10.4 Discernment

Evan had appeared to be “a prince [...]. She had fallen in love with the fairy-tale look of him, and she had believed his promises of happy-ever-after” (Dance 59) but he was clearly not a "prince" of the kind discussed in a previous chapter. When Julia T. Wood interviewed women “who had been in romantic relationships that included emotional and physical violence” (245) they all “recalled initially perceiving their relationships as fairy tale romances, complete with an adoring Prince Charming. Women fondly remembered how their partners had courted them with gifts and made them feel special” (249). This pattern is replicated in the early stages of Nell’s relationship with Evan, who exerted all the romantic charm one would expect from a Prince Charming: “He flirted with me, and it was exciting. He sent me two dozen roses the next day. It was always red roses. He asked me out, and took me to the theater, to parties, to fabulous restaurants” (Dance 112). Eva Illouz has observed that "objects different from those used for daily purposes" can be used to create a romantic atmosphere: "Gifts are one obvious example, but elegant clothes and expensive meals are also associated with romance" (116). Moreover, the trappings of romance involve at least

two elements frequently found in religious rituals: special vestments and beverages. Aesthetic or expensive objects distinguish the romantic interaction from others by making it at once more intense and more formal. Certain objects, like champagne, roses, or candlelight, have fixed attributes of quasi-sacredness that under the appropriate circumstances can generate romantic feelings. (116)

This observation takes on particular resonance in the context of a novel in which the heroines are witches, one declares that “love is the most vital magic” (Dance 263), and all use objects in their religious, magical, rituals. For example, in the “basic ritual” (Dance 325) to celebrate “The end of the third and last harvest of the year. [...] A time for remembering the dead, for celebrating the eternal cycle” (Dance 324), they use candles, “wand and athame” (Dance 325) and in Mia’s “cauldron, fragrant liquid began to bubble” (Dance 326).

However, while such objects are useful, they are not essential to all magic-working. As Mia explains, some magic can be performed “with your mind and heart, and others [...] require things—as an extension of power, and as a respect for tradition” (Dance 222); “Magic springs from the elements, and from the heart. But its rituals are best served with tools, even visual aids, if you will” (Dance 220). Roberts’ series appears to suggest much the same is true of the “frills, trappings” (Face 292) of romance: as Nell says at a thirtieth wedding anniversary

Thirty years, and they were [...] looking at each other like it was the first time. It was the best moment of the night for me. […] Because them dancing together, them looking at each other the way they were, was what this was all about. Not decorations or pretty lights or cocktail shrimp. It was about people making a connection and believing in it. In each other. (Dance 203)

Moreover, romantic objects, like those used in magic rituals, can serve both positive and negative functions. Decorations, pretty lights and romantic gifts, like the explicitly sacred objects used in magic, can be used for both good and ill, and Evan most certainly used them for evil.

Since they retain their power regardless of the uses to which they are put, it may require objective observers, unaffected by those objects, to discern their misuse. As one of the abused women Julia T. Wood interviewed reflected:

'[...] There are warning signs and I know that now, but when you're in it, you don't see those warning signs.' Perspective also narrowed due to the well-documented tactic of abusers to isolate their partners from friends and family. (256)

Having a wider circle of friends and relations ensures that there is a greater possibility of conducting “spiritual discernment” about developing relationships. Spiritual discernment is a term used in Quakerism to describe "that fallible, intuitive gift we use in attempting to discriminate the course to which we are personally led by God in a given situation, from our other impulses and from the generalized judgments of conscience" (Loring 3). Since the gift is thought to be "fallible," consulting with other “discerning people may be extremely helpful in helping a person to distinguish or discern the sources of her own perceptions and motivations” (Loring 7). They, as Mia says of her and Ripley’s role vis-à-vis Nell, “can guide and support, instruct and assist. But in the end, it’ll be her choice” (Dance 199). Over the course of Dance Upon the Air Nell makes the choice to start a relationship with Zack, but she does so not just as a result of her attraction to him and her own observations about his character, but in the context of supportive comments from Mia, Ripley and others.

There is an undeniable connection between relationship advice and spiritual discernment in Roberts’ series since the protagonists’ developing romantic partnerships assist them in overcoming the demon. This is made particularly explicit in the case of Mia and Sam given that Mia’s “choice, when it comes, has to do with her own feelings” (Face 72). As a consequence, Mac repeatedly probes them for information about their relationship; without it he “can’t weigh [...] theories and hypotheses. I can’t calculate what we might need to do” (Face 230).

Given the ways in which evil “can twist itself into the desirable” (Heaven 323), spiritual discernment is not necessarily easy. Air 

dreamed of a prince [...] who would sweep her away to some lovely place where they would live happily and have children to comfort her. She was careless with her wish, as women can be when they yearn. He came for her, and she saw only that he was golden and handsome. (Dance 94)

Similarly, Nell initially saw only that Evan “was handsome and romantic and clever and rich” and therefore “thought, Why, here comes my prince and we’ll live happily ever after” (Dance 313). She then accepted control being exerted over her precisely because as a “prince” he seemed to be immeasurably superior to her in many ways: “I looked the way he told me to look, and behaved the way he told me to behave. At first that seemed fine. He was older, wiser, and I was new in his world” (Dance 112). In Nell's and Air’s cases it took time to discern that the “prince” was in fact an abuser whose actions would assist the demon seeking to destroy Three Sisters Island. As Julia T. Wood observes:    

Prince Charming is strong, powerful, sure of himself, and commanding. These characteristics of the ideal man in the fairy tale script are not unlike the characteristics of men who are violent toward women [...]. Control, domination, and even violence fit equally well with Prince Charming and the Prince of Darkness. (244)

Roberts’ series thus issues a warning: evil can disguise itself as love, and love which is warped has the potential to destroy not just those who love wrongly but also those who surround them. However, while flawed and misdirected love imperiled the island and ruined the first three sisters, true love gives the modern three sisters the power to save their home and community and vanquish a great evil. Roberts therefore stands with bell hooks in proclaiming that

love gives life meaning, purpose, and direction. Doing the work of love, we ensure our survival and our triumph over the forces of evil and destruction. [...] Love is our hope and our salvation. (hooks xxiv)

but she also adds legalistic caveats: discernment is required in order to ensure that love, or what appears to be love, will not lead to “aberrations,” and this discernment is aided by membership of a loving community.