I'm gonna deviate from the chapter-by-chapter review real quick, and just talk about some of the stuff I've been reading lately. Mostly because the character in that last link makes for a really beautiful comparison with Paks, and...well, I'd like to get some thoughts set down before I move on with the reviews.
Most of those links go to critiques on a movement defined as Christian Patriarchy, a word that I never thought I'd be using to define anything. It's also known as "quiverfull". And it's fucking terrifying. It's also the world that I grew up in. The second-to-last link is to a book written by one of the board-of-directors for a magazine called Homeschooling Today, which pretty much ruled my childhood. Now, I was extremely lucky. My parents either disagreed with a lot of that nonsense, or else they were never engaged enough in that world to put a lot of emphasis on most of it, but I still got a lot of it via osmosis. Especially what some of those linked blogs call "Purity Culture". I had a promise ring, I was taught that sex before marriage was morally wrong, and when I was raped the very first thing a family member assured me was that the act was not a sin because actual penetration did not occur (this was also one of the reasons it took me a solid fucking year to even call what happened rape)
I also wound up working for a family. In the interests of not pissing off a lot of people, I'm going to call them the Matthews. Their real names are highly recognizable in the homeschooling/quiverful/Patriarchy movement. And working for them was...interesting. They had an extraordinarly large family and ran a tea room slash bookstore, originally staffed by the family but, as the business grew they employed a lot of people who weren't family and who weren't involved in their movement at all. One of them was an atheistic professional wrestler who kept the rest of us sane. It was a very frilly, perfect, pink world and he did not fit in at all. I did, mostly because I was raised on the fringes of that world, and my homelife was so very very fucked up I was eager to belong anywhere at all.
I did meet several of their daughters. One of them--I'll call her Megan--seemed to make several attempts to connect with me. There was a lot of pressure, both from the Matthews and from my family at home, to conform to a standard of behavior that I had effectively outgrown several years prior. The Worst Thing I Ever Did On The Internet happened during this time period. For the record, I still hate that I did that, wish I could take it back, and regret ever having that attitude. The only thing I can say in my defense was that I was desperate for any kind of positive reception, both from my family and from the Matthews, and one thing I knew very well was that any association with something as controversial as LGBT material would cause every "responsible" adult in my life to reject me, further criticize me, and continue to heap a lot of negative feedback on me. When you're raised in that lifestyle, you are constantly fed a diet of conditional love and live in a near-constant fear of rejection. You are told that your spiritual life is conditional on being exactly right in every thought--you're not allowed to even think about deviating from what the authority figures decree as acceptable. Everything about your life is controlled. Every. Single. Thing.
I have absolutely NO idea why I didn't buy it all hook, line and sinker. Especially because the face the Matthews presented was very, very attractive. Two loving, thoughtful parents, a whole bunch of brothers and sisters who (as far as I knew) never fought. A successful, extremely pretty business that was everything I'd ever wanted to run, and all I had to do was conform to their ideals to be accepted.
I think one thing that saved me was my mother's complete indifference to my reading material. Another was probably my faith. It's a weird idea, that a Christian's belief system can save them from a Christian belief system, but that's what I credit it to. I went through a very long spiritual experience when I was a teenager about my love for fantasy books, and how much I wanted to write them myself, that basically ended with God dragging out the clue-by-four and making it very clear that he had no problem whatsoever with elves and fairies and dragons, so would I please get over myself already. So I came into the Matthew's world with a fort built out of Tolkien, McCaffrey, Lewis, Weber, you name it. Some of these weren't the best material in terms of feminism or politics, but the resounding awareness that God didn't care made any attempts at thought control bounce off like rubber bullets. One of the more telling incidents I had with the Matthews was when I asked why The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe wasn't among the books offered. I thought it was a natural, (The Princess and the Goblin was very much in evidence) but they explained that they found Lewis's theology to be heretical, and that too many of their customers--all of whom went to the same church--felt that the talking animals were demonic.
But the incident that makes me connect the Matthews and Quiverful with Paksennarion involved a John Ringo novel. There are many reasons why an eighteen year old girl shouldn't be reading a John Ringo novel, and many, many things that a Christian of any character would find objectionable, but the thing that Ms. Matthews disliked about the novel I had brought into her business was the cover. This cover.
And now I finally get it: It's a woman in BDUs. And for once, she's not an object of titillation (at least, not in my opinion). Instead, she's forceful, she's determined, she's competent, and she's going into war because she needs to. It's the kind of cover that I look at right now and go "DAMN I'd like to be her". And it wasn't that perfect, pink, prissy Victorian image the Matthews valued in their girls. This was a woman who would do things for her world and herself...and not one whose responsabilities to the world (and, for that matter, ambitions reguarding that world) ended at the front door of her home.
The image the Matthews wanted to portray to the world is best summed up by the Elsie Dinsmore Series, something that they sold in their bookstore as part of the "Life of Faith" book and toy line. Yes, toy line. Each set of books (about a different good, dutiful, faithful Christian girl) were paired with a doll, like the American Girl series. Only the books were bigger, the clothes were more frilly, and the contents between the pages were absolutely fucking toxic.
