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Changing self, changing other: Patricia McKillip's The Changeling Sea as feminist fairy tale.

PATRICIA MCKILLIP, IN HER AUTHOR'S NOTE TO THE CHANGELING SEA (1988), remarks, "The story of the true human child stolen by fairies and a changeling, a fairy child, left in its place is very old and very familiar." McKillip's note draws attention to fairy-tale motifs present in the story, and the novel depends, to a certain extent, on readers' recognition of such motifs and the expectations they create. Like many fairy tales (whether traditional versions or rewritings) and many young adult novels, The Changeling Sea tells the story of the maturation of its protagonist, and by using the changeling motif, McKillip suggests both the confusions and the potential power of adolescent development into adult sexual/romantic and social roles. Despite the pre-industrial setting and patriarchal society of the novel, McKillip does not depict these roles for the female protagonist, Peri, as traditional gender-defined possibilities. McKillip's use of the changeling motif to describe the condition of adolescence, including its awakening to sexuality and desire, represents that awakening within a context that affirms female power and community while deconstructing binary oppositions; as a feminist fairy tale, the novel values female agency as transformative of individual and community.

Fairy-Tale Context

The Changeling Sea incorporates other fairy-tale elements, but as the title and author's note suggest, the most important is the motif of the fairy changeling. The obvious changeling is Prince Kir, who is repeatedly associated with water imagery: "his eyes [are] all the twilight colors of the sea" (12) and his face is "as pale as pearl, as pale as foam" (12). When he meets Peri, he jokes that he is a stablehand whose "mother keeps sea horses" (12). He declares, two chapters later, "My father took a lover out of the sea.... She bore me and gave me to him" (35). He is a sea-woman's child left in the place of the king and queen's legitimate son--and what happened to that human child and how Kir might be reunited with his mother's people and the land beneath the sea where he belongs forms the novel's main mystery which Peri must solve.

Changeling stories have many variations, and McKillip's novel employs and alters a number of common story patterns. For example, Stith Thompson, in his Motif Index of Folk Literature, notes the following motif: "water fairy changeling kept out of water too long, dies" (3: 63). McKillip's evocation of that motif lends urgency to events; Kir's intense desire to return to the land beneath the sea approaches a suicidal impulse early in the novel. He is "not able, any longer, to be too far from the sea" (34), which explains his presence in the king's residence near the fishing village where Peri lives. A few nights after their first encounter, she finds the prince lying in the tide, "face down in the sand," and when she moves him, "Sea water spill[s] out of his mouth" (39). His attempts to return to his mother's kingdom have become increasingly desperate, and only Peri's promise of help prevents him from another doomed foray into the water. McKillip has extended the length of time that the changeling can exist on land, but the novel's conflict requires speedy resolution because McKillip's changeling is ultimately following that water fairy motif.

Other motifs that Thompson lists, however, McKillip alters substantially. Many changeling stories depend on tricking the changeling into betraying its age, since the "fairy substitute" left for the human child is often "mature and only seems to be a child" (Thompson 3: 61). McKillip's human and fairy who were exchanged (the sea-dragon prince and Prince Kir) are the same age and in fact have the same human father; both have grown from the babies they were when the switch took place to young men at the time the novel is set. (1) Additional motifs Thompson notes as associated with fairies--particularly those regarding the fairy's ability to carry away humans physically or romantically--appear in McKillip's novel as well, but again with significant changes, as I will discuss later. By altering traditional motifs, McKillip challenges the notion of fairy as Other, a notion so integral to the changeling tradition that Zilpha Keatley Snyder, in a realistic children's novel, used it to dramatize one character's alienation. (2)

McKillip's novel evokes other, more general fairy-tale patterns as well. Peri's duties scrubbing floors at the inn, for example, seem Cinderella-like, and she, like Cinderella and a host of other young fairy-tale women, meets and falls in love with a prince under unusual circumstances. The main ingredients of McKillip's plot are likely to raise readers' expectations about the nature of the sea-woman who left Kir in the king's son's place or about the probable trajectory of the Kir-Peri relationship. McKillip subverts such expectations by making Peri a metaphorical changeling who exists in liminal geographical and social spaces and by deconstructing the binaries of sea/land and fairy/human, so this novel--like her other works of fantasy and science-fiction for adult and young adult audiences (3)--participates in a tradition of revisionist fantasy--specifically, feminist fairy tales.

