Intertextuality, Feminism, and Reinforced Arguments in Thessaly

by Sumana Harihareswara on February 1, 2016

In this post I’ll discuss some ways in which Walton’s Thessaly series is transformative and some ways in which it’s feminist, and some thoughts on how those choices reinforce each other.

To start with, clearly, Thessaly is transformative in that it concentrates on reusing and commenting on a text someone else made. As Walton says:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler.

I’m currently obsessed with Hamilton: An American Musical which, like Thessaly, takes old text — often taught in history or philosophy or political science classes — and infuses it with emotion and suspense. But, where Hamilton only has a few songs focusing on the process of group decision-making and problems that crop up in the implementation, Walton pays consistent attention to those details. This approach also shows up in Walton’s “Relentlessly Mundane”, which you can read as a Narnia fanfic with the serial numbers very rubbed off, or as a general commentary on YA portal fantasies. Paying attention to the concrete details within utopias and after quests, Walton un-deletes the deleted scenes from other stories.

All fiction is intertextual, of course, influenced by and referencing previous works on various levels. But Thessaly is at heart about fans who make their fandom real. It joins Walton’s Among Others and a few other series — Jim Hines’s Libriomancer and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next — in depicting a world where fandom is literally magic. (Does it turn out better than the “Casino Royale” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation? I think so, but I haven’t read the third book yet…)

Thessaly also engages with feminism in several ways. Most obviously, it focuses on women as characters and women’s viewpoints, and the specific constraints and problems that women disproportionately face (e.g., dealing with menstruation, sexual assault, and post-partum depression). We see competent people of several gender identities trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances; I particularly admired Simmea for this. And Walton sketches what it might look like for an educational institution to try very hard, many times succeeding, at equally valuing women and men.

I come to Thessaly as an alumna of the experimental education community Recurse Center, which is institutionally committed to fighting sexism, and I love how Thessaly evokes the feeling I got there; it’s a place where, when you’re working on learning a new skill, you can choose to forget about gender for a while.

Sometimes! Because sometimes you run into someone like Ikaros or Kebes. Like Immortan Joe, Kylo Ren, and similar recent villains, the unsympathetic characters in Thessaly act entitled, especially to women’s bodies.

But Apollo wants to stop doing that, and in The Just City, Walton aims to describe how that journey works. An interviewer asked her “Why have Apollo learn about ‘equal significance and volition’?” to which Walton responded by discussing another work that inspired her, Bernini’s statue of Daphne and Apollo:

I’ve always been very fond of Apollo, he’s the patron god of poets and writers, and one of the things I thought looking at that statue was “He’s always been so nice to me” in the exact way that people do when they find out that their friends have done awful things, and that was very uncomfortable too.

I find it noteworthy that Walton aims to understand and depict what happens when we don’t accord each other equal significance and volition, and to avoid condemning Apollo. He works to redeem himself, and the reader is invited to root for that transformation, rather than cast a jaundiced eye upon the possibility of his redemption. In my experience, we code the “benefit of the doubt” sort of approach as feminine, and code a more uncompromising, adversarial, retaliatory response as masculine; in Thessaly, we see the virtues of the former more than the latter, I’d say.

But in Thessaly we do see the stigmatizing of feminine-coded interests, we see people dismissing and minimizing the evil of assault, we see the unwarranted deference paid more to men than to women, and so on. That is to say, we see Walton point the dynamic out, rather than it being unnoticed background radiation.

And here’s where I get to a few ways that Thessaly’s feminism and its concentration on transforming other works reinforce each other. There is a standard feminist/queer theory rationale around transformative works that applies here — we who usually don’t see ourselves represented in texts made by and for the dominant groups insert ourselves into the discourse, make new texts for ourselves. We racebend, we slash, and so on.

