Sunday, April 1, 2018

Females in Fantasy

A very long time back (two years to be exact) I noted briefly on the various Archetypal Heroines in Fantasy, commenting on how Goodreads forgot to mention the female mercenary, the tomboyish warrior princess, and the bookish & unwilling warrior maid. Now, perhaps, it is time to go deeper into why female protagonists in Fantasy literature are so critical and prevalent.
To start, as the Fantastic is typically only written and read by the open minded, strong female protagonists attack sexism directly – showing women/girls as every bit as strong and brave as their male counterparts; and often wiser, being largely free of the masculine need to prove one's strength. Often, and when not they have something to prove indeed: their strength to the men who are determined that a woman's place is in hearth and home.

“All your words are but to say: you are a woman,
and your part is in the house.
But when the men have died in battle and honour,
you have leave to be burned in the house,
for the men will need it no more.”
Lady of the Shield-arm
And no greater example of this, there is, than Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. A royal of the House of Eorl and the niece of King Théoden of Rohan, she was one of Tolkien's few female characters and yet was arguably the first sword that Fantasy drew upon the cross-eyed monster that is sexism. An orphaned daughter of kings raised by her uncle, Éowyn watched orcs ravage her lands and age & evil council the King's mind, all while her warrior brother Eomer rode at the helm of the Rohirrim. As Gandalf later says to Eomer: "My friend, you had horses, and deed of arms, and the free fields; but she, being born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on." In fact, the White Rider utters these words no less than after Éowyn has beyond hope slain the ancient Witch-king of Angmar at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields; the lady have come in secret, unable to watch all those she loved ride to battle and death while she remained at home. A home she views as a cage, far from honor and glory and the opportunity to do great deeds. It is no secret that most of Tolkien's characters are male, the only other one of import being the Lady Galadriel, and some might scoff saying that Éowyn is not enough. Yet she was the first great woman warrior in Fantasy and exemplifies all that is noble and expected in humanity, the arguable basis for the archetype of the woman who refuses to conform to a patriarchal society. She is not a tomboy, much of her plot revolves around her unrequited love for Aragorn, yet this tragic air provides strength as opposed to weakness. A fact Aragorn confirms: "When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel." So that is that and, given that The Lord of the Rings was published in the mid-1950s, Tolkien deserves great credit not only for founding modern Fantasy literature but for leading its charge against sexism. He, via Éowyn, showed that women deserve equal respect and privilege as men and that the two must needs come as a package deal. (For while the White Lady was deeply loved and honored by kith and kin, she was not given equal privilege)

Yet even with Éowyn therein still lies the fact that, however noble her arm and heart, she still falls into the princess category – and most readers, while they love and admire her, are not royals. Luckily, finding royal female Fantasy characters is more of a challenge these days and the next great heroine to lead the charge against the chauvinist male chimera bore not a sword but a wand.

"Yes, Miss Granger?"
Harry: "But why's she got to go to the library?"
Ron: "Because that's what Hermione does. When in doubt, go to the library."
I guess talking about the relevance/importance of Hermione Granger is next of kin to preaching to the converted here in Fantasyland, but how can I ignore the brightest witch of her age? To start, Hermione is the opposite in royalty in the Wizarding World – the daughter of muggles and thus sometimes called "Mudblood" (a racial slur) by people like the Malfoys. Well, blood clearly has little relevance to brains and ability which is Miss Granger's claim to Hogwarts fame. There has always been is idiotic notion that women are not supposed to be smart compared to men and should only speak when spoken to. Making Hermione a direct and brilliant attack upon the idea because, as the above quote implies, she can think and thus usually spellcast circles around her pureblood friends (such as Ron) and enemies (like Malfoy). Crucial points because, unlike Éowyn, Hermione does not live in a male dominated world and thus she has nothing to prove in that regard. Called a "know-it-all" who raises her hand in class as if trying to catch the sun, she is a strong, brave, loving girl who is easily the smartest character after Professor Dumbledore (and even that is an unfair comparison because he is an ancient sage with a full life of reading and experience behind him). All this may sound a tad disjointed compared to Éowyn, and this is because what made Hermione Granger a brilliant Fantasy female was not directly connected to the the battle against Lord Voldemort. It was just her personality, a compulsive bookworm wise in matters of the heart who blasted sexist notions with a barrage of spells most beyond the ability of most. Hence, unlike the justly admired White Lady of Rohan, Miss Granger is someone who ordinary girls (and boys too, for that matter) can look up to without craning their necks quite so high. She shows that smart girls who care about and do well in school are as worthy or admiration as warrior princesses for, though I am loathe to quote GRRM, "A book can be as dangerous as a sword in the right hands." Or, in Hermione's case, a wand. (Not to say that Hermione is not a warrior but, in battle against sexism, it is not what makes her really special. And yes, I know that she is hardly the only inspirational female in the Harry Potter series, but Pottermore beat me to the punch on that one.)
Horace Slughorn: "Oho! 'One of my best friends is Muggle-born, and she's the best in our year!' I'm assuming this is the very friend of whom you spoke, Harry?"
Harry Potter: "Yes, sir."
Horace Slughorn: "Well, well, take 20 well-earned points for Gryffindor, Miss Granger."      
— After Hermione impresses Slughorn with her potion knowledge

Lyra and her leopard-formed
dæmon Pantalaimon
In all honestly I could go on and on as while Éowyn and Hermione are undoubtedly the most famed females of the Fantastic, they are far from the only ones. (For my full treatise on the subject, see the new Females in Fantasy page). Indeed, Fantasy literature now has more woman/girl protagonists than otherwise and does its absolute best to skewer sexism. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings may have center male protagonist but they are now the exceptions to the rule. Truly if this were not such a long post already I would bring the great Lyra Silvertongue to the fore! And Sabriel! And Maerad! And Seraphina! And Karigan and Calwyn and Kethry & Tarma and Alanna and Talia and Nepenthe and so many more!
Maerad of Pellinor
And this does not even touch the realm of TV, for how many unforgettable females are there in Avatar: The Last Airbender?! Male protagonists are far from gone (just ask Will), yet they always have strong female companions whereas the female do not always have strong male ones. In fact, there is a good argument that the trend has been flipped: rather than a female being introduced to serve as the male's love-interest, now the male drops in (usually in an unflattering fashion) to serve as the female's. Granted this last is a bit of an oversimplification but, in general, it is near enough to the mark.

Also and on a side note, did anybody notice that Fantasy is filled with Dark Lords and generally lacking in Dark Ladies? If not, then rest assured that the great Diana Wynne Jones (Mistress of the Multiverse and Lady of Endless Surprises) did. Indeed, the fact only came to my attention upon reading her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Her books – each as different as night and day from each other as well as every other book you will ever read – are filled with female chief villains. 

Anyway, I shall end with the words of Actress Anna Graves, who flawlessly articulates why female representation in Fantasy and beyond matters: “Fictional characters have the ability to make the impossible seem possible,” Graves said. “And for young women who lack strong female role models in their life, it’s important to see a girl or woman in a situation where their character is problem-solving, fighting for good and can survive situations that are difficult. All young women need female heroes to look up to and female villains that can teach them what they shouldn’t be.”

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