Pop Culture Good Idea/Bad Idea: Denna, Violent Portrayals of Sex and the Mord-Sith in Terry Goodkind’s Universe Part I
Buckle on your roller skates, peeps, because this post has been a long time coming. I have watched lots of clips. I have found lots of pictures. I have been talking to people more informed than me. I have been WAITING to write this post.
I preface it with a strong trigger warning for descriptions of violence, sexually hinted violence, spoilers, and very wordy rants.
The Mord-Sith in the Sword of Truth series are some of my favorite characters. They are at the same time antithetical and thematic of the philosophical bullshit that gets caked on to the poor horse that Mr. Goodkind can’t leave alone, but I can’t help but love several of them.
From gruesome beginnings that have me asking some serious questions about why someone has fantasies about torturing children (because this is NOT the only example I can come up with of him describing the torture of children) come the Mord-Sith. Stolen from villages as young D’Haran children, the soldiers of D’Hara choose the sweetest, most lovely and wonderful girls with the kindest hearts and pluck them from their families. Many of them, such as Cara, a woman who you, should you venture into either the books or the television show, become intimately familiar with, learn young the importance of not hesitating when faced with life and death decisions. Failing to thrown a knife as a young girl cost Cara her life. Literally. These girls are beaten and tortured with a weapon called an Agiel — a thin leather rod imbued with magic that makes it feel as if thunder and lightning are charging through you — until they are “broken”. They watch, helpless, as their mothers are tortured to death before them, to break them a second time. Then, they are tortured until they choose to torture and kill their own fathers; they are broken the third and final time. They are trained to endure great pain, possibly at the hands of the Lord Rahl if he chooses, by hand, Agiel, or in his bed if he chooses. The Agiel, the weapon they use causes that same pain to whomever wields it, so long as it was used to train them. They must learn to tolerate the same pain they inflict in order to use it. The Mord-Sith will finally claim their Agiel by killing their trainer. Or at least that is how Denna got hers. She was the best of them all. The most cruel. The most talented.
The Mord-Sith were created as a weapon against magic by ancient Wizards. They are non-“gifted” people (gifted being those born with magic. See my post on “giftedness” here at FWD/forward) who are able to trap magic if it used against them, then turn the user’s own magic against them, bringing great pain. They control the person and their magic until they choose to release that person. In the mean time, the Mord-Sith can make the person whom they control beg for death while inflicting upon them the most incredible horrors of pain imaginable. They are able to beat, brutalize a person, with their fists, the Agiel, or by depriving them of sleep. But death can not even claim them, because the Mord-Sith know how to give “the breath of life”, which seems to be mouth to mouth, in order to draw out the torture.
But if that wasn’t enough, Goodkind seems to have added an element of sexual edge. The Mord-Sith, first of all being the most beautiful girls in D’Hara (most of them being perfectly blonde and blue-eyed, because “pure” D’Harans are always blonde with blue eyes), many of them are repeatedly raped by Darken Rahl, or anyone whom he chooses to lend them out to as a favor. In turn, they are depicted as lashing out their torture in a way that makes it a sex act for them. Their charges are pets, and they engage in what seems to be what Goodkind imagines is the relationship in a BDSM setting.
I am no expert on such things. But I am told, thanks to lovely friends that I have, that this type of depiction is so far from the truth of what an actual BDSM setting is that it is almost laughable. Almost, if it wasn’t damaging to the trusting, caring setting that a positive BDSM relationship can be. I strongly object to the way these portrayals seem to be laid out in pop-culture. The relationship between Mord-Sith and her charge doesn’t seem to do anything to change that.
In the Sword of Truth series, as well as Legend of the Seeker, Richard Cypher is captured by Denna because he tries to use the Sword against her. She, of course, captures the magic and takes him away to be trained. In the show, we see a very tense and Made for TV sexually titillating episode where we are subjected to the beating of, the jabbing with the Agiel, the slow licking of blood off of Richard’s bruised and sweaty face. I’ve spent years watching fantasy television, such Buffy, Angel, Charmed, and my dad watch Xena back before I was extremely interested. I found the episode “Denna” extremely difficult to watch. Denna even killed Richard once just to bring him back to life and beat him more.
One-third of Wizard’s First Rule is a detailed description of the torture that Richard endured for a length of time. The descriptions were graphic, like watching some kind of torture porn that I wasn’t used to, only it wasn’t like reading Kushiel’s Dart, where the protagonist is usually willing, or even if she isn’t, Jacqueline Carey has an idea of what Sadism and Masochism are about — about the trust and the safety involved. Here, it is exploited for the sake of demonstrating the evil intent of the Rahl’s who inflicted the sexual torture upon these women, driving them to be what they are, and in turn driving them to actually enjoy inflicting it upon Richard.
Of course, Denna comes to love Richard, because he is a rare person, so special that the women in the world that is constructed fall around him. But we will visit that shortly. He rose above all of that, compartmentalized his mind and eventually loved Denna enough to kill her, enabling his escape. But before this, she took him as her mate. She enjoyed the fruits of that decision at her demand with her Agiel in her teeth, and in whatever ways she saw fit. Richard never had any idea what was going to happen to him. There was no way to form trust.
I find it interesting, the creation of these characters, these women, whose lives were stolen from the, and destroyed by angry abuse, violent and sexually based at times. It turned them into brutal fighters who are not to be underestimated, which we will see in part two, when I talk about how they are awesome. It is only scratching the surface of what I believe demonstrates Goodkind’s raging contempt for women in general. All of this stuff he beats into is Not A Fantasy Series about how everyone has a right to their life, but it is definitely obvious that some lives are definitely meant to be in the service of others. (We’ll get to that in the future too!) The Mord-Sith gives me great internal conflict, giving me some of my favorite characters (I’m Lord Rahl’s favorite…) who are reasonably developed, but who are simultaneously exemplifying everything that is wrong with depictions of sexual violence, violence against women, and the way women are portrayed in pop-culture mediums.
Denna’s death, was violent, tragically sad if considered in context, and reminiscent of the way women would be scattered around Richard Cypher/Rahl in the remainder of the series: Fiercely strong because of their well-developed past. Fighters who have overcome many things that have shaped them into who they are. Flawed women who have been “awakened” by Richard and how awesomely fabulous he is, and now they throw themselves at his feel to serve and love him, or in Denna’s case, to wait patiently and nakedly while he comes to run her through with a white-hot sword. But he kisses her good-bye as well. Because only he can grant her forgiveness and compassion for what she was beaten into doing.
The complex situation surrounding the Mord-Sith is such an interesting thing to look at, and I know that there have been people champing to talk about it. I decided to break this into two parts, otherwise it was going to unwieldy. In the Part II I am going to talk about all the things I loved about the characters, how well they were developed, but also the flaws that were in how they were developed, and the obvious way they were handed off as attempts at female empowerment.
There is a ton to unpack, even in this one topic alone.
In the mean time, discuss away!