Humour in Eleanor Arnason's Ring of Hwarhath Stories
Reviewed by Ruth Berman
29 March 2004
The first Hwarhath story, Eleanor Arnason's third novel, Ring of Swords (1993), began as a joke. Tired of the cliché that writers should choose themes close to their hearts, she took a theme quite distant from her heart -- military sf. Of course, by the time she got through with it, the clichés of bold fighting in space were turned upside-down. The Hwarhath's society has been structured on a basis of women at home running things and men on the borders (the "ring of swords") defending their home lands against each other. But the conquests and alliances have resulted in a united world, too obviously beneficial to abandon, but leaving them at a loss for outlets for what they consider unconquerable male aggressions, unless they can find enemies in outer space.
Ring of Swords chronicles the Hwarhath's discovery that humans are the wrong sort of enemy: humans approve of sparing women and children in war, but (unlike the Hwarhath) don't usually do it. A Hwarhath/human war would be the wrong sort of war, too brief and too destructive. And it would leave them with the same problem of looking for proper enemies.
It's characteristic of Arnason's work that a story with serious moral issues should start from a joke and play out with wry comedy. Her stories are both thematically serious and comic in a way that is often most riotously funny when it is quietest. In Ring of Swords, this sort of deadpan humor provides the climax: when the humans and Hwarhath men are settling for a war of total elimination, the aunts of the heroic Hwarhath general take charge. Big, booming aunts -- such as Saki or P.G. Wodehouse would have recognized -- they solve the dilemma in a messy, not entirely satisfactory, but completely practical way, leaving a lot of annoyingly hard work over a long time ahead of all of them.
But what makes the joke of the aunts' intervention so funny is that it isn't funny. Saki or Wodehouse would have played out such a scene -- the grown-up man being told what to do by his aunts and meekly doing it -- as wildly funny, thus reinforcing rather than undercutting the belief that grown-up men should not listen to the advice of a bunch of old women. But the Hwarhath society is built up so carefully that by the end of the story the reader understands that by Hwarhath standards it is only right and proper for Ettin Gwarha to be guided by his aunts and that people who listen to advice (including advice from old aunts) are likely to act more wisely than those who consider themselves entirely self-reliant. So the solution is not funny -- it's the recognition that a predictable comic cliché has turned unpredictably serious that's funny.
The quiet ending is funnier still because the solutions discarded beforehand include two clichéd heroic solutions that a more conventional and less practical writer would accept: conquering heroism or tragic heroism. The humans could get away with the information that humans need to attack first. But Ettin Gwarha gets the shuttle recalled. Or the Hwarhath could attack first, damaging their own moral system terribly by killing so many women and children. Ettin Gwarha would be one of many who would have to atone for leading such an attack by suicide, just as in the heroic tragedies of many a Hwarhath playwright (or human -- Shakespeare littered many fifth-act stages with noble dead bodies). The aunts' choice of an inconvenient, unheroic ending of hard work is more practical as well as more ethical.
Having developed this intricate and ingenious society, with the indications of its rich artistic and dramatic culture, for Ring of Swords, Arnason wanted to explore it further and wrote a series of Hwarhath "historical romances" and "myths" published in assorted magazines and anthologies. The first Hwarhath short story,"The Hound of Merin," strikes a new tone. It's still ironic, but more somber, as Merin Sul works his difficult way through the rigid Hwarhath rules of "decent" sexual behavior to a measure of happiness. Another historical romance, "The Lovers," similarly shows a pair of lovers breaking social rules -- heterosexual lovers, a concept shocking in Hwarhath society. Both stories are set in the time of Eh Manhata, the great heroic general of Hwarhath legend, the first unifier of the warring clans. And to some extent, as "The Hound of Merin" suggests, he's wise enough to deserve his status as culture hero, the first to tell Merin Sul to ignore rules. In "The Lovers," however, the story finds that Manhata's great generalship would not have been enough to establish a stable society, in spite of the many lineages he unified by conquest. An important hidden factor in the unification is the grace and charm of his unwarlike twin brother, Eh Shawin, whose adroitness at making procreation pleasant extends the Eh alliances further than the general's battles alone could do. Shawin leaves a breed of Eh genes in all the clans, but the Eh genes thus perpetuated are those of Eh Shawin the Lover. Eh Manhata the heroic general specializes in war, and has no offspring.
