it is Guinevere’s relief that is highlighted.

The wedding is celebrated all over again with considerably more gusto. Now that Ragnell has a pretty face, her deeds look good too. Guinevere declares her the most beautiful woman in the hall (a sentiment agreed upon by the queen’s ladies) and swears to love her forever for saving Arthur’s life. Ragnell sweetly promises her obedience to Gawain. As they’ve now promised obedience to each other, I’m not entirely sure how any disagreement in their marriage is going to get resolved, but they make it work. She gives birth to a boy, Gyngolyn, who later becomes a knight of the Round Table like his father, and becomes a fixture at court. Gawain is so besotted he gives up jousting to spend more time with her. Ragnell also convinces Arthur to reconcile with her brother, presumably returning Gromer’s lands.

Sadly, Ragnell lives only five years into her marriage. It’s unclear what she dies of, other than a narrative dead-end. She does not appear in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, though her brother and son both do. Howard Pyle’s adaptation of this story lets her live, but turns Gromer-Somer Joure into a sorcerer acting out of pure spite and Ragnell into a nameless Lady of the Lake, from the same faerie otherworld as Nimue. This version of Ragnell saw Gawain once upon a time and cooked up a plan to compel him into marriage. In this version, the ugliness is a disguise to test Gawain’s strength of character. Without the need to break a curse, her behaviour is alarmingly manipulative and her character a lot less likeable.

Gawain has four brothers, according to Le Morte d’Arthur. The youngest is Gareth. When it is his turn to go to Arthur’s court, he shows up unarmed where the court is in residence at Kynke Kenadonne, with a dwarf in his service and the bold request of three favours from the king without introducing himself or giving Arthur any reason to indulge him. Fortunately, Gareth is a) adorable, and b) good at timing, because Arthur considers no Pentecost feast complete without something strange and wonderful occurring, and Gareth’s demand for a year’s lodging at court fits the bill. Arthur agrees to give Gareth his way and leaves his seneschal Kay to handle the details.

Kay does not approve of Gareth. He sees him as a freeloader and nicknames him ‘Beaumains’, meaning ‘fair-hands’. Gawain doesn’t recognise his brother (exactly how long has it been since the last family reunion?) but takes Gareth’s side anyway. So does Lancelot, because his role in Le Morte d’Arthur is to be everybody’s big brother whether he’s related to them or not. Gareth refuses to accept more than Kay will grant him, however; he sleeps on the floor with the kitchen boys and bides his time.

He accompanies Arthur’s court to Carlion. At the feast of Whitsuntide, a young woman enters the great hall with a challenge for the knights: her sister’s castle is under siege from the Red Knight of the Red Lands and she is in desperate need of a champion. As the woman will give neither her name nor the name of her sister, she gets little interest from the court. Gareth is indignant on her behalf and comes forward to claim the quest. That counts as his second favour from Arthur. His third favour is asking for Lancelot to knight him. Realising she’s getting a kitchen boy when she needs a hero, the young woman storms out. Gareth puts on his own armour and follows her.

Kay follows him, as outraged as the lady, though with significantly pettier cause. He plans to teach Gareth a lesson by unhorsing him. Lancelot, who joins the veritable procession wending its way out of Carlion, watches as Gareth unhorses Kay, takes his shield and spear, and gives over Kay’s horse to the dwarf who accompanies him. Gareth even manages to hold his own against Lancelot in a subsequent joust, well enough that Lancelot would have to exert himself properly in order to win, which he is not willing to do. Assured that his identity will remain a secret, Gareth reveals his real name to Lancelot and is knighted by him.

That doesn’t impress the lady whose quest he has taken. She insults him thoroughly, but he follows her anyway. Gareth’s family is full of very persistent people and he is no exception. He comes upon a knight besieged by six thieves, all of whom Gareth overpowers; the grateful knight invites them to stay the night in his castle and the lady insults her unwanted champion again by refusing to sit beside him. Gareth fights again when challenged by two violent knights at a river crossing, a victory the lady ingeniously passes off as luck. It’s rather harder to ignore Gareth’s skill when he kills Sir Percard of the Black Lands and claims his armour, but the lady can certainly disapprove of his actions. And loudly express her utter exasperation that this boy will not go away.

