Castle Roogna, Part 6
Chapter 10 (Battle) gives us the scene on the front cover of the book, where Dor learns how to communicate with his workers, and to inspire them to obedience. Unfortunately, he accomplishes this by helping the head centaur conspire to sexually assault his wife. But the book hastens to assure us that this is all harmless shenanigans because she was totally asking for it by being evil and probably this is just consensual sexy power games. Or something.
But first we'll check in with Good Magician Roogna, who I'm increasingly convinced is evil.
[Dor and Jumper] arrived at Castle Roogna without further significant event, in the afternoon. The King was highly gratified by their tidings. “So you persuaded the Zombie Master! How did you do that?”
“Actually, Millie did it,” Dor said, remembering the possible limitations of his own actions. “She is marrying the Zombie Master.”
“That must have been some effort you people put forth!”
“It was.” Better to omit the details.
Millie isn't present for this conversation, by the way; she and the Zombie Master are trailing a day or two behind because the zombie army moves more slowly than Dor and Jumper did and they wanted to get to Roogna first to let him know help was on the way. Just to be clear that there aren't any social cues in this scene of Millie snuggling happily in Jonathan's arms or whatever.
We know, because we've been along for the narrative ride, that the Zombie Master is a fairly decent person and that this marriage is mostly consensual. But Roogna has no means of knowing that, and he's fully aware that Millie's talent is sexual appeal. So this comment of his strikes me as a very strange non-sequitur; "that must have been some effort" makes no sense to me in this context. Xanth is implied to be medieval-flavored at this point in history and to be somewhat aware of medieval tropes (even if they don't make a lot of sense in context), and Roogna should be fairly versed in the idea of marriage treaties and marriage alliances.
There's absolutely no sense in the narrative that all marriages in Xanth are imagined to be love-matches, so it seems unlikely to me that Roogna would be saying "gosh, they fell in love awfully fast, didn't they!" And, really, "I'll marry you if you support my home kingdom in time of war" is one of the oldest forms of marriage treaties. If we treat the Zombie Master as a separate political entity from larger Xanth (and everyone in the novel does), then this is precisely what Millie can be viewed to have brokered.
Since Roogna is aware of the concept of marriage for power or protection (it will come up later that Neo-Sorceress Vadne has been trying to broker such a match for herself), then presumably his surprise is that the Zombie Master would accept mere Millie-the-maid as a wife? But that makes no sense because again we're back to this weird classism that literally can't exist in this world. It's not reasonable for men to look down on Millie as a mere maid when (a) the low population and overall social conditions can't and clearly don't support the concept of a noble class, and (b) by the standards of this world, Millie is the most desirable woman in her generation because she will never NOT be sexually yummy for her husband.
What stays with me the most, though, is that Roogna never even thinks to check in to make sure that Millie is okay with this match and wasn't forced into it by the zombie-army-owning magician, the ruthless barbarian, or the fact that without this match she'll be consumed by Murphy's goblins (or Mundanes) by the end of the week. Anyway. Dor goes off to oversee construction of the castle defenses, and the head-overseer centaur is a jerk to him. Dor pulls him off to a private area and decides to make peace with the guy.
Dor turned and looked at the centaur’s work harness. “What is his name?” he asked it.
“Cedric Centaur,” the harness replied. The centaur jumped, startled but unspeaking.
“What is his real problem?” Dor asked.
“He’s impotent,” the harness responded.
“Hey, you can’t—” Cedric started. But it was too late for him to conceal his secret.
[...] “This stallion can’t stallion. Every time he tries to—’ ”
“Enough!” Cedric cried. “I told you I’d work the catapult, or any other chore! And I won’t call you bug lover any more! What more do you demand?”
Dor was getting a notion of the problem. It was similar to what his body felt when he stopped it from responding to Millie or to an inviting nymph. “I’m not demanding anything. I’m just—”
“Put him with a filly, he’s a gelding,” the harness quipped. “You never saw anything so—”
[...] “What is responsible for Cedric’s impotence?”
“A spell, of course,” the harness said, chastened.
Now the centaur was startled. “A spell?”
[...] “So the stronger the urge, the stronger the hang-up,” Dor said, remembering his experience in the antenna forest. That was a mean sort of spell!
“So when he gets close to his sexy dapplegray filly, he—”
“I’m going to burn this harness!” Cedric cried. But he did not seem wholly displeased. He must have believed his condition was a fault of his own, and the discovery that an external spell caused it was good news.
[...] “Who cast it?” Dor asked.
“Celeste did it,” the harness replied smugly.
