Book as mirror, mirror as book: the significance of the looking-glass in contemporary revisions of fairy tales.
Scholars such as Luce Irigaray and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have detailed the ways in which mirrors in literature can stand for entities hostile to women in general and to the female protagonist in particular, but I will be arguing here that in feminist revisions of fairy tales, the mirror reflects women's fantasies, experiences, and desires under conditions often hostile to their expression. In this way, mirrors not only represent fantasy stories in general, but also, according to my formulation, specifically stories of female fantasy, desire, and transformation.
The historical association between femininity and the trope of the mirror is so strong that in her comprehensive and fascinating history of the mirror, Sabine Melchior-Bonnet asserts that "[f]emininity is a creation of the mirror" (214). Melchior-Bonnet is referring not merely to the artifice contemporary women are expected to employ in creating a socially acceptable "feminine" appearance, but to the ways in which a misogynist culture identifies the evils of womankind with the evils of the looking-glass: "From the thirteenth century on, Eve is depicted brandishing a mirror" (187, 200). Eve's connection with mirrors suggests the medieval emblem of vanitas, always depicted as a woman gazing at herself in a mirror. (1) This long association, however, tends to be one of derision and scorn for both women and their mirrors. As is so often the case, women are made scapegoats for failings common to both sexes as well as bearing the blame for living up to patriarchal views of their worth, by valuing their own beauty.
In turn, then, many feminist critics have justifiably developed analyses that focus on the mirror's role in subjugating women. Writers representing two different schools of feminist criticism find in mirrors a perfect metaphor for patriarchal subordination of women.
Gilbert and Gubar use the mirror as a figure for patriarchy, for women's oppression by men's ideals and fears. In their analysis of Snow White, they describe the mirror as "the patriarchal ... judgment that rules the Queen's--and every woman's-self-evaluation.... [H]aving assimilated the meaning of her own sexuality ... the woman has internalized the King's rules: his voice resides now in her own mirror, her own mind" (38). The mirror is "the male-inscribed literary text" in which she finds only "those eternal lineaments fixed on her like a mask to conceal her dreadful and bloody link to nature" (15). (2) Irigaray likewise invokes the mirror throughout her work for a number of purposes, but it is often negative: in "The Looking Glass, from the Other Side," a woman on the other side of the mirror describes herself as stuck, paralyzed, and frozen; in Speculum of the Other Woman, Irigaray argues that men have used women as mirrors in order to validate their own worth, each man making "her into a reflection of himself, thereby denying her a subjectivity of her own ... [Women] must liberate themselves from negative definitions and mirror functions and start to assign a positive subjectivity to themselves" (54). (3) But the mirror has the potential to fulfill far more positive functions for women as well. Just as fairy tales, dismissed by readers of "serious literature" because of their association with female tellers and women's concerns are being reclaimed and retold by contemporary feminist writers, so too is the mirror, associated with sinful women, being reclaimed by those same writers as a potential source of power, self-creation, and magic. Because Carter's The Bloody Chamber is in many ways the foundational text for writers of feminist revisions of fairy tales, I will first examine the symbolic use of mirrors in three of her stories and then draw upon that analysis in order to explore texts by Kelly Link, Pratchett, and Lee, all of whom develop connections suggested in Carter's work.
Angela Carter, the Mirror, and the Fairy Tale
Carter's collection of fairy-tale revisions, The Bloody Chamber, is an ideal case study, not only demonstrating the significance of the mirror in her own work but also bringing together the myriad ways mirrors are used in the field of fairy-tale revisions as a whole. Carter is a particularly self-aware writer of fairy tales, having translated Charles Perrault's work, edited two collections of fairy tales, and maintained an interest in literary and psychoanalytic theory. Her collection demonstrates both the patriarchal hostility of the mirror to female subjectivity and the ways in which the mirror can support the development of that subjectivity. The title story "The Bloody Chamber," a revision of Bluebeard, is a perfect illustration of the Gilbert and Gubar/Iragarayan model of mirrors. Mirrors in the story are ubiquitous, and they are associated with the Marquis and the financial, sexual, and physical power he wields over the protagonist. The nameless protagonist is an impoverished piano student who lives in the shadow of her indomitable mother. She escapes her mother by marrying a much older and much wealthier Marquis, whose sexual sadism reveals his murderous desires. The first mention of mirrors in the story comes when the protagonist recounts her first meeting with the sadistic Marquis who is to become her husband, and the mirror turns her into an object or an animal, trapping her: "I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab" (115). The mirror turns the narrator from a shy musician into a tame animal or a piece of meat by revealing the Marquis's perception of her. Furthermore, the mirrors' "gilding" suggests the gilded cage of song, a connection strengthened by the protagonist's statement later on that she had been "bought with a handful of coloured stones and the pelts of dead beasts" (122). In the mirror, opulence has turned her into flesh on display, just as the corpses of the Marquis's dead wives have been put on display in his secret chamber. In this story, the mirrors are extensions of the Marquis, watching the young woman when he is away, as she finds after her discovery of the dead wives: "I could not take refuge in my bedroom, for that retained the memory of his presence trapped in the fathomless silvering of his mirrors" (132-33). The bedroom may be hers, but the mirrors are his.
