And No Female, Ever
An Apology for the Romance of Femininity within THE NIGHT LAND
William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land is rightly lauded as an unparalleled achievement in somber magnificence; it is the weirdest of all weird tales, the darkest and most awe-inspiring of all dark and awe-inspired dreams of far futurity, and the most grandiose.
It is not without its flaws. However, the treatment of the theme of romance, the handling of the female main character, has been criticized, in the opinion of the present writer, with undue severity.
These criticisms, generally, complain that the heroine, Mirdath the Beautiful, shows an insufficient spirit of independence from the hero who rescues her; she is submissive, soft, patient, and retiring in situations where the critics would prefer her to be equal, tough, proud, assertive, and, in a word, masculine.
Naturally, this essay cannot convince you, gentle reader, to enjoy or approve of any portrayal of womanhood that you find objectionable for reasons that fall outside the scope of this discussion. I am not foolhardy enough to address the issue of whether women outside the realm of gothic literature should or should not be gentle rather than hardy, mild rather than bold. No: my only aim here is to show that the theme of The Night Land story, the logic of the setting, necessitates a heroine be of the retiring and submissive type, so much disfavored these days, rather than of the domineering ass-kicking amazons so much in favor. Had Mirdath the Beautiful been Xena the Warrior-Princess, there would have been no story worth telling.
(But I must add quickly, lest I be accused of misogyny, that no man who has seen his true love twice give birth, once with a caesarian section, will be fool enough to venture that brides do not have fortitude and courage as great as bridegrooms; and I deem that the virtue of patience is found more often in the female than the male, since we do more that needs forgiveness.)
The portrayal of delicate Victorian womanhood may be repellent to modern sensibilities (which, in their own way, are as delicate as Victorian sensibilities), but, if so, the modern reader in all fairness should be repelled by the whole aim of Hodgson’s novel. If so, then put this book aside, oh modern reader: it is not for you.
My argument is that the integrity of the story requires Mirdath to be portrayed as she is. By ‘integrity’ here, I mean the thoroughness with which the parts of the work are fitted together to produce the result at which the author aims.
Consider the author’s aim. Hodgson was writing a romance. By ‘romance’ I do not mean Hodgson was penning a love-tale (he was, but it was not a love-tale merely); I mean he wrote a ‘romance’ in the older sense of the word, namely: a long fictitious tale of heroic and extraordinary or mysterious events, set in a distant and exotic time or place. And here I cannot hide my admiration for the work. I would say that his setting is the most extraordinary, the most mysterious, the most unlike our present day, of any tale I have read; and surely few stories take place in a time more distant than his.
Heroism is not the aim of his tale. Hodgson concentrates on creating a background so unearthly, so inhuman, so stark and huge and mysterious and grim as to excite awe. It is not a horror story, in the sense of a story that means to fascinate by means of the horrid. It is a story that attempts to capture the grim majesty of an utterly malevolent cosmos, to excite our wonder at the unnamed and the inexpressible.
How can an author express the inexpressible?
The first tool an author can use to create the effect is contrast. The love-story in the first chapter is essential to this. The opposite of the vast and unearthly is the small, the quaint, the rustic, the old-fashioned, and the familiar. Hodgson’s first chapter is set in the rural past to achieve this effect. Hence, even at the outset, Mirdath (in her first incarnation) must be an old-fashioned girl.
The second tool is adumbration. Nothing in The Night Lands is described; nothing more than a suggestive name is ever given. Whether the horrors in the Night are extra-terrestrial, extra-dimensional, something created or summoned by man, or something that descended from black heavens in forgotten aeons for reasons never to be known, is not said, nor should it be. The implication is that the men of the Last Redoubt would not or cannot make the distinctions we who live in happier days might make between the natural and the supernatural, necromancy and technology.
