The Curse of Chalion – The Traffic of Women

Lois McMaster’s Bujold’s 2001 novel The Curse of Chalion was nominated for the 2002 Hugo, and its sequel, Paladin of Souls, won the Hugo in 2004. Both novels take place in the fictional kingdom of Chalion and its neighboring countries, based loosely on the 15th century Iberian Peninsula. After reading The Left Hand of Darkness which has no women for exchanging in marriage agreements and the like, it was striking to read a novel where the exchange of one princess, the Royesse Iselle, is the primary drive of the plot, though part of the argument of the novel seems to be that these exchanges do not happen the way we expect them to.

The Plot: Lord Cazaril returns to his home country of Chalion after 19 months as a galley slave for the warring nation of Roknari, an “error” that occurred when his name was conveniently left off the ransom list for the fort he was commanded to protect. Penniless and hoping to be thought dead, he returns to the house where he served as a page, is remembered fondly by the lady of the house, and is set as the secretary-tutor for the lady’s granddaughter, the Royesse Iselle. Iselle and her younger brother, Royse (Prince) Teidez, are the half-siblings of the current roya (king), Orico, who has proven impotent, and shortly after Cazaril’s appointment, the Royse and Royesse are called to the roya’s court so that Teidez may be named heir to the throne. Orico suffers from a strange illness, Cazaril discovers upon his arrival to court, and the kingdom is largely run by the two men who had Cazaril sent to the Roknari galleys, the brothers dy Jironal. Orico soon arranges for the marriage of Iselle to the younger dy Jironal, Dondo, a match very much against her will considering that Dondo is an absolute pig. The night before the wedding, Cazaril attempts to use death magic against Dondo, an act that should result in both the soul’s of both Dondo and Cazaril being taken to the Bastard’s hell. Instead, Cazaril wakes up alive, protected by another god, the Daughter, with both Dondo’s soul and the Bastard’s death demon trapped inside his flesh. After this initiation into “sainthood,” as he is now something of an avatar for the Daughter, Cazaril is taken into a great secret: after a previous roya committed a very serious piece of death magic, the ruling family has been cursed, resulting in the illness and malleability of Roya Orico, the madness of his step-mother Ista who married into the curse, and the fact that Orico and his wife, the Royina Sara, have been unable to conceive a child. Iselle and Teidez are also subject to this curse, though they have yet to show the ill effects of it. Upon this discovery, Cazaril begins to search for ways to save Iselle from the curse, deciding that if a woman may marry into the curse (Ista and Sara) then perhaps a woman may marry out of it and searching for a suitable marriage for the royesse. In the meantime, Teidez, under instructions given to him by Dondo before he died, butchers Roya Orico’s menagerie, a miracle given to the roya by the Bastard to stave off the progress of the curse. Orico immediately falls gravely ill, and Teidez dies shortly thereafter of blood poisoning from a wound given to him by the leopard of the menagerie, leaving Iselle as the Heir of Chalion. Cazaril departs immediately to notify Iselle’s mother and grandmother of Teidez’s death and of their plans to marry Iselle to Royse Bergon, the heir of the neighboring kingdom of Ibran. Ista reveals to Cazaril that she herself was a saint for a short time and received a prophecy from the Mother that the curse could only be broken by a man who would die for the House of Chalion three times. Cazaril has managed to die once, but isn’t looking forward to making any other attempts and so proceeds with his wedding plan. Upon meeting the Royse Bergon, Cazaril discovers that he has met the young man before: as a fellow galley slave and one for whom he took a horrible beating trying to protect. Bergon agrees to marry Iselle and they return to Chalion where the marriage ceremony is performed at the palace of Iselle’s uncle. But rather than lifting the curse from Iselle, it simply spreads it to Bergon, a problem that lays Cazaril quite low until dy Jironal attacks the palace and stabs Cazaril in the gut. The Bastard’s death demon gladly takes the soul of dy Jironal — he was picky about whose souls he took away as long as he took two — and left Cazaril’s body, whose life is saved by the Daughter. Thus, Cazaril dies for the House of Chalion three times: when he protected Bergon from slavers, when he performed the death magic, and when he was stabbed by dy Jironal. The curse is lifted, Iselle become Royina and makes Cazaril her chancellor, and Cazaril is happily free to marry the woman he has been in love with for most of the novel.

So, like I said, this novel is primarily driven by the need to get Iselle married off to someone suitable. And that motive is primarily based on Cazaril’s own false assumptions that men and women somehow work differently. This tension between “man” and “woman” runs throughout the novel in some pretty typical ways: Iselle and Betriz ride extremely well and are chastised for not being lady-like; dy Jironal tries to discredit Iselle by trying to make her look mad like her mother; while Teidez’s age of majority is set at a certain age, Iselle is held until marriage; etc. A few times, though, these tensions result in argument between protagonists; when Cazaril tells Betriz about Dondo bringing Teidez a prostitute, he comments that Teidez is of that age, but that usually a brother or uncle ushers a boy into manhood in this fashion, not a greedy courtier. Betriz responds, “Their wedding night isn’t good enough? We must learn it all then” (136).  Cazaril stumbles over some answer about men marrying later in life than women but has no real rebuttal. In fact, Cazaril seems to be suffering under the delusion that the marriage laws and economy in Chalion is fairly just, saying to Iselle, “No one can force a marriage. Both parties must freely assent before the gods. If you have the courage to simply stand there and say No, it cannot go forth” (189). Iselle quickly bursts that bubble, recounting to him Dondo’s assertion that married or not, he will rape Iselle until he gets her pregnant, at which point she will have no choice but to accept him as her husband. Again, Cazaril has no rebuttal.

These tensions come to a  head after Iselle’s marriage to Bergon, a real love match one can see immediately. However, instead of lifting the curse, it simply spreads to Bergon. After revealing this to the couple, Cazaril says, “But Sara and Ista married into the House of Chalion, and into the curse. I thought it was because men and women were different that it somehow followed the male line of Fosna’s heirs along with the name.” Iselle responds, “But I am Fosna’s heir, too […] And flesh and blood are more than just names. When two become wed, it doesn’t mean that one disappears and only the other remains. We are joined, not subsumed” (446). This notion is reinforced by the fact that the lifting of the curse results from Bergon marrying into House Chalion rather than Iselle marrying out of it. Ultimately, I think that Bujold uses the trope of the traffic of women alongside the curse to illustrate that while men may organize themselves according to this system, the gods do not, but I’ll take up the gods in another post.


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