Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why Heroines? Defining the Heroine in Epic Fantasy

We've come a long way, baby, but why are good heroines still so hard to find?  And how do we, as authors,  write a heroine that speaks true to the reader?

The problem with “traditional” female characters in epic fantasy, as I see it, is that they fall into one of only a few roles: the goodly matron, the healer, the love interest, the witch, the prostitute, and the victim.  Sometimes they fulfill more than one of these roles at a time.  She’s a witch AND a goodly matron!  She’s the prostitute AND the victim AND the love interest!  5x bonus for a character who manages to meet all of the stereotypes at the same time!  Unfortunately, she doesn’t play much of a role beyond that prescribed for her by the genre.  Our “heroine,” even when she wields a sword like a badass, still swoons over our hero and falls apart like bad toilet paper whenever the going gets tough. 

Heads-up, people: these are not real women.  In order to write a proper heroine, the author has to respect the characteristics that make women strong and use those to advantage instead of trying to force the heroine to occupy a stale stereotype or squish into the role traditionally occupied by the hero.

So what, then, defines a great heroine?

For starters, she’s going to use her words.  A woman’s need to communicate is generally much stronger than that of her male counterpart.  We talk, and talk, and talk.  We problem solve, talk through tricky situations and share stories.  Thus, even if our heroine isn’t a chatterbox, she will still most likely attempt a little parley before jumping into that bar fight.  She’ll try to talk herself out of—or into—a situation.  She’ll use words as a delay, as a diversion, as a weapon, or to make up for what she herself may lack in physical strength.

Which leads me to another problem: women are not equal in strength to men.  Yes, I’m going to have my feminist card revoked.  But it takes a lot of brute strength to lift that two-handed broadsword over your head like Conan and split your enemies in two.  Forensic archaeology argues that the English archers of Agincourt had such overdeveloped chests and shoulders that their bone structures and musculature were physically altered.  Just to pull the bow those men had to train from an early age, and even then, a particular body type was required or they wouldn't succeed past a certain point.  Unless your heroine has a gym membership and has been working out with her weapon of choice since the age of five, I have a hard time believing that she will ever be able to equal her male counterparts in battle.

So what’ s a girl to do?  Pick up a smaller weapon.  A short sword.  A dagger.  A small bow and arrow.  Or—my personal favorite—use her brain.  The brain is an oft-overlooked tool in the sword and sorcery genre (unless it’s being used to cast spells or figure out how to bed the hot guy in the party).  In Song and the Sorceress, Ki’leah’s memory is the most sought-after commodity on two continents.  The knowledge she carries is far more important—and more dangerous—than she realizes.  Learning to use that to her advantage gives her more power than a lifetime of sword lessons could ever do.

Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of a heroine is that she, unlike the lonely hero, thrives with a support network.  A good heroine realizes she can’t get the job done all by herself.  If she’s lacking strength, she’ll bring the muscle.  Does she need information?  She’ll bring a spy, a scholar, a big-ass book.  She’s not afraid to delegate or ask her friends for help.  Why?  Because that’s what strong women do.  Anyone who has ever been to a PTA or a Girl Scout convention knows exactly what I’m talking about.  Strong women acknowledge their weaknesses, then find a way to overcome them.  They work together to get the job done.  They also connect, on a much deeper level, with other women, who are always ready to jump in and spackle up the cracks in their friend’s emotional armor, buff it, shine it, give her a hug and send her on her way with a “good luck” and a “don’t forget your gauntlets.”  A strong network of friends and associates is essential for any heroine worth her salt.

Which brings me to my last point, which is that we seldom see too many of these women in fantasy even though we have moved beyond the gold-bikini-as-armor era (thank goodness—it’s so unsafe to be fighting naked).  Nevertheless, even though one can glance at the SFF section in Barnes & Noble and see rows upon rows of covers featuring women in tight tank tops and leather jackets, very few of these creatures are actual heroines.  They are simply male characters who’ve been dressed up as women.  These girls act like men, think like men, ride Harleys like men, fight like men, have sex like men.  They don’t act like real women at all.  And while we women can pretend that we’re making all kinds of progress in the genre, the reality is that those covers aren’t so far after all from the gold-bikini-armored warriors that made Boris Vallejo famous. 

The best way I’ve found to tackle the problem is to just keep writing the kind of heroines I admire.  Women who have dreams, hopes, fears, friends, enemies, brains, and wit.  Women who care deeply for their families and would do anything to help a friend, even if it means giving an edge to the enemy.  Women who laugh, cry, make mistakes, then problem solve ways to fix them.  Women who need men as companions, as friends, as lovers, but who don’t need to be rescued.  Women with depth of character, spirit, and passion.  These are real women; these are the true heroines of fantasy.

Now, speak: what do you all think?

Kim Vandervort


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Kim, what an amazing post!

Wow -- there's so much to comment on here, I don't even know where to begin.

I really like the way you approach the question of what makes a strong heroine: thinking in terms of the strengths women can realistically bring to the sword and sorcery game, as opposed to dressing up essentially male protagonists as women.

That's not to say there can't be women warriors out there -- your own Britta is a wonderful example that comes to mind. But building more of the traditional strengths of real women into our characters gives them authenticity.

Very nice. I have a lot to mull over now. I'll be back... ;)

Terri-Lynne said...

As I read through this spectacular post (Kim, you're so funny. I can hear your voice inflections as I read!) I kept thinking to myself, "This is what HRB publishes. This is why the three of us are here to begin with!" And it's very, very true. Eolyn, Ki'leah (and Britta!) Zihariel, and in ATNL, Cesilee, are all real women.

Had Tolkien developed Eowyn further, she'd have been such a woman, I think. I mean, she IS, but we see so little of her not invovling Strider or the Witch King stuff. But her womanhood, and the fact that NO ONE even considered such a thing, is what saved the day there.

I've no problem with female warriors archetypes--those women made in the image of man. They exist, just like all the others do. It's when they're the only ones who can save the day, or the only ones AVAILABLE that sticks in my craw. I'm interested to see what other readers have to say. And excited!

Patricia J. Esposito said...

I'm very happy to read this perspective. I've gotten so tired of the female as male heroine. It's not that I think women aren't just as aggressive or just as prone to action to save someone, that they wouldn't try to bash their enemy with whatever weapon was at hand. It's that the female heroines have often felt like imitations of men, as if women have to define themselves by male standards of success.

It's a situation I've found in the workplace, with women behaving like their male coworkers, seeing any "female" reactions to situations as weak. I had no patience with that.

I agree with the attributes of strength you list. And while I sometimes think I might be the loner since I'm not much of a social female, I also know that I do have that tendency to find solutions by including others, asking for help, doing what's necessary in planning ahead and organizing.

That raises a question though: Is that loner hero/heroine a product of human fantasy rather than a reflection of real human characteristics? I wonder if men, too, would do more organizing and rallying and sharing the glory in real life, but in fantasy, the idea is glorifying self, finding self-worth through a grand noble action alone. And that could also be what drives the overly tough female character. Pure childlike fantasy of being what we aren't?

So now I question my own reaction to the stereotypical hero/heroine. Yes, I'm tired of them. And in real life I think it's damaging for women to define themselves in male terms. But a young girl wants to imagine riding a horse and waving a sword because it gives her a feeling of power. And that could be what drives this stereotyped heroine. I think fantasies are useful.

But that also supports the need to give that young girl different role models, doesn't it? Role models that they'd be more likely to succeed in becoming; I'm thinking of Hermione in HP. I haven't read it, but I've seen a lot of girls feeling proud of what she could do because it was what they could do too.

Yes, I went on very long because this is an issue that has bothered me a long time!

Terri-Lynne said...

Patricia--so true. The fantasy element giving girls the ability to imagine themselves on horseback, sword raised and battle-cry in their throats IS very valid, but, as you say, we are obligated to give them other sorts of heroines too.

Your post reminded me of the "women's business suit" complete with tie. Women in the workforce were not (and maybe STILL are not!) taken seriously unless they dressed as men. It bothered and amused me at the time, and I am trying to figure out if it still holds true in any capacity.

