Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Handmaiden's Tale

Are there people out there who get bored by the ordinariness of their lives? Anyone feel like escaping into a less-than-ordinary world full of magic and danger and royalty? Who's up for shucking the burdens of the daily grind and diving into adventure in another world?

Athenian Women at Home, artist unknown
Well, have fun with that. Today I'm hanging out with a bunch of handmaidens, and hoo boy, are their lives unenviable.

It makes total sense that most stories focus on extraordinary people as well as extraordinary places and events. No one wants to read a fairy tale about the sad-sack assembly-line worker who never gets a fairy godmother. Everyone would pick the princess or the wizard or the talking fox. But just because stories are full of privileged royalty doesn't mean that nobody works in Fairytale Land. And just because they live in a world of physical gods and tangible magic doesn't mean that things don't get depressingly realistic.

Odysseus and Nausicaa, William McGregor Paxton
Take, for instance, the handmaidens of Europa. "The who?" you ask. Oh, you know, just the bevy of young noblewomen dancing attendance upon a Greek princess. Not an individual character among the lot. They stand en helpless masse as bull-Zeus kidnaps Europa. A minute ago they were all having fun on the beach; now they're a collective unit of ineffectual shock. So why are they there? Well, Europa's a princess. Princesses don't get to romp alone in the sand. The handmaidens are there to underscore Europa's privileged status. (And also because without them, Europa would have become the Bronze Age equivalent of a face on a milk carton; it's only because they bring back the story that Europa's family knows Zeus snatched her.) Their entire function in-story is to inform us, the audience, that Europa is important. But we already know she's important; one, she's a princess, and two, Zeus has the hots for her, which means she'll probably pop out a demigod king or a few heroes. The handmaidens do nothing for us that isn't already being done in the story.

Well. Actually. There is that bit in the middle, in case you forgot that Greek myths rival zombie movies for bloodshed. The bit where the handmaidens, despite being the only witnesses to a princess's abduction, get tortured and executed by said princess's totally rational dad. As colenso points out in the comment, princesses can survive the occasional reckless stunt. Their attendants, not so much. One slip-up - which was neither their fault nor within their power to prevent - and you're a goner.

The Penelopiad, Nightwood Theatre

A similar school of thought holds true in the Odyssey, when Telemachus hangs the twelve traitorous handmaidens who slept with the suitors and spied on Penelope. Theirs is, in the important details, a very different case from Europa's handmaidens; Penelope's maids chose to betray their mistress and to disrespect her to her face. But even knowing that, it still seems uncomfortably excessive to force them to dispose of the mangled bodies of their butchered lovers, wash the suitors' blood from the room where they were killed, and then be hanged themselves from a ship's cable. Again, not an individual - no names, no differentiating characteristics. Whether you "bring it on yourself" or not (and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is a horrifying and brilliant argument that they actually didn't deserve their fate), a handmaiden's life is no cakewalk.

The Goose Girl, Cindy Salens Rosenheim
Which goes a long way toward explaining the outright villainous behavior of some handmaidens. The unnamed heroine of "The Goosegirl" does nothing to deserve the vicious treatment she gets from her upstart lady-in-waiting; apparently asking for a drink of water is a step too far for this handmaiden. She's an exceptionally cruel villain, too: she bides her time, forcing the heroine into subservience the moment she loses her mother's protection; she marries the heroine's intended husband;
she orders the heroine's talking horse, the witness to her takeover, slaughtered; and ultimately gets herself killed in a manner she'd explicitly intended for the heroine. It's as impossible to condone this handmaiden's actions as it is to accept the deaths of Europa's unfortunate attendants. But it's not hard to see why a simple, forgettable handmaiden would want to better her lot. It's much less dangerous to be royal than to attend royalty; after all, even in her degradation, the heroine survives.

Luckily, not everyone takes social climbing to such an extreme. But there are plenty of handmaidens out there who read their myths and know exactly who takes the fall for royal mistakes. Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, falls head-over-heels for the mysterious and beautiful Rhiannon. When they finally marry, she's a perfect queen in every way but one: she gives Pwyll no children. So the eventual birth of a son is nothing short of miraculous. Parties are thrown, ale is quaffed, and everyone in Dyfed heaves a sigh of relief.

And then a monster breaks into the palace, steals the baby prince, and slips out again with no one the wiser.

Rhiannon, Margaret Jones
Rhiannon's handmaidens, as usual, are up long before their mistress to light her fire, set out her clothes, and generally make her life easier. So they're the first ones to notice, whoops, the miracle baby's missing. And they're no fools; regardless of who's actually to blame, they'll get in trouble for not watching more closely. Their solution? Redirect the blame! Onto... the bereaved mother? Yes, obviously the only way to ensure that they're not flogged or worse is to kill a puppy, smear its blood on the sleeping Rhiannon's hands and face, and swear to high heaven that this unnatural woman totally killed and ate her own child.

Horror of horrors, it works. Pwyll can't bring himself to execute the woman he loves, so he makes her carry visitors into the palace on her back. Wouldn't you know, sixteen or so years down the line, along comes an old farmer and his strapping son to petition Pwyll. Adopted son, that is, since a cattle-stealing monster abandoned a baby at the farmer's house about sixteen years ago. Rhiannon carries her son into the palace, all the pieces of the story are fitted together, the royal family is reunited... and no one ever does anything to the seriously sketchy handmaidens who condemned the queen to a decade and a half of menial labor on oaths that they knew were false.

Don't mistake me - I'm never going to be on the side of people who kill puppies and frame mothers for infant cannibalism. But if Pwyll's literally backbreaking punishment of Rhiannon was lenient, it's easy to see why the handmaidens would have been so terrified of his vengeance that even the most grotesque lies seemed like a better option.

Birthing chair, Roman era (artist unknown)
So, between the blandness of the job, the occupational hazards, and the psychological stress of knowing you'll pay with your life for the first thing to go wrong, are there any good handmaidens out there? Well, sort of. Maid Maleen has a devoted handmaiden who gets walled up in a tower with her, protects her on her journey to another kingdom, and basically acts as her much-needed mother. Cinderella is perhaps the quintessential good handmaiden, even though she's also the heroine of her own story. And Zilpah and Bilhah obediently let themselves become weapons in Rachel and Leah's war over Jacob, each bearing two sons and surrendering them to their respective mistresses to raise as their own. But even this good
Seducer, Nasreddine Dinet
behavior has its limits; Bilhah and Reuben's fling gets Reuben disinherited. And Cinderella's social climbing is acceptable because it's less of a climb than a restoration; she was born to privilege, and the perversion of the natural order is not in her ascent from handmaiden to princess, but in her earlier enforced descent from wealth to poverty. Compare her fate with the Goosegirl's handmaiden. Ouch. Fairy tales love them some status quo.

Maid Maleen, Louisa Roy
Ultimately, that's the moral of whatever fate the handmaidens of legend meet. It's not about character development, rewards, or even, really, punishment. If a story features a handmaiden, she is there to reinforce the status quo. She may get to move the plot, but if so she's a villain; the lower classes are supposed to wait for their betters to order them, not take matters into their own hands. Only by obedience and devotion can a handmaiden end the story alive and on the side of the good guys.

But if that's too much of a downer ending for the rest of us real-world peons, just remember: handmaidens also know how to frame someone and get away with it. Not quite glass slipper material, but agency and survival aren't bad consolation prizes.

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