#WitchWeek2021 Day 5: Power and revenge

Wenceslas Hollar: The sword of Damocles

Witch Week co-host Lizzie considers two fantasies in which treason and plot figure as a main trigger for the action.

Heavy Lies the Crown
Lizzie Ross

I’m convinced that plotting is a common, often unconscious, human behavior against those in charge. Events akin to Antonio’s coup and Prospero’s later revenge happen to or are witnessed by anyone who has ever worked within a group – business, school, hospital, co-op board – although perhaps with fewer magical aides. Gossip during the office coffee break is but a form of plotting against the powerful, whether it be the CEO or the person with the key to the copy machine. After-work grumbles at the bar with a few colleagues slides easily into treasonous murmurs that could result in someone being deposed. Perhaps this is why we so enjoy tales of mutiny, rebellion, betrayal, treason.

Add royalty, and you’ve got yourself a story that could fly. Rulers live under the constant threat of their own violent death. Surrounded by secrets and lies, a ruler can’t help but wonder what a courtier, advisor, ambassador, minor aristocrat, bored guard, or miffed servant might be planning. Prospero, busy with his books, was spared this concern, but he’s a rarity, and he was lucky to have survived his own downfall.

Which brings me to today’s set of fantasy books, two novels about seditious plots to murder rulers and gain ultimate power. 

Diana Wynne Jones 1934 – 2007

Since Witch Week is in honor of Diana Wynne Jones, it is fitting to consider her fantasy novel about treasonous plots, The Merlin Conspiracy (Greenwillow, 2003). Even though a sequel to Deep Secret (1997), it works well as a stand-alone novel, with only one or two minor back-story references. Briefly: Roddy and Grundo, not siblings, are children of magicians and part of the massive court that follows the King’s Progress through the Kingdom of Blest. At the start of the novel, the King’s magician has just died and his replacement, the new “Merlin”, has arrived at court. Roddy and Grundo learn of a plot to overthrow the King, are joined by Nick (from the parallel universe of Earth), and work against conniving magicians to save the King, the Kingdom, the various parallel universes, and all the magic these universes contain.

Roddy and Nick narrate the novel, in alternate chapters, and within the first 50 words it becomes clear that they’re telling their story after it has ended. Roddy starts Chapter One with,

‘I have been with the Court all my life, traveling with the King’s Progress.’

I didn’t know how to go on. I sat and stared at this sentence, until Grundo said, “If you can’t do it, I will.”

This isn’t foreshadowing of the “Had I known then what I know now” sort. Instead, Jones plays with what readers generally assume when they start any children’s fantasy: the main characters of such tales always survive, no matter the odds. She winks at us, implying, “We all know Roddy and Grundo will be ok, and the first sentences tell us that they know this too. But they didn’t know it when they started the adventure, so let’s see if I can keep the dramatic tension sharp, if I can fool us all back into ignorance of the outcome.”

Roddy and Nick stay “in the moment” in their sections of the story, and only a careful reader, aware of how an incidental item someone spots in Chapter Four could play a crucial role in the story’s climactic scene, will take note and remember it. Jones is a master of this careful planting of clues and miscues – not just to the mystery of who’s involved in the treason, but to its resolution as well. We may already know that Roddy and Grundo will survive, but we don’t know how, and each twist complicates the unfolding plot, making it more and more difficult for Roddy and Grundo to get out safely.

With any treasonous plot, the main characters’ challenge is to discover who is involved, and especially who masterminded it. Jones tips her hand early, when Roddy and Grundo overhear two of the traitors discussing their plans. But before the children can warn anyone, they are whisked away from the court to Roddy’s grandfather’s farm. From this point on, the reader must decide whether each new character is friend or enemy. I felt this tug most strongly with Roddy’s two grandfathers, magicians both but otherwise completely different from each other. Good or bad? Help or hindrance? Loyalist or traitor? I wanted to trust them, but Jones continually surprised my expectations, keeping me guessing to almost the final pages.

But here’s the bigger question for me: Why is the idea of ultimate power so tempting, if achieving it risks utter disaster? In The Merlin Conspiracy, the plotters want absolute power. As they close in on it, they also bring nearer the complete collapse of their world. Success would bring them nothing! But they’re enthralled to the idea of power, and they’ve no choice but to finish what they started. Once begun, there’s no stopping.

© C A Lovegrove

In Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina (2012, Random House), also set in a royal court, the plotters are out for revenge rather than power, taking Treason and Plot in a different direction. It has been 40 years since the treaty that ended the dragon attacks and allowed dragons, in human form, to live and work in Goredd. But dragons, and those who consort with them, are still feared and hated, and sometimes brutalized by crowds of Goreddi men and boys.

Seraphina, a musician in the Queen’s court, has spent her life hiding in the open. Her dragon mother, in human form, had fallen in love with a Goreddi, and then died giving birth to Seraphina. Only Seraphina’s father and her dragon uncle (nearly always seen in human form) know that she is part-dragon, a secret she must keep from everyone else. As the anniversary of the treaty approaches, Seraphina is put in charge of the celebrations. But then, with the court in a flurry of activity, the shocking news arrives that the heir to the throne has been killed – beheaded. With no sign of the head, many believe that a dragon ate it. But why?

