bracketyjack (bracketyjack) wrote,

The Absent Gods & TSK Essay Post (1)

Posted below (and continuing in an overflow post) is a stray Bujold essay, not in either of my published collections, that focuses on the 5GU and TSK books. I wrote it for a forthcoming special issue of American Literature focussing on SF&F and myth, but they decided they didn't want papers on only one author - or maybe they just hated it. It's not going anywhere else, and it has a pretty full Bujold bibliography, so ...

And as a teaser, when Lois kindly read and commented on it there was one sentence that attracted a "Thank you for seeing this" and another that got a magnificent Bujoldian "Heh.", all in a box to itself. Brownie points to anyone who can pick out those two sentences ...


(Absent) Gods and the Sharing Knife: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Myths of Integration

Lois McMaster Bujold (b. Columbus, oh, 1949) is by most standards an extremely successful author of science fiction and fantasy. She has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards as well as many other prizes[1] ; enjoys primary hardback as well as mass-market, digital, audio, and omnibus editions ; sells well in all Anglo­phone markets (though least in the UK), and has had more than a dozen novels translated into each of Spanish, Italian, German, French, Polish, Russian, Japanese, Croatian, and Chinese (and some into Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, Hebrew, Dutch, Czech, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Finnish).[2] She also inspires lively discussion in several online communities dedicated to her work,[3] and a considerable amount of fanfiction[4]—but her academic standing, if slowly rising, remains slight. She appears in Clute’s & Nicholl’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) and Mann’s Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2001), and her Hugo awards gained her a brief entry in the seventh edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature (2009), noting her generic skills and versatility, but there are otherwise only a handful of essays,[5] by fans as much as academics, while she goes unmentioned even in survey work by such scholars of SF as Broderick, Luckhurst, and Melzer.[6]

            In some ways this reluctance to engage with Bujold is predictable. Her best-known and longest series, 13 novels and four novellas concerning Lord Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar (1986–2004, resuming in 2010), began by mixing comedic military space-opera with superior political romance and through astonishing generic engineering ultimately issued in the SF novel of manners ; throughout, it posits and variously displays ideals of military and neofeudal service, aristocratic honour, absolute imperial rule, and extended conversation—which is to say that Bujold is politically unpalatable to the critical left and aesthetically unpalatable to devotees of cyberpunk, steampunk, and other forms of the technosublime. As a white Mid-Westerner she also fails to serve agendas of ethnic and minority writing, and as an independent post-war woman unimpressed by feminist orthodoxies and deeply interested in the mal/practice of parenthood has been far less amenable than the somewhat older Ursula Le Guin (b. 1929) and Joanna Russ (b. 1937) to recruitment in the gender wars. But if such critical filters are removed, and Bujold’s work considered in itself as a whole, academic failures to recognise her literary talent and superb teachability begin to look glaring.

            My concern here is with Bujold’s post-Vorkosigan work—three volumes in the ‘Chalion’ series (2001–05) and a four-decker novel, The Sharing Knife (2006–09), fantasies marking a significant development in her writing. There are many thematic continuities with the Vorkosiverse—romance, parent­hood, and the distinction of reputation (what others know about you) from honour (what you know about yourself)[7]—but after more than 15 years and a dozen novels as a professional writer Bujold’s shift from SF to F offers a clear disjuncture, which the distinctive European and North American settings of the fantasies confirm. Additionally, both fantasy series urgently raise questions of theology that are never more than deep background in the Vorkosiverse, and in so doing come—perhaps counter-intuitively—closer than any militaristic or futuristic SF to the businesses of myth and literature.


Bujold did not debut in fantasy with The Curse of Chalion (2001). The Spirit Ring (1992) is a heroic Bildungsroman drawing on the Autobiography of the great Renaissance silversmith Benvenuto Cellini and on Germanic faerie lore—but though a success on publication[8] it has been eclipsed by the popularity of the Vorkosigan series, inter alia a late-Cold-War product whose green-uniformed and other­­wise Russian Barrayarans are typically atheists given to ancestor-worship. One protagonist, Miles’s mother Cordelia, a Betan immigrant to Barrayar, is a Presbyterian of some future variety[9] and there are narratives of grace to be discerned, but equally a Soviet-era overlay of godlessness.[10] The atheism is never trumpeted but there are striking contrasts between Bujold’s Barrayar and (say) the kind of self-serving political theology Bob Dylan satirised when he sang that ‘the country was young / With God on its side’.[11]