This is adventurous country, ruled by another large family of brothers. Gareth’s next opponent is Sir Pertolepe of the Green Lands, and Gareth only spares his life when the lady very grudgingly asks for his mercy. In an astonishing display of ‘no hard feelings!’, the defeated knight puts them up for the evening and once again the lady will not sit with Gareth. She warns him that they are soon to travel through the Pass Perilous and he should turn back while he still can. He politely refuses. Gareth is always scrupulously polite with her, and she is always abominably rude. This hot temper leads Malory to call her ‘the savage damsel’.

They come to a tower owned by Sir Perimones, yet another brother of the Black Knight. The lady hopes that this time Gareth will be defeated, but no such luck. She’s once again obliged to ask mercy on behalf of his opponent and makes up for her disappointment by redoubling her efforts to take the gold medal of bad manners off Sir Kay. She leads the way to the city of, yep, ANOTHER BROTHER, this family is vast, where she pokes at Gareth with doubts about his strength. He remains courteous and calm. Suddenly, the lady’s vicious bravado crumbles. She apologises for her jibes. Gareth tells her “all your evil words pleased me”, like the beautifully trained prince that he is.

I shipped these two so hard when I first encountered this story, you have no idea. Alfred Tennyson did too, in his poem Gareth and Lynette.

Gareth fights Sir Persant on general principle. It takes him a little longer to get the upper hand but he wins this battle too and the lady asks for Persant’s life without nudging. Progress! Like the other brothers, Persant offers hospitality in defeat. He also sends his eighteen-year-old daughter to Gareth’s bed to see what kind of a man he’s dealing with, which is just hideously creepy. Gareth wakes up in confusion, asking for his unexpected visitor’s name and marital status. Learning that she did not come to him of her own free will, he is appalled at her father’s behaviour, kisses her kindly and sends her away.

It turns out that Persant, terrible parenting aside, is at least better acquainted with the local nobility than his brothers. He knows the lady travelling with Gareth – her name is Linet, and her sister is Lady Liones of the Castle Dangerous. I’m going to use the alternative spellings of their names, Lyonet and Lyonesse. They have a brother called Gringamore who will not appear until later, and a niece called Laurel who is presumably his daughter. Just so you know, I shall be calling this the Dangerous family, because they kind of are.

Persant is aware that the Castle Dangerous has been under attack for two years, a siege deliberately extended so that the Red Knight can draw in more knights to humiliate and destroy, but is unwilling to extend any help himself. Gareth is horrified to discover the bodies of the Red Knight’s defeated opponents hung in the trees around Lyonesse’s castle, a goad and a warning to all newcomers. Not to mention a reminder to the besieged citizens of exactly how much peril they are in. He proves once more that he is a goddamn prince by sending his servant to alert Lyonesse to the arrival of a new champion and she sends the travellers to a nearby hermitage where they can rest in safety.

Lyonet warns Gareth not to enter into a fight until noon, as the Red Knight only gets stronger over the course of the day. It’s an interestingly similar gift to Gareth’s brother Gawain, who grows stronger through a specific set of hours during the morning. Unafraid, Gareth insists on fighting anyway.

Lyonet points out her sister standing at a window in the castle and even at that distance Gareth is struck by Lyonesse’s beauty. The Red Knight takes objection to his staring, claiming Lyonesse as his lady; Gareth sharply points out that Lyonesse obviously disagrees. The ensuing battle is brutal. It goes on all day, stretching out beyond the point of exhaustion. Gareth takes strength from Lyonesse’s beauty, but it’s Lyonet’s well-timed jab of loud mockery that gives him the energy to win the battle.

Of course, the Red Knight immediately produces a sob story about a girl he once loved whose brother was killed by Gawain or Lancelot (he doesn’t even know which one) and he insists this siege was all about getting revenge for her. Gareth places the decision about his fate in Lyonesse’s hands. The Red Knight, whose real name is Sir Ironside, is permitted to keep his life, but ordered to make amends and to beg forgiveness from the knights he wanted to harm.

With the siege finally ended, Lyonet tends Gareth’s injuries and even Ironside’s, which is very generous of her under the circumstances. Once he’s been cleaned up, Gareth goes to speak to Lyonesse, but she has pulled up her drawbridge. Every bit as prickly as her sister, she will not have him as her own until he’s spent a year proving himself to be a great knight. Hurt and confused, Gareth takes shelter in a cottage in the woods – but worse is still to come. I did say these siblings were Dangerous. Lyonesse sends her brother to kidnap Gareth’s servant so that they can question him and ascertain Gareth’s identity. The servant doesn’t go quietly, waking Gareth, who pursues Gringamore to his castle but not in time to pursue him inside.

