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 at 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|
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?"|
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 an idiotic notion that women are not supposed to be as smart as 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 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 many of which are beyond the ability of her agemates. 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|
|Lyra (& mouse-Pan) and Iorek Byrnison|
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 girl. 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 her friend Roger and fighting ice and church and death itself to do so, all the while mastering the Alethiometer to cut through the web of deceptions 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)|
(Kethry's granddaughter &
Tarma's prize student)
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 of 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 upbringings 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 them, 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 up 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 world 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 hawk-faced celibate Swordsworn. They
know that men often look down on women (partially because men focus
overmuch on a woman's looks), take the issue to heart and use it along
with their wide-ranging talents to put such mentally blind/base males at
a disadvantage. They also, courtesy of Need, make something of a point to rescue women in need, which adds a lovely and poetic twist to that tired old damsel-in-distress trope, having women (and former damsels-in-distress themselves) saving other women. 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) always find a home so long their as 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|
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 bladecraft. Or, if one prefers, a more political 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|
|Melian the Maia|
|Angela the Herbalist and her werecat |
Now I can hear you all asking me "But what about the mysterious good witch?" The wise women, the funny and sharp-witted women of power who appear at odd moments and/or are sought after by the protagonists for aid/advice. This is a trope we all know about and Angela the Herbalist from Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle is who comes to mind for me when hearing it. Similar to the wise sage, what distinguishes one from the other is that these white witches (for lack of a better term) are typically portrayed as having an agenda of their own, sporadically working with or fighting alongside the protagonists less because they see the necessity of it and more because they want to for their own personal and/or mysterious reasons. I cannot say more because this class of character is more a thing of fairy tales & short stories as opposed to Fantasy literature and, besides, such white witches are near-always so different from one another that trying to wrap them up any more tightly into a category together would be like trying to wrap a cactus in silk, the needles endlessly piercing and poking through the defined parameters one is trying to set.
|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, Seraphina, Karigan, Calwyn, Alanna, Talia,
Nepenthe, Katsa & Fire & Bitterblue, Morning Star & Echo, Egwene & Nynaeve 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?! Nor
gaming, as I can name many book-worthy video games featuring women and
girls no less developed and amazing than those in many works of
literature; Lucina from Fire Emblem: Awakening,
for example, is a hero I rank alongside Aragorn, and another (one of
many) who has a strong place in my heart (albeit not as much as Lucina)
is Chrodechild from the game Suikoden Tierkreis. 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.
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. That is not to say that other works do not have chillingly memorable women antagonists. Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials, the Black Ajah and the women Forsaken from