"The Semen Thief" changes tone again, this time to horror. Egged on by the ghosts of her slain kinsmen, a woman from a conquered lineage refuses adoption and tries to restore her lineage by stealing semen and killing the unlucky donors by way of concealment. She also steals a name, and this theft is her undoing. The Hrul eventually hear about a supposed Hrul accused of murder and send one of their women to check. The story ends with morals of varying seriousness, running from the straightforward common sense of "Don't let your life be run by ghosts" to the socially-mandated cruelty of "Be careful about compassion. There are some things which should not live."
The next change of pace was four Hwarhath myths. Like the historical romances, these stories are ironic and humorous, but quieter and more meditative, mulling over the paradox that for Hwarhath the qualities of piety and of being good humored or of having a good sense of humor are all the same noun, chulmar. The Great Mother, the Hwarhath Goddess, has chulmar, too. "The Goddess is full of tricks," say the Hwarhath, "but not (to our knowledge) malicious" ("Introduction to Ten Examples of Contemporary Hwarhath Fiction"). She appears in "The Gauze Banner," "The Small Black Box of Morality," "Origin Story," and "Feeding the Mother: a Hwarhath Religious Anecdote."
"Origin Story" and "The Small Black Box of Morality" are cognates to two myth-types common among humans: the creation of the world and how one species gained intelligence. As in Norse mythology, the Hwarhath universe begins with divinities formed out of ice. As in many mythologies, divine sex and conflict quickly follow, with surprising results. In "The Small Black Box of Morality," the gift of the knowledge of good and evil is not a forbidden knowledge, nor is the box a Pandora's box. Its problems come from the limits of people, not from the box itself, for First Man is conservative, reluctant to eat, while First Woman, more willing to try, is greedy enough to take the larger share. The Goddess has the final word on the gift of moral judgment, after the First Couple have eaten: "What happens after this ought to be interesting."
"The Gauze Banner" and "Feeding the Mother" are legends set not during the purely mythical period of "Origin" and the "Black Box" but in Hwarhath pre-history. "The Gauze Banner" is an upending of such myths as "Venus and Adonis." Hai Tsa manages to kill the wild sul that attacks him, instead of being killed by it, Adonis-style. The narrator is doubtful about the final results of this love: the Goddess says, "I make no promises," and Hai Tsa knows "The Goddess had no reputation for reliability." Still, Hai Tsa feels that life with the Goddess "would probably be interesting," and the serene balance of the closing rhythms seems to show that he's probably right. "Feeding the Mother" explains the origin of a Hwarhath ritual and shows Eh Manhata's piety. Warrior-like, he follows the order "Remember to feed the mother" by making a blood sacrifice out of his next group of prisoners. But a dream rebukes him. The Goddess appears, dripping blood, and asks for "milk and halin" (the Hwarhath alcohol equivalent) as more suitable. Eh Manhata does not have the sense of humor to see anything funny in the gulf between thinking the Goddess wants bloody death and thinking she wants nourishing food with a little intoxication, but he does have the piety -- in Hwarhath terms, the same thing -- to accept the correction.
The remaining three stories, "Dapple," "The Actors," and "The Potter of Bones," are historical romances, set in the years following Eh Manhata's death. They tell the life of Dapple, the first Hwarhath woman dramatist. As a cultural hero should, Dapple has a dark and troubled birth ("The Actors"): the elders of her birth-clan renege on their breeding contract with the Helwar clan and kill the resulting babies. One of the mothers hides rather than let her baby be killed. Helped by a cousin in love with a Helwar woman, she hires two wandering actors to get them away by disguising them as men, members of their acting troupe. The two men's profession turns out to be useful -- their performance of the Death of Eh Manhata distracts the attention of pirates who have captured them, so that the two women can go for help. The performance is distracting not only because it is a good performance, but because it disturbs the pirates, who are unhappy to learn that Eh Manhata's death was not heroic. He was betrayed and put to death by slow torture, which he did not suffer stoically, as a hero should. The question the pirates raise, of whether such an end betrays the heroism of the hero's life as a whole, remains unanswered in the story.