“That’s my filly!” Cedric cried. “Why would she—” He paused, his unhandsome face working. “Why that little bitch of an equine! No wonder she was so understanding! No wonder she always made such a point of being true to me! She knew why I couldn’t—”
“I’m sorry I can’t discover the cure,” Dor said.
“Don’t bother about that, Magician!” Cedric said. “Centaurs don’t work magic; she had to have gotten the spell from some human witch. All I need to do is go to a shyster warlock and buy a counterspell. But I won’t tell Celeste—” He smiled with grim lust. “Oh, no, I won’t tell her! I’ll just let her lead me on as usual, teasing me, and I’ll fake it until— oh, is she going to get a surprise!”
This is a long section. The full bit is over 600 words, and of course we get the comparisons between physical impotence and how Dor feels because he chooses not to have sex with Millie, and of course not having sex by choice is definitely the same as not having sex by physical imposition, and also clearly these are the worst things ever and definitely why Cedric is a huge narking asshole all the time to everyone. Sigh.
We're never told why Celeste put an impotence spell on her mate. Certainly Cedric doesn't suspect her of it; he asks the harness whether it was caused by a male rival of his. Apparently Celeste prefers her mate unable to have sex with her and (as far as Cedric can tell) she doesn't seek out sex with anyone else. She's pretty clearly being made out here to be evil for the lulz--she's sketchily characterized as being of a Rayford Steelesque control kink persuasion, where she likes teasing Cedric knowing that he wants to and can't. Obviously, this is evil of her; she's hugely transgressing on his bodily autonomy and emotionally abusing him.
But considering the horrific rape culture in these books, I'm more than a little displeased with the inclusion of a female villain whose villainy does technically boil down to making it impossible to sex her when she doesn't want to be sexed by anyone. If we put any kind of thought into Celeste's actual motivations behind this scheme--and I'm pretty confident that the author probably didn't--it sounds like she snagged herself a socially- and physically-powerful mate in order to protect herself from the other male centaurs in the herd and then ensured that her mate wouldn't sex her up either.
And, again, Celeste is doing really terrible things that ought not be done. But this is happening against the backdrop of a story where all the good guys are "honorably" engaging in war and genocide because ideological chess is more fun when actual people die. The gap between goodness and evilness in this book is somewhat startling, especially when the most Evil (with a capital-E, as provided by the narrative lingering on her crimes) woman we're shown so far seems pretty clearly to be trying to avoid being raped by anyone in her herd.
And the solution, of course, to her evilness is to rape her--or at least that's what this section reads like to me. I'd like to quote Arthur B here of FerretBrain, if I may, in the context of Conan trying to rape someone who led him on believing that sex wouldn't happen because of her own secret schemes:
It is of course indisputable that Atali was there to provoke Conan - that was kind of the plan. At the same time, there's a name for the sort of person who responds to provocation with rape, and that's "rapist". I'm not saying I'd necessarily respond well if someone plotted to lure into an ambush so their brothers can kill me, most people wouldn't. But it'd at least get me to reconsider the situation.
[...] Conan doesn't work like that. He's here for sex and by Crom he's going to have it, whether Atali likes it or not. The fact that she's no longer teasing him or snidely suggesting that a real man would have chased her down already, that she's now scared and running to get away from this situation, means nothing to him. There's even a creepy rape-as-punishment vibe to make the whole thing extra nasty.
It's just barely short of possible, I think, to maybe squint really hard at this scene and believe that Cedric and Celeste are both terrible people and this whole thing is some kind of vaguely-consensual prankery between them that has escalated to this point. Maybe after he has surprise-sex with her (ack), she'll give him a sly look and tease him that, gosh, it took him forever to figure that prank out. Maybe next week they'll move on to hiding scorpions in each other's shoes or something. (Or whatever centaurs do to prank each other, I guess they don't have shoes.)
Except that that would require Cedric to have the sort of relationship where he suspects Celeste or at least doesn't trust her so implicitly that he's thoroughly shocked that she would be the one to cast the spell on him. That scene would read more like "what the heck, an impotence spell? Who would-- oh. Oooooh. Yeah, okay, same page now. I'ma need a counterspell, and some quiet time to figure out what to do next because, haha, she got me good that time."
To be clear, I don't actually want that scene, because I'm not a fan of even consensual pranking to this extreme level of bodily transgression. But even if I were okay with it, that's simply not the scene we have. We have a scene where a man trusts his wife, learns that trust to be misplaced, and grimly plots to sexually assault her--with, in my opinion, the suggested overtones that the sex will be hurtful in order to punish her. And this is presented as a pretty standard "how to win friends and influence people" interlude for our young protagonist who intends to apply these lessons-learned to when he's king someday.