In the 1970s, I began to read SF/fantasy. Although I did not care excessively if an SF classic was written by a man or a woman, I wondered, Where are the women? There was Ursula K. Le Guin, and I enjoyed the dragons of Anne McCaffrey, but who else? Surely there were others.
And then a writer at Ms. magazine praised Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent, published in 1963 in the UK and in 1977 in the U.S. And this strange little feminist fantasy, the first in Gaskell’s Atlan series, changed my idea of the genre’s limits.
The Serpent is witty, unpredictable, and erotic. Told in the form of a diary, it records the observations and adventures of the heroine, Cija, a clever princess who loves to write. She lives in a tower swarming with nurses, and has no idea of history because her mother, the Dictatress, has told her that men are extinct. One day a huge person with blue scales and a deep voice climbs up the tower and chats with Cija, laughing when Cija claims she is a goddess. Cija assumes this person is just a huge woman. Later, when her mother admits that men exist, Cija doesn’t make the connection. She is too exhilarated.
“But men are extinct! Do you mean that there is one alive–a real man–an atavistic throwback or something?” Was wildly, wildly excited. Have also always wanted to see a brontosaurus, which Snedde told me are nearly as extinct as men.
“Darling,” said the Dictatress gravely, “for reasons of our own your nurses and I, purely in your own interests of course, have misled you as to the facts in the world outside your tower…. As many men exist as women.”
Politics and prophecies of doom: that’s why Cija has been stuck in a tower. General Zerd, it turns out, is the blue scaly person, and he has taken over their country and is taking Cija as a hostage. Cija is very cross, though thrilled to be out of the tower. She cannot imagine how she, a goddess, could be a hostage. And travel with the army is uncomfortable. On the road, her nurse Ooldra tells her she it is her fate to seduce and assassinate Zerd to save her country. But Cija barely knows what a man is.
Does the plot sound too complex? You just ride with it.
This is not a book you read for the style: Gaskell’s prose is rambling, as in a real diary, sprinkled with comical reflections and lush overwriting, but it is pure enjoyment. It also has feminist subtexts (nothing too obvious).
As for the seduction of Zerd, that does not go very well. Women find Zerd attractive, but she doesn’t get it. As she says, he is not “pretty.”
And then one day she sees him half undressed and understands.
His chest was bare–and, oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God, the sun struck sparks also from the scales of his chest and arms. Except in strong light one can mistake him for a man, but now he stood, clearly seen, a monster–and, my God he was beautiful!
Cija makes friends (and lovers) with various soldiers, cross-dresses to save her life, rides a large, violent bird (seemingly something prehistoric) and her best friend is Lel, a transgender boy. She has an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with a character named Smahil. She wants to prevent Zerd from invading Atlan, a kind of ideal Atlantis-like country.
Who knew I’d find the concept of a blue scaly man so sexy? Oddly, monsters are often sympathetic. In a later book in the series, Cija has an idyllic relationship with a sentient ape, and it is the most real love she has ever has. There are other monsters in women’s literature: in one of my favorite books, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban, a housewife falls in love with a monster who has escaped and taken refuge in her house. And in Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, a woman falls in love with an ape she decides to save from her behavioral scientist husband’s experiments.
I do love Gaskell’s books. They just sweep you along. The average rating at Goodreads is 3.7, but I gave it a 5-star rating out of nostalgia. Most of the Goodreads reviewers are rereading: are we all nostalgic?