Amnita: The Legend of Amnita or The Amazon, by Eleanor Arnason. Ruth Berman, ed., Crumb Fairy Press, 2809 Drew Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55416, Autumn 2022, 88 pp, softcover, $10.00.

Review by Sandra J. Lindow

Award-winning speculative writer Eleanor Arnason began writing fantasy as a poet. Arnason, born in 1942, first earned recognition as part of science fiction’s literary New Wave. Her earliest short story, “A Clear Day in Motor City” was published in New Worlds, 1973. Her first novel is The Swordsmith, 1978. She went on to win the Tiptree for A Woman of the Iron People, 1991 and the Gaylaxion Spectrum Award for “Dapple,” 1999, but long before that when she was still a student at Swarthmore College (1960-1964), she began writing Amnita, an epic poem that is based on Spenser’s Faerie Queen but also influenced by Medieval morality plays such as Everyman as well as Cervantes’s episodic novel Don Quixote, 1605-1615.  The result has now been published as an 88-page book of rhymed poetry set in AABBA stanzas.  What stands out in Amnita is an early Second Wave Feminist sensibility and a moral ethic influenced by Marxism.

Amnita is the story of “a lady knight’ who, born an Amazon, is raised in the house of a woman named Charity “who curbed her rage and taught her to be mild.” Amnita, however, desires adventure, and is inspired to leave home on a quest to find and defeat the Giant named Greed. Greed lives in a house built of bones that has been gilded with gold. He has imprisoned and enslaved many people. Previously, other knights have been either defeated and forced to work in mines or subverted.

Dame Charity tries to stop Amnita with essentialist arguments:

Dame Charity continued as before:
“Let men (it seems they must) go off to war,
Do dragons in and lop off giants’ heads.
We’re made for making children, meals and beds,
To care for kindly things, not blood and gore.” (3)

Amnita, however, is not convinced and sets forth on a “knock-kneed,” “sway-back nag.” Early in her journey she meets Greed’s cousin, the Giant, Stinginess, who tells her of other relatives, Desperation and Necessity. Stinginess represents a negative aspect of Arnason’s moral domain. Quality workmanship is an essential good that appears throughout Arnason’s work while greed, laziness and cheapness seem to be a root cause of evil:

[His] door was mostly made of rotten wood
(He was so stingy, he bought nothing good) (7)

Arnason’s early blooming Marxism is expressed when Amnita finds and coopts the giant’s gold:

          While she did, she what she did excused
          And said: ”In taking this, Ive none abused,
          It seems to me that wealth has little worth
          So kept, deep buried underneath the earth,
          And money’s valueless unless it’s used.” (9)

Later Amnita is joined in her quest by the mythic knight Prince Arthur. Together they learn of a deceased smith named Ingenuity who created an Iron Beast that seems to be strip mining the countryside on its own and leaving a poisoned mess behind it. The evil of misguided scientific advancement is a theme that winds throughout Arnason’s later work. The two decide to fight this industrial dragon before it does more damage and eventually trap it by luring it with Stinginess’s gold.

In the second half of the book, Amnita continues her quest to find and defeat Greed, but she in hindered by the witch Despondency and her sister Idle Delight, reminiscent of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678, where the Pilgrim must confront various temptations including the Giant Despair and the Slough of Despond. The hazards of depression and self-doubt run throughout Arnason’s fiction. Fortunately, as in Pilgrim’s Progress, Hope remains a healing choice, and Amnita meets Lady Hope and her caravan of happy people who are able to overcome their afflictions through community and song:

“By Hope we are set free
And need no longer fear Despondency.” (49)

Together they are able to rescue Simon, a minstrel, who has been trapped in a dismal marsh “in mire, dull and dank” (55). Ensorcelled by Despondency, he isn’t aware of the nature of his problem until Hope gives him the fortitude to understand and resist Despondency’s poison (55).

Simon then assists Amnita in her quest to overcome Greed, and they are joined once again by Arthur. Greed, like Stinginess and the Iron Beast, is deeply entwined with environmental pollution:

          Bright were the towers, glittering with gilt,
          That hid the bones of which the house was built,
          And she saw nothing save a golden gleam,
          But Simon, floating in the filthy stream,
          Could see the muck that from its sewers spilt. (71)

Throughout, individual courage is valued, but community is lauded more and they are joined in their quest by the Hope caravan:

          “Good prince, how can you fear this fellow’s fate?
          For if you stray, your friends will set you straight,
          And if you fall, your friends will help you stand.
          There’s safety, as they say, within a band.
          It’s when you are on your own the danger’s great. (77)

Greed is also deeply entwined with capitalism. His motto is “Get more” and he blows smoke out of his ears (78). Of course, Greed, an aspect of the human condition, is impossible to chase away but not fully defeat. It is only fitting then that the privileged Arthur ends up fighting with a “false knight” a twin of himself, and the “Gentle readers” are encouraged to take up their own quests (86).

Overall, the twenty-year-old Arnason can be forgiven the derivative nature of this book. For a college student, it is truly a work of genius. Although it sets the moral framework for the nearly sixty-year writing career that follows, Amnita should not be taken entirely seriously. Humor, as when Despondency is driven off in a rain of toads, is a driving force in this book. Lapses in elevated diction are intentional, and the book can be viewed as a parody of its sources. Arnason recently related that all her writing is intended to be “funny.” Check it out for yourself. You will love The Big Mama Stories [2013], Hidden Folk: Icelandic Fantasies [2014], and Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens [2016]. Find her also on the cover of the most recent issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is me-at-convergence-2.jpgSandra Lindow has served as Vice President and Acting President of SFPA. Her poetry has been seen in various markets including Asimov’s, Star*Line, Dreams and Nightmares, Dwarf Stars, and the Rhysling Anthologies. Her spec related editing includes Dwarf Stars, Eye to the Telescope, and most recently the Rhysling winners anthology, Alchemy of Stars II.  She lives on a hilltop in Menomonie, Wisconsin where she waits out the pandemic and attempts various strategies to keep varmints from eating her vegetables and perennials.

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