“I propose to speak about fairy stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted…” –J.R.R. Tolkien
When Kim, Terri and I first began discussing the idea for this blog just a few weeks ago, I thought it might be a couple months before we came to an agreement on what we wanted to do, and how we wanted to do it. But Heroines of Fantasy, as a concept and as a web site, was assembled in record time. I think this reflects not only similarities between the three of us in terms of how we view fantasy fiction, but also the great excitement we share about the genre and our deep desire to discuss the adventure of fantasy fiction with other authors and readers.
By way of introduction, this month we’ve decided to talk a little about "Why fantasy?” What is it about fantasy as a genre that inspires us as readers and authors? Why start a blog dedicated to the discussion of fantasy fiction, and especially women in fantasy fiction?
The question of “why fantasy?” has come back to me many times, especially in recent months since the release of my first novel, Eolyn. The full answer to the question would be way too long for the average blog post; and I’ve responded to it in different ways at different moments in my journey as a reader and a writer.
For colleagues who know me through my day job as a biology professor, the revelation that I am also a fantasy author seems all the more puzzling. Why would a scientist write fantasy? I think the perception that this is somehow contradictory stems from our cultural tendency to assume it is the career that defines the person, and not the person who defines her career.
But also, I think we tend to forget that fantasy and science, although very different endeavors, nonetheless respond to very similar needs. This was made clear to me once again in recent weeks. While mulling over what I would write for this first post, I came across a curious coincidence between my readings about fantasy and my readings about ecology.
In his classic essay, ‘On Faerie Stories’, J.R.R. Tolkien made the following observation:
“The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is…to hold communion with other living things.”
Wow. That really struck a chord with me, and it occurred to me that maybe I became a fantasy author for the same reasons that I became a scientist – the desire to explore the limits of space and time, and the desire to commune with other living things.
A generation later, in 1984, one of my heroes in the field of ecology, Edward O. Wilson (known as “Captain E.O.” to entomologists worldwide), popularized what he called the ‘biophilia hypothesis’. Wilson defines biophilia as “the connections human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life” – wording that very closely resembles one of the ‘primordial desires’ identified by Tolkien.
I find it fascinating that these two men from different periods and very different walks of life should have come to such similar conclusions about one of the foundations of human desire. Writing fantasy fiction is one of the ways that I can not only fulfill these ‘primordial desires’, but also share in their fulfillment with others, both readers and fellow authors.
Wilson, interestingly enough, also recognizes the connection between one mode of exploration and the other:
"I have argued...that we are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought....I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions."
Splendor in my world, splendor in my books.
That’s one answer I can give to the question "Why fantasy?", and it’s enough, I think, for a single blog post.
I do have a couple questions for you before I finish:
What do you like (or dislike) about fantasy fiction?
And, more importantly, what topics would you like to see discussed on a blog dedicated to fantasy fiction, and especially women in fantasy fiction?
Thanks for stopping by! We look forward to reading your thoughts and comments. While you're with us, make sure you check out our Grand Opening Raffle and register to win your free signed copy of Eolyn. The drawing will be on October 1, 2011.
--posted by Karin Rita Gastreich
There is magic in all things, if we have the right eyes, the right mindset. I'm not talking "Harry Potter" magic, but the magic in rain sparkling on the grass after a storm, snowflakes, the wind lifting cottonwood in the air. It's all magic.
Fabulous first post, Karin!
Thanks, Terri! I was a little nervous being up first, but I figure you can't lose if you just fall back on a quote or two from Tolkien (and Wilson). ;)
Why are there so few (I think no) female anti-heroes in fantasy. Female villains, yes. Damsels in distress, yes. Female heroes or co-heroes, yes. But where is the female anti-hero? Granted, most male anti-heroes aren't really morally dubious or ambiguous deep down, they just commit morally questionable acts from time to time and then agonise afterwards so people think they're 'deep'. But is there a heroine like Elric of Melnibone or Cugel the Clever? Or even Conan, who though scarcely an anti-hero, wasn't above crucifying a foe in a bit of tit for tat vengeance.
