Here’s an excellent example of how children’s books can serve to illustrate difficult realities both of the past and the present.
In Parsifal’s Page by Gerald Morris, Parsifal the would-be knight and his page Piers come upon a sobbing woman on an old mare. The woman is dressed in “rags, and [with] huge holes gaped on every side, revealing red, chapped flesh.” Parsifal gently offers her his cloak.
The woman shook her head abruptly. “No!” she whispered. “Please go away! If he sees you, he’ll kill you.”
“I don’t know who you mean,” Parsifal said. “But it little matters. Here, take the cloak.”
“I cannot! If he sees that I’ve taken the cloak from someone, from another man, then-”
The woman broke off as a knight in ill-kept armor galloped madly out of the forest. “Aha!” the knight shouted. “I’ve caught you again! Consorting with another of your paramours!”
“No, no,” gasped the woman, sobbing.
“Do you know this woman?” Parsifal asked the furious knight.
“Know her? She is my wife!” the knight screamed.
The knight, Duke Orilus, goes on to accuse his wife of being a trollop (slut, in modern day terms), unfaithful to him. Apparently there was another knight who met the woman, kissed her and took a ring from her finger. The furious husband rails his wife Lady Jeshute for allowing this to happen, blaming her for the other knight’s actions, even despite her pleas of innocence.
“Ha!” the knight snapped. He turned back to Parsifal. “Have you ever heard such a story? She claims that while she was awaiting me in a grand pavilion, set with a feast for my dinner, a strange knight came upon her, ate of my feast, kissed her, and took my ring from her finger. And in all this she is innocent! Doxy!”
Even when Parsifal confesses he was the foolish knight and that the lady spoke the truth, the combative Duke Orilus is undeterred in his rage against Jeshute. It’s obvious that her tattered and painful condition is a result of months of her husband’s ill treatment.
“Have you treated your wife this way ever since that day?” The knight did not answer, but Parsifal continued as if he had said yes. “That has been nine months, friend. I would kill a man for treating a dog in such a manner for so long.”
Parsifal and Orilus duel. The Duke is easily beaten several times. However, Jeshute pleads for her husband’s life because, she says, she loves him.
“Then you are a fool, madam. But for your sake, I will spare him,” says Parsifal.
Later, Piers notes with amazement that “Orilus and Jeshute had forgiven each other everything and were behaving like newlyweds. They made him feel ill.”
Morris adapted this and many other tales from Chretien de Troie’s Arthurian poems. We may have come a long way since those ages-plumbing, human rights, that sort of thing- but there are still plenty of Duke Oriluses and Lady Jeshutes around. The terror, the mistreatment, and the confusion of victims is real today. The blaming, the inflicting of pain, the deafness to pleas and reason, and the rage of the abuser is real today. Parsifal’s indictment of Lady Jeshute as a fool is harsh.It recognizes that the danger faced by abuse victims is amplified by their confusion. It illustrates the inability of those looking in on such a relationship to understand why the victim stays. How does one understand the power plays of manipulation and other emotionally abusive tactics unless they’re experienced personally?
Kudos, Morris, for not shying away from such a clear illustration of domestic abuse sprinkled with a little rape culture.Reading fiction that demonstrates the very real patterns of domestic abuse never hurts if you’re going to walk around in everyday life with your eyes open.