Do Chainmail Chicks Suffer From A Glass Ceiling? Just Desserts or Just Desserts for the heroines of fantasy?

Leelee Sobieski as Joan of Arc

Unfortunately the title is much catchier than the paper itself, but I am playing on the preconceived notions about women in fantasy.  We are all too aware of the so called women’s roles in fantasy; the love interest, the witch, the femme fatale or temptress, the lonely warrior maiden, the ice queen etc. etc.  We are also aware of the usual female versions of the traditional male fantasy roles; huntress instead of hunter, princess instead of prince, sorceress instead of sorcerer, enchantress instead of enchanter, warrior maiden instead of warrior, assassiness instead of assassin… well the last two don’t actually fit, but it is interesting to note that it appears you can’t be a female warrior if you are married and have kids.  Apparently there are a few gendered roles and then some non-specific genderless ones that can be performed by either sex equally well.  Assassin, thief, spy are all exceptions to the male/female dichotomy and yet all are morally ambiguous characters who may or may not be heroes and all prize stealth and agility over physical strength.

Even the term ‘heroine’ is problematic in this sense as it appears as inferior or lesser than the assumed male ‘hero’.  It conjures up images of damsels in distress, princesses needing rescuing by the big strapping young farm boy who is also secretly a long lost king.  So perhaps I should instead be speaking about female heroes rather than heroines.  Certainly my intention is to discuss female protagonists and female characters that are central or integral to the plot and additionally are on the side of good rather than evil which is a whole other paper entirely.

As I said earlier this is part of my on going research about the representations of gender in genre fantasy and in part I owe a great deal of the paper to Sylvia Kelso’s article in the New York Review of Science Fiction entitled The King and the Enchanter.[1]  In this she addresses the problem of the powerful magic users of fantasy who seem to go out of their way to find the missing progeny of Kings and train them to assume the throne, and asks the question why don’t the mages do it themselves?

Part of her discussion deals with the role of the king and of kingship in fantasy and links it to the idea of hegemonic masculinity which she suggests is the norm in genre fantasy.

To quote her here “[…] this norm emerges most clearly through the numerous stories of male protagonists who learn to become king […] a fantasy king must learn to restrain heroic, individual violence, accept counsel, and avoid tyranny […] once crowned, the good king marries and sires an heir.” P.1

But during her article she also mentions a few characters as examples of this argument and the short shrift they receive in terms of fantasy rewards for their actions.  In particular her discussion of the female enchantress characters stood out for me and started me thinking about the rewards of all female heroes in fantasy, not just the enchantresses.

To begin with I want to lay out very briefly a sort of reductionist hero template for you.  Let us take the standard fantasy hero.  When constructing a hero is there a physical template that we adhere to when we think of how they appear? It seems that the ‘standard hero’ at least until the last few years, has been a blonde, blue eyed, white, Anglo Germanic male.  We even presume that the hero is a male.

When we think of the trials of the hero the most obvious adventures are those of monster slaying, a quest to find a magical object and fighting some great big evil.

In terms of the rewards that a hero receives at the end of the tale we expect him to be rewarded with a throne or position of nobility of some kind, a bride (usually a princess) and a magical item, which in most cases is a sword.

Now I realise that there are more than a few genre fantasy texts that do not conform to this template.  As I said it is a reductionist point of view and as such not entirely accurate.  However, there are enough fantasy books out there that conform to this set to hopefully make it recognisable.  I think most people here can see this as roughly representative of a stereotypical heroic format.

Now taking this as a model lets see if we can apply it equally well to the female characters and female heroes of fantasy.

Physical description:  What do female heroes look like? Well in terms of actual physicality there isn’t a lot of consensus, certainly we have Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland which highlights many of the stereotypes being used, but there isn’t really a physical template for a female hero unless we take into account slightly non-specific or aesthetic attributes like beauty, athleticism, ravishing eyes, fiery temper, and porcelain skin.  But at this juncture we could easily list far more texts that do not conform to this than we could do with the male template.  It just seems to be that there is a stereotypical physicality to the male hero that isn’t present in female heroes, they tend toward stereotypical emotional and aesthetic traits rather than physical.

Trials of the heroine: If we have a female hero does she undergo the same trials as the male hero?  In my opinion you don’t have the same degree of standard trials, there doesn’t appear to be a template for the trials that a female hero goes through.