Patricia J. Esposito said...

Terri, yes, the business world is difficult, with men still setting the example of "success." I had a guy tell me that our female coworker shouldn't have reacted emotionally in a meeting once. I was furious, and I told him that slamming a fist on the table and yelling is just as emotional as getting teary-eyed. And that's why I'd like to see heroines that don't always reflect men. Men shouldn't be a symbol of power.

Terri-Lynne said...

Patricia--you just reminded me of a comment I got from a male reader not too long ago. He said the characters in Finder are a bit in, often either fighting back or shedding tears. Hmmm...

My response was that I come from a very passionate Italian family. We cry when we're happy, sad, angry, touched. This decidedly "womanly" response to emotion makes some men quite uncomfortable, and sometimes downright annoyed!

writerknv said...

Great comments, Patricia!

Your post reminds me of my own mother. In the 80's she was a civilian GS-13 working for Army intelligence. She wrote the training manuals our troops took into the first Iraq war and briefed 5 star generals. She reached a professional level at that time that very few women attained.

However, she wasn't very feminine. She almost always wore business suits, usually pants, and wore her hair pulled back into a severe bun. She was forceful and assertive, and had to demand respect and prove herself over and over. She even told me that she had to act and think like a man to succeed in that world.

So I suppose, in a sense, the woman behaving like a man can also define a type of female heroine. There's certainly literary precedent for the female warrior as well. Fa Mu-lan was Disneyfied about a decade ago in the animated Mulan. The thirteenth-century French romance silence chronicles the story of a girl who dons armor and fights with the men. But it isn't necessarily physical prowess they carry into battle so much as sheer force of will and a tremendous amount of heart. In fact, one of the things I love about the movie Mulan is that she really isn't all that great with a sword. She brings down the huns with her cleverness.

I knew I'd get called out for Britta (haha Karin, you caught me!) but the thing that makes her interesting to me is that while she is definitely much more male in many of her sensibilities, that almost becomes her flaw. She is willing to completely throw away a relationship with the man she's loved her whole life because she believes she's not female enough. And as the books continue, I'm really enjoying watching Britta struggle with these ideas herself: can a woman succeed in a male-dominated field and still be wife and mother? Can she both kill and give life?

As for Tolkien: Eowyn is absolutely one of my favorite heroines. Even though she has so little space in the text, she is one of the most well-rounded females in fantasy. Tolkien gets points for Eowyn, but double points off for Arwen, especially when he doesn't allow her to go to the Grey Havens because she made her choice and had to stick with it, yet Legolas gets to bring the dwarf. Hello? How is THAT fair? Since Leggy was building a ship anyway, why not invite Arwen? So rude....

There's so much to say here. Originally my initial post was another 300 words long, and this comment is probably reaching that length as well.

Kim :)

Terri-Lynne said...

I have to admit, I've a lot of "man" in me. I think it's one of the reasons I write authentic male characters--specifically those who are in their early twenties. I have been told (by several people, actually) that I have the mindset of a 19 year old male. And I do! But there are many layers in this brain of mine, as there are many layers in ALL human beings, including men. My husband would have made an EXCELLENT woman in many ways. And that's a whole different blog post! And feeding stereotypes to boot. Like I said--we all have those layers. It's the ones we choose to display that get SEEN.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I think there are two sorts of 'fighting women' that are unconvincing.

One is the 'super-fighting woman dressed as man'. Xena, say. Whilst history has a fair few examples of women as soldiers (not least the king of Dahomey's Amazons in the C19) and some examples of women as military leaders (Joan of Arc, Black Annie, etc) there are no real examples of women with the fighting prowess of a Bruce or Coeur de Lion. Typically the 'woman dressed as man' may have some female traits but most often wins by force of arms. It's unconvincing because while it's certainly possible to conceive of a capable woman fighter, it's not realistic to imagine she could hold her own with Sports provide a decent parallel. The top women would struggle against men regarded as third rate in almost all the traditional athletic events (I should point out here that I also regard the skinny male heroic swordsman as unrealistic as despite the belief of certain 'martial arts' enthusiasts there is in fact a huge advantage to sheer mass and power in any proper close quarters fight. Skill and speed do enter into it of course but there is a reason why all sporting 'martial arts' have weight classes... In most fiction, not merely fantasy, a fighting hero must display prowess above the common run of soldiery. In a pre-gunpowder age (especially), a female fighter would have to be like Martin's Brienne to be convincing (and notice she is far from outstanding as a fighter, capable, certainly, but no Conan). And for whatever reasons, folk want their heroines to be rather more comely than Brienne. Certainly in fantasy one could argue 'anything goes', and fair enough. But I think the 'women dressed as men' do ultimately fail to convince as characters because they are unrealistic. Eowyn for instance was brave (and also driven to despair by Aragorn's rejection), but there's little evidence she was anything more than perhaps competent with sword and shield. I think that's why she's a good heroine because she dresses as a man as a disguise, she is not a character who would be as well or better as a male than female.

The other sort is Buffy, superfighting 6-stone waif with teenage angst and preternatural reflexes and fighting abilities. She's in no way a woman dressed as man. But her fighting abilities are far, far more unrealistic than those of Xena. Again, the only defence is that in fantasy anything goes and why not imagine a world where an underweight girl can whip ten times her weight of hulking brutes? And that is okay, but it doesn't help make the character convincing.

Because in fantasy (and indeed in most fiction) action heroes are exaggerated in their prowess anyway (though one should consider the lives of Alexander of macedon, William Marshall and Robert Bruce before assuming one man cannot best many or that everything unlikely is exaggeration, and of course a British officer at Isandlwhana fought alone for hours atop a wagon, with bayonet alone, until he was eventually shot - but that is by the by). So there's already a situation with male fighting heroes where the willingness to believe is being stretched, adding more layers of unlikelihood detracts from the character being taken seriously.

continuesd next post...

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

And I think good heroines - and heroes - have to be taken seriously if they're going to have lasting appeal. Otherwise that exaggeration of certain characteristics must give them appeal. But those characteristics should be appropriate to their age, build and sex. And so one of the biggest problems faced by female fighters is 'why isn't there a man who is as good?' Because men can be just as fast and skilled as women and are undoubtedly bigger and stronger (taking either averages or extremes).

If (and I agree, though I confess I think it's inevitable that they will be) men shouldn't be a symbol of power, then having women outfight men will always be appealing, even in a male dominated society and even to men - the Vikings had stories of female warriors who went raiding and did all sorts of derring-do (before being bested by some strapping hero with whom they fell in love and settled down like good girls to have children, but we can gloss over that...). But it will always be unrealistic so long as we want our heroines to be slender and beautiful (and most fantasy heroines are, I think).

Black Annie never raised a sword. But she defied the English at her castle gates long enough for the siege to be lifted. Joan of Arc certainly charged into battle (she was wounded so doing), but given her age and build, it's extraordinarily unlikely she was mixing it much with men-at-arms who had trained from boyhood. I don't think that lack of armed prowess makes either of them less heroic.

So I think if one's story requires wrestling with giant apes, then Conan is your man and a female lead would be ill-advised. But outside of the actual sword-swinging, women can hold their own. Because fantasy tends, or has tended, towards pre-gunpowder era wars and fights and monster slaying and such, I think that's one reason why females have struggled a little to take leading roles (not always of course) that are not reducing them to men in drag.

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo--once again, a very well-thought out response. I do agree--as long as a fantasy relies upon the sword-wielding hero, women are not going to be given starring roles. And, PLEASE don't get any of this wrong--I, at least, love my he-men! I love those fabulous warrior men who blaze through (and yes, very unrealistically in many cases) foe after foe to win the day, or at least the battle at hand. Love them. And I do love a woman who can hold her own in a fight. And this is all leading to MY blog post next week! But I'm not telling.

Once again I am reminded of Grace O'Malley (who supposedly bore her child during a battle, got up and started battling) who has become more fiction than fact. I'm going to have to do some real fact-finding on her!
Thanks for your excellent comments!