Oh, that's an awesome question, P. pygmaeus.
Can someone name an anti-heroine? Anyone? Anyone?
I'm hoping Selenia (from my short story 'Creatures of Light') will qualify as an anti-heroine when her time comes. But you may not agree.
I think Catwoman has occasionally been put forward as an anti-heroine, though I'm not convinced. Carmen is another possibility that comes to mind, from Bizet's opera, but that's not fantasy. Heck, it's not even literature...
So, yes, this is a question we will have to come back to...
Thanks for posting!
It also occurs to me that perhaps Cersei in George RR Martin's "A Feast for Crows" was intended as an anti-heroine.
But I could never quite get into her character in the way that one likes to with anti-heroes; that sense that even when their actions are unacceptable, at least the reader can come to understand and even sympathize with them.
Karin--I think Selenia qualifies. Cersei moves, imo, from flat out villain to anti-heroine, and it's not because SHE changes, but because we learn more about her, her motives, her past and her ambitions as the stories go on. And for that matter, so does Katlin, though I won't say how (spoilers!)
Hmmm...Dionara from Tigana I think is an anti-heroine. Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen! Though she's a historical figure, she's been fictionalized enough to qualify.
There are more, but I think the point is that yes, you REALLY have to think about it, whereas one could rattle off a list of ten male anti-heroes in a minute or two.
Cersei is sort of, but she by no means carries the books in the way that, say Elric did. Even compared to Arya, Jon Snow, Tyrion, etc she's much more of a supporting role. Even Jaime gets more time in character.
One might say, for instance, that Belit from the Queen of the Black Coast qualified similarly, but she too was a supporting player.
Selenia could well qualify. I'm not familiar with Dionara I'm afraid.
Three words: mystery, magic and heroes.
Let me explain.
I first felt the power of this genera by--not reading--but listening to the 1977 film The Hobbit. Yes, listening. A friend had given me a recording of the film, and I listened to it so much (I was 12 years old) I could recite the dialogue from start to finish. I kid you not.
Without a visual aid, I had only my imagination to fill in the pictures. I envisioned a world which was unknown. If you had a map, it was lines drawn on paper, but who knew what was really in that valley or under that mountain or deep in that forest?
And magic. Ancient magic, there to be feared and discovered. Known by all, possessed by few, understood by none.
This was a time when heroes were born. I loved that common theme in Tolkien's books; the hero inside, trying to get out. Bilbo, the Hobbit who never knew he was brave. Aragorn, who never imagined he could be King.
...and Éowyn, more a knight than any would have believed.
But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.
This book planted the seed of heroic fantasy that took decades to grow into the tree under which I now write my stories.
Pongo--I agree with you in Cersei's case UNTIL A Feast for Crows. In this one, she is a major player, and, once again IMO, when she becomes the anti-herione, as Karin suggested. I haven't read Dance with Dragons yet, so I couldn't say if she remains so.
Dionara from Tigana--Guy Gavriel Kaye. One of my all-time favorite books. It taught me that good and evil depends upon whose eyes one is looking out of. No one thinks they are the villain of the story, not even Sauron.
Thomas--I got chills reading your entry, because I remember that feeling so clearly. Tolkien came second only to TH White in my first leaps into fantasy fiction. I remember sitting under a tree in Goffle Brook Park one summer, reading The Once and Future King, then all the Hobbit/LOTR books, and the world simply becoming MORE. Thank you for bringing that back to me!
For me, fantasy has always been more organic. Science fiction was always more about carving a place for humans out of the World with technology, whereas Fantasy was about the inverse. Things that couldn't be explained by math and chemistry, cutting them to pieces and analyzing their parts. Fantasy was about dark corners of old houses, tiny doors that went nowhere, music haunted groves of ancient trees, and things that could never be quantified by examining them at a microscopic level. Some people see an animal and others see meat. For me, fantasy was always about seeing the animal and science fiction was about turning it into meat.
