I understand that at some point in the last 20 years Michael Moorcock released a new version of Gloriana, or The Unfulfill'd Queen in which the heroine doesn't achieve orgasm for the first time in her life as a result of rape. I commend him on his choice. I actually picked up Gloriana expecting to dislike it precisely because of what I'd heard about the ending (it didn't help that I didn't know which ending my 1986 edition would have, although it did lend an air of suspense to the proceedings), but I think I would have had trouble with it regardless. Gloriana is, after all, a book about an alternate Elizabeth I--Gloriana, queen of Albion, daughter of the villainous and mad King Hern--who presides over a Golden Age of justice, mercy, artistic and scientific advancements, financial prosperity, and peace, but can't achieve orgasm no matter how hard she tries (and boy, does she try. With practically every animate and inanimate object she can get her hands on). I mean, gosh, Mr. Moorcock, you sure weren't going for subtlety with your sexual politics, were you, even without the sledgehammer to the head that is the closing rape scene?
But to my very great surprise, I found myself enjoying the book immensely. In between the absurd sexual subplot and the appalling ending, there's a superb book here. Gloriana is obviously Moorcock's homage to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series (the book is dedicated to Peake's memory), but Moorcock has a lighter touch than Peake--he's less long-winded, writes more compelling characters, and has the knack of making descriptive scenes as exciting as narrative ones. The book is set primarily in Gloriana's castle in the center of London, a warren of bricked-over passages and roofed-over rooms that is obviously meant to recall Gormenghast castle in all its unknowable complexity. Also borrowed from Peake is the society of misfits, forgotten criminals and victims who live between the castle's walls, and who emerge to wreak havoc and grant kindnesses, a reminder of the past that can be papered over but never done away with. Into this city-within-a-city comes Captain Quire, the Steerpike character, who uses the castle's secret passageways against its legitimate inhabitants by spying on them, committing crimes for which they accuse each other, and marshaling the forgotten wall-dwellers into a terrifying army.
Unlike Steerpike, who attacks the ancient Groan family in order to place himself in a position of power and gain the respect denied to him by his common ancestry, Quire acts out of a sense of aesthetics. He considers himself an artist, and his medium is human suffering. He accepts a commission from the Shah of Arabia--to destabilize the court, forcing Gloriana into a marriage with the Shah who will drag Albion into war for, we are told, its own good (all this 'womanly peace' weakens the state and allows immorality to fester within its citizenry and institutions)--out of a desire to prove himself a consummate artist. With his almost hypnotic charm--within the book's first fifty pages, he overcomes the virtue and honesty of a young servant and her over-protective fiancé--Quire might almost be a caricature if the readers weren't so revolted by his immorality.
Opposing Quire is Montfallcon, the queen's oldest advisor and a former servant of her father, power-mad, violent Hern. Almost from the moment of her birth, Montfallcon has trained Gloriana to be Hern's antithesis. To Montfallcon, Gloriana represents everything that is good and pure in the world, the shining beacon of virtue that blesses all that it touches. Behind Gloriana's back, of course, Montfallcon uses underhand and immoral means to secure Albion's safety, including employing a man like Quire. He conceals these acts from Gloriana because he believes that to allow her to know the evil that exists in the world would tarnish her light, and bring a corresponding fall from grace to all of Albion. Not surprisingly, Montfallcon's house of cards crumbles at Quire's lightest touch, and the old councillor grows increasingly frustrated, eventually devolving into insanity. As the book ends, Montfallcon turns on Gloriana herself, whom he sees as irredeemably stained by the knowledge she's gained of the world's ugliness.
Gloriana herself is the book's lynchpin, and sadly the character isn't quite up to the task. To put it bluntly, the girl is a ninny. Our own Elizabeth, while obviously not single-handedly responsible for the golden age that bears her name, was by all rights a clever, cunning, politically savvy person. The best thing that can be said about Gloriana, in contrast, is that she's super-nice. She spends her days crooning over her servants, her councillors, her seraglio, her courtiers, her illegitimate children, and various foreign ambassadors. Her fondest ambition, it seems, is to live in a world of uninterrupted pleasantness, where no one is ever unhappy, everyone is always polite to one another, and all disputes are resolved in a sensible fashion. It's difficult to understand how such a boring, milquetoast woman could become the focal point of an entire nation's hopes and dreams--she lacks the force of personality to dominate a knitting circle. In fact, it isn't quite right to say that Gloriana is a ruler--her role seems to be largely ceremonial, greeting delegations and presiding over seasonal celebrations, and although her position carries with it a great deal of actual power, she refrains from using it. Only towards the end of the book do we begin to see a hint of Gloriana's strength of character, but even then it comes in fits and spurts, rarely guided by intellect or reasoned decision-making. Gloriana seems genuinely resentful of her own position and duties--far more than the 'heavy is the head that wears the crown' stereotype would seem to justify--but she doesn't dare relinquish them for fear of failing her realm and the burden placed on her by Montfallcon.