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I had to comment on this:

but double points off for Arwen, especially when he doesn't allow her to go to the Grey Havens because she made her choice and had to stick with it, yet Legolas gets to bring the dwarf. Hello? How is THAT fair?

It isn't fair. That's the point. Arwen made a choice of mortality over immortality (which is a central theme of LotR) so she had to abide by that. Choices have consequences... There's actually no suggestion that the mortals who depart over the sea (Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Gimli) will in fact be allowed to stay forever as immortals, in fact as I recall Tolkien stated in his later writings that they would not (but I'll have to check that).

Also, although Arwen says to Aragorn as he lies dying that 'the last ship is gone' (clearly not the case as Legolas was building), is it not likely that this was a lie? That in truth she simply did not wish to depart over the sea, that she wished to die rather than live forever without Aragorn?

writerknv said...

Hey Pongo!

Ohhh, you've touched another nerve there! I have a very hard time with the "woman dying of love for her man" motif. It's impractical, and implies that once your man is gone, there's nothing left for you. Arwen had kids, grandkids... I don't believe for a moment that Aragorn was the epicenter of her world to such a degree that she didn't have anything else to do but lie down in the forest and become one with the earth. Ugh.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite medieval texts, Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. In the prologue, the God of Love himself calls Chaucer on the carpet for his portrayal of Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde. What was Chaucer's crime? His Criseyde was an independent widow. She read books (not at all common in Chaucer's day, especially for women) and, while she loved Troilus, she was also quite capable of managing on her own. After the lovers are separated, Criseyde has a choice. Marry someone else to ensure her own health and security, or die of love for Troilus. Eminently practical, she gets married. Bye, Troilus! Troilus, all distraught, kills himself for love. What a wuss.

Instead of dying for his art (because the God of Love wants Chaucer to die for his inappropriate portrayal), he is commissioned to write The Legend of Good Women, a tale of "good maidens and good wives/ who were true in loving all their lives." And he is directed to start with Cleopatra, who was known in the middle ages as the most infamous whore of all time. I could go on and on... it's a fantastic text, and a really good exploration of what constitutes a good heroine and a "good" woman. Chaucer was a rock star. He'd have loved this discussion.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Arwen had embraced mortality. there was no going back from that. and whatever one might wish to think, Tolkien is pretty unequivocal. When Aragorn died, 'the light of her eyes was quenched and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey... she said farewell... to all those she had loved; and she went out from the city'.

But I don't think that actually is to do with 'pining' as such, more that her children were fit to look after themselves and having embraced mortality, she had to die sometime (none of this late C20 clinging to life...).

And Arwen, after all, is not a heroine really (the films made a huge blunder in trying to make her so). She's an important bit part.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I'd add that at the time of her laying down of life, Arwen was nearly 3000 years old, all her kin were departed Middle-earth, save her children and the magic that kept the places of her former life fresh had faded and they were withering. Those elves remaining were dwindling. Her son was 'full ripe and ready for kingship', which would suggest early middle age, or about (or at least) 70 years old for one of Numenorean descent, and (importantly!) no dramatic purpose would be served by Arwen clinging to life, in fact the reverse. She is the last of the half-elven on the face of middle-earth. her death symbolises, I think, the passing of the elves and the coming of the Age of Men.

Sorry for the derailment... back to heroines...

Terri-Lynne said...

Zap me with a tazer, but I have to say I agree with Pongo on this one, Kim. That we don't LIKE the notion of "women dying of love for her man," it exists, and I think that was so, at least in part, in LOTR with Arwen.

Let's remember that this was indeed written by Tolkien, who admittedly knew very little about women. He was uncomfortable around them, he much preferred the company of men, and it showed in his writing. What really speaks for him, however, is that despite his own "girl cooties" thing, he was able to give Eowyn the part he did give her, and with all his heart.

But Arwen--yup--I agree with Pongo. I think these were the things Tolkien was going for. It wasn't about Arwen dropping down dead because Aragorn died--it was that she saw it was the end of things, HER end of things. It was symbolic--an Age truly and finally passing. I could never imagine Legolas passing with it. It just wasn't his character. What little we got of Arwen suggests that it was indeed her character.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Luthien would be, I think, Tolkien's best (and only) heroine. She rescues Beren twice from Sauron and Morgoth (with the aid of a faithful hound) and is every bit as active, if not more so, than Beren in the story. And she lays down her own immortality to be with Beren and ultimatey to die with him. Arwen's fate, her being a direct descendent of Luthien and also choosing mortality for love of a man, mirrors this.

But Luthien is pretty much everything a convincing heroine should be, I think.

Terri-Lynne said...

Oooo! I'd forgotten about Luthien. Good call!

It lets me know that even if JRRT wasn't comfortable around women, he certainly had some good thoughts about them. :)

And, come to think about it--there's Giladriel too. Her power is more...implied, I suppose, because in the books themselves, we don't get all THAT much. More pondering...

writerknv said...

Okay, okay, I concede the Arwen point! You're right about her being symbolic of the passing of an age, as well as the on the point that she's actually no longer needed. I certainly wouldn't want to stick around long past my time. Immortality would be a real bore after a while. However, it still would've been nice if she could've hopped on the boat with Legolas and partied with the elves for all eternity.

And you're right also about her being a bit part, not a heroine. Which was, and still is, in many cases, the role most women play in fantasy.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I'm not sure about this:

who admittedly knew very little about women. He was uncomfortable around them

Evidence for this?

Because several of his letters to his son Christopher on the subject of love sex and marriage seem to me to indicate that he knew a fair amount about women and while the Inklings were all male, Tolkien lived in an academia that was overwhelmingly male. Yet he had female friends also.

I think it's fair enough to say he had a very romantic (in the proper sense) approach to love -- look at the circumstances leading to his marriage, and his utter faithfulness and consideration to his wife -- even abandoning Oxford for the coast in their later years so she could live more 'in society'. But I'm not convinced he held any real naivety about women, or disliked or avoided them more than he disliked or avoided people generally (that is to say he was a private person who preferred the companionship of close friends to that of casual acquaintances).

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Kim!

So I came back hoping to read the part where you supposedly trampled on epic love, but I can't find it. Are you sure you trampled on epic love? Or did you just trample on women dying for the love of their men? Those two aren't quite the same thing, in my mind...

This is such a great debate, and I'm enjoying the discussion of Tolkien's women (or lack thereof) in particular. Tolkien was one of the authors who most inspired me to get into writing fantasy, not only because of his wonderfully rich tales, but also because there were so few women in them. I wanted to change that; put together a few of mine own stories where the Arwens and the Eowyns got a little more stage time.

And yes, the similarity between the names "Eowyn" and "Eolyn" is no coincidence...

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah, I never said he didn't LIKE or appreciate women, in fact, I pointed out that despite his squeamishness around the opposite sex, he thought highly of them.

Much of what I learned about Tolkien and his behavior AROUND women (not necessarily towards them) came from a study of CS Lewis. The men were quite close (Until Jack married a woman JRRT couldn not stand.) He was reporotedly bashful and often tonguetied, and this tonguetiedness often came across as dismissal.

Thinking more about it, perhaps JRRT was in awe of women, and this caused his discomfort. I dare say he adored his wife, and was able to express himself to his son, even to her. But, as you say, he was intensely private, and I imagine that the appearances defined the personality that got reported upon, while the truth of his nature came to light later. AND, in thinking further about it, perhaps his "preference for the company of men" wasn't exactly what it seemed. As you say, he was an academic, comfortable with other academics--and who were those academics? MEN!

Look at all these generated thoughts! Thank you!

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I should say that I agree entirely that Arwen isn't much of a heroine, but that's (as I say) because she isn't one. Were she, she'd be pretty crap, I agree.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Okay, so I've some more time to mull over this.

We've gone over, in some detail, Tolkien's handful of (very noteworthy) contributions to female characters in fantasy. But in thinking again about the true heroines -- those who occupy the central role in the story -- I find myself in a similar dilema to what we had last week with the anti-heroines.

