I would first like to make one thing clear. I really love Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree, Patricia McKillip's Ombria in Shadow and Libba Bray's The Sweet Far Thing. Long passages of descriptive writing have been known to bore me, but I can read McKillip's description of an orange for five pages because it is bee-yoo-tiful. I love the way women are the movers and shakers in Libba Bray's Victorian boarding school plus magical land books, and in particular I have a fearful girl-crush on arrogant blonde Felicity Worthington. Susan Cooper is just a flat-out genius and I only wish I'd read her Dark Is Rising series as a child and grown up with that fantastic world a familiar place in my brain.
That said: there is one thing that all three books have in common which I find extremely unsettling.
Imagine if the Lord of the Rings had contained a scene like this...
PIPPIN: Hey Frodo. I'm so glad that you decided to get over all that Ring business.
FRODO: Ring? What ring? Have you lost one, Pippin old chap?
FRODO: Have you looked under the sofa cushions?
PIPPIN: Well - not in Mount Doom. Er, Frodo, my man, how did you lose that finger?
FRODO: Well now, I don't think I quite recall - uh, no - Was Sam involved somehow?
PIPPIN: Yes! Yes, you've got it!
FRODO: I don't blame him at all. Poor fellow. Those gardening shears can be awfully tricky.
... You may not recall this exchange from The Lord of the Rings. Probably because it isn't in there.
Now on one hand, a Frodo who didn't remember everything that happened to him in The Lord of the Rings would be a significantly better-adjusted chap. He'd be able to stay in the home he loves and the neighbours would be really relieved he'd stopped with the eye-twitching and he wouldn't have to go into death/exile/the Grey Lands.
But if he didn't remember what had happened to him, the heroism and the villainy he was capable of, the friends he'd made and the evil he fought, well then - what would be the point of The Lord of the Rings? Frodo couldn't have learned anything. And what would we be meant to take from books in which the events of the books were better wiped from the characters' minds?
In Ombria in Shadow reality is changed so a different series of events happen after a prince's death than the series of events we have watched unfold around the prince's heir, the prince's mistress, a mysterious artist and a girl who may or may not be made out of wax. These characters we have watched learn lessons about humanity and hardship no longer know these lessons. They have a victory, but they don't know they achieved the victory. They don't even remember the war.
In Silver on the Tree the Side of Light remove all memory of the story of Arthurian magic and epic struggle from the minds of the five ordinary (...ish) humans who have been growing up and making incredibly difficult choices over five books. Two of those five people have made the most important decisions of their lives, made choices that involved enormous sacrifice and changed themselves, their view of themselves and their view of the world, utterly. That's all just gone.
The Sweet Far Thing is better: all the main characters remember everything that happens to them and learn from them and change their lives according to what they've learned. But at one point nightmarish creatures from a fairytale land gone wrong break out into the Victorian boarding school, and later the headmistress asks the heroine, Gemma, to wipe this memory from the minds of the boarding school ladies-in-training so their, you know, lady in training lives can go on smoothly as planned.
And then Gemma says 'Why should I?' and I punched the air and went 'Yes! Gemma, I love you! You can kiss The Beautiful Miss Worthington even, if you like! THAT is how much I love you!'
Then Gemma did wipe their minds, and saw it as a form of healing, though she does leave a seed of doubt about the world in their minds just in case. Which is more than we get in the other books.
But - but - why does this keep happening? Really, I do not get it, will someone please 'splain to me why?
I get that bad things can traumatise the hell out of you. And people in the real world, they suppress memories! But that's generally seen as - you know - a bad thing. They go to therapy to have the memories all unsuppressed.
It's also an interesting thing, because this issue can only arise in this genre. Specific memory wipe can only happen in fantasy or sci-fi. We alone have the technology! (Or the magic. Whichever floats your spaceship/flies your carpet.)
I mean, picture anyone trying to selectively wipe someone's memory in Jane Eyre.
ROCHESTER: *hits Jane over the head with a chair* Do you still remember I have a mad wife in the attic?
JANE: Yes! And also, OW, you bigamous chair-wielding jackass!
ROCHESTER: *bops Jane again* Do you still remember I have a mad wife in the attic?
JANE: Stop asking me that AND QUIT HITTING ME!
ROCHESTER: *bops Jane a third time* Do you still remember I have a mad wife in the attic?
JANE: Oh my God, what, you have a mad wife? And you keep her in the attic?
ROCHESTER: ... oh damn.
Yeah, so it wouldn't work. But if it did work - I mean, certainly it would be nicer and less upsetting for Jane to not know about Rochester's crazy wife. But it would also be terrible, because then she would be living a lie and not making her big terrible choices.
I am not so into the hair shirts. I don't think suffering is necessary for redemption. But if suffering has happened, I would want to remember it.
I will now quote from awesome Terry Pratchett's awesome book A Hat Full of Sky which has his heroine Tiffany listing qualities that make her who she is, finishing with the words "I'm made up of everyone I've ever met who's changed the way I think. So who is 'me'?"
And who are you if those people you've met, you no longer remember meeting? Who are you, indeed? A piece of you has been stolen.
I mean, I've had pretty bad things happen to me. Nothing too terrible, I suppose: I was always unhappy that they'd happened, but sort of glad that I'd learned more about the world, more about who to trust and who not to trust, and who I was from the way I responded to them. If I learned someone had taken any bad memories from me I would feel furious and violated on too many levels to count. I can't help recoiling from the idea of such a thing with horror. I don't think it should happen to anyone, not ever. Every moment that I've ever lived is mine, and is me.
Certainly, I've never found out I was married to Ultimate Evil. (There was this one boyfriend at college, he belonged to a drama group, I... oh no, surely not.) Maybe there are some memories so terrible they should be erased. I don't think so - and I am not asking anyone to share their traumas on the world wide web - but if you do think so, I'd love to hear about it.
I think I would feel less strongly about this if I didn't really like these books, but I do. I think they're all really great stories and I was with them until this happened and until it was portrayed as a positive thing.
So it happens in three great stories. There must be a reason. I can't see it - but I would love to hear thoughts on why it keeps happening, and why it should.
In summary - I think you should all read these books, and I am against magically induced amnesia! Are you?