A Fantasy-Altering Women’s Fantasy Novel: Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent

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?

The Planned Parenthood Book Sale & the Jane Gaskell Giveaway

The Planned Parenthood Book Sale

The Planned Parenthood Book Sale

The first Planned Parenthood Book Sale in Des Moines was held in 1961.  My grandmother patronized it in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Now my cousin and I patronize it.

In its 52nd year, it takes place this weekend, Oct. 10-14, at the Iowa State Fairground, 4-H Building, in Des Moines.  You can spend hours browsing the 600,000 books, CDs, DVDs, records, VHS tapes, games, puzzles, posters and collectibles.

This kind of history makes me wish I were a Des Moines native.

We went to the sale on Opening Night.  My “role model cousin” (whom I haven’t written about before) was volunteering. I should volunteer, but I don’t.  I can’t add, so I can’t be a cashier, and I’m not particularly good at carrying boxes. No, I know myself. I am the chatty kind of volunteer who stands around and tries to persuade customers to read Jane Gaskell’s comical Atlan fantasy quintet instead of, or as well as, The Complete Works of George Orwell.  Far better for me to push a cart slowly through the aisles, load it up with books, and spend $50-$100.

Last night I found many of John O’Hara’s books.  My husband came over to tell me John O’Hara is terrible. He didn’t think I should waste my time on John O’Hara.  I loved Butterfield 8, and have been looking for O’Hara’s books for years.  I said I intend to read nothing but John O’Hara for the next year. At least I wasn’t buying Georgette Heyer’s romances.  Not that I don’t enjoy these.

I struck out on Viragos.  Somebody must have beat me to them.

I  couldn’t find any new Cathy cartoon books either.  We apparently have all the Cathy books. Here my husband poses (insisting that I cut his head off) holding my favorite Cathy book:


Please!  Why don’t they (come with instruction booklets)?

Here is a picture of some of my books (and, honestly, this selection is not as good as last spring’s, though I’m still pleased):

IMG_2732Margery Sharp’s In Pious Memory  (she wrote super-light novels, some of which are available in Viragos)

Margery Sharp’s Martha in Paris  (about a fat girl artist:  I’m adoring it)

John O’Hara’s A Rage to Live

Three of Jane Gaskell’s Atlan quintet (which, by the way, I’m giving away:  see bottom of post).

Richard Amour’s The Classics Reclassified (a humor book we think is very funny at our house)

Have It Your Way, Charlie Brown (to read over breakfast, when I am too bleary-eyed to face the paper)

Vita Sackville-West’s Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir (my sole Virago)

Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion  (he’s a C. S. Lewis type)

Kind of an odd night:  in the classics section I found mainstream Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and many, many copies of Anna Karenina instead of the odd Ruth Suckow, Gogol, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Trollope, or George Meredith I go to collect.

I didn’t make it to the non-fiction section(s),

At one point I laughed at a Great Books set: I was kicked out of Junior Great Books for not reading Treasure Island, and my husband also shudders at his memories of this earnest book group.

IMG_2734And now for the JANE GASKELL PROVE-YOU’RE-A-GIRL GIVEAWAY.   This comical, charming, sometimes erotic, feminist fantasy series was recommended by Ms. magazine in the ’70s, and if you want to win this series, you must prove to me that you’re female (and of course I already know many of you are, so you don’t have to prove it).  The heroine,  Cija,a princess in a tower, has been told men don’t exist. When her mother suddenly recants and tells her she must flirt with and then assassinate, General Zerd, a blue scaly man whom you will find sexy, she is in a dilemma.  How does one flirt anyway?  She has lots of funny, exciting adventures:   I found three of the five books and knew some of you would like these:  The Serpent (Vol. 1), The Dragon, (Vol. 2) and The City (Vol. 3).   If you would like one or all of the books, leave a comment.  I adore these, and they’re hard to find.

