Don’t Trust the Man (Trust the Institution)
“Betrayal is never pretty, but to betray a child—that’s a double betrayal, don’t you think?” —Valentine Morgenstern, City of Bones
One of the great tragedies of growing up is the discovery that your parents—and your teachers, and your sports heroes, and your favorite actors, singers, YouTube sensations—are fallible. Adults don’t know all, and what they do know, they often won’t tell you—because they’ve got their own agendas, or because they want to shield you from the hard truths “for your own good.” Adults lie, they betray, they screw up in every way possible, and the adult Shadowhunters are no different from their mundane counterparts— except that a Shadowhunter’s lies are more likely to get you eaten by a demon.
The Mortal Instruments books are rife with adults lying to their impressionable charges, often in ways that nearly destroy the teens’ lives. In some cases, this is simply because the liars are evil: Valentine lies to Jace about everything because that’s what bad guys do. The more lies, the better to enact his evil plan. Hodge lies because that’s also what cowards do, and when you’re in sway to the big bad guy, you do whatever he tells you, especially if what he tells you to do is pretend you’re not such a coward. It’s more unsettling—and far more destabilizing—when the people lying are the ones who are supposed to tell the truth: the good guys, the ones you’re supposed to trust with your faith and your life. The ones who tell you what to do and expect you to nod and go along. They claim they tell lies only to protect you, withhold information only “for your own good.”
But it’s not for Clary’s own good that her mother lied to her for her entire life, stole her memories, allowed her to be taken unaware by a demonic ambush, and, certainly not least, let her believe she’d fallen in love with her own brother. As it’s not for Jace’s own good that Maryse allows him to believe she’s exiled him from his family, when in fact she just wants to get him away from the Inquisitor. Luke lies to Clary about who he really is—and who she really is; the Lightwoods lie to their children about what they once were. Over and over again, these supposedly trustworthy adults abuse the faith of their children—and that isn’t to mention all the times that adults in the highest positions of authority in the Clave abuse their power for their own misguided purposes. The first Inquisitor following her own agenda with Jace, the next Inquisitor following his twisted agenda with Simon, the shunning of Luke, the casual prejudice against and occasional abuse of Downworlders…it’s no wonder that Clary, Jace, Isabelle, and Alec spend a fair amount of time defying orders. And maybe it’s no wonder that, robbed of the ability to trust in individual authorities, they put so much faith in the authority of an institution. Everyone has to believe in something, and the Clave offers a ready solution to anyone disappointed by human fallibility. People may make mistakes, people may lie to you and fail you, but the Law is incorruptible.
Clary and the others think nothing of defying their parents and only a little more than nothing about defying the Clave administrators, the fallible humans in charge. But it never occurs to any of them to defy the Law itself, to question, say, the rules about parabatai relations, about minors having no vote in Clave operations, about revealing things to mundanes, about reporting people to the authorities. They may question the adults who bend and break those rules, but they never question the assumption that the rules exist for a good reason. And, as usual, it’s Valentine who goes the extra mile, who makes the uncomfortable claim that it’s possible to question a law while remaining loyal to the institution it governs. (Uncomfortable, because who wants to agree with Valentine?) He refuses to let anyone call him a traitor, because “[a] man doesn’t have to agree with his government to be a patriot” (City of Ashes).
Why are our bold, curious, stubborn heroes so slow to catch onto this concept and so reluctant to start asking the hard questions and making their own rules?
Maybe because when the rules of life, and the punishment for violating them, aren’t spelled out in detail, figuring them out can be torture. This is especially true of adolescence, when your social fortunes can be decided by the most trivial of wrong choices: wearing the wrong outfit, saying the wrong thing, kissing the wrong guy. Most high schools are as inflexible and judgmental as any fundamentalist society—ostracism and exile for the most minor of infractions is the norm. Following these unspoken rules is hard enough…but what about when you can’t even figure out what they are?