Dapple grows up among the Helwar ("Dapple") but loves acting, and disguises herself as a boy to run off with a troupe of actors. Again, the problem of what to do when a conquered lineage's women refuse to accept adoption by their conquerors poses a problem. Dapple in her boy-disguise is captured by bandits trying to keep their lineage going by forced breeding. She escapes to the Ettin clan (the ancestors of Ettin Gwarha in Ring of Swords). Again, there is deadpan humor in the characters' avoidance of the "obvious" solution -- execution for the bandits, and suicide for the warrior who kills women. Instead, his mother decides, they'll take the bandit-women captive and force adoption on them. Having these angry adoptees in the clan will mean endless trouble for her as clan matriarch. Mother and son take teasingly serious note of the messiness of their plan. She comments, "I asked myself, 'What is worse? Taiin's death, or a house full of unruly women?'" but adds, "I will endure the consequences." Taiin replies, "Think of the pleasure you'll be able to take in my continued survival. Not every mother your age has a living son, especially one with my excellent moral qualities." Dapple, watching them, imagines the loving, indomitable mother and son as characters in a play, but has trouble imagining how their solution could be dramatized. "In a hero play, of course, the captain would die and the matriarch mourn." Dapple realizes at last that she desires to be an actor not just because she loves acting but because she wants to write plays that show things male playwrights have not seen. Her voice is needed to say things that otherwise would not be said. The matriarch shocks her son by agreeing with Dapple, and so Dapple's career is set: she will write plays less shapely than either violent tragedy or sexy comedy, but closer to the complexities of real life.
Dapple becomes a secondary character in the story of her maturity, "The Potter of Bones." The main character is Dapple's great love, the Potter. The Potter, a Darwin long before her society is ready to have a Darwin, invents the theory of evolution from studying the fossils she finds in the mountains. She imagines flesh back onto the fossil bones, and ornaments her pots with extinct creatures. Dapple as playwright looks for material more complicated than the simple division of tragic violence or comic procreation, but the Potter's vision of evolution finds the simple principles of Death and Beauty leading to the expanding complexity of life. She tells her ideas to the Ettin matriarch, and the narrator believes that the Ettin lineage's power came about in part because the Potter's ideas led the Ettin to special care in arranging breeding contracts and in planning for the future generally.
This last group of Hwarhath stories has been especially popular. Gardner Dozois, besides publishing "Dapple" and "The Potter of Bones" in Asimov's, included them in his annual Year's Best Science Fiction. He also used both "The Potter of Bones" and the earlier "The Lovers" as cover stories, and Gordon Van Gelder likewise made "The Actors" a cover story in F&SF. "The Potter of Bones" is one of this year's Nebula Award nominees in the novella category (winner to be announced April 17). It's to be hoped that eventually some publisher will bring out all the Hwarhath short stories as a volume, complete with "Introduction to Ten Examples of Contemporary Hwarhath Fiction," by way of preface.
In the meantime, the mixed tragedy and comedy in these stories, with the many varieties of irony and deadpan humor uppermost in the mix, will give delight to the readers who find the individual stories.
Copyright © 2004 Ruth Berman
Ruth Berman's books include editing Sissajig and Other Surprises (a collection for the International Wizard of Oz Club of short stories and poems by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Baum's successor in the Oz series), The Kerlan Awards in Children's Literature, 1975-2001 (Pogo Press), and Dear Poppa, a WWII family chronicle in letters (Minnesota Historical Society Press). Her dissertation (Suspending Disbelief, University of Minnesota) was on the development of fantasy as a genre in Victorian literature. Her articles on fantasy and sf have appeared in Extrapolation, Children's Literature in Education, F&SF, Sphinx, etc. She is among the five co-authors of Autumn World, a group science fiction novel (FTL Publications), and her work has appeared in such magazines and anthologies as Asimov's, F&SF, Tales of the Unanticipated, Dragon Fantastic, New Worlds, Xanadu, etc. She and Arnason have been friends since seventh grade.
Ring of Swords, Tor Books, 1993.
"The Hound of Merin," Xanadu 1, ed. Jane Yolen, 1993.
"The Lovers." Asimov's, July 1994.
"The Semen Thief." Amazing, Winter 1994.
"The Small Black Box of Morality." Tales of the Unanticipated 16, 1996.
"Feeding the Mother: a Hwarhath Religious Anecdote." Paradoxa, Vol. 4 #310, 1998.
"Introduction to Ten Examples of Contemporary Hwarhath Fiction." Paradoxa, Vol. 4 #10, 1998.
"The Gauze Banner." More Amazing Stories, ed. Kim Mohan, 1998.
"Dapple." Asimov's, Sept. 1999; reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Seventeenth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois, 2000.
"The Actors." F&SF, Dec. 1999.
"Origin Story." Tales of the Unanticipated 20, 2000.
"The Potter of Bones." Asimov's, Sept. 2002; reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twentieth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois, 2003.