To Ogle an Ogre

I recently stumbled across a free pile of paperbacks from Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. Being the optimist that I am (“Sure, I have space for fourteen books as well as time to read them”), I gathered them in my arms and took them home with me. I’d read most of them before, when I was in middle school, and I had fond, if hokey, memories.

Xanth is a land of magic where every person has one unique talent, ranging from the useful—converting lead into gold—to the less than—creating the odor of soured milk. Magical creatures are inspired by shameless puns, such as night mares, horses that deliver bad dreams, and nickelpedes, dimepedes and quarterpedes that dwarf the centipedes we’re familiar with. A sort of lazy quest is at the heart of each book, serving mostly as an excuse for meeting interesting people and prompting silly jokes. In short, they Xanth novels are nice, mindless reading, and I was looking forward to indulging.

Re-reading the first three chapters of the initial book, A Spell for Chameleon, it became clear that all was not as I’d remembered. Sure, the writing was a bit labored, with clunky phrasing and overdone narration, but that was to be expected. Thirteen-year-old me had more pressing concerns than literary naturalism (e.g. avoiding fights, delivering newspapers and being cut from organized sports teams).

What really surprised me about the book was how casually misogynistic it was. Each of Anthony’s female characters is ogled as she’s introduced. Sabrina, the narrator Bink’s girlfriend, is presented with, “Bink looked at the girl beside him as she stepped through a slanting sunbeam. He was no plant, but he too had needs, and even the most casual inspection of her made him aware of this.”

Later, a female centaur—a women’s torso on a horse’s body!—is objectified after rescuing the narrator. Her “plush pillows” provide a cushion for him to rest on after an attack; later, as she jumps a ravine with him on her back, he’s forced to grab her breasts to avoid falling.

Upon arriving in a new village, Bink is thrust into the midst of a rape hearing, where a judge seemingly plucked from a Lifetime movie declares, “I presume she would have fled him at the outset, had she disliked him—and that he would not have forced her if she trusted him. In a small community like this, people get to know each other very well, and there are few actual surprises. This is not conclusive, but it strongly suggests she had no strong aversion to contact with him, and may have tempted him with consequence she later regretted. I would probably, were this case to come up in formal court, find the man not guilty of the charge, by virtue of reasonable doubt.”

Afterward, Bink is guided out of town by “the most voluptuous, striking black-haired beauty he had ever seen, a diamond in the mud of this region.” Wary of false accusations after the trial, he wonders about the wisdom of traveling alone with her, but the bailiff reassures him by saying, “Don’t worry about it, son. Wynne don’t lie, and she doesn’t change her mind. You behave yourself, difficult as that may be, and there’ll be no trouble.” This comes immediately after he jokes about not being able to blame Bink if he did want to rape her—wink wink, nod nod.

They set out on their journey, but the objectification continues. “She could have made some farmer a marvelous showpiece,” Bink observes. “There seemed to be no part of her body that wasn’t perfectly molded.” Later, her tells her, “’The Magician [an Oz-like figure she looks to for help] charges a year’s service. You—would not want to pay.’ The Good Magician was male, and Wynne had only one obvious coin. No one would be interested in her mind.”

And, that’s where I stopped reading.

What’s most disturbing about the attitudes being transmitted (well, beyond the Equus redux) is that this is a series designed to appeal to children. As I remember, the books are slightly bawdy, but never graphic; the language is clean, the violence moderate. You can find the Xanth series in the juvenile section of any public library. And while the books once seemed to speak of the joys of unfettered imagination, they now serve (at least the first) as relics testifying to the denigration of women that once sat unquestioned in our public discourse. That’s an awkward legacy, and, sadly for those who once enjoyed the books, it’s one that doesn’t age well.