Feminist fairy tales work within multiple traditions: fairy tales, revisionist fantasy, and often larger categories such as quest-romances. (4) Helen Pilinovsky's comment that "we possess a plethora of works that acknowledge the conventions of the fairy tale form, and subvert them" (36) suggests the popularity of contemporary fairy tales and by extension revisionist fantasy: that is, fantasy informed by "a conscientious attempt to make standard genre tropes over" (Kaveney 810). Authors of feminist fairy tales have many early, though not always well-known, models to inspire them; Jack Zipes, in his introduction to Don't Bet on the Prince, points to "a long tradition of matriarchal tales" as well as "feminist precedents set in the literary fairy-tale tradition by the end of the nineteenth century" (13). (5) Zipes defines feminist fairy tales as those that "challenge conventional views of gender, socialisation, and sex roles" and "map out an alternative aesthetic terrain" ("Preface" xi); Anne Cranny-Francis, in her book Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction, agrees that feminist writing must challenge "sexist discourse," which "orders the interactions between the sexes, what constitutes normal or acceptable sexual behaviour for both sexes" (2). Critics such as Zipes, Cranny-Francis, Carol Pearson, and Katherine Pope, among others, acknowledge the importance of female heroes for feminist stories (whether fairy tales or not). (6) However, simple inversion of the usual gender roles is problematic; as Margery Hourihan argues, "The trouble with a dualism is that if you simply turn it on its head it is still a dualism. Inversion is not the same as subversion" (205). Cranny-Francis therefore emphasizes that feminism affects "the conventions and structures of the genres" (1); linear narrative, where "temporal sequence is taken to signify material causation" (10), and closure are two structural elements she identifies as most in need of feminist challenge.

Fairy tale scholars have had increasing numbers of texts to study, as during the latter third of the twentieth century, rewritings of fairy tales and the production of original fairy tales proliferated. Large publishing firms known for fantasy fiction have published fairy tale novels--for example, "The Fairy Tale Series" created by Terri Windling and published first by Ace and then Tor, with novels by Steven Brust, Charles de Lint, Patricia Wrede, Jane Yolen, and others. Windling and Ellen Datlow have edited multiple anthologies of original fairy tales for adults and young adults, which include extensive reading lists and often scholarly introductions on the history of the genre; besides creating and serving a market for new fairy tales, these anthologies educate their readers about the larger tradition and its ongoing developments. Some authors, such as Robin McKinley, have become well known for fairy-tale rewritings in both short fiction and novels, and McKillip herself has used Russian folklore in In the Forests of Serre and the Tam Lin story in Winter Rose, to give just two examples, as well as publishing short stories in Datlow and Windling anthologies. (7) Consequently, it is now possible to talk about, as Christine Mains does, "a subgenre of fantasy which might be termed fairytale fantasy; the texts considered part of this subgenre owe much of their content and structure to the traditional folk or fairy tale, and many of the best known texts are retold classics" ("The Quest" 94).

Whether directing their work to adults, to children and young adults, or to readers of all ages, many authors have rewritten traditional tales to subvert patriarchal metanarratives. There are, I would suggest, three (overlapping) categories of feminist tales: some "disclose how old stories suppress the invisible, the untold, and the unspoken" (Stephens and McCallum 22) and thus raise awareness of patriarchal assumptions; others develop female heroes whose empowerment within and despite their patriarchal societies can critique those societies and inspire readers; yet others envision alternative, nonpatriarchal societies, a project that the secondary worlds of fantasy fiction (or the futuristic worlds of sf) facilitate. (8) In its rewriting of changeling motifs, McKillip's The Changeling Sea fits the second category.

Peri as Changeling

Although Kir is the obvious changeling in The Changeling Sea, he is not the protagonist. His story becomes part of Peri's; she solves his dilemma by resolving her own situation--a situation created in part by her "changeling" status. Peri feels as though the self she knew has disappeared and that "Some stranger was inhabiting her body" (5); the child she was has been replaced, in the emotional confusion following her father's death, by a more adult Peri who has undiscovered powers and desires. The novel begins when she is fifteen, during the year after her father drowns while fishing (1). McKillip's introductory physical description of the character emphasizes her transitional state: "She had grown tall without realizing it; her clothes were too loose in some places, too tight in others" (2). The description suggests the changes of adolescence when bodies alter rapidly, confusingly; in Peri's case, such natural changes are complicated by her father's death and the consequent emotional withdrawal of her mother. Peri, gazing at her reflection in a mirror, "barely recognize[s] her own face" (5). Just as the imagery describing Kir suggests his changeling status, so do McKillip's initial descriptions of Peri.

