Females in Fantasy

A while back I noted briefly on the various Archetypal Heroines prevalent in Fantasy literature, 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
Lyra (& mouse-Pan) and Iorek Byrnison
"Lyra just came to me entire and complete, I didn’t consciously make her up with a list of attributes. But I had been a teacher for about 12 years working with children of her age and there were lots of Lyras - in every classroom in the country there is a Lyra or two. Or three. She’s a very ordinary child and that’s the point about her. If she’s unusual it’s in her capacity to feel affection, which she does very readily and very warmly." Philip Pullman 
Lyra Belacqua. Lyra Silvertongue. Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon (Pan). I have journeyed with countless people in my Fantasy readings and, even compared to Tolkien's Gandalf and Bilbo, Lyra has a earned a very special, almost sacred place in my heart. She, unlike Éowyn and in many ways Hermione, is just an ordinary school. Rambunctious, hardly studious (despite growing up at a College), and with a brave heart the size of the sun and just as warm. Neither royal nor bookish yet feisty and clever, Lyra is arguably one of the most fascinating uses of a female protagonist because she is fighting against powers that want to teach her to hate her body and deny an essential part of her soul; the feminine/maternal soul. Like Miss Granger she has nothing to prove yet, unlike her, Lyra has no racial prejudice to contend with. Rather, Lyra is the simple and clever person who resists the notion that adults have all the power and that anyone can tell another how to think or behave. Her loyalty is simply to her friends and the truth; to common decency/morality: swearing she will rescue agemate Roger and fighting ice and church and death itself to do so, mastering the Alethiometer to cut through the web of deception entangling her world. "You said I was a warrior. You told me that was my nature, and I shouldn’t argue with it. Father, you were wrong. I fought because I had to. I can’t choose my nature, but I can choose what I do. And I will choose, because now I’m free." I said of Hermione that, unlike Éowyn, Miss Granger is someone who ordinary girls (and boys too, for that matter) can look up to without craning their necks quite so high. This is even more true for Lyra because while Hermione's level of smarts is rare, Lyras are by Pullman's own admission quite common. Lyra is truly a normal girl thrust into an extraordinary/cosmic conflict and people can look up to her yet remain at eye-level. "Wow, I am a lot like her and look what she did!" That is what makes her special and so, so dear to her readers. I would say more, about how the end of her story reshaped my heart and helped define the principles of good writing I still cherish, but to do so would reveal a spoiler so vast as to transcend the Multiverse.


Tarma (sitting), Kethry (standing), Warrl (the wolf thing)
Kerowyn
(Kethry's granddaughter &
Tarma's prize student)
Now it is time to get simultaneously darker and brighter. A contradiction? Not where female mercenaries are concerned and doubly not so for Mercedes Lackey and her Valdemar books. These three ladies come from the school are hard knocks. Tarma shena Tale'sedrin is the sole survivor of the slaughter of her entire clan. After being gang-raped and strangled by the offending bandits she is left for dead. Fleeing to the neighboring Clan Liha'irden, she clings to life and sanity by harboring her desire for revenge. Meanwhile Kethryveris of House Pheregrul was, at age twelve, sold by her brother in marriage to a pedophile who preyed upon young girls. She was rescued by her old nurse, who took her to a White Winds school of sorcery where she was given the magic sword Need by one of her teachers who thought that she might have need of it in her wanderings (Worry not, for this is background knowledge, not spoilers). Not exactly the safe upbringing seen thus far and, indeed, Mercedes Lackey makes a point of showing the extremely gritty elements in the world as well as the bright. Oathsisters and with no other desirable options before before, Kethry and Tarma (and soon Warrl, who is male-minded and another story) take up a merc's life – selling their swords for money yet without cashing in their souls to make ends meet. Yes they go hungry at times, but the point to them is that no matter what one suffers one can get again and push forward. "No disaster without some benefit" as the Shin'a'in proverb goes, as well as "Every scar is a lesson remembered" and "Just because you feel certain an enemy is lurking behind every bush, it doesn’t follow that you are wrong." Yet these two Oathsisters are anything but cynical, knowing, despite all endured, that there is much good in the word and in humanity at the large and that, all in all, the good and bad balance each other out. Theirs is a relatively uncommon Female-in-Fantasy role as the mercenary element puts a degree of separation between them and other warrior maids who are often (generally speaking) lady knights. Kethry is a devastatingly attractive sorceress, Tarma a hark-faced celibate swordsworn. They know that men often look down on women, take the issue to heart, and use it and their wide-ranging talents to put such mentally blind/base males at a disadvantage. As to Kerowyn, I will leave her story a surprise, saying only that she is like to Éowyn save that she was not so honored and became a mercenary because she was, for all intents and purposes, an outcast.
"You can put a hawk in a songbirds cage, but it’s still a hawk."
—  Tarma to Kero
These gals are three of my favorite women in literature period, for they show that only those who do not try with all their might to get up stay down, along with the fact that outcasts (and mercs) and always find a home so long their hearts are open and pure. A violated body does NOT equal a soiled/cynical mind.