For this technique to succeed, the human characters cannot be themselves so exotic as to distract the reader from the huge and monstrous landscape through which they crawl. Clearly the race of man that dwells in the Final Redoubt would have less in common with modern Anglo-Saxons than we have with the Tibetans or Eskimos; but drawing attention to the exotic humans runs the risk of making the alien horrors seem less exotic. On the other hand, neither can the people of the pyramid be made to seem too much like men of our own land and era, since it would be ridiculous to suppose that would change over such an immensity of time. If the characters cannot be described as like us or as unalike us, then they cannot be described in any detail at all. They also must be drawn with the fewest possible strokes of the artist’s pen.
Hence, inevitably, they must be archetypal. The man must be Adam, Everyman, All-men. The woman, Eve, Juno, The Maiden. If the archetypal man is masculine, the archetypal woman, by process of elimination, must be feminine. Whether or not the feminine woman is an archetype the modern reader finds distasteful, nonetheless, it cannot be avoided in a story that aims at utmost simplicity in characterization.
No matter how masculine and assertive Mirdath the Beautiful might have been in her home in the Lesser Redoubt, when compared to the multitudes of her compatriots, when she is alone in The Night Lands with the strongest man of the Greater Redoubt, the final hero of the human race, the Hercules of his age, there is no one to compare who to but him: and so, therefore, she will seem feminine compared to him.
The third tool is what might be called ‘the Robinson Crusoe’ technique, for Defoe uses it with an expert hand; namely, making the extraordinary seem realistic by adding minute and commonplace details. The Night Land consists of a very practical day-by-day (if you will excuse the expression) account of the narrator’s journey. The number of strides he takes from point to point are meticulously noted, or the number of hours between meals and rest.
Without the diligent realism in the foreground, the looming shadows in the background are merely hallucinatory phantasms; things said to be fearful with no reason given for the fear. But if the author carefully counts the steps by which the hero avoids the House of Silence, who doors have never been closed through all the quiet aeons of eternity, his fear becomes quite real for the reader, even if the reason never is plainly stated.
In a story of realistic details, the comparative strength of our armored hero cannot help but be contrasted with the comparative physical delicacy of our heroine. If she were to throw his beefy armored body over her pretty shoulder and tote him away, the illusion of realism would be broken.
It must be emphasized here that disregarding the obvious physical differences between hulking fullback-sized warlords and slender warrior-maidens is not at all fatal to a romance. Many perfectly fine stories portray such unequal combats with a straight face. The tradition of the martial maiden goes back to earliest literature: Penthesileia, Hippolyta, Virgil's Camilla, Ariosto's Marfisa and Bradamante, Tasso's Clorinda, and Spenser's Britomart and Radigund, all killed men by the dozens: the body-count of their modern sisters, Jirel of Joiry, and Red Sonja is even higher. Anyone who insists on perfect realism in such tales ought not read fantastic literature.
But realism, especially in a macabre and gothic tale like Hodgson’s is another question: and unexpected shows of strength or manliness from a character of whom we know little more than that she is witty and cheerful girl would be abnormal and unrealistic, and therefore fatal to the author’s effect, since it would undo the artistic effect of making the horrors in The Night Land seem abnormal yet real. Were her personality and spirit and attitude to be that of an Amazonian warrior-maiden, or even the can-do optimism of an American girl, it would be as jarring an unrealism as a sudden display of Wonder-Womanly physical strength.
The final tool used by the author to establish the grim and unearthly mood of the tale, is what we might call the scope, the stakes, the magnitude. It is not enough that the tale be set forty years in the future, as was Orwell’s 1984: it must be uncounted millions. It is not enough that the Last Redoubt be besieged for twenty years, as was Troy; it has been surrounded for kalpas and aeons of dark and endless history. If the Northeast Watching Thing were a man-eating tiger, a dragon sitting on a horde of treasure, a Martian war-machine armed with a heat-ray, or even proud Lucifer in his gold and adamantine armor whirling a flaming sword of celestial temper, any of these things could surely could kill our hero dead as any other. But that would not be enough. The Watching Thing of the North West is none of these. It is not a beast, a dragon, a deadly machine, or a devil. It is nothing we know or can express. Whether it is mortal or immortal, natural or unnatural, no one can guess.
