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“Wicked was turning somebody into an earwig and letting them run around for a week to give them a good scare. Evil was turning someone into an earwig and then stepping on them.”
Ursula Vernon’s Castle Hangnail is part of a heritage of fantasy fiction that includes authors like Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams: comedy fantasy, in a sense, but comedy fantasy that has some deeper unifying qualities. To just roughly sketch those qualities out:
- It can be funny to us, standing outside the narrative, while still being deadly serious to the characters within the narrative;
- The humor and worldbuilding are derived alike from a focus on the actual implications of existing tropes: what happens, for example, when dwarf women living alongside human women decide that they don’t actually like their gender being “dwarf” after all?;
- This interest in drawing out real world implications of existing tropes makes the books highly metatextual without the characters themselves ever breaking the fourth wall;
- Characters within the texts are aware of narrative conventions and are often burdened by those conventions;
- And most interestingly for us here, these books often parse out a difference between Good and Nice, and Wicked and Evil, making them a little bit subversive.
Not all of the authors fitting into this loose geneology share ALL the qualities, but this isn’t so much a definition as it is a diagnostic.oneI’m sorry, ma’am, but your book has a bad case of Pterryosis; your hero’s caught Humanity. I think we can draw a whole trajectory of these ideas through the history of abnaturalist fic that ends with folks like Adams and Pratchett and Jasper Fforde, and extends back through folks like Patricia Wrede (and possibly even JK Rowling at times), all the way back to the venerable Edith Nesbit--a writer winked to in Castle Hangnail, actually, and a clear influence. If one pole of influence here is Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, Nesbit makes a pretty good other pole because of her particular interest in characters, often children characters, misbehaving--possibly, behaving “wickedly”--and saving the day particularly because they don’t Act Like Children Ought.
That is at its heart what Castle Hangnail is about: a girl named Molly who decides that she is going to be the wicked witch ruling the titular castle. See, magical places need a master, and the minions that inhabit these places need a leader, and Castle Hangnail has been for many years without a master and is in danger of being decommissioned. The minions of Castle Hangnail send out a call to prospective mad scientists, dark sorceresses, and vampire lords to come and occupy the castle, and Molly--short for “Eudaimonia”--is the person who answers that call.
Except Molly has not been to “witch school” as she claims, and she is not, in fact, “Eudaimonia.” Eudaimonia is her rather nasty friend, the proper intended recipient of the Castle Hangnail letter. Molly in fact is trying to get away, at least temporarily, from her cloying Good Twin, and a family that doesn’t really get her interest in things like strange lizards, skulls, and dubious magic, and sees the letter, which the real Eudaimonia discarded, as an opportunity to do just that. This leaves her somewhat underprepared to face the three Tasks that she must complete in order to officially be declared Castle Hangnail’s master, but she is determined to muddle through.
While not all of the minions are totally convinced by Molly’s performance, Molly and the Minions are united in one thing at least: they are oddballs in a world that treats them with suspicion, or at least perplexity. Molly isn’t really bad, she’s just not as seemingly effortlessly good and precise as her Good Twin, and doesn’t quite get why trying to preserve animal skeletons, for example, should be such a problem. She can’t, unfortunately, force herself to be interested in the normal, and she feels the weight of narrative on her: it’s patently obvious that her twin is the Good One, so there’s not much of anywhere for her to go but to the dark side. And the minions, well… there’s not a lot you can do to appear Nice when your face has literally been stitched together.
The first minion that we meet goes simply by The Guardian, though Molly renames him Majordomo later. He’s an Igor-like entity who takes care of the place while the master is away, as it were, and is certainly an otherworldly figure. Joining him are a haunted suit of armor, some manner of voodoo doll full of pins, a minotaur cook and her son Angus yes really, a steam spirit (part mermaid, part djinn--a mix of elemental fire and elemental water), and a neurotic goldfish.
The narrative starts from Majordomo’s perspective and focuses heavily upon the minions throughout and their difficult situation. There’s a relationship between castle and minions and Master that seems to go deeper than the practical--though there are very important practical concerns!--but while this bond seems to be a kind of transcending magical order it also isn’t one that can always coexist comfortably with the present day. You’ve got to move with the times, as Majordomo himself notes, and while they could, say, awaken the Old Vampire Lord to take over the castle in order to avoid decommissioning, his Old Ways (i.e. swooping down to suck the blood of the innocent) simply aren’t done anymore. There’s a tension between the desire to uphold the old order of the Magic Castle--the old narrative--and the need the minions have for their own well being (the minions are, after all, unionized).
