Source of Magic, Part 3
Okay! *cracks knuckles* Let's power through some more Source of Magic, if only because I am more than halfway through Castle Roogna and it is so much worse than I remembered. When we left our intrepid adventurers, they were crashing at an Ogre's house before continuing on for their search for the source of magic in the morning. Ta-da! The next day they find the source of magic... kinda.
What they actually find is a village where all the inhabitants are dedicated to shoveling magic dust from the place where it wells up naturally from the ground into the air currents to be scattered across Xanth. It's difficult and dangerous work, partly because they can't use magic in their village (because it basically goes supernova) and do please note that life without magic conveniences is considered, in Xanth, to be the lowest depths of barbarism.
It's also a village composed entirely of women, because a local siren keeps luring off men and they're never heard from again. So of course all the women in the village want to fuck the five men silly. They are greeted by a lady-troll called (of course) Trolla:
Trolla clapped her horny hands, and several wood-nymphs came in, bearing platters. Their hair was green, their skin brown, their lips and fingernails red: like flowering trees. But their outlines were human; each was a pert, lithe, full-breasted bare beauty. Each eyed Bink and Humfrey with more than casual interest. “Hunger” might be a better term.
[...] She clapped her hands, and a nymph entered, as buxom and bare as the others.
I'm really kinda amused that the narrative has to keep assuring us that each new nymph to enter the room is both (a) naked and (b) super hot. It's like the book is desperately afraid that we'll forget that, and we might assume that the next nymph to enter the room is maybe not all that great to look at. Then the nymphs deliberately stand so close to Bink that his elbows smack their stomachs and boobs as he eats his dinner. Sure.
Trolla explains that the men are in danger because a siren keeps luring men off. This has apparently been going on for some time (because she says that some of the younger girls in the village "have never seen a male" and deserve a chance to see Bink and Co.) which sounds pretty damn dire. You'd think a village full of women might be able to take on a single siren, but there's a deadly tangle tree blocking the path to the siren's island. The villagers haven't worked out a way to kill the tree or bypass it in all this time, because they are women. No, really.
“This is no ordinary tangle tree,” Trolla said. “We have tried to destroy it, but though it is outside our village, it has absorbed enough extra magic to foil our efforts. We are, after all, only females—and the men will not fight it when they are in thrall to the siren.”
Bink says that tomorrow they, the five of them, will go and slay the dangerous tree. Because they are men, and can succeed where an entire village of highly-motivated women have failed. In the meantime there will be a party so that all the girls in the village can throw themselves at the men so that they can be uncomfortable with all the attention that they either don't want or want but can't take advantage of without hurting their self-images as good boyfriends/husbands.
The females of the village were lovely in their party apparel. There were many more young ones than had been evident before, and now that their work shift was over they were eager and more than eager to mingle with the strange guests. Bink was surrounded by nymphs, sprites, and human maids, while Humfrey was mobbed by fairies, lady elves, and minionettes. Three fetching centaur fillies attended Chester. A pair of griffin cows eyed Crombie, but they hardly had a chance with this transformed woman-hater. They were, after all, animals. There was even a female golem for Grundy.
Yet how sad the remaining females looked—the manticora, the sphinx, and the harpies. They had no males to cater to.
“Uh, girls—I’m a married man,” Bink protested as his covey pressed in.
“She will never know,” a buxom blue-maned lass informed him. “We need you more than she does.” And she planted a firm kiss on his left eye—the only part of him she could reach, because of the density of other girls.
“Yes, no man leaves this village, except at the call of the singing bitch,” a furry beauty added. “It is our duty to hold you here, to save your life. Wouldn’t your wife rather have you used than dead?”