And it is not enough that The Night Land Things be able to kill our hero: they must be able to do something to him so horrible it is never named in the text, an inexpressibly foul corruption of the soul and mind so fearful that swallowing quick poison, or even murdering an Unprepared Youth with an ax-blow, seems an act of mercy and virtue by contrast.
Given this, it follows logically that the society of the besieged humanity cannot be fighting for its life and existence merely. It must be struggling to hold out against a spiritual or aetherial contagion: corruption, inhumanity, unnaturalness, are its foes.
Again, this notion cannot help but be offensive a modern reader. We like to think that mankind is infinitely plastic, improvable, and that any role in society, any nature we might chose to take up, is artificial, a construct, a matter of arbitrary convention to be changed at whim. Nature seems to us nothing more than a fetter that free and proud individuals can shatter. To confine individuals into certain roles, man and wife, mother and child, causes our freedom-loving natures to rebel as surely as confinement into the roles of master and slave, noble and serf would.
This is all to the good: but the mood and tenor of a tale which takes as a major theme the preservation of human nature against unnatural monsters able to destroy and consume human nature, logically must assume that human nature is real and permanent, something worth fighting for. The writer cannot write a story where monsters can eat souls without having souls be real things in the story (whether or not you believe men have souls in real life).
Hence, the very idea that man and woman can, at will, take up each other’s roles would strike a false, and even comical, note in this background, a note more appropriate to a comedy of Aristophanes than a gothic from Hodgson. A girlish hero and a manly heroine, or a tale where both lovers were merely neuter and similar, would be a distraction in the story where there is only one man and one woman on stage, and everything else it utterly and horrifically inhuman.
(For similar reasons of contrast, by the way, humans always act more emotional in stories with robots in them. An unemotional human paired with an unemotional robot is unneeded, a distraction, pointless. The only point of the robot character is to show the contrast between the human qualities of cold reason and warm emotion. Likewise, here, the only point of having utterly unearthly monstrosities, too inhuman to be described, is to contrast with humans that seem more stereotypically human by contrast; the man more manly, the woman more feminine.)
In sum, merely by selecting the type of tale he choose to tell, the author’s method requires an old-fashioned girl, simply and archetypically drawn; minute realism prohibits flagrant disregard of differences in physical strength or emotional nature, and the magnitude of the stakes involves, the inhumanity of the monsters, calls for an exaggerated manliness on the part of the hero, femininity on the part of the heroine, otherwise the author’s aim is frustrated.
Let me pause in this place to mention that other critics, half in jest, have also mocked Hodgson for having his hero admire his true love’s shapely legs and feet. Anyone who hikes will tell you than being on a trek makes one pay close attention to feet, especially if someone in your party is not clad in proper foot-gear (which is the case in Hodgson’s story). Anyone not deeply in denial about the nature of the man-woman phenomena will tell you that some women have very pretty feet and shapely legs, and some men admire them. There would be no industries devoted to producing fashionable shoes, nylon hose, or toenail polish were this not the case.
Now let us descend into the particulars, and examine the scenes and events where Mirdath’s character is revealed.
Foremost, we must assume she is a product of the society from which she comes. We have no details of life within the Greater Redoubt, except that the elevators are controlled by ‘stress masters’; that the people read newspapers ‘hour slips’; and that those who commit serious breaches of the laws and customs of the pyramid are flogged, but only for their own instruction and improvement, not necessarily to deter others (‘for it is not meet that any principle of correction should shape to the making of human signposts of pain for the benefit of others’). One law is mentioned in particular: “Now there was a Law in the Pyramid, tried and healthful, which held that no male should have freedom to adventure into The Night Land, before the age of twenty-two; and no female ever.”
The description of the law continues: “Yet that, after such age, if a youth desired greatly to make the adventure, he should receive three lectures upon the dangers of which we had knowledge, and a strict account of the mutilatings and horrid deeds done to those who had so adventured. And if, after this had passed over him, he still desired, and if he were accounted healthful and sane; then should he be allowed to make the adventure; and it was accounted honour to the youth who should add to the knowledge of the Pyramid.”