As a changeling, Peri is an example of a "liminal entity," beings which Victor Turner describes as "neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial" (95). (9) Even minor physical details emphasize that Peri is " betwixt and between" state--"Her hair [is] an awkward color somewhere between pale sand and silt" (2)--but her age, which situates her between child and adult, emphasizes her liminality as well. The first paragraph of the novel describes her as a child in relation to her parents. Peri mourns them, "both ... lost, in one way or another, to the sea" (4), but she is at a stage of mourning that expresses itself in anger and resentment--in Peri's case, in spell-bindings cast into the sea to curse what she believes took her father from her and "enchanted" her mother (3). While McKillip emphasizes Peri's status as child in this first paragraph, she also suggests Peri's adult-like independence. The first sentence remarks, "No one really knew where Peri lived the year after the sea took her father" (1). She often lives alone in a house on the beach (3) and maintains adult-like responsibilities, working at the village inn and cooking for herself. She "come[s] and go[es] like a wild thing" (2), thus escaping some of the surveillance associated with childhood. The innkeeper might keep "a weather eye on Peri" and her mother might occasionally notice her absences (2), but Peri, like an adult, seldom has to answer for her movements. McKillip thus follows a convention of children's/young people's literature in creating a situation where, to facilitate adventures, a young character lacks parental supervision; however, as Dana A. Heller suggests, this convention is also typical of other novels with female protagonists, particularly nineteenth-century fiction, for the abandonment of the female hero allows her "to remain an object of sentiment and fascination, while becoming potentially a subject of radical discontinuity, self-possession, and self-creation" (27). In Peri's case, her isolation on the beach is essential for her to be confidante of both princes, and her relationships with them give her essential information to solve the mystery of the sea-dragon; these adventures enable her to resolve her earlier emotional conflict and reinvent herself as magician. Nevertheless, Peri's initial no-longer-child-but-not-quite-adult status means that she is alienated, not just from her now-absent parents, but from herself.

Peri is estranged from her body in part because of new desires, and through her confusion over her feelings, the novel addresses sexual awakening. At the beginning of the novel, the other young women Peri works with--Mare and Carey--are either engaged to young men or dreaming of being courted; Peri, in contrast, is completely astonished at the thought that she should want someone to fall in love with her (5). Her early reaction to Kir, however, can be read as her new awareness of the possibility of sexual attraction. McKillip provides a detailed description of Kir as he sits beside Peri on the beach, a description that, because of the use of third-person limited narration with Peri as focalizing agent, suggests her awareness of his physicality and her as yet unacknowledged attraction to him. Her response to his presence is to tug her skirt "over her callused knees. She closed her hands to hide the dry cracks on them. But nothing stayed hidden.... She sighed, then wondered at herself" (15). She cannot articulate why her appearance matters, but the fact that it somehow does reveals her growing awareness of sexual desire and the class barriers that make her object of desire presumably unattainable.

The fairy-tale motif of "changeling" in this novel thus can be read as the condition of adolescence, and McKillip's use of the motif enables her exploration of female coming of age. Brian Attebery has noted the centrality of coming-of-age stories to fantasy (87-88), and that female writers have had "to find a way of adapting the conventions of fantasy to reflect this other kind [female experience] of coming of age" (89). McKillip's fairy-tale motif establishes situation and conflict for Peri's maturation: Peri as "changeling" is caught on the threshold between child and adult; she is also caught up in two mysteries--the mystery of mortality (represented by her father's death) and of sexuality (represented by the relationship of the king and the sea-woman and the changeling princes). The changeling motif thus can resonate with readers' own adolescent conflicts, whether those conflicts are being experienced or are now remembered. Carolyn Caywood observes, in a discussion of young adult novels of shape changers, that "In the brief period of adolescence, we confront changes that feel as radical ... as any transformation into a magical beast" (123), which suggests why the conventions of fantasy and fairy tale can be effective in coming-of-age stories.

Maturation but Not Marriage

Scholars of fairy tales have demonstrated the part that traditional tales have played in creating, as Zipes says, "a literary discourse about sexual roles and behaviour" ("Second Gaze" 227); the danger is, as Attebery argues, that when writers draw on such traditional tales, "the narrative structures of the past can entail as well an unquestioning acceptance of its social structures" (87). Peri's maturation over the course of the novel--from hesitant, unwanted feelings that are not fully understood to acknowledged and articulate love for the changeling Kir--suggests a rather traditional pattern of female sexual development. In the beginning she does not care about her appearance or about the potential of sexual/romantic relationships; Kir labels her "innocent" when she does not understand what he has deduced, that his "father took a lover" (35). From this state of innocence, she gradually questions herself about her own responses and questions others on, for example, what kissing is like (18). By the end, she has expressed her feelings for Kir and has them recognized by the larger community: Kir himself, Kir's father the king, and Lyo the magician, who are all present at the final parting of Kir and Peri; Mare, Carey, and Peri's mother, who are eventually told the story. The novel emphasizes the "romantic" or emotional aspect of Peri's relatively chaste relationship with Kir--their physical contact is limited to a few kisses and embraces; nevertheless, Peri's physical awareness of Kir is important to the development of her feelings for him. Again, third-person limited narration and focalization allow descriptions of Kir's body to be read, not as objective fact, but as Peri's awareness of "the brush of his cold mouth" or "the bitter salt on his lips" (101). As Kir leaves her to visit the North Isles, for example, Peri sits with "her eyes wide, her body still, feeling him, step by step, carrying away her heart" (57). Desire is thus embodied, both emotional longing and physical reaction.