Mirrors not only turn the narrator into a caged animal, but they also estrange her from herself. Upon reaching her bedroom in her husband's odd, sea-surrounded castle for the first time, she is surprised to see
Our bed. And surrounded by so many mirrors! Mirrors on the walls, in stately frames of contorted gold, that reflected more white lilies than I'd ever seen in my life before. He'd filled the room with them, to greet the bride, the young bride. The young bride, who had become that multitude of girls I saw in the mirrors.... "See," he said, gesturing towards those elegant girls. "I have acquired a whole harem for myself!" (118)
The young woman finds herself multiplied, one of a cavalcade of indistinguishable wives, adumbrating her later discovery of her future in the room of murdered brides. (4) Her husband's language underlines the ownership he had contemplated in the earlier mirror. Whereas before he had been contemplating a purchase, he has now "acquired" the goods. The juxtaposition of the Marquis's mirrors and the marital bed underline the protagonist's status as sexual object, as one whose experience of sex will be as something that is done to her, rather than as something she does.
Using the mirrors, the narrator distances herself from what is happening to her during her first sexual encounter with her husband: "I could not meet his eye and turned my head away, out of pride, out of shyness, and watched a dozen husbands approach me in a dozen mirrors and slowly, methodically, teasingly, unfasten the buttons of my jacket and slip it from my shoulders" (118). The mirrors provide the young woman with a mechanism of dissociation; made profoundly uncomfortable by her husband's sexual manipulation, even as she is aroused by it, she takes refuge in becoming an observer, in distancing herself from the events she is witnessing in the mirror. She is not feeling; she is watching. The mirror has estranged her as a subject, watching, from herself as an object, being watched--and not just any object either. As Mary Kaiser points out, "the bride perceives herself as a pornographic object," noting the protagonist's comparison of herself to an engraving shown to her by her then-fiance (33). This estrangement is made even clearer when the heroine has sex for the first time. She remains completely passive, describing sex as a series of things her husband is doing to her, until the moment of consummation, when she breaks from first-person narration into third, saying that "A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides while the mewing gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside" (121). Here, the narrator not only distances herself from her own experiences by using the mirrors, but she also underlines this distance by the sudden switch into third-person narration, as though what is happening is happening to someone else, to the twelve girls she sees in the mirror, rather than to her. Unlike Lacan's formulation, in which the (male) subject's sense of self is formed by the coherent image of himself that he sees in the mirror, here the female subject's sense of self is undermined by the reducing effect of that image, a comment perhaps on how often women have been reduced to objects of the gaze, rather than subjects in their own right. In this way, Carter suggests that the mirror is not an indifferent reflector; it is more akin to the cinematic gaze described by Laura Mulvey.
The mirrors are integral to the sexual play between the heroine and her husband from the very beginning, but that play is always on his terms and in his eyes. Even when attempting to save her own life, the protagonist offers up her masochism using the bedroom mirrors: "I forced myself to be seductive, I saw myself, pale, pliant as a plant that begs to be trampled underfoot, a dozen vulnerable appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors, and I saw how he almost failed to resist me. If he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him, then" (137). The mirrors never reflect the protagonist as an active being or allow the self that is seen to unite with the self that is seeing. Here, her dissembling attempt to use the masochistic role the Marquis and the mirrors have assigned her to save herself fails; the Marquis does not see what she wants him to. He does insist on seeing the fatal key, and he attempts to murder his wife.
Mirrors are destructive to the young heroine of "The Bloody Chamber," estranging her from herself and her experiences as well as emphasizing her sexual passivity and economic vulnerability. As Carter writes in The Sadeian Woman: "sexual relations between men and women always render explicit the nature of social relations in the society in which they take place and, if described explicitly, will form a critique of those relations" (20). Carter was intent on highlighting the social construction of female masochism and sexual passivity by bringing to the fore the material and economic conditions that have prevented women from interacting with men on equal footing, forcing them to sublimate their own sexuality into a male fantasy simply in order to survive. But what about the cultural and psychological fall-out from such a history? The protagonist of this story is genuinely sexually aroused by her husband's behavior and her own status as an object; indeed, it is the very seduction of the reader and the protagonist to which Avis Lewallen objects, claiming that Carter's story merely replicates the structures of patriarchal pornography (151). The mirrors reveal her own potential enjoyment of the kind of destructive sexuality offered by her husband: "for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away" (115). Kathleen Manley argues that the "mirrors, by providing opportunities to see herself as others see her, allow the protagonist to begin to have a more complete sense of herself as a subject" (85). While I disagree, and think instead that the mirrors awaken the protagonist to a sense of herself as an object, it is my belief that Manley is picking up on an important function of the mirrors: for women under patriarchy, sexual maturation is intertwined with consciousness of oneself as an object. The protagonist is awakened to her own sexual pleasure by the mirrors, but they reveal early on the heroine's potential fate if she were to lose herself completely in their proffered passivity: she would become a cut of meat on the slab, a corpse like her literal predecessors. The mirrors in "The Bloody Chamber" illuminate Carter's observation that "To be the object of desire is to be defined in the passive case. To exist in the passive case is to die in the passive case-that is, to be killed" (76).
