Monday, 14 April 2014

The Farthest Away Mountain: Feminist Fantasy

I first read The Farthest Away Mountain by Lynne Reid Banks in about 1988 (it was first published in 1976). Many moons later, I just read it to my little girl - and found it even more fascinating than I did first time round. But before I tell you why, let's talk about the front cover of the 1988 Lions paperback edition.

It looks like some sort of Scandi-goddess tarot card! Or is the Book of Hours I'm thinking of?

Look at the verdant pagan symbolism in the border. Look at how Dakin's got the glowing magic ring levitating between her hands, powered no doubt by her sheer awesomeness. Even her hair glows white, no doubt scaring off witches with it's own gleaming purity.

And the mountain? It's dayglo.

Just cool. Like the book.

Most of the other covers of this book that I've seen  look like pastiches of Little Red Riding Hood, with Dakin staring up at the farthest-away mountain looking somewhat daunted. And Dakin is never daunted. Well, not much. So if you ever get the chance get this one. Anyhow, on to the book - and then an analysis of the book.

Get yourself a cup of tea... there's a lot in here....


If you don't know the plot of the Farthest Away Mountain, it's broadly this:

Fifteen year old Dakin is quite the prettiest girl in the village but she's refusing to do the expected and get married until she's done the things she wants to do 'she wanted to visit the farthest-away mountain; she wanted to meet a gargoyle; and she wanted to find a prince for her husband.' 

Her family react with a mixture of horror or laughter but Dakin stands firm: "I must go to the farthest-away mountain and see what's in the forest," she said. "And I want to find out what makes the snow change colour." 

Before you know it the mountain nods to her and she is summoned away to battle ogres, flying monsters and gender-bending sorcerer-cum-witches in a quest to break the evil spell which holds the mountain in its thrall, saving the gargoyles (yay! she found the gargoyles!) and the land (of course) armed with nothing but her trusty knapsack and a nice white stocking cap.  In truth, she's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dora the Explorer rolled into one but with much blonder hair.

Dora the Explorer - every hero needs a knapsack
What makes it so good?

It's a fairy tale. We know that because, like all the very best stories, it starts with 'Once upon a time...'

And like a fairy tale, it has an ordinary lad set off on a quest to have a few adventures and win the hand of the princess. No. Wait a minute. It has an ordinary lass set off on a quest to have a few adventures and win the hand of the prince


A difference. 

When I first read this book, I didn't clock just how subversive that was. What's interesting about this book is that Dakin isn't a misfit. She doesn't hate her family, or hate the cheerleaders (or Scandinavian village equivalent). Her loved ones aren't threatened - or threatening. She goes on her quest because she wants to. And her conviction is confirmed when the mountain summons her. 

Dakin doesn't lack self belief. Like Jack the Giant Killer and many fairy tale questers before her, she is quietly self confident and pragmatic. Faced with each new situation, she works out a way to deal with it. Any compliments, she dismisses. She isn't conceited and she isn't looking for flattery.

'The lesson of the [witch's] story was clear. It wasn't enough to be good, one had to be wise and brave as well." And a few lines later: 'Whether she herself was good or not, Dakin didn't stop to think. What mattered now was to be wise and brave.'

Let's just read that again. What mattered now was to be wise and brave. Not good. Not pure. Not patient. Not accepting. Not gentle. Not selfless. Not any of the submissive feminine traits that would prevent her for forging her own destiny and saving the world.

People, when I read these lines I almost wept for joy.

This book makes a seven league boot length leap forward from earlier children's fantasy heroines like Susan and Lucy in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Even after she's been a Queen and not just any queen, but "Lucy the Valiant", Lucy still doesn't have the gumption (in Prince Caspian) to follow Aslan when her big brother tells her that she can't. Dakin, despite being similarly afflicted with brothers, would just have smiled and nodded and been with the golden lion in a flash.

The Ending (spoiler alert)

Dakin isn't particularly dark. She doesn't grapple much with envy or jealousy or greed. That's because she's good (and let's not forget, wise and brave). She doesn't have to learn the value of goodness. It's obvious to her - but she's does have something to learn. It would be pretty dull if she didn't.

Let's recap Dakin's ambitions:

1) to go to the farthest-away mountain (CHECK!); 2) to meet a gargoyle (CHECK!); 3) to 'find a prince for her husband.... ahhh.

