Literary Ladies Cage Fight: Winter of Our Discontent -The Toast

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Previous Literary Ladies Cage Fight columns can be found here.


Hey there, gal-pals! Hope you’ve been absolutely fabulous since we last hung out. Also hope you are ready for another wonderful cage match!

Greetings. Since the world is paying penance for its obsession with the Disney film Frozen and we seemed to be locked in an eternal winter until very recently, I have decided to present two characters from childhood favorites. It seemed appropriate because when spring seems like it will never come, all sensible people ought to cozy up with a treasured classic novel, a mug of tea, and an afghan. Knitted by a relative, preferably, although any afghan will do.

I love Frozen! It’s about sisters, just like us! But I am always in favor of more childhood classics. So who’s up this week?

I present to you Lyra Belacqua of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy versus Meg Murry of Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quartet. Prepare for Literary Ladies Cage Fight: The Winter of Our Discontent!

Same rules as always, ladies. For the purposes of fairness, we are going to stick mostly to the first book in each series as opposed to evaluating the whole thing (unless we have to dip into the other stuff). So, let the match begin!


Round One: Harry Potter House

Meg Murry is a preteen girl who is a few years too early to benefit from the “brainy is the new sexy” trend. She’s a math genius but not so hot at other subjects, and she hates her hair, braces, and glasses. Like any preteen, she’s awkward and socially clumsy, but she’s BFFs with her little brother, telepathic-child-of-the-corn-who-is-somehow-sweet Charles Wallace. I want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to lighten up! Then give her a hug. And possibly a haircut. She’s smart enough to be a Ravenclaw, for sure, and brave enough to be a Gryffindor, but it’s her love of her brother that saves the day, and her own self-effacement that defines her, so in a close call, I’ll call Meg a Hufflepuff.

Lyra Belacqua is a the daughter of two very deranged scientists, like if Meg’s parents went to the Dark Side. She grows up blissfully unaware of this fact, however, as a mascot of sorts for the Oxford University stand-in Jordan College. The opening scene sees her thwart a poisoner, and her adventures get more wild from there. She is clever, resourceful, and a gifted liar. She is nicknamed Lyra Silvertongue for her mendacious skills. The Silvertongue and Parselmouth comparison is an easy one and apt in this situation. Lyra makes plans and she succeeds, and nobody will stand in her way. She is definitely a Slytherin.

Winner: Lyra. She doesn’t waste time bemoaning her braces, she gets stuff done. This pint-sized heroine is a serious Boss Bitch.


Round Two: Sidekick

Artie, I’m so proud you’re using some contemporary slang—look at you! But back to Meg. She’s got a lot of people who help her along the way—hunky neighbor Calvin O’Keefe (who I totally crushed on as a kid), Aunt Beast (SOBS OF LOVE) and the Mrs. Who/Whatsit/Which. While each of these is totally excellent, her real sidekick is her brother, Charles Wallace. He’s the one who can read her mind and comforts her when she misses Dad or is upset about school. She gets in fights to defend him from the other kids in town, who are rightfully scared of the blonde haired, blue eyed mini Rain Man. Despite whatever you may think of him, he is a huge force in Meg’s life, helping her (indirectly) beat the bad guys, realize adults don’t know everything, and how to stand up for herself.

Lyra, similarly, is assisted by a number of people, including several mythical creatures, such as a witch and an armored, talking polar bear. Yes, you read that right—talking polar bear. If you haven’t read these books because you were too busy drooling over Harry Potter when they came out, do yourself a favor and read them now. If for nothing else, for the talking polar bears. But alas, Iorek Byrnison the Armored Bear is not Lyra’s most important sidekick. That honor is reserved for Pantalaimon, her daemon. He is the physical manifestation of her soul, and he can shapeshift. He is (obviously) her constant companion and friend. It’s sometimes tempting to think of daemons as pokemon-like buddies, but when Lyra first meets a boy who has been separated from his daemon, it is clear that these creatures are not just friends, they are their children’s souls.

Winner: Meg. Because Lyra’s sidekick is technically herself, and that’s cheating. I cannot offer points for the armored bear, either, no matter how much I would like to do so.