Female mercenary, warrior princess, bookworm, ordinary girl. Naturally I listed my favorite examples of these tropes here but, rest assured, that all four archetypes can be found in many other worlds; though they naturally differ in accordance with character and the author's philosophy.


Crown Princess Cassandra
Kirra Danalustrous
Then there is what I like to call a courtier-diplomat. Existing somewhere between the bookworm and the tomboyish warrior princess, invariably brave lasses are a force to be reckoned with and, interesting, all almost always noblewomen without true combat training. Take Kirra of House Danalustrous and Crown Princess Cassandra of Araluen (from Sharon Shinn's The Twelve Houses series and John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice respectively). Kirra is flighty and stunningly beautiful young noblewoman, an incurable and willing flirt with a sense of wanderlust and and inner wildness that cannot be underestimated. Which may explain her mystic ability to shape-shift and heal. Then there is Cassandra, the heir of a King and a tomboy who led a fairly sheltered life until fate decided to unceremoniously kick her into harm's way as well as, luckily, the path of Rangers. Both highborn and neither can use a sword, barring them from the warrior princess archetype, yet nor are they bookish. These are the girls who have everything but formal combat training and get by via their wits and skills as courtiers/diplomats, navigating often complex political landscapes that can be as lethal as the bloodiest battlefield. (To those Ranger's Apprentice fans wanting to shoot me full of arrows for using Cassandra instead of Alyss, who actually is an official courtier/diplomat, I did so because we see a lot more of the Princess than Ms. Mainwaring.). The lesson of these two Fantasy females is that wealth and politics do not necessarily result in a spoiled, vain, and greedy woman – a lesson separate from White Lady Éowyn, who had zero apparent interest in politics. Both are as capable of presiding over a grand ball full as clawing/smashing a foe's face in with claws/slingshot, and they show that political smarts are no less important than the type gained from book and battle. Finally and again, they prove that politics is not morality's bane.

Now I must mention the warrior-princess-diplomat Female in Fantasy archetype. I shall not do a full entry here for, as the name implies, they effectively combine the courtier-diplomat with the warrior princess; hence possessing all the traits of Kirra and/or Cassandra with the exception that they are trained in swordcraft. Or, if one prefers, a more politically inclined Éowyn. A perfect example is Herald-Princess Elspeth from Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar books.


Sabriel by Garth Nix
Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip
Done yet? Not quite, though this is the second to last one. We move now to those Fantasies that rise above the whole male vs. female dynamic, and one true master of transcendence in the Fantastic it would be Patricia A. McKillip. For the sake of brevity, I will simply put what Publishers Weekly said regarding her Gilgameshian masterwork Alphabet of Thorn: "McKillip evokes compassion for the characters' frustrations as they take their befuddled steps toward their predestined meeting. Best of all, the strong female leads neither rail against nor submit to patriarchy. In this magical world blissfully free of bias, people are simply themselves, equally intelligent and witty and thoroughly capable while prone to the occasional error, in a manner that transcends feminism and becomes a celebration of essential humanity." Is this not the goal? A world free of gender biases and norms is may seem alien yet, when written, appears as nothing less than utterly normal. Girl? Boy? Man? Woman? We are all Human and that is the great lesson Fantasy literature so often seeks to convey and rejoice in. A philosophy/setting that exists in many and more of McKillip ancient landscapes. Yet other authors have such transcendent worlds as well, such as Garth Nix in his Abhorsen Series. In the Old Kingdom males and females are equal in every way, barred from no level of society and as masterful in the arts of Charter Magic as their male counterparts (indeed, we see more powerful female Charter Mages than male). Sabriel is a normal person whose main life issue is her job/duty. A tomboy she is not, just a deadly human with sword and spell (and bells) who just happens to be female and takes her responsibilities with a seriousness few can match yet in a compassionate rather than honor-obsessed fashion. In sum, the beauty of such books that transcend the male vs. female paradigm is that they can focus on other, larger issues which, in the Old Kingdom, is the idea and grim realities of death (made grimmer due to the presence of necromancy and various undead things) as well as one's role in life. "Does the Walker choose the Path, or the Path the Walker?" "Everyone and everything has a time to die." Usually I would not compare Nix with McKillip as in all else their respective books are different as different can be. Yet in this these two favorites of mine are alike. Read the last sentence of Publishers Weekly's praise of Alphabet of Thorn again. In short, I believe that Humanist Fantasy is among the best in the breed because it focuses not on interactions between genders but rather between people, people with widely varying histories and goals and personalities. Other examples of such books are The Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud, The Echorium Sequence by Katherine Roberts, almost any book written by Diana Wynne Jones, and The Noble Warriors trilogy by William Nicholson.