The servant is menaced by the Dangerous sisters. He tells them everything they want to know about Gareth’s heritage, and also warns them that Gareth won’t leave until he’s been rescued. Lyonesse instructs her brother to let Gareth in, to placate him with feasting and revelry. Gringamore is supportive of his sister’s love life and happy to let her play out her weird games, including a brief attempt at pretending she’s somebody else. That plan doesn’t even last until the end of the evening; after spending a bit of time with Gareth, Lyonesse realises that he’s a delight and they are betrothed on the spot.

She promises to come to his bed later on, and Lyonet’s sense of propriety is offended. She employs ‘subtle crafts’ – a phrase that here evidently means serious sorcery – to conjure a mannikin knight, sending it to interrupt her sister’s rendevous by stabbing Gareth in the leg. He beheads the knight but passes out from loss of blood. Gringamore is shocked by the incident; Lyonet calmly puts her creature back together and shows no remorse whatsoever. The same thing happens the next time Lyonesse attempts to sleep with her fiance, causing Gareth to reopen the original wound.

Meanwhile, all Gareth’s defeated opponents have shown up at Arthur’s court to swear their loyalty, causing quite a stir. An even bigger stir is raised when Gareth’s mother arrives to find out how her youngest boy is doing. On finding out that her eldest son didn’t recognise his little brother, and that Arthur let Gareth go haring off on a ridiculous quest with a girl who wouldn’t give her name, Morgause is righteously furious. Then she hears Kay’s nickname for Gareth and remarks crisply that her son is ‘fair-handed’ – meaning just and good-hearted – indeed. It’s very awkward for pretty much everyone who is not Morgause.

Arthur does know who the women involved in this quest are now, thanks to the parade of defeated knights. He sends for Lyonesse. Her response is to invite him and his court to a grand tournament at the Castle Dangerous. She provides no explanation for anything at all. Gareth is wild to compete and prove himself. Lyonet displays her unusual skill set once again by healing him with a highly effective salve, and as entrants begin to stream into the Dangerous lands, Lyonesse prepares him for battle.

She owns a ring with two remarkable properties: it can disguise the wearer, and ensures they will lose no blood. I don’t know what use Malory imagined a wealthy lady would have for such a ring, but it sounds like an excellent contraceptive device, and though she’s willing to loan it to her lover for the duration of the tournament, she wants it back afterwards.

Lancelot is among the arriving competitors. Magic ring notwithstanding, he recognises the boy he knighted and chooses not to joust with him, so as not to risk humiliating him in front of his lady. Gareth’s servant is less discreet. Wanting Gareth’s skill to be acknowledged by the rest of the tournament, he suggests Lyonesse’s ring be returned and Gareth hands it over, unthinking. Everyone can now see him as he is. Gareth handles this very maturely by going to hide in the forest.

He’s too tired to make it back to the castle and so takes shelter at the home of a duchess. She lets him in out of loyalty to King Arthur, though her husband does not share the sentiment. Among a number of adventures the next day, including the rescue of no less than thirty widows from a villainous Brown Knight, Gareth encounters and defeats the duke, sending him in penance to Arthur.

Straight afterwards another knight rides up to challenge Gareth. They fight with a surprising amount of ferocity for two people who have literally no idea who each other are. At last Lyonet rides up to them on a mule and orders the fight to a halt; the unknown knight is Gawain. Why is he riding around the countryside, picking fights with random people? Because he’s Gawain, and he is like that. Most of Arthur’s knights are, actually. The two brothers embrace and Lyonet patches Gareth up yet again. Just in time too, because Arthur and Morgause arrive on the scene next. Lyonet leaves them all to have a family reunion while she goes off to update her sister.

Hearing that Gareth wants to marry Lyonesse, Arthur offers his castle at Kynke Kenadonne to host the wedding. The Dangerous sisters are introduced to Gareth’s brothers and apparently Lyonet hits it off well enough with Gaheris that she marries him on Michaelmas Day, the same day Lyonesse marries Gareth. Another of Morgause’s sons, Agravaine, marries Lyonet’s niece Laurel. The only one of Morgause’s sons left unmarried by the end of the day is Mordred.

All the knights Gareth defeated show up at the wedding to offer their well-wishes and a tournament is held to celebrate, but Lyonesse doesn’t want her new husband jousting so she has Arthur disallow all married men from competing.

Ragnell, Lyonet and Lyonesse are all forceful, confident women who have an absolute certainty that they will get what they want. They are not always kind, but they are protective wives and true allies to those who earn their loyalty. It is a delight to me that they all become sisters-in-law, and I am convinced they would be very good friends.

