“I wish to be as God made me.”
— Emily Brontë
My father’s nameday happened to fall during my last visit to Hellas: Saint George, whose day often falls during Easter celebrations. His DVD player had been hit by lightning, so my sister and I bought him a replacement as a gift. To check the new gizmo, we used a DVD of Jane Campion’s The Piano.
I saw The Piano when it first appeared, twenty years ago. It made an indelible impression on me and has been in and out of my thoughts ever since. For one, it was filmed in Aotearoa, one of my three Valinors – the other two being Hellas and Alba, particularly their islands. Aotearoa became home to one of the few bona fide seafaring cultures on the planet, and I still pinch myself to ensure that The Lord of the Rings really was made in that wondrous place, rather than on Hollywood plywood sets. For another, The Piano is a witch’s brew of potent myths: part Wuthering Heights, part Demetra/Persephone, part Lilith, Lucifer and Adam – but primarily it’s a tale of what happens to an uncompromising creator who happens to be a woman.
The hero of The Piano is brought to mesmerizing life by Holly Hunter who deserved the slew of awards she got, including the Oscar. Fierce Ada McGrath, a Victorian mail order bride with a fatherless daughter, has decided to communicate with the world solely through a self-invented sign language, the occasional terse written message… and, most crucially, her piano. The two men she encounters in New Zealand, the stunning landscape she finds herself in, her precocious child (who turns from devotee to traitor, played by a young Anna Paquin at her fey best) all influence her life dramatically; but for Ada, the crux of her existence is the piano.
Unlike a “proper” lady, Ada does not merely tickle its ivories. She’s a composer and virtuoso player of immense talent and of course there is no possible place for her among either the Scots colonialists or the Maori natives. Nobody comprehends her, not even her ensorcelled child or her besotted lover, even though they love her in large part because of her uniqueness. There is no place or companion in the world, then or now, for a woman of implacable will and focus who will not compromise or yield in her determination to pursue her vocation.
If Ada were a man, she could choose the roles highlighted by the two male characters. She could embrace her own culture wholeheartedly like her husband, or attempt to “go native” like her lover. But for a woman, either choice would mean submission to a rigid, confined existence. Westerners are more familiar with Victorian women’s suffocated lives, yet Maori women fared little better in a culture as hierarchical and despotic as any of its European counterparts. In either case, Ada would have to renounce her music – an outcome equivalent to losing her life.
So there are two endings to the film, though the second one is truer: after a forcible mutilation, Ada almost joins her piano in the depths of the Pacific. On the surface of things, she decides to stay with the living – now a tamed hausfrau teaching colonial children their piano scales, a tiger pulling a plow, a queen ant who has shed her wings; but in her dreams, which are more real than her awake moments, she is underwater, swaying above her now-silent piano like a strand of kelp.
Something similar happens to another hero of an Aotearoa-based film: Paikea Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in Niki Caro’s Whale Rider, adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s book. Pai is clearly destined to be the next chief: she has the bloodlines, the talent and charisma, the stamina and will. In mythical terms, not only did her father (himself a maverick) name her after the legendary Maori ancestor who came from Hawaiki riding a whale but she also bears a second soul: that of her twin brother, dead at birth along with her mother. But… Pai has the wrong equipment between her legs. This makes her useless to her grandfather, who considers Pai’s efforts “defiling to the tradition” and tries to train anyone except his granddaughter for the position of chief.
Paikea tries every possible way to reach the core of the crusty old jerk. Finally, when he emphatically rejects her by not coming to a school presentation she has dedicated to him, Paikea in her great desolation calls to the sea. A pod of whales follows her voice, and they beach themselves to reach her. They are slowly suffocating and the rescue efforts of the community prove fruitless, until Pai straddles the pod leader and spurs it back into the water, making the rest follow.
Like The Piano, Whale Rider has two endings: in the happy one, Pai’s grandfather finally embraces his granddaughter as the next chief; her sculptor father finishes his abandoned waka and the entire community joyfully launches the canoe, with Paikea presiding over a crew of both women and men rowing warriors. But this is only possible (barely) because Paikea’s demonstration of prowess is so spectacular and so public that failure to acknowledge it would be disrespecting the ancestors. The real ending of the film comes earlier, with Pai on the whale as it slowly submerges, taking Pai with it into the depths. Her grandfather is right: like Ada, Paikea has no real place in her culture. If she cannot conform, she must die or, at best, live as a lonely outcast: the witch by the forest clearing; the madwoman in the attic; the Yorkshire parson’s three “touched” daughters, circling the kitchen table reciting passages of their novels to each other.
This is the near-universal fate of women who defy the roles set for them and demand real concessions to their talent. People may love talented women, often because of their gift; but the all-too-common aftermath consists of testing whether these women will give up their vocation as proof of love, abjure or dilute it as a way of fitting into the glass slipper or the red-hot iron shoe. There are no meet companions for women like Ada; just as Tsars interred their daughters in the terem because they had no companions of their rank, female creators must live alone and die early – or live long enough to curse the despised talent that devours them like fire consumes faggots.
Persistent, the Yorkshire parson’s daughters kept “scribbling” and paid to get their books published: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey. The one who survived long enough to bend to conventionality stopped writing after her marriage; she died soon afterwards, during a troubled pregnancy imposed by her husband to seal her surrender. As the least conventional of these three sisters intuited, only elementals can be mates to such women: the Moon; the Heath; the Wind; the Sky; the Sea.
Elizabeth Lynn reached the same conclusion in The Woman who Loved the Moon. So did Diane Duane in Lior and the Sea. The story, part of Duane’s Middle Kingdoms universe, appeared in Moonsinger’s Friends, a collection in honor of André Norton. In it, unlike Le Guin’s Earthsea, female wizards wield rods of power without celibacy strictures and with nary a ripple in the society. Lior is a very powerful Rodmistress who has chosen to practice in a small fishing village even though she could be the equivalent of an Archmage. She has willing and happy bedmates of both genders, yet none is her equal; none comprehends her magic.
In her aloneness, Lior talks with the Sea. And just as the whales hear Paikea, the Sea hears Lior, and learns to love her. It sends avatars to woo her: first a beautiful horse; then an equally beautiful man. Lior finally has a true companion who fills the chambers of her soul. But in the end, the Sea must return to its element. Faced with her possible futures, Lior decides to join the Sea — just like Ada and Paikea in their far likelier bleak alternative endings:
“But few who say so have stood on that jeweled beach by night and heard the Sea whisper again and again, as if to another self:
Images and sounds: Ada (Holly Hunter) and Flora (Anna Paquin) McGrath, The Piano; Paikea Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Whale Rider; Ada’s signature theme by Michael Nyman.