If "The Bloody Chamber" stood alone in Carter's collection in dealing with mirrors, the story would be a sophisticated and affecting indictment of the part mirrors play in objectifying women, even to themselves. But Carter's project is a multifaceted one. The very multiplicity of her perspective is what troubles Patricia Duncker who sees Carter's divergent meditations as inconsistency, but Kaiser understands that multiplicity as part of the point. For her, Carter's various approaches to gender relations in her tales are "a reflection of [her] project ... to portray sexuality as a culturally relative phenomenon" (33). The collection ends with "Wolf-Alice," a tale in which the ability to see and recognize one's reflection marks one's entrance into knowledge, self-awareness, and humanity (such a test is commonly used to measure whether or not animals have a sense of self; chimpanzees and dolphins regularly recognize themselves in the mirror [Keenan xi]). "Wolf-Alice" opens with a girl raised by wolves living in the castle of an undead Duke who lives on corpses. Neither the ghastly Duke nor the girl, Alice (clearly an allusion to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-glass and What Alice Found There), is fully human. Like a vampire, the Duke casts no reflection, and while the girl has one, she does not understand what she is seeing when she looks in the mirror. For all practical intents and purposes, neither one truly has a reflection. The mirror catalyses and signifies Alice's emergence into human consciousness after which she is able to bring the Duke into humanity as well, an achievement signified by his reflection finally appearing in the mirror on his bedroom wall. Sarah Sceats makes this point when she writes that "As a result of Alice's caring attention the Duke is brought into focus, literally, in the mirror. He thus achieves an identity" (145).
In Carter's story, it is the man and not the girl who finds himself on the wrong side of the looking-glass: "[his] eyes open to devour the world in which he sees, nowhere, a reflection of himself; he passed through the mirror and now, henceforward, lives as if upon the other side of things" (222). What does it mean to live on the other side of things? In Carter's story, it means to eat corpses, gaining life from death, to have everything familiar reversed, and not to see evidence of oneself anywhere. Carter alludes to the meditations of Carroll's Alice about living on the other side of things when she immediately follows the above-quoted passage with the words, "Spilt, glistering milk of moonlight ..." (222). In Through the Looking-glass, Alice wonders aloud, "Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn't good to drink" (142), leaving open the question whether or not things that are food on this side of glass would be edible on the other, or whether a visitor would have to eat what is forbidden to us--to reverse our order of being so that he transforms our corpses, our death, into his life. To live on the wrong side of the mirror is to become a monster.
Like Carroll's Alice, Wolf-Alice is fascinated by the mirror, and in the beginning of their stories, neither girl seems to have quite grasped the imitative, two-dimensional nature of the glass. Wolf-Alice's realization of the meaning of reflection is connected to her menarche and maturation. Wolf-Alice initially understands her reflection as a playmate: "She rubbed her head against her reflected face, to show that she felt friendly towards it, and felt a cold, solid, immovable surface between herself and she" (225). Carter's confused syntax reflects Wolf-Alice's own confusion about the nature of her reflection and thus about her own identity. Wolf-Alice looks outward, thinking she is exploring her surroundings, only to find that she is looking inward as the reflection's "fidelity to her very movement finally woke her up to the regretful possibility that her companion was, in fact, no more than a particularly ingenious variety of the shadow she cast on sunlit grass" (226).
When Wolf-Alice finds that her playmate is only a reflection, "A little moisture leaked from the corners of her eyes, yet her relation with the mirror was now far more intimate since she knew she saw herself within it" (226). She then puts on a wedding dress that "the Duke had tucked away behind the mirror" and knows that she has "put on the visible sign of her difference from them [the wolves]" (226). Becoming human requires Alice to understand the mystery of the mirror and to find out what is hidden behind it. For behind the mirror is not the other room with the companion that the mirror appears to frame, but a dusty wall against which is hidden clothing, the symbol of knowledge (Adam and Eve fashion clothing for themselves after eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) as well as the human separation from animals. Wolf-Alice becomes human, or at least unbeastly, when she understands the nature of mirrors and finds what is hidden behind them.
