“RINGIL ESKIATH. FAGGOT DRAGONSLAYER”: READY FOR A QUEER HERO? (RICHARD MORGAN’S A LAND FIT FOR HEROES)

I don’t particularly enjoy reading fantasy of the type set in pseudo-medieval settings because of its more or less covert patriarchal inclinations. I have to interview, however, British author Richard Morgan at Eurocon and, hence, I’ve gone through his fantasy trilogy of tongue-in-cheek title A Land Fit for Heroes. This comprises The Steel Remains (2008), The Cold Commands (2011) and The Dark Defiles (2014) and it is clear from the misadventures of the heroic trio of protagonists that their land is anything but fit for heroes.

Morgan’s trilogy is part of so-called ‘grimdark’, the currently popular trend in fantasy which aims at presenting readers with plots in which terrible things happen on the philosophical grounds that existence is a burden with or without a cool sword and magical powers. Generally speaking, Morgan’s fans (like myself) prefer his science-fiction to his fantasy though I believe that his diverse imaginary worlds are not so distant, linked as they are by the angst of his male protagonists, always at odds with their environment. In this particular case, what disgusts Ringil Eskiath are the homophobic laws of Trelayne, the land where he holds a privileged position as a nobleman but which makes an outcast of him as a gay man.

Yes, Morgan does this: he challenges readers to accept oxymoronic characterizations for his male heroes that go beyond the very obvious. Ringil is an extremely original character not just because he is, for all I know, the first (or one of the first) gay heroes in sword-and-sorcery fantasy but also because, despite his victimization, he is also an extremely violent man and, hence, an amazingly effective warrior. Perhaps because of his victimization. Whether they enjoy or not the convoluted plot, beset by too many deus ex-machina turns, many readers claim to admire Ringil for his rebelliousness and defiance of rules. This is another peculiarity of Morgan’s writing, as I know very well having devoted a long article to Carl Marsalis in Black Man: he charms readers with male characters who are extremely brutal and do unspeakable things but who are also burning with anger against the unfair systems of power that bind them. And you fall for them.

[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In Ringil’s case his rage combines his horror at the execution of a former lover decreed by his own father, following the rules of the realm (the method is impalement), and his abhorrence of slavery, resurrected and legalized after a devastating war that seemed to announce a better future. Morgan, however, may have gone a bit too far in the violence which Ringil inflicts on others. Not only is his ‘hero’ guilty of killing children (never mind that these children are far from innocent cherubs), he also allows his men to gang-rape a female slaver. Brit Mandelo suggests in a review of The Cold Commands (http://www.tor.com/2011/10/12/a-hard-but-worthy-read-the-cold-commands-by-richard-k-morgan/) that Ringil does feels guilt at this atrocity and that Morgan “makes it clear” that his “sanction of her rape (…) is not acceptable.” There is something of that but, arguably, had he been heterosexual Ringil would have joined the other rapists–an ugly proposition for a so-called hero. Moving on, I found something else which gave me that icy punch in the guts you feel in the presence of evil. At one point in The Dark Defiles Ringil commits a horrifying act of violence against the man responsible for the brutal homophobic executions in his father’s domain. Morgan again uses this moment to teach Ringil a lesson, making him feel jealous of the deep bond this man enjoys with his son–but I was too aghast to pay attention. Both at Ringil for commiting that outrage and at Morgan for imagining it.

Other readers have been disturbed, or even disgusted, instead by the many gay sex scenes in the trilogy–you may read Morgan’s fuming answer to one such complaint in his own website (http://www.richardkmorgan.com/2010/10/i-got-another-one/comment-page-1/). Nobody, by the way, seems to have rejected Ringil as a homophobic representation of a gay man. I have no problem with the scenes, I just wonder where Morgan got his information from (and how his wife reacted to reading her husband’s books…). What bothered me was how the scenes highlight, essentially, Ringil’s inability to love any man he has sex with and a sexual behaviour that is not truly new in relation to your classic patriarchal hero. Gil’s hard-boiled cynicism may be a novelty regarding the representation of gay characters, which might explain why The Steel Remains won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, intended to “honor outstanding works of science fiction, fantasy and horror which include significant positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues” (http://www.spectrumawards.org/whatis.htm). I feel, nonetheless, trapped by the classic dilemma: have we reached a point in which a gay hero can also be a nasty man? Morgan says yes, for we need to accept all kinds of (gay) men; I have my doubts for I don’t wish to glamorise any barbaric man. No matter how attractive (same problem in Black Man).

I think that Morgan is making the point that the evil patriarchal systems which his heroes fight are destructive even of heroism, which is why his men are as monstrous as they are rebellious. I feel, however, the same unease I felt when I finished Black Man: I would have loved to see Ringil take one step further and claim justice for gays and end slavery–in short, to become politically effective. Morgan, however, does not want to go in this direction. Fair enough. The irony is that this task falls eventually into the hands of his female protagonist–a story suggested by the end but that remains eventually untold.

As happens, A Land Fit for Heroes is also a tale of deep friendship among a peculiar trio brought together by the war (against the Scaled People, a dragon species): Ringil himself, his berserker male friend Egar and their common female friend, Archeth. You seldom see the three together but the point is that they share a solid camaraderie and loyalty despite their differences. The bond between the macho warrior Egar and Ringil is supposed to show that male friendship needn’t be contaminated by homophobia, whereas the respect that the two men show for Archeth suggests that women can also bond with men… provided they are lesbians?

In a patriarchal land in which women only appear as either prostitutes (I lost count of how many times the word ‘whore’ is used) or slaves, whether within actual slavery or within marriage, Archeth manages to find a more or less secure political position as the main advisor of Yhelteh’s obnoxious Emperor. Just look at what this requires: Archeth is an immortal half-breed born of the union of a human woman and an alien Kiriath man. Her Kiriath genes have given Archeth her ebony skin but do not make the mistake of thinking that she is respected for being a black lesbian–no, what saves Archeth from rape and slavery is her literally unique paternal heritage. Other readers have complained that Archeth behaves like a man, which I find to be totally wrong. She is a profoundly feminine character, always concerned not to make herself too prominent and–something I don’t get–also extremely reluctant to assume any type of leadership. By the way, while Ringil enjoys encounters with many lovers, she agonizes about whether to have sex or not with a more than willing slave girl… When the long-awaited lesbian scene happens this is not as enthusiastically described as Ringil’s romps.

Since I am not a native speaker, the hero’s jokey, in-your-face self-presentation at one point of the trilogy as “Ringil Eskiath. Faggot dragonslayer” is more confusing than challenging. I was under the impression that ‘faggot’ was old-fashioned British slang when all the sources I have checked confirm that this is a US term currently used to abuse gay men–similar in offensive potential to ‘nigger’ (check if you wish the wonderful Wikipedia list of slang terms for gay men at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LGBT_slang_terms#Male). I do not know why an English writer would use an American term in a pseudo-medieval fantasy novel but, well, this is how limited my philological skills are. Perhaps Morgan is very specifically targeting American homophobia, which seems to be much more profound and widespread than British homophobia.

I have found myself, in conclusion, ready enough for a gay hero but, if you ask me, I’d chose Archeth over Ringil to protect me (Egar is the best choice in case dragons attack!). After all, Archeth appears to be the real queer hero in Morgan’s trilogy–in all senses.

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