Decades ago, writers were encouraged to write spoofs of their own work for the April Fool issue of a fantasy magazine that subsequently went under. If I remember correctly (and I may not) it was a semiprozine, with a non-shiny cover, and the cover of that issue was a sort of sage green. Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the magazine, and can't remember the title or the editor's name (I have problems remembering names I don't use often--no insult intended.) However: I decided to do a fake academic paper analyzing my own work, as if written by someone else. Now that I have access to the internet (I didn't then) I've been able to read a lot more real academic papers analyzing other writers' work...this does not compare too badly, given that it's all one big April Fool's jest.
Jakes, Jacks, and Johns: An Analysis of Elizabeth Moon's Use of Waste
Several reviewers have commented on Elizabeth Moon's apparent fascination with lowtech sewage treatment facilities; some believe this enhances the realistic "feel" of a low-tech setting, which they assume to be medieval. But careful analysis of the entire corpus of this writer reveals that human excreta has in fact a metaphorical significance so far not appreciated.
In the first place, her choice of the word "jacks" for the privies, outhouses, garderobes, and latrines might seem to be related to the traditional "jakes" or the more modern "johns," as "Jack" is often a nickname for "John." She herself has claimed this derivation (J.T., personal communication). It is only necessary, however, to consider the setting in which these "jacks" appear to realize another, more ominous, significance in the name.
The first use of "jacks" is in the military-adventure novel Sheepfarmer's Daughter, in which recruits are set to dig a trench, Trenches, of course. are traditional military defensive emplacements. And the military form of "jacks" is the caltrop (children's jacks are merely miniature caltrops), used defensively against cavalry (originally) and later against vehicles, whose tires they puncture.
So it is obvious that "jacks" has a military significance unrelated to any previous term for latrine, and that Moon linked (consciously or unconsciously) the defensive concepts of trenches and caltrops in her use of that term. When one considers the Freudian theories of character formation, in which defensiveness of a certain type is associated with the anal stage of development, one cannot doubt that the use of the term "jacks" implies absolute defensiveness of the most entrenched (or embedded) type. Throughout the novels, one finds repeated instances of compulsive or obsessive acts which support this hypothesis.
It would be easy to dismiss the existence of so many defense images as required by the military setting of the story, were it not that the writer is a woman who has chosen the pen name of "Moon." Male writers of military fiction usually make much more use of phallic-aggressive images; the concentration here on trenches, jacks, and cooktents (the characters eat several times during the book), and the number of walled cities (whose meaning is obvious to the least instructed!) suggested an overwhelmingly female approach (or defense) to the conventions of military fiction. The name "Moon" suggests a fixation on rhythmic fertility cycles, and a tragic subconscious conflict in this writer's mind between the desire to compete safely in a male arena (and this is even more strongly borne out in Divided Allegiance where the arena is explicit) and a deep female need to reproduce and express nurturance.
More evidence of such conflict comes with understanding that the protagonist's name might as easily have been spelt "Pax"--meaning "peace"--and that the first military mentor this poor peace-loving girl met was named "Stammel"--an almost Joycean neologism combining "stammer" and "trammel" to reveal the basic conflict. She was "trammeled" or trapped (the metaphoric linkage to the spider demon called the Tangler is powerful) by someone whose goals (again) were subconsciously confused--hence the "stammer" converting "Trammel" to "Stammel." The mercenary commander's name also bears such reinterpretation: "Kieri Phelan" can be pronounced (in what I presume to be Moon's native southwestern dialect) as "Keer he Fay-lin" or "Care(s) he, (is he) Feeling?" In other words, as a poignant query to the destroyer (commander) about his motivation in pursuing war. (One can almost imagine this as the refrain of one of those wailing nasal country-western songs the writer must have heard so often in her youth.)
Throughout this first novel, the author's emphasis is on the character's survival. The minutiae of techniques used to survive a few days of walking across country with friends reveals the link between defense (recall that the characters sheltered behind a thorny bush--again, caltrops, or "jacks"--and slept in hollows [= trenches]) and survival. More deeply, of course, these hollows and thorny bushes represent the vulnerability and defenses inherent in female anatomy. Compulsive elements abound, additional indication of psychological (as well as military) defenses.