Other wives and girlfriends of the Round Table include:

– Enid, the daughter of Earl Ynywl of Cardiff and wife of Sir Geraint. Her story comes from the Mabinogeon. Geraint pursued a knight who had insulted one of Guinevere’s ladies, and in defeating him, managed to restore the lost fortune of Enid’s father. Geraint took her to the court of King Arthur, where Guinevere welcomed her with open arms, dressed her in her own clothes and generally behaved like Enid was her long lost little sister. When Geraint was obliged to leave court to attend his father’s lands, Guinevere worried over what entourage to send with her favourite. By this point Geraint had made quite a name for himself both in battle and tournaments, and as he grew comfortable in his position, he spent much more time with his wife.

This inspired scorn from his court – shock! horror! A manly man choosing to spend time with his wife, whatever next! – and upon hearing the rumours as an accusation from her father-in-law, Enid wondered what she was supposed to do about it. Geraint heard her voice these concerns aloud and misinterpreted her anxiety as evidence of infidelity. He then dragged her off on a ridiculous quest along the most dangerous roads in his lands, forbidding her to speak to him and risking her actual life in confrontations with armed robbers, two lecherous earls and marauding giants. Enid was an obedient, peaceable woman, but quietly ignored her husband’s extraordinarily unreasonable requirements to save his life over and over again until finally it dawned on him that she was actually brilliant, not to mention obviously faithful, and they went home.

– Guimier, the daughter of the King of Cornwall, sister to Sir Cador and wife to her brother’s best friend, Sir Caradoc. Caradoc’s sorcerous father Eliaures cursed him by affixing an enchanted snake to his arm, the creature sucking his life away until he was down to skin and bone. As his betrothed, Guimier came to tend him, but the only way to heal Caradoc was to risk her own life: she had to lure the snake with the promise of her own fresher blood and hope that her brother killed it before it reached her. Fortunately, he did.

A ballad called ‘The Boy and the Mantle’ shows a glimpse at her married life, when a malicious young boy came to test the virtue of the ladies at Arthur’s court with a magical mantle that only the ‘purest’ of women could safely wear. This, incidentally, was not a ballad written by someone who liked Guinevere. Guimier was safe because her only ‘sin’ was to kiss Caradoc (in the ballad, spelled Cradock) once before they were married, so the mantle fit.

Tryamour, a faerie princess who married Arthur’s steward, Sir Launfal. This story is the fourteenth century English adaptation of an earlier Breton poem, and it takes a very dim view indeed of Guinevere. She’s said to have a string of lovers straight after her marriage to Arthur, and deliberately slighted Launfal for no apparent reason. Launfal left court to see to his father’s funeral and decided to just stay away, since the atmosphere was so poisonous, but quickly burned through his disposable funds and fell into poverty. A kind female friend lent him a horse, allowing him to retreat for a while into the woods. There he met the blonde, grey-eyed, exceptionally beautiful Dame Tryamour in her rich, ‘eastern’ style pavilion. She greeted him half-naked on a bed, called him her darling, and he fell for her on the spot.

Aware of his difficult straits, she offered him wealth and success in return for a vow of fidelity and his promise that he would not boast about her to anyone. She even gave him her horse Blaunchard, her servant Gyffre, and her standard of three ermines. Launfal happily accepted. They spent the night having great sex and Tryamour assured him that she would come to him whenever he was alone.

He was generous with his newfound fortune, and a tournament was held in his honour, allowing him to display his skill. With the aid of Gyffre and Blaunchard, he defeated even the vicious Sir Valentine. Hearing of Launfal’s impressive deeds, Arthur called him back to court. Being in possession of only the vaguest character and no consistency within this story, Guinevere attempted to seduce him. Launfal was goaded into referencing the superior beauty of his lover; in revenge, Guinevere claimed to Arthur that he tried to seduce her. Launfal defended himself well enough on that charge, but Arthur demanded he produce the beautiful lover of his boast or be executed. His promise having been broken, Launfal’s gifts had all vanished, but Tryamour came to save him regardless. She breathed into Guinevere’s face, blinding her, and took Launfal away with her to live on the island of Olyroun – better known as Avalon.