Part of this embodied desire is Peri's greater awareness of her own body and its appearance. Unlike her full name Periwinkle, her name's short form is androgynous in its sound (Peri/Perry) and reinforces her lack of stereotypical "feminine" attributes at the beginning of the novel, such as concern for personal appearance. After Mare and Carey comment on her hair in the first chapter, Peri washes and combs it (6), causing surprised comments the next day from her employer (7). She begins to realize that her appearance marks her as different from others, whether those others are the women she works with who take greater care of their appearance, or the women she does not know, who are Kir's social equals. However, Peri does little to change her physical appearance, beyond washing her hair; she acknowledges that manual labour affects her body and for the most part accepts that as inevitable. Whereas many fairy tales have an element of physical transformation (the beautiful girl made more beautiful by a fairy godmother's gift of a ball-gown, for example (10)), McKillip makes it clear that Kir and then Lyo fall in love with Peri as she is. The responses of Mare and Carey at the end of the novel when they realize she has been the confidante of two princes and a king emphasize that Peri has still not conformed to conventions of female beauty:

"I don't understand," Carey said plaintively, staring at Peri, "why it all happened to her. Look at her!"

They did, until she fidgeted. "I washed my hair yesterday," she said defensively. Mare groaned. (132)

Peri's maturation may follow the conventional trajectory of untouched innocence to partner in a romantic couple, but McKillip challenges the convention that such maturation must be accompanied by particular notions of "beauty." Peri as changeling, the novel suggests, does not have to change in this: she does not have to conform to conventions of femininity in order to get what she desires.

As in many traditional tales, desire in The Changeling Sea is heterosexual desire; the loved one is a prince. However, McKillip's novel subverts the expectations that the enchanted prince motif is likely to raise. Peri is not married to Kir happily ever after at the end of the novel; Kir returns to his mother's land beneath the sea, and Peri remains in her village. Kir's departure is the inevitable outcome of his birthright; he loves Peri, but he must leave. Their separation thus cannot be read as some sort of punishment, which is significant given the motif of girl punished for desire that occurs in some fairy tales. For example, the girl in "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" is banished from her husband because of her failure to obey a prohibition; significantly, when she disobeys the prohibition, she sees his true human form (handsome prince) and feels desire: "it seemed to her that she must die if she did not kiss him that very moment" (Asbjornsen and Moe 88). Her wilfulness is thus also associated with sexuality. The Goose Girl, to take another example, is punished with death for daring to desire a prince--for social status, at least (Grimm and Grimm 76). Other, more famous, fairytale heroines, such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, are characterized by waiting (Pearson and Pope 33), not desire, and move from sleep/innocence to wakefulness/marriage because of others' actions. (11) Therefore, although Peri does not get the usual reward (marriage to a prince) that might be expected from a fairy tale, her desire is not condemned as transgressive or unfeminine.

The difference in Peri's happy ending therefore critiques the traditional marriage-as-reward motif, particularly since the possibility of romance is not limited to the figure of the prince. This critique is common in McKillip's fiction. Mains, in her article "Having It All: The Female Hero's Quest for Love and Power in Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy," observes that "McKillip doesn't end the quests of her female heroes with a wedding," which subverts the common fairy-tale convention of "the closure of the text with the wedding" by having the story continue into the marriage itself (32); the problem with the convention, as Mains asserts, is "that the reader, through the character, never gets to experience marriage ... in which the promise of eternal happiness is seldom perfectly realized" (32). I agree with Mains that the possibility of marriage for her female heroes does not detract from the feminist potential of McKillip's works; Mains states, "love and marriage are real forces and it is unrealistic to expect women authors and readers to deny their existence" (33). The Changeling Sea closes with potential romance since Lyo, the magician who helps unravel the mystery of the changeling princes, kisses Peri, suggesting another relationship may develop (137). However, the outcome of this relationship (possibly a wedding) is deferred well beyond the ending of the novel. In addition, Peri's experiences mirror those of the king, so that The Changeling Sea presents a complex portrait of desire and love as multiple. Peri loves Kir and will continue to love him, but Peri will love Lyo as well; given their shared interests in magic, their relationship has the potential to be enriching to both. Similarly, the king loved the sea woman who bore him Kir, and yet also was growing to love the human princess (whom he had to marry for political reasons) until she died in childbirth. These loves are not depicted as greater or lesser; they simply are. The novel thus undermines the suggestion that many fairy tales make--that there is that one prince who makes the happy-ever-after ending for the female protagonist. (12)

