I loved it when I had the opportunity to examine the The Death Gate Cycle for university assignments. This essay was completed on November 14, 2005 and was the "middle paper" for my Cultural Studies Literature class. Thanks to: Dad, for introducing me to the books and prereading this; Mom, who also preread; Ken, for his proofreading; and my professor, Tony, for the opportunity to research and write this.
Do not reproduce this essay without my permission.
"The Queer Conflict of The Death Gate Cycle"
Most fictional books, movies, and television shows supposedly operate under the same heterosexist perspective as that of Western societies at large, but gay and lesbian criticism attempts to expose the queerness1 nevertheless present in these works. Creations that initially seem to only deal with heterosexual characters and their relationships are not always as straight-laced as they appear. Alexander Doty says2 that he thinks the idea of "queering" has too much of an implication that something must be done to "straight" texts in this process, so he would "like to see queer discourses and practices as being less about co-opting and 'making things queer' [...] and more about discussing how things are, or might be understood as, queer" (Flaming Classics 2). Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's fantasy series The Death Gate Cycle can be examined this way. Although The Death Gate Cycle does not explicitly address any sexuality other than the heterosexual, many of its plot elements and character interactions can symbolize the queer or have a queer bent.
Dragon Wing, the first book of the series, was published in 1990; The Seventh Gate ended the series in 1994. The decade leading up to this writing was marked by, among other issues, the continuing Cold War, the emerging AIDS crisis, and the increasing visibility of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and their representation as a community. Whether or not Weis and Hickman were knowingly influenced by the greater attention society gave to queer people when they wrote this series ultimately does not change the presence of queer themes. However, a gay character and queer issues were featured in their Rose of the Prophet series, which was written before The Death Gate Cycle, and Tracy Hickman confirmed in a Usenet post to alt.fan.dragonlance that Rose of the Prophet "addressed gay issues,"3 as did his later solo book The Immortals; it is clear that the authors were not unaware. Because there is apparently no scholarly work on The Death Gate Cycle besides book reviews , it is difficult to determine how readers may have responded to different aspects of the text, particularly those that are queer. Some readers possibly approach The Death Gate Cycle with an awareness that these authors have deliberately incorporated the queer in their works before.
The main plot running through all seven books is the conflict between two magical races that developed from human ancestry— the Sartan and the Patryns. In the background of the books, these races lived on Earth4 and dominated its human, elf, and dwarf populations, which both races called "mensch" after a German word for "people." Eventually, the quarrel between the Patryns and Sartan led to the latter destroying Earth and creating new worlds for themselves and the mensch to inhabit, along with a separate space for the Patryns. The ways that the Sartan and Patryns view and relate to each other and these environments can be read as distinctly queer.
Back on Earth, the Sartan had set themselves up as the dominant and rightful power; they think of themselves as having "altruistic goals," unlike the Patryns whom the Sartan believe want to impose their "evil" ways on others. According to the Sartan, the Patryns on Earth were "forced to work in dark5 and secret places in order to remain hidden from us. They are a close-knit people, fiercely loyal to one another and to their one abiding goal, which is the absolute and complete domination of the world" (Fire Sea 232). This attitude reads like arguments by many fundamentalist Christians6 that they are the proper ones to direct American society and that homosexuals are banding together to overthrow the heterosexist majority.7 It also suggests that Patryns are a subculture within a privileged culture, as the gay and lesbian community is within the heterosexist American society; the Patryns are, in a sense, "closeted." This Sartan/Patryn or heterosexist/homosexual8 split is carried out in many areas of the books.
For instance, Sartan characters perceive people with empathies towards Patryns or mensch as being "corrupted," "wicked," and "improper." This language is often used in the Christian discourse of "improper relations" and the "abomination" of homosexual activities. The Sartan leader, Samah, is very distrustful of a man named Alfred, describing him as "a weak-minded Sartan, who has been traveling in the company of a Patryn9. He's obviously been corrupted, his mind taken over. We cannot blame him. He has had no Councillor [sic] to turn to, no one to help him in his time of trial" (Serpent Mage 104). Compare this to how groups like Exodus International believe that homosexuals can convert others, and that people should turn to God, a minister, or an "ex-gay" camp to help them overcome homosexuality or gender identity disorder. Samah thinks that Alfred would not feel any sympathy for his Patryn companion, Haplo, and the Patryn perspectives if someone in authority was available to help Alfred work through it; likewise, Samah believes that a Patryn like Haplo can "brainwash" a Sartan, much as some fundamentalist groups think homosexuals can "brainwash" children and other impressionable people. Alfred's long-term association with the mensch is also a source of concern for what beliefs he has absorbed. To his fellow Sartan, Alfred is a troubling figure.
