Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Bath Scene in Fantasy Novels

(There are SPOILERS below for Magic's Price, The Blue Sword, Sabriel and Luck in the Shadows)

As I stand on the verge of writing one myself, I'm giving some thought to the ubiquitous fantasy novel bath scene. The bathing scene is a perfectly standard part of novels that tell the story of a character settling into a new life. The bath seems to signal a moment of transition from an old life into a new one.

As a weak example, take the novels of Mercedes Lackey. There's probably at least one bath scene in every single one--some are transitional, others merely comforting. Talia is introduced to the baths on her first day at Haven, with their convenient copper boiler full of pre-heated water. Vanyel also gets a number of baths, most notably his introduction to the Tayledras hot springs when Savil first transports him to their domain, which signifies the beginning of his healing process. Apart from their function in the plot, the bath scenes illustrate the level of technology--and even luxury--present in the setting. They also make a convenient backdrop for scenes of personal reflection, and they evoke the comforts of home. They also, just occasionally, give the characters a chance to check each other out in the nude.

Another weak example is the bath scene at Crickhollow in The Fellowship of the Ring. Crickhollow is the hobbits' last stop before leaving the shire, and the bath is a last moment of carefree intimacy before they leave the lands they know for good.

But there is a widespread version of the bath scene that has three main elements in common. One, as in the above examples, the bath falls at a point of transition between an old and a new life for the bather. Two, there are servants who want to help the bather, but the bather rejects, or tries to reject, their attentions. Three, the bather's old clothes are whisked away, to be replaced with unexpectedly fine but distressingly unfamiliar new clothes.

For an example of this type, we can turn to Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, in which Harry gets not one, but two baths. First, after being kidnapped by the king, she clashes with the well-meaning male bath attendants in Corlaths' traveling camp. Her dressing gown is taken away, and Damarian clothing is provided. She feels vulnerable in the new clothes because they are so light and simple compared to her culture's Victorian-style garb. Later, when she has won the Laprun trials, she is bathed yet again at Corlath's palace. This time she is offered only female attendants, but still feels childish when they brush out her hair. She is again given new clothes for the state dinner, on which occasion she is made one of Corlath's riders--again, a change in status, from an honored abductee to a person of importance. The titular character in Beauty also gets a bath before having dinner with the Beast for the first time. Invisible servants attend her. She tries to resist them, but they are insistent. They present her with a series of overly revealing gowns before she accepts one that she finds suitable.

In Sabriel, by Garth Nix, Sabriel flees her life as a student in the New Kingdom to go after her missing father in the Old Kingdom. When she arrives at his house, she is forcefully bathed by attendants in the form of "sendings", beings that are made of magic and have no other corporeal form. She protests that she is quite old enough to bathe herself. After the bath, she is dressed in the uniform of the Abhorsen--her father's office, which she must now take up on her own.

Another example of this type occurs in Lynn Flewelling's Luck in the Shadows. Alec has grown up a wandering hunter. The other principle character, Seregil, rescues him from torture in a dungeon, then takes him away to the big city, offering to take him on as an apprentice in the ways of spying and thieving. Their first stop in the capital is the Oreska House, home of wizards, one of whom is Seregil's mentor and employer. Alec, who would just as soon stay dirty, is ordered to bathe. Servants attend him, but he resists on grounds of modesty, as well as discomfort with the whole idea of being served by other people. Afterward, he receives fresh new clothes suitable for a young nobleman.

Scenes of this sort serve a few utilitarian purposes in addition to marking a lifestyle transition. For one, the appearance of the new clothing gives the author a chance to describe what people wear in a way that flows naturally into the narrative. These scenes also give the author a chance to build sympathy for the protagonist. Few modern readers can be expected to welcome the idea of being bathed by servants, so the character's resistance helps establish them as a person close to the reader's world, set apart from the foreign-seeming norms of the fantasy environment. It also helps show the character's humility and heroic temperament as, rather than welcoming the servility of others, they are determined to look after themselves. The lack of bath attendants in the Mercedes Lackey scenes could be seen as indicative of the egalitarian and independent culture of the Heralds and the Tayledras. There are some exceptions to this pattern (the bath scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has none of these elements), but overall the bath scene appears to be a useful tool for moving a character into a life.

What are your favorite bath scenes? Do they fit this pattern, or not?


  1. doesn't the little mermaid get a bath when she goes to the prince's palace? i was also reminded of the scene in marie antoinette where they put her in clothes suitable for the french court.

  2. How about the ones where they take a moment while in the wilderness to go hop in a nearby stream or pond, sometimes conveniently finding a plant soap-substitute? I'm sure I've seen this in Mercedes Lackey books, and also Tamora Pierce.

  3. Hi Jana. :-) Yeah, those types of scenes definitely abound: the wilderness bath scene. I think sometimes they're similar in function to the one's I'm talking about, in that they indicate "now we're on the road! The comforts of home are behind us! We're washing ourselves with sand!" But I feel like this type of bath is also often a setup for a plot event of some sort--a moment when the character is off her guard.