annotation by Janine Coveny
This was my first experience reading Doris Lessing and I feared that I would not enjoy it, as I am not a big fan of fantasy or speculative fiction. But soon enough I was swept away by the story of a forced marriage between the leaders of two mythical kingdoms, or Zones, a union that has the power to affect the lives of everyone in that world.
The novel is, in part, a detailed study of the emotional nature of male and female relationships. The path from being strangers to adversaries to impassioned lovers taken by Zone Three’s Queen Al-Ith and Zone Four’s general Ben Ata is really the story of all love relationships undertaken by the prototypical female and the prototypical male. It is also about the transformative power that female wisdom and strength can have over a dominant, aggressive male culture, but also how the protective strength and decisiveness of the male supports the female. The story also demonstrated how the very different gender perspectives inform the political climate. In the development of this unique relationship we see how much love requires compromise and how much love truly can change a person far beyond even the end of that relationship. Al-Ith, by order of the Providers, sacrifices herself – her body, her position, her child – for the betterment of the Zones, much the way women sacrifice themselves for those they love.
In a bigger way, the book exalts the human to desire to attain a higher level of existence, an elevated consciousness or spiritual state. Each Zone represents a different state of being and must assist the other in adapting to a more humane and just way of life. Each zone must experience change in order to prosper and thrive.
It was an interesting framing device to have the story told by Lusik, one of the Chroniclers of Zone Three. The fact that the story has become part of the Zone’s historical archive lifts it up into the realm of legend and gives it an epic scope. It also begs the question of Queen Al-Ith’s position in the story; we see her as the heroine, the martyr, the magical all-seeing She. But that is the cultural perspective of her own homeland; would the Chroniclers of Ben Ata’s Zone Five not cast him as the hero and savior in their own history?
The novel left me curious to read more in the Canopus In Argos series because many things were unexplained when they book began, and other threads were left when the novel ended. I was profoundly moved by sections of the story and was engrossed in the fictive dream woven by Lessing.
Reading this a writer, Lessing demonstrated to me the importance of theme in a work of fiction, which begs the question, what comes first: the theme or the story? Does one craft a story with the theme in mind, or does the theme arise organically from the writer’s exection of the story? For this work, it was likely both. The lesson in Lessing is how a skilled author can make the broadly political very personal in a novel. I was also impressed with how this author was able to sketch out the internal life of the characters so that the reader is one with their emotions, and her ability to plot out this imaginary world in such fantastical detail.