Awkward question! How would Chameleon feel about that? In her lovely, stupid phase she would be hurt, confused, and forgiving; in her ugly, smart phase she would comprehend the situation and be realistic. So she would accept what had to be accepted, and certainly not want him to die. Still, he had no wish or intent to indulge himself with any of these—
I mean. Okay. *deep breath* It is alright for women to want to be with men (no doy) and especially when we're talking about women whose men aren't there because they were forcibly taken from them. I would be sad at this party, too. But I would be sad because my husband was taken from me by magic and not because I didn't have a replacement-goldfish to seduce for the night. This acting like men are interchangeable as long at they come in the right size and shape is... I can't even imagine the scene, that's how unlike human nature this is to me. (I mean, please try to imagine the conversation above with the detail that Bink is literally covered in lady-flesh. I can't imagine it.)
And then too, if this problem has been going on so long that whole generations of women have never even seen a man, then why the fuck are they not importing women who are lesbians or asexual or for whatever reason just don't want or need a man in their lives? I mean, haha, I am pretty sure I know why and I believe the answer is "Because all women in Xanth want and need a man", but that is a ridiculous reason that I refuse to accept.
Also, I can see that we're just going to barrel ahead with "bitch" being a commonly-used and accepted term in Xanth because god forbid we lose a major weapon in the misogyny arsenal.
Last of all, or last that I want to dwell on, this "should I cheat to survive" conundrum is such ridiculous nonsense in this situation. Most of the men the siren has taken were married to or involved with the village women in some way or another. The women have established that nothing they have tried has been sufficient to keep the men from being lured by her call. So the answer to "should I cheat to survive" in this situation is "that's a stupid fucking question, Bink, because cheating isn't going to save your ass in this situation." Anyway, so of course the siren starts singing.
Immediately the girls restrained him. They flung their arms about him, dragging him back and down, burying him in their exposed softness. Bink collapsed in a tangle of arms, legs, breasts, and assorted other aspects of distaff anatomy he didn’t bother to define.
The girls meant well—but the siren’s call was not to be denied. Bink fought, and caught glimpses of other thrashing mounds where his male companions fought similarly. Bink was stronger than any of the nymphs, for they were delicate, shapely things; he did not want to hurt any of them. Yet he had to free himself of their near-suffocating embrace. He heaved them off his body, cuffing their hands loose, shoving wherever his hands made contact. There were eeeks and cries and giggles, depending on the type of contact he made; then he was on his feet, charging forward.
Chester and Crombie and the Magician closed in about him, all riveted to that compelling sound. “No, no!” Trolla cried despairingly behind them. “It is death you seek! Are you civilized males or are you mindless things?”
That bothered Bink. What did he want with a magical temptress? Yet still he could not resist the siren. Her lure had an unearthly quality that caught at the very root of his masculinity, beneath the center of his intelligence. He was male, therefore he responded.
“Let them go, they are lost,” Trolla said despairingly. “We tried, as we have always tried—and failed.”
Though he was in thrall to the siren, Bink felt simultaneous sympathy for Trolla and the girls. They offered life and love, yet were doomed to be rejected; their positive orientation could not compete with the negative compulsion of the siren. The villagers suffered as horrible a damnation as the men! Was it because they were nice girls, making only promises they could keep, while the siren had no such limit?
Crombie squawked. “As all females always fail,” Grundy translated, responding to Trolla’s despair. “Though why any of us should bother with this bitch-female call—” The griffin shrugged his wings and charged on.
One of the most insulting things about Xanth's treatment of women is how singularly-mindedly stupid so many of them are. Even in a life-and-death situation, half of the girls are giggling because tee-hee! that man's arm connected with my boobies! And we're not even allowed to really complain or point this out because thanks to the world-building these women can't help it! They're nymphs and nymphs are brainless and can't think past today! So it's not really a reflection on real women, just a fantastical little world-building detail, except that these are the only women we meet, time and again, in these novels with the occasional exception of human love interests who are usually only marginally less stupid.