Hartman has set a challenging puzzle for her readers to solve as we watch Seraphina search for the murderer, whether dragon or human. What makes the puzzle tricky for us is the ability dragons have, to take on human form. Almost any human character could be a dragon in disguise, deciding on its next victim. On the other hand, humans could be behind the plot, hoping to rid Goridd of all dragons. There are plenty of humans who hate all dragons and want them all exterminated, and some of them have positions at court.

Seraphina must constantly wonder, whom should she trust? Who has most to gain or lose if the treaty is broken? Who would want to kill the crown prince? With her own secret to protect, she is surrounded by secrets and lies but must quickly build a network of allies to counter whatever is ahead. 

Revenge is a powerful motive, the dish that is best served cold, they say. Hartman’s Seraphina shows the truth underlying the aphorism – a successful act of treason requires time. Not just days or weeks, but years. (Perhaps in allowing themselves only 18 months to plan their mass murder, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators made their first mistake.) 

I’m sure most of my readers have been waiting for me to mention the Sword of Damocles. For plots of treason, I use it as a rating system, for the number of royal deaths (I know it’s insensitive of me, but I don’t count guards, soldiers or secondary conspirators) – a way to gauge the violence level. Tragedies like Hamlet and Macbeth score high on this scale, comedies and romances like The Tempest usually come in at zero.

Three Swords (with asterisks, since the royal deaths were off-stage) for Seraphina, and none for The Merlin Conspiracy. I’m sorry if this feels like a spoiler, but note that I use the scale only for royal deaths. For the other characters, I’m saying nothing more than this: the main characters all survive (but you knew that already, didn’t you?)

Lizzie Ross is working on a sequel to her 2013 fantasy novel, Kenning Magic. She blogs at LizzieRossWriter.com. She and Chris at Calmgrove have co-hosted this annual celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy since 2018.

10 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2021 Day 5: Power and revenge

  1. I love your initial point that plotting is not something that just takes place in fantasy worlds or royal courts. And that’s why books about the latter are not “escapist” — they put fictional shape upon the movements that take place in the underground of our souls. Thanks for this review that tells enough to intrigue while still leaving us guessing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lory. When I was an academic, I saw my share of plots. In fact, I helped oust a department chair. It’s a shame we had to take these measures — secret meetings off campus, etc. — but it was for the best. That, at least, was our excuse.)

      Sayre’s law (“the fiercer the in-fighting, the lower the stakes”) may not apply to regicide, but it explains much of our daily lives!

      I love your term, “underground of our souls”. I shall be thinking about that for a while.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your insightful discussion of these two novels — both of which I’ve incidentally read — reminds me of an aspect of Treason and Plot which I’d not really considered because in such narratives, and particularly in fantasies, it’s an aspect usually taken for granted, namely the foiling of such nefarious deeds and plans. In both the novels you examine it’s implied that even if some evil actions go to plan (offstage royal deaths, for example) the main protagonist(s) will survive while the villains will be punished.

    It’s a rare fantasy or even thriller that fails to give reader satisfaction in this department, though we know that in life things can be really messy, that reality is an ongoing soap opera where just when you think there might be a happy-ever-after another spanner appears to have been chucked into the works. This is why, I think, we who have a desire for fair play like to read stories where betrayal of trust is ultimately foiled, where the potentially mortal thrust is successfully parried after a thrilling bout of swordplay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So much to unpack in your comment, Chris. The wish for fair play is certainly human, but I sometimes fear that it’s a dangerous desire, more often ending in tears than in joy — what’s fair to me might be unfair to half a dozen (or million) others.

      Fiction usually forces our sympathies, because we see the story through the eyes of the protagonists and therefore want them to win. But there’s *always* going to be at least one other point of view, fed by need as much as by evil desire. It’s the balance, I suppose, between aggression and defense, between short-term gain and long-term loss, between me and the “other”.

      Authors can mislead us, as with an unreliable narrator. One of my favorite novels, “Genuine Fraud” (by E Lockhart) reveals the villain in such a way that, despite her villainy, I found myself rooting for her. Patrick Ness’s “Burn” presents a different conundrum: more than one set of villains, often working at cross purposes and so foiling each other, but not in a comic way. “You mean there can be *three* points of view?”

      Yet, like you, I still get great satisfaction out of seeing Justice prevail in fiction, because this happens so rarely in the real world.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Seraphina particularly appeals here, Lizzie, in yet another fascinating contribution to Witch Week. I especially like the early link you make to the plotting which is so readily engaged in by people in everyday life, just under different names.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I hope you give it a try, Sandra. Hartman has an interesting take on the perennial issue of “us vs. them”. The sequel then goes in a different direction, showing how alliances break down. She’s created a fascinating world.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. elmediat

    Now I have this scene in my head – a group of water cooler gossips plan to take over the coffee machine. Does not end well, Very Shakespearean – “Et tu, Barista?” 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I remember reading Seraphina long back and I’d really liked the dragon lore in there. I should go read it again, and I think there was a sequel too that I missed? I also want to try out Merlin Conspiracy, not just because I love Arthurian adventures, but also because I should read more of DWJ’s work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Shadow Scale (2016) is the sequel, Lex, but I too missed it when it appeared and never got round to it, in fact I forgot about it until now. The Merlin Conspiracy isn’t really Arthurian, despite its title, though there are Arthurian touches if you go looking for them — we read DWJ novels to discover what she has in store for us, I think, and how she might transform the materials she chooses to dangle in front of us! I can add my recommendation to Lizzie’s, in fact I’m almost tempted to read it for the third time now. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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