Wolf-Alice's power to bring both herself and her beastly landlord into the human compass is marked by the mirror. The evening after she becomes human, the Duke is shot and comes home injured:
The lucidity of the moonlight lit the mirror propped against the red wall; the rational glass, the master of the visible, impartially recorded the crooning girl. As she continued her ministrations, this glass, with infinite slowness, yielded to the reflexive strength of its own material construction. Little by little, there appeared within it, like the image on photographic paper that emerges, first, a formless web of tracery ..., then a firmer yet still shadowed outline until at last as vivid as real life itself, as if brought into being by her soft, moist, gentle tongue, finally, the face of the Duke. (227-28)
The connection between the mirror and moonlight is an ongoing motif in this story, and in this passage the moon and the red wall underscore the importance of Wolf-Alice's menstruation in bringing her to human consciousness, and in her bringing the Duke to humanity as well (a preceding sentence tells us that Wolf-Alice is distressed by "his wound that does not smell like her wound" ). Alice and the Duke travel similar paths: she becomes human when she learns that the figure in the mirror is none other than herself, and his entrance into humanity occurs when he, too, appears in the mirror. Further, "the rational glass, master of the visible" must reflect the visible but can only reflect what is there, that which exists; far from being the bearer of mysticism or irrationality, Alice's empirical experiments in coming to consciousness are the most rational actions possible in the Gothic world of her story. Rationality (reasoning, thinking), femininity, and humanity are all inextricably linked at the tale's conclusion.
In Carter's lush and allusive prose, we have almost all the elements of the significance of mirror-as-fantasy. The mirror is essential to an understanding of femininity, humanity, and the self; it is closely tied to magic; and it troubles the boundaries between reality and fantasy, self and other. These two stories, which bookend the collection, seem to be reflections of each other, so that the stories themselves become mirrors, and their mirrors, stories. The central situation of each story is that of a young girl, who leaves the house of her mother and finds herself living in the castle of a monstrous nobleman. Both stories have mirrors, white dresses, and bloodstained sheets among their central symbolic elements. Yet, despite these common elements, the stories themselves are very different, not only in their outcomes, but in what they suggest about relations between the sexes and about how it is possible to come to terms with one's own sexuality under patriarchy. It is this simultaneous similarity and difference that I would argue identifies the stories as mirrors. What one sees in even the most perfect mirror is not a perfect replica but a rearrangement: a reflection is the converse of the original image, in which every element is present, but reversed. In the most perfect mirror, one sees one's converse; in any other mirror, one sees a distorted converse. Therefore, the two stories' differences--even the ways in which they are opposites--are essential to understanding them as mirror-images of each other. Each story is the other's converse, and thus its reflection; "Wolf-Alice" is "The Bloody Chamber" in the looking-glass, and vice versa, and the stories themselves are mirrors.
Carter presents the mirror as fantastic tale itself in the story "The Tiger's Bride." This story is a revision of "Beauty and the Beast" in which the heroine's father gambles her away to a Beast who is also lord of the Italian village they are visiting. The Beast promises her untold riches and immediate return to her father if she allows him to see her naked, but the protagonist refuses, scorning the pretence that in a society where women are chattel, she is any different from a prostitute. She watches most of her story unfold in mirrors and relates it to us. Her father loses her during a game of cards, and while she is present at the game, her opinion is not sought; she has no agency in this situation, and all she can do is watch:
the mirror above the table gave me back his [her father's] frenzy, my impassivity, the withering candles, the emptying bottles, the coloured tide of the cards as they rose and fell, the still mask that concealed all the features of The Beast but for the yellowed eyes that strayed, now and then, from his unfurled hand towards myself. (154-55)
The scene is set and the players, of whom the daughter is not one, described through a mirror, and as we read the story printed on the page, so the daughter reads her fate in the mirror: "My father said he loved me yet he staked his daughter on a hand of cards. He fanned them out; in the mirror, I saw wild hope light up his eyes.... A queen, a king, an ace. I saw them in the mirror" (156). This game of cards is a central event; it opens the story and is the excuse for all that follows, and we know it only through a mirror. The daughter, the narrator of the story, is a reader for most of the tale, but rather than reading her story from books, she reads it from the mirror. The girl does not see herself in the mirror, but rather than allowing her to escape the mirror-trap of the "The Bloody Chamber," being confined to the role of watcher places her in a similarly detached and passive position, as she is excluded and distanced from the actions that determine her fate. Once she arrives at the Beast's palace, she continues to read her story in the magic mirror held by the automaton-maid provided for her: "I saw within it [the mirror] not my own face but that of my father, as if I had put on his face when I arrived at The Beast's palace as the discharge of his debt. What, you self-deluding fool, are you crying still?" (162). This mirror reveals not only events which she would otherwise be unable to see, but also her status in this world: whenever the girl looks into this magic mirror, she sees her father's face before she sees her own. In the patriarchal world she inhabits, she exists only as an extension of her father; she has no self to see that can rival that status.