Who are the memorable heroines in fantasy? Who have they been, for you?

Buffy and Xena captured the public imagination, but they don't really cut it for me.

Patricia mentioned Hermione, who I think is an excellent example, but she wasn't quite the center of the story, was she? (And wouldn't it have been cool, actually, if she had been?)

One of my favorite heroines of fantasy is Lyra, from Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials". She is brilliantly drawn, and her tale truly epic. To the point that I find myself wondering why she never caught on in the same way that, say, Potter did. Maybe it's because she's a girl. Though I also suspect it's because the villain in her story is not an evil wizard named Voldemort, but God himself.

I was never really entranced with Belle of "Twilight" fame -- seemed to me she never advanced beyond being the lead romantic interest of an undead man. (And really, where's the fun in that?)

I could name heroines from historical fiction until I ran out of breath, but it's harder to list the ones that have caught my imagination in fantasy. Ki'Leah is one of them (that's the truth, Kim!). Zihariel another.

Sometimes to _find_ a true heroine in fantasy -- someone who is the focus of an epic tale while reflecting the reality of women -- seems so remarkable, that they almost become memorable for that alone.

Okay. I've meandered long enough. Take this where you will...

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--Sidonne (McKillip's Forest of Serre,) Mistral, the Princess and Od (again, McKillip--Od Magic,) Deborah Walcott Proctor (CC Finlay's Patriot Witch books), Tallis Keaton (Holdstock's Lavondyss,) Plain Kate (Erin Bow's, Plain Kate.) I could go on and on. I am ready to catch hell for it, but I don't seem to feel the dearth of good, strong, true women characters in fantasy fiction. Maybe because I am drawn to works that feature them, but my shelf is FULL of great women protags.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Well, yes, I would also say Rose in McKillip's "Winter Rose". Perhaps part of the problem, from my end, is that I'm not particularly well read in fantasy, having been more drawn to historical fiction as a reader before I started getting into fantasy as a writer.

But my question isn't just about who we can name as readers familiar with the genre -- It's about who people recognize. Who among the people you list have really caught popular imagination, in the way that, say, Harry Potter or Frodo have?

Arya also comes to mind as an excellent heroine, and someone who I think has caught on in wider circles.

But with all due respect, I had never heard of McKillip until people started comparing my work to hers. At which point I started reading it, and very much admire it.

Again, I had a lot of hopes pinned on Lyra, and find it a great mystery that she isn't more widely known.

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah, I see your point. So it's not about a shortage of good female protags, but their visibility factor. True--who HAS heard of Sidonne?? But even non-fantasy enthusiasts know who Frodo is. Hmmm...but would they know who Jon Snow is either?

Very interesting.

I suspect Lyra didn't catch on as well because of the anti-god messages in His Dark Materials. The second book in the series isn't even being produced as a movie, which is a shame. They were fantastic books.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Oh -- something I forgot to mention about Britta.

There are several things I like about her, but one is that it's apparent she has trained from a very young age. Also, there's some evidence that part of her success in confrontations comes from the fact that men who have not fought with her before almost invariably underestimate her.

I think the same thing happens with Martin's Brienne. Brienne also has the I'm-not-woman-enough-for-love complex, but in Brienne's case she is actually ugly; whereas Britta, from what I gather, is a true knock-out. It's her attitude, not her looks, that tends to ward off romantic inclinations on the part of the guys.

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

Well, too tired. Can't get my long ramble accepted. I'll try again in the morning. Just going to push submit to see it this will work.

As you were. :)

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

Wow, and then a discussion broke out. This means, of course, that I will not get to my and a discussion breaks out. This means, of course, that I will not get to my stack of papers because you all have forced my focus on to something much more worthwhile.

I'd put in a vote for most of McKillip's female leads as admirable heroines. Almost none of them are ever physically dominating. In fact, I blame t.v. and film for perpetuating that practice. 'Underworld' anyone? Please.

And yet the debate seems to point us all in the same direction: the best woman heroines are thinking types--passionate and yet pragmatic in the best tradition.

CL Moore's Jiriel of Joiry was an early entry into the warrior woman. And there have been others that many of you have already mentioned, so I won't rehash. What I think all of you have done is to clarify--if not redefine--the qualities we all see as essential in what makes a good character: things have to be plausible. Zen-like sword skills really only happen in genre foreign films ('Heroes'--omg).

Eowyn rides to war out of despair over a rejected offer of love--even though that rejection was tempered by pity. She rides to be close to the only father she has ever known, drawn by her own innate association with the Rohirrim's concept of glory. She rides in bitterness at being left behind to ward the old and "find beds for those that return", etc. She is not a swordwoman--a fact that Jackson clouds with his lowest common denominator portrayal of her. Neither is Merry a swordsman, and yet together they defeat the greatest enemy of the west outside of Sauron himself. Eowyn's killing blow is anything but graceful. She had a broken arm and was even then suffering from the black breath and sorrow's darkness. I think Tolkien redeems her beautifully when he has Faramir complete her recovery. I don't see it as a cop-out at all, and we are told she dwelt with Faramir as the White Lady of Ithilien in great happiness. Whether she did so barefoot and pregnant is left for us to decide. I think Faramir was perceptive enough to see his way through to compromise. There's was the image of the blending that Aragorn's ascension to the throne precipitated. But I digress.

Pongo is spot on about Arwen. No one else left on middle earth 120 years after Elrond's departure knew as much about what that age had cost--everyone. She made her choice for love and abided the bitterness that came. In the end, I consider her a tragic figure, and a shining example that even the elder could be surprised by something.

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

And that brings me to another salient point. Tolkien may have had social limitations, but I think he understood a lot about love. It is impossible to miss the influence of his own courtship of Edith in the pathos of Middle Earth. Dang it, I just think that is cool.

But getting back to the heroine business. Sword-fighting ninja chicks have to be very carefully realized in order to avoid cliche--something that hollywood cannot seem to avoid, and in fact seems hell bent on perpetuating. Anyone seen any "remakes" lately?

The fact is they just do not know what to do with really smart women. Occasionally, 'they' let some smart women become directors and it is THEN that the drivel H-wood spews out comes closest to being plausible--or at least marrying the plausible to the fanciful. Eh?

For me, I have always been drawn to the characters, male or female, who seem to fit in their fantasy skin the best. Morgaine serves both as anti and real heroine in that sense because her gravitas and care make her vulnerable--even while she wields a sword that serves as a gateway to oblivion.

McKillips Readerle from the RiddleMaster series, or the witch from Eld--all exist within the strengths and weaknesses of their gender and yet find ways to act meaningfully that don't stretch the limits of what is true. Castiglione had a term for in 'The Courtier'--"Sprezzatura"--that combination of qualities that establishes one's social validity. And a critic, I think it might have been White, referred to "verisimilitude" or the "air of truth".

The truth is: there aren't many realtime examples of women dominating using the traditional manly skills. And the ones who may have dominated by guile get revised by male dominated history into whores, ala Cleopatra.

It isn't fair--never has been--and never will be.

And so what does the writing community do about it? All too often, and sadly for my thinking, the trend for gender bending has been allowed to develop into a neo-genre that, in the end, does story-telling a disservice. It makes great semi-erotic, male audience centered filmic images--but does it do the characters any good?

Frankly, I think we have three very intelligent ladies on this blog who are engaged in an attempt to refine the accepted mythos into something less conflicting. Should we be forced to suspend our disbelief so much? And yet that gives rise to another contradiction: if we can suspend our disbelief to accept the reality of magic, dragons, talking trees and flying monkees--then why is it so hard to accept a sword wielding Zena-figure? Or better yet, a 120 lb doyen of the daggers?

Lin Carter in his The Year's Best Fantasy series, circa the seventies, made constant references to the fact that many of the primary practitioners of the genre have been and continue to be women, and I think it is due in part to the sensibility that they bring to their male and female characters. Tolkien understood the pathos of love, but I wonder how much he understood what the forced separation cost Edith? Once the writer taps into that angle of vision, then its all verisimilitude all the time, Katie-- bar the door.