We also know that they once possessed fire-arms and air travel, but these things are rare antiques, or forgotten.
We know nothing whatever of the Lesser Redoubt, except that they too had an order of Monstruwacans, and that their loss of the Earth-Current made them diminish in spiritual and physical strength and health over the centuries; but it is not an unjustified speculation to assume that the similar circumstances of the eternal siege by the darkness produced a similar society.
From these glimpses we may venture to conclude that the society is organized as one might expect any society suffering an overwhelming and impending common danger is organized, namely, that provision is first made for safety, and other considerations are secondary.
We should not expect the free and liberal institutions of a modern commonwealth: a society more military, more archaic, is the natural result of a technology without fire-arms, and is more suited to the archaic gothic atmosphere of the author’s tale. A certain degree of stiff ceremony, of military courtesy, of rigid rules, is to be expected of an ancient and tradition-bound society. The equality of women has never existed in such societies as this, or, indeed, in any society ever, save only for our own, and only at the moment.
I leave it as an open question whether such a society might in reality have the equality of the sexes, such as has been known only to the modern industrial West and only for one generation. My argument is more humble: I submit that an author cannot realistically depict a society that enjoys equality of the sexes without having the society also enjoy the laws and customs of a free, individualistic, informal, and optimistic people. Depicting an individualistic and carefree society would be a jarring note in a moody atmospheric work of archaic grandeur and oppressive horror.
It must be noted particularly the restrictions against young maidens traveling into the dangers of the night will certain seem odd and backward to any society that has female soldiers, firemen, and sailors: but we modern Americans enjoy a particularly wealthy and strong society, beset by no dangers likely to annihilate us. A woman of our people can afford, for example, to raise her child by herself, without a man to till the field or hunt game. In any previous society, a widowed mother would have been a charity case; a family that lost its father was doomed to the poorhouse, or simply doomed. It is unfortunately fashionable these days to sneer at such societies, and at the role the women had to play in them; but the reality is that in situations where danger is great and wealth is small, and where physical strength is the source of freedom both from poverty and danger, society must relegate the child-bearing and child-rearing sex to a protected status, lest the generations fail.
In such cases, young men are expendable, and young women are not. It is a measure of the wealth of America that we are willing to shed the blood of our women on the battle-field; poorer societies have no women to spare.
In a society (such as the one depicted in the tale) where the axe is the main weapon of combat against lesser monsters and immediate suicide the expected response when sighting greater monsters, it would be irrational to expose young maidens to rape, mutilation, death, and the unspeakable ‘destruction’ hinted at in the books.
Whether or not, in reality, young maidens are as fit and willing to be mutilated and destroyed as young men, for the purposes of creating a mood and atmosphere in the tale, the author makes the dangers seem more perilous by having the men of the Last Redoubt not willing to expose their beloved daughters, wives, and mothers to it.
Compare the following scenarios: (1) Ripley, bold female marine, confronts an acid-dripping alien and blows it apart with a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range. Bleeding chunks fly every which-way. Hurrah! (2) Mirdath, a maiden of unshaken fortitude, uncomplaining even after her family and entire civilization has been slain and consumed by the unnamed Powers, hears the Sound of the Thing That is Spinning somewhere in the Night, and knows it to be a monstrous and mighty Evil, and the only thing she can do is stand quietly next to Her Own and wait for him to kill her with his belt-knife and then kill himself with a lethal capsule, the moment the source of the Sound should come too nigh. A moment later there is no more any sound of the Spinning, but a pale and horrid glow in the night; only there comes, as it were, the trunk of a great tree, that does show in the glowing; and the trunk of the tree comes toward them across the darkness.
Which danger seems more fell, eerie, and unearthly?
