Xanth: Practical Jokes and Magical Warfare

[Xanth Content Note: Rape, Misogyny]

Castle Roogna, Part 3

Chapter 3 (Jumper) flings us into the action: Dor has time-leaped into the tapestry and is now occupying the body of an adult barbarian warrior from Mundania. (We never get an age for this body, but I get the impression that he's 30-ish.) Dor's child body has remained behind in Xanth and is being animated by the Brain Coral from the last book, as it was curious about humanity.

You will please note that all this is happening in parallel "real time", i.e., that the time Dor spends in the tapestry is the same amount of time that the Brain Coral animates his body. And you will also please note that everything Dor does in the past is really being done; later Millie will almost-not-quite remember him. This will be important later, in the sense that Millie and Irene will be blatantly lied to in order to cover up what Dor and the Brain Coral have been doing.

So. Okay. Dor-the-Barbarian has landed in a situation where hostile goblins are trying to kill him, and also there is a HUGE spider here who was sucked into the tapestry with him and didn't change size in the process. (I.e., what was a small spider outside the tapestry is now a large spider inside it.) Please enjoy some casual ableism that 8 people have highlighted: 

[Talking Sword] “Now my doubt has been allayed. You are indubitably crazy.”

“Hell, you’re in my hand now,” Dor said, nettled. “You’ll do as I direct.”

“By all means. Swords have ever been the best servants of crazy men.”

Dor then has to kill the goblins, which upsets him. I am 100% down with the killing upsetting him. What I am not down with is the analogy that the author chooses to put to the page (made all the more creepy that this is supposed to be coming from a 12-year-old boy who is only dimly aware that sex is a thing and who has precisely zero friends and knows only one girl in the whole world):

He felt tears sting his eyes. He had heard of girls being upset about losing their virginity; now he had an inkling what it felt like. He had defended himself, he had had to do that, but in the process had lost something he knew he could never recover.

Ew. Ew. Ew. NO. What the fuck is this noise, I don't even know how to pick it apart. Not all girls are upset by having sex for the first time. (I can't even with the "losing" framework.) Not all boys are NOT upset by having sex for the first time. Having sex for the first time is not like killing a person. What the fuck with equating "having sex for the first time" with a violent act of self-defense that "he had had to do"? Having sex for the first time does not mean losing something unrecoverable. Do not even get me started on the implied hymen worship here. Like, just, all of this. All of this is a wall of creepy to me.

The rest of the chapter is mostly unremarkable, by virtue of the fact that there are no women in it until the end. Dor and the spider (Jumper) make friends and Jumper turns out to be the best person in the series: he's a mature adult spider who isn't a jerk and doesn't treat women like trash. He will play the part that Bink's talent played in the last two books, by fixing plot holes and pulling convenient escapes literally out of his ass (spider silk will feature in this novel heavily). He suggests that they cross the Gap Chasm by using silk to balloon across, only whoooops, Dor gets kidnapped by a giant bird that collects interesting things. The bird drops him in its nest and then deposits Millie:

The thing most recently deposited stirred. It flung limbs about, and a curtain of hair. It righted itself and sat up.

Dor stared.

It was a woman. A young, pretty, girl-type maiden.

Oh yay. Chapter 4 (Monsters) involves establishing that this GIRL-TYPE MAIDEN (?!?) is the sexiest thing ever, and we get to start the loooooooong process of establishing, over and over again, that all maidenly expressions of distress are really theater put on for the menfolk watching. I can't even imagine why this is a thing that the novel hews to almost religiously--I mean, Millie's talent is being sexy so her distress could simply just BE SEXY without it being practiced and honed, except that I guess it's harder to sexually assault women when you believe that they really are upset by it.

So we had Jewel struggling "ineffectually" in the last book and now Millie is here to demonstrate that literally everything women do--including their sexually-arousing struggles to get away from attackers--is coldly calculated to give you boners. So anything you do to them was basically them asking for it, I guess. Anyway, here, read about Millie flinging her hair about, which will be repeated NEARLY EVERY PAGE OF THIS NOVEL OH MY GOD. Also we are literally going to call Millie a "thing" because of course we are.