Maledisant, a character from Le Morte d’Arthur whose story bears a strong resemblance to that of Lyonet: she came to court carrying a large black shield and a sword, seeking a knight to bear them in her service. Breunor le Noire, nicknamed ‘La Cote Male Taile’ by Kay for his ill-fitting coat, had just earned his place among Arthur’s knights by saving Guinevere from an unexpected lion. When Maledisant disdainfully rejected Kay’s offer of help (which he immediately pretended he didn’t give), Breunor insisted on taking the shield and refused to be put off by her sarcastic remarks about his appearance. He spent half the quest getting defeated by Arthur’s more experienced knights and getting mocked by Maledisant, and then Sir Mordred joined them just to make the situation even more uncomfortable.

They stopped at the Castle Orgulous, where both knights were overcome by superior force and Breunor was shown to safety by a sympathetic lady. Maledisant, assuming him to be dead, called him ‘my foolish knight’ and when he caught up with her and Mordred, she wouldn’t immediately believe that he fought in the castle at all. He proved that he did, and she sulked. Lancelot, hearing of Maledisant’s challenge at court, did his big brother thing again by going after Breunor to be sure he was all right. Mordred quickly departed. Lancelot soon left on his own business as well; Breunor and Maledisant continued on to the Castle Pendragon, where they were captured. Lancelot came back to rescue them because he is pretty much the perfect human. With his victory, he freed thirty knights and forty ladies being held prisoner; even the defeated lord of the castle, Sir Brian, felt less bad about being beaten when he found out his opponent was Lancelot and Maledisant apologised for insulting Arthur’s greatest knight. She even toned down her criticism of Breunor for his sake, and Lancelot nicknamed her the damsel ‘Bienpensant’, meaning ‘right-thinking’ (but also ‘conformist’).

Coming to the border with the land of Surluse, Breunor finally got his chance to shine, defeating Sir Plaine de Force and Sir Plaine de Amours before collapsing in front of their brother Sir Plenorious, who generously conceded that Breunor was already wounded and took him inside his castle to recover. Lancelot overcame Plenorious to soothe Breunor’s pride and defeated three more brothers in the family to boot. He then tried to give the land he won to Breunor, but Breunor would not take it, so Lancelot organised for him to have Castle Pendragon instead. At the next Pentecost feast, both Breunor and Plenorious were made knights of the Round Table and Breunor married Maledisant, who was henceforth known as Beauvivante.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – The Cursed Child

The Cursed Child (Harry Potter No.8) – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

Little, Brown, 2016

Nineteen years after Voldemort was defeated at the Battle of Hogwarts, the wizarding world has settled into a wary peace. Harry Potter is now the Head of Magical Law Enforcement and a father of three, but his middle child Albus has grown to hate the legend that surrounds his family and all the expectations that come with it. Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius has a different legacy to cope with. Voldemort may be gone, but Dark magic is not and rumours are swirling about a dangerous and recently re-discovered magic. Albus and Scorpius want to set right a long-ago injustice, but the stakes are so much higher than they know.

I am of the generation who grew up with Harry Potter: Global Phenomenon. It is a part of my cultural DNA. As such, I was necessarily going to be critical of any addition to that series, because I had expectations. While this is technically the eighth Harry Potter story, it is a play script co-written with two other writers and so feels quite different in style to the original books. The story is led by Albus and Scorpius, but Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Draco are all significant characters. While the premise of the plot required more hand-wavery than I was comfortable with and didn’t have enough sensitivity for some of the topics it wanted to tackle, it explored some interesting ground. I’ll go into more spoilery detail in the paragraph below.

SPOILERS: I was very pleased to see the fairly monolithic anti-Slytherin attitude of the original books subverted when Albus was Sorted into Slytherin alongside the sweet-natured and studious Scorpius. Draco had also matured into a much more complex character in The Cursed Child and his unexpected bonding with Ginny looked like the start of a delightful friendship; his interactions with Hermione and Professor McGonagall were also enjoyable, and the difficulties of negotiating a post-Voldemort world were fascinating.

Unfortunately the tight structure of a play script doesn’t allow for the breadth of exploration I’d have really liked to see and it did the younger characters no favours, as they don’t have much time to develop. Albus was self-absorbed to an astonishing extent; he seemed to think of his father’s childhood as some sort of dramatic origins story instead of years of abuse at the hands of his legal guardians, and actively blamed Harry for the death of a boy murdered by Lord Voldemort. When Harry was fourteen years old, in an encounter he barely survived himself. It was interesting seeing the ripple effect of Cedric’s death and it was a beautiful moment when he rescued the boys in the maze, but to blame Harry for his death was such an absurd contortion of thinking, and required such an immense amount of ignorance, that I had trouble taking anything Albus said or did seriously afterwards. Even his friendship with Scorpius – which was genuinely affectionate most of the time and could have easily segued into an adorable romance – took a lot of emotional labour on Scorpius’s side in order to function. At the end of the play I found myself siding with Professor McGonagall’s exasperated view of things. She was an excellent voice of reason.