Clint! I love it. Fantasy/animal, science/meat!
Interesting way of viewing things.
Wow, I couldn't leave a better reason as to why fantasy, than has already been put here.
You guys rock. What a great round of comments.
Terri -- I'm going to have to go with Pongo on Cersei; I agree she was an anti-heroine in book 4, but in all honesty, she just didn't capture my imagination. I kept wanting her to be -- expected her to be -- more clever than she was. Which begs the question of what move us about the anti-hero/anti-heroine? What do we like to see in them? Cleverness is one thing I look for. Cleverness and tenacity.
Dionara sounds totally cool -- I will have to check her out.
A.T. -- Wow! You're feeling poetic today. :) Thanks so much for your wonderful comment. Mystery, magic and heroes. And heroines. My formative tales were the Brothers Grimm collection. I will never forget that magic; I guess in so many small ways I just keep trying to recapture it.
wendigomountain -- What a great name you have. And a very interesting take on things. For my part, I wouldn't necessarily describe science fiction (or even science for that matter) as seeing the 'meat' instead of the animal. Good science fiction, at least in my experience, expands our world in much the same way that fantasy does. It's just that science fiction relies much more on technical explanations for the wonders it describes.
out-totheblack -- Thanks so much for stopping by!
In response to the initial question, "Why fantasy" I find myself thinking back to the days when the Silmarillion's pending publication created waves within the lit. crit. world. Terms like "escapist fiction" and "forced allegory" made their way into articles attempting to modernize our responses to Tolkien and the genre he and a handful of eldritch practitioners gave credibility to. Karin's quotes from the Professor's essay make me think of "Leaf by Niggle"--his fictional evocation of the the philosophy in "On Fairy Stories". If ever a reader wanted to find the tap root of Tolkien's arboral orientation, that's it. And when one considers the forests of Middle Earth, the deep history and yet achingly relevant life of Fangorn and the Ents, then I think we come close to realizing "Why Fantasy"--for the image of trees does it for me at least. It is in the subcreated world that we find some of those truths that modern idioms cannot define. Fantasy has deep roots and serves as our conduit to the things Campbell codefied in his works on Myth. We find it in the slow growth, the deep drinking, the age, strength and contradictory fragility of trees--the spread of minute roots, the arch of the canopy--the whole thing a circular construct, truthful and whole in and of itself. I think the Professor was on to something, and that, too, is why Fantasy works for me: it allows us to re-work the great images to reveal shades of meaning on all the great truths in ways that true history or biography or, apologies to Karin, science cannot. For me, the BEST fantasy does what the Professor required: it has to make sense.
Now, regarding the female element as anti-heroine, I'll have to do a little digging on my shelves. I tend to agree with Terri about Dianora from Tigana. She is a finely conflicted creation, and in the end she is left with only one choice. Kay really had something there, but I sometimes wonder if she got lost in the shuffle of more compelling material happening elsewhere in the text.
Some of Jordan's militaristic counterparts to the Aes Sedai in the Wheel of Time might figure into this discussion. They, too, felt like they were doing the right thing, and yet the results were so negative. Eh, maybe.
Cherryh's Morgaine from her Gate novels comes pretty close, for she is a tragic figure forced to make terrible choices that are seen as evil by some in the stories. I think she is one of CJ's most compelling creations.
Sorry for the rambling word burp here, but you've set my brain fizzing.
Mark, what a great comment. Goodness, people are really inspired this week!
I accept your apology, and respectfully differ with one opinion you expressed. Scientists do see the world through eyes of wonder, though science is a different mode of inquiry that accomplishes things fantasy cannot -- just as fantasy accomplishes things science cannot. Complementary tools, in my mind; neither one 'better' or 'worse' than the other.
From your comment: "We find it in the slow growth, the deep drinking, the age, strength and contradictory fragility of trees--the spread of minute roots, the arch of the canopy--the whole thing a circular construct, truthful and whole in and of itself."