Part of this tension emerges because of narrative convention. Tropes are almost an obsession with the authors that share a loose subgenre with Vernon, and for good reason: tropes can be dangerous things when treated as gospel. Much suffering in Terry Pratchett’s books, for example, seems to be influenced in some way by a never-named set of fairy tales that multiple characters in both the adult and young adult stories interact with. The most memorable part of this book is an absolutely terrifying image of a goblin, which is mentioned repeatedly as characters begin to grapple with the fact that goblins and orcs are thinking beings that have been historically treated abominably. Important too, though, is the way girls are treated in the stories: the Princess is blonde and blue-eyed; everyone else can either settle for scullery maid, or seize their narrative and become the Wicked Witch. For Pratchett and for Vernon, things like the good twin/bad twin dynamic and the proper appearance of princesses are brought into communication with more extreme ideas of the monstrous, and it is the vulnerability of the monstrous that drives much of the conflict in the story.
Angus the minotaur notes at one point that when things go wrong in people’s lives, they tend to look for a scapegoat twoor scape… bull, I suppose, which makes minions unattached to a proper Master vulnerable. It’s important for the minions to have a protector in the form of the master of the castle, who, from the perspective of the outside world, keeps the monsters under control. This puts minions in a position of relative powerlessness that can be exploited.
This is where the real Eudaimonia comes in.
A large part of the narrative is based around the difference between Eudaimonia and Molly, that difference being the contrast between wickedness, and evil. Eudaimonia makes being bad look effortless. Appearing as a glamorous dark sorceress is trivially easy for her in a way that it simply isn’t for the short, frizzy-haired Molly. Molly is also limited by her reluctance to do things like take over people’s minds. Eudaimonia has no such compunctions, and in fact goes off to be an evil sorceress after casting a mind control spell on her own parents.threeThis treatment is refreshing. When I was growing up, there was a remarkable tendency in YA lit towards treating things like memory wipes and mind control as just sort of a matter of course, in a really kind of unsettling way. This was a very big part of the Dark Is Rising series, and certainly Harry Potter treats mindwiping as trivial. I’ve always found that very disturbing and violating. As discussed in my Stranger Things article, not being able to trust your own mind is pretty awful.
Eudaimonia is not interested in being reasonable, or fair, or nice. She is interested in being in control. We learn quite a bit about Eudaimonia through Molly’s recollections of their friendship, and it becomes rapidly apparent that the older girl seems to keep Molly around largely as someone she can dominate. She has a tendency to be nice one moment and unpredictably spiteful the next, her reactions to things highly unpredictable. And she makes Molly feel like she should be ashamed of her successes--even worse, that Molly should feel responsible for Eudaimonia’s behavior. This reaches a point that I think we could comfortably call bullying, and probably even call abuse.
Now, Eudaimonia prior to the events of the book is much more subtle in her manipulation of Molly, but by the time she shows up at the castle, she’s shed all pretense. She sweeps into the castle with contemptuous ease and immediately begins treating the minions like, well, lowly servants. Of course, this dropping of pretense may be just as well, because by this point Molly has become aware of something very important:
Eudaimonia has been stealing her magic.
Magic within this setting can be shared and borrowed. Eudaimonia, however, does not ask. Eudaimonia simply takes. Vernon never states outright what this is a metaphor for, but like Fusion in Steven Universe the parallelism is clear: consent is crucial in this equation. Midway through the book this is highlighted by Molly’s sharing of her magic with a bunch of moles. (Long story.) Vernon makes a point of describing Molly’s decision to say yes to this exchange as being ok because she has the ability to say no. Eudaimonia, in contrast, simply takes what is convenient for her. As such, by the time Eudaimonia actually appears in the narrative it’s pretty obvious that she’s a nasty piece of work, even before she starts freezing innocent people in blocks of ice.
This parallels Eudaimonia’s treatment of the minions after she takes over the castle and temporarily kicks Molly out. Eudaimonia can’t see a use for Angus, and so she proposes to sell him. Because she’s the worst. Predictably, the minions and Majordomo in particular get over their initial feeling of betrayal from Molly’s deception in the face of this far greater outrage. But this reveals the doubled edged sword of the interaction between minions and master. The same protection that a master offers from the outside world can become a liability, in the sense of the relative lack of power the minions have. They have a limited latitude to say no, because of the nature of their social position.