Thinking about all this stuff now has me worried about the female characters in my stories. Eleni is my favorite--for all three books that have been drafted. She moves in a male dominated world in all three drafts, and yet I think she accomplishes a great deal without having to resort to ninja sword chick moves.

You know, I love the Kill Bill movies as much as the next fan, but really...kill ALL the Crazy

Call me foolish, call me a silly poet, but I rather like the vulnerability of love. It doesn't keep us from being heroic; it just impacts how we express it.

Apologies for the ramble, but what a gas!

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

just on the Nazgul killing - it is in fact Merry who slays the Black Rider with his blade of Westernesse that he got in the Barrow-wights' tomb. Elwyn's 'killing blow' in fact strikes an enemy whose corporeal form was already unknit by Merry's strike. That's not, I think, to diminish Eowyn's role. She held the attention of the Nazgul, giving Merry the opportunity to strike -thanks partly to the misleading 'no mortal man can hinder me' that throws the Nazgul into doubt when she reveals herself as a woman. But that lines misleads many readers too - that and the fact the Eowyn does appear to render the coup de grace. But 'no other blade [than Merry's]... would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleabving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit is unseen sinews to his will.' Eowyn's last strike is against a foe already slain.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

On this:

if we can suspend our disbelief to accept the reality of magic, dragons, talking trees and flying monkees--then why is it so hard to accept a sword wielding Zena-figure? Or better yet, a 120 lb doyen of the daggers?

First I have to say that I've never been happy with the commonly used term 'suspension of disbelief' because I think it's not actually describing what people reading or watching or listening to to any work of fiction do. In fact they are willing to believe, credulous. It is the stretching and breaking of credulity that ruins a story (and everyone has different breaking points, for me, for example the 'martial arts as dance' of The Matrix and suchlike is just too silly (and too stylishly done) to pass as credible, so I can never get past the first punch thrown before my credulity is shattered beyond repair).

But however we term it, there's no simple thing that does it. Dragons are not real yet it doesn't stretch credulity of most people to accept them in them in a suitable context (Middle-earth, yes, C20 London, in general, no). But something that is closer to reality has, generally, a lower threshhold for credulity to be broken. So if we take a medieval style culture with a male dominated heirarchy and soldiery also pretty much exclusively male (typical of most fantasy worlds), it's actually hard to accept a 130lb 20 year old female who can whip all-comers in a fight (unless perhaps she uses 'force' like magic, perhaps). One might go along with it because she's easy on the eye (so credulity takes a back seat to drooling or wish-I-was-her type fantasising), but at bottom it will strike a false note, I think, whereas a 220lb athletic man in his prime born of a warrior caste is a lot easier to give credence to as a unmatched warrior.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I suppose historically speaking the heroine wasn't really meant to be a female hero, her role was generally secondary and usually involving being love interest for the hero. Even the likes of Moorcock relegated women to being witches and/or love interest.

Which was the first 'proper' fantasy (ie not a retelling of a historcal myth but involving a world different to ours) to feature a single leading character who was female?

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo--I bow to your knowledge of LOTR. Thank you for making me think things unthunked before. Or forgotten. I did a paper on JRRT a looong time ago, and in it talked about the partnering of Merry and Eowyn in that epic battle against Nazgul and Witch King, but I'd totally forgotten that without Merry, Eowyn could not have succeeded. Very cool.

Mark--Like you, I don't have trouble calling up a dozen good female POV characters. It must be that we are drawn to books wherein they exist, while the larger body of fantasy readers isn't.

But then again, I wonder if this is true. It is the perception, but is it the reality? Hmmm...

Eleni isn't a huge character in Poets, but she fits the bill of the sort of female protag we're looking for here. She uses her strengths to get what she wants, to work within a system, to use it AGAINST itself. Don't get me started. This will turn into a lovefest!

Terri-Lynne said...

Well, I'm going to catch hell for this but I'm nominating both Polgara and Ce'Nedra as first of heroic female leads. They were both POV characters in one book or another. I know all about the controversy with Eddings and his stereotypes. Polgara, most powerful woman in the world, and she can also cook up a fine stew, and in the end wants nothing more than hearth and home. But let's take her in context, my friends. She came among the first, she wasn't going to be sprouted fully realized. AND, by the time she's ready for hearth and home, she's saved the world a million and one times and is older than dirt. Ce'Nedra is overly obsessed with her looks and girly as all get out, but she leads an army using the talents she has in her arsenal.

I'm sure there are earlier examples, but for me, these were the first.

(Good question, Pongo!)

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

So that would be early 80s?

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I agree the fact that Merry and Eowyn worked together in the defeat of the Nazgul lord in no way diminishes Eowyn's contribution to his demise. The way I see it, Merry unraveled his magic, allowing Eowyn to deal the final blow, and this arrangement was intentional on Tolkien's part. Otherwise, why bother with the whole "I am no man" moment?

The fact that Eowyn now shoulders the full credit in popular imagination (which from one perspective might be called poetic justice) probably has more to do with Peter Jackson's dramatic film interpretation of the event than with the details of the text itself.

Regarding suspension of belief: Kij Johnson once said the best science fiction puts ordinary people in extraordinary situations. It all depends on how you define ordineary, of course, but I do think she was on to something that also applies to fantasy. No matter how extraordinary our worlds, there has to bue something fundamentally authentic about the characters that inhabit it. That's why waifs in armor kicking ass during a medieval battle don't quite site right with the reader. But intelligent women who learned how to leverage the resources available to them and successfully navigated a world run largely by men? That's happened over and over in our history, and it's a story I never tire of hearing.

From Mark: "Call me foolish, call me a silly poet, but I rather like the vulnerability of love. It doesn't keep us from being heroic"

I'll raise my virtual glass to that. I don't think I can write a story without some form of love being expressed somewhere. Also, the capacity to love (or not) and the way a character responds to love reveals a lot about him or her. Love is an excellent source of conflict because it almost NEVER hits in a convenient time or place. And it can be a destructive force just as easily as it can be a constructive one.

But I'm digressing into love fest mode, and in a separate communication Terri, Kim & I decided we want to try to save the love fest for the long cold nights of February...

Pongo is definitely a Tolkien guru; but you, Terri, are the Mistress of Heroines. :)

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--aw, shucks. Thanks! And I'm with you on needing to have some love element in my stories. Life is love, the longing for it, lack of it, abundance of it, loss of it--it's as necessary as eating, sleeping and farting! And this is in large part what builds our little blog here--this need to include so intrinsic a piece of human existence into our stories. Soul sisters, we!

Pongo--yes, the early 80s when I was a wee lass only a few years into her fantasy journey.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Merry was not a man... rather a hobbit. He could not have slain the Nazgul without Eowyn's stand and in fairness the fight scene alone makes it seem like Eowyn kills the Nazgul, but the description of Merry a page or two later, coupled with the fact that the Nazgul were no longer corporeal beings makes it pretty clear that he did the actual slaying (actually Tolkien's use of 'undead flesh' is strange in that respect but everywhere elsewhere it's clear the nazgul have no real corporeal form, rather being creatures of 'nothingness', given shape by their clothing and held together as antities by their will, their possession of the Nine and the will of Sauron and the One, alone. So they couldn't be slain by weapons, only by magic).

If you think Eowyn did land the killing blow, would it matter if she did not, in fact? After all, there's no doubt it was a team effort.

I thought of a superficially typical heroine who I think (partly because of the humour in the book) rises well above her stereotype - Buttercup from The Princess Bride who despite being spoilt, surpassingly beautiful but thicker than two short planks, often thoroughly ungrateful, and needing continually to be rescued manages somehow to rise above her limitations and be entirely worthy of Westley's undying love.

The Doctor from Iain M. Banks' Inversions is a very good heroine, I think, as she relies really on moral strength more than anything (though she also has certain advantages in education over those of the world she's chosen to visit).

