Dragonsong: Unnecessary Subterfuge

When we last left Menolly, she had a home at Benden Weyr, and had excellent seats for all the hatching excitement that brought Brekke back and created a conflict with Jaxom. All that’s left is to feast! And, that is, for the plot regarding Petiron’s apprentice to resolve.

Dragonsong: Chapter 13: Content Notes: Non-consensual touching, sexism, gaslighting-esque deception

Having been forgotten by her dragonrider escort, Menolly has to make her way across the hot Hatching Ground sands by herself.

Although Menolly had not far to walk on the sands, the heat had quickly penetrated the soles of her slippers. Her discomfort was acute by the time she stepped onto the cooler earth of the Bowl. She edged to one side of the entrance and sank down, her fire lizards gathering themselves about her while she waited for the pain to subside.
As everyone was on the kitchen cavern side of the Bowl, no one noticed her, for which she was grateful since she felt useless and foolish.

A subtle punishment from the narrative for Menolly’s continued empathy and recovery, by having her paired up with the absentminded dragonrider, and thus having to walk on her bad feet.

A tall man strikes up a polite conversation with her about her fire lizards. Upon figuring out that all the fire lizards arrayed about Menolly are hers, he knows who she is, and mentions that he’s supposed to get two eggs from her clutch, one for him, one for his Journeyman. He offers her a hand when she mentions she should be tending the eggs.

She accepted his aid because she couldn’t have risen without it. He had taken three sides when he realized that she wasn’t keeping up with him. Politely he turned. Menolly tried to walk normally, a feat she managed for about three strides when her heel came down so painfully on a patch of pebbles that she involuntarily cried out.
[…]
“Here’s my arm, girl. Were you too long on the hot sands? Ah now, wait. You’re a long child, but there’s no meat on your bones.”
Before Menolly could protest, he’d swung her up into his arms and was carrying her across the Bowl.

Okay, wait. Have we forgotten that Menolly is a distance runner, and has been living a life that requires strength and dexterity? And there’s still been no mention at all that Menolly has suffered from food insecurity at any point in this narrative. There’s very little likelihood that she has “no meat on her bones”, because Menolly’s life is based on building muscle in her arms and legs. She could still be carried, if this tall man is strong, but “no meat” only works if the tall man has never seen musculature on a woman.

Secondly, and more importantly, whoa! Way to ignore consent, there. Yes, Menolly is suffering from a disability, but that does not give anyone free reign to touch her or fail to ask first whether it’s okay to pick her up. (Seriously. Chair users understand this aggravation a lot. And pregnant women.) This is still the basic reality here in Pern – men feel entitled to women’s bodies. Menolly wants to be independent and stand on her own feet, even if they’re hurting, because it’s important to her psyche that she does things herself. The tall man robs her of this, and ignores her continued protests, presuming he knows better.

Finally, with all the technology around, is there nobody who has fabricated a pair of crutches so that some injured dragonrider can get about? It’s odd.

Anyway, the tall man takes her back to the fire lizard eggs, and everyone is giving way to the tall man, which is a clue that he’s important, but it takes Felena to identify him.

“I can stand, really I can, sir,” Menolly protested, for something in Felena’s manner told her that this man was too important to be toting sore-footed girls. “Felena, I couldn’t stop him.”
“I’m only being my usual ingratiating self,” the man told her, “and do stop struggling. You’re too heavy!”
Felena was laughing at his exaggeration as she led the way to Menolly’s table above the egg basket.
“You’re a terrible fellow, Master Robinton, indeed you are.”
[…]
“After the way Menolly’s queen had been attacking me, I’d be safer with any other color, Felena. Now do get that wine for me, there’s a good woman. I’m utterly parched.”

Oh. And he we are, with this weird problem of Robinton. Because he’s supposedly progressive enough that Petiron sent the songs to him, expecting he would take on Menolly, but here he is, engaging in what seems all the world like sexist banter with Felena, and he completely ignored Menolly’s consent earlier.