            The Curse of Chalion therefore came as a surprise to Bujold’s readers in more ways than one. Within a few pages protagonist Cazaril, taking shelter in a ruined mill, finds a well-dressed corpse in unusual company:

Five candle stumps, burned to puddles, blue, red, green, black, white. Little piles of herbs and ash, all kicked about now. A dark and broken pile of feathers that resolved itself in the shadows as a dead crow, its neck twisted. A moment’s further search turned up the dead rat that went with it, its little throat cut. Rat and Crow, sacred to the Bastard, god of all disasters out of season: tornadoes, earthquakes, droughts, floods, miscarriages, and murders … Wanted to compel the gods, did you? The fool had tried to work death magic, by the look of it, and paid death magic’s customary price.[12]

In the world of Chalion gods are present, their interventions recognised in theology, law, history, and practical experience. To attempt death magic is the crime of attempted murder, but to succeed is to buy another’s death with your own, and in all true cases a ‘miracle of justice’ subtler than Mosaic Law. Readers soon learn that the corpse is that of a merchant, his ‘victim’ an infamous duellist who slew his son and evaded law by intimidating witnesses and bribing a judge ; and like the efficacy of such prayer in extremis, the pantheon that becomes visible around the Lord Bastard offers a ringing critique of contemporary Christian and other religious ideologies.

            Bujold’s pantheon is to begin with genuinely a Holy Family—the Father of Winter, Daughter of Spring, Mother of Summer, and Son of Autumn equally guiding the annual round, with the Bastard (child of the Mother and a great-souled demon) gathering to Himself all that is out of season. Each has associated colours, activities, stages of life, particular graces (justice, birth, healing, friendship, balance), corporeal signifiers resembling Hindu chakras (forehead, mouth, heart, belly, groin), and digits (the Bastard being the thumb).[13] Sexism remains a feature of society, especially the aristocracy, but any notion of female exclusion from priesthood or sacred capacity would be ludicrous, and the ultimate equality of all is underwritten by the one, small miracle granted everyone at the end of their lives, an indication at every funeral of which deity has taken up the dead person’s soul. In Chalion itself (one polity among several on a peninsula, with other realms on the continent behind) that miracle is typically unequivocal behaviour by a sacred temple-animal, and the religious role and care of animals becomes increasingly central in the later ‘Chalion’ novels Paladin of Souls (2003) and The Hallowed Hunt (2005), as it transpires that animals possess souls and may (like humans) be both god-touched and demon-ridden. Successive novels explore relations with a particular deity—Curse with the Daughter, Paladin with the Bastard, Hunt with the Son—and Bujold has suggested in interview that the series will be completed as a quintet with novels engaging the Father and Mother.[14]

            The theology developed in these three novels is an extremely subtle and complex dance of matter and spirit, yet writ large in action. Bujold accepts a common humanist critique of monotheist religions, that one may fairly suppose a deity who is any two of omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, but not all three, and deletes omnipotent. Her deities know all, and are infinitely merciful with the Bastard as “god of last resort, ultimate, if ambiguous, refuge for those who had made disasters of their lives” (Curse, p. 159)—but They may not “reach in [to the world] except through living souls”, which can deny Them passage or open wide and “in renouncing action make action possible” (p. 199). As this suggests (and many details confirm) various elements of traditional theologies, Christian to Buddhist, are incorporated, with twists of Bujold’s own (notably, that matter, “remember[ing] itself so very clearly”, is “an amazement to the gods”, p. 412)—and the constructed situation produces a common ethos, radically unlike that of the contemporary US, where none doubt the gods’ existence but those few who truly are god-touched find it wholly discon­certing, a humbling experience they prefer to keep private. When an envious divine tells the now sainted Cazaril (a saint here being one who ‘hosts a miracle’) that “The Lady of Spring must love you dearly” his rejoinder is wry : “As a teamster loves his mule that carries his baggage […] whipping it over the high passes” (p. 277). And when a soldier-friend believes the “gods are on our side, right enough. Can we fail?”, Cazaril’s retort is sharp : “Yes. […] And when we fail, the gods do, too” (p. 369). Many theological doctrines and rhetorics are thus critiqued, including any necessary personal possession of or by the divine (as in ‘Born Again’ theologies), human domination rather than stewardship of the natural world, the cultivation of piety through fear of eternal punishment, and all individual assertions of preferentially knowing or understanding divine will that are not underpinned by empirically evident miracles.