Poignantly, even through the mirror, she is denied any recognition of her own personhood by her father, any genuine emotional interchange. After being told that she may return to her father, she looks in the mirror, "but it was in the midst of one of its magic fits again and I did not see my own face in it but that of my father; at first I thought he smiled at me. Then I saw he was smiling with pure gratification" (167). The Beast has recompensed her father for the vast wealth he lost at cards; her father is not smiling at her, but instead with happiness at his renewed socio-economic status. Indeed, his daughter's status as but another commodity is indicated by a note reading "The young lady will arrive immediately," which she at first misinterprets to refer to a prostitute (167). This alienation from her father--his smile is not an emotional connection but merely a response to a reaccumulation of wealth--is followed by the girl noting that "When I looked in the mirror again ... all I saw was a pale, hollow-eyed girl whom I scarcely recognized ... my maid, whose face was no longer the spit of my own, continued bonnily to beam" (167). Here, the mirror finally reveals to the young woman the person she has become, a person quite distinct from the literally heartless, cosmetics-wielding clockwork girl who holds the mirror out for her. Her story had taken place in the mirror, and now she is leaving that story behind. "The Tiger's Bride" ends shortly thereafter, with the transformation of the girl into a jungle cat. In this story, one of the mirror's many functions is to tell the story and to identify the woman watching events unfold in the mirror with the woman reading the story; the mirror is her book.
The Book as Mirror in the Field of Fairy-Tale Revisions
The robber girl's boots cover the scars on your feet. When you look at these scars, you can see the outline of the journey you made. Sometimes mirrors are maps, and sometimes maps are mirrors. Sometimes scars tell a story, and maybe someday you will tell this story to a lover. The soles of your feet are stories--hidden in the black boots, they shine like mirrors. (119)
Subsequent writers of fairy-tale revisions have picked up on the role the mirror plays in "The Tiger's Bride," expanding it so that the mirror comes to represent women's fantasy stories in many revisions of fairy tales. Among the many recurrences of the motif, Link's "Travels with the Snow Queen," Pratchett's Witches Abroad, and Lee's White as Snow in particular show how strongly Carter's work has affected our thinking about fantasy, femininity, and mirrors. The passage opening this section occurs close to the end of Link's short story, a revision of the Hans Christian Andersen story in which a young girl searches for her kidnapped friend; in Link's version, Gerda searches for a vanished, unkind lover. As Gerda travels, she reflects on her journey, her unhappy relationship with Kay, and her decision to leave him where he is and go into business with the Snow Queen. Gerda's feet have been scarred because, in searching for Kay,
The map that you are using is a mirror. You are always pulling the bits out of your bare feet, the pieces of the map that broke off and fell on the ground as the Snow Queen flew overhead in her sleigh.... ....When you are pulling the shards of the Snow Queen's looking-glass out of your feet ... you tell yourself to imagine how it felt when Kay's eyes, Kay's heart were pierced by shards of the same mirror. Sometimes it's safer to read maps with your feet. (100)
While for Link's Gerda the mirror is a map which she follows to find Kay, that same map is a story to the reader, as he or she follows Gerda's travels not with a mirror-map, but via the story itself. Most of the story is told in the second person, and the person being addressed is Gerda, so Gerda and the reader are closely identified. This identification results in Gerda's mirror-as-map becoming the reader's mirror-as-story--"Travels with the Snow Queen" itself. That mirror becomes a part of Gerda. At the end of the story, the scars left by the shattered mirror turn Gerda's own feet into a simultaneous mirror-map-story: "When you look at these scars, you can see the outline of the journey you made.... The soles of your feet are stories--hidden in the black boots, they shine like mirrors.... You tell the geese that your feet are maps and your feet are mirrors" (120). Gerda's feet are maps, mirrors, and stories. She incarnates the story through the medium of the mirror and tells her story to the reader and the geese. The mirror reflects her shifting consciousness with respect to her own story, as she comes to realize that she does not want to free Kay after all, but chooses to make a new life by going into business with the Snow Queen.