Robinton introduces himself to Menolly, much to Menolly’s embarrassment, and asks her to have a drink with him. Menolly declines, sharing that she gets hiccups and sleepy. Which prompts Robinton to request food, as he knows that having food in the belly is much better for someone to stay drinking. After eating and drinking, the Masterharper excuses himself, saying he’ll be back later for his eggs.

She watched until he was out of sight amid the visitors, bewildered, and all too keenly are that there was no way in which she would be able to ask Masterharper Robinton about her songs. Twiddles they were, as Yanus and Mavi had always said: too insignificant to be presented for serious consideration to such a man as Masterharper Robinton.
[…]
Mirrim found her that way, and she roused from her apathy to rejoice with her friend.

This is a narrative convention, I think, where the person meets their idol, and it goes poorly in the eyes of the supplicant, because it wasn’t perfect, and they assume that it’s just never going to happen. I think it has something to do with expectations. In this case, though, it becomes even more problematic because of Menolly’s past.

Mirrim and Menolly discuss what happened at the Hatching Ground, including how it’s not possible for Jaxom to be a Lord Holder and a dragonrider (no justification from Mirrim, either), and we learn that Elgion is also here, but Menolly doesn’t want to talk to him, which irritates Mirrim, and Mirrim flounces. Right before T’gellan arrives, apologizes for leaving her behind, and the night’s work of handing out eggs begins. Elgion singing reminds her of home, but not enough to make her want to go back. She’s still depressed about her interaction with Robinton, to the point where she thinks her only real skill is in gutting fish.

Truthfully, she has skill in empathy as well, as she explains to the Masterminer, her first client, the prosaic aspects of keeping fire lizard eggs – heat, care, feeding at hatching – and the more touchy-feely aspects – kindness, affection, empathy – which is supposedly something the Masterminer lacks. After a parade of people, only Robinton’s eggs remain.

Then we switch to Elgion, who was hoping for his own fire lizard from the clutch. And who still doesn’t get it about his Hold.

He hadn’t realized how dour Half-Circle Hold was until this evening. Yanus was a good man, a fine Sea Holder to judge by the reflect his holders accorded him, but he certainly knew how to take the joy out of living.

No, no, no, no, no! Yanus is an abusive fuck who maintains an iron hold on his domain. What you are mistaking for respect, Elgion, is fear. Elgion meets T’gellan, who teases him that the piper he was looking for has been here at Benden for a while now. Which excites Elgion, and when T’gellan tells him it was Menolly, Elgion launches into a complete frenzy, enlisting the dragonrider to get him to the Masterharper at once, do that the last mystery of Petiron’s apprentice can be finally solved.

“Sir, sir, I’ve found her,” Elgion cried, dashing up to them.
[…]
“She ran away from the Sea Hold, because they wouldn’t let her make music, I think. She’s Alemi’s sister…”
“What’s this about Menolly?” asked Manora, obstructing Elgion’s flight with the Harper.
[…]
“What do you want of Menolly, Master Robinton?” Manora’s voice was so stern that the Harper was brought up sharp.
He took a deep breath. “My much respected Manora, old Petiron sent me two songs written by his ‘apprentice’; two of the loveliest melodies I’ve heard in all my Turns of harpering. He asked were they any good…” Robinton raised his eyes heavenward for patience, “I sent word back immediately, but the old man had died. Elgion found my message unopened when he got to the Sea Hold, and then he couldn’t find the apprentice. The Sea Holder gave him some folderol about a fosterling who’d returned to his own hold. What’s distressing you, Manora?”
“Menolly. I knew someone had broken that girl’s heart, but not what. She may not be able to play, Master Robinton. Mirrim says there’s a dreadful scar on her left hand.”
“She can, too, play,” said T’gellan and Elgion together.
[…]
“And furthermore, she’s taught her fire-lizards to sing, too.”
“She has!” Bright sparks lit the Masterharper’s eyes, and he turned purposefully toward the kitchen cavern.
“Not so fast, Masterharper,” said Manora. “Go softly with that child.”