            The ‘Chalion’ series thus necessarily represented for Bujold not only a shift in governing genre but also to some extent in technique and style. Some SF&F writers, like Tolkien, are ‘icebergs’, publishing only a fraction of the material they imagine but able to provide answers to almost any question ; Bujold, contrariwise, was a ‘searchlight’, imagining only what necessarily fell within a protagonists’ experience. This served the adventure-driven narratives of the Vorkosiverse well, but in its minimalist world-building tended to preclude the mythic resonances that serve Tolkien so richly. Landbound Chalion and its surrounding polities, however, are rendered far more densely, in physical geography and general culture, than anywhere in the Vorkosiverse, even Barrayar itself. On one hand, dense echoes and refractions of ‘real-world’ history and geography are responsible, for various parallels with the Late Mediaeval and Early Modern history of the Iberian peninsula, including a version of the Moorish occupation and in The Hallowed Hunt expansion to west-central Europe with Charle­magne’s wars as cultural backstory, create both a historically known level of technoculture and a densely particular cohesion.[15] On the other hand, Bujold’s invented Quintarian theology, in its (supposed) texts, inset sermons, and embracing implications, is also responsible, and in its mis/understand­ings within the fiction opens a distinct path to the mythic. For readers, as for Cazaril, the eventual death of his primary antagonist, apparently consumed by fire after dealing Cazaril what should be a fatal belly-wound, is a wildly complex irony involving a lesser antagonist, the death-demon who slew him, and a peculiar series of miracles that saw soul and demon encapsulated like a pregnancy in Cazaril’s stomach, but for those who see only the final outcome the antagonist is simply ‘struck down’ for ‘impiety’. Cazaril, saved from death by a further miracle, calls this “a good story [that] will do for most men” (p. 419), but readers know that the nascent myth is simplistic, attributing to the gods powers of direct intervention They do not have ; that the antagonist died more of greed and theological stupidity than impiety, his free will ignorantly determining his fate ; and that (in an entirely practical sense) the gods are far subtler than we and it behoves us to remember it.

            Myth (from μῡθος, ‘word, speech’) was in classical Greek literally that which is spoken, as distinct from written, and Bujold (as in the vignette of roundabout but miraculous justice ending Curse as the poor merchant began it) very intelligently plays off within her series the politics of the un/spoken, the un/known, and the written. Critiques of authoritarian and gender politics are frequent within SF&F, long addicted to dystopias, and theology a commoner theme than non-readers of the genre might suppose,[16] but Bujold’s fusion in these novels of an overt concession of supernatural destiny with a fiercely practical refusal of the superheroic—ordinary human agency is always needed—is unusual. In interview, discussing Paladin of Souls, she has referred explicitly to Joseph Campbell’s famous Jungian study of myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), remarking that the “Hero’s Journey is just the wrong shape for the Heroine”, and described her choice of a post-maternal heroine as consciously engaging with the inadequacy of the maiden-mother-crone triad to modern female life-expectancy and quotidian experience.[17] In this sense she comes close to an explicit avowal of consciously re/writing received myth, on a broadly feminist basis, but the absence of narrow ideology and the restless intelligence of her protagonists and narration fuse critical and spiritual self-awareness with emotional and moral apprehensions, rendering myth not as pagan or pre-literate supposition but (beyond political convenience) as post-literate theist wisdom.

            Bujold also took a considerable risk, literary and otherwise, by providing her theological creation with its own schism, between (from her protagonists’ points-of-view) Quintarian orthodoxy and the Quadrene heresy, which asserts the Lord Bastard to be a demon, not a god, refusing Him worship and persecuting His divines. In its details and cultural consequences this echoes both Shia–Sunni and Protestant–Catholic divides, as well as that between Christian and Islamic mono­theisms, but is sufficiently distinctive and theologically cross-wired to be itself, catching at readers’ instinctive dubiety of a Lord Bastard while drawing sharp attention both to His merciful inclusiveness and to human pursuits of persecution. Most obviously, worship of the Bastard makes Quintarianism tolerant of homosexuality, a love out of season, while in Quadrene lands it remains unable to speak its name and those convicted suffer mutilation and execution. The Lord Bastard is the seasonless least of the gods, yet His signifier on the hand is the thumb—weaker than the fingers but touching them all to provide grip; He is also the god of balance and of vile jokes (“Lord Bastard, you bastard”, as the exasperated heroine Ista says to His face in Paladin, provoking only a grin[18]), and while Quintarian societies remain as troubled as all humanity, Quadrene polities are distinctly worse, and associated both historically and theologically with an overweening imbalance in favour of the Father.