Pratchett's Witches Abroad, a pastiche of fairy tales, also represents the mirror as a story itself. The novel is set in a magical world and deals with a witch who uses mirror-magic to turn people into characters in stories. The action of the story proper, our first glimpse of the main characters, is introduced by the following:
Look into the mirror ... ... further ... ... to an orange light on a cold mountaintop, thousands of miles away from the vegetable warmth of that swamp. (11)
Thus the novel itself becomes a mirror to "show" us the events of the story. Though we are actually reading a book, we are told that we are looking into a mirror--reading a story and looking into a mirror become the same thing. The parallels between the reader and/or the writer and a woman looking into a mirror are further suggested when Lilith, the aforementioned witch-queen, uses mirrors to spy on the rest of the world:
Lilith sat in her tower, using a mirror, sending her own image out to scan the world.... Wherever there was a sparkle on a wave crest, wherever there was a sheet of ice, wherever there was a mirror or a reflection then Lilith knew she could see out. You didn't need a magic mirror. Any mirror would do, if you knew how to use it. (27)
Mirrors allow Lilith to see any place at any given moment, (5) just as fantasy as a genre frees the reader and the writer from the constraints of the realist, linear story. If the book is a mirror, and the earlier quotation suggests that it is, then the writer must be Lilith. Thus the book and the mirror are not only conflated into one, but the mirror becomes expressive of Lilith's plans and fantasies, as she uses mirror-magic to inflict her will on a captive populace.
Just as Pratchett turns his novel into a mirror, so too does Lee in White as Snow, a novel-length revision of "Snow White" set in a brutal, patriarchal, violent world. The novel opens with the statement that "Once upon a time, in winter, there was a mirror" (31). The Grimm Brothers' version of the tale of Snow White opens with "Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen was sitting and sewing ..." (196). For Lee, the mirror takes the place of the queen as the primary mover in the tale (in the earliest version of Snow White published by the Brothers Grimm, this first queen who bears the princess is the very same queen who persecutes her later on). The indication is that this story is the mirror's story. Like Pratchett, Lee then turns the novel into a mirror. The reader "sees" the pivotal events of one evening through the mirror; in this extended passage, the mirror becomes the story: "The mirror saw the Hunter King invoke the night, and the spirits of the dead who were, that night, there to dance with them" (121). The reader reads what the mirror sees. The phrase "The mirror saw" is repeated four times in two pages, underlining the reader's dependence on the mirror for the story--rather than allowing text to be the medium through which we experience the story, the novel repeatedly tells us that we are watching the events in a mirror. As in Pratchett's novel, text becomes mirror and mirror, text.
The connections among Lilith's chamber of mirrors, the magic mirror of White as Snow, and the art of writing are not only to be found in Pratchett's Discworld or Lee's Belgra Demitu; they are also historical fact. Les contes des fees (literally, fairy tales), baroque, glittering tales written and read by seventeenth-century French noblewomen are the sources for some of our best-loved tales. Marina Warner has argued persuasively that these writers often figured themselves in the tales they wrote as fairy godmothers (215-17, 233-35)--and indeed, Pratchett's Lilith, who I have argued above is a figure for the writer/reader is an official fairy godmother with the wand to prove it. Les contes des fees often feature magic mirrors; perhaps unsurprising in tales written during the century when the large mirror was a glittering, opulent, novel object of status, wonder, and beauty that no noble or bourgeois family would be without--making crystal clear sheet glass was difficult, expensive, and a closely-guarded secret. Indeed, according to Melchior-Bonnet in her history of the mirror, "Each era chooses a particular social venue in accordance with its tastes and ways of thinking and feeling. In the seventeenth century, the cabinet lambrisse, or paneled study, was the new standard, and the crystal mirror its crowning adornment" (140). These studies were paneled with mirrors on every wall, not unlike Lilith's chamber of mirrors in Witches Abroad. Lilith is a fairy godmother who obtains her power through mirrors--a powerful figure for the writer of fairy tales, working in a mirrored chamber that symbolizes her social and economic power.
To Lilith, stories and mirrors are the very same thing. Contemplating the differences between herself and her sister, Esme Weatherwax (aka Granny Weatherwax, one of our heroines), Lilith thinks "Esme Weatherwax had never understood stories. She'd never understood how real reflections were" (63). Much of the novel concerns the difference between reality and fantasy: both stories and reflections are representations of real life, representations that ultimately lack physical substance, but can be used to control people. This is especially true of mirrors, the secret of Lilith's magic powers. The novel explains: "You can use two mirrors like this, if you know the way of it: you set them so that they reflect each other. For if images can steal a bit of you, then images of images can amplify you, feeding you back on yourself, giving you power" (47). (6) This trick has intensified Lilith's considerable magical talents into an amazing amount of power, like a concave mirror focusing the sun's rays. When Esme's friend Nanny Ogg realizes that Lilith has the power to transform animals into human beings, she is amazed and says that she herself could not do that. Granny replies, "She didn't used to be able to either, for more'n a few seconds. That's what using mirrors does for you" (193). (7) Controlling reflections allows Lilith to control real creatures, just as controlling stories allows her to control real lives. Mirrors and stories are two sides of the same coin--in the Discworld, they are practically the same thing.