And the boys, with Manora’s help, hatch a plan with regard to Menolly.

So, I have to say how much I love Manora here, keeping the focus on Menolly and making sure the exuberance of the Harpers doesn’t trample on Menolly’s well-being. Her consistent care for Menolly makes her part in what happens next jangle a bit dissonantly.

Menolly is tired, since it’s been a very long day of watching people and handing out eggs to others. So Oharan stops by and aka her to sing with him. Which she says okay to, because she’s still waiting for the Masterharper. Then Manora stops by and asks for another song.

Menolly knew the song, which had such an infectious rhythm that she began to sing before she realized why it was so familiar. She was also tired and not expecting to be trapped, not by Oharan and certainly not by Manora. That’s why she didn’t realize at first what Oharan was playing. It was one of the two songs she’d jotted down for Petiron: the ones he said he’d send to the Masterharper.
She faltered.
“Oh, don’t stop singing, Menolly,” Manora said, “it’s such a lovely tune.”
“Maybe she should play her own song,” said someone standing just behind Menolly in the shadow; and the Masterharper walked forwards, holding out his own gitar to her.
“No! NO!” Menolly half-rose, snatching her hands behind her back.
“Won’t you please play it…for me?” asked the Harper, his eyes entreating her.

Because the right thing to do to someone who is clearly experiencing a trigger is to put your own needs above theirs and add social pressure on top of that to them. That’s why I’m surprised Manora went along with this, since she seems to be the one that understands Menolly best. And T’gellan and Elgion are there, too, such that Menolly understands how thoroughly the conspiracy has moved against her and how much pressure is being brought to bear on her to play.

So Menolly tries to find some stable platform to reorient on, which Robinton is having none of.

“But I can’t play…”
[…]
“You can play, Menolly,” he said quietly, his kind eyes on hers, as he continued to stroke her hand, much as she would have caressed her frightened Beauty. “Elgion heard you when you were playing the pipes in the cave.”
“But I’m a girl…” she said. “Yanus told me…”
“As to that,” replied the Masterharper somewhat importantly, though he smiled as he spoke, “if Petiron had had sense enough to tell me that that was the problem, you might have been saved a great deal of anguish, and I certainly would have been saved a great deal of trouble searching all Pern for you. Don’t you want to be a Harper?” Robinton ended on such a wistful, distressed note that Menolly had to reassure him.
“Oh, yes, yes. I want music more than anything else in the world…”
[…]
“I’ve got fire lizards. Lessa said I belong in the Weyr.”
“Lessa will not tolerate nine singing fire lizards in her Weyr,” said the Harper in a voice that brooked no contradiction.
[…]
“Now,” and he waggled a finger at her in mock seriousness, “before you can think of any more obstacles, arguments, or distractions, will you kindly bundle up my fire lizard eggs, get whatever you have, and let us be off to the Harperhall? This has been a day of many tiring impressions.”
His hand pressed hers reassuringly, and his kind eyes urged her acquiescence. All Menolly’s doubts and fears dissolved in an instant.

And so she goes. And that’s the end of Dragonsong.

But…

Cocowhat by depizan

Seriously, that’s grade-S manipulation going on there, Robinton. Taking advantage of Menolly in an altered state (remember, the last time Menolly sang, she was drunk), putting social pressure from all her friends on her, putting the pressure of your own position and what she most desperately wants in life on her, touching her and looking kind to her, knocking down her objections as if they are beneath you, and then cutting off any further objections. Robinton, you’re what Lessa would be if Lessa had any tact. I think we have found the real power in Pern, and he knows it. With that much skill on display, though, I worry about what Robinton is like when he’s not all charms and smiles. Probably a lot worse than Yanus.

I also strongly object to the idea that Petiron just simply neglected to mention the gender of his apprentice and that everything that happened in this book could have been averted if he had. Petiron sent on the music to Robinton, expecting him to read it and want whomever wrote it for the Harper hall. If it were a boy as his apprentice, that would be no problem at all, and Yanus could be convinced to let a boy go to learn the craft.