            The primary plot of The Curse of Chalion turns on a partial righting of that imbalance, extended in Paladin of Souls, while a different historical imbalance and theological persecution through genocidal massacre in earlier Quintarian history informs The Hallowed Hunt. As both imbalances generated ultra-patriarchal military tyranny spawning immaterial wrongs that haunt the gods, while righting them involves self-abnegation and generates both civil peace and salvations of the lost, the series can also be read as offering original myths of our present social and political evolution that pass beyond commentary and analysis to wisdom about attitudes, beliefs, and endurance. In one of the solicited blurbs for Paladin Diana Paxson observes that “we learn that […] it’s okay to argue with the gods”—with, not about—and it is the cranky interaction of Bujold’s protagonists with the gods who gnaw and harry them to Their Own merciful ends that raises the series far above the run of the genre. Sundered in Their nature from the physical contests and sexuality in which Homeric gods so amorally indulge themselves, Bujold’s deities equally lack stiff-necked Olympian pride and recurrent fury, being instead wonderfully possessed of irony and (at least in the Bastard’s case) a low taste in humour ; perhaps most strikingly, all those so far closely encountered have either laughed or wept with Their human interlocutors, going beyond even Shakespeare’s apprehension of weeping angels “who, with our spleens, / Would all themselves laugh mortal” (Measure, 2.2.126–7).[19] Bujold’s gods’ infinite love, compassion, mercy, and grace for souls are in the best traditions of liberal Christian thought, but Their emotional range, divine complementarity, and apparent motivations, with the limitations of Their power, inform a vision far removed from sectarian ego and devoid of any punitive hell, genuinely respectful of Free Will in the fullest sense.

            The ‘Chalion’ series does not abandon the political awareness and action of the Vorkosiverse, but adds to them, with demonstration of the supernatural and the social functioning of theist belief, an implicit critique of the contemporary that includes satire without ever lessening itself into a satirical mode. Near the end of Curse the ex-saint Cazaril borrows from another ex-saint a volume of linked moral, spiritual, and bawdy narratives that is clearly Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,[20] while Paladin of Souls, in form explicitly a pilgrimage into grace, begins with protagonist Ista encountering a version of the travelling pilgrim-company, including the Wife of Bath and the Nun’s Priest[21]—so the Chaucerian model of self-transcending satire is plainly relevant. But so too, especially where Ista’s primary antagonist in Paladin is concerned, are Freud and Klein, and the hideous vision of demonic maternity Ista eventually faces and with divine help defeats would be a classic misogyny if Ista was not herself, in complex balance, a mother who has known both the triumph and the loss of a grown child. Socio-psychologically, Bujold’s dynamic of damned and redeemed post-maternity includes an indictment of over-controlling parenthood both kind and unkind, a suffocating, velvet prison and a vicious hell of projected inadequacies ; literarily, the combination of high adventure, richly comic mockery, resonant theologies, and monstrous gothic dream is highly unusual.

            The matter could be pursued in feminist terms, but a broader humanism seems better advised. Some years before conceiving the world of Chalion, Bujold remarked in a written exchange with the Australian academic and novelist Sylvia Kelso that:

I have no desire merely to replace a Patriarchy with a Matriarchy, thanks. Each is equally prone to slip into toxic, soul-destroying forms.

            ‘Where had anyone experienced a matriarchy for test-comparison?’ you may logically ask. In fact, most of us have, as children. When the scale of our whole world was one block long, it was a world dominated and controlled by women. Who were twice our size, drove cars, had money, could hit us if they wanted to and we couldn’t ever hit them back. Hence, at bottom, my deep, deep suspicion of feminism, matriarchy, etc. Does this mean putting my mother in charge of the world, and me demoted to a child again? No thanks, I’ll pass …[22]

Neither Bujold’s cheerful irreverence nor her attention to maternity should disguise the gender neutrality and human inclusiveness of her ‘children’, ‘us’, ‘our’. Some of her fans, especially among those self-identifying as feminist and/or in some measure queer, have objected in webposts (and private discussions) to the hetero­normativity and reproductive imperative that attend her uses of romance, but despite those strong features of her fiction its more fundamental divide is not between the sexes but between parents and children—the war of generations, or, more accurately, the struggle of genetics and selfhood as a propagating, comedic form of the recurrent struggle between fate and the individual. In the Vorkosiverse Miles’s constant wrestle with his gene-complements and individually damaged body is central ; so too is the tension between taking responsibility and accepting infantilisation, and both themes transfer directly to the divine legacies and individual struggles of the Chalion series, and appear again in the cross-generational Romeo-and-Juliet culture-clash animating Bujold’s most recent creation—the ‘Wide Green World’ of The Sharing Knife.