Anyway. Crombie starts getting more and more agitated and is (momentarily) literally saved by his hatred of women. (“She’s trying to trap me!” he squawked. “All women are traps! Death to them all!”) When they reach the deadly tangle tree, he pecks out at it in frustration and that's enough to cause the tree to attack the men. (Whereas usually it lets men through while the siren sings.) The tree attacks all the men, and this is sufficient distraction to drown out the spell for the moment. Unfortunately, they are no match for the tree, but Chester puts on a good show:
Chester kicked again, and again, violently. Even this predator-tree could not withstand much of this punishment. Normally its prey was unconscious or helpless by the time it reached the consumption stage, not awake and kicking.
I here remind you that there were three centaur ladies back at the village. You know, the village full of women who wanted nothing more than to destroy this tree but lacked the manpower to do so?
Crombie had clawed and bit his way to the fringe. Suddenly he broke out. “I’m free, you vegetable monster!” he squawked exultantly. “I’ll bet you’re another female, too!” He was really uncorking his worst insult!
Yeah. So Crombie darts off and returns a few minutes later with reinforcements: he's marshaled every women in the village and armed them with torches and directs an assault on the tree. The word "marshaled" is used in the narrative even, and he perfectly directs them on complicated maneuvers like when to stab torches at the tree and when to stab torches at the part of the tree that has grabbed one of the women. Real high-level tactician stuff.
The ladies went to it with a will. There were about fifty of them, ringing the tree, pushing in with their fires, scorching back every tentacle that attacked. They could have conquered the tree anytime, instead of letting it balk them all these years—had they had the masculine drive and command. Ironic that Crombie the woman-hater should be the organizing catalyst!
Yet perhaps this was fitting. Crombie’s paranoia about the motives of women had caused him to resist the siren, finally breaking her spell. Now he was using these females in the manner a soldier understood: as fodder for a battle. They might not have responded as well to a “nicer” man. Maybe they needed one who held them in contempt, who was willing to brutalize them for his purpose.
I can't make this stuff up. Five men were able to effectively hold off a tree where fifty women had previously failed. Fifty women are able to defeat the tree only when they have a man there to direct them. And that man literally has to hate them in order for his drive and command to do the trick.
So. Stuff that happens next. Crombie announces that he could "get to respect women like these" because they're almost as good as a man, but oh noes, once his woman-hating shield has cracked, he falls prey to the siren and is first on the path when the men notice the singing again. A sobering lesson for us all: respecting women may get you killed by a siren.
Also, despite the fact that the women have just killed the one thing that was protecting the siren, and despite the fact that the men are there and the song is coming from over there, and despite the fact that they are carrying torches, the women will be defeated by the night darkness and will creep back to the village and will not be seen again until the end of the book.
What will become of our male heroes? Fortunately for Bink, Chester becomes momentarily deafened, loses any draw to the siren (so add "men with hearing loss" to the list of people the village wasn't actively recruiting), and shoots her in the chest with an arrow. "But what about her breasts?!" I hear you cry, and rest assured that they are unharmed and of course very spectacular.
There lay the siren—the loveliest mermaid Bink had ever seen, with hair like flowing sunshine and tail like flowing water. The cruel arrow had passed entirely through her torso, between and slightly below her spectacular bare breasts, and she was bleeding from front and back. Her torso had collapsed across her dulcimer.
There's a lot of stuff that I can't bear to wall-o-text, so I'm just going to have to summarize: The siren is innocent to the point of almost impossible stupidity. She doesn't realize her dulcimer is magic, and thought men just came to her because they liked her singing. She doesn't realize that when the men leave her to visit her sister the Gorgon (for literally no stated reason whatsoever, as the Gorgon doesn't seem to have any kind of "draw" except that the Siren talks her up as prettier than herself) and never return, it's because they have been turned into statues.
Continuing the list: She doesn't realize that she's been hurting the village for years by doing this song and dance routine; I'm not sure she realizes there is a nearby village. She just wants someone to love and can't understand why the men she calls don't stay with her. The men verify her story with a magic mirror before healing her. (They do break her dulcimer to make sure she can't enthrall anyone again.)
“You mean that was what summoned all the men? I thought they liked my singing.” She looked unhappy. Apparently she really was the lovely innocent, like Chameleon in her beauty-phase.