Divided Allegiance, the second novel, presents more evidence that for this writer survival as a female involves elaborate and difficult defenses. Paks, or Peace, repudiates the cruelties of the mercenary life, and chooses to become a caravan guard--again, a defensive position. But she bears a secret message to the north (the North, of course. signifies the intellect) from--not her own commander, Cares-he?--but Aliam Halveric. Halveric is immediately familiar to anyone who is conversant with the rather limited literature of Upper Boglund (annexed in the 13th c., of course.) One knows instantly that the short bald husband of a tall dark-haired archer is none other than Fierdi Loppleggin, the "low-father" of his race. The significance of "Cares-he?" not having children. and of the maiming of Halveric's (Loppleggin's) eldest son is thus shown forth. Peace has chosen fertility (again) over the uncaring destructive force represented by the Red Duke (red signifying not blood but fire, in this instance.) But the price paid becomes clear only in the third volume (a complete analysis of which will appear later in a scholarly journal. For interim analyses of Divided Allegiance and Oath of Gold, see also Burks, Jamerson, and Norris: "Verse and Perverse: Poetry in Modern Fantasy", "Arachniphobia in Women Writers of the 20th Century," and "Color Analysis as an Aid to Interpretation of Metaphoric Intent in Women's Writing.")
Surrender None, overtly a tale of a peasant revolt, shares many of the same elements. One of the first things the young boy taken for guard training learns is to put ashes (mourning) on the jacks. This has several possible interpretations: the ashes may mourn the "gift" of fertility which rests in the jacks, or the "gift" of life which soldiers must expect to lose as involuntarily as they eventually contribute their nitrogen load. The boy's mother (highly significant) is repeatedly shown to be a fanatic about cleanliness, even to claiming that "demons" inhabit dirt and cause disease. As one would expect, a concern with cleanliness is shown to be a female trait, which the male protagonist has taken in and failed to expel. His associates express surprise at his attitudes, and chide him for it.
But what a writer omits is often as important as what he or she includes. In the first three books, one might have suspected a difficulty with fertility and reproduction, since the main character never had a sexual relationship or a child. Concentration on excretion rather than reproduction suggests deep-seated conflicts in the writer's own psychology. Surrender None, however, is rife with reproduction and sexual encounters, although many potential relationships and births are truncated by violence (again, a very female approach to this issue, since many male writers present war as a sexual excitant.) Moon also seems to have some bias against small domestic animals, since there are few dogs or cats in the books, and no major character has a pet.
Yet the most highly significant omission in Moon's books is that of the common word for human excreta. Now quite acceptable in print, this word is surely known even to the writer; in fact (S.S., personal communication) she is known to have used it verbally. Why, then, does it not appear where one would expect it to be most common? Why so many jacks, and so little shit?
The omission cannot be accidental, which means that it offers another opportunity to probe the writer's intent. The most obvious clue comes from the word itself, which can be seen as a compression of "she" into "it." Again, in the southwestern dialect, the common pronunciation is "shee-it!" If one returns to the protagonist of the first three books, the young girl Peace, who in the process of militarization acts against her own feminine nature of fertility to become a neuter (note that she never takes a lover of either sex), then "she" has become "it" by engaging in repeated acts of survival-oriented defense, involving trenches (anatomically significant!) and "jacks." And the result is precisely that "shit" which then preoccupies the author through not only a trilogy but a prequel!
Survivalists, especially right-wing survivalists, are often perceived as being rigid, defensive. and anal...so the link to survivalism is also quite obvious to the trained mind. Commonly such persons are assumed to be male, but in recent years women have begun expressing an interest in survival as well. One well-known group of religious survivalists is even led by a woman, and although Moon's first novels were written before that group was organized, it is conceivable that she was influenced by this changing attitude among women. Yet the path to feminist survivalism is beset by many dangers, which this author recognizes (consciously or not) and expresses as concern for traditional female responsibilities (fertility and cleanliness) and by denying (in the avoidance of a common English word) that women survivors have changed from "she" to "it," even when all other evidence would make that precise conversion obvious.