So, here’s my entirely unsupported speculation about what actually happened, which transforms this book from the fallout from an Idiot Ball plot into a For Want Of A Nail plot. Petiron had noticed and wanted to nurture Menolly’s talent for music and possibly make her a Harper. Because of Yanus’s inflexibility on gender roles, and his abusive nature, Petiron had taken to pretending senility in his old age, just so that he could keep Menolly close and to teach her more. The compositions were the way to make it work, but because Yanus ensured every message that left and came to the Hold went through him first, Petiron couldn’t very well reveal that Menolly was the composer of the tunes. So Petiron encoded as much as he could, hoping that he could create something intriguing for Robinton to investigate in person, where Petiron could fill him in on the details, and the two of them could hatch a plan to get Menolly out safely. Unfortunately, Petiron’s age claimed him before he could talk to Robinton, and so Elgion, the fresh-out-of-Hall Harper, got sent instead. Since Elgion can’t see past Yanus’s facade to his darker nature, the events of the book happen. If Petiron had been able to hold on long enough to consult, this wouldn’t have happened. Robinton blames himself a little for not noticing the clues that Petiron left him to signal the “apprentice” was Menolly, but he’s glad that she’s alive and able to come to the Harper Hall, so he thinks all’s well that ends well.

Tune in next time, when Menolly gets to live out her dream…assuming that institutionalized sexism hasn’t permeated the Harper Hall, like it has everywhere else. Good riddance, Yanus and Mavi. Maybe come back for the cameo appearance where Harper Menolly gets to give you both a The Reason You Suck speech, and possibly still punch out Yanus?

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4 thoughts on “Dragonsong: Unnecessary Subterfuge

  1. Lodrelhai (@Lodrelhai) January 8, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    You know, the scariest thing about going over these books again now is just how much of the abusive behavior seemed completely normal to me when I read them in middle school. At the time it was “Of course the adults completely override her, it’s really what’s best for her and she wants it to happen, so they’re just being efficient. She’ll come around once the shock’s worn off.”

    Now it’s blatant denial of self-determination, and clear conditioning of a young woman to later accept even more flagrant overrides of her will, such as what happened to Brekke. (Which I also accepted as romantic sex at the time, which is even more horrifying. WTF was my younger self thinking?!)

  2. Silver Adept January 9, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    Your younger self, like mine, was working off of a steady media and culture diet that said overriding the self-determination of children “for their own good” was a normal thing to do, and doubly so for women because of their inherently emotional nature. And that such things are to be sought in romantic and sexual partners, if you’re a woman.

    It also pretends alternatives to that do not exist. Here on Pern, they may not exist.

  3. boutet January 9, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    I wonder too if Robinton couldn’t have just left Menolly alone for a few weeks. She could stay at Bendon for a few weeks, heal her feet, spend some time building the friendships she’s started. Get some good rest and food. Maybe come to singing for herself rather than being ambushed with it. She had already started towards music again with her humming while she worked earlier. What is so drastically important that he MUST get her to the Hall TODAY? She’s written all her other valuable pieces away from the Hall so presumably she could pop out another couple in the time it takes her to heal (physically and emotionally).
    She could also come to see for herself that the Harpers don’t turn women away based on their being women. Then maybe she could apply to the Hall for herself. And it would all be a fantastic story of a woman who took care of herself as best she could and found her way towards the life that she wanted. Rather than being the story of a woman who took care of herself as best she could but then was “rescued” by people who hunted and trapped her into being “rescued.”

  4. Silver Adept January 12, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    The narrative will try to justify the haste by having Robinton openly admit that Menolly’s talent for writing earworms is in desperate need because the coalition of dragonriders and Harpers that is trying to guide the future of Pern in progressive directions are facing opposition from the time-skipped and they need propaganda put to a catchy beast. (Not in so many words, but that’s the idea.)

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