Each volume of The Sharing Knife seems simple on first reading—a single tale of a couple on a journey, using close third-person narration tied only to the two principal protagonists’ points-of-view and separating them only during intense but limited action sequences. The couple meet, marry, and undertake together a physical and spiritual journey from what has been their respective homes and cultures to what will be a new home and compounded culture for themselves and their children. True, the physical journey is a very long loop, borne on two great river-systems, and true also, this being fantasy, that along the way they repeatedly save and ultimately change the world—but by comparison with the Vorkosiverse, where up to five points-of-view have been used in one novel, the continuous narrative is straightforward, in the natural manner of travel, and by comparison with the pantheistic complexities and divine humours of Chalion the simplicity of the heroic tests the protagonists face is extremely striking. Yet Bujold remarked in interview that “The Sharing Knife may be my subtlest work yet”, and it is certainly the hardest to write about compactly.[23]

            First, therefore, some bare facts. In Beguilement (2006) Fawn Bluefield, a pregnant 18-year-old farmer’s daughter running away from home, traumatically loses her baby but meets and marries Dag Redwing, a much older (but longer-lived), one-handed Lakewalker ; the novel ends with Fawn’s second, legitimate departure from reconciled parents. In Legacy (2007) the couple travel to Dag’s home, but depart again when their intercultural and intergenerational romance is rejected by his close family and camp authorities. In Passage (2008) they travel down two great rivers to the sea, partly by way of a honeymoon, and in Horizon (2009) journey back overland to a new home, explicitly aiming to extend their personal union of bodies and minds to a greater cultural fusion ; an epilogue shows Fawn safely delivered of a child and wider cultural reform beginning. The four novels might be regarded as paired diptyches—Beguilement and Legacy, uniting the couple and setting them adrift together, are very closely continuous, as are Passage and Horizon, bringing them back to harbour, while between Legacy and Passage there is a jump of a few days and a hundred miles[24]—but if each volume is sturdy and shapely enough to stand alone, and a diptych structure perceptible, the general title names a single, four-decker novel rather than a quartet, and the clearly relevant model (allowing for his double-stranded narrative) is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, available in one, three, or six volumes but utterly a single work.

            The principal danger that Dag and Fawn face (with all in this ‘wide green world’—a recurrent phrase in both dialogue and narration) is what farmers call blight bogles and Lakewalkers malices. To understand the ontology of these preternatural entities requires the special groundsense that only adult Lakewalkers possess, ground being to all physical things, including life, much as we might suppose spirit to be to body—essentially infusing it yet other than it. The roots of the idea reach back from a contemporary Gaian vision of the biosphere cradled in its complementary physical environment to deist visions of God as the Book of Nature—and in US context to Emerson and Thoreau—but in Bujold’s creation groundsense serves to divide farming and lakewalking cultures while ground itself unifies everything within or in contact with the biosphere, from humans to rocks. To ‘rip’ ground from something, or otherwise adjust other ground with one’s own, as Lakewalkers can, may be quotidian groundwork between comrades, a craft of healing or making, an act of seeming magic, or elemental murder—and a malice is an entity, hatching unpredictably from the earth in random locations, that acts as a massively aggressive cancer of ground. Ignorant of physical death—of mortality—malices seek to incorporate all ground into their own, at first as blindly as the most helpless neonate but, as larger and more intelligent living things (including farmers and Lakewalkers) are ripped of their grounds and malices undergo successive moults from sessile to mobile, rising up an evolutionary chain, with almost exponentially increasing intelligence. Beyond its innate and absolute destructiveness the process creates peculiar horrors, for malices also perform groundwork to create slaves, reshaping seized animals (rabbit, fox, opossum, bear) into parodic, quasi-human mudmen[25] ; they can also enslave minds to compel behaviours, and have a particular taste for pregnant females, whose uterine groundwork of making offers them an especially rich and informative diet.