We have both kinds of women: Country and Western!
And if you're thinking that all this "woman who is too stupid to understand anything at all and reminds me of those Aggie jokes where the student needs an audio recording reminding hir to breathe" stuff is too good to not repeat all over again next chapter YOU ARE IN LUCK because the Gorgon is just as stupid and innocent as the siren to the point where she literally believes that men leave her island when she looks at them, but that they leave behind statues of themselves as a tender memento for her to remember them by while they're on their journey. No, I have no idea how this could possibly work in her head, as it defies all everything.
Anyway, back to the siren, she has all the sads that (a) the men won't fall in love with her and (b) no new men will be coming, if they only came because of her dulcimer and now they've broken that. Bink tries to reassure her, while still thinking how hot-or-not she is according to his male human gaze (BINK), and completely fails to mention that hot mermen are a thing even though he met them in the last book.
“Your voice is pretty enough without any accompaniment, and so are you,” Bink said diplomatically. It was true as far as it went; had she a lower portion to match her upper portion, it would have been true all the way. “You can sing a capella, without accompaniment.”
“I can?” she inquired, brightening. “Will it bring nice men like you?”
“No. But perhaps a nice man will find you, regardless.”
Then we hang about on the Siren's island for awhile. We establish that she can turn her tail into legs, so I guess she doesn't need mermen after all and Bink didn't need to mentally ding her except that we had a quota to meet. She acts all pouty and seductive with Chester, and Crombie ribs him about it, including asking for a ride from the centaur. This is a long and belabored section that includes words like: slender, screamed, swished, strong, wiles, broad, sleek, handsomest, smartest, fastest, clap, girlishly, puffed, and praise. (Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to combine those in a better passage than this one.)
The passage concludes with the siren kissing Chester and Chester teasing her about Cherie on purpose, correctly guessing that the mention of his mate will cool the siren down. So obviously it was really great of him to not mention that until now, after he's gotten his praise and his kisses, but how else can he get his control kink filled? Anyway, they lie down for a good night's sleep and Bink remembers that he has a Code of Honor, but the only thing the siren wants for the night is sexy, and the narrative has forgotten that Humphrey exists, so Bink abandons his Code of Honor and goes to sleep.
Like, just to be clear, I don't think Humphrey should have been pressured to have sex with their host or whatever, but I do have all the side-eye at this whole everything being yet another "gosh, I am torn between an obligation to cheat and an obligation to be faithful, whatever shall I do??"
The siren, having given up on the centaur, nestled down in the dark beside Bink. “Say,” he said, remembering. “We have to give service for hospitality!”
Crombie squawked. “You give service, noodle-brain,” Grundy said. “You’re closest to her.”
“Service?” the siren inquired, nudging him.
Bink found himself blushing furiously in the dark. Damn Crombie’s innuendo! “Uh, nothing,” he said, and pretended to fall suddenly asleep.
The next day, they head off to visit the Gorgon, and this is a major writing challenge here because it's a young woman but it's a young woman who can't be described in terms of how pretty she is. So we're going to instead have to hear about how pretty she sounds.
Her voice was dulcet; she sounded even more attractive than her sister.
But is Bink attracted to the Gorgon? HE IS. Why? Because he likes to imagine that all women are threatening to him (including the hypothetical ones who could read his mind or explode him even though all the women in the narrative are non-threateningly sexy and submissive to men) so that when they beg him to bed them, he can feel powerful vicariously after having tamed something superlatively powerful / smart / sexy / whatever.
He wondered what it would be like to kiss the gorgon, with those snake-hairs twining around their two faces. The notion was both alarming and tempting. Yet what was the gorgon except the literal personification of the promise and threat embodied in every woman?
Here's the passage with her not knowing (or not being able to cope with) the reality of her talent, since otherwise no one will believe me (as it is just that impossible):
“Where are the other men who came to you?”
“They went away,” she said sadly. “Where did they go?”
