damsel
The fantasy setting of "Damsel" belies the novel's important social issues. (Illustration by Francesca Mahaney, Pratt Institute)

‘Damsel’ Uses Its Fantasy Setting to Portray a Tale of Abuse and Survival

Elana K. Arnold’s latest young adult novel subverts the typical damsel-in-distress storyline to say something bigger.

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damsel

Elana K. Arnold’s latest young adult novel subverts the typical damsel-in-distress storyline to say something bigger.

In a dark, unforgettable twist to the classic “damsel-in-distress” story, Elana K. Arnold’s “Damsel” shows a woman who is victimized by her “prince” instead of being rescued by him. By the end of the story, she defeats him and saves herself. Underlying the novel is the omnipresent theme of abuse on both a personal and societal level, particularly toward women.

“Damsel” is set in the kingdom of Harding, where every crown prince must slay a dragon and rescue a damsel before he can become king. The damsel is meant to become his wife and queen and bear him a son. That is her sole purpose. Emory, the crown prince of this story, slays a great, red dragon who creates massive, beautiful sculptures out of colorful glass. After he slays this dragon, he rescues a damsel with suspiciously red hair and bright, amber eyes. She has no memory of her name, where she comes from or why she was taken by the dragon. So, Emory names her Ama and takes her home to Harding.

On their journey home, Ama proves to be curious and headstrong, constantly asking questions and insisting on adopting a wildcat kitten after Emory killed its mother. Emory relents to the wildcat, but proceeds to continuously demean both the cat and her. Whenever Ama asks him questions, he answers vaguely or says, “Let’s not fill your head with such ugly things.”

They finally arrive at Harding, which is surrounded by a huge wall with colorful glass “eyes” pressed into its surface. Emory explains to Ama that the Eyes of Harding are said to bring good luck if they are pried from the wall. However, the punishment for this is severe and the Eyes are heavily guarded, so no one gets away with it.

Life in Harding is difficult for Ama, where she feels out of place and strange. Due to this feeling, she tries her best to conform to their society and please Emory. The longer Ama stays in Harding, the more obvious it becomes to the readers that Emory, as well as Harding’s entire social system, is abusive and oppressive towards women. It is made clear by Emory’s mother, her old handmaiden, one of the kitchen maids and Ama’s handmaiden that women only exist in the castle to serve the king.

The abuse begins the night Ama and Emory arrive in Harding. Emory visits Ama’s bedroom, expecting sexual favors, which Ama does not understand and is not willing to give. If not for her wildcat, Sorrow, Emory would have forced himself on her. He grows angry with the cat, threatening to hurt and get rid of it, but Ama protects it, promising to train it to become more passive and docile. The theme of abuse begins to loom larger and larger in the story. Despite the fantasy setting, the real life implications are obvious; many advocates for survivors of domestic abuse, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline, note that threatening to harm your pets is a sign of abuse and a tool that abusers use to control their victims.

The next morning, Ama learns that one of the kitchen maids receives frequent visits from Emory. Ama meets with the maid, attempting to make a deal with her that would keep Emory from visiting Ama. The kitchen maid laughs, explaining that it did not matter whether she or Ama enjoyed the advances, it only mattered what the king wanted and they should give whatever he asked for. This is made even clearer later in the story, when, on a carriage ride, Emory forces Ama to perform a sexual act on him by grabbing her hand and using it on himself. Again, the very real issue of abuse seeps through the fantasy setting, seen in another characteristic of abusers, the pressure to have sex or do things sexually that you’re not comfortable with.

After another incident where Ama’s cat tries to protect her, Emory lures her out of her room, leaving Sorrow alone. While they are gone, the cat is stolen. When she realizes this, she begins her frantic search; she runs through the city, eventually finding herself outside of the walls. In an act of desperation, she steals an Eye, to wish for her cat’s safety and protection for herself. Emory catches up with her just as the guards come to arrest her. After “saving” her, he gaslights her, saying that he didn’t steal Sorrow, she just got loose. He talks down to Ama, reprimanding her for trying to tame a “wild thing.”

Emory also constantly controls where she goes and who she sees. He keeps her confined to her rooms and makes it clear that she is not allowed outside of the castle unless she is with him. Another classic controlling behavior of abusers manifests itself — they “control who you see, where you go, and what you do” as well as “prevent you from making your own decisions.”

When this isolation begins to slowly kill her, her handmaiden takes her to see the castle glassblower, who makes the Eyes of Harding. Emory is made aware of this and allows for it, under the condition that Ama just watches the glassblower work. However, Ama has different ideas.

She asks the glassblower to teach her his craft, but eventually she exceeds him in skill, and he is the one sitting and watching. As she works, she slowly begins to piece herself back together and remember her life before Harding. However, just before she remembers everything, she is injured, and Emory discovers what she has been doing. He forbids her from returning to the glassblower’s shop, mirroring the trait of modern abusers who prevent their victims from working or going to school.

However, Ama finds her way back to the shop the night before their wedding. She works through the night and into the morning, creating a beautiful glass dragon. Emory bursts into the shop just as she finishes, livid. He yells at her and hits her, also destroying the dragon. But she is not fazed. She has realized her true power and identity — she was the dragon. He did not slay her, he merely transformed her. They have a brief battle and she defeats him, returning to her true form and flying off into the sunset, back to her art and her home.

This wonderfully dark standalone story shows how abuse can become ingrained in a society and how once a woman realizes her power, she can break that cycle.

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