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah, Buttercup! She does evolve, doesn't she? And, if you've ever read, "Buttercup's Baby," you'll know that she truly becomes the sort of heroine we're reaching for here.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Oh, Pongo, I _know_ Merry was not a man. (Come now, you know me better than that. I am not a Tolkien expert, but I am at least clear on the fact that hobbits are not men...)

What I'm saying is the the "not a man" loophole applied to both Merry and Eowyn. And I know Tolkien lived in a darker, less enlightened period when "man" was often interpreted as "human", but I still insist Tolkien was not one to be careless with his words. I do not think he would have given Eowyn the "I am no man" line and have it be irrelevant.

I suppose in a modern rendition, for absolute clarity, Eowyn could have said, "In case you haven't noticed, Mr. Lord Nazgul, THAT is a hobbit, and I am a woman. Ergo, you are screwed. Take this, you jerk!"

In truth, I don't think we could resolve the enigma without bringing Tolkien back so he himself can tell us who he thought killed the Nazgul. But yes, I believe it matters that Eowyn played a central role; and the dramatic effect of that final blow (which Tolkien gave to her, not to Merry) is what stays with the imagination.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Oh yes, and Buttercup. I love Buttercup! She's wonderful.

Anonymous said...

My only problem with this argument is that one person's stereotype is probably another's archetype. Sure, in some cases warrior women are little more than men in drag, but who is to say, for the character, that isn't accurate? I think it all depends on the context, the details of the story. If wearing a chainmail bikini suits your female warrior in your story, knock yourself out. I keep hearing about how this is impractical and dedicated to the "male gaze", but I shouldn't have to remind anyone that male warriors, from the Spartans to the Picts used to rush into battle with little more than a sword and a helmet, and maybe some blue paint. Is a chainkini all that sexist when given the context? Even our barbarian friend, Conan, used to fight most of his battles in little more than a breech-cloth. Roman gladiators fought wearing a couple scraps of specialized armor.

Yes, there are stereotypes, and as a reader, I find them insulting. It's like a mad-libs type story that stamps out characters that are easy pills to swallow, and with lack of depth, I find that there is also lack of story. Some writers cling to these tried and true archetypes because they believe they will sell, or that their take on a warrior (male or female) will be better accepted than if they started out from whole cloth. History gives us a variety of examples of variations on all warrior types, but why should a writer explore these variations when that isn't the focus of their book? They just don't. It could be that it's a distraction from their story, or maybe they are just checking off the prerequisites they are convinced will help them land the next book contract.

All that said, I don't think it's fair to say women warriors CANNOT be a certain way, because once you start saying what they SHOULD be, it just shifts the stereotypes. The test should be in the strength of the stories. If the narrative falls apart due to lousy characters, then the writer is to blame, and maybe they should rethink their characters.

Just remember, for every Belit, Athena, or Boudicea there is a Bella Swan. And as with real people, not every can be a legend 24/7. Sometimes they have a softer side. Call it a weakness, or just call it good characterization.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint! (wendigo) So glad you chimed in! I thought this was a very YOU discussion here.

You make a good point about the chainmailbikini thing. Yep, lots of shirtless male warriors. I can't say it was always done with the intention of being practical! But a very good point, indeed.

If one is going into a fray, what's more practical? Armor you can't move in, or being next to nekid?

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I have to beg to differ on your examples I'm afraid. Conan fought whenever possible in the best armour available to him (mostly at least a mail shirt but often in plate eg the Phoenix on the sword, Black Colossus, The Hour of the Dragon, The Scarlet citadel). Only when thieving or escaping captivity did he eschew protection. it's the art of Frank Frazetta that has him clad in loincloth alone. The hoplite shield covered the entire body from chin to knee, hence the later hoplite era penchant for fighting unarmoured, even naked save for greaves and a helmet - the shield protected the rest and the earlier bronze breastplate had proved to add much weight for little added protection. Picts used armour whenever practical (as did their predecessors), but of course many operated as skirmishing infantry disinclined to hot home against a foe likely to put up any kind of serious resistance, and like light infantry the world over, eschewed armour for freedom of movement. Gladiatorial combats were heavily stylised and more often than not non-lethal.

Honestly, I think a writer can make a female warrior (in fantasy at any rate) any way they please. but I also think that the lower one sets the 'threshhold of credulity', the easier it is to make a convincing character. This applies to male characters too of course, the 'skinny martial arts guy' (or skinny swordsman) may pass in some cultural constructs, but he's not going to be very convincing in the typical pseudo-medieval fantasy land.

On Eowyn vs Merry for who gets the glory, to an extent I'm playing devil's advocate (though I do actually think it was Merry who killed him), but I think what evidence there is does tend to point to Merry and it certainly isn't conclusively in favour of Eowyn, Not least because Tolkien was not above little misdirection-'jokes' from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Examples of armour one 'cannot move in'?

relatively few and far between. the Greek panoply of helm, cuirass, greaves and (very heavy) shield was cumbersome in the extreme but as they fought shoulder to shoulder, movement in teh soirt of Hollywood melee style didn't actually take place 9and in fact most battles were a good deal less frenetic affairs than on screen.

Plate armour was actually fairly light and, more importantly, the weight was so well distriubuted over the body, that it allowed a wide freedom of movement (the Royal Armoury at Leeds has some great video clips of re-enactments showing just how sophisticated c.15 western swordsmanship was (hide in shame you Samurai...) and how easy it was to make agile manoeuvres in full armour. Historically, barring a very few often apocryphal accounts of naked fanaticism, the close quarters infantryman has always equipped himself with the best protection he could afford or otherwise available to him. The unarmoured were either too poor to afford armour (and so often crap fighters too) or skirmishing infantry reliant on missiles to harrass the enemy. They'd run before getting to grips unless the enemy was very easy prey.

But of course in fiction one may stretch things. But look at the perception of Conan (loincloth) versus the reality (mail). What a reader thinks about a character is not always how the character is.

Terri-Lynne said...

Anonymous?? Who are you? I want to say, NICELY DONE!

Very good points, indeed. And another example of the fact that this is FANTASY we're talking about, not reality!

(my verification word is morkside...I find that humorous.)

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Anonymous was me.

I'd also add that in tv and film one can get away with Buffy and Xena because whatever one may think of them, a good chunk of the potential audience are pretty happy just watching them. Caroline in Whedon's Dollhouse is a great example of that from my personal perspective. Rationally I don't care how much 'skill' is magically inserted into her mind by the 'science magic' programming she undergoes to switch her personalities, first fight against an well -trained athletic male combatant, she'd get pulverised. But visually, well I don't care, I could watch her all day, and that's enough to overcome the credulity-lapse induced by the ludicrous martial arts fight scenes (and also the whole theme is excellent and the script is generally great too).

But writing, one doesn't have that visual stimulus getout clause. So I think a level of realism is important even in fantasy. I do not belive that in fantasy 'anything goes'.

Terri-Lynne said...

I had a feeling. :)

I suppose, in the end, it's about what we're willing to overlook, and what we simply cannot. For me, watching Hugh Jackman, Liev Schriber and Ryan Reynolds battle shirtless battles all through Wolverine, Origins was well worth the horror of the script and the less than believable sequencing.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Ah well that's slightly different. the world of superheroes has a different base line of credulity, I think. But most importantly, they're visual (comics and films), not written. i theink that may make a quite substantial difference.

Anonymous said...

Re: Pongo. If your enemy can see your junk, you are pretty much naked. The Celtic fanatics (the warriors, not the basketball team enthusiasts), and also some Aztec societies of the fighting caste fought in various stages of dress, mostly ornamental and hardly protective. Sometimes the Japanese samurai fought without armor, and sometimes little clothing.

Also, Brock Samson on the Venture Bros. engages in battle with or without clothing, unless you count the blood of his opponents.

The Dagda, Hercules, Samson, and other legendary warriors often fought in the buff. Those were ancient archetypes/ stereotypes, and independent of Frazetta/Vallejo standards.

I'm willing to bet that for every Conan tale where he dons his hauberk there is one where he's not wearing much other than a strip of cloth. The caveat of "thieving or escaping captivity" cuts out about half of his yarns if you go that route.

