With this book, the second in the novel-sequence Canopus in Argos: Archives Doris Lessing enters - surprisingly for her - the territory of the legend, of myth. The story of the lovely and amiable Queen of Zone Three and her forced marriage with the soldier-king of Zone Four is a gable and it beguiles and charms like one.
The ideal countries invented by women are always kindly, hedonistic, indulgent. Such is Zone Three, and in it is nothing harsh. And the archetypal male country is hierarchic, disciplined, inflexible, dutiful. Perhaps this difficult marriage, unwanted by both, can be seen as an analogy for the balances between impulse and reason, between the instinctive and logical modes of the mind.
Ben Ata learns to accept and then to love the ruler of Zone Three and her unfamiliar and distrusted ways; Al*Ith learns to love and to need him. But even great rulers have to know how to obey, and they are under the ordinance of the Providers, the rule of things, and when she is commanded to return to her own realm where she is now a stranger and an exile, she must do so, though to leave her husband and her child seems to kill her heart. And Ben Ata marries the savage beauty who rules Zone Five, doing as he is told. Zone Five is an unexpected land that mirrors the manners and modes of the other two Zones uniting and reversing them.
Doris Lessing has written a great deal on the ancient war between men and women, sometimes abrasively, but this tale is a distillation, a summing up - as fables and myths must be. There is a tender and humorous acceptance, all bitterness long spent; and it is as if every male-female confrontation or stance or posture or cliché ever heard of has been set in brilliant dream landscapes where they appear heightened, dramatised - and even with comic effect. This tale is like an old song, heard a long time ago and from far away which returns to haunt and possess you.