Female Power and Community

The conventional role of the prince as guarantor of female fulfilment is also challenged in the way that the novel represents and affirms female power and community. Female desire--Peri's desire--gives her power. It is true that Peri's magic begins as unconscious abilities: she wills something through an idle wish, and it happens, and the connection between cause and effect is only later explicated by Lyo (128-29). In fact, the narrator introduces the possibility of magic with the statement, "The old woman's enchantments never seemed to work; neither did Peri's" (3), so a number of Peri's first magical acts are not perceived by Peri or by readers as her doing. (13) When one re-reads the text, however, all significant meetings in the novel are willed by Peri. In a moment reminiscent of the motif Thompson identifies as "Girl summons fairy lover by wishing for him" (3: 55), Peri surprises herself by singing an old song, whose lines include "Come out of the sea and into my heart," and immediately afterwards she sees Kir gazing at the sea (6). She hexes the sea, which allows the sea-dragon to surface (19), a necessary step for the resolution of the mystery. A casual remark she makes about magic leads to the hiring of Lyo (37), who helps solve the mystery and remains with Peri. When she gazes at the sea and says, "I just wish you were a little bit more human" (61), the sea-dragon turns into a young man, at least during the nights, even though she was not thinking of him at the time. Only near the end of the novel does she consciously and deliberately use magic; she has to "un-hex" the sea in order for Kir to return to his mother's realm and for the sea-dragon to become permanently a human prince (125). At that point, Peri realizes that she is, as Lyo says, "swarming with magic like a beehive" (128).

Subtly, and then more explicitly, Peri wields power in this novel. Her agency initiates each stage of the plot. Peter Brooks argues that "Narratives both tell of desire ... and arouse and make use of desire as a dynamic of signification" (qtd. in Cranny-Francis 14), but as Cranny-Francis questions, "whose desire?" (15). In traditional quest-romance, women "have no desires except to be chosen and adored by heroes" (Heller 4). In The Changeling Sea, female desire moves the plot, and Peri's desire is not simply romance with a prince, but justice for her father's death, reunion with her mother, and later rescue of the sea-dragon. Male characters in the novel may desire certain outcomes, but they cannot accomplish them. Kir longs to return to the sea, but he is powerless to do so except through Peri's actions. Kir and his father may stare at the sea with longing, and Lyo may throw hexes into the sea in the hope that they will work (120), but Peri is the one who creates the hexes originally, enabling an eventual meeting between sea and land.

Peri's ability to accomplish such reconciliation between opposing factions is not just about magic, but is associated with her status as a liminal entity. Turner argues that liminal entities are essential for communitas, a "modality of social relationship" (96) in which there is "recognition [of] an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society" (97). Physical location reinforces Peri's liminality. The house where Peri stays is outside of the village, built against the cliff just above high tide (3), somewhere between the village and the king's residence (16). The driftwood used as building material suggests a dependence on both land and sea for existence, and the beach is a borderland actively contested between land and sea. McKillip draws attention to the sea's encroachment: there are two pillars of rock standing in the sea that are the remains of the cliff face from an earlier time (4); at the moment that the conflict of the novel is resolved, these rocks become a literal threshold between land and sea kingdoms.

This liminal space does not empower all who enter it, however. Characters whose gender and social status privilege them in the patriarchal society of the land kingdom lose (at least to some extent) power in this liminal space; Peri gains power. The novel emphasizes class divisions in its society by contrasting size, wealth, and location in descriptions of "the village ... small [and] poor ... tucked into the rocky folds of the island" (2) and "the king's rich, airy summer house ... on a high crest of land overlooking the village harbor" (2). Peri as the daughter of a fisherman and the employee of the inn is lower class (villager and servant girl), yet on the beach she becomes the confidante of Prince Kir. She recognizes and develops her ability to work magic. Furthermore, she draws characters from both sea and land to herself, thus facilitating their meetings with each other and the resolution of conflict.

Consequently, Peri's desire is directed to both individual and communal ends: she imposes her will on the sea but also frees it; her hexes are her personal message of grief and messages of others' griefs. The novel is thus concerned with what Mains calls "the ethics of power" (Introduction 177), for McKillip shows both Peri's realization of her magical powers (a common element of fantasy) and her choice to direct them to unselfish ends. Hers is not simply power over others, but the power to change herself--to move from mourning to acceptance, from hatred to understanding--and that is a human power, not a magic one. She also has the ability to let go--of grief, blame, even love. Peri chooses to unhex the sea, even though her father died at sea, even though she has (mistakenly, it turns out) blamed the land beneath the sea and the sea-folk for that death, and even knowing that Kir, whom she loves, will necessarily leave her for that land. Jessica Reisman observes that "The inner conflict between love and the desire for power, the redemption and strength inherent in compassion, are central to many of McKillip's characters and their stories" (730); Reisman points out that McKillip's characters commonly face "the choice between hate and love--whether to let vengeance, anger, and power be their cause, or to give that focus and space to compassion, love, and the pursuit of truth" (730). McKillip emphasizes the importance of such choices through repetition: Peri, the king, and the sea-woman all have to give up their resentment, hatred, and sorrow to restore the princes to their two rightful homes and create peace.