Regardless of what one’s opinion about the role of women in society might be, had Mirdath yanked her beloved’s battle-axe out of his hand and ran forward towards the source of the pale and horrid glow, ululating her Amazon war-cry, and bashed the Evil tree-thing with it, the scene might been comical, but the Thing Which Spins would not seem ominous or strange, and certainly not as dangerous as it appears when it is presented as an unknown and unnamed thing no human can possibly fight.
It does not make Mirdath seem any less or more brave than Ripley: Ripley fights things made of matter, things that bleed when shot. Mirdath is confronted by a horror of cosmic proportions: something that does not even come from our dimension of reality. She reacts to the coming doom with the dignity and stoicism of a Roman or Spartan matron. The wives of Sparta were not wimps, despite that they did not march with their sons under arms to the field. In many respects, they were harder than their men.
Also, finally, the mention of this law forbidding women to venture into the horror of The Night Land adds luster to the glory of Mirdath: our heroine is the only woman ever to cross The Night Lands and live.
We now come to confront a paradox modern readers find difficult to grasp: Mirdath seems to be a perfectly intelligent, brave, and capable woman. Why does she tolerate to be deferential and submissive to her man?
In some scenes, she seems both wittier and more high-hearted than our hero. Let us be blunt: she is smarter than he is. In her first incarnation, she befuddles him by pretending to be courted by a courtly fellow who turns out to be one of her girl-friends playing a prank on him. When the Lesser Redoubt falls, she endures the horror-haunted wilderness for a month, alone and without aid or provision. She plays at driving the hero like a pony at one point, a playful and girlish thing to do, which amazes the hero because it shows she remembers the extinct animal from prior incarnations. She recalls the Cities Ever Moving West from a lifetime he forgot; perhaps this hints at a deeper spiritual resource than he possesses.
She fools him for several meals into thinking she is eating, when she is only eating half-rations, or nothing at all. Her purpose is clearly to preserve his strength, without which they will both be lost. It is also the type of self-sacrifice that, if you have ever been in love, dear reader, you will understand, and if you have not, nothing can explain it to you. For a lover to be willing to suffer, or even die, to save one’s beloved is both right and natural: only churls think otherwise.
His reaction when he discovers that she is starving herself is to whip her across the shoulders with a light strap she was using for her belt. Instead of the reaction a modern woman might prefer, i.e. whip him back, sue for divorce, push him off a cliff into the jaws of a waiting Night Hound, Mirdath accepts the punishment meekly, tearfully, even gratefully.
For this scene, the author has been flogged more unmercifully than the three strokes he deals his heroine, and called everything from a misogynist to a sadomasochist.
Let us pause, dear reader, for a moment and contemplate what sort of man the anonymous narrator of the story is. It is easy to loose sight of this, since he is not boastful about his own powers, and the foes he faces are so immeasurably titanic that even the strongest man and greatest is as nothing to them.
In fact, he is the strongest man. Of all men of the one thousand, three hundred and twenty cities of the Greater Redoubt, he has never met one stronger in their exercises. There is more than merely physical strength involved; and he is in spirit strong enough to reach across all the uncounted millions of years separating our present age from that remote and sunless future, and bold enough to face the unutterable supernatural horrors of The Night Land to go forth and rescue his true love. He bests a dozen Neanderthals, Night Hounds, four-armed half-humans. When the full malice and pressure of the House of Silence and all the fell and mighty spirits of the world of darkness descend upon him to consume his soul, the power and passion of his great and loving soul protects him; he carries his wounded true love some fifty miles or so at a dead run back to his home, killing monsters with one-handed swings of his heavy battle-axe.
This man is Hercules. He is a hero as mighty as any spoken of in any tale of old. He can outrace fleet-footed Achilles and outwrestle Ajax; he could kick the Tarzan Lord Greystoke out of a tree, and could rip the arm of Beowulf out of its socket and club him to death with it.
Now such a man as this, this hurricane of a man, this unstoppable man, finds his true love starving herself to death while they are both wandering the most deadly of deadly wildernesses, beset both by physical and spiritual terrors of unimaginable magnitude.
What are his options, realistically? Chide her with stern words? The girl has already proven that she is willing to kill herself by slow starvation over this issue. She is brave and high-hearted; mere words could not move her.
