HRC & McKinley’s Strong Woman Fantasy

Hillary Clinton Holds Campaign Roundtable In Las Vegas


Years ago a woman novelist told me that it would be a very long time before a woman was elected president of the United States. American misogyny, she said, runs very deep. I thought at the time she was being overly pessimistic and thought so again after Barack Obama became president. If the racial barrier could be overcome, certainly the glass ceiling was not far behind.

I should have trusted my friend to recognize the fear and loathing triggered by powerful women better than I would. Naively, I thought our country could handle such breakthrouhs. Before the election (but discussing relationships, not politics), I told my American Fantasy class that strong men are drawn to strong women—this while teaching Robin McKinley’s medieval fantasy The Chalice. This election proved the unfortunate corollary: weak men are repulsed by strong women.

The same is true of the other sex: strong women are stimulated by strong women, weak ones are threatened.

There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton is a strong woman. As the Guardian recently observed in an article well worth reading,

Sometimes I think I have never seen anything as strong as Hillary Clinton. That doesn’t mean that I like and admire everything about her. I’m not here to argue about who she is, just to note what she did. I watched her plow through opposition and attacks the like of which no other candidate has ever faced and still win the popular vote.

In McKinley’s novel, the “Chalice” is the second most powerful personage in the realm and is responsible for maintaining the health of the land lines. Someone with an intuitive feel for the land is always chosen as Chalice, and Mirasol, who raises goats and bees, has been unexpectedly picked when the first Chalice is consumed in a fire, along with her Master. This former Chalice wasn’t strong enough to stand up to a dissolute man and they both perish.

As my students and I discussed the novel, we came to realize that it is about the difficulties of a strong woman finding a man who appreciates her power. Mirasol is an unconventional Chalice because of her close relationship with her bees. Even though the bees are her strength, making remarkable honey and wax, they also scare men away. Get too close and you get stung.

But not if you’re a strong man. The Master sees the bees as the gift they are, describing them as “tiny golden sparks, as of fire.” He does not react badly to bee attacks:

[H]e hadn’t tried to crush the bee that stung him. He was holding her, very gently, against his forearm, with the tip of one finger. “There, little one, that’s not necessary. Don’t wriggle so, you’ll do yourself fatal harm. Your sting is barbed, you know, you have to tease it out slowly…” He raised his finger, and one rather tired and dazed bee flew away…

The outcome is far different when a weak man approaches the Chalice. In a final showdown between the Master and this man who seeks to replace him (and marry Mirasol), we see the two essentially subjected to a bee test. As they engage in single combat (called a “faenorn”), they are swarmed by Mirasol’s bees. Only one survives:

And the bees—hundreds of thousands, millions of bees, the Chalice’s own bees, the House bees, the wild bees of the forests, the bees of hundreds of hives in hundreds of meadows and gardens and glades all over the demesne—the bees plunged down from where they had hovered above the roof of the House, making a noise more like thunder than like the humming of bees, and covered the faenorn field in a black cloud…

The faenorn field seethed with bees, peaking like sea waves lashed by storm winds. There was one shriek above their thunder, a man’s voice: “I’m on fire! Burning—I’m burning!”And then…nothing.

When the bees are cleared away, the Master steps forth, more powerful than he has ever been. A strong woman has only made him stronger. The usurper, by contrast, doesn’t fare so well:

There was a muted exclamation when they found Horuld’s body. Mirasol looked over at it, almost indifferently, but with a touch of fear like a bad memory. It was, at first glance, difficult to differentiate from the dead bees that had covered it. He was black and shriveled, as if burnt in a fire to temper sword steel, his legs drawn up and his hands curled into claws. He wasn’t recognizable as Horuld; he was barely recognizable as human.

Unfortunately, America didn’t pass the bee test and we got a conman as a result. In The Chalice, bad things historically happen when a usurper ascends to the throne.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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