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  • Patriarch, Parasite, and Pervert:Evil in The Magician of Hoad
  • Sarah Fiona Winters (bio)

The Magician of Hoad (Heriot in the U.K.) is Margaret Mahy’s last novel, published in 2008 after a quarter-century in the making.1 Her only fantasy set entirely in a secondary world, it was written in parallel with her other fantasies from The Haunting (1982) to Kaitangata Twitch (2005), all of which are set in the primary world. As such, it invites analysis as Mahy’s only engagement with the conventions of “high” fantasy, which, in C. W. Sullivan’s famous definition, consists of “seriousness of tone, importance of theme, characters of noble birth or lineage (secondary if not primary characters), emphasis on magic and mystery (and an almost total lack of technology and machinery as effective devices in the action), and a generally clear presentation of good and evil, right and wrong” (106).2 Most of these conventions of high fantasy fit The Magician of Hoad, save that Mahy’s tone is always too playful to be described as serious, but my argument here is that the presentation of good and evil in The Magician of Hoad is not clear, and that the construction of evil is both troubled and troubling because of the character of Betony Hoad.

The Magician of Hoad presents three antagonists: Carlyon the Hero, Izachel the Magician, and Betony Hoad the Prince. These three villains embody three ideas about evil: Carlyon is cultural evil, or evil as patriarchy; Izachel is natural evil, or evil as parasitism; Betony is supernatural evil, or evil as perversion. By patriarchy, I mean the threefold idea of literal fatherhood, of a political system in which men rule, and of a culture in which males use their superior physical strength to dominate women and children. By parasitism, I mean the orthodox Christian view of evil as dependent upon goodness for its own existence, imbued with but not defined by the biological use of the term. By perversion, I mean the metaphysical sense of the will turning away from the correct course, but I include and examine the problematic implications in regard to sexuality. Two heroes, [End Page 204] Heriot and Cayley, are necessary to defeat these three types of evil: Heriot vanquishes both Izachel and Betony, while Cayley destroys Carlyon. I argue that the story of Izachel succeeds in both aesthetic and ethical terms but without being particularly interesting; that the story of Carlyon is also successful but in a far more original and nuanced way; and that the story of Betony Hoad is aesthetically a brilliant success, but ethically a fascinating and somewhat troubling failure.

The representation of evil in English literature in general and fantasy in particular owes much to the myths and theology of Christianity. Although in no way a Christian writer, Mahy both knew and enjoyed Christian art and thought. She said of her adolescence that “If, at the time, I exercised any sort of religious faith it was out of romanticism, but after all, Christianity is a romantic story, one which has affected me deeply at times” (Duder 61); she studied the philosophy of religion at the University of Canterbury (Duder 76); and when asked in an interview if she was religious, replied,

Oh yes, I think that I am probably very religious in a way. If I am asked to write down my religion I usually put “agnostic” because it seems easier, but it depends, I suppose, on what you mean by religious. I have trouble where basic acts of faith about a personal God and creation and questions like this are concerned. It is very difficult to me to line up with a particular form of dogma, but sometimes when I am talking to people who are Christians I think that our views are probably very similar.

(Duder 140–41)

One of the ways in which Mahy’s view of the world appears to be “very similar” to that of Christianity is certainly her understanding of evil. Most fantasy constructs the conflict between good and evil within a creative tension of Dualism and Christianity. In Dualism (the idea informing the religions of Zoroastrianism and Manicheism), good and...


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