Just so. Ecologists see the same tree fantasy fans do, every time we walk into the forest. I spent a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing during my week as Writer in Residence last May at Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon; I bet you'd be interested in the reflections I posted about that experience on my blog for EOLYN. I'd certainly love for you to stop by and check those out sometime. And let your brain fizz while you're at it. :)
Great list of anti-heroines. I'll have to follow up on them, as well. Only two days into our blog, and already I have new reading list...
It's going to be a fun month.
Mark~I agree with you about Dionara being eclipsed (not ELIPSED!) by the other story elements, and yet within her own story, she is anti-herione material.
You and I see out of the same sort of eyes, my friend! (Yeah, like that's a surprise, right?) Though I love a high magic sort of tale, I write those in which the magic is in the seemingly mundane. I LIVE in a world where it's the same. I see magic everywhere. Maybe that makes me crazy, but at least it's a fun kind.
All this discussion of anti-heroines has me realizing that I've written a few of them. Most of them will never see the light of day, and are probably not developed enough to count. But there is one character in a fairy tale I wrote that I think qualifies. Hmmm...interesting food for thought.
And after a night of odd dreams--a clarification. One obviously cannot use sweeping generalizations and tag "science" as being inextricably tied to imperical data collectors and explainers.
After all, how does one explain the seahorse? Must be magic! :)
The only heroine I've ever seen ELIPSED is Hypatia, as portrayed in the movie AGORA.
(And if you haven't seen that movie, stop reading this blog now and go watch it. An excellent film; a great heroine. Not fantasy, but...she is so removed from us in time, and there is so little really known about her, that she almost could be. Also, another nice example of the wonder with which a scientist can explore her universe...)
Mark, I can't wait to read your new novel. :)
Karin...OMG...I just watched the trailer http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi290128921/
and bought it on Amazon.
I think part of the reason people tend to associate science with mundanity is because it explains the extraordinary and some people think that explanation makes the extraordinary less, well, extraordinary. Dawkins wrote a book (his last good one) about this rather curious idea - Unweaving the rainbow, in which he argued that knowing the 'why' of a rainbow (for instance, though it could be phosphorescent reactions or a peacock's tail or anything really) in no way detracts from one's ability to see its natural beauty but rather adds to one's appreciation of it as a phenomonen.
That's rather different from what is really the antithesis of fantasy (and what Tolkien railed against): a somewhat morbid preoccupation with 'real life' and fiction having to be 'relevant' to people's day to day humdrum existance rather than an escape from it.
Michael Moorcock wrote an essay about that too (the modern obsession with 'literary fiction' and how it, wittingly or not, devalues other genres by claiming to be the only one of import) and how 'escapism' was deemed childish. He laid into Tolkien somewhat in that essay too (but rather unfairly to my mind, taking examples of 'nursery language' out of context and grinding a political axe as he hated Tolkien's High Toryism, and to a lesser extent Tolkien's fondness for 'nature' over 'progress', or at least the rural over the urban).
Cersei, I must say is coming over altogether too wet for proper anti-heroic status in my opinion. Granted one need not be heroic to be an anti-hero (Cugel and Flashman were cowards), but one does need style. Cersei lacks style. In fact, sadly few of Martin's women exhibit much panache. Arya, certainly. Asha and Brienne to an extent, and Snow's missus who's name escapes me(but she's certainly a minor character). But none of them are remotely anti-heroic. Look at Tyrion - he has bags of style. As does Jaime (though less so as teh books go on, as we learn more about him - and more importantly, as his opinions change due to events - he loses much of the swaggering edge that made him great).
Agora is a great film. Though it took me some time to recover from the leaving the bath scene.
Grrr...just wrote a whole response and blogger wouldn't let me post it as Terri-Lynne. I'll try again as Three...etc.
Karin--I've been thinking about this since yesterday, and Pongo's comment kind of solidified it for me. You're a scientist like Carl Sagan (my hero of heroes!) was. The wonder of science isn't in explaining AWAY the magic of a rainbow, or the irridescence of a peacock's tail, but in adding wonder to wonder to not only illuminate, but SHINE. :)
I imagine most scientists are of this variety. I cannot imagine being able to be anything else. Whatever the reason, that image of a white coat, a clipboard, and detached STUDY is what sticks in so many minds.