Within this context, it's easy to guess the reasons for Gloriana's sexual dysfunction. If we accept the book's take on sex as a zero-sum game of power, in which one party--the male, penetrating, one--gains something from the sexual act and the other party is diminished by it, it's only natural to conclude that a woman with a great deal of temporal power (however little she may actually use it) would baulk at surrendering that power in her bedroom (although it's worth noting that Gloriana has plenty of sex--she just doesn't take any pleasure from it). Complicating the issue is the fact that Gloriana has been taught from infancy to think of herself as more than a person. She is, as Montfallcon has drilled into her, the embodiment of Albion, not only in the actions and decisions that she makes on its behalf but in her behavior, which must always be the personification of the ideals she stands for: justice, purity, and virtue. Gloriana crumbles under this perception of herself as an institution, not a person, and she naturally views the act of taking personal physical pleasure as an abdication of her role and of her virtue.
The rape, in other words, achieves twin goals. Instead of waiting for Gloriana to willingly surrender her power, Quire takes it from her by force (which, we're meant to believe, is what she wanted all along). And, by tainting her with his crime, staining the rape victim with her own victimhood, Quire releases Gloriana from the suffocating bonds of her own public image--redeems her, as she says, from her own virtue, by taking it away by force.
Excuse me, I have to go throw up now.*
While reading Gloriana, I often found myself thinking of Angela Carter's hilarious, picaresque adventure, Nights at the Circus, and the interesting accompaniment that it makes to Moorcock's novel. Like Gloriana, Carter's novel deals with a woman in an unusual amount of power and autonomy, who is troubled by the notion of giving a part of herself up to love. Fevvers, the winged woman who was raised from a hatchling in an East End brothel and is now the star of an internationally renowned circus act, falls in love with the journalist Jack Walser, who attaches himself to the circus in the hopes of proving her a fraud. Their courtship is a rocky and uncomfortable one, neither one of them willing to surrender their own power and independence. Fevvers is appalled at the notion of letting someone in--physically and emotionally--fearing that such an act would diminish her. Walser, a typical 19th century white male, is unwilling to consider an egalitarian relationship with a woman, and the possibility of his own vulnerability doesn't even occur to him--as Carter tells us, Walser is 'unhatched', a man who's experienced much but who hasn't allowed any of his experiences to truly affect him.
Unlike Moorcock, Carter recognizes that weakness and vulnerability are, for both genders, a prerequisite for love, and that sex, if it isn't treated as a simple fulfilling of a bodily desire, diminishes and enriches both partners at the same time. In order to be together, Fevvers and Walser both have to work up the courage to be weak, and Walser has to be practically rebuilt from scratch into a man who won't rebel at the notion of a sexual partner who has power over him**. It's a benevolent, loving approach to games of power and sex, and one that Moorcock might have benefitted from reading.
When dealing with the issue of powerful women in fiction, rape is a recurring motif, from Fevvers and Gloriana to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's a reflection of our society's discomfort with powerful women, and of women's own fears for the power they've accumulated, which can be rendered meaningless as they lose autonomy over their own body. That Moorcock chose to portray rape positively as a part of his parody of Spenser's The Faerie Queene (which I have not, admittedly, read, but I understand that it involves a virtuous knight gaining the favor of the queen of virtue) is troubling. It shows, at the very least, a profound over-simplification of the politics of sex, power, personal relationships, and possession, all in the service of a clever point--that on their own, the romantic ideals of justice, purity, duty, and goodness are insufficient to sustain any endeavor, and that they must be tempered with pragmatism, cunning, and a certain amount of ruthlessness--the rape as a metaphor overwhelming the rape as a rape. As I said above, I managed to enjoy Gloriana in spite of its disturbing undertones and frustrating ending--it's an exciting, beautifully written book, often humorous and at times horrifying***, and even without the sexual component it raises interesting questions about the price of maintaining a just kingdom--but I think it would be best for potential readers to go into it with their eyes wide open.
In summary, don't be ragging on J.R.R. Tolkien, Mr. Moorcock, not while your sexual politics make his look downright egalitarian and progressive in comparison.
* From what I've gathered, the alternate ending does away with the rape and has Quire seduce Gloriana instead. Moorcock has said that he changed the ending because he didn't want to be seen as encouraging rape. This leads one to wonder a) just where his fine sentiments were when the novel was originally published, and b) whether he's genuinely so naive as to think that the problem with the rape scene is simply that it 'encourages rape'.
** It's worth noting that there is an attempted rape in Nights at the Circus, which Carter treats with all appropriate horror.
*** Although, as a clever Amazon reviewer pointed out, for a book so concerned with sex and sexuality it is curiously lacking in eroticism.