Melian the Maia
Lady Galadriel
Regrettably, there is one type of Female-in-Fantasy that is hardly used at all. Which bring us full circle back to the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien. We are all familiar with the wise sage (Merlin) archetype, from Gandalf to Dumbledore to Obi-Wan Kenobi to Aslan. Yet all of these stellar characters whom we love share a common feature in addition to wisdom: maleness. Sadly, the wise sage archetype remains a generally male post; McKillip has a few, obviously, and you can find others scattered across the Multiverse, yet none have the prominence of the above. Indeed, to this day the most noted are those crafted by Professor Tolkien: Melian the Maia and her protégé Galadriel. Wise and powerful beyond most of their male companions, much less their elf husbands, these two woodland queens possess a level of mystic might and foresight that made Morgoth and his lieutenant Sauron hate and fear them (Read the The Silmarillion to learn more of Melian and Morgoth). This, I believe, is where the Fantasy genre must go in our continued fight against cross-eyed monster that is sexism: we need fewer fatherly sages and many more motherly ones. (Indeed, beyond Tolkien and the few from McKillip, the only other true female sages that I can think of are both from The Elenium by David Eddings: lady Sephrenia and the Child-Goddess Aphrael. I would add Polgara the Sorceress from his The Belgariad, yet she is eclipsed a tad by her father Belgarath the Sorcerer and both are Disciples of the male god Aldur anyway.)


Eretria (she holds a flower here,
but is better with a knife.)
In all honestly I could go on and on, for while these are undoubtedly the most famed females of the Fantastic, they are far from the only ones. 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. Maerad, and Seraphina. Karigan, Calwyn and Alanna. Talia, Nepenthe, Katsa & Fire & Bitterblue, Eretia, Morning Star & Echo and so many others. And this does not even touch the realm of TV, for how many unforgettable females are there in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra?! Most, however, generally fit into the to character-types listed above. Generally. Not all by any means! My friend Senneth from Sharon Shinn's The Twelve House series combines the female sage and mercenary with a bit of Lyra and Éowyn thrown in, and many other dear friends are practically categories unto themselves. This list covers the spectrum of archetypes, not laws, because Females in Fantasy are as varied as humanity at large.
Avatar Korra

Finally, it must now be understood that 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, 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.”

(Kerowyn's Ride: A duet between Kerowyn and her grandmother Kethry from the beginning of By the Sword when Kero goes to rescue her soon-to-be sister-in-law Dierna.)

"Kerowyn Kerowyn, where are you going?
Dressed in men's clothing, a sword by your side
Your face pale as death, and your eyes full of fury
Kerowyn Kerowyn, where do you ride?

Last night in the darkness black raiders attacked us
Our Hold lays in ruins below
They've stolen our treasure and the bride of my brother
And to her aid now I must go,
To her side now I must go

Kerowyn Kerowyn, where is your father?
And where is your brother? This task should be theirs
It is not seemly for maids to be warriors
Go back to your valley, and to woman's cares

My father lies dead at the hands of their leader
My brother lies raving in pain
The raiders left no man unwounded to free her
But in their hands she'll not remain,
I vow she'll not with them remain

Kerowyn Kerowyn, where are your senses?
What can you hope to accomplish alone
You have no knowledge of war or of weapons
Why loose your life, for a girl you scarce known

This is for more than a matter of honor
And more than a matter of pride
She's but a child, all alone and unaided
And someone at least should've tried,
So now to her rescue I ride

Grandmother, grandmother I need a weapon
I'm one against many, and I am afraid
The raiders have bought them a dark wizard's power
I cannot help Dierna without magic aid

Kerowyn, grand-daughter, into your keeping
I'll give you this sword I once wore
Need us her name now ride fearless to battle
She'll aid as she did me before, her magic is strong as before

Grandmother, grandmother, why turn so willing
Why did you try to persuade me to stay
Whence came this weapon of steel and of magic
And why do you choose now to give it away

Kerowyn, not for the weak or the fearful
Is the path of a warrior maid
You've passed all my tests, now ride out with my blessings
And trust in the spell of the blade, right now and go unafraid."

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