For an anti-heroine who is a lead rather than supporting character I would nominate Morgaine from The Mists of Avalon. She has to betray nearly everyone she cares about in order to uphold her ideal.
Oh, EGADS, Mary. The QUEEN of anti-heroines!! Nicely done.
Carl Sagan was one of my heroes growing up, too. There was a long period of time from about 5th grade on where I read every astronomy book I could get my hands on. I wanted to be an astronomer or an astronaut, or something of that sort. I still hope we find a way to travel to the stars someday. Or at least to Mars.
My issue with Cersei in book 4 was that once we got inside her head, she was just not the person she had been set up to be in books 1-3. I mean, she WON the Game of Thrones, didn't she? She managed to have a torrid love affair with her own brother, assassinated the King, and outwitted Ned (which granted, didn't take much, but still...)
Now, it helped that the Lannisters were a united bunch in books 1-3; and Tyrion as the Hand really held things together in King's Landing. But even in that instance, I was under the impression that Tyrion was always worried about being checkmated by his own sister. And if Tyrion was worried, it meant she was smart. (Or so I assumed.)
So when book 4 Cersei came along, I just really expected more. I expected her to have a better understanding of the political machinery of King's Landing. I expected her to be smarter than her smartest advisors (instead of picking dumb advisors so she could feel smart...) I understood she was forced into some bad decisions due to circumstances, but for the most part she just lacked judgment. Which was a disappointment.
I would have liked to have seen Cersei modeled after Catherine de Medici; or Lucrezia Borgia. Actually, Lucrezia Borgia would be the better comparison. Someone with Catherine's cunning and Lucrezia's ruthless sensuality. Now that would be a great anti-heroine.
You mean like Eleanor of Acquitaine? :)
Oh, I looooove Eleanor of Acquitaine.
Mary -- Somehow I missed your post this morning, but yes, Morgane is a fantastic anti-heroine. Great choice!
I can't honestly say why I personally am into fantasy. I got into it at such a young age, before I knew what things like taste and quality were. It's never not been a part of my life, so I can't really examine it objectively. I got into it through unconventional means as well. I picked up a controller and started playing Legend of Zelda, and that was it.
One thing I can say I love about fantasy, is it can be a little bit of every genre. It can be action, adventure, mystery, humor, romance, all of these or something completely different. It's not constrained by any limit. George R. R. Martin's series has all of these, and now he's the reigning king.
Karin--I have to agree with you there. I expected more from her once she became a central figure in book four. Perhaps it was "The fall of a would-be anti-heroine!"
Hmmm...the character you describe...the cross between Lucretia and Katherine is Selenia!
Trying to leave this under my ACTUAL name this time!
Mark--Eleanor is my GODDESS!!
Nykk--Spot on about fantasy. It can be, and most often IS, more than meets the eye. Good call!
Cersei possibly experienced a sort of collapse of judgement after Joffrey's death, similar to that suffered by Cate when she was parted from her chikdren and her judgment became just shocking. But it never seemed like Cate's character changed, just her ability to make sound decisions. Whereas with Cersei, she's like a different person.
Mind you, I think while Martin's female characters are all pretty realistic (though I'm wondering a bit about the 'consistency' of Cersei's character - she almost now has the feel of a soap character whose personality changes to meet the needs of the specific storyline...), compared to the men they don't seem to come across as being as... what's the word? Firm?
Dany, for instance, is a crap queen, unable to make the hard decisions until forced. Her inclination to mercy should be admirable, but it's irritating.
Now take Nedd. Yes, he couldn't take the tough decision when it was needed and he paid with his life. But he always maintained a certainty and nobility of purpose that lifted him above Dany's sort of vacillating squeamishness.
Certainly Arya is great, but she has a gritty determination, even at her lowest ebbs. Like Tyrion, who rolls with the (many) punches and always comes out doggedly making teh best of it. Or Snow or Robb - they have an implacability that lifts them.