18131Round Three: Love Interest

Meg falls head over heels for the neighbor boy, Calvin O’Keefe. I carried a torch for that boy for years, let me tell you. He’s popular at school, but a nice boy anyway, who sees the real Meg behind her self-loathing. L’Engle based the character on her husband, and it’s obvious how much she loves him, which keeps him from becoming a Gary Stu. He’s one of eleven kids and has to wear girls’ hand-me-downs. He gets swept up in the crazy quest to find Mr. Murry, and totally doesn’t mind about the time and space travel. And when he kisses Meg before she goes to save Charles Wallace, we all swoon. He is swoony! He is pretty close to perfect, IMO. Oh, Calvin…we should all be so lucky.

I suppose the Goddess of Love is allowed to get a bit sidetracked in the love department, but going forward let’s keep the editorial a bit more professional, shall we? Alright. Now, I have to make an exception here and include the other two books of the His Dark Materials trilogy in order to get to the Lyra’s love interest. I trust this will not interfere with the contest, since Lyra is only 11 when the series starts, so Meg has a few years’ head start in the love department.

Will Parry is a boy from another world, the living personification of the strong, silent type. His father disappeared when he was young and his mother is sick, so he is basically an orphan, which causes him to grow up quickly and learn to take care of himself. He’s not intimidating physically but people are afraid to fight him or look into his eyes. When he and Lyra meet, he initially writes her off as silly and haughty, but as they traverse worlds and fight ghosts and other supernatural beings together, they eventually fall in love. Will has some serious angst in the series: Will finally meets his father, only to watch him be murdered right before his eyes. He gets two fingers cut off by a magic knife and becomes its bearer. And in the end (SPOILER ALERT), in order to save the world, he and Lyra must be separated forever, forced to return to their own worlds. It’s enough to make one cry, if one ever cried or had other emotions besides anger. Which I do not, of course.

WINNER: Draw! Both Lyra and Meg land super-sweet hunks who admire and support them without caging them in at all. They love the girls “just as they are.” (OMG LOVE COLIN FIRTH IN BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY, RIGHT!) Maybe love interests that don’t make the girls into supporting characters are part of why these books are so popular, hmm?


Round Four: Tragic Flaw

We’ve already talked about Meg’s, which is that she doesn’t know how awesome she is! She thinks she is dumb and ugly and constantly compares herself to her mom, who is smart and beautiful. I mean, props to recognizing the awesomeness that is your mom, but still…you gotta show yourself some love! As a teen, I totally got where she was coming from(and that’s part of why she’s beloved…she feels so REAL) but as an adult I want to repeatedly her and make her listen to some Fleetwood Mac and help her love her woman-self. I know she grows up into a stronger, more confident gal, but watching her wallow in teenager-dom is sometimes painful.

Lyra’s tragic flaw is probably the opposite of Meg’s. She is very cocky and self-assured, completely confident she is right and will be able to come out on top of every situation. It’s interesting to look at the two girls as different points on the same path: many bright young girls become timid young women due to societal pressures, role models, and the media. It’s a phenomenon called “going undercover” and it makes me quake with a murderous rage. STOP UNDERMINING WOMEN! LET WOMEN ROAR! But I digress.Throughout the series, Lyra grows and changes, ultimately ending up a more mature (but undiminished) woman. One hopes that if Lyra and Meg met as adult women, they would recognize each other as kindred spirits and commit many a brave feminist caper.

Aww, Artie, that’s sweet! WINNER: Lyra, because in too confident vs. not confident enough, we’ll choose confident every time.


Round Five: Happy Ending

So, the end of the book and the end of the series are pretty different, but in both, Meg ends up very happy. She saves her dad, basically saves the whole world, and gets to go home to her beloved mom, with long-lost Dad in tow. In the rest of the series, she marries Calvin (of course), has a ton of kids, and grows up to be as beautiful and smart as we always knew she would be. So either way, it’s pretty much a home run for Meg. She worked her ass off for it, but she gets her happy ending. Yay!! 

Lyra also saves the world, but her victory is not without a dreadful cost. In order to restore balance to the worlds, Lyra and Will, newly besotted with each other, must separate forever. They choose a park bench that exists in both their worlds and vow to return to it every year on a chosen date so that they can be near each other, but that’s about as good as it gets. So, yes, things turn out well for humanity and the universe, but Lyra’s happiness is the price.


WINNER: Meg. She saves the world AND rides off into the sunset with her freckled beau. And it manages not to feel patronizing or too sappy. So well done, all around.

Holy moly it’s a tie!! Two rounds each and a draw!! The first time in LLCF history!!!! Well, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer pair of ladies!! See you next time, gal-pals!!

Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.

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