My First Time with Outlander
For the full duration of our friendship, my friend Tanya has been begging me to read Diana Gabaldon’s novel, Outlander. She knew that I would fall in love with the time-traveling Claire, who romances a perfect male-specimen called Jamie in the eighteenth-century Scottish Highlands. Just four days and two decades later, I heeded her good counsel. Had Tanya told me that Outlander is basically Lord of the Rings with feminism and great sex, I would have stepped through the standing stone at Craigh na Dun long ago.
Tanya and I do not always share the same taste in pop culture. She craves the kind of melodrama found in Grey’s Anatomy where a character’s stunning beauty comes at the price of weekly agonies. I prefer light-hearted fare such as Castle, a show that I foolishly asked Tanya to watch with me. She saw one scene and laughed at its comforting simplicity. She once told me that “if a book does not make me cry it’s not worth my time.”
In one of the most revealing moments of our friendship she dragged me to a French film called, The Horseman on the Roof. This is perhaps the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. From what I recall, a hunky horseman gallops through nineteenth-century France, falls in love with a fair maiden, and then everyone dies of cholera. Tanya loved this film, and spoke rapturously about the touching, though doomed love between the horseman and his maiden, whereas I still have nightmares about their dead bodies covered in bugs and bodily fluids. Naturally, with this kind of track record, I was skeptical that Tanya’s Outlander would appeal to me.
In addition to my wariness of Tanya’s recommendation, I resisted Outlander for its time travel plot. As a historian, I have often thought about visiting other centuries. I start by wondering what it would be like to have tea with Abigail Adams or to converse with Thomas Jefferson. Could I pop in to the Continental Congress and advise the Founders on the parameters of presidential pardons? In the end, practicality always wins. Unless I carry Hermione’s bag filled with a lifetime supply of contact lenses and saline, time travel puts me at risk of becoming a nearly blind public charge bumping into horses on the muck-covered streets of Philadelphia circa 1776.
With renewed prodding from Tanya and summertime on my hands, I finally took the Outlander plunge. I devoured Season One of the STARZ adaptation twice, along with the series’ first novel, in four days. I knew I was in trouble when instead of fearing time travel I started giving serious consideration to Lasik and a flight to Inverness.
Parallels to The Lord of the Rings also drew me into the story. In Outlander, like LOTR, scraggly unshaven men speak Gaelic, drink ale, and sing songs of lost lassies while villainous orcs in Red Coats hasten an end to the Age of (Scots)men. Jamie (a red-haired Aragorn) and Claire (Arwen with agency) travel through Clan Mackenzie lands with power-hungry war chieftain Boromir Dougal, and a troop of dwarves led by Angus and Rupert.
Unlike LOTR, this story is told from a female perspective by Claire who tells off the dwarves, brandishes a dagger, and marches through the Black Gate to rescue Jamie from a sadistic Sauron. She resurrects nearly dead hobbits who see fit to eat poisonous plants and heals the sick with wizardry worthy of Gandalf. Imagine if Galadriel, rocking her white shift, could both foretell the future and yell “fuck” at the top of her lungs. That’s Claire. She embodies the height and beauty of an elf and commands not one, but two Rings of Power. Plus, she has lots of orgasms. There is simply no more a person could ask from a story.
In closing, the following confession is sure to provoke a much-deserved smug remark from Tanya: I experienced the full conversion from skeptic to fan this morning when I found myself evangelizing all things Claire and Jamie to my chiropractor of all people. Before she could arch her brow and say, “Well, maybe,” I was on my way out the door to hunt down Dragonfly in Amber and Season Two of Outlander.
The standing stones are calling me.
While I enjoy all of your posts, this is by far the best, truest and most important!
Why of course, but the big question is – did it make you cry? Was it worth your time?
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’ve read that there was a few… questionable scenes involving Jamie spanking Claire and some sex that was kind of non-consensual, in that Claire clearly says no but the hot sex “gets the better of her.” I was already disinclined to give Diana Gabaldon a pass because she describes fan fiction as “raping her children” or “selling them into white slavery” (https://fanlore.org/wiki/Fan-Fiction_and_Moral_Conundrums).
I’m curious about what you thought of the more dubious consent issues in the series, and about Diana’s fanfiction policity. Full disclosure: I spent my undergrad doing fan studies research, and my boy Roland Barthes says the author is dead and I can do whatever I want with your characters: it’s called a transformative work and perfectly legal according to copyright. So I’m a little biased against Diana from the get go.
From a modern perspective Jamie spanking Claire is completely indefensible. Given that Jamie is from the eighteenth-century and Claire from the twentieth the two come to an agreement that such abuse will not take place again in their relationship. The television series gives Claire a lot more agency in this decision than the book does. And yes, the book includes at least one scene of non-consensual sex that turns into consensual sex. Reading that as a feminist made me uncomfortable. That scene does not take place in the television show. I have only read first book in the series so far so I can’t comment on the others.
As for the fanfiction stuff, it makes sense to me than an author might have a difficult time seeing their characters appropriated by other writers. From what I can see in her remarks here, she is simply taking a public stand about the issue whereas other authors stay quiet or shrug. Given Gabaldon’s large and dedicated fanbase she can say pretty much anything she wants and keep selling books.