Jumper climbed back over the side of the nest. The girl spied him and screamed. She flung her hair about. She kicked her feet. She was a healthy young thing with a penetrating scream, marvelous blond tresses, and extremely well-formed legs.

“It’s all right!” Dor cried, not certain whether he was thinking more of the situation, which was hardly all right, or of her exposed legs, which were more than all right. This body really noticed such things!

I'm just gonna quote without comment a lot of this, because dammit if I had to read this, ya'll get to share my pain, lolsob.

“Oh.” She leaned forward, giving Dor his first conscious peek down into a buxom bodice. Stunned, he stood stock-still. “Hello, Jumper-monster,” she said to the web.

“Wow!” said the web. “Get a load of that—”

“You don’t have to speak to the web,” Dor said quickly, though he was sorry to undeceive her. Now she wouldn’t be leaning at him any more. A background region of his mind wondered why a spiderweb would care to remark on the particular view offered, as it was surely not of interest to spiders.

“… yellow silk,” the web finished, even as Dor’s guilty thought progressed. Oh—of course.

Dor is a manly-man and a carbon copy of his father Bink--probably through inconsistent writing and bare bones characterization more than conscious choice--so of course that manifests by him not being swayed to anything like fake politeness over something like pretty boobs. That's how you know you're dealing with a real man: when he doesn't tone down his disdain for you just to get in your pants. No sir, good men are honest about the all-pervading disdain that all Xanth men have for all women.

“Eeeeek!” she screamed, flinging her silk about. “The hairy monster’s going to eat me!”

“Be quiet!” Dor snapped, losing patience despite the impression her attributes had made on him. Either this body had singular appetites, or he had been missing a whole dimension of experience all his prior life! “You’ll bring back the Hoorah.”

She quietened reluctantly. “I won’t let that thing near me.”

She would talk to the spider, but not cooperate with him. She seemed almost as juvenile as Dor himself.

Millie is either 18 or 19 years old at this point (I'm not going to bother to look it up, and she says 17 later but that would appear to be a lie, because having magical sex appeal isn't enough, you still need to lie about your age, amiright ladies?) and Dor is 12 years old. She's not wrong to be worried about a giant spider reaching for her--Dor and Jumper have given her no reason to trust them--but the worst part is that she is written to be as juvenile as a child. Because that's how pretty women are written in Xanth. Wynne. Jewel. Millie. The next book will feature Irene who is our first young pretty love interest who isn't stupid and childlike, so of course Irene will be deliberately difficult and childlike because she's trying to manipulate Dor into marrying her.

I've read 20+ of these books and committed half of them to memory, and I honestly can't think of a female character who isn't either childlike (Wynne, Jewel, Millie, Tandy, Electra) or schemeing (Iris, Irene, Threnody, Metria, Nada). They also have frankly-impossible bodily responses; in addition to all Millie's hair-flinging, she apparently has emotional control over her individual eyes such that one can show pure anger and the other can show pure terror.

The girl inhaled and opened her pretty mouth to scream again. Dor put his big ugly right hand across it. “Quiet!”

“Mmmph mmmph, you mmmph!” she mmmphed, one eye above his hand filling with anger while the other eye retained its terror. He hoped she wasn’t saying the unmaidlike thing he feared she was saying; it would be detrimental to her image.

IT WOULD BE DETRIMENTAL TO HER IMAGE. Dor is 12 years old, but damned if he isn't heavily invested in the Xanth patriarchy, no? If you're gonna be a girl and you're gonna be upset or distressed, make sure you do it in the properly lady-like way or your image will be tarnished and we can't have that. Then we get to see that, yeah, Millie has just been faking all this terror because she can turn it off at the drop of a hat or the threat of tickles.

“Right!” Dor agreed. He faced the girl. “And don’t scream,” he warned.

She inhaled to scream.