Clary spends much of City of Ashes playing at this, trying to figure out how she’s “supposed” to act—as a girlfriend to Simon, as a sister to Jace—as if life were a role-playing game in which you have to work out the rules as you go along. (A game that poor Clary’s pretty much guaranteed to lose, given how ungirlfriendy she feels to one and how very unsisterly she feels to the other.) It’s only when it comes to playing her role as a Shadowhunter that she doesn’t have to guess at what she’s supposed to do, because people are only too willing to tell her. If you’re forced to play the game of life, who wouldn’t want a cheat sheet?
Power to the Powerless
“What?” Jace sounded furious. “Why not? The Clave requires you—” Magnus looked at him coldly. “I don’t like being told what to do, little Shadowhunter.”
—City of Bones
Just one problem: You’re not forced to play the game. You can ignore the rules; you can make up your own. Magnus Bane is a living example, the closest thing the Mortal Instruments has to an anarchist, and certainly he’s in no mood to be told what to do. His resistance to obey is no surprise here. The surprise is that a seventeen-year-old with no magical powers would think he could issue commands to the most powerful warlock on the eastern seaboard. But Jace can and does, without a second thought, because he’s not just speaking for himself: He’s speaking for the Clave, with the full power of the Law.
The trilogy is packed with the (relatively) powerless using rules and laws to control the powerful—warlocks controlling demons and magical forces, Valentine controlling his demon army with the Mortal Cup, controlling Clary herself with binding runes—in all these cases, power imbalances don’t matter. No matter who’s stronger, the one with the rules on his side wins. And the Shadowhunters in particular seem to conflate the laws of magic with laws about magic (i.e., the Law), assuming that both are immutable.
This is a big reason why even a self-proclaimed rebel like Jace might be perfectly happy there are so many rules: He’s figured out how to use them to his benefit. The Law can be a more powerful weapon than a sword. No matter how young you are, no matter how relatively weak you might be, if you have the power of the Law on your side, you can push anyone around.
Well, almost anyone.
The problem with the Shadowhunter Law is that it’s not a law of physics. It’s a social contract, and as with all social contracts, its only magic is the magic of mutual agreement. Its power derives from belief in the impossibility of defying it—which means there’s nothing more threatening than an outsider who can see the Law for what it is.
Think about it in the high school context: A group of people—let’s call them the popular crowd—ostensibly have no more power than anyone else. They have to go to the same classes, do the same homework, serve the same detention when they step out of line. But by mutual, unspoken agreement among the entire student body, this group has accrued a specific kind of power: the power to admit or reject other students from its ranks. But popularity gives you power only over people who care about being popular. Ostracism gives you power only over those who fear being ostracized. A queen bee mean girl can decimate her prey by insulting their outfit, refusing to sit with them at lunch, denying them an invitation to the most exclusive of parties…but what does that matter to the freethinker who could care less about fashion critiques, prefers lunch in the library, and would rather gouge out her eyes than party with the populars? And what would it do to the queen bees of the high school world if the student body, as one, decided that “cool” was worthless, and royal favor even more so? This is why the outsider, the rebel who rejects the social hierarchy—who doesn’t care what anyone in so-called power thinks of her—is so threatening to the powers that be. It’s true for the cheerleaders and it’s true for the Clave.
The very existence of someone who defies the Law renders defiance a possible option. Something that Jace is the first to understand, when, in City of Glass, he realizes that the Clave will read Clary’s rune-creating ability as a portent of doom. After all, the only thing more dangerous than a willingness to ignore the Law is an ability to change it.
Rebels Without a Law
“I should have warned her about your habit of never doing what you’re told.” —Jace Wayland to Clary Fray, City of Bones
But rebels do exist—in mundane high schools and Shadowhunter Institutes alike. And Jace and Clary would gladly claim the title for themselves. All the more reason for them to appreciate the Clave and the Law: It’s significantly more satisfying to kick a wall than it is to kick thin air. For the rebellious teen—or the teen who wants to feel like a rebel—a clearly defined law gives you something to define yourself against.