I've re-read the first two books in that series. Elsie is a little girl who is neglected by her father, dumped in with her plantation-owning extended relations, who also neglect her when they're not verbally abusing her. Her father comes back, extends the verbal abuse to emotional and, IMHO, physical abuse--withholding and restricting food. Elsie is also a very legalistic Christian. Saved, of course, but she also applies every single rule in the Old Testament to her lifestyle (something that most denominations agree renders that whole crucifixion thing null and void; there is absolutely NO discussion of Grace in these books) This leads to a showdown between Elsie and her father, who asks her to read a worldly book to him on a Sunday, while he's sick. She refuses because it would be dishonoring God, and he withdraws all of his affection, love and support until she agrees to obey him over God. This escalates over the course of the second book until he has removed her black nursemaid--the nearest thing to a mom this little girl has--to another plantation (Yeah, I'm not even going to start touching the racism in this series). Eventually the little girl gets sick--the book heavily implies it is from a broken heart--and the father stays away until she's hours away from dying, at which point he comes home, sees what a terrible asshole he's been, gets saved, and tells his daughter he will never again oppose God in her heart. Snuggles abound. If I remember right, the little girl then goes on to marry her father's best friend when she is sixteen and he is nearing his forties. And this doesn't even begin to touch the emotionally incestuous relationship between Daddy and Daughter. Nothing about this series is healthy. Not the spirituality, not the father-daughter relationship, not the husband-wife relationship that comes later.
The original publisher of the reformatted Elsie books and dolls is now defunct (the owner and operator got caught with his pants down, literally, and the entire operation folded last year) but they are still being marketed and sold by a different company. Which means there is a generation of girls being brought up to believe that devotion unto death to an abusive shit of a dad is best--and that God is exactly the same as Daddy.
The contrast between Elsie and Paks is pretty damn interesting, because (if you ignore the made-up paganism) the two characters both display the behaviors praised by everybody in the Quiverful movement. Both Paks and Elsie are virginal. Both Paks and Elsie are competent, dilligant in doing good (by their own definition) honest to a fault. Eventually Paks does take on a spiritual commitment, and displays the same devotion to that that Elsie does to God. And both do go through a trial of martyrdom (which isn't exactly the PC high point of Paksenarrion, either). But there's a very strong difference between the two, that makes Paks's story relatively healthy and Elsie's so fucking toxic it's unreal.
First, there's the purity angle, which really hasn't come up in Paks's story, and continues to stay under the radar for like, 90% of the rest of the story. Elsie is a virgin until she weds because...well, that was the culture of the age and that was "doing what was right". It wasn't a choice she made so much as something that was strictly enforced. Paks is a virgin because Paks doesn't give a shit about relationships or sex. The irony here is that there's an oft-quoted verse in Corinthians that, according to Quiverful people, commands women to marry so they are not tempted to have sex before marriage. In my interpretation (and, IMHO, reality) that verse is basically saying "If you want to have sex, get married. I would really rather you not, as it's easier to consider spiritual things when you don't have somebody else--especially children--in your life, but people have biological drives and if you're one of them, get hitched so that nobody can criticize your faith." The point of that passage, and a lot of the passages in the New Testament, is that you police your behavior, not because you're trying to earn forgiveness, but because you don't want to be a bad example and lead people away from Christ by being an idiot. It's not a commandment to get married. Paul very clearly says that it is better for someone who doesn't have a sex drive to just not have sex--mostly because you don't want to have sex--and that the people who do have sex drives should get married first because that way they'll be above criticism.
Then there's the devotion angle. Paks is devoted to her commanders, her comrades and, eventually, the form of spirituality she adopts. Elsie is devoted to her father and her God. Elsie is devoted to the point that it is domineering, obsessive, and very unhealthy. Elsie is an extraordinarly unhappy little girl. When she is happy, it is because someone has given her kindness--usually that her father has displayed his love for her physically. The emphasis on the physical relationship between father and daughter in this series is utterly fucking nauseating. Elsie is always throwing herself on her father, covering him in kisses, begging for a "caress", yearning to be kissed by her father, wondering aloud if her father would ever love her, and is frequently described as being desperate for her father's love and physical affection. Contrast with Paks, who was ordered by her father to enter into a physical relationship she didn't want to have with a man she didn't like. She held her dad off with her grandfather's sword and ran the fuck away.
The religion angle is trickier to debate. The religion surrounding Gird greatly resembles Christianity (the image of a god-man/saint) but the religion in the book is basically paganism. Imaginary paganism, but paganism. There's a universal polytheistic viewpoint that is not presented in the Elsie Dinsmore books. Instead, religion is universally Christian, and is the Protestant Evangelical Christianity of the early 1900s, when the novels were originally written. But the way they can be compared is in the effects on the women's lives.