Now on this point I think you have to make a distinction between the structural narratological perspective provided by a Proppian analysis, which could quite easily point out various connections between donor functions, complicity, violation and interdiction and so on.  I am not arguing that the trials of the female hero provide different narratological meanings, simply that in terms of plot they are different trials.

For a start one of the major differences is that female heroes, certainly in recent genre fantasy, seem to undergo some form of sexual abuse which is rare in cases of a male hero.  In Hobb’s Liveship series, two of the central female characters suffer various levels of sexual abuse, including rape, in Feist and Wurts’ Empire Trilogy Mara of the Acoma is physically and sexually abused by her husband and threatened with rape repeatedly by various villains, and even in Eddings’ Belgariad, a favourite of young readers, we encounter the character of Taiba, who suffered rape, sexual abuse and violent attacks in the slave pits.

And in terms of monster slaying it is rare that the a female hero is sent out to do this, so my basic point is that yes there just as many trials to test the female hero, but in terms of event, they generally appear as distinct and specific to the heroine, rather than the generic male events.

Quest Rewards: So finally we get to the area that I really want to discuss.

Again, the standard quest rewards for male heroes does not seem to translate directly to female heroes.  When we think of the male quest rewards it was fairly easy to think of the standard responses, the bride, the throne, the sword.  But it is much more difficult to think of similar rewards for female heroes.

But there is a curious recurrence of fantasy rewards for these female protagonists.

At the end of the quest or adventure the female hero can expect one of or a combination of the following:

  1. Love
  2. Marriage
  3. Domestic Harmony
  4. Children
  5. Retirement from adventuring.

Ultimately these are usually combined into one overwhelming principle:

  1. A good man to look after her and treat her right.

Am I overstating the case here?  To illustrate this point I am going to relay some examples but as I do so I want you to consider two questions.  The first “Are the following rewards for the female hero appropriate?” and the second “Should the rewards for a female hero be the same as those of the male?”.

Ok then, the case studies or more accurately some examples.

Polgara the Sorceress

Polgara is one of the main characters of several of David (and Leigh) Eddings’ books.  She appears in the Belgariad series, the Mallorean, Belgarath the Sorcerer and of course her own title, Polgara the Sorceress.

So a little about her then.  In terms of physicality she is beautiful, although her beauty is often termed as regal or proud, so we know she is not drop dead gorgeous but has a stately grace.  She has dark hair, so dark it is almost black and a near luminous white lock at the front.  She is over three thousand years old and is also a twin.  Her twin sister, Beldaran, is described as effortlessly beautiful, blonde, blue eyed, gentle, caring and loving, and who was given as a bride to a young noble who had completed an epic quest.  Polgara wasn’t.

Of her sister the character of Polgara says, “She was to be the vessel of love; I was to be the vessel of power!”

During the course of the Belgariad Polgara is an enormously important character, she has acted as surrogate mother to the hero, she has protected him and his ancestors for much of her greatly extended life (although her exploits read as a litany of failures) and on the quest she wields great magical power and deals with the semi-evil priestess Salmissra so that the men don’t have to fight a woman.

However Polgara’s role in the ultimate confrontation between the evil god Torak and the young hero Garion is as follows.  She has to refuse to be the evil god’s bride.

The wisest, oldest, most powerful woman in the world aids in the fight against evil by refusing to marry.  She has been reduced to a prize to be fought over.

Not only that, the only reason she is able to find the strength to resist Torak is because Durnik, whom she has realised is her one true love, has just died and it is the anguish and pain caused by this loss that sustains her and she has to be reminded of this by the central hero Garion.

So what is her reward?

For refusing Torak’s proposal Polgara is given a husband and the chance to raise a family of her own.  She retires with her husband to a small cottage in the country where she looks after a young foundling and eventually gives birth to twins of her own.  In some respects this is a just reward, she has spent the greater part of her life guiding and protecting other people’s children and families and now has the chance to have her own now that her ‘job’ is done.  However, a duchess of immeasurable power and influence, regal beyond the ken of normal humans, has just been consigned to a small cottage in the middle of nowhere so she can raise rug rats.  Is this really the proper reward for thousands of years of service and sacrifice?

In comparison Durnik, Polgara’s husband, seems to do a little better out of the deal.  Not only is he resurrected gaining a new lease of life, pardon the pun, he has been given magical powers comparable to hers.  So his reward for participating in the quest is having his lifespan extended to match hers, magical powers that match hers that he learns to use in a matter of days rather than the centuries it took her to acquire them, a powerful beautiful wife and ultimately children.  He gets the traditional male quest rewards whilst she is left being his prize.