So Dakin drowns the wicked witch-cum-sorcerer (more on that shortly), restores the mountain and is left with the magic Ring of Kings to be returned to its rightful owner - the Prince. This Prince, Dakin is quite certain, is her future husband. It's in her plan, right? She's going to prove them all wrong - Prince Rally is hers. It's just a shame she doesn't feel more enthusiastic about it. But she's sure she'll feel differently when she seems him. After all, princes are all hot, right?

A wedding and a crown - the end, right? 

My daughter was rolling on the floor at the description of the bad mannered, weedy bearded, butterfly murdering prince that Dakin is faced with. Oh. And he doesn't want to marry her anyway.

She is bitterly disappointed. So what's the village it-girl going to do now? "Better come home and marry young Ruston," her fathers suggests. No. NO. Surely, Dakin hasn't fought ogres to marry the village equivalent of the local quarterback. NO! She's been on a QUEST. There is MORE to her life than this.

Of course, Lynne Reid Banks could have made that the ending. So many female-hero stories end that way -  girl goes on adventure but returns and realises her childhood sweetheart was The One all along. Yep. That's the plot of Sweet Home Alabama. And practically all the romances my granny ever wrote.

What does Dakin do? Well, she still has a brass troll to bring back to life.

So she runs back to the farthest-away mountain, which is - we suspect - where she had wanted to be all along. After all, she never got a reward for breaking the spell! And what did happen to old Croak (the frog who inhabited the Lithy Pool of magical goodness and handed out useful advice)? Dakin had cried when she couldn't find him after the spell was broken.

CC image by Angela Wolf on flickr
Dakin runs back to the farthest-away mountain and, in the dark, falls into the Lithy Pool and half-drowns before being pulled out by a chap who was 'all that a young man should be - all that Prince Rally wasn't." It's none other than old Croak transformed back into his original form, Ravik the scholar!

Dakin thinks he's hot. He tells her he's an idiot, a fool, who brought evil to the mountain in the first place. She tells him to get over it. It's in the past and he's done his penance (as a frog).  The brass troll (now liberated) basically tells them to get a room. Ravik says he'd like to marry Daken but he isn't a prince and she wants a prince.

Dakin rather thinks she's changed her mind. A kiss seals the deal and Dakin immediately moves on to her next priority - founding a village on the mountain. And then, '"We shall be the prince and princess of the mountain," said Dakin.'

I love this girl.

At first, when I read this ending to my daughter, I was a bit disappointed. Marriage? I thought. Dakin ends up conforming to society's expectations after all. And to the frog? He's done nothing but hide in the lily pads! 

Then I realised how wrong I was. Dakin isn't going back to the village to settle down. She's choosing her reward for succeeding in her quest. And it's not the poxy prince in the palace. No, it's a someone who is good and pretty and has basically, been asleep for a couple of centuries.

Sound familiar?

Not only that, but she's choosing someone who will be a help-meet in realising her dreams - she will make herself a princess and him a prince and do it in the place they both want to live.  She's Perseus to his Andromeda.

But she doesn't become a hero by adopting stereotypical male traits, she wins her quest through her ingenuity, wisdom, compassion, bravery and sheer common sense. Assertive? Yes. Aggressive? No. 


My daughter (6) loved this story, and I loved reading it to her as much as I loved reading it myself when I was a girl. If you want a book that gives your kids (of either gender) a great role model and a great story, this is your book.

Now, onto a couple of additional aspects:

The gender-switching sorcerer-cum-witch [spoiler!!]

witch and witch jar by gfoster67 CC license

WTF? Major plot twist: "The witch is only a disguise. The Master is the witch only at night."

The Master is the evil architect behind all the bad stuff on the farthest-away mountain. He came to the mountain as a boy two hundred years previously at the invitation of the good, scholarly but foolish Ravik who thought the mountain's goodness would counter the boy's badness. Sadly, the goodies on the mountain took one look at the Evil One (and yes, it is capitalised) and ran. So the Evil One took over.

Next stage in his master-plan: get the magical Ring of Kings and take over the kingdom (not unlike Dakin's life plan!). Unfortunately for him, a slave troll nicks it and he spends the next century or so searching for it. In the FEMALE FORM of a demented and demonic old witch.