I was very pleased to see Harry call out Dumbledore on the way he ignored Harry’s abuse for all those years, and to see how that impacted on Harry’s own ability to be a parent, but I think the subject could have been handled better. Making Harry relive his own parents’ deaths just felt cruel and unnecessary.

Overall I have very mixed feelings about The Cursed Child. I am sure it would be much more satisfying seen on stage, and I’d love to know how some of those stage directions were pulled off. A project like this can’t possibly please everyone – the opinions I’ve expressed are the tip of an iceberg of meta – but for all the inevitable flaws, I am very happy to see these characters again.)

Review – Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., 1969 (published as part of the Agatha Christie Crime Collection)

Originally published in 1934

On the surface, Samuel Ratchett is an unremarkable American traveller, albeit a paranoid one. When his fears come true in the most extraordinary fashion, his body found savagely stabbed aboard the snowed-in Orient Express, the civilised mask falls away and the dead man is revealed to be a notorious kidnapper. Revenge, it would seem, has finally caught up with him. The case is a tangle of conflicting clues and inexplicable alibis, but the killer has made one crucial mistake: they committed murder aboard the same train as Hercule Poirot.

The thing I like best about Agatha Christie’s books is when she proves her credentials as the Queen of Crime by disassembling all your expectations of how a mystery novel is supposed to go. Christie’s work is so very much of its time, with all the racism and sexism that entails, and yet remains so readable – Murder on the Orient Express is a story that only gets creepier the more you think about it, which is probably why it has become one of her more famous books. Though most of the characters are drawn only in broad strokes, as is Christie’s usual style, the writing is clear, concise and somehow convincing, even when it shouldn’t be. And I am always happy to read about Hercule Poirot being cleverer than other people.

Review – The Raven King

The Raven King (The Raven Cycle No.4) – Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2016

Gansey has spent half his life searching for the legendary king Glendower. Together with his friends, he is closer than he’s ever been to achieving his quest – but another power has already woken in Henrietta, reaching for Adam through the ley line and infecting Ronan’s dreams. Noah’s ghost is disintegrating. Blue’s home is under attack. And Cabeswater is dying. If they want to save it, and each other, they need magic that is stronger than a demon…and to survive long enough to use it.

This is the fourth, final and in my opinion, the best, of Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle. Every character arc is given space and depth, and the newer characters fitted in seamlessly. Laumonier was brilliantly creepy. I found the resolution for Glendower somewhat dissatisfying and was more interested in some plot threads than others, but they were woven together well and the writing is beautiful. The series began with The Raven Boys and continued with The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

Ladies of Legend: Danae, Andromeda and Medusa

The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip,,,

Trigger warning: references to incest

Danae is the daughter of Acrisius, with either Aganippe (not the horse Aganippe, or the nymph, a different one) or Eurydice (not the Eurydice who married Orpheus, a different one), depending on which version you read, and the granddaughter of Aglaia and King Abas of Argolis. This is important, because Abas and Aglaia had twin sons, Acrisius and Proetus, and when the time came to settle the succession, it was decided that they should take turns at ruling the kingdom. It’s a lovely idea that did not work at all. Proetus seduced his niece (the account is unclear on whether or not the encounter was consensual); outraged, Acrisius chased him out of the kingdom and Proetus took refuge in Lycia, where he married himself a princess and acquired an army to retake the throne. The ensuing war was as much of a standoff as everything else in the twins’ lives to date. They eventually split the kingdom into two, with Acrisius now ruling Argolis.

As Danae is his only child, Acrisius goes to an oracle to ask whether he will ever have male heirs and gets much more of an answer than he bargained for. Not only is he assured that he’ll never have sons, his future grandson is apparently destined to murder him. Acrisius does not respond well to the news. He locks up Danae in a prison of brass to prevent her ever falling pregnant, but does not factor in the epic libido of Zeus, leader of the Greek pantheon, god of lightning and wreaker of general emotional havoc. Zeus manifests in the prison as a shower of gold, has biologically confusing sex with Danae, and she falls pregnant. He promptly vanishes from her life for keeps. She gives birth to a son, naming him Perseus.