In Herself Beheld: The Literature of the Looking Glass, Jenijoy La Belle examines the history of the literary connection between books and mirrors. She finds that books and mirrors have long been linked--and gendered as well. She argues that rather than being simply in opposition, the book and the mirror are also in apposition, that in literature, women search in the mirror for what men seek in books. Furthermore, she finds that when women turn to books, they acquire similar kinds of knowledge as they do when consulting a mirror. Despite the similarities between books and mirrors, however, La Belle concludes that ultimately the mirror is a far more restrictive, narrow way of knowing in the literature she has studied. I would suggest that such a conclusion is due to La Belle's own focus on realist literature. While her book is comprehensive within that field, the potential for the mirror to show more than one sign has already been deliberately excluded. In the texts under study in this article, however, mirrors can and do show worlds. In fantasy literature, the mirror can hold power and knowledge on a par with any book, and so the correspondence between book and mirror is much more powerful in fantasy literature.
Yet Mrs. Gogol, a voodoo witch who fights Lilith is scornful of her powers. She tells a friend that "All anyone gets in a mirror is themselves" (Pratchett 79). How, then, can mirrors function as stories? Perhaps because, like mirrors, stories need to reflect in order to communicate. Consider Freud's essay, "Creative Writing and Daydreaming," in which he argues that creative writing is a form of fantasy/daydreaming made enjoyable by artistic disguise of the essential egoism of the fantasy. Nonetheless, he insists, the egoism is there, not only in the writer's identification with one or several characters, but in the godlike powers the writer wields over the characters, setting, and narrative itself. Thus, a piece of writing is both a communication with a larger world and a reflection of the mind that created it. A similar dynamic is in play for the reader. The significance of the novel to the reader is dependent on the reader finding him or herself in the text--that is, in order for a piece of writing to open up new vistas for a reader, or even to give the reader pleasure, it must reflect some of what already exists inside the reader. Thus, the communicating function of the mirror/story is only effective if the reflection in the mirror/story is recognizable, even if only to the subconscious. Warren Motte argues that
reading can be conceived as a kind of mirror-gazing.... among the many things we "see" in literature, one of the salient things is ourselves, writ large.... In doing so, we construct a version of ourselves, one whom we may sometimes recognize immediately, sometimes by dint of effort, and sometimes not at all. (785-86)
The corollary is that mirror needs to reflect in order to allow communication.
Mirrors and reflections are stories and/or tell stories (often these two aspects run together)--but what happens when a "real" character becomes a reflection? I would argue that she becomes a character in someone else's story--she loses her agency and control over her own story and is absorbed into someone else's. This absorption into another's story is exactly what has happened to women in patriarchal culture (consider the alienating and objectifying effects of mirrors on the protagonist of Carter's "The Bloody Chamber"). Women are pressed into service as vamps, innocents, whores, and sexless mothers and denied the ability to write their own stories; worse, their stories are ignored. The connections between loss of self, reflection, and control over stories is made clear in Neil Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, Apples," a dark retelling of Snow White in which the queen is a benevolent witch and her stepdaughter is a murderous vampire. Ultimately the witch loses her life and kingdom to Snow White, and just before she is roasted alive, she tells us that her stepdaughter "looked at me ...; and for a moment I saw myself reflected in her eyes" (339). What she has been reflected into, of course, is the evil stepmother that most versions of the tale make her out to be--she has been overcome by the stories spread about her by her stepdaughter and transformed into a reflection of herself in her stepdaughter's eyes. Reflections tell stories; reflections are stories. And losing oneself in reflections puts one at the mercy of somebody else's stories. It is a fate from which Lilith, unlike Esme, is unable to escape.
Mirrors can be stories only if the one looking into them brings with him or her the dimension of time. Otherwise, they are merely fleeting, insubstantial snapshots. Scars such as Gerda's are one way to mark the passage of time, but memory is another. Lee highlights the connection between memory and the story-function of the mirror in White as Snow. Arpazia, the mad witch-queen, finds that her memory is actually in the magic mirror. When Arpazia re-encounters the soldier who had captured her during the invasion of her father's castle, she is not sure who he is. She turns to the mirror for guidance:
She lit one thin wax taper, and saw the flame litter across the mirror's lid. When she had undone the lid, looking in the glass, she could see a black forest of pines and, there inside, something shining, which was the candleflame, but then it became a bulbous golden tent. Draco's tent, far in the past, to which a Cirpoz, almost two decades younger, had conducted her.. Cirpoz had raped her maid, Lilca, but not Arpazia. All he had done with her was give her to Draco. She remembered very vividly now. (160)
Arpazia's memory is stored in the mirror, and that memory provides the element of time that mirrors require in order to tell stories. When Arpazia gives away her mirror, she disposes of her last thread of sanity, and thenceforth her mind is cast adrift in time. She becomes unable to distinguish among events that have occurred in the distant past, those that have occurred in the recent past, those that she has dreamt, and those that are actually occurring around her. She is lost in time, thinking of herself as a little girl in a crone's body (245). By giving up the mirror, she gave up her memory as well and rendered herself unable to understand the story of her life. La Belle describes a similar dynamic and genders the temporal aspect of mirror-gazing feminine:
repeated acts of mirroring give the glass a temporal dimension. When a woman looks at her reflected image, it is often difficult for her to avoid two other faces besides the one existing in the present tense: what she has seen before in the mirror, and what she hopes or fears she will see in the future. (76)
The temporality of the mirror is based in the fantasy of the remembered past, insofar as it continues to exist only in the mind, and the fantasy of the future. And this aspect of fantasy, La Belle argues, is an aspect of feminine subjectivity: "Women, when they look in mirrors, apprehend things that are not literally present. They can see a future ... or a past" (81). Of course, in literature of the fantastic, there is a name for women who see the future or the past in a mirror: we call them witches. What La Belle describes as women's everyday experiences with the mirror are quite easily mappable onto the magic that makes fantasy. The necessary element of time that makes mirrors into stories also makes mirrors into fantastic stories--and feminine fantasy at that. (8) Like a text, the mirror changes and the reflection is rearranged with every new looker. Indeed, a reflection is always a rearrangement. The visual elements that compose the real object are all shown; they are simply inverted, or converted, into a new image. For this reason, the mirror is an ideal symbol for the writer of fairy-tale revisions to use for their brand of literary magic; such writers rewrite, invert, and convert a continually changing but ultimately recognizable story.