Transformative work is also a way to understand and argue about the work referenced — for example, “The First Time” is a piece of fanfic that criticizes the dominant whiteness in Star Trek. In her Strange Horizons interview, Walton discusses her interest in using Thessaly to counter dominant rape culture narratives especially in previous adaptations of Greek myths; she realized that approximately all the depictions she’d ever seen before had been made with the male gaze in mind. We can get very defensive when hearing explicit political criticism of art we love, and Thessaly’s an example of how to use an engaging counternarrative to get past those defenses and make the argument implicitly.

And of course you, the reader, always transform the work into your own reading, memory, and use of it. Thessaly enriches your reading of utopian philosophy, using feminist insights to lovingly interrogate and improve the ongoing discourse, limning key dilemmas. How do you care enough, and empathize with the downtrodden, without burning out, or selling out, or finding that you’ve turned your crusade into the next tyranny? How do you keep yourself always on the side of the underdog, but avoid the Kebes-style destructive desire to simply replace the top dog with yourself?



Neville Morley 02.01.16 at 8:03 pm

“Thessaly is at heart about fans who make their fandom real”: yes, perfectly put. And I really like your discussion of the way that Apollo’s search for understanding and redemption is presented, with the emphasis on reserving final judgement and offering the benefit of the doubt.


ZM 02.02.16 at 11:51 am

As probably the only commenter who has suffered the great misfortune of being represented in art as a woman turned into a tree (see f.n. 1), I feel I have a unique perspective on this matter, and, being turned into an internet commenter rather than a tree — and never having been a tree at any point the representation is inaccurate — I can offer it.

Going back to Walton’s statement “I’ve always been very fond of Apollo, he’s the patron god of poets and writers, and one of the things I thought looking at that statue was “He’s always been so nice to me” , it is probably worthwhile noting that in Ovid’s retelling of the myth he does not have such a nice Apollo (Phoebus) going to Athene to consult her about why Daphne turned into a tree, instead:

“… even the wood [of the Daphne tree] shrank from his kisses, and the god said ‘Since you cannot be my bride, you must be my tree! Laurel, with you my hair will be wreathed, with you my lyre, with you my quiver. You will go with the Roman generals when joyful voices acclaim their triumph, and the Capitol witnesses their long processions. You will stand outside Augustus’s doorposts, a faithful guardian, and keep watch over the crown of oak between them. And just as my head with its uncropped hair is always young, so you also will wear the beauty of undying leaves.’ Paean had done: the laurel bowed her newly made branches, and seemed to shake her leafy crown like a head giving consent.”

So, Ovid’s retelling of the myth has a more critical approach to Apollo than Walton’s book does.

I think this raises some interesting questions about “transformative” literature generally, if not necessarily specifically in regard to these books as while I am quite enjoying the first book so far I have not yet finished it, as things came up.

I don’t think that a female retelling of something is necessarily any truer or better. The artwork that depicts me as a tree is for a song which the film clip refers to two singers who have each sung songs about me, and of the two singers depicted in the film clip, the woman was the worst and cruelest of any, which anyone will be able to tell once I have fully brought the matter to light in the months or years to come.

I would be very upset if, some centuries along, a feminist historian or other sort of writer did a retelling of this story that involves me, and in trying to write a feminist retelling this potential future author decided to make the woman whom I refer to above a more pleasant character (rather than so cruel and manipulative and deceitful like she has been) just out of some idea that the retelling of these true events should accord to Feminist Ideals, like where you have the bad women characters in fairy stories turned into positive characters in some contemporary retellings.

f.n. 1 This is actually a highly reflexive comment, as the film clip to the song where the artwork represents me as a woman turned into tree in fact was referencing my Crooked Timber comments in 2014 about Ovid’s retelling of the metamorphosis of Caenis and John Ashbery’s allusion to the myth of Syrinx in Syringa, where Syrinx was turned into reeds and Pan used her for his panpipes. This is the grace of being turned into an internet commenter instead of a tree; I can comment on the art made from me.