“Or I’ll tickle you!” he threatened.

That got her. Meekly she let herself deflate. She even handed him a pearl from her apron breast pocket, so he wouldn’t have to dig it out himself. That was almost more cooperative than he liked.

Get it? Because then he can't paw her chest anymore.

Her story was as simple. “I am a maid of just barely maybe seventeen, from the West Stockade by the lovely seashore where the gaze-gourds grow, traveling to the new capital to seek my fortune. But when I crossed a high ridge—to stay away from the tiger lilies, you know, because they have a special taste for sweet young things, those lilies of the valley—the Hoorah bird spotted me, and though I screamed and flung my hair about and kicked my feet exactly as a maid is supposed to—well, you know the rest.”

The whole thing about girls' expressions of distress being practiced and faked? You thought I was making it up, didn't you? It's okay, I wouldn't blame you for thinking that. Because it literally is the most stupid dehumanizing thing I can think of in these past three books so far. And, I mean, I really cannot emphasize strongly enough just how much of this book is about Millie's hair flinging and feet kicking--it is everywhere. This book reads like a hair-flinging kinkfest or something. And each time we're encouraged to remember that this is a game to Millie, that she's not really distressed, that she's remembering and being very careful to do something that she hopes will arouse the watcher and, implictly, the reader.

“I hope to find employment as a chambermaid, there to encounter completely by surprise some handsome courtier who will love me madly and take me away from it all, and I shall live happily ever after in his rich house when all I ever expected was a life of chambermaiding.”

Dor, even in his youth, knew this to be a simplistic ambition. Why should a courtier elect to marry a common chambermaid? But he had sense enough not to disparage her ambition. Instead he remembered a question he had overlooked before, perhaps because he had been looking at other aspects of her nature. Those aspects she kicked and bounced and flung about so freely. “What is your name?”


I don't know which is worse about this passage: the misogyny, the world-breaking, or how fucking pleased it seems with itself. I get that the narrative thinks it's being cute with it's whole "I expect to have this unexpectable thing happen to me, tee-hee!" but it plays so disgustingly into the misogynist narrative that women trap men with their sexual wiles. And this, incidentally, is why adding strawman Crombie into the novel to contrast with Nice Guys Bink and Dor doesn't work because in the world of Xanth, people like Crombie are explicitly made out to be correct by the narrative: Millie does want to 'trap' an unsuspecting man in marriage.

And of course all this plays into the narrative's pervasive whorephobia--which is part of why all three of these books will make a big deal about sexy women trying to bribe men with sex so that the upstanding men can stand firm to their principles and also scream WHORE! at them whenever possible--because if it can be proven that a woman is "only" "holding out" on a man sexually because she wants to "trap" him into married, then of course she deserves whatever you do to her because she's a calculating mercenary who needs to be taught a lesson. And also anything she says or does to indicate distress is probably an act anyway.

On a lighter note, I cannot for the life of me work out the weird flashes of classism in this series. The books repeatedly establish that there are two available options for life in Xanth: King, which is determined entirely by accident of birth, and Everyone Else. There is no nobility. Everyone lives in small agrarian villages; Bink's North Village is supposed to be one of the biggest villages in Xanth and I think it had maybe a few hundred people? Hang on, yeah. From A Spell for Chameleon:

“The North Village of Xanth has about five hundred people, and that’s the largest one. There can’t be more than two thousand people in the entire kingdom.

The Council of Elders who name magicians and choose the kings aren't even landowners, or at least not more so than the other farmers and homesteaders in their villages. The only kind of marital politicking that seems to occur is trying to land a magician-heavy bloodline in the hopes that you might get lucky and end up closely related to the next king. Beyond that, there are no social barriers to courtiers marrying chambermaids, in large part because every woman in Xanth is a chambermaid--it's just that some are chambermaids in castles and some are chambermaids in farmhouses. And yet somehow Dor has internalized classist attitudes about socially-climbing sexy upstarts that simply cannot exist in a world with only two thousand (human) people. ["Human" added because I'm not sure if Bink was counting centaurs and other non-human people as "people". I suspect he was not.]