“There,” she said, and Bink assumed she was pointing. “Beyond those rocks.”
Humfrey moved over to investigate. “These are statues,” he said, unsurprised. “Statues of men, exquisitely realistic. Carved, as it were, from life.”
From life …
“Yes,” she agreed brightly. “They look just like the men who came to me.”
“Does that not suggest anything to you?”
“The men left the gifts behind, pictures of themselves, sculptures. But I would rather have had the men stay with me. I have no use for stones.”
And here we come back to the problem of stupid women in this series because they aren't just individually stupid, they are literally held up to us by the narrative as reflective of the entire gender. Bink takes a moment to muse on how all girls are (deliberately) stupid, and all girls are dangerous, and all girls are seductive, but then he excuses his sainted wife from too much criticism while blaming everything he just said on Crombie the straw-misogynist lest Bink come off as unsympathetic.
Maybe she refused to realize the truth, blocking it out from her consciousness, pretending she was an ordinary girl. She refused to believe in her own magic. What a fateful delusion!
Yet, Bink thought, wasn’t this too typical of the thought processes of females? What one among them chose to recognize the mischief her sex worked among men!
But that was Crombie’s contention, therefore probably an exaggeration. There might be a little siren and a little gorgon in every girl, but not a lot. There was hardly any in Chameleon.
The Gorgon bewails for a bit about how she'd just do or say or give anything for a man, any man, "even a little one" (probably a reference to Humphrey being short, but feel free to insert a penis joke in there if you want), because she just wants so much to love and will settle for anyone who won't "leave" her. Bink's heart breaks for her, but not because WOW here is a woman who is so desperately lonely that she's ready to be miserable with any-man-at-all rather than continue in her miserable solace. (And oh, by the way, in this book her gaze doesn't work on women.) Instead, his heart breaks because she wants to be loved and instead she "destroys families" (actual words used; she is explicitly a home wrecker in Bink's thoughts) and the only thing Bink can think to do with her is "execution".
Not, I repeat NOT, shipping her to the new isle of Lesbos for all the lesbian women and asexual women to live together in harmony. Execution. Humphrey suggests that she go live in Mundania, and she's horrified at the thought of leaving her home and asks that he instead execute her. He balks from murdering her... because she's pretty. No really.
“Slay you? I would not do that! You are the most attractive creature I have ever seen, even through a mirror! In my youth I would have—”
The Gorgon comes on to Humphrey, which is probably because she's massively lonely and he's the first man to talk to her in years, but Bink calls her attentions "ordinary feminine artifice" because he's a judgmental control freak who is very probably pissy that someone other than him is getting all the attention for once. Then Bink decides to wax philosophical about how this intensely lonely and isolated woman is the best possible mate for Humphrey because he can know for certain that she's not into him for his magic, unlike all those other conniving women.
The Magician sighed. Was the old gnome tempted? It occurred to Bink that it might not have been disinterest in women that kept Humfrey single, but lack of a suitable partner. The average woman was not interested in a wizened, dwarfish old man—or if she expressed interest, it was likely to be only because she wanted a piece of his formidable magic. Here was a woman who knew nothing of him but his appearance, and was eager to love him, asking only his presence.
“My dear, I think not,” Humfrey said at last. “Such a course would have its rewards—I hardly deny it!—and I would normally be inclined to dally with you a day or three, though love be blindfolded. But it would require the resources of a Magician to associate safely with you, and I am on a quest that takes precedence, and may not—”
“Then dally a day or three!” she exclaimed. “Be blindfolded! I know no Magician would have interest in me, but even a Magician could not be more wonderful than you, sir!”
Then Humphrey dumps a spell of invisibility onto her face and now she can be friends with any man in Xanth so (a) it doesn't take a magician to safely tarry with her, it just took the people of Xanth doing their goddamn job to protect the citizens (TRENT) (also HUMPHREY) and (b) she could now totes go live a normal life with people but will instead wait here for the villagers to nearly murder her when the men are restored from stone later in the novel. Oh, and Humphrey manpains about what a shame it is to invisible her face because he "regret[s] that no man can look upon her face, since it is the loveliest part of her". Yeah, that's definitely the right thing to be manpaining about right now.