Franceska 02.02.16 at 5:48 pm

For some reason it bothered me inordinately that the robots were always referred to as ‘he’. I was holding out in the first book for a clever Walton commentary on this, but it never arrived.


Jo Walton 02.02.16 at 6:58 pm

Commentary on robot pronoun choices coming in Necessity, where we get Crocus’s point of view on that.


Janet 02.02.16 at 7:54 pm

[This comment includes spoilers for The Philosopher Kings]

One of the key things about the Thessaly books as transformative works is that they include both mythological and real historical figures. So we have Apollo and Athena, about whom many versions of many stories are told (Ovid’s is also a transformative work), as well as the more minor mythological character of the Satyr Marsyas and glimpses of a few other gods. And then we also have Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, Cicero, Lucrezia Borgia (I do wish Jo Walton had done more with her), Socrates, and others, all of them real people about whom varying amounts are known.

This gets to ZM’s point (if I understand it correctly) about how much the transformative writer owes to the source material. As far as I’m concerned, Apollo is a mythic figure, therefore Jo Walton’s version of him is not tantamount to changing or misrepresenting the character and behavior of a real person; there is no “real Apollo” to refer back to. But with RPF, there is a historical person to whom the author attributes actions and thoughts, and that’s much more dicey. I have never read Pico della Mirandola, and I probably never will since his work falls way outside my own intellectual interests. But if I did, I would have the character of Ikaros to contend with, which would be a hindrance to my giving poor Pico’s work a fair chance.

But although I don’t consider the reinterpretation of a fictional or mythological character the same as the reinterpretation of an historical figure, I still think there can be questions about the uses of the source myths. I think this shows up most here in the way that Walton stacks the deck against Kebes/Matthias/Marsyas. In all the versions of the myth I have read, Marsyas’s crime is, at worst, hubris. He’s not a sadist; he’s not guilty of any great crimes against either people or art, and there’s no suggestion that he intends to flay Apollo if he wins. Some classical commenters considered Apollo’s actions justified, others thought them cruel and excessive, and in some stories Apollo regrets it afterwards. Since Apollo is a protagonist in the Thessaly books, Walton has to find a way to make us sympathize with Apollo’s actions, even if we don’t approve of them. She has to make Matthias into an unequivocal monster, a guy who sort of deserves to be flayed alive, and make the decision not just Apollo’s but the entire community’s. To me that does stretch the source myth to the breaking point. This might be okay except that it also requires what looks to me like a radical departure from the character of Kebes in The Just City, who is angry and rebellious and, as Pytheas says, a lout, but not a sadist. When Kebes is accused of faking the communications from the Workers, Pytheas argues that he would not have, because whatever else he is, he has honor. He’s a character for whom, despite his actions, I retained some degree of sympathy. I don’t think Walton is fair to either Marsyas or Matthias.

[This is an aside, but another example of how modern writers tend to twist a canonical myth out of shape is the story of Hades’s abduction of Persephone. Modern retellings always find a way for Persephone to show some agency, which does not happen in either Ovid or the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the two main sources of the story. I can understand the impulse to change things so that Persephone decides to stay with Hades, rather than being tricked or an object of barter (although modern retellings usually turn into “Beauty and the Beast,” which is another kind of problem), but it seems to me to be an example of modern writers refusing to grapple with the alien morality of the sources.]

And finally, I have one possibly provocative question: Is it fair to say that in The Philosopher Kings, Simmea is fridged?


William Timberman 02.02.16 at 8:14 pm

A lovely meditation, the more so as we seem to be awash at the moment in a world-wide celebration of bullying and aggression as a solution to all our inadequacies real or imagined. Would Donald Trump or Bill O’Reilly and their followers have their brows cooled and their possibilities as human beings enhanced by reading these books? Probably not, but I might. It wouldn’t be the first time, after all, that Crooked Timber had put me on to something that did me the world of good. Inspiring, that’s what it is. My thanks to Jo Walton for writing the books, and to CT for making sure I’m aware of them.

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