Today is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, and one subject of gratitude for me is the number of fresh voices in YA fantasy literature, building new worlds for us to explore, new characters to love and hate. I am also grateful that one of these voices, Catherine Egan, will be a guest blogger here today. In preparation for the release of the final book in her Last Days of Tian Di trilogy—Bone, Fog, Ash & Star—Ms. Egan has constructed a blog tour discussing some of her favourite villains.
Catherine Egan grew up here in Vancouver, but lived for a number of years in Asia before ending up in New Haven, Connecticut: far too far away for regular author visits at Kids’ Books… which of course saddens me greatly. It will have to suffice that she is willing to share her lively intelligence with us through her blog tour.
The Last Days of Tian Di tells the story of Eliza, who is told she is a sorceress and taken from her father to be taught her craft. She is flung into a world of political conflict that takes her alternatively into the far North, into danger, into the heart of her father’s culture, and into a deeper knowledge of who she truly is. In Sword & Sorceress (2012), she learns her true identity; in The Unmaking (2013), she learns to use the power she has discovered. I am really excited to see where her journey takes her in Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014), and where the story leaves us all.
“You Never Forget the First Time: Jadis from the Narnia Books and Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials,” by Catherine Egan
When I was little, I didn’t want to learn to read. It was hard work, and when I was struggling with every word I couldn’t enjoy the stories. I used to make a great fuss about it. But then, as is so often the case when a small child learns a new skill, it seemed to come all at once. When you haven’t been able to read and then suddenly you can, you might notice something you’d always taken for granted: that every bookshelf in the house is full of books, and that you can take any one of them off the shelf and read it by yourself. It is obvious, of course, but I remember how stunned I was when the realization first hit me – that all these stories were mine for the taking, as I pleased. That is how, as a Very New Reader, I came to read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time.
I didn’t know what a wardrobe was, but I was interested in the witch. I liked witches! But this witch was nothing like the funny, friendly witches from Jill Murphy’s series. This was the White Witch, Jadis – my first encounter with a truly scary villain. For the first time in my life, I was reading about evil.
Reading the book to my own son thirty-plus years later she seems fairly standard fare, as villains go. She’s cruel and imperious and remorseless, and what she wants is to rule all of Narnia – power for its own sake, since she has no desire to rule well. I’ve long since lost interest in pure, uncomplicated evil. I like my villains more conflicted. The grey areas where villain and hero meet are more exciting than the sharp good and evil divide. But still, even rereading the book as an adult I get a chill around my heart when the White Witch invites Edmund into her sleigh. I always identified uncomfortably with Edmund, though I wanted to be like Lucy. We know how false she is, how wicked her intent must be; but Edmund is taken in, stuffing his face with Turkish delight. It takes a lot to scare and horrify me now, but then? I will never forget how frightened I was, how I nearly had to stop reading but I couldn’t stop reading, and whenever she came sweeping and raging into the story I read faster and faster, heart racing with fear and a new kind of delight. You never get over your first villain.
Years later, sometime in my twenties, I read Philip Pullman’s dazzling trilogy, His Dark Materials. The resonances from Narnia were subtle but unmistakable, and I was interested but unsurprised to discover later on that Pullman had written the books partly to stand in philosophical opposition to the Narnia books. Of course, as a child I did not recognize at all the Christian theology underpinning the Narnia stories, and reading His Dark Materials as an adult, I have to confess (at the risk of sounding like a dunderhead) that I was and am basically uninterested in the philosophy put forth by Pullman. Ironically I found the third book in the series, in which his message becomes more overt, altogether too “message-y.” The connection to Narnia that struck me may not have been intended by Pullman at all. But as soon as Mrs. Coulter appeared in the first book, I thought of Jadis.
We first encounter Mrs. Coulter kidnapping a child. She is beautiful, dark-haired, wearing a long fur coat. She offers him chocolatl, tells him: “As it happens, I’ve got more chocolatl than I can drink myself. Will you come and help me drink it?” And the boy? “He’s lost already.” I thought of Jadis offering Edmund a hot drink, “something he had never tasted before, very sweet and foamy and creamy, and it warmed him right down to his toes.” Mrs. Coulter is initially very seductive. When she turns on Lyra, she is terrifying – ruthless and strong – and then Lyra’s fear and regret echoes Edmund’s when the White Witch shows him her true, wicked self.
Even Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father, seemed like a potential echo of Aslan. He is essentially good, but frightening too – his expressions and features are described as “fierce” and “savage” – “all his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.” Lyra’s relationship to Lord Asriel – of fear and love and respect together – is much like the Pevensie children’s reaction to Aslan, just as her initial devotion to and then terror of Mrs. Coulter echoes Edmund’s relationship with the White Witch.
While Lewis is writing about the clash of Good and Evil in their truest and most elemental forms, Pullman wants to create a more complicated moral universe. Mrs. Coulter is a wonderful villain, absolutely vicious – but she finds herself loving Lyra in spite of herself, and her final act is her redemption. She does not stop being evil but nor can she stop loving her daughter, and that love does not vanquish her evil either, but it does prove more powerful in deciding her self-sacrifice. Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are complicated figures, imperfect and driven by their passions – very human, in other words, and I suppose that is Pullman’s point: that both good and evil are very human, and that rarely is anyone purely one or the other.
Jadis is not meant to be human or to elicit our sympathy. She is simply the embodiment of Pure Evil, hungering for power, inflicting eternal winter on her subjects. There is no possibility of redemption for her, and love is quite beyond her. The stories get put in opposition to each other regularly, mainly because of Pullman’s comments on the Narnia books, but putting aside the theological questions they grapple with, I think that as stories one leads nicely to the other. The Narnia books are written for younger children, and the story, whether you read it as a Christian allegory or not, has resonated with one generation after another. The White Witch on her sleigh, imperious and then suddenly, falsely kind imprinted on me as the Ultimate Villain, and no villain in any story since has ever scared me quite so much. When I read The Golden Compass, the first in Pullman’s series, Mrs. Coulter offering the little boy chocolatl brought it all surging back – that first shivering pleasure at reading something scary, my awe at this figure of towering evil, the horror at the idea of being tempted and deceived, of falling into her power.
Mrs. Coulter, for all that she may be a more interesting figure for a teenager or an adult (and particularly a mother) to read about, remains, for me, a mere shadow of Jadis. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was my own magical doorway to the immense power of stories – the fear and grief and wonder a story could evoke – and the Witch, with her white face and her red lips, offering sweets, will always be the first nightmare figure to get under my skin and scare me witless.
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This is one in a series of blog posts on villains; you can check my blog for a list of villain-posts. Let me know in the comments: who are your favorite fictional villains? Choose villains from books / movies / comic books / TV – just not real life! A winner will be selected by random number generator (I’ll post a screenshot) and I will send you a book bundle – all three books in The Last Days of Tian Di series – chock-a-block with villains and their villainy.
Contact Catherine Egan
The full blog tour schedule
October 13th: You Never Forget the First Time: Jadis from the Narnia Books and Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials at https://karynskidlitreviews.wordpress.com/author/karynmadam/
October 14th: I love you and I want to kill you; let’s make out: Bad Boy villains in YA at http://www.yahighway.com/
October 15th: There is nothing on earth that we share: Javert from Les Misérables at http://www.theyaclub.com/
October 16th: Sometimes the bad guy just wants to be a big snake: Mayor Wilkins from Buffy the Vampire Slayer at http://booksbonesbuffy.com/
October 17th: An exchange of gifts: Linay from Plain Kate at http://me-on-books.blogspot.com/