And how is he to reason with her? Her love is as great as his; it does not make sense to appeal to someone’s sense of rational self-interest when that someone is willing to die for you.
Fine her? She has no possessions. Complain to her parents? They are dead. Send her to her room with no supper? Her room is now the haunt of monsters, and it was not eating supper that started this whole thing.
This is a man of unparalleled strength and greatness. He is not going to stand idly by and wait for this slip of a girl to kill herself. Her foolishness here, while prompted by noble motives, displays an impudent disregard for the magnitude of their mutual danger. This is also not the first time she has done something heedless to endanger herself; she is acting, in fact, like a foolish child.
So her treats her as a stern parent treats a child that is endangering itself. Nor, since flogging is apparently the common punishment meted out to scofflaws in this society, does either character react as if it is a punishment of abnormal cruelty or humiliation.
Her reaction, when she finds that he is not a man who can be ignored, or pushed around, or fooled, is particularly feminine: she clings to him. This is the man she loves, and he has crossed all the immensity of time and all the horrors of The Night Land to save her. She reacts as we might expect someone with a guilty conscience to react, someone who was caught doing something prideful and foolish.
What other options does she have? Leave him? Run across the dark plains and be eaten by the Night Hounds? Go home? Whip out her pulse-phased plasma rifle in the forty-watt range and blow him into bleeding chunks?
While any of those options might have been satisfying to Xena fans, it certainly would not help add to the mood of desperation and horror, the sense of impending danger that this scene builds up. He acts like a desperate man, and she reacts like a desperate woman. One can easily imagine a similar situation if two lovers were trapped in a drifting lifeboat, and the man found his wife refusing to eat from their ever-shrinking store of supplies. One cannot reason with someone in a situation like that, since love knows no reason; and if he lets her have her way, she dies.
Again, it might seem odd and unwholesome to a modern reader to see the reaction of a maiden of the olden days to be dealt three sharp strokes by her man; but she secretly seems pleased that he is strong and fierce and masterful, even toward her; and this, despite that she is the one person in all the universe he should treat with the greatest reverence, gentleness, and respect. Perhaps she is pleased that he is not a weakling after all. Perhaps she is pleased that he is not willing, out of a misplaced sense of good-fellowship, to stand by idly and have her deceive him and kill herself.
Perhaps she knows full well that his own inclinations should make it impossible for him to say a harsh word or raise a stern hand against the one in whom his whole happiness is found; for him to correct her shows that he will not allow his own inclinations, or her willfulness, to endanger her. It shows it in a way that mere words would not. Mercy or laxity from him at this point could not be seen as anything but indifference.
She knows it is not cruelty, not savagery, not contempt, and not hatred that stirs up his harshness. Nor is it because she is being uppity or refusing to go barefoot and pregnant into the kitchen and cook him dinner. That is not what provokes our hero, and it is dishonest of critics to pretend that it is.
Our hero is provoked because our heroine is endangering her own life for a pointless gesture. Certainly the gravity of the punishment underscores the gravity of the situation in which the two lovers find themselves.
The reaction of the character, given what has been established of the situation, the society, their background, the magnitude of the danger they face, and, above all, the mood and atmosphere the author is trying to sustain over so many pages, requires a candid reader to admit that the reactions of the heroine in this situation, the meekness with which she accepts chastisement, is neither odd nor unwholesome.
If the way the gentle maiden in the olden days reacts to her desperate lover’s sternness and firm mastery in this scene still seems odd to you, dear reader, I can only repeat the advice the nameless narrator of that most remote future himself gives:
“And truly you to perceive how her heart did be in this matter; but if you not to know, then how shall I to tell you; and do but bid you ask your own maid; though, in verity, she to be like that she but laugh at you, and leave you so wise as you be now; for the way of the heart of a maid doth be most hid to the maid, and she but to know the desire, and to lack the ending. But truly she doth know when that a man shall set the truth of her heart before her.”
© 2001 by John C. Wright.