The Masterharper of Pern: It Does Not Get Better

Last chapter (and what a long one that was, about double-size), Robinton was born and Petiron and Merelan took a trip away from the Harper Hall on a teaching assignment, where they met a group of people that consider Harpers evil, and Petiron couldn’t get over himself enough to appreciate people just doing music without planning on making a career out if it.

The Masterharper of Pern: Chapter II: Content Notes: Child Abuse

Back at the Harper Hall, Petiron is composing when he hears someone humming the tune he is trying to get down on hide before he loses it. He traces the sound to its source…

“Don’t do that, Robinton,” he said in exasperation.
His son pulled the light blanket up to his chin. “You were,” he said.
“I was what?”
“You hummmmdded.”
“I may, you may not!” And Petiron shook his finger right in the boy’s face so that Robinton pulled the blanket over his head. Petiron pulled it down and leaned over the little bed. “Don’t you ever mimic me like that. Don’t you ever interrupt me when I’m working. D’you hear that?”

“Whatever did he do, Petiron?” Merelan exclaimed, rushing into the room and hiding protectively at the head of the cot. “He was sound asleep when I left. What’s been going on?”
Robinton, who rarely cried, was weeping, stuffing the end of the blanket into his mouth as the tears crept down his cheeks. The tears were more than Merelan could endure, and she picked up her sobbing son and cradled him, reassuring him.
Petiron glared at her. “He was humming while I was writing.”
“You do; why shouldn’t he?”
“But I was writing! How can I work when he does that? He knows he’s not to interrupt me.”
“He’s a child, Petiron. He picks up on anything he hears and repeats it.”
“Well, I’m not having him humming along with me,” Petiron said, not the least bit mollified.
“Why shouldn’t he if you wake him up?”
“How can I possibly work if you’re both interrupting me all the time?” He flung his arms up and stalked out of the bedroom. “Do take him somewhere else. I can’t have him singing in the background.”

Merelan was already halfway across the sitting room, her crying son in her arms. “Then you won’t have him in the background at all,” she said in a parting shot.

You go, Merelan. And don’t come back to him, because he’s never going to get better.

Merelan goes to see Betrice about it, where we learn that Robinton hums on key with whatever he’s hearing. And that Merelan is trying to get Robinton to remember to be quiet when Daddy’s working, which does not bode well for how this is going to turn out. The studio that Petiron has to do composition with is currently taken over by someone else, so that option is out, and Betrice is not a fan of Petiron’s complicated compositions that only he and his family seem to be able to sing well. Merelan doesn’t deny they’re intricate, and says that Petiron is easier to deal with when composing (Ding! Abuse likelihood goes up!) and Betrice says Petiron is lucky to have an understanding mate that can also sing (which is not the signal I want from a friend if I’m contemplating leaving his ass.) Merelan resolves to make sure the studio stays unoccupied by anyone else, and says that in another year, Robinton will be attending school at the Hall, and that will make things better, too. (No, it won’t.) Betrice tells Merelan to do something for herself while she watches Robinton, because it’s no good for Merelan to either have to mind her child or her husband all the time.

Time passes, and it turns out that Robinton certainly has musical talent, given that he picks up a pipe at three and can make good sounds with it…

When Petiron was busy with students, Merelan would often whistle simple tunes within her son’s hearing. Petiron did not like her whistling–possibly because he couldn’t, but more likely because he felt that girls shouldn’t. Despite how much she loved him, she privately admitted that some of his attitudes, including this one, made no sense to her.

Because he’s an asshole!

Anyway, Robinton picks up on the whistles, repeats them, then begins to improvise on them in a way that makes it clear he’s got the knack. Merelan wants to make sure that this talent gets hidden as long as possible, so that Robinton isn’t rushed prematurely into musical training at the Hall that might put him off music entirely. At three. Even though Merelan knows Petiron will do it. So she calls over Washell, ostensibly to help her with a part, deliberately botches it, then lets Robinton play it correctly. As well as his favorite tunes on the pipe, and his variations on that tune, including a new one just thought up while playing the others. Washell gets it, and plans with Merelan to figure out a way of breaking Robinton’s musicality to Petiron gently enough that Petiron won’t break him in his single-mindedness. All contrivance and accident that each of the masters involved should teach Robinton some small thing about their craft, enough so that when he turns out to be a musical genius at six, they can all disclaim they did anything at all and then deliver Robinton to his father as a student that won’t try his patience. Robinton himself, however, is the spanner in the plan because he wants to show his compositions and talents to his music-loving father and keeps getting deflected away from it by his mother.