And Martin's crap male characters (Tarly, Theon) are unequivocably crap. They have their moments, but tend to wallow in their own sufferings - as do many of the key women.
I just find that a wee bit strange.
I love fairy tales, I love being reminded of the magic that I knew existed all around me as a child but have forgotten about as an adult.
Pongo--very good points, and I agree. I hadn't thought about it quite that way, but yes--Cersei does seem as chameleonlike as a soap star, fitting the the storyline at hand. The Cersei from book one would NOT have ended up...where she did in book four--and yet losing her beloved son could change her character completely. I wouldn't have said it WOULD, given the character originally given, but...hmmm...food for thought.
Angela--you've touched upon my heart of hearts! Fairy tales. I think they drive me to fantasy first and foremost too.
"One thing I can say I love about fantasy, is it can be a little bit of every genre. It can be action, adventure, mystery, humor, romance, all of these or something completely different. It's not constrained by any limit."
and Angela -
"I love being reminded of the magic that I knew existed all around me as a child but have forgotten about as an adult."
Well said, both of you. Unconstrained magic. I like that a lot. ;)
Terri -- Selenia is probably closer in character to Isabella de Medici (or how I imagine her, at least), with Catherine's & Lucrezia's love of poisons thrown in. We should probably stop talking about her b/c I'm likely to get totally inspired to start the novel now if we keep it up, and I do have a certain sequel to finish first...
The thought that Cersei may have lost it after Joffrey's death is an interesting one, but given that the same thing happened to Cate, it raises the question...Are the women in Martin's world typically incapable of absorbing the impact of death? Not that the death of a child would ever be easy to get over, but must the death of a prince invariably drive the queen mother crazy?
So, I know we've been pounding on Martin's women a lot in this discussion (not at all my original intention), and I just want to make it absolutely clear: I am a GREAT admirer of Martin's work, whether or not I liked Cersei in book 4.
Karin, ditto on the Martin thing. He's AMAZING, and I bow before his greatness.
Well, maybe not bow. Maybe just a bit of squeeage. :)
Ah, Isabella De Medici! Good call. She became one of my "new" favorite women in history while I was listening to a course on CD. Imeant to pick up a book on her. Curses! Another one for the TBR pile!
Yes, get working on that sequel, woman! I'm waaaaiiiiting!
For me, Martin is in a little danger of writing himself out of my favourite authors. Book one was great, book two neaarly as good. Book three excellent, and the Red Wedding lifted it to the best in my view. Book Four suffered from structural problems (half as many chapters than previously but twice as long as before and with more new characters and settings than in the previous sequels. Also many of the best characters missing) and I found it, frankly, uncompulsive. Book Five has, to an extent, pulled itself up from a slightly lacklustre start. But there are now so many characters and threads, and so many points of view from all sides (bar one) of the various conflicts, that it's starting to sprawl too much, I think.
Also, and getting back to the Women in Fantasy thing, the leading female characters are now in the main somewhat dithery and frankly irritating (Dany and Sansa I've always detested, I confess, but Cersei is a sore disappointment). Cate and Brienne were much better, and just as well drawn/deep. Arya is fantastic. Asha is okay but increasingly rather impotent.
On Morgaine - she's a good choice as an anti-heroine being the main character in the books and suitably dynamic.
I don't think Martin will be writing himself off my list of favorites any time soon, even if the sequels are not as thrilling as those first three books (and most particularly Storm of Swords, which was my favorite). I mean, even if books 4&5 aren't up to expectations, what he accomplished with the first three novels in the series is worth a little bit of hero worship. imho.
But it would be nice to have a more-or-less tidy finish to the saga, and the more one reads on, the harder it is to imagine how that might ever happen.
Terri -- If you're interested in a biography of Isabella de Medici, I highly recommend "Murder of a Medici Princess" by Caroline P. Murphy.
Karin--Thank you!!! I was trying to weed through which ones I found for a good one.
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