Terri, thanks. This stuff is right up my alley. Thank you for linking to this. I like Kim's argument, but think that real-life people in and of themselves have a habit of confirming or challenging conventions on their own. It's difficult to claim something is a stereotype. I think it's more accurate to say something is overdone or trite than it is to be stereotypical.


Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--as a wise man once said, one person's stereotype is another's archetype...or somesuch nonsense as that.

Anonymous said...

Terri, LOL.

Also, very true on the fantasy end of things and how that changes the dynamic. If you delve into history where technology would replace the advantages something like magic or divinity provides, in more or less modern warfare, firearms become the equalizer.

In the American Civil War, many women enlisted to fight, disguised as men. Their ability to fight was no different, physically speaking, than a man's, especially considering by the end of the war, boys as young as 13 years old were fighting. With no one wearing armor.

In those cases, women warriors were taboo, and cultural mores/values prevented them from being accepted as soldiers. However, other countries have had no such reservations. Later on, in Soviet Russia, while Americans and Brits were still talking about "the weaker sex" some of the best snipers of WWII were women.

Just from looking at the pictures of these fighters, they varied as much in personality as if they weren't holding rifles. They weren't just women dressed like men, they were individuals, still dealing death the same as their male counterparts.

Same would go, I imagine, for the women fighting in combat today. The soldiers don't change, just their method of warfare if you think about it.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I'm willing to bet that for every Conan tale where he dons his hauberk there is one where he's not wearing much other than a strip of cloth.

I'll take that bet.

26 Howard written complete or semi-complete Conan Tales.

in 4 he is armoured in plate.
in 2 he is clothed but not in armour (but he has set out as a thief, not intending to fight.
in 4 he wears a loincloth (actually in one it's a pair of silk breeches but that amounts to the same thing), in two of these he is again thieving, not looking for a fight.
In the other 16 he wears at the very least a mail shirt.

The Aztec warrior caste wore padded cotton armour, hideaously ineffective against Toledo steel, but decent enough against their own stone-age weaponry - hence the Castilians adopted the padded armour, wearing it beneath their own steel breastplates.

The Samurai went into battle invariably armoured, though they fought their stylised (but lethal) duels unarmoured.

And while there was a certain amount of naked fanaticism in ancient times, its extent is somewhat moot and the difference between trousered and naked, which is what it amounted to for many warriors, is negligible. The Celtic nobility and their retinues (from whom the Romans copied it) wore mail.

As I say, onscreen it can work, principally because of teh sex factor, and in writing, an author may do as they see fit. I'm just not at all convinced that the lack of credible female fighters (as opposed to commanders) in fiction is not a refelction of historical reality and a (subconscious?) acceptance of teh fact that a heroine is better playing to female strengths than male ones.

Anonymous said...

Very true, Pongo, but we all know Howard wasn't the only one to write Conan stories.

Are we going to count the Zulu's as fanatics? What about the inverse, with Scots in Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, fighting the unarmored British with their targs and broadswords? Also, the point of someone having the best armor available is debatable, simply because sure the nobility and commanders might have been decked out with full plate even at the end of the Middle Ages, but the peasants and foot soldiers usually didn't have that luxury. It was also the nobles who sat on their horses on the tops of the hills while their serfs fought it out below. Of course then it becomes an issue of classism and less sexism.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--teensy Dr. Ruth Westheimer was an Israeli sniper. And then there was Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko--Soviet sniper, WW2. 309 kills.

That's some proof, eh?

Anonymous said...

One last quibble: "Historically, barring a very few often apocryphal accounts of naked fanaticism, the close quarters infantryman has always equipped himself with the best protection he could afford or otherwise available to him."

I disagree.

The big reason I brought up the Zulu's earlier was because of the stand the British Empire took on infantry armaments during this war. At the time, repeating rifles were readily available, yet the Royal Army continued to use single shot rifles. Officers could use multi-shot pistols, of course. Even during World War One, the British looked upon the machine gun with distain, and it was only after the Maxim was used against them on the Western Front did they reconsider their decision.

The same can be said of innovations such as the longbow and the crossbow and even cannons and firearms in earlier times. A possible reason these weapons were limited in use during the Middle Ages is because it took a chunk out of the importance of trained knights and delivered more power to the hands of the lower classes. So when peasants weilding poleaxes made out of farming implements could have been training as archers, the nobility was fighting for pitched battles with outdated weapons and armor. Regardless of cost, availability, or effectiveness. A good thing that the Europeans were probably lucky the Mongols didn't get any closer than they did with their tiny horses, hornbows, and light armor.

For a neat list of women warriors, I submit to anybody interested this link. Granted, it's wikipedia, but I'm willing to bet that many of these women challenged how we would see women warriors in fiction today.

Terri-Lynne said...

That is an impressive list. I'm sure there are more, too. Thanks for the link!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Wendigo --

So, I think I missed the part where someone said women warriors don't exist, or invariably represent an unrealistic stereotyp. The question, as I understand it, is what is a realistic expression of the woman warrior, given the time period in which she lives and the technology to which she has access.

The wiki website you refer to is a very interesting list, but it is more about "women in warfare" than "warrior women" perse. In it, we get a mix of several different kinds of participation in warfare, such as:

--the woman warrior, who has a decent command of weaponry and fights alongside men. (Actually, at a cursory glance it's not always clear which of the women on the list fit this category, since "leading troops into war" is not necessarily the same as fighting on the battlefield.)

--the warrior queen (for lack of a better term; this is borrowed from Antonia Frasier's publication by the same name), who may not get down to the nitty gritty on the battlefield, but nonetheless is an effective leader in times of war. Tamara of Georgia is a great example of this. (She is actually the namesake of the mother of one of my own warrior queen characters.)

--women who did not fight or lead, although they did accompany their men during war. So we have women who led people in prayer, sang songs to inspire warriors, or composed elegies for the dead. I would put Eleanor of Acquitaine in this category, at least with respect to her participation in the crusades. There is no indication she brought any military gifts to the enterprise, and in fact a good deal of evidence that she impeded the success of the troops in important moments. But she was there, and I love her for it anyway.

Anyway. The point being, all of these examples are worthy contributions to warfare, in my mind. But it's a little misleading to suggest this particular wiki is a list of "warrior women" that disproves the conventional perception that men were much more common and capable on the battlefield than women in ancient and medieval times.

Also, I've found in an entirely different context -- the context of farming technologies -- that just because a technology is "more advanced" by our standards does not mean it was the best available at the time of innovation. There are many, many reasons why a particular technology might not be the "best" technology for a given context, and many reasons why it will not be adopted by a particular population, even if it is the most recently created. Not sure if this principle ever applies to warfare, but it seems to me a possibility worth considering.

Anonymous said...


My original point was that it's subjective as to what is stereotypical vs. archetypcial. I don't argue that there were no women warriors in history. One common argument against women warriors has been how they are displayed. One is that they are women dressed as men and the other is that they are over-sexualized eye candy. Yes, women have dressed as men in combat, but that is not always the case, as some of the women on the list I posted reveal, the other is that scant clothing or seemingly impractical armor can be sexist, but is in no way more bizarre or useless than some of the armor male warriors have worn (or not worn) throughout history.

Honestly, I always thought the sexualization of women warriors in fantasy fiction was a way in which conventions of Victoriana were challenged, giving women more sexual power than previously explored. These were themes that would have made the turn of the century male squirm, and in doing this, these tales were often cast into genre catagories such as "weird". Today, the sexual dynamics have caught up more and these images lost their shock value and become more paramasturbatory in nature. Even still, these images are so overused that they have almost become parodies of themselves, as demonstrated in "Chicks in Chainmail" and other sarcastic anthologies. One day, the tramp stamp tribal tattoos of urban fantasy will follow this trope, and people will lose the context of how tattoos were once limited to subculture.

