Tim Powers’ 1987 novel of fantastical pirate adventure has had an outsized influence on me despite my only having read it this past month. This is largely to do with Secret of Monkey Island and other films, books, and games that were directly inspired by or shamelessly burgled from On Stranger Tides. The book is quite the ride and having blasted through it, I see why it took on such a legendary status. However I want to use my stage to talk very specifically about this book and that is its portrayal of women, particularly how for much of the book they are reduced to something consumable.
Readers coming to this book familiar with Anne Bonny, Elaine Marley, Elizabeth Swann, or Morgan Adams might be forgiven for expecting to see a similar heroine on display but Powers instead gives us women who are largely passive and while they may inspire the actions of the hero and villains, rarely make decisions for themselves. Beyond that and perhaps of more visceral discomfort is what they inspire, particularly in the villains.
Elizabeth Hurwood is the woman we spend most time with and who gets both more dialogue and agency albeit her most direct and consequential action is saved for the epilogue. Throughout the majority of the book she is unwillingly dragged across the Caribbean by her troubled father Benjamin Hurwood and his unctuous accomplice Leo Friend (who, by the way, if we’re gonna get a real movie adaptation of this book, needs to be played by Josh Gad because come on).
Hurwood, we discover, needs her for an unholy ritual to annihilate her mind and soul and cram the unwilling soul of her deceased mother into her body. Friend has the rather unsubtle plan to just ravage her although it’s not enough to violate her physically (which she is fortunately spared from) but instead wants to become so powerful a sorcerer that he can bend her will and reality to make her crave him of her own volition. Friend, we also come to learn is motivated by a disturbing Oedipal lust which we are forced to witness in various ways before he is, to our relief, blown up in a magic duel.
Elizabeth also comes to the attention of Blackbeard who, very late in the book, reveals that magic has a gendered component and to take full advantage of it, a practitioner needs to be married so as to access feminine magic. To this end, Blackbeard reveals that he’s had a series of marriages that have consumed many women and at the end, needs Elizabeth as his bride since she is the only woman whose blood mingled at the Fountain of Youth. This culminates in the aforementioned epilogue where finally Elizabeth takes direct action and marries Jack Shandy right then and there, amplifying his own magical prowess and denying Blackbeard his nuptial goal.
The trope of the “attractive lamp” is a useful one for thinking of stories that reduce women to objects that the more active male characters trade around, fight over, and obsess about but in On Stranger Tides, women and particularly Elizabeth are not merely desired as ornamentation but to be wholly consumed and used up except by our hero. It creates for a disturbing story and ups the stakes but should not go without pause or consideration about how these stories reduce women down not just to objects but dehumanizes them even further. We can contrast it with the Hannibal series which likewise is about the consumption of others but takes an equal opportunity approach and in a perversion of aesthetics, elevates the act of consumption to art and worship. We are not given such illusions of dignity in On Stranger Tides but instead invited to roll around in the muck and sit with there with our discomfort, like the frequently mentioned toy soldier unable to get back to the store window.