Book Review: The Story of Silence by Alex Myers Is A Transgender Fairy Tale Perfect For Pride
Every once in awhile a book comes along that completely blows my expectations out of the water. The Story of Silence by Alex Myers was one of those books. Based on the old French legend – Le Roman de Silence – the story delves into the history of a knight who was born a woman, but raised as a man. There are plenty of tricky gender politics, and a lot of discussion over nature versus nurture. The book also asks what it means to exhibit knightly virtues like chivalry, courage, mercy, and faith. It also draws a lot from the more obscure aspects of Arthurian legend. Including the great wizard Merlin living as a beast in the forest due to a curse. This gender-bending fairy tale has a lot of layers to peel back, so let’s take a look at The Story of Silence by Alex Myers.
Image via Harper Collins
The Story of Silence And Nature Vs. Nurture
The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries | Image via Wikimedia Commons
Silence is actually the name of the main character, who was born to the noble lord of England in the days after the king decreed that no women could inherit land. Lord Cador is stricken with grief when his wife dies in childbirth. And he fears losing his estate when his child is born female. So he conspires with a midwife to conceal the gender of his child. The midwife takes Silence away to a secluded estate to raise him as a boy, in hopes that one day he will inherit his father’s titles and estate.
The question of nature versus nurture arises as Silence grows up, training to become a knight. It is all that he has ever wanted, and when he learns the truth of his birth he feels betrayed. He is more determined than ever to become a knight, to keep his secret closely guarded, and to fulfil the expectations of his father. The gender roles of medieval England are undeniably strict. Women are the gentle maidens who do needlework all day and swoon over a joust. The majority of the men are knights, who must adhere to a strict code of conduct. Silence doesn’t understand how to be a woman, and has no interest in womanly pursuits. But he also suffers under the moral conundrum of adhering to the knightly virtues that include truth as a basic tenet. How can he live his truth, while still pursuing his dreams?
In the original legend – Le Roman de Silence – there are personifications of Nature and Nurture that show up at one point to debate with Silence about their gender identity. This is one element of the original text that I wish had made it into the book. There is magic in abundance with Merlin, and the dragon. So including the goddess of Nature would have been a nice addition, to further delve into the theme of Nature vs Nurture.
Living The Knightly Virtues
Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash
The story follows Silence as he moves from his isolated home to his father’s court. This is where he trains to be a knight while keeping his secret. It follows him across the sea to France, where he becomes a traveling bard before returning to knightly duties for a French lord. Silence harbors a secret love for his best friend, but can never act on his feelings for fear of revealing his secret, or else be viewed as homosexual.
In the end a false rape accusation forces Silence to take action to prove his innocence. He ventures deep into the heart of the enchanted forest to find Merlin. Along the way he slays a dragon, and breaks the curse on the wizard. Silence proves himself to be the truest of knights. And he finally learns to accept his dual nature as both male and female. They reveal themselves to the court, only to find a marriage proposal from the king laid at their feet.
A Happy Ending?
This is where the legend takes a metafictional turn. The framing device of the story is such that Silence is telling it to another bard at a quiet inn. This is the first time that Silence has ever told the truth of their story, from beginning to whatever ending they are in the midst of creating.
The novel gives us two endings. There is the “happy” fairy tale ending where Silence accepts their nature as a woman and becomes Queen. This is the ending that the original French legend gives. And then there is the better ending, the one that is not so neatly wrapped up. The ending where Silence refuses the marriage proposal. Where they strike out to live as a gender-fluid individual in a world that doesn’t know what to do with them. A wandering knight who has given up all titles and estates. But they have not given up on living the knightly virtues that they adhere to so strongly.
Archaic Gender Dynamics Are Sometimes Frustrating
The Accolade by Edmund Leighton | Image via Wikimedia Commons
The gender dynamics in this novel are sometimes uncomfortable to read. I know that the author was trying to adhere to the reality of medieval English/French life. But there are some notably sexist passages about the women of the world that didn’t quite feel necessary to the text. And the false rape accusation made me literally groan aloud, because I’m so tired of that trope. I know that this plot point – along with the way women are depicted – is true to the original text of the French legend, so I understand why it was included. However, the women of this book certainly get a short shrift. They are described as vapid, selfish, and vain creatures. No wonder Silence doesn’t want to be one of them.
The author could have done a bit more to update this aspect of the story. There is one female character in the book that Silence bonds with, and even considers marrying at one point. But she is only in the text briefly, an underused character who could have been given a larger role. This would have been the perfect opportunity to show Silence the positive aspects of being a woman. As they learn to accept both the feminine along with the masculine. But the author was clearly trying to stay true to the original text, and only truly veers off-book at the end.
Photo by Cederic Vandenberghe on Unsplash
Despite my qualms with the portrayal of women in the book, I do have to say that I enjoyed the The Story of Silence by Alex Myers. It was a fascinating take on a post-Arthurian legend that I was not as familiar with. And it tackles the gender identity issue with nuance and care. The writing is lyrical and elegant, never falling into the stuffy archaic language typical with medieval stories. At times this book reminded me of other stories about children raised as the opposite gender than what they were born. Fans of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, or the popular theatrical production/film Hedwig and the Angry Inch will certainly find a lot to ponder in The Story of Silence. And for more books to read during Pride, check out our list of some of the best queer fantasy novels for your reading lists.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.