So in case you were wondering to yourself, “Self, exactly what does an Epic Fantasy Fan Poet do?” because you think you might want to be one when you grow up, I am going to spend the next few days Taking My Blog Audience To Work with me, here in my toasty garret at the top of a high, crenelated tower with the pointed roof and the colorful pennant waving in the breeze. Mind you, this is my mental garret, as my actual garret is the second floor of an apartment building with roommates and cat, but never mind.
I have talked before about what the poet Maggie Anderson calls “important excitements”: those small projects where you take something interesting and look at it from a dozen or so angles. So for example I have at least a dozen poems about the women in some of Hiroshige’s woodblock landscapes of Edo (17th century Tokyo), their relationships, their lives, their extended story—all of this even though it is highly unlikely that Hiroshige saw any relationship among these women at all.
So last February, I thought to myself (as one does), “Self, let’s write a few poems about Xena: Warrior Princess. That’ll be fun! And it will give me a good excuse to watch it on Netflix streaming!” After all, as my colleague Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze says, “If you get writing out of it, it’s research.”
So I went back and watched the first season, which I had seen before via Netflix, but had not actually watched during the nineties; I only discovered Xena on TV at the beginning of Season 3. What I noticed watching this time with Poetry in Mind (with poetics aforethought?) was how little respect Xena shows her new travel buddy Gabrielle for the first half of the season. Some of this lack of respect appears to be the somewhat Yang/Yin nature of their relationship: Xena is almost a foot taller and she is the fighter with all the experience (apparently sexual as well as military), in comparison to the frumpily dressed Gabrielle who keeps telling us she is “not the little village girl my parents wanted me to be” while at the same time proving over and over again that, actually, she kinda is. Sigh.
But as someone who has watched the entire series a few times (no, I don’t have a life; what’s your point?), I know that an equal partnership is coming, although it will take another three or four seasons to fully realize. So I looked for the moment when their relationship shifts and I tried to write a before/after sort of picture. What I found interesting (considering that in episode 1.3 “Dreamworker,” Xena repeatedly tells Gabrielle “Words before weapons”) is that the major shift seems to come immediately after the Amazons teach Gabrielle to fight and then they all go into battle together.
Now this is problematic in a lot of ways, ways that the writers both do and don’t address throughout the six season of the show. On the one hand, Xena’s point that once you lift a weapon you will be classified as a threat and summarily attacked is valid. And a weapon you don’t know how to use belongs to your enemy. And they do say that taking another person’s life changes you dramatically. So to some extent Xena’s repeated refusal to teach Gabrielle to fight seems reasonable. However, Gabrielle points out that being able to defend herself would be helpful, at the very least so that Xena doesn’t have to do all the work. What Xena in her height and combat experience does not seem to comprehend is how terrifying it must be to be Gabrielle: every time a band of bandits attacks the pair, Gabrielle is just one warrior’s death away from a brutal rape and death or possibly slavery.
One warrior’s death: Xena’s. If Xena dies, Gabrielle hasn’t got a fly’s chance in shit of making it out of there alive and well. And although later Gabrielle and the audience knows that Xena doesn’t die (or—spoiler alert—at least not often or irreversibly), in the first few episodes Gabrielle can’t know that and neither can we. So Xena doesn’t look too good, refusing to empower her new friend by letting her learn to protect herself. This ticked me off. That, and the fact that in the episode after the Amazon fight, Gabrielle is fighting back to back with Xena as if she’s had endless practice and experience. In the nineties we could imagine that she’d had a week on the road with Xena (since the previous Saturday afternoon). When we are Netflixing, the next episode could be the next day. Nobody but nobody learns to fight that well in one day or seven.
So, in the section on Season 1 of my epic fantasy fan poetry, I fixed that, and I even got to use Plato. Woohoo!
What We Might Regain: G. Contemplates
Sometimes I wonder what she sees in me.
Sometimes I think of that story Plato wrote
About the people with four legs and two heads
That Zeus got all upset about and split
With lightning bolts, leaving us all asunder:
Only two legs, one head, and half a soul.
If, when Prometheus was rebound and doomed
To have his liver eaten by foul birds,
Day after day, mortals lost his gifts:
Fire and healing. Then what would it mean
If some heroes saved him? What does it mean
That she lets me travel with her, unable
To help with her adventures? It is intimidating,
Sometimes, watching her work like she is
A female Hercules. The sword is one thing,
But backflips and double kicks? I have begun
To write it all down, as Homer did for Achilles
And Odysseus. More people should know of her
Brilliance. Too, I sometimes wonder, if
Saving Prometheus will bring us back our fire
And ability to heal ourselves, what would we
Gain if she ever found that hero, the one
Who somehow in another human body holds
The other half of her enormous soul?
Now since a big part of fan fiction is sorting out the potentially romantic connections between two characters that subtext has hinted at but not directly addressed, I also knew that I was going to have to set up the “before” picture. And anybody who knows anything about old-fashioned TV production companies knows that a show (gasp!) starring two women is going to have to do some foundational work proving that these two Straight Gals are Just Good Friends. Hence the (non-Bechdel test-worthy) initial episodes of Season 1 kept putting potential love interests (male) in both their paths. This serves to prove the gals is straight and that Xena has a lot more experience with such things than Gabrielle, which serves to differentiate the characters more–as if Lucy Lawless being six feet tall in her boots and armor doesn’t do that enough. Fine, I can use that.
X., Jaded, Rolls Her Eyes
Everyone, she thinks, has some great love; she watches
That boy and girl hold hands and tells herself
They have something she is missing, something more
Than the adventure, travel and new people she now
Enjoys with me. I can’t really blame her. Even I
Once made eyes at my brothers’ friends when I was
Young and foolish. Even I had my small conquests
With the village boys before I learned to make
Larger conquests with my gathered armies.
