Fantasy, at the genre’s commercial inception, could be divided into two camps: those inspired by Arthurian legends and tales of chivalry (Lord of the Rings, The King of Elfland’s Daughter), or the pulp and action style Sword and Sorcery tales (Conan the Barbarian, The Worm Ouroboros).
Although Robert E. Howard is an exception of sorts, the fantasy tale (until the 70s really) was driven by the male quest, male protagonists and male gods. Women were often incidental to the process of a protagonist’s actualisation. In the Lord of the Rings, for example, almost every protagonist—both good and evil—is a man and celibate.
Between the 50s and the 80s, the amount of women writing commercial fantasy and science fiction grew exponentially. By the time the 70s rolled around there was a feminist boom in speculative fiction. Female characters in fantasy, however, were limited by the strictures of its world-building and, as it was often based on the archaic traditions of the Medieval period, this initially limited the scope for feminist stories within the genre. Moongather is one of the earliest examples of feminist fantasy that I have come across.
Jo Clayton’s 1982 trilogy places fantasy in a world of feminist conflict. In Moongather, the universe is ruled by a theology of gender duality, though it is not harmony but conflict between the ultimate male and female figures: a God and a Goddess.
The goddess is the triple goddess, a fertility idol—existing in three life stages: the maiden, mother and hag—whose avatar is Reiki Janja, a Shaman of a desert tribe. The counterpart of the Goddess is the God (whose domain is order and knowledge), his avatar is Ser Noris, a Master of a gelded order of sorcerers. The story is set by these two avatars of the God and Goddess who, as symbolic representations, decide to play a game for the fate of the world.
Moongather begins with the ‘misborn’ child, Serroi, born in a bad-luck season and outcast by her tribe. The chapters alternate between two stories: every even numbered chapter follows Serroi’s childhood and adolescence as she is taken in by Ser Noris and taught the rudiments of mental commands, the ability to alter natural things, the use of alchemical ingredients, magic to the effect of domination and control. In contrast, every odd numbered chapter follows her older self after she has escaped from the domineering world of Ser Noris to the conflicted world of the Goddess and has proven her place as a warrior. Even though Serroi has escaped the world of Ser Noris, she is still caught up in the battle between the two gods. The continent is about to erupt in a war that mirrors the ‘game’ between Ser Noris and Reiki Janja.
The story shows heavy criticism of Judeo-Christian religions—their facsimiles in the book are concerned with the celebration of ‘pure sex’ that equates to only heterosexual marriage and monogamy, and the demonisation of female sexuality. Interestingly, both cults of the male and female principle in Moongather seem to canonise celibate roles within the priesthood. Women of the ‘Biscerica’ are forbidden from conceiving a child, and men of the ‘Nor’ are gelded as the final rite of passage to become a sorcerer. Thus both sexes are isolated from each other and the angry feelings that they harbour toward their counterparts deepen into hatred and intolerance.
Well-written and compelling, Moongather is one of the few fantasy books I’ve read that openly discusses gay, lesbian, and bisexual feelings and relationships, their conflicts and their reception in society. Lesbian warriors of the Goddess are tolerated and even honoured, but are often forbidden from 'tampering' or discussing sexual differences with the women of the tribes. Similarly gay relationships are tolerated, even within small villages, but are found to be morally indecent—complex dynamics that are very similar to today's society. However, whilst this book falls into the category of feminist fiction and succeeds in informing the reader of the complexity of relationships and gender roles, the book itself doesn’t show whether Clayton came to a conclusion about the female principle, beyond it being the centre of all fleshly desires.
The wonderful cover is by Ken Kelly.
The other two books of the trilogy are Moonscatter and Changer's Moon.