So what's that about? Why switch genders? He's got no one to fear - there are no monsters up there more monstrous than him. How did he become incorporeal "an evil spirit" and why, when he becomes corporeal is it in the form of a female witch?

The Master/Witch is fascinating. When the witch speaks about her back story, she refers to her masculine self in the third person as "he" or "the Evil One." No explanation is ever given as to how or why her transformation occurred - it's a mythographer's wet dream.

In myth, transformation to from a man to a woman can happen as punishment (as in the case of the Soothsayer Tiresias) or because of magic (as in the Mabhatharata). Gods tended to be the agents of magical sex change, but it is a consequence of witchcraft and the intervention of demons - in fact, the Malleus Malificarum (Hammer of the Witches) has a whole chapter entitled How, as it were, they Deprive Man of his Virile Member.

The Master is both a demon (the Evil One) and a witch - has he deprived himself of his own Virile Member? Or is his female form his punishment (Tiresias style) for losing the Ring of Kings? He concludes his story to Dakin by saying, '"And now the Evil One, as punishment for this one piece of carelessness, must give all his time to searching and searching for this ring, that he may spread his reign over the world of men, destroying what is good and increasing what is bad until the whole world is like this mountain - a black fountain of evil, pouring over all!"'

I find the last bit of imagery interesting - a spewing mountain of bad magic has a phallic overtones that offer a fascinating contrast to the Lithy Pool of good magic into which people must plunge. Masculine versus feminine?

The Master can't hack the Lithy Pool. As soon as he/she is near it, his/her magic starts to stutter. He/she jerks and twists - almost as though she is struggling to control her form. And when Dakin pushes her in, she disappears in a puff of smoke. Literally.

Dakin is dipped in the Lithy Pool twice. The first time she emerges restored and magically protected from evil, ready to start her quest - reborn as a [female] hero. The second time she is pulled out by Ravik, and is reborn as a [female] prince.

So here's what I think is going on with The Master/Evil One/Witch thing.

I see the Master as Dakin's opposite. Their goals are similar (get the ring, use it to further personal goal) and they both went to the farthest-away mountain at a similar age, she invited, he as an unwelcome intruder.

Dakin adopts a male role - becomes a knight, fights dragons and ogres and rescues people. However, she uses positive feminine strengths to transform her male role, for example, she wins over the gargoyles through empathy and proactive kindness.

The Master adopts a female role - becomes a witch, cooks in a cauldron, is perceived (wrongly) as harmless. However, he uses negative male traits to transform his female role, for example, the potions he cooks up attack instead of nurturing.

The Lithy Pool is the decider.

CC image by Neosnaps on flickr

This is a world where good aligns itself with positive (not passive) feminine traits such as nurture, empowerment and empathy? So which candidate will the creative force that is the Lithy Pool favour?  In the Lithy Pool the "true" feminine ideal (Dakin) is enhanced, whilst the "false" feminine (The Master) is destroyed.

The Lithy Pool, in effect, becomes the birthplace of a new paradigm - a world in which it is possible for an ordinary girl to use female strengths to lead and create the life she wants to live. 

To become a hero and a future leader Dakin needs to rebel, subvert, strike out, believe in herself and follow her own instincts - but she does not need to adopt male behaviours. She, like the Lithy Pool, is a creative force. She empowers and enhances others, and thus the Lithy Pool empowers her. The Master, although appearing female was unwilling and unable to adopt the female behaviours that Dakin exemplifies. He wished to conquer by force. The Lithy Pool therefore conquers him.

With the Master dead and the Prince useless, Ravik, who also successfully emerged from the Lithy Pool, offers an alternate male role model to the Master. The newly born Ravik is a man  who can rescue and protect (he saves Dakin from drowning), is self aware, newly wise and ready to work with Dakin to build a new world.

The meadow in which they are to live is 'like paradise' - a new Eden, for a new model Adam and Eve.

That's just my view - and I can see from reading reviews on Goodreads that a lot of people don't share it....

So - have you read The Farthest Away Mountain? What do YOU think is going on there? 


Diane J. Reed said...

What a fascinating books that weaves subversive & original thinking with fantasy! Perhaps that's what imagination truly does--gives us the opportunity to envision life in creative ways that free the soul <3

Meg McNulty said...

Thanks Diane. Have you read it? It's definitely a kids book, but an interesting one!