Mirrors are not merely stories--they are specifically fantasy stories. Reflections are insubstantial creations of light or thought--and the dual meaning of "reflection" is related to the mirror's status as fantasy. Reflections, like fantasy, are contained only in the mind, are nothing more than a trick of the light. And yet without reflections, without either kind of reflections, how on earth would we know how we are in the world, or what the world was, or how we wish to relate to it? Similarly, fantasy is utterly necessary to our understanding of reality. Without the capacity to fantasize, without fantasy literature, we would not be able to conceive of the world other than it is, and our desires, hopes, and fears would be the poorer.
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(1) My experience concurs with Nancy Mitford's when she writes that "I have often noticed that when women look at themselves in every reflection, and take furtive peeps into their hand looking-glasses, it is hardly ever, as is generally supposed, from vanity, but much more often from a feeling that all is not quite as it should be" (qtd. in La Belle 18).
(2) The association with the schoolgirl stories of Bloody Mary is practically inescapable.
(3) Irigaray assigns both a positive and a negative value to the mirror in her essay "Divine Mirror," in which she argues that "the mirror almost always serves to reduce us to a pure exteriority.... as a possible way to constitute screens between the other and myself ... the mirror is a frozen-and polemical weapon to keep us apart" (65). Further on, though, she notes that Feuerback wrote that "God is the mirror of man" and that "Woman has no mirror wherewith to become woman" (67), suggesting that women's development has been thwarted due to the absence of a necessary mirror.
(4) The lilies, too, suggest an imminent funeral for these twelve women.
(5) There is a real-life analogue to this power of the mirror in the use of mirrors for security purposes. The proper arrangement of mirrors can allow one to see into other rooms or behind one's back, and mirrors were used for this purpose before the advent of closed-circuit television cameras (Abelson 206).
(6) Here Pratchett refers to the common folk belief that a mirror can steal a piece of the looker's soul if he or she is not very careful.
(7) Towards the end of the novel, Lilith tells Esme, "You should have tried mirrors yourself.... It does wonders for a soul" (271). Pratchett is referring to the copious amounts of folklore about mirrors' ability to steal a person's soul, but also sets up an interesting serious of connections. Earlier, he describes how the powers Lilith gains from the mirror appear: "Behind Lily, faint images hung in the air so that she appeared to be followed by a succession of fading ghosts" (18). Ghost, of course, is another word for spirit, which is another word for soul (this is a chain of meaning Granny Weatherwax herself invokes in a later adventure, Maskerade ). A soul can be trapped in reflection (and in this novel they certainly can), and reflection is another word for thought. The mirrors are amplifying the power of Lilith's thoughts and fantasies.
(8) Mirrors have long been associated with other kinds of fantasies about the future as well: divination. Catoptromancy, or divination by looking into mirrors, seems to be an almost universal practice. Usually, it has involved a selected person, either one considered an adept at magic or one considered "innocent," such as a child, staring fixedly into the mirror until he or she has a vision revealing either the future or some mysterious aspect of the present (for instance, identifying the perpetrator of a crime) (Goldberg 7-21). Although many people truly believed in the mystical powers of these mirror-gazers, even as early as the fourteenth century, certain writers considered these visions to be fantasy. Ibn-Khaldun, an Arabian historian, writes, "persons are mistaken in thinking they behold objects and visions in the mirror; a kind of misty curtain intervenes between their eyes and the bright mirror and on this appears the phantoms of their imagination" (qtd. in Goldberg 15).
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|Author:||Schanoes, Veronica L.|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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