One day, Robinton comes back from a class with Kubisa, one of the child instructors, with a bloody nose, crying.

“I’ll say this for Robie, he may be young and small, but he knows who needs his protection.”
“Who needs it?” his mother asked, carefully mopping away the blood.
“The watch-wher,” Kubisa said.
Merelan paused, surprised and beginning to feel more pride than concern. The apprentices were not above sticking bright glows into the Harper Hall watch-wher’s lair to make the light-sensitive creature cry. Or throwing him noxious things, knowing the creature would eat just about anything that came within the range of its chain. Rob would always run and tell an adult if he saw such antics.
“Were they being mean to the poor beast again?”
Sniffing, he nodded his head up and down. “I made ’em stop, but one of them busted me one.”
“So I see,” his mother murmured.
[…Kubisa advises self-defense…]
“I used to be able to beat some of my big brothers and cousins when I got going.”
“You?” Robie’s eyes widened at the very notion of his mother beating anything, much less his big brothers and cousins.

So she gave him his first lesson in hand-to-hand combat, and showed him best how to head-butt an assailant. “It keeps you from having bloody noses, too, if you use your head in a fight.” I wonder where that caring child went and how he was replaced by the manipulator we’ve come to know. If Petiron is responsible in some way, I will not be surprised.

Also, learning how to thrash people from your mother seems like a totally awesome thing.

The subterfuge, of course, is not going to last long. On hearing that he is learning his ballads and songs appropriately, Robinton sees the opportunity to shine.

Robinton wanted so desperately to please his father, but he never seemed able to, despite how hard he tried to be good, obedient, courteous, and most of all, quiet.

Petiron cannot be satisfied that way, Robinton. Abusers cannot be satisfied that way. Even when you sing something note-perfect, which Robinton does, they will never be satisfied.

“That was well done, Robinton,” he said. “Now don’t think that learning one song is all you have to do. There’s a significant number, even for children, to be learned, word- and note-perfect. Continue as you have begun.”
Robinton beamed with pleasure, turning to his mother to see if she also agreed.
Merelan could barely keep from sobbing with relief as she came forward and tousled his hair. “You have done very well indeed, my love. I’m proud of you, too. Just as your father is.” She turned to Petiron for his reassurance, but he had already turned back to the apprentice scores he was correcting, oblivious to son and spouse.
Merelan had to clench her hands to her sides to keep from roaring at him for such a curt dismissal. There was so much more Petiron could have said. He could have mentioned that the boy was on pitch throughout, with good breath support and that his voice was actually good. But she controlled her anger and took Robie, who couldn’t quite understand why he hadn’t pleased his father more, by the hand.
“We’ll just see,” she said in a firm, loud voice, “what Lorra might have
as a reward for knowing all the verses and the tempi perfectly!”
When she slammed the door behind her, Petiron glanced over his shoulder, then went back to marking a very poorly executed apprentice lesson.

Okay, at this point, I have to entertain the possibility that Petiron might have something in his brain wiring that makes things like this sequence bizarre to him – he heard a good performance, he complimented it and encouraged it, and yet his wife slams the door as she stalks outside. He’s probably going to chalk it up to something with Merelan, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a neurologist found something abnormal about Petiron’s brain. Which doesn’t excuse him from the issues involved, but might help him and everyone around him figure out ways to relate that don’t involve hurt feelings from unfulfilled expectations.

The other option is that he’s an asshole who doesn’t care about his son and possibly resents him for taking him away from his perfect life.

Merelan is spitting tacks, wants to kick Petiron for his reaction. Lorra, the headwoman (and therefore counselor), points out, not wrongly, that Petiron’s expectations for Robinton are perfection and therefore there will be no validation or “Well done, son!” for him, even if he is better than many apprentices more than a decade older than he is. This dissipates Merelan’s anger instead of stoking it, for some reason, even when Lorra lays on that it’s unlikely Petiron will notice his son has become a man until his voice cracks. In theory, this inattentiveness will benefit Robinton, in that he will be able to be freely musical around Petiron.

The chapter ends with talk of a new holder daughter, Halanna, arriving at the hall and being put in with the Hold girls while she adjusts to the routine. I hope she fares a lot better than Menolly ever did, both with the girls and in the Hall itself.