According to Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, it take Acrisius FOUR YEARS to find out Danae has had a baby, and what that says about her isolation is terrifying to consider. He does not believe her story of a divine encounter, suspecting instead that his brother may have reached her somehow – and he is certain that if he wants to live, her son has to die. To perform such an act himself, however, would bring down the wrath of the Furies, goddesses who take a very dim view of familial homicide. So he settles for locking Danae and Perseus in a wooden chest and throwing them into sea to drown, suffocate or starve – whichever happens first. Somehow this does not count as murder?

Only they do not die. The chest floats past the island of Seriphos and is caught by Dictys, a fisherman, who opens the chest and releases its traumatised occupants. He takes them to the court of his brother, King Polydectes, who allows them to live with him.

This offer does not, it should be noted, come from the kindness of his heart. He wants to marry Danae, but she is resolutely uninterested and manages to keep him at bay for years, despite her immensely precarious position. As time passes, Polydectes becomes more forceful – but Perseus has grown up into a strong young man and he is very protective of his mother. Once again, a king looks at Danae’s son and decides to get him out of the way.

Polydectes is at least capable of subtlety. He pretends to give up on courting Danae and announces his intention to marry Princess Hippodameia, daughter of Pelops. As a gift for his new love, he requires each of his friends to give him a horse, but Perseus has nothing of his own to offer. He promises to instead bring Polydectes the head of the Gorgon Medusa, and Polydectes holds him to his word.

And who exactly is Medusa, that her severed head should be so prized? Once again, it depends on the story you read. There are three Gorgons. Euryale and Stheno are immortal; Medusa is not. In one version they are three sisters, the children of the sea goddess Ceto and sea god Phorcys. Their siblings are the dragon Ladon, the terrifying half-serpent Echidne and three more sisters known as the Graeae – Deino, whose name means ‘dread’, Enyo, meaning ‘horror’ and Pemphredo, meaning ‘alarm’ – who would later become the Gorgons’ guardians. Euryale, Stheno and Medusa were once very beautiful, until Medusa slept with Poseidon (the big name god of the sea, as opposed to all the other ones) in one of his niece Athene’s temples. Athene lost her temper. Poseidon was just fine, but Medusa and her sisters were transformed into monstrous creatures with huge teeth, bronze claws and serpents for hair. For a goddess who supposedly represents justice, Athene certainly lets her temper get the better of her.

Another version has it that Medusa was originally a mortal woman, punished by Athene for the same offence and adopted by the other Gorgons, who come by their snake hair naturally. Medusa retains her beauty but is condemned to loneliness: if any man meets her eyes, he will turn to stone. She is, however, worshipped as the Serpent Goddess by the Amazons of Libya. One story even has her lead them in battle. Which makes me curious, what would happen if she looked at a woman? Could this be a beautiful lesbian love story?

If only. Unfortunately she has been roped into playing the villain for a heteronormative hero quest orchestrated by a creepy king and an angry goddess. Athene holds one hell of a grudge. She and the messenger god Hermes go to advise Perseus on his quest, beginning with a trip to the city of Deicterion to look at a picture of the Gorgons and identify which sister he plans to kill. Next Athene gives him a mirror-bright shield, a helmet that confers invisibility on the wearer (once the property of her other uncle Hades) and a strong bag suitable for containing a severed head. Hermes gives Perseus an adamantine sickle for the actual beheading and a pair of shoes like his own, with wings that will allow him to fly wherever he wishes. Directed to the kingdom of Night, Perseus goes to seek out the Graeae.

The Graeae, or Graiae, are the only ones who know where their sisters live. They also know the location of the Stygian Nymphs, who give Perseus his bag and sandals in an alternate story. The Graeae are grey-haired, sharing between them a single eye and a single tooth, over which they quarrel fiercely. Perseus exploits the conflict by seizing control of both and bargaining them back to their rightful owners in exchange for the betrayal of the Gorgons. The Graeae make the trade. What Perseus does next is up for debate: in one version, he carries his vile behaviour to the limit, throwing the eye and tooth in a lake, but obviously I prefer the story in which he keeps some semblance of decency and leaves the Graeae unharmed.