Anyway, moving on from the rampant hatred of women, we come to rampant objectification of women as Millie tries to distract water monsters:

Millie was doing her part. She was capering beside the water and waving her hands and calling out to the monsters. Her flesh bounced in what had to be, to a monster, the tastiest manner. Even Dor felt like taking a bite.

I continue to be grossed out by how often sex and predatory violence are linked in these books. In fact, I'm genuinely unsure if we've seen a passage about sex that doesn't present it as predatory. Anyway, Dor picks up Millie without her consent because of course he does:

“What are you doing?” she cried, alarmed. She kicked her feet. Dor noticed again how dainty her feet were, and how cutely they kicked. There was an art to foot-kicking, and she had it; the legs had to flex at the knees, and the feet had to swing just so, not so fast that the legs could not be seen clearly.

Again, I note that the text has strongly implied that Millie has practiced this "art" in order to be alluring, because all women are fakes which is why you never have to listen to them when they tell you to put them the fuck down. Millie and Dor get captured by harpies, and characteristically that means that the description of the non-human people in this scene is largely limited to whether they are hot or not:

The harpies closed on them, their dirty wings wafting a foul odor down. Dirty birds indeed! They were greasy avians with the heads and breasts of women. Not pretty faces and breasts like Millie’s; their visages were witchlike and their dugs grotesque.

[...] Claws closed as half a dozen foul creatures clutched at Millie, who screamed and kicked and flung her tresses about to no avail, as usual.

I'm getting a sympathy-headache for Millie from all this head-tossing. Dor gets hauled into the harpy lair and told that they need him for breeding because there are no male harpies anymore so they have to alternate between men and vultures.

“Just fine for what?” Dor demanded with more belligerence than he felt. He was scared.

“Just fine for my chick,” the old hen clucked, “Heavenly Helen, Harpy Queen. We need a man on alternate generations, a vulture the other times.”

“What have you done with— the girl?” Dor decided not to name her, lest these polluted monsters assume he was closer to her, or she to him, than he/ she was and try to coerce him by torturing her. He knew monsters would do this sort of thing. That was the nature of monsters, after all.

*blinks* So, um, Dor, does that mean that threatening to torture a complete stranger wouldn't phase you at all? I can see that Jesus Trenting Christ has been doing some real crackerjack king lessons there. (Not that I'm trying to imply that the classic moral dilemma with someone being tortured is easy, it's famously not, but I'm kinda taken aback at how blithely Dor seems to assert that he'd be totes fine with Millie being tortured if only he didn't know her enough to care about her.)

Anyway, off we go to the breeding nest where we get to see that young women-shaped monsters are pretty by human standards, because they are young obvs, and this attractiveness extends even to their voice, because of course it does and would.

Another harpy faced him there—but what a difference there was! This was a young bird, with metallic sheen on her feathers, shiny brass claws, the face and breasts of a lovely maiden—and she was clean. Her hair was neatly brushed, each tress luxuriant; if there were any feathers in it, they were silken ones. She was the prettiest harpy Dor had ever seen or imagined.

“So you are the man Momma found for me,” Helen Harpy murmured. Her voice was sultry, no screech.

Dor asks the nest the best way out of the room, and the nest tells him to "oblige the harpy" (because it's the BEST way out, har har, get it?) and then we get some of the trademark Xanth uncomfortableness as an older (but not OLD, eww) sexually-aggressive young woman touches a younger sexually-inexperienced and somewhat uncomfortable boy so that the audience can enjoy his discomfort and the awful power dynamics at play.

She seemed fairly nice as he got to know her. She smelled faintly of roses. Apparently it was only the old harpies who were so awful.

[...] She sighed, breathing deeply. She had a most impressive human portion, that way, and Dor was glad it was the upper section she had inherited.

[...] Her preening, fitted between words, had progressed to his mouth; her lips were remarkably soft and sweet as they traversed his own. If he hadn’t known better, he might have thought this was a kiss.