If you’re looking to fight a war, it helps to have an enemy. The beauty of Clave Law is that it allows you to feel like a rebel without actually doing much of anything rebellious—because when everything is legislated, breaking even the smallest of rules can offer the satisfaction of defiance without the consequences. “Isabelle only likes dating thoroughly inappropriate boys our parents will hate,” Alec says in City of Glass. “Mundanes, Downworlders, petty crooks.” The operative word here is “petty,” because that’s exactly what Isabelle’s so-called rebellions are. In fact, it’s hard not to suspect that the commitment-phobic Isabelle is dating these inappropriate boys precisely because she knows exactly how far things can go with them: far enough to feel like she’s flirting with trouble, but never so far that she’d have to introduce her new werewolf fiancé to Mom and Dad. It’s the perfect excuse to keep relationships skin deep— because any cute Downworlder might be worth bending the rules for, but who could be worth breaking them for? And so she gets to harmlessly test her boundaries, feeling like a proud rebel, while still protecting her heart. The same goes for our other heroes. Like prep school kids defiling a school uniform, the teen Shadowhunters get to call themselves rebels for the smallest of infractions: sneaking out, dating the wrong people. But when it comes to the big stuff ? Even Jace, who has the most flagrant disregard for the Law, especially when it comes to Clary (after all, this is a guy who’s not only willing to Mark an ostensible mundane but is also pretty open to the idea of sleeping with his sister), turns into a total priss. Remember his horror at Madame Dorothea’s failure to bend to the will of the Shadowhunters: “You knew there were Forsaken in this house and you didn’t notify [the Clave]? Just the existence of Forsaken is a crime against the Covenant” (City of Bones). Jace sounds like a class prefect taking someone to task for running in the halls, and, like the class delinquent, Madame Dorothea practically laughs in his face.
Admittedly, as the trilogy continues, Clary and co.’s rulebreaking becomes more daring and more flagrant—their rebellions become quite a bit less petty. Jace presides over Simon’s burial and awakening and later saves the young vampire with an emergency infusion of his own blood; Alec breaks Jace out of the Inquisitor’s prison; Jace tries to pay it forward by breaking Simon out of the Gard. They’re lawbreakers, no question: serious rebels. But their rebellions are almost always against specific edicts laid down by members of the Clave—against the bad (and often, in terms of the Law, illegal) decisions of individuals. They rebel against the man…while maintaining their absolute respect for the institution.
At no point do any of our characters, even Clary—the newcomer who could be expected to poke holes in the establishment—bother to question the fundamental tenets of Shadowhunter life. No one, for example, questions Luke’s expulsion from the Shadowhunter ranks or suggests that he be readmitted (in whatever capacity he could fight at their side), even if he is a werewolf. No one (until the end of the first three books) questions the sharp divisions and political imbalance between Shadowhunters and Downworlders; no one questions the wisdom of keeping all this secret from the mundanes; no one questions the rules of who’s in charge and what the penalties are for disobeying. These are the kinds of questions that Valentine liked to ask. Also known as: unthinkable. As it’s unthinkable for Isabelle to imagine challenging the Clave’s (and her parents’) stance on homosexuality: If they discovered that Alec was gay, she says, they’d disown him, because that’s just the way it works—of course, as we discover, the Lightwoods aren’t so ready as their daughter believes to toss away their son based on an outmoded tradition. But Isabelle assumes they will be, and that “there’s nothing I can do” (City of Bones).
The Tyranny of Choice
“My oath to the Covenant binds me.” —Jace Wayland, City of Bones
There’s nothing I can do . It’s a constant Shadowhunter refrain. It’s also a comforting lie, and the biggest reason of all why someone might be tempted to cling to a system of Laws and absolutes—a system that narrows your choices down to one.
In The Paradox of Choice, a book about why the proliferation of choice has made modern Americans increasingly unhappy, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the more choices we have, the more opportunity there is for confusion, paralysis, and regret: “As the number of choices keep growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”