Perseus flies to the remote sanctuary of the Gorgons, in the land of the Hyperboreans. He finds the sisters asleep, surrounded by the weathered statues of men and animals unlucky enough to meet Medusa’s cursed eyes. Keeping his gaze carefully fixed on Athene’s reflective shield, Perseus picks his way to Medusa and beheads her while she sleeps. In the moment of her death, her long-ago union with Poseidon produces a delayed childbirth – the magical horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor arise full-grown from her corpse. Woken by the disturbance, Stheno and Euryale seek furiously for their sister’s murderer, but Perseus is concealed by the helmet and given unnatural speed by his winged shoes. He escapes with Medusa’s bloody head in his bag.

When he grows weary, he tries to rest in north-western Africa but is thrown back into the sky by the Titan Atlas, who bears the world on his shoulders and was once warned that he would be robbed by a son of Zeus. Perseus retaliates by exposing the head of Medusa. Atlas is turned to a stone mountain range, which frankly, given his occupation, might be doing him a favour.

Perseus flies on across the African continent. Over Ethiopia, he sees a young woman on a rock by the sea, naked apart from incongruously grand jewellery and struggling frantically against the chains that hold her in place. This is Andromeda, the daughter of King Cepheus of Ethiopia and his queen Cassiopeia. The queen is a very beautiful woman, but not a prudent one. She claimed aloud that she and her daughter were lovelier than the Nereids, who complained of the insult to Poseidon; he reacted by sending a flood to Cepheus’s kingdom, followed by a ravenous sea-monster just to make sure everyone got the point. The Oracle of Ammon – why do people KEEP CONSULTING ORACLES, it only ever makes things worse – told Cepheus that the only way to save his people was to sacrifice his daughter to the monster, so that was what he did.

Her beauty now saves her; an admiring Perseus kills the monster and frees Andromeda from her chains. He plans to marry her and take her home with him. Given that her father just left her to die and she was previously betrothed to her uncle (in another version, to the king Agenor), she has every reason to like this idea. Her parents are less pleased. They consent to a quick wedding, but during the celebrations her thwarted suitor brings armed men to the table.

In Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, Cassiopeia and Cepheus are all for a change in groom. Perseus fights until the odds are too badly against him, then draws out Medusa’s head as a last resort. Everyone is at once transformed into stone, including Andromeda’s parents. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies takes a more generous view, suggesting Cassiopeia and Cepheus probably supported their daughter’s choice in husband and were exempt from the transfiguration.

Either way, the lovers are quick to leave Ethiopia. Returning to Seriphos, Perseus arrives to find Danae in desperate straits. With Polydectes no longer willing to accept no as an answer, she and her original rescuer Dictys have taken refuge in a temple. Perseus goes straight to the palace to display his promised gift to the king; Polydectes and his entire court are all turned to stone.

Perseus willingly gives up the weapon after that. It’s quite risky to have around, after all. Athene, having flayed Medusa’s corpse and turned the skin into a cloak, inflicts a last indignity on her dead enemy and takes the head for herself, to carry into battle.

Perseus also gives back the helmet and sandals to his divine supporters. He helps Dictys take the throne of Seriphos and then sets sail for his mother’s homeland of Argos, where Acrisius still holds the throne. Andromeda and Danae both accompany him. Suspecting that Perseus and Danae are plotting revenge, Acrisius flees to Larissa. Perseus just wants to forgive past murder attempts and move on, but where gods and oracles are concerned, nothing is so simple. At this time King Teutamides is holding an athletics competition as part of his father’s funeral and Perseus competes; during the discus-throwing, a fateful wind (let’s face it, probably guided by the spiteful gods) turns Perseus’s throw aside and the discus hits his grandfather in the foot. The shock kills Acrisius, fulfilling the prophecy he ruined his life – and the life of his daughter – to avoid.

Oracles suck. Pass it on.

Acrisius is buried in the temple of Athene. Perseus is unwilling to rule in Argos, so offers to trade territories with his great-uncle’s successor, Megapenthes. It’s unconventional, but Megapenthes agrees and Perseus becomes king of Tiryns, with Danae as his queen. They both live to a great age in what appears to have been a happy and faithful marriage. They had a large family of seven sons – Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, Electryon and Cynurus, according to Wikipedia, and Perseides, Alcaeus, Perses, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus and Electryon according to – and two daughters, Autochthe and Gorgophone. After her death, Andromeda was made into a constellation by the gods, along with her husband and mother.

Interestingly, Gorgophone made a name for herself by breaking tradition and remarrying after her husband Perieres died, instead of committing suicide, as was the tradition of the time. It seems that her mother and grandmother had too much experience with sacrifice to encourage it in her.

I like to think Danae and Andromeda got along very well. The sad thing is, I think they would have understood Medusa too. But they were never given the chance.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!