We then get backstory on the Goblin/Harpy war which is the worst backstory in the history of anything, which will be tidily "fixed" in this novel, and will then later be retconned as unfixed in order to be ever more awful and terrible. To summarize: Male harpies are rare, and only a male harpy can make male harpy babies. (I.e., a female harpy mating with a human or a vulture will only generate more female harpies.) The harpies and the goblins used to live together in harmony, but the male harpies were attracted to female goblins because their human minds desired human bodies to mate with:

“With their arms and— and legs,” Helen got out at last. “We had not been so long diverged from human beings that our males did not remember and lust after what they called real girls, though most human and humanoid women would not have anything to do with vulture tails.

Yes, OF COURSE, it was only the men whose human minds wanted to mate with human bodies, women do not have sexual preferences, that would be SILLY. I guess. Anyway, the male harpies managed to seduce the female goblins and wouldn't pop over to fertilize the female harpies for the sake of the continuation of the species (maybe that too would be BIGAMY), so the female harpies decided to retaliate against the goblins--AGAINST THE GOBLINS, just need to repeat that--by casting a mind-rape spell which would make all the female goblins prefer the nastiest, brutishest, awfulest male goblins, so that they would breed themselves into yuckiness over several centuries of natural selection.

What they did NOT do was cast a mind-rape spell to make the harpy men prefer, you know, harpies. Which still would have been terrible, do not get me wrong, but at least might have made some kind of sense.

All this is totally glossed over as both sides being "just as bad", because of course it makes perfect sense to mind-rape a bunch of women who never did anything wrong to you, to make the married ones repulsed by their non-awful husbands, to make the unmarried ones attracted to awful men (which is, I remind you, the standard Nice Guy view of why all other guys are getting laid when he is not), and to fuck over an entire species of people because the men in your species kept running off with their girls. And of course there's the nasty subtext that this is just how women interact with each other: you take my man, I fuck you up, etc. Magic catfights all 'round. Here, have Dor thinking about how foolish women are, also it is again canonical that every woman in Xanth just wants a man to please:

When the lady goblins became approachable—I would term them other than ladies, but I’m not supposed to know that sort of language—when these creatures beckoned our cocks—oh, males are such foolish things!”

“Right,” Dor agreed, feeling pretty foolish himself, half-smothered between her neck and bosom. He knew better than to argue with the really foolish sex.

“And so we lost our cock-harpies, and our hens became soured. That’s why we have a certain exaggerated reputation for being impolite to people. What’s the use of trying, when there are no cocks to please?”

[...] Our hens were becoming old and bitter, unfulfilled. There’s nothing so bitter as an old harpy with an empty nest.”

It is literal fact in the Xanth universe that removing all men from a species makes all the female members of that species ugly, bitter, unhappy, and a threat to all other races. Oh and also they become serial rapists in order to keep the species going because getting volunteers for free sex is just too damn hard I guess. But, wait! You are wondering why they don't just rape people with love springs, right? Oh wait, YOU are not wondering that because that would be a terrible thing to wonder. DOR is the one wondering that.

That was some history! Dor had heard about the nefarious love springs, where diverse creatures innocently drank, then plunged into love with the next creature of the opposite sex they met. Much of the population of Xanth was the fault of such springs, producing the remarkable crossbreeds that thereafter bred true. Fortunately the love-water had to be fresh, or it lost its potency; otherwise people would be endlessly slipping it into the cups of their friends as practical jokes. But he could see how this would create a problem for the harpies, who could not always carry a potential mate to the spring, or make him drink from it.

To repeat: The only thing stopping people of Xanth from raping their friends with magical rape potion is that the potion has to be fresh. It is a convenience issue.

Dor manages to convince the harpy that he's too young to breed, and she agrees to let him go in exchange for a magical ring of dubious potency, and also she agrees to let his friend go while being puzzled as to what Dor could possibly want with her if he's too young to breed because even women in Xanth think that other women only exist to be fucked by men.