ADDENDUM.  If you decide to come to the sale this weekend, here are a few other things to do in Des Moines:  Gusto Pizza, The Dairy Zone (a good soft-serve ice cream stand), the Neal Smith Trail (bicycle and hiking), the Clive Trail, the houses on Kingman Blvd. (not too fancy, but still exactly where you’d want to grow up), Friedrich’s Coffee, the Highland Park Bakery (champagne cake, doughnuts), Smokey Row (David Byrne wrote about it when he was here), and Grey’s Lake (I don’t see the attraction of this man-made lake, but it is a Des Moines institution).

Beautiful Monsters

Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent, the first novel in her witty, occasionally erotic Atlan series, was recommended by Ms. magazine in 1977 as a feminist fantasy novel.

This comical, sexy novel, told in the form of a diary, is a predecessor of the paranormal romance, peopled with blue scaly men instead of vampires.  The lively heroine, a princess who rides a wild, violent bird and sometimes dresses like a boy, has a predilection for monsters.

The Serpent Jane GaskellRaised in a tower and taught that men are extinct,  Cija, a princess addressed as “Goddess,” is confused when her mother, the Dictatress, says she has lied about men to protect her:  a prophecy said that Cija must not come into contact with the world until she was of age.

Cija is exhilarated by the thought of men.

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.

Her mother explains that there are men; in fact, more men than women. Now General Zerd, the enemy, has occupied their country and is taking Cija hostage.  She says Cija must assassinate him.

Cija already met General Zerd  when he climbed up the tower and briefly chatted withher:  she thought he was a huge woman with dark blue skin and a deep voice.

Cija rather crossly travels with Zerd’s army, socializes with silly girl hostages and forward young men (she soon gets used to them, though), and is told repeatedly by her nurse Ooldra that she must seduce and then kill Zerd.  Since she never sees Zerd and knows nothing of seduction, it will be difficult.

But we can’t kill beautiful monsters, can we?  Suddenly Cija sees him as he really is.

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!

(Oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God–and to think people are reading Fifty Shades of Grey!)

The thing about beautiful monsters is that you must look at them.  Once you’ve seen them, It is very difficult not to love them.  You don’t know they’re monsters, if they are monsters, till later.

If I had seen this cover, I could never have bought the book!

If I had seen this cover, I would never have bought the book!

And Zerd finds her very funny, though he is involved with the Beauty (who is really a beauty) and a tribal woman he “marries” so he can travel through foreign territory.

Cija doesn’t like other women much. The female hostages are silly and coquettish; Ooldra, her nurse whom she loves, turns out to be a traitor; and Zerd’s wife beats her.

Men are safer.  They like Cija.  She likes her independence more than romance.  when she is on the lam (she kills a brutal governor), her best friend is Lel, a “transgender” boy (or girl?), who helps her get away from a mob;  later, he establishes himself in the big city as a soldier’s mistress (whether the soldier knows he is a boy isn’t clear to Cija) and saves Cija’s life by pretending she is his brother.  (It’s all a bit confusing:  girls as boys, boys as girls, but you get used to it.)

One of the funniest, most authentic scenes is when she risks her life to save her diary.  She doubles back to the house after escaping from the police.

I could not leave my diary.

This is probably the most stupid thing I have ever done in all my not particularly brilliant life.  For a book, pages between two covers, I stayed behind when I could have run to freedom….  I knew this compulsion was suicide but the Diary is by now my inmost friend, it is almost a sense–and to be severed would have been impossible pain.

Cija’s diary is everything to her.

In science fiction, paranormal romances, and literary fiction, monsters are often more human than the humans.  In Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, the depressed heroine, a housewife, falls in love with an escaped sea monster who may or may not be real. In Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, the heroine falls in love with an escaped 300-pound ape.  In Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Distant Planets, a marine biologist  falls in love with a dolphin.  In Twilight, Bella falls in love with a vampire.

Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent is charming: Cija is bold, saucy, and self-mocking.  She is one of my favorite heroines of SF/fantasy, and I have very much enjoyed my rereading of this entertaining book.