Take that pacifist son of a warlord. Big blue eyes,
Muscles, armor, a big sword, a soft voice.
His reluctance to follow his father’s profession
Makes her think he’s “sensitive.” Maybe he is.
Certainly, the peaceful village farmers don’t
Deserve the rapacious attention of the old man
And his charioteers, the way they torched
The village silo. I never killed women and children.
But nobody would have ever called me sensitive.
And that dying lad she described as “warm and sensitive”
(That word again!) “funny, perfect, smart.”
He called her, she told me, “a rare beauty.” Yeah, he was nice,
I’ll grant you. Helpful, too, in a dangerous situation,
Because, like all of them, he wanted to save her.
They always fall in love with her somehow.
But it’s easy to be nice when you are counting
Your final days. It’s easy to be brave when you have
Come to terms with your own inevitable death.
And let’s not forget Hercules’ sidekick, who I once
Seduced for a week, hoping he would turn
On his friend. I guess I didn‘t tell her that part
Of the story. Maybe I should. Though I suppose
I probably shouldn’t use the word “stamina”
Or “dynamo” to describe him. Maybe instead,
I should tell her about the steam coming up from
The bath and his bright eyes. After all, I wouldn’t
Want her to think he was not sensitive.
Once I have set up the before picture, I have to set up the How It Changed picture, which in this case is Gabrielle becoming (long story) and Amazon princess and being quickly trained to fight with a long staff. Then, after combat, I give Xena an epiphany so that she halts their journey to train Gabrielle properly, as, I would argue, she should have done in the first place. I made this one a kind of dialogue, with Xena speaking and Gabrielle fuming in silence. I imagine a lot of couples start out communicating in just such inadequate ways.
Riding into Combat: G. Flashes Back
The staff still unfamiliar in my hands, I step
Into the queen’s chariot at the head of this
Mismatched army: Amazons and Centaurs riding
Into combat together, on the same side
For the first time either tribe’s sages can
Remember. The rumble of chariot wheels is loud
As we gather speed, but my terrified heart is louder.
Behind me, I hear her war cry and I recall
That with her on our side, we will likely win,
Though that doesn’t guarantee I will survive
Myself. I struggle to keep my feet as we roll
Faster and faster down the hill where we can see
The warlord’s army scrambling to grab
Swords, spears, axes: all the ways I might die
In the next minute or hour. My stomach in
My throat, I nearly gag as the Centaur pulling us
Slows, stops, slips off his harness. The roar
Of the enemy, all men in black leather and purple
Scars, is a chorus of sudden death, but I hear
Her battle cry again and I turn to see
Her grinning as she leaps to meet the first.
If I have to die, then fighting by her side
Is not the worst way to leave this life. I jump down.
X., Out Loud
I saw you in battle. I was impressed. What you lack in finesse, you make up for in sheer ferocity. That will take you far in a short fight or a longer fight with an inexperienced foe. How you didn’t die out there, I don’t know. Maybe Artemis likes you, kid. But beginners luck won’t last and you’ve got bad habits. Tomorrow I’ll find a stick that I can use to practice with you. Meanwhile, you get some sleep, little warrior. You’ve earned it.
G., In Silence
Why does she always do that, call me a kid?
It’s not enough that she towers above me
Even before she mounts her horse. Somehow
She always has to belittle me too. I think
She doesn’t mean to. Her eyes are always kind,
Or mostly. But all those weeks I begged her
To teach me to defend myself and today,
I went into mortal combat with a mere day’s
Worth of practice with the staff. If I had died,
It would have just been more blood on her hands.
X., Out Loud
You keep your stick close to your body, like this, to get a stronger pivot. It’s not the stick that does the work; it’s you, your body weight that gives your strike momentum. Commit yourself fully to each strike. A staff is not a sword. It metes out pain with both ends. Strike the man in front of you with the front end and use the momentum from that blow to hit the man behind you with the back. Try it. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again.
G., In Silence
My bruises from the Amazon battle purpling,
I lie down stiffly, feeling the new ones rise.
She shows me how to rub them out with my thumbs
In a circling motion. Her hands are gentler, now
That practice is over. I’ve never been so tired.
At dawn it begins again. She’s so much stronger
Than me. Even when I block her strikes, some hit me.
But she looks tired, too. Normally she hates this
Sort of thing, focusing on basics, endless basics,
Endlessly explaining it to me, again and again.
X., Out Loud
Breathing now. To hold your own in a fight, you need stamina, and that means correct breathing. If you don’t want to get sucker punched, never let your enemy see you take a breath. Unless you are crying out to terrify the enemy, keep your mouth closed. It’s harder, at first, but better in the long run. In the East, they talk about the energy in the body. I learned some breathing techniques to produce more to protect the organs when you get hit. When you’re ready, I’ll teach you. We’re done for now. Tomorrow we’re back on the road.
G., In Silence
I am too tired to boil over. I ache too much to tear
My bread apart. I stare at the fire and forget where
My crackling muscles end and its golden ache starts.
How many days have we camped here? When did my
Calluses stop bleeding? She sets her saddle near me,
Rests her head on it. She looks at me a long while, says,
“I thought it’d take longer. You’re a quick learner.”
A backhanded compliment for sure, but I smile, my mouth
The one place I don’t hurt. She watches me, worried.
I say, “Yes. Okay. Eventually, I will probably forgive you.”
NOTE: I do not own the rights to these characters, which are held by NBC Renaissance Pictures. I am getting no remuneration for this creative work.