One of the consequences of Peri's choices is that the plot does not just move forward; the desires that in the beginning propel it change and direct it to a different resolution--not revenge, not even marriage to a prince. Furthermore, while the plot seems linear, it is also circular, particularly because of the nameless old woman who used to live by the sea. Looking for her to hear more stories about the sea, Kir finds Peri instead; the old woman has disappeared by the time the novel begins, and Peri is staying in her house. While the villagers believe that the old woman simply "wandered out of her house and forgot her way back" (3), Peri's own experiences suggest a different possibility. When Kir is about to leave for the land beneath the sea, Peri commands him, "When I am old--older than the old woman who taught me to make the hexes--come for me then," and he promises to "bring [Peri] black pearls and sing [her] into the sea when [she is] old" (119). The reference to the old woman in the midst of this command suggests that this story may have happened before, that Peri is experiencing similar events and feelings to those of other women in the past. Kir's promise pushes the resolution of his relationship with Peri beyond the end of the novel, deferring indefinitely the traditional happy-ever-after ending with the prince, but it also turns the novel's movement back on itself, to the beginning with the disappearance of an old woman. The linearity of the goal-oriented quest narrative common to fairy tales and genre fiction is called into question, a strategy that Cranny-Francis identifies as an important one in feminist fiction.

Another important feminist strategy is the depiction of female community or sisterhood as opposed to competition. Analysing traditional tales such as "Snow White," Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue "that female bonding is extraordinarily difficult in patriarchy" (203), and they and other critics such as Kay Stone critique the ways that some popular fairy tales reinforce the inevitability of female competition. McKillip's inclusion of Mare and Carey raises the possibility of competition--particularly since Carey wants to marry a prince--but instead emphasizes community. The fact that their names rhyme, either perfectly (Carey, Peri) or imperfectly (Mare), reinforces their similarities, even when their introduction suggests difference: "Mare was tidy and energetic, unlike Carey, who ... was slow and prone to breaking things. Peri attacked her work grimly" (4). Their introduction also differentiates their desires: Mare is in a relationship, Carey dreams of a relationship (4), and Peri has not thought of the possibility (5). Peri's maturation includes moments of recognition and understanding with these women. Some of these moments are initiated by the other women, as when Mare tries to give Peri advice (4); although some of this advice is about appearance, and Peri tends to disregard it, Mare is not just trying to make Peri conform, for she also suggests that Peri move away from the sea (4) because she recognizes Peri's sorrow at her father's death. Other moments of community are initiated by Peri as she gradually, in thought or in action, draws closer to these women. For example, Peri suddenly understands Carey's desperation to escape the unchanging routine of the village and "An endless succession of scrub-buckets" (117). They do not always agree, but these young women do not compete either. Stone, in her research into reader responses to fairy tales (particularly to "Cinderella"), notes that one "aspect of the story commented on by readers was the competition between the women, a competition our society seems to accept as natural" (406). While Stone admits that "It would be simplistic to blame fairy tales for encouraging females to see their lives primarily in terms of competing for and winning male attentions, when many other aspects of North American culture reinforce this same ideal" (406), she does point out the "potential impact" (407) of the roles represented in fairy tales. That McKillip's novel emphasizes community rather than competition among these young women is therefore one of the qualities that makes it a feminist text.

The nameless old woman and her similarity to Peri is another type of female community in the novel. Peri inherits a legacy from the old woman: Peri has the use of the house, but also makes use of the powers that the old woman has taught her in order to make the hexes that Peri throws into the sea. The old woman remains a presence in Peri's life, even though they never interact in the novel itself. The connection between the old woman and Peri--particularly given that their relationship literally empowers Peri--suggests the importance of matriarchal inheritance.

The biological mother-daughter relationship is also significant to the depiction of female community and maturation. The happy ending--sealed with a fairy tale kiss, even if it is not from a prince--is set against a backdrop of the emotional return of the mother. Again, this disrupts expectations of maturation as a linear progression, a moving away from childhood as represented by the mother; it also challenges Joseph Campbell's claim "that the hero must leave and replace the parent figure to achieve independence" and that such independence necessarily involves conflict (qtd. in Pearson and Pope 4). Instead, Peri's period of growth in her mother's absence will be followed, the novel's end suggests, by growth in the company of her mother. Peri thinks, "It might be nice ... to have someone to talk to, now that her mother was talking again" (133). Heterosexual romance is not a turning away from relationships with other women; it is not held up as the only or most privileged relationship, but rather one kind of relationship among other necessary ones.

