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Wednesday 5: Five Fierce Women In Fantasy

May 11, 2011

After watching a few episodes of Game of Thrones, I was amazed and puzzled to see a review that dismissed the series as something only men could like.  I’m not the only one.

My favorite reaction piece so far, comes from Alyssa Rosenberg, at the Atlantic. Why Women Love Fantasy Literature.

But as fantasy matured as a 20th-century genre, authors began to use stories about magic and chivalry not as a way to reconcile women to waiting for better outcomes, but to imagine claiming kinds of power that were previously off-limits to them. Bravery and initiative shattered class barriers in early fantasy stories, turning poor boys and hobbits into knights of the realm and saviors of their worlds. It’s only natural that fantastical settings should, at some point, apply those same meritocratic principles to gender.

As examples, she cites a few familiar names, including Tamora Pierce, an author I love dearly. Her Song of the Lioness series was why I started reading fantasy in the first place. Alanna disguises herself as a boy to prove herself as a knight- then goes on to prove herself as a lady knight, the King’s Champion, and a major player in pivotal events. Even as a grownup, I go back to reread the series.

Here are five more in a genre I love:

1. Aly, from the Trickster books by Tamora Pierce: Set in Tortall, the same world as the Alanna books, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen tell the story of Alanna’s daughter, who gets captured as a slave and brought to the Copper Isles. Like her mother, she’s smart, resourceful, and watched over by the gods. I loved these books not just for Aly’s character, but for the overall sense of culture and mythology.

2. Arya Stark from Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. Might as well give credit to the series that started this discussion. Arya’s spunk and fierceness is one of the things the HBO series is absolutely doing right. (I’m less sure of Daenerys on TV- without her inner life, it misses something.) Sure, the novels have some female characters who, shall we say, are not good role models (Cersei Lannister, I’m looking at you) but Arya is excellent.

3. Plain Kate– Erin Bow. Kate is a talented wood carver, who has to go questing on her own to undo a curse. I love the way this story develops Kate’s independence and draws on imagery from Russian mythology.

4. I will read just about any incarnation of Tam Lin. The original Scottish ballad fits the theme: To save Tam Lin from being kidnapped by the Faeries, Janet Carter has to grab onto him and hold on, no matter what scary animal he turns into. My favorites so far are modern takes on the story: Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean, and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

5. Penelope, of Bewitching Season and Betraying Season by Marissa Doyle. While the backdrop of these books is more Regency than high fantasy, there’s plenty of magic. More so than her twin sister, Persephone (who’s no slouch, herself), Penelope has not only magic but fearlessness and wit. When, when when, will there be another book in this series?

You know what? This list is also an excellent rebuttal of the whole Twilight co-dependent damsel thing. I think Bella is an insidious, and unhealthy role model.

Got a fantasy heroine to add to the list? Or an idea for a list of five books? Leave me a comment

For more Wednesday 5, click here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2011 8:01 am

    A few spring to mind

    One, of course, is Eowyn, from the Lord of the Rings, who disguises herself as man, rides off into battle, and ends up killing the Lord of the Nazgul (along with a bunch of other, lesser bad guys).

    Memer, the main character Ursula LeGuin’s Voices. And Tenar, from the Tombs of Atuan (and the whole Earthsea series). Just about anything by LeGuin usually has a strong female character. It’s her way.

    Jill Pole, in the Narnia series, does a pretty job of kicking butt during her adventures.

    And of course, there’s REH’s Red Sonja, who bears no resemblance whatsoever to the movie/comic character of the same name, but is pretty badass nonetheless.

  2. Lisa permalink
    June 5, 2011 12:15 pm

    Adding to the list of badass women in Tolkien, as I’m fairly certain this IS my job, and because he so often gets held up as the prime example of fantasy having no strong female role models.

    Éowyn (as Jake already mentioned). Whose victory in battle – the most spectacularly badass moment in the entire Lord of the Rings – comes *because* she is a woman and not in spite of it.

    A lot of readers yell about Éowyn’s fate – that Tolkien doesn’t let her win Aragorn, and that he packs her off into a lame and conventional marriage. Which is an unfair interpretation – he rewards her with a lifetime of kind companionship with one of his very favorite characters (book-Faramir is a seriously hot dish). For someone whose greatest fear was living in a trap, being Aragorn’s queen, with all the constant stupid social duties implied, would have been a woeful fate. Instead she gets to gallivant about Ithilien with Faramir doing whatever she damn well wants – sweet deal!

    Galadriel. By LotR, we just see Galadriel as the spooky mystical lady in the forest. But if you go back to the Silmarillion, you find that she was a warrior and battle commander, smart and bold, fiercely independent, defying both authority and family when common sense demanded it, and wiser than any of her pain-in-the-ass brothers, and that seriously no one (NO ONE) would ever fuck with her directly.

    Lúthien. Again, we have to go to the Silmarillion, this time for Tolkien’s very favorite tale of all. Beren & Lúthien is the core story of the Silmarillion, involving their forbidden love and the extreme lengths Lúthien is willing to go to make it work out. Lúthien is full of wit, initiative, daring, tenacity, and major magical badassery, enabling her to outplay her repressive father and then both Sauron and his boss Morgoth (Middle-earth’s ULTIMATE Big Bad). It is 100% a story of the princess rescuing the knight, and at no point is anyone but Lúthien truly in charge.

    And it’s Lúthien who gets held up as Middle-earth’s ultimate role model for women! For millennia afterwards. How beautiful she was! How graceful! How completely fucking badass! And to give a sense of just how important this story was to Tolkien, this is what’s on his gravestone: http://www.jrrtolkien.org.uk/Images/Headstone.jpg

    It’s clearly still true that women are a vast minority in his writing. Maybe it would’ve been nice if Legolas had been a girl to give us some representation in the Fellowship (though to be fair, he practically is…). Even as a story-purist, it’s hard not to appreciate that Peter Jackson gave movie-Arwen a little more agency (which makes her all the more like Lúthien who she’s meant to resemble, after all!). But the ladies Tolkien did give us… not so shabby!

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