Paks, for example, is raised without religion. She is aware of it, but has no devotion towards it. In the story so far, we've begun to see a slow movement towards it. At the risk of spoiling the entire book for you, Paks will continue to move towards a religious point of view. She feels called to it and responds to the call as best she can, knowing nothing about it whatsoever. Religion in her life is a positive influence, giving her strength to endure the difficult times and joy when she isn't having a particular struggle. But it's consistently presented as a choice, not an obligation. She eventually chooses a pantheon and follows its rules. But she does so, not out of a sense of obligation or a fear of punishment here or in the afterlife, but because she values the religion and the god(s) she chooses to follow. In a way, it is treated very much like a healthy romance. Paks never surrenders her autonomy or her right to choose. She consistently makes the choices. That these choices are usually in favor of her gods and sometimes not in her favor is, in itself a choice that she makes with full understanding. And this, in turn, provides the religion she follows with a fullness and reality. It makes her religion into something a person would choose to die for, not out of a sense of obligation or a fear of punishment, but because it's just worth that much.
In contrast, Elise is raised by a Christian slave and a Scottish matron to reguard religion as a duty and an obligation. She has to be Christian if she wishes to be good. And the form of Christianity Elise is expected to practice is overwhelmingly toxic. Old Testament verses are very frequently quoted, and the confrontations between Elsie and her father all hinge around doing things on the Sabbath--something that Christ directly addressed in the New Testament, in such a way as to make the entire argument moot even without the doctrine of grace. Which is not present anywhere in the Elsie Dinsmore novels. Every single page is about how you have to follow all the rules perfectly, or else. For those of you who are not Christian and have no idea what I'm talking about, it's the religious equivilant of being given a bone marrow donation, and then continuing to take blood transfusions because you're afraid the new marrow isn't enough, even though every single doctor tells you that the new marrow has you covered. Most of Elsie's actions are portrayed as a lack of choice: She is religious because she is presented with no other option. She is good, because a lack of goodness means a loss of favor. She loves God because she fears rejection and hell. When her father draws the line and demands she agree to follow him over God--in an extraordinarly improbable and convoluted series of events--Elsie effectively throws up her hands and decides that she's going to die instead. At no point does Elsie ever make a choice beyond the status quo.
Also: She's eight when this is going on.
The most telling moment, however, is the prerequisite martyr scene. I'm not sure we'll ever get to that scene in Paksenarrion, but I'll attempt a spoiler-free summery: Paks is asked to trade her life for the life of an important figure. One of them, either Paks or this figure, will be tortured for two days and two nights in a religious ceremony for a dark God. Paks makes the trade, we get about a chapter of utterly horrible stuff, and then God shows up and fixes everything. During this period, she takes everything they give her, continually prays for them, and never once lashes out at her tormenters in anger...though when it's over, she pretty much goes to town on the asses of anyone dumb enough to admit they were there. I still have not decided how I feel about this scene...but I've never been put in a position where I have to make a choice like that. It's a choice that is literally life and death, both for Paks and for the kingdom she's attempting to aid. But for all that, the one positive I see in it is that this is a political move, not a religious one. Ultimately, it is a choice that Paks's type of character would make, reguardless of religious beliefs, and it is treated, not as a display of obligation or duty, but as something a hero would do, above and beyond the call of duty. She does not need to do this. She's doing it because she can't do anything else.
Elsie Dinsmore's "martyrdom" scene is not over someone else's life. It's over her refusing to read a book to her father on the Sabbath. Somehow this manages to go from "Go sit in time out" to a religious ultimatum--follow either God or Daddy--and Elsie's action is basically to stand perfectly still, pray that God will change her Daddy, and wish to die before she gets shipped off to Catholic school. The advice adults give her--ADULTS--is to sit still and keep praying, and maybe God will fix things. Nobody ever tells her that her father is being abusive to her, and she is constantly and consistently portrayed as defending her father's behavior. Finally, in what is probably the single worst scene in the entire series, she becomes deathly ill for no reason other than emotional upset (Literally. The doctors in this book literally say this) and is sitting on death's door having terrifying halucinations about evil nuns. Daddy comes home, sees his beautiful daughter raving in the grips of a terrible illness, and repents, gets saved, and promises never to get between his child and God again. Elsie is literally brought back from the dead by her father's repentance. The book is literally saying that if you hold fast in the face of abuse, eventually your suffering and pain will make your abuser stop hurting you and everything will be roses. It makes all the sunshiny-rosey scenes with Daddy later all the worse, because nothing says that Daddy won't backslide. The abuse of Elsie continues, cumulating in her marriage to a man twenty years her senior who has known her since she was a little girl. It's less Pride and Prejudice and more Humbert Humbert.
This series is being marketed right now to very young girls.
Spirituality can be a good thing. Christianity is my choice, and it's one I've made without reservation. yes. I was raised in it. It's still my choice. But when it is presented with this level of toxic mind control, it's a highly negative, life killing factor. And it should always be practiced in a spirit of joy, not a sense of obligation or duty. If it's creating that sense, there's a problem. And if it's restricting your choices, it's either time to reassess theology or just jump ship entirely. God's big enough to be patient while you get your life in order.
Let's just say if I ever have daughters, they'll be reading Paksenarrion, not Elsie Dinsmore.