Discussion on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Waterfall”

“The Waterfall”, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  I’m not rating this, because it’s just a short story that was included in my copy if The Planet Savers/The Sword of Adonais.  But I want to review it, because my feelings about the story are very, very mixed, and I want to take a stab at putting them in order.

Synopsis: Sybil-Mhari is fifteen years old and a member of the aristocracy (I think—I’m not yet familiar enough with Darkover to fully understand her place in society). She recently underwent a test to determine whether she was suitable to join the ranks of these sorceress-type people.  They told her that she has the power, the potential, to be one of them, but there’s also something dangerous about her which makes them unwilling to train her (because that would grant her more power, and make her even more dangerous).  She’s bitter about this.  Having been denied entrance to the order of sorceresses, her only other option in life is to stay locked up in this fortress (until a man marries her/uses her to produce children).  One night she was hanging out by the waterfall feeling emo about her life when an unfamiliar guard came across her.  He mistook her for a serving girl and tried to kiss her.  She struggled and he let her go, realizing that she hadn’t actually been playing coy when she’d initially resisted his advances.  On finding out exactly who he’d just tried to force himself on, the guard became very, very afraid.  Sybil-Mhari noticed his fear, and realized that this meant that she, a little fifteen-year-old girl, had power over this big burly man.  So she had sex with him, then when some other guards saw her in her disheveled state she had her ‘lover’ thrown over the waterfall to his death.  The end of the story made it  clear that she greatly, ahem, enjoyed this power, and that she planned to exercise it in the future.

On one hand, this story reads like a man’s worst nightmare (ok, second worst).  Sybil-Mhari is a woman who uses the male libido against men.  She cries rape, and uses the societal mechanisms which are in place to protect women to punish him even though the sex was consensual.  Sybil-Mhari is twisted; she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and she punishes men for giving in to their sexual desires.  She, I might note, derives no pleasure from the actual act of sex, but she did have an orgasm when her ‘lover’ was murdered at her word.  This is a woman whose sexuality is twisted and unnatural (as all female sexuality is, amirite??).

(Personally, my biggest problem with the story was that she falsely cries rape.  That shit’s inexcusable.)

On the other hand, being stuck in Sybil-Mhari’s position is a woman’s worst nightmare (ok, the other half; the inverse, if you will).  I found that link by googling “woman’s worst nightmare” and clicking the first result.  TL;DR: the modern woman has quite a lot of freedom.  She can hold a job, live independently, go where she wants, and make decisions for herself.  None of this makes her safe from violence, beatings, and rape at the hands of men.

Lady Sybil-Mhari has no freedom.  She is safe from rape and physical abuse, but only at the cost of every other freedom she could possibly want: “…all other women of the [highest caste, who are not sorceresses] were powerless, given in marriage and forced to bear children for their clan, but wielding no power of their own.”  She dreams of power and freedom, of sprouting wings and flying away from the restrictions that are placed on her.  Men control her life in every way.

And she’s discovered the one way that she has power over them; the one bit of power that society has granted her exactly because of her role as a sheltered, highborn young woman.

So yes, Sybil-Mhari is deranged.  Yes, it would be better if she had found a way to change or increase the amount of power and control she has over her own life.  But at the same time I can’t fault her for feeling trapped and powerless, and I can’t fault her for seizing what power she could when she found it.  Or…you know…for getting every bit of pleasure out of exercising that power that she could.

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