WARNING – SPOILERS!
Having just finished “The Untold Tale”, I wanted to share my thoughts regarding why this story is not just enjoyable, but also important.
The Tale starts simply and familiarly enough. By the second chapter, I was thoroughly hooked in its lyric, Medievalist romance. A man was in love with the mystery a woman presented, without really knowing her. I knew this place. It was home.
And then this home was literally wrecked by the boozing, brawling, boorish Kintyre Turn — embodiment of what ‘take what they want’ heroes are really like — and his bum boy Bevel Dom. Feel free to read as much into that name as you like. It’s all appropriate.
The Untold Tale shines a light on what conventional fantasy stories do to women: We fall in love with them of our own volition, then they figuratively “rape” us by showing, again and again, that we are inherently less. We are trophies. We must wear pretty dresses — or perhaps very little — and, going back to Tolkien, if we do otherwise, it is a minor tragedy or a casualty of war. When we are permitted to be warriors, it’s of the silly “chainmail bikini” type. Chainmail bikinis are visual metaphors that female warriors are just for show, and frequently they become the sexual conquests of male heroes after being bested in battle. The books, movies, TV shows and video games make this sound consensual, but it is, to borrow a term from Tales, “dub-con”, or dubious consent: sex is conflated with victory for men and defeat for women, and this is okay, because this is the way the world works. This is an extremely unhealthy sexual message, as it leads to feelings of guilt over the sexual practices of even the most self-assured woman. The proper place for “strong women” is as the trophies of the heroes, which are themselves narrow cartoons of masculinity.
No one likes to talk about rape. It’s ugly. It’s scary. But we use it so much in fiction, and few stop to ask why. As a fantasy trope, it’s “the worst thing that can happen to a woman”. This is destructive, since it constructs a “fate worse than death” narrative for real-life women who are raped. Our fiction should be supporting survivors of rape, not making them believe that they are worse than dead, unlovable, and defiled. The stigma of rape does as much damage to the survivor as the act of violence itself, and narrative deaths — women who disappear from stories after being raped, often in drug-induced stupors to “calm their hysteria”, are common.
The Untold Tale is an allegorical, meta-text examination of these phenomena. It’s a dissection of the soft, vulnerable underbelly of gender. But it’s also a good story and draws you in to the unconventional romance of Lucy Piper and Forsyth Turn. Both Lucy and Forsyth are damaged by the demands of their respective gender roles — Forsyth is insecure and beaten down because he’s an introvert. A “beta-male” as we would call him, but also a gentleman. He doesn’t “own” his beta status by reveling in his lack of physical stature or becoming the ‘gross out’ buddy. He’s wounded by it, because he’s not allowed to be anything else until Lucy Piper comes into his life.
Lucy is a “breaking of the fourth wall” in a deliberate and multifaceted way. She’s a visceral, graphic. jarring depiction of how the “romantic” plots of adventuring stories aren’t romantic at all when you’re really experiencing them. She is a student of the lies in the fiction of a proxy for writers like George R. R. Martin, whose Cable TV adaptation “Game of Thrones” brings rape culture into our living rooms to great financial success. She is so acutely aware of the lies in masculist fantasy that she is blocked from her own truths. She nearly pushes Forsyth away, who is the embodiment of something real and lasting. She just can’t trust it because he’s a component of a well-constructed fallacy. She is aware that fantasy fiction seems to succeed by creating an abusive relationship with the reader, but she still can’t stop going back to the abuse.
Lucy — who is not only a modern woman, but a Westernized Asian character — reflects the love/hate relationship that many women have with conventional fantasy: we are drawn to the adventure. We hate our role in it. We laugh at the places where the writing is lazy, and we try to salvage the ill-treatment of the asexualized male characters by homoeroticizing them. Characters like Frodo Baggins are denied the most human of desires — the desire to love and be loved in return. Our modern society equates asexuality with homosexuality in men, and so the prolific underground phenomenon of slash fiction has been born. The thing about this fan writing is that it tells some very real truths about how much women identify with, and want to save and validate, these demasculinized, desexualized characters. The great shame of the fantasy tradition is that for all the things that those that came after Tolkien have copied, they have not continued the idea that an action hero is not automatically god’s gift to all women. Forsyth Turn takes after Tolkien’s Faramir, who wins the heart of the warrior Eowen after she realizes Aragorn is something of a chauvinist. Ironically, the scene in the Lord of the Rings where this is explained is cut from the film version. In the Untold Tales, it’s the whole story… this is why this book is called “The Untold Tale”. It’s all the things that exist in fantasy that aren’t talked about.
Characters exist below the waist. Guys who read can be heroes. We get to see the after effects of rape, see the pain and the confusion of a woman having to work through that aftermath. We see the dirt, and the smells, and the down time. The tedium of going from place to place. These are the things that are usually scrubbed out of fantasy stories.
The Untold Tale is not treatise. It is not a thesis, nor is it a manifesto. It’s a cry for help. It’s a woman who loves these stories begging for them to stop hurting her. She stamps her feet. She cries and screams. She makes futile demands. It is only when she realizes that the world of fantasy does not want her, that it is repelling her, that she can see a very real, very wonderful man, for who he really is. The scars on Lucy’s back are the scars we woman all have as fantasy fans: we are the damsel in distress, not the reluctant “man-against-world” adventurer. We are the seductress, not the Byronic hero. The inherent qualities of these types of characters are comparable. All that differs is the gender. The roles forced on women are, in themselves, rapes of our independence and our ambition.
The Untold Tale is, in places, difficult to read. It contradicts itself, relies on the same tropes and devices it skewers, and it never seems to quite be what you want it to be. It is a world that embraces and rejects the reader in turns. It’s self-aware fantasy. And that’s the point. It’s not one thing, because real people aren’t one thing.
Yes, it’s a foreign entity in the world of fantasy. We have a lot of male satire and farce through David Eddings and Terry Pratchett, but when a woman does it, suddenly it is true satire — uncomfortable satire. It’s… “icky” in places when it forces us to look somewhere we’re not ready to see. And like a good abusive relationship, then it’s kind to us again, loving, and begs us to come back. Books like this need a chance. Truths like this need a chance to live. Will we have to painstakingly explain the first book? And the second? And possibly even a third? Yes. But there are those of us prepared to do that. We need causes to champion. We need works we can support. We need things we can hold up on our shoulders and claim as our own, instead of constantly being foreigners in a land ruled by men, and bolstered by colonized and co-opted female voices.
The battle to reclaim the feminine voice in fiction is one we have a responsibility to fight, and it’s a losing battle if we don’t champion books that Speak the Words of our magic. Our words of power may sound like irritating static to the white, male-dominated world of fiction right now, but that’s because no one is currently attempting to present them as inherently good. Lucy had to first learn some of Forsyth’s language, as we learned the writings of Tolkien and Martin and Pratchett and Eddings and Brooks and so on. Now, as Forsyth entered Lucy’s world, so must the publishing patriarchy: ignorant, small, but willing to listen and be better.
Sincerely,The Untold Tale – Liana K.’s Review