“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” — C. S. Lewis
I’m no expert on history. But somewhere along the way I picked up this idea that it is always a good idea to familiarize your self with primary sources as much as you can. And of course guys like Tolkien and Lewis spent a great deal of time reading extremely old poetry– they had a pretty extensive Appendix N of their own that doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore. And many works of science fiction pretty much take as their core premise putting ancient history into space– Asimov’s treatment of the Roman Empire in the Foundation series springs to mind. All of that led me to pick up and read the Gododin.
I settled back and allowed these words from the past to soak in– it’s magical, really… that a voice can be preserved in such a manner. Again, I’m no expert… but let me share my initial reactions:
- The poet was essentially sort of an embedded reporter… going into battle alongside the warriors.
- There was basically one thing worth praising in this poem: men who drink down massive amounts of mead and wine, go out and kill a bunch of Saxons in battle… and then die. Full stop.
- The role of women in this piece is pretty narrow: they are mentioned only insofar as they mourn the death of their husbands. Unlike the 300 Spartans, some of these guys would have never attended their nuptial feasts.
- The closest thing to this that I have observed in literature is the Rohirrim in Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings. Reading this gives me additional insight into Theodon’s desire to die in battle– it always seemed hard to grasp to me before… just so alien.
The thing the I find so stunning is just how completely this turns our modern assumptions on their heads. When I think of poetry, I think of Billy Collins’ reading his “Litany” on the Prairie Home Companion: “You are the bread and the knife….” The last thing I would expect a poet laureate to do would be to write a poem praising the virtues of men that had died in battle. How perfectly ghastly…. we’d sooner hear a poem about how a guy accidentally burnt his toast!
And just look at how we use the word “brave” nowadays. It’s funny… I can’t remember the word being used any more except in reference to women. And hey, maybe Angelina Jolie really was brave to do what she did. But honestly, it’s a little creepy when people go on about how brave it was for Liza Long to write a viral post publicly labeling her own son as being a potential mass-murderer. I end up bashing my head against the wall repeatedly when this fine specimen is cited for bravery just for falling prey to one of the seven deadly sins, blaming this on someone else, using that as justification for breaking an oath, and then especially… wait for it… telling the world her story.
Better men than me have explained just why it is that our culture is a sick, sick thing. Never mind that for now. After all, the work of these sophists is pretty shoddy and ineffective on the whole. They can talk all they want, but at the end of the day… most of us retreat from their incessant warbling into a fantasy world where brave men still slay dragons and rescue princesses. Their preaching and extolling can go on ad nauseam and still have absolutely no effect on us in that way. They cannot exorcise our dreams. [Cue epic scene from Zardoz.]
And this, my friends… this is the moment. This is the moment when concerned science fiction authors have to save all of us all from women in unreasonable armor. It’s hard to believe that such a stink can be made about such a tame cover… but it’s actually happening… right now. (Did we learn nothing during the eighties? Man, what year is this?!) And I see that this a controversial topic and all…. But on the offhand chance that all of this really is an honest mistake, let me explain to you the significance of the chainmail bikini just from the gaming side of the aisle:
- Fantasy role playing games make almost no distinction between male and female characters from a game mechanics standpoint. B/X D&D, Traveller, and GURPS all allow for female characters that are every bit as strong, effective, and deadly as their male counterparts.
- For a group of people that otherwise obsess over historical details and accuracy, we gladly set aside the realities of medieval society in order to accommodate female players and female characters. In fact… we do this so reflexively we often times don’t even realize we’re doing it, much less pat ourselves on the back for it. It’s just axiomatic to our game worlds.
- Most game masters, most of the time attempt to run their tables in as gender-blind a manner as possible. And most of us realize that bending over backwards to point out to female gamers how much we’re not objectifying them is… well… it’s really kind of farcical.
So really, the chainmail bikini… as ludicrous as it is… to me it is symbolic of our open invitation for anyone join us in our adventures regardless of their gender. It means that we have no problem ascribing the virtues of medieval knights and warriors to female characters. Given that the culture wars have been so decisive on this point that none of us would dare think to have it any other way, I’ve got to ask…. What is your problem? Because if sexism really is something you’re serious about, then maybe we can work out a deal or something. Maybe… we’ll cut back on the cheesecake if you let men have the chance to be “brave” again.
At this point, though, I’d probably settle for not having to hear about another woman that is deemed brave for telling her story. Ugh. Seriously, people, come on!