One of the themes of the book then might be that the vulnerability of monstrosity enables abuse. I think we see that with Molly--Molly doesn’t seem to have other people she can relate to besides Eudaimonia, because of her love of the strange and the spooky. This makes her an easy target for Eudaimonia’s manipulation. It’s Molly’s interest in the macabre and the wicked that sets her apart from others, and I think we can infer a level of vulnerability caused by the fact that she doesn’t have a lot of folks in her life that relate to her interests.
This feels pretty significant to me, as someone inclined towards the wicked more than the nice. I certainly remember as a kid being somewhat set apart due to my interests in things like the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs. I was a weirdo, self-identified. From talking to other weirdo friends now, making friendships based on sharing this weirdo status rather than because of any real affinity on a personal level seems pretty common… and so does falling into unhealthy dynamics with people because they’re part of the small subset of people that tolerate you.
The ever looming possibility of torches and pitchforks is certainly exaggerated from reality here, but it’s still familiar. That’s sort of the background radiation of these characters’ lives, and while it’s not a direct villain--it is, after all, an abstract social pressure--it’s something that enables Eudaimonia, I think. Eudaimonia is a villain in the narrative despite the fact that she is ostensibly on the same side of “wickedness” as Molly. This person that ostensibly should be part of a shared community with Molly is the vector for her abuse.
This is an important if uncomfortable truth about the way communities of the marginalized can enable exploitation, and we ultimately see Eudaimonia attempt to drive Molly out of her ad-hoc community entirely once Eudaimonia is done with her. Eudaimonia is capable of sliding right into the narrative with ease and taking over. She is able to play on the minions’ sense of narrative convention--and, in particular, Majordomo’s distrust of Molly, who after all doesn’t quite look like a proper Wicked Witch--in order to briefly gain control of the narrative and, in a stunning move, kick Molly out of her book! During her reign, Molly is actually absent entirely for several chapters, the minions taking over as the protagonists. This clever little trick never breaks the fourth wall but nevertheless might be seen as a metatextual nod to the way that Eudaimonia has successfully warped the narrative to serve her own ends, the way successful abusers so often do.
To return to Pratchett briefly, I think this is the importance of the book with the goblin. It’s the narratives in books like that which empower people like Eudaimonia. Her ability to play a particular role charismatically allows her to dazzle people into submission to an extent. And certainly it’s her ability to seem much better at being wicked than Molly that furthers her goal of making Molly feel helpless and incompetent compared to Eudaimonia.
Luckily, though, Molly throughout the book finds ways to be wicked without being evil, to articulate a space for herself outside of these narratives. All through the book that’s essentially what she’s done in completing the tasks necessary to taking over Castle Hangnail: securing the castle from oily land speculators and winning the hearts and minds of the townsfolk by turning a nasty farmer’s long suffering mule into a dragon. This stuff is a little bit wicked, but there’s a difference between that and evil, and there’s an emphasis here, as there often is in this genre, of thinking cleverly about problems. Molly, like some of Nesbit and Pratchett’s best protagonists, is a lateral thinker, which allows her to be a Wicked Witch without ever becoming an evil one.
See, as Granny Weatherwax puts it in various Discworld novels, good ain’t the same as nice. Molly is very sweet but not Nice the way her Good Twin is. And like Granny, she has something of the dark in her but ultimately has boundaries that she won’t cross, and a strong sense of what would be far too far. In fact, she and Granny share a particular narrative handicap: Granny, it is heavily implied, was supposed to be the “evil” twin, but her sister ran off to screw around with people’s lives, and young Esme Weatherwax was left picking up the slack. Like Molly, Granny doesn’t quite fit in the narratives she’s been thrown into, and she continually fights like hell to make sure those narratives don’t subsume her. It is this strength that Molly and the Minions ultimately find in the narrative, the strength to overthrow Eudaimonia’s archetypically-condoned reign of terror and establish a new storyline for themselves, all working together for the good of Castle Hangnail.
What is really remarkable about this book is the way it contextualizes this nuanced contrast--between Nice and Good, and Wicked and Evil--though the vulnerability of the strange, through the way that friendship can become abusive, and through the issue of consent and the importance of being able to say no as a context for saying yes. It positions these things in terms somewhat lower to the ground than perhaps other High Fantasy narratives, and while I would never suggest that every children’s story needs to have a Good Message, if you’re going to have a message in your book, this is a darn good one to have.
Like Edith Nesbit suggesting to her readers that sometimes disobedience is necessary to save the day, and like Pratchett and so many others who turn a scrutinizing gaze on their own genre, this is a book that encourages thought about what your narrative is going to be, and whether your narrative is really something you’ve consented to, and under what conditions.