            Unchecked, each and every malice that hatches—as perhaps half-a-dozen do each year—has the capacity literally to consume the world. Where a malice is, other life cannot be, animal or vegetable, and once that life has been consumed the physical world is groundripped, even rocks slumping to dust ; the blighted land left by a malice remains for centuries stretching into millennia inimical to life. And the only thing that can stop a malice, by teaching it mortality, is a sharing knife—a strictly Lakewalker artefact, carved and groundworked from donated human bone (femurs and humeri are best) and subsequently primed with a death, a human ground donated to the knife in the moment of dying by its blade, gifted to lie dormant in its bone until driven into a malice, when death is shared and the malice dissolves into poisonous but inert dust. Lakewalker groundsense in life is necessary if the donated death is to have the affinity to share properly, so only Lakewalker bones and deaths are used ; only Lakewalkers wield sharing knives ; and only Lakewalkers truly understand what they and malices do.

            This sharing of a death, and so of a life, is as central to all four volumes as their general title implies, and the necessary funerary customs of Lakewalkers with the kinds of misunderstandings likely to arise among excluded farmer communities suggest one rich area of Bujold’s sequent narratives. The importance of sharing death with malices swiftly, before they can grow wise and strong, makes Lakewalkers a nomadic society, with seasonal camps dotted around patrol areas, and a culture dominated in all ways by the effort of supporting constant patrolling throughout thousands of square miles of settled, cultivated or wilderness land known to spawn malices. They are at once crippled by the burden of their unending paramilitary effort and at suspicious odds, politically and culturally, with the far more productive and populous farmer economies they protect, but the absolute necessity of what they do, enforced on individual and collective psyches by every malice encountered and slain, every knife carved and primed, every shared death mourned and praised, keeps all bound tightly to a narrow round in that wide green world.

            In one sense Lakewalker society is, often literally, hidebound, its people as deeply set in rigid ways as the inhabitants of Mervyn Peake’s bitterly satirical Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950), but the more potent literary source is again Tolkien, for the Lakewalkers clearly reimagine Aragorn’s Númenórean Dúnedain, or Rangers, patrolling the territory and relicts of fallen Arnor against the encroachment of Sauron’s creatures and will. Like Rangers they inherit a lifelong, unthanked task of battle, expending greater lifespans than ordinary folk in defending all at great cost only to be repaid with dark suspicions of their difference, ignorance of their nobility and sacrifice. Being equally a travelling and martial people they have the same field-, wood-, and warcraft as Rangers—as well as, through their groundsense, potentials to heal in ways far beyond farmers’ herb- and leechcraft, as Aragorn has through his hidden Númenórean kingship. But the Lakewalkers’ struggle is far bleaker than the Rangers’. Tolkien once remarked that his “Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself”, and such possible destruction provides a framework of hope mediated in Tolkien’s narrative both through prophecy and in the antique knowledge of elves, wizards, and ents.[26] Rangers, that is, struggle in hope, buoyed by received wisdoms promising ultimate deliverance and assisted by beings and artefacts of ancient, sometimes supernatural provenance ; Lakewalkers struggle without hope or promise of deliverance, knowing that a single failure will end the world, and their only artefacts of power are worked from their own bones and sacrifice. The knowledge of sharing knives, and the groundsense to make them, are a form of mystical (genetic) inheritance, but the enclosing, religiose framework of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (the coming Age of Men in the fullness of Eru’s time), is utterly lacking in The Sharing Knife ; nor do Lakewalkers have any certain knowledge of the past that led to their present, and even their legends are fragmentary—and Bujold uses that encompassing bleakness and agonised uncertainty to promote the quotidian, homely, and co-operative hope Dag’s and Fawn’s union comes to offer. Cazaril, in The Curse of Chalion, suspected that “prayer […] was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same”,[27] a truth Dag and Fawn enact in their own way; but the commonest Lakewalker oath is ‘absent gods’, and there is no more sign of active divinity in The Sharing Knife than in King Lear.