You can have the girl, though at your age I really don’t know what you’ll do with her.

Of course when Dor catches up with Millie, she takes time in a dangerous situation to be suspicious and jealous of why his face is clean because she definitely is not pleased about this barbarian she's known for half a day--who keeps pawing at her, insulting her, and picking her up against her will--being maybe sexed by some other woman oh my god it is throwdown time catfight etc. But how will Dor climb down while still holding Millie, you wonder!

Even if there had been handholds, they would have required both of his hands. He would have been unable to hold on to Millie with one, and she would have screamed and kicked her feet and flung her hair about and fallen to her death the moment she attempted to make such a climb by herself. She was a delectable female, but just not much use at man-business.

Not that he could make any such claim himself, after that session with Heavenly Helen Harpy.

That's not really Dor being misogynistic, by the way, it is the narrative being misogynistic: Millie will repeatedly endanger her own life by continuing this "distress theater" which is her sole defining character trait so far.

Jumper fastened a line to Millie, and another to Dor. “I am generating sufficient lines to lower you to the bottom, but you will have to let yourselves down. I suggest you swing and slide so the birds will not be able to catch you readily.”

“I can’t do that!” Millie protested. “I don’t have big arm muscles and things!”

Dor glanced at her. She was half right; she did lack big arm muscles, but she certainly had things.

Just in case you were wondering if Millie's breasts are still there. It's like literary peek-a-boo with an unusually forgetful toddler. Are Millie's breasts still there? ARE MILLIE'S BREASTS STILL THERE? Peek-a-boo! THEY ARE! They are still there! Yayayayayyay!

Millie screamed loudly and kicked her feet harder, and her hair formed a golden splay in a passing sunbeam. None of that helped.

For the record, it never helps. You'd think she'd stop doing it. You'd be wrong. Hey, by the way, remember when all of Wynne's questions were deemed "stupid" by narrative fiat when actually they made a lot of sense are were questions that Bink was just about getting around to asking himself, only HE would have asked them in a non-stupid tone of voice? We're going to do that again with Millie.

“Why are the harpies staying clear?” Millie asked.

It was a stupid question that like so many of its kind was not so stupid after all. The harpies were raucous, ugly, and evil-smelling—except for Helen—but not notably cowardly. Why were they afraid of this rocky path?

Feh. Anyway, they all three get captured by goblins and there's a huuuuuuuuuge wank-fest about the power of politeness because Dor calls the goblin chief "sir" and the chief fucking creams his pants over the fact that a Man debased himself enough to respect a mere goblin, and all this is an important lesson that will be repeated like four or five more times in this novel about the absolute power of politeness and respect among men. Not directed at women, though, because good men treat women with honest contempt instead of trying to be charming which we all know is a lying charade to get into their pants via dishonesty.

Then Dor summarizes why they were being chased by harpies so that Millie can get all jealous again about him spending time with "Heavenly Helen" because again for some bizarre reason she really cares about whether Dor has been cheating on her in the five hours since they met. Then the goblin chief fills them in on what the harpies did to their goblin race and if it seems weird that he's incredibly open about the fact that getting goblin-tail in this situation says only bad things about the guy involved, please remember that this is a Nice Guy article of faith:

They blighted the sight of our females so that they perceived the merits of our men in reverse. The boldest, bravest, handsomest, brightest goblins became anathema to them; they were drawn infallibly to the weakest, ugliest, stupidest cowards and thieves among us, and with those they mated. In this manner our whole species was inevitably degraded.

Then the goblins treat them to a nice meal and a nice guest bedroom, and Dor and Millie and Jumper steal out in the middle of the night because even though they've been shown every possible courtesy, you never can tell with those sneaky goblins. In any other book, I might find this endearingly prudent and morally ambiguous, but here it just reads like racist swill since they will soon go on to completely trust every human host they encounter, including the explicitly evil one who is using all his power to propel Xanth into another dark ages because his balls feel big when innocent people are being raped and slaughtered because of him.

No, really.


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