Because of these relationships between women, the novel resists traditional depictions of "good" and "evil" women. No woman is Peri's antagonist; no woman is demonized. Peri becomes an empowered agent of transformation and recognizes her place within a larger community of women of all ages.

Deconstructing Binaries

The character most in danger of being the stereotypical villain is the seawoman, Kir's mother. McKillip has written, "I have trouble coming up with genuinely evil characters ... I always want to give them a human side" ("Once Upon a Time"). That tendency to provide understandable motivations for all characters is particularly important for the sea-woman because her actions initially seem to have harmed the protagonist and her loved ones. McKillip establishes a sea/land binary opposition, with pairs of characters such as sea-woman/human queen or sea prince/human prince. The novel begins with Peri hating and cursing the sea because of her father's death; she even accuses the sea-woman of taking her father (93), evoking the motif that fairies "entice people into their domain" (Thompson 3:64). This motif assumes that such enticements are physically and spiritually dangerous; examples of the motif include Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "The Changeling" or "The Changeling in the Water," where the changeling's parent is not a fairy but the Devil himself (Ward 92). In addition to Peri's father's drowning, the cause of which is unknown until the end of the novel where it is explained as an accident, the mysterious behaviors of sea creatures also seem to endanger, deliberately, the lives of fisher folk; likewise, the sea-woman's chaining of the sea-dragon prince seems the action of a cruel tyrant.

Because of Peri's initial assumptions and the unexplained actions of sea-beings, readers are likely to expect the sea-woman to be a scheming sorceress, using her power to seduce and punish mortal men--the narrative opposite of the innocent, well-meaning female protagonist. As Hourihan argues, "The conceptual centre of [the traditional] hero story consists of a set of binary oppositions: the qualities ascribed to the hero on the one hand and to his [sic] 'wild' opponents on the other" (15). While the novel establishes certain binaries, it does not reinforce them through Peri's triumph over an opponent; instead, Peri, like the female heroes that Pearson and Pope discuss, "makes it possible for people ... to think freely and creatively, and to act in accordance with their deepest feelings and their innate humanity" (5) to resolve conflict. By making changeling and human prince half-brothers and through Peri's unhexing of the sea, McKillip subverts the sea/land oppositions: they become, not the value-laden dualisms that Hourihan identifies in traditional tales, but celebrated and equally valued though different states.

The deconstruction of binary oppositions happens gradually throughout the story. Before the identity of the person who chained the sea-dragon is known, Peri questions her motives: "Was it love or hate or fear that made a chain like that?" (32). While the question has no immediate answer, it suggests that different motives are possible for the sea-woman, not just evil intentions. Eventually, the sea people's actions are explained as messages for the king (123), a way of attracting his attention so he will communicate, once again, with the sea-woman. The king's acceptance and love for both of his sons also contributes to the deconstruction of binaries; he says to Kir, "Your heart may be eating itself up to get into the sea, but I had you for seventeen years and when you leave me, you'll take what I treasured most" (116). Unlike many changeling stories, where the human parent wishes to be rid of the changeling to recover the "true" child, both sea-prince and human-prince are equally the king's children and, once he knows about both of them, equally loved. Most obviously, the binary is deconstructed when king and sea-woman meet. Each asks the other for forgiveness, for each has hurt the other, whether thoughtlessly or intentionally (122-23). Earlier actions are explained in ways that mean that there is no villain, no crime, and no punishment.


Peri, at the end of the novel, is still a liminal entity. Although she imagines that once Kir leaves, she will go back to her mundane routine, the ending of the novel leaves her facing new relationships and roles. Returning to her mother's house is not a return to the old mother-daughter relationship, but to a new one, characterized by "talking" (133), which suggests the potential for a more adult sharing of experience. She has potential romantic relationships: with Lyo in the shorter term, and the possibility of Kir's return when she is old. She is also going to be a student of magic and the tutor to the newly restored prince. She will remain not exactly one of the villagers, and not exactly one of the court either, but this liminal state now emphasizes possibilities rather than alienation: she has a defined and socially recognized role, and that role, despite the patriarchal society she lives in, is not domestic, maternal, or exclusively sexual. The ending does have an optimistic, fairy-tale quality to it, but the fairy-tale-girl-meets-a-prince plot element has ended with emphasis, not on the girl as wife, but girl as magician.