Ce’Nedra

Ce’Nedra is another example from Eddings’ fantasy world.  Throughout the first series she is a childish, spoiled foil to the young hero Garion.  Her contribution to the quest, in addition to being the love interest for the hero, is to raise an army to distract the forces of evil a la Tolkien.  However she raises the army in Garion’s name and it is his power that she is wielding rather than her own.  She does not command the army in so much as she is a figurehead for the army to rally around.  Her reward for the quest is to be Garion’s bride.  True she gains a kingdom and a marital partner much like the traditional male hero and he generously deigns to give her co-rulership over his domain, yet he retains the title of Overlord of the West whilst she remains his queen and so he is still politically her superior.  She also is promised the birth of a son to be the new heir to the restored throne, before she can have any female children.

So again the female reward is actually to be the reward for the male hero.  Garion in this case gains a bride, a son, a throne and a magical sword.

Mara

Mara of the Acoma is an interesting case.

In Feist and Wurts’ trilogy set during and after Feist’s Riftwar trilogy, we are introduced to a fascinating female character.  Mara of the Acoma.  She is a young girl about to take religious orders and effectively become a nun when she is rushed home to assume the mantle of rulership over her house/family. Although not a standard quest narrative Mara has to undergo several adventures and political machinations to strengthen her weakened political position.  Like many female heroes she is a woman fighting to survive in a male arena.

She uses sex, manipulation and astute planning in addition to a great deal of luck and sacrifice to win out over her rivals.

She sacrifices love, relationships and integrity to ultimately bring peace to the land, a stable  ruler to the throne, remove the absolute power wielded by the male cadre of magicians, frees women to study magic, and helps improve relations with the Kingdom across the rift.

Ultimately her sacrifice puts her son on the throne of the empire and she achieves power and respect.  She has protected her house, restored the honour of her ancestors and forgone individual advancement for the greater good.  A self sacrificing hero.  She becomes the ultimate power behind the throne.

However her true reward at the end of the third book is when the long lost barbarian love of her life returns to claim his place as her lover and father to their child.  She throws off the reserve of her people, defies tradition and is brought true happiness in this love match.

So lets look at these rewards, it is her son that becomes emperor not her.  And in terms of Kevin, the ex-slave, he has been given a male heir who is the ruler of the most powerful land on two planets, the love of a beautiful and powerful woman, a noble title and lands.  Once again the males seem to get everything whilst Mara gets to have domestic bliss.

My last example is that of Hobb’s Althea Vistrit.  One of the central characters of The Liveship Trilogy, and initially framed as the central protagonist.  Althea sets out at the beginning of the series to become a good sailor worthy of captaining the family Liveship, the Vivacia.  She disguises her gender in order to sign on as an anonymous sailor and receive the training and experience she needs, during the course of which she also becomes an expert at skinning animals.  This basic training in the general skills of a common sailor, combined with her navigational skills and command experience gathered whilst being on board as the Captain’s daughter make Althea an excellent all round sailor and a potentially great captain.

However by the end of the book, she forgoes control of the family liveship and ends up being promised marriage by the love of her life who is now the captain of his own liveship.  She ultimately sacrifices her own goals to be his wife and first mate aboard his ship.

At the same time her nephew, Wintrow, who throughout the books has disavowed a life on the sea, is granted control of the family liveship, is to be surrogate father to the future king of the pirate isles and ultimately marry the king’s mother.  He is rewarded in a slightly roundabout way with a throne, a child, a bride and a magical item in true heroic fashion.

So can we see female heroes as recipients of rewards or are they always the prize?  The fantasy genre seems to lean towards a patriarchal bias and the style of writing lends itself to male gendered stories and until this changes I fear that women will always suffer from a glass ceiling in fantasy land.

[1] The Kelso article is “The King and the Enchanter: gender, power and authority in Patricia McKillip’s fantasy Novel”.  Kelso, Sylvia The New York Review of Science Fiction No.210 (Feb 2006) p.1, 8-12

(Originally presented as a paper at ICFA28)

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One response to “Do Chainmail Chicks Suffer From A Glass Ceiling? Just Desserts or Just Desserts for the heroines of fantasy?

  1. Pingback: Favourite Fantasy Books Part 3: The Belgariad Quintet by David Eddings | The Critical Dragon

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