Something something Crombie still advocates killing the Gorgon, despite her being both an innocent and no longer dangerous, because he wants vengeance for the statues and because this lets the narrative toss off another "bitch". Something something Humphrey sends a report in to King Trent so that we can talk about how Iris is rude and difficult, but totes submissive to Trent, and also we get more creepy youth fetishizing.
Iris made a minor gesture of unconcern. “When I get around to it, midget,” she said.
The visage of King Trent appeared in the mirror behind her. Abruptly she assumed the aspect of a Sweet Young Thing, complete with long braids. “Which will be very soon, Good Magician,” she amended hastily. Trent waved jovially and tugged on a braid as the mirror went blank.
“How can she talk on the mirror?” Bink inquired. “It shows silent pictures for everyone else.”
“She is mistress of illusion,” Humfrey explained.
“Mistress of the King, you mean,” Crombie squawked.
The men go back to the village. The villagers weep for joy that the five male strangers have survived the night. They counsel the men to stay until the magic storms die down, but Bink fears that relaxing in the village would be "ruinous" because of all the "eager females". Bink and Trolla trade gender-based insults that are supposed to be adorable. ("Neither sex understood the other; that was yet another aspect of the magic of Xanth.") This segues into a section where a girl-griffin serves as their guide and she and Crombie call each other names.
The guide turned out to be a very pretty female griffin. “Squawk!” Crombie protested. “Awk! Awk!” she replied archly. “Don’t saddle us with a chick like that!” Grundy translated happily. “Who are you calling a chick? I’m a lioness!” “You’re a nuisance!” “And you’re a bore!” “Female!” “Male!”
“Uh, that’s enough translation, Grundy,” Bink said. “They’re down to ultimate insults.”
Then a fly that turns people into gold nearly lands on Crombie and the girl-griffin (who doesn't get a name, haha, anymore than the siren or the gorgon did and you're lucky that the girl-troll was Troll-a and not just girl-troll) sacrifices herself to save his life. The men who aren't Crombie chalk this up to "madness" (as they are passing though an area so thick with magic that their mental perception is altered) while using "madness" as a metaphor for loving behavior.
Then while Crombie wrestles silently with his manpain, the others move on to the really big problem: they don't have a guide. Like, I mean, that's a meaningful concern, but a member of their party--a nameless female member of their party--was just turned into gold. If they can't fix her, she's essentially died. There's no mourning here, hardly any acknowledgement that this is a terrible thing. It's literally like the stages of grief here are:
1. Huh. Weird.
2. Well, that's women for you. Love or madness, and what's the difference, really?
3. Shit, we don't have a guide now. That sucks.
“First we must pass through the madness—without a guide,” Chester pointed out.
Bink looked ahead, dismayed. Things had abruptly taken a more serious turn—and they had not been unserious before. “How can we find our way safely through this jungle, even without madness?”
I mean... maybe go back to the village, tell her friends what happened so that they can mourn (or recover her or fix her), and ask for another guide and/or a map this time?
Crombie pointed the way, and they went slowly on, leaving the gold lady griffin where she stood. There was nothing they could do for her—except complete their quest, hoping to find the magic that would restore her.
Crombie looked back twice, not squawking; he seemed to be having serious private thoughts. For him, the woman-hater, the female’s sacrifice had to be an awful enigma, of more significance than his own near-miss with the golden doom. As a soldier he was used to danger, but not to self-sacrifice.
I mean, this is almost the literal definition of Stuffed into the Fridge. A nameless female character is introduced just long enough to establish some sexual tension, and then the universe drops a bridge on her so that the man whose life she touched in her brief time on earth can use her fate to propel him to deal with his own issues and take action. It's not a great trope when it's done well, and it wasn't done well here at all.