The Changeling Sea is not the only one of McKillip's texts to employ feminist strategies, but it is significant that it does so for a younger audience. Christina Bacchilega writes, "As literature for children, fairy tales offer symbolically powerful scenarios and options" (5). McKillip's novel empowers its female protagonist: it suggests the power of changing/changeling selves as Peri discovers new abilities and desires; it demonstrates the power of those desires to shape her destiny, her community, and the narrative itself; and it situates her agency in the context of other powerful women without demonizing them. Magic is undeniably a part of Peri's empowerment, but equally significant are will, speech, listening, compassion, and change. Those abilities, accessible even in our mundane, non-magical world, exist in the midst of confusion, grief, and the pains of growing up. The novel thus suggests to its young readers (and reminds its not-so-young readers) that regardless of gender or class they have heroic potential, and the power to change themselves and possibly their world, one wish at a time.

Works Cited

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Basile, Giambattista. "Sun, Moon, and Talia." The Great Fairy Tale Tradition. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Norton, 2001. 685-88.

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(1) Delia Sherman's Changeling (2006) also makes the human and fairy the same age, although in that novel the fairy changeling is purposely "made ... for the Bureau of Changeling Affairs so they'd have something to leave in [the human child's] place" (259); the relationship between human and fairy is original/copy, as opposed to the sibling relationship McKillip creates.

(2) In Snyder's The Changeling (1970), Ivy Carson self-identifies as a changeling in order to cope with a negligent family and class-conscious society.

(3) "[T]here has been surprisingly little published on McKillip," Christine Mains points out in her introduction to the special issue of Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts devoted to McKillip (176). The scholarship that has been published often notes McKillip's feminism. For example, Sharon Emmerichs asserts that "McKillip writes strong female characters" (207), and Faye Ringel comments that "Though seldom recognized as one of the earliest feminists writing high fantasy, McKillip has been quietly and persistently interrogating gender conventions in the genre" (179). Even when McKillip has men as major characters and focalizing agents, as in The Tower at Stony Wood, she interrogates patriarchal definitions of heroism.

(4) Roz Kaveney notes that much revisionist fantasy developed in the wake of "'second wave' feminism of the 1960s" (810). The quest narrative structures many instances of popular fiction, including fairy tales.

(5) For discussions of folktale collections and feminism, see Zipes's introduction to Don't Bet on the Prince and John Stephens and Robyn McCallum's Retelling Stories, Framing Culture (205-14).

(6) Note that Zipes discusses rewritings of fairy tales specifically, while Cranny-Francis deals with various popular fiction genres, and Pearson and Pope are concerned with American and British literature generally rather than fantasy. Pearson and Pope assert that "works with female heroes challenge patriarchal assumptions" (12) simply because the centrality of the female character reclaims for women the possibility of identity "not ultimately defined according to patriarchal assumptions in relation to fathers, husbands, or male gods" (12).

(7) See Helen Pilinovsky's article for a discussion of the folkloric elements of In the Forests of Serre. Christine Mains examines the fairy-tale conventions of marriage as happily-ever-after and the ways in which McKillip's texts subvert such expectations (see particularly "The Quest of the Female Hero in the Works of Patricia A. McKillip" and its chapter on Winter Rose). McKillip's work is also described through reference to fairy tale; Pegge Bochynski, in a review of The Tower at Stony Wood, says that the novel "resembles a medieval fairy tale."

(8) Many other scholars have noted that fantasy and sf offer unique opportunities for feminist writers. To cite just one example, Thelma Shinn asserts, "The possibilities inherent in this genre ...--the possibilities of social and cultural as well as individual change--free women from the limits that define them in patriarchal society" (10).

(9) Turner, an anthropologist, discusses liminality in his 1969 book The Ritual Process, although he is primarily concerned with liminality as a phase in rites of passage. Liminality and the communitas it enables may be embraced or feared, depending whether or not liminal entities have had their roles validated through explicit social rituals.

(10) While Charles Perrault first describes Cinderella in terms of her "gentleness and goodness" (449), he also observes that "Cinderella looked a thousand times more beautiful in her shabby clothes than her sisters, no matter how magnificent their clothes were" (450). Attired for the ball by her godmother in "garments of gold and silver covered with jewels" (451), Cinderella's beauty overwhelms everyone (451-52).

(11) The absence of expressions of female desire is particularly clear in earlier "Sleeping Beauty" stories, such as that by Giambattista Basile; Sleeping Beauty does not wake at the prince's kiss, but only when one of her babies (the result of the prince's sexual intercourse with her while she sleeps) sucks the enchanted splinter out of her finger.

(12) Even the story of Peri's mother, who mourns the loss of her love (Peri's father) so intensely as to withdraw from the world and from her daughter, does not contradict the power given to these multiple relationships, since the novel ends with her return to the world.

(13) That the narrator says, "seemed to work" (3) might suggest that the narrator knows something about the old woman's and Peri's spells that is not being shared with readers.
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Author:Howey, Ann F.
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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