As was noted in the last post, this is a very different Hall from when Menolly arrived, with women, and women in teaching and mastery positions. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it until now, so it’s very nice to have commenters that can point things out to me earlier than I might have picked up on it myself. Yet, somewhere in between now and her arrival, the Hall will apparently be purged of women. I doubt we’ll ever find out the how or the why.

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11 thoughts on “The Masterharper of Pern: It Does Not Get Better

  1. WanderingUndine February 8, 2018 at 9:55 am

    Someone on a fantasy Facebook group I’m in asked for suggestions of fantasy books featuring unchallenged misogyny, especially with a female author, for an essay they’re writing. Pern comes to mind, and I’m trying to remember and summarize everything it does in that regard. Romanticized rape/dubcon, Evil Slut shaming, petty female rivalries, shaming and “taming” of women who defy societal norms, little narrative condemnation of male asshats unless they’e Designated Villains…what else?

  2. genesistrine February 8, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    I wouldn’t be surprised if a neurologist found something abnormal about Petiron’s brain. Which doesn’t excuse him

    Neurology doesn’t cause assholism. It seems likelier to me that Petiron’s always been recognised as a musical prodigy, and always had any inconsiderate and demanding behaviour excused as “he’s a genius, you can’t expect him to x y and z! Don’t disturb the genius at work!” We see Merelan smoothing over his social foulups in the first chapter, and I’m happy to bet she’s been doing that for the length of their relationship, and that somebody else (probably female) did it before Merelan came into the picture.

    He’s a monster of entitlement and self-absorption, and Merelan’s getting fed up of dealing with him.

    Interesting aside: Petiron did not like her whistling […] likely because he felt that girls shouldn’t

    In spite of all we were told about non-superstitious Pern, here we have a superstition – and an old Earth one! – in the wild.

    @WanderingUndine: does Special Girl Who’s Not Like The Rest count? Menolly bullying Mirrim? Women apparently excluded from all professions, even the stereotypically feminine ones of healing and teaching children (though this is one of the things that gets sneakily changed as the series goes on, obviously).

  3. WanderingUndine February 9, 2018 at 3:36 pm

    @genesistrine: Thanks from the OP.

  4. genesistrine February 12, 2018 at 2:21 pm

    Thanks!

    There’s probably an awful lot more, but I think I’ve gone numb to it….

  5. Silver Adept February 13, 2018 at 8:38 am

    I don’t remember that particular superstition, @genesistrine. What befalls the planet if women learn to whistle?

    Also, I’m pretty sure you’re right about everyone smoothing the plan for the “eccentric” geniuses. I’m not sure if it’s here or later on, but there’s a line about how all the masters at the Hall have their quirks that have to be accommodated, and that’s to be expected because they’re so brilliant. Given what we saw of the other Masters in the other trilogy, that makes most of them assholes, too.

  6. genesistrine February 13, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    The traditional phrase is “A whistling woman and a crowing hen / Are neither fit for God nor men”, though to my knowledge it’s never explained why. I’ve seen explanations like “witches can call up winds by whistling”, but in general it just seems to be seen as “boyish”, “unladylike” or “unlucky” depending on who you ask.

    And yeah. I bet it’s mostly women who get to do the accommodating, too.

  7. saidahgilbert February 13, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    @genesistrine When I read your comment, I didn’t realise that it was referring to women and whistling. I just saw superstition and the superstition about whistling after dark came to my mind. I’d never heard that girls weren’t supposed to whistle. My mummy tried to teach me how to whistle when I was a child but even now as an adult, I can’t whistle.

  8. genesistrine February 14, 2018 at 1:15 am

    @saidahgilbert: That’s interesting – where are you/your mother from, if you don’t mind me asking?

    I know it as a British superstition, and the “unladylike” aspect at least made it into Little Women, so some parts of the US. And McCaffrey obviously picked it up as an unexamined thing from somewhere, but whether it was the States or Ireland I’ve no idea.

  9. saidahgilbert February 14, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    I’m from Trinidad and Tobago which is a former British colony. However, a lot of our superstitions are influenced by African and East Indian customs and not necessarily British ones.

  10. genesistrine February 15, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    It sounds like that one didn’t make it, for starters. Odd how some carry on and some don’t.

  11. Brenda A February 26, 2018 at 10:03 pm

    I remember in “Farmer Boy”, the third of the Little House on the Prairie books, that the saying is quoted: “Whistling girls and crowing hens, always come to some bad ends.”

    There is a lot in this book that really don’t fit with previously established canon. I tend to ignore most of it and only consider a few individual bits canon.

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