Alfred does sometimes parrot what Samah says about him, but he also questions the Sartan. He asks Orla, who is Samah's wife, "What gives us the right to judge them [the mensch]? What gives us the right to say that our way of life is the right way of life and that theirs is wrong? What gives us the right to impose our will on them?" (Serpent Mage 128). Alfred's characterization of the Sartan suggests they have the same attitude held by these fundamentalist groups, as they attempt to "restore" Christianity to the American government10 and judge secular living and other religions as sinful lifestyles. Alfred also expresses concerns that he is what other Sartan think he is. In another conversation with Orla, Alfred says, "I must be an extraordinarily wicked person. I'm well aware that no Sartan should have such improper thoughts. As your husband says, I've been corrupted by being around mensch too long" (228). For a Sartan to sympathize with mensch and Patryns— and for some fundamentalist Christians to appreciate other religions or homosexuals— is unacceptable and must be corrected.
Something else that the Sartan wanted to change was the attitude of the Patryns. When the Sartan destroyed Earth and created new worlds, one of them was a magical, almost sentient, prison called the Labyrinth. The Sartan hoped that "prison life would 'rehabilitate' us [the Patryns], that we would emerge from the Labyrinth chastened, our [...] natures softened" (Elven Star 1). The Labyrinth, however, morphs from their stated intent in the centuries that pass between its creation and the timeframe of the books. While most of those who created it thought it would provide "rehabilitation" and "redemption," the modern-day Alfred protests that it "is not a prison but a torture chamber. It hears the hatred and the fear that lie hidden behind your words. The Labyrinth will use that hatred to murder and destroy" (The Seventh Gate 238). Alfred and Haplo eventually discover that Sartan dissenters who disagreed with destroying the world or otherwise spoke out against the Sartan Council were also thrown into the Labyrinth. In fact, Alfred is banished there by Samah, who finds him "guilty of consorting with the enemy, of plotting against [his] own people, of attempting to deceive [them] with lies, of committing heresy" and says the sentence will "enable [him] to learn from [his] mistakes and make reparation for them" (Serpent Mage 409). Haplo does not believe that Alfred can survive it, considering it a death sentence because Haplo himself nearly died before he escaped.
The Labyrinth is for Patryns what reparative "therapy" is for most homosexuals. While the Sartan believe the Labyrinth will "cure" the Patryns and their misguided fellows, even using the word "reparation," the Labyrinth turns into an expression of hating and wishing to harm— even kill— their enemies. Gay rights organizations, along with medical and psychological organizations, protest the harmful effects of reparative therapy on its "patients." Fundamentalist organizations and "ex-gays" present it as a loving dream to improve the lives of homosexuals, yet it operates from a perspective that homosexuality is undesirable, sinful, and should be changed to heterosexuality, even if the therapy drives its "patients" to suicide11. As with the Labyrinth, the stated goal is to create proper, functioning members of society— what the heterosexist or Sartan believes to be "normal" and "straight."
This conflict between Patryns and Sartan is one of The Death Gate Cycle's many queer aspects . Alfred "closets" his great magical power, a character named Zifnab sometimes believes himself to be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz,12 and Patryns can enter their equivalent of marriage with either an opposite- or a same-sex partner; these are just a few examples of queer characters and situations that could be further explored. "Queering" the text is not necessary for the queerness of The Death Gate Cycle to come out to its readers.
1 "Queer(ness)" has come to mean several different things, but it is used throughout to refer to the homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered (or what is related to or representative of these) rather than specifying each of them in every instance.
2 Doty, Alexander. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. New York: Routledge, 2000.
3 He said, "Rose of the Prophet clearly examined various conflicting religions as paradigm shifts of one true reality and addressed gay issues at the same time." His response is found here; the full message thread is here.
4 Prior to the main plot of the books, the Cold War's threat of nuclear destruction is actually carried out at the end of the 20th century and is responsible for parts of the human race mutating into these new peoples. Tracy Hickman said in the aforementioned alt.fan.dragonlance message, "The Death Gate series sprang, in part, over my own musings on the troubles in Northern Ireland." Further exploration of the historical context for each book is beyond the scope of this paper.
5 In fact, the Patryns chose their name, which means "Those Who Return to Darkness," in mockery of the Sartan, or "Those Who Bring Back Light."
6 Again, Hickman says in that post that they have explored this before. The Darksword Trilogy "(though few knew it) was an examination of Christian fundamentalism and the effects of power on perspective and judgment."
7 See the American Family Association's frequent discussion of the "homosexual agenda" at http://www.afa.net.
8 "Heterosexual/homosexual" is not used because the split does not include heterosexual allies; "heterosexist" reflects those who consider heterosexuality the norm and characterize any non-heterosexuality as an undesirable "other." However, this still leaves the term slightly imprecise, as some queer people are also heterosexist, and not all queer people are homosexual.
9 Haplo, the central character of the books, traveled with Alfred in the previous volume, Fire Sea.
10 The debate over whether or not Christianity was ever a part of the government will not be explored here. Groups such as the American Family Association believe that it used to be.
11 A summary of the reparative therapy debate is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reparative_therapy.
12 The Wizard of Oz is a favorite movie for many queer people, particularly for its camp appeal, which is why "a friend of Dorothy" is slang for someone who is gay.