            In SF&F terms the novel could be labelled dystopian, for there are, here and there in its world, ruins and traces of an older, lost civilisation, whose catastrophic collapse was presumably somehow linked to the coming of malices, and whose scattered survivors produced both farmer and Lakewalker cultures. But here matters begin to become epistemologically and ontologically complex, for just as Lake­walkers blend with their Rangerly aspects clear traces of Amerindian somatype and tribal tent-culture, so the setting as a whole is very plainly Bujold’s native Mid-West, from the great northern ‘Dead Lake’ apparently encompassing all the Great Lakes, where the sunken ruins of ‘Ogachi strand’ can be seen in place of Chicago, to the rivers of the novel’s journey, the Grace and the Gray, which closely correspond to the Ohio and Mississippi.[28] The major journey Dag and Fawn undertake is the classic flatboat journey of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from the upper Ohio to New Orleans, returning overland on the angle—Bujold’s ‘Tripoint Trace’ paralleling the Natchez Trace and extending through the Appalachians. An ‘Author’s Note’ in Passage credits a number of historical autobiographical sources, including A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, by Himself (1834), and one implication of the implicitly dystopian backstory is an echoic sense of the Mid-West of a long post-catastrophic North America that has in isolation recovered culturally to a point roughly equivalent to 1800.

[1] Major awards are listed in the bibliography.

[3] There is an official email-list, and communities at, and > ‘Miles to Go’.

[5] See bibliography under Carl & Helfers, Duchamp, Haehl, Kelso, Lennard, Lindow, Merrick & Williams, Smith, & Wehrmann.

[6] She is not cited in Broderick’s Reading by Starlight (1995), Luckhurst’s Science Fiction (2005), or Melzer’s Alien Constructions (2006)

[7] This distinction is formally made in A Civil Campaign: A Comedy of Biology and Manners (Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 1999), p. 293

[8] It came second in the Locus readers’ poll for Best Fantasy Novel of the year. See: 1 May 2010.

[9] Cordelia’s theism is evident in the narratives; Presbyterianism is specified by Bujold in an FAQ answer at

[10] For detail see my essay ‘Of Marriage and Mutations’, in Of Sex and Faerie: Further Essays on Genre Fiction (Tirril: Humanities Ebooks, 2010).

[12] Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion (New York: Eos, 2001), pp. 5–6.

[14] Lois McMaster Bujold, ‘National Book Fair Lecture & Q&A, 2004’, at >Science Fiction and Fantasy > Lois McMaster Bujold.

[15] The extraordinary tale of Queen Joanna perambulating in 1506 with the corpse of Philip I the Fair is of particular importance to Paladin of Souls, and the (alleged) massacre of pagan Saxons at Verden in 782 to The Hallowed Hunt.

[16] For a brief overview, see Farah Mendelsohn, ‘Religion and science fiction’, in James & Mendelsohn, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003).

[18] Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (New York: Eos, 2003), p. 136.

[19] As Learned Lewko observes of an incident involving a divinely possessed polar bear, “Signs of the Bastard’s holy presence tend to be unmistakable, to those who know Him. The screaming, the altercations, the people running in circles—all that was lacking was something bursting into flame”: Lois McMaster Bujold, The Hallowed Hunt (New York: Eos, 2005), p. 261.

[20] ‘ “It’s a fine conceit,” said Umegat. “The author follows a group of travellers to a pilgrimage shrine, and has each one tell his or her tale in turn. Very, ah, holy.” [/] “Actually, my lord,” the dedicat whispered, “some of them are very lewd.” ’ Bujold, The Curse of Chalion, p. 439.

[21] Bujold, Paladin of Souls, pp. 6–11.

[22] Lois McMaster Bujold & Sylvia Kelso, ‘Letterspace: in the chinks between published fiction and published criticism’, pp. 404–05, in Helen Merrick & Tess Williams, eds, Women of Other Worlds: excursions through science fiction and feminism (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1999), pp. 383–409.

[24] Beguilement and Legacy have also been grouped in an SFBC omnibus (2007).

[25] “You understand how mud-men are made, right? The malice places a live animal in the soil, and alters the creature’s ground to impel its body to grow into a human form. […] Ground is the underlying truth of the world. The malice turns it into a lie, or at least, into something else, and the matter labors to match it.” Lois McMaster Bujold, The Sharing Knife: Horizon (New York: Eos, 2009), p. 326.

[26] J. R. R. Tolkien, letter to Rhona Beare, 14 October 1958, in Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien, eds, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 279.

[27] Bujold, Curse of Chalion, p. 349.

[28] To avoid the necessity of multiple narrations of river-crossing the courses of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers are changed, however, being combined into the ‘Hardboil’ and given a confluence with the Gray (Mississippi) rather than the Grace (Ohio).


Tags: essays, genre studies, lois mcmaster bujold
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.