The Curse of Chalion – Human Agency and the Rhetorical Quiver

If the primary drive of the plot of The Curse of Chalion is the trafficking of Iselle, the primary philosophical drive is the question of human agency in the face of divine intervention. This part of the novel really gets underway after Cazaril becomes a saint in the face of what he was expecting to be his final act. As Cazaril tries to determine exactly what it is that the Daughter saved him from death to do, fellow saint Umegat, who has charge of Orico’s menagerie, advises him to go about his daily business. This notion that divine acts happen when one is performing daily tasks follows Cazaril through the rest of the novel; after Cazaril spends some time prostrate before the alters of the gods, he comes to this revelation: “Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was about putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same” (395). He affirms this suspicion later when he says to Palliar, “Action can be prayer, too” (481).

While the performative nature of prayer is interesting, more interesting for my purposes is the way that Cazaril treats rhetoric as warfare. After Palliar makes a particularly salient point in their debate, “Cazaril could not help but admire it,” calling it “a neat counterthrust” (80).  He frequently speaks of Iselle as storing up information and ideas for later needs; as he leaves Betriz for Ibran, he tells her of dy Jirondal’s failure to ransom him, saying, “It’s a quarrel Iselle can store up in her quiver, someday she may be able to fire it” (196). Later, in Ibran itself, the Fox (roya of Ibran) comments that since Cazaril is dying, Iselle has sent a man who cannot be bribed, at which “three thoughts marched across Cazaril’s mind: first, that Iselle had no such crafty plan, second, that were it to be pointed out to her, she would say Hm! and file the notion away against some future need, and third, that the Fox did not need to know about the first” (390). In fact, Iselle gains a reputation for being quite the orator, capable of “paint[ing] a vivid word-picture” when needed and drawing about her “the most sensible, persuasive men of weight and worth” (250, 474). Indeed, much more time is spent in this novel in verbal sorties than martial ones.

The reminders that courtly life is a matter of rhetorical performance were manifold. Consider:

  • Cazaril walked right under the nose of the burly soldier who’d dropped him that mistaken coin in the mud yesterday, but the man gazed back at him without recognition, merely a courteous nod for his silks and his sword. And his trim and his bath, Cazaril supposed. (45)
  • At length all the gifts not immediately worn were placed on a table for display under the guard of a couple of pages – display of the givers’ wealth, wit or generosity, after all, being better than half their purpose. (120)
  • A well-conducted court always has someone in moral authority. If not the roya, perhaps his royina, someone like the Provincara to set the tone, keep the standards. (137).
  • Betriz put in, “No one says it to the royesse’s face. But there are strange rumors among the servants, Nan says.” (336)

Different information traveling among different class groups, the performance of wealth and loyalty, the need for a moral center, all these things immediately put me in mind of the work if Christine de Pizan, especially her The Treasure of the City of Ladies, which is by and large a handbook for women at various stations in court on how to conduct themselves. At this point, Cazaril’s notions of prayer and the various presentations of rhetoric in this novel intersect: they are both the things that you do daily. On the other hand, I like this idea of the rhetorical quiver, this idea that you store up tidbits for the appropriate moment, a concept not unlike the topoi or the commonplace book. Unfortunately, this conception of rhetoric also seems somehow malevolently political, like storing up bad things about your opponent to use when you’re down in the polls or something. It’s worth thinking about some more.

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