As to your point on farming, I can go either way. Modern machinery has its benefits and its disadvantages. When combined with a system that demands it, either is superior to the other. Conversely, either could be rendered useless without the proper infrastructure. Like characters, it's all subjective and determined by context as to whether or not it is appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Here's another list.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Wendigo,

"My original point was that it's subjective as to what is stereotypical vs. archetypcial. I don't argue that there were no women warriors in history. One common argument against women warriors has been how they are displayed."

Sorry; it wasn't my intention to imply that you were arguing that there are no women warriors in history. Quite the opposite: I think we are saying the same thing here. There are many women warriors in history, it's just that they get lost a little in that particular wiki link that you provided. Also, in my mind the distinction between women warriors, warrior queens, and women who have served in war through other means is important to keep in mind.

I think it's an interesting idea that the sexualization of women warriors breaks down Victorian stereotypes and is therefore a good thing. I have no issue whatsoever with sexual power in heroines, but I do like for heroines to be constructed on several dimensions, not just one or two.

I think Kim's essay, fundamentally, speaks to the challenge of building multi-dimensional characters, whether they be warriors or not. And also, most importantly for me, that a female protagonist does _not_ need to wield a sword in order to play a strong central role in epic fantasy. Not that the combination of women and swordplay is a bad thing, just that it's not always necessary.

Stereotypes may be subjective, but that doesn't mean they cannot have an impact (whether negative or positive) on the way we structure our society and daily lives. I think it's important to discuss them and question them constantly -- one of the many reasons I'm glad to see discussions like this one, which Kim inspired with her thought-provoking post.

A. Thomas Schlesinger said...

Absolutely brilliant discussion.

In my novel, the protag is a woman, and one who becomes a heroine. As a male author, I am concerned about authenticity; I don't want my heroine to be a man in a woman's skin.

This part really struck a nerve with me: Our “heroine,” even when she wields a sword like a badass, still swoons over our hero and falls apart like bad toilet paper whenever the going gets tough.

Oddly enough, that made me think of the "mortal Combat" game in the 1990s and the Sonja Blade character. In the game, she was an amazing hand-to-hand fighter, dispatching her foes with a feminine flare.

Then the move came out. Of course, by the end she was tided to the sacrificial alter in an all-too-familiar bondage fantasy by the gloating villain and had to be rescued by the shirtless hero. Even then, I chaffed at what the movie had done to the mighty Sonya.

I have yet to read all 64 comments, but I will soon. I feel there is much to learn here and I thank you all.

Terri-Lynne said...

Thomas! Thanks for stopping by, and daring to read all sixty four or so comments. Whew! The discussion has been fabulous.

Ah, Sonya. How the mighty did fall, huh? I have never been into the video game thing myself, but my daughter, who also didn't get into it, LOVED Mortal Kombat. She was always Sonya. When the movie came out, she was aghast.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hello Thomas --

Thanks so much for stopping by the site again. It's always great to have your input.

Yes, it's been a busy week here -- lots of great and thought-provoking comments. Kim really struck a chord with her post.

Hope to hear from you again soon.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Sort of related to the subject of 'authenticity':

has some art depicting the infamous scene just prior to Merry slaying the Nazgul...

But seriously I think it's interesting how the artists interpretations are often unfaithful to the text and also to any sensible interpretation of combat. Have a look at the images and decide which one(s) you like best. I think they'll also be the/one of the most authentic.

As Tolkien wrote it, Eowyn, in mail with sword and shield, stands over her fallen father (who has slain the Chief of the Haradrim, the 'red serpent') as the Nazgul armed with a great mace descends. she bandies words then cuts the head from the pterodactyl-like mount of the Nazgul, who, somewhat narked, shatters her shield and breaks her arm with a single blow.

Taking the pictures from the top:

Mezeldzija: Nazgul armed with sword who is going to chop a rather pathetic looking Eowyn (clad in plate!) right down the middle - there's no way her shield is going to block that blow...

Hildebrants: Eowyn rather more heroic (or heroinic) but with a shield utterly unsuitable for use on horseback. Also her armour is not simply mail but has plate additions.

Giancola: My favourite by a goodly distance. Good fighting posture, proper armour and weapons and dead Snowmane too.

Howe: Not too bad accoutrement-wise, though lacking background detail. But how's she going to cut off the beast's head with that stroke? At best she'll slice off the end of its tongue.

Naismith: Background detail is actually pretty good (including our hero, Merry). But look at her stance (and the Nazgul's) and how she holds her shield. Not really very convincing.

Naismith: Actually okay apart from the fact I hate the 'pterodactyl's' head.

Kaluta: Background all correct, but agains a strange insistence on adding palet to Eowyn's armour. And it's kind of hard to see,. but she doesn't seem to have a shield and her running looks rather 'dainty' for someone in mail leggings...

Stewart: My second favourite spoilt only by the shield (which is appropriate for cavalry but the shields of the Rohirrim were round).

Frazetta: I think this image is best left without comment. I'm only surprised she has any clothes at all...

Mcbride: Again, pretty good, I think (though Eowyn should really be between the Nazgul and his prey'...). Her stance is a little off (expecially the way she holds her shield, but not too bad).

writerknv said...

Great discussion! I'm so glad my post sparked so much commentary. That was the point. If I had all the answers, it wouldn't be fun!

Pongo-- great collection of art. I pretty much agree with your assessment on all. The Franzetta-- well, clearly he didn't read the book. He also proves my point about reducing the warrior-female to a fetish.

Which, interestingly enough, brings me back to the point I wanted to make. We seem to be tangling up the terms "warrior" and "heroine," but I wanted to point out that there are OTHER types of heroines, too. Heroines aren't JUST the warrior, though I believe there should be an element of realism to the warrior (ie: give her a sword she can reasonably wield). But heroines can also be women (and this is true for male heroes too) who act in extraordinary ways when faced with difficult circumstances. My Fia, a more minor character in Song and the Sorceress, chooses not to go on in the final stage of the quest. Instead, she decides to stay behind and help Llyrimin and her children, who face very real dangers at home. Fia recognizes that she can better serve the quest by staying home and helping to guard and protect Llyrimin and her children. I think that's a kind of heroism, because she sees a need and fills it, even though her brand of heroism is much quieter.

Going back to the warrior-heroine as fetish for a moment: one need look only as far as Star Wars to see examples of how a true heroine is often reduced, by males and females, to sexy eye candy. Princess Leia is amazing-- she spends most of the movies completely covered up to her neck, she's smart, witty, and fights back both physically and as a leader. But that gold bikini, which symbolizes her slavery, has become iconic of her. Yes, I'm happy she's sexy AND smart. I think that's awesome. And she does CHOKE Jabba with her chains, which rocks! But I get really annoyed when I see fifty gold bikini Leias strutting around Comic-Con every year when there are so many cool costumes to wear representing both sides of her. At the end, for example, when she has her hair down in Endor. She looks both strong and feminine. Why not represent that?

I want to add that there's NOTHING WRONG with being strong and sexy. A few years ago, Julia Dvorin and I had a conversation with Kij Johnson about bustiers and what they have represented in the past (constricting, confining of women) and women who choose to wear them. Are they less confining, less symbolic of restraint if the woman chooses to wear it? Has the bustier become a symbol of empowerment BECAUSE it’s a choice? Another example: would I be so pissed about seeing bikini warriors if female artists were painting them?

This brings to mind another argument I read recently about the movie Sucker Punch. My fourteen-year-old daughter and I actually liked Sucker Punch, and found it explored a lot of ideas about women, inner strength, and the mind's ability to escape. I also thought the costumes they wore in the video game-style dream world were both sexy AND strong. They were almost completely covered up, too. I read a great write-up on someone’s blog about how the girls in Sucker Punch take the trappings and expectations of the male gaze and turn them into armor. One might make the same argument about bikini armor, although those voluptuous temptresses of warfare seldom look empowered and capable. One could examine a variety of poses, for example, in which the warrior-woman is depicted as visually lower than the enemy (squatting, bending, etc.) as in the Franzetta picture of Eowyn, where she is clearly depicted as the victim acting in self-defense.

Okay—I’ve just written my daily dose of words that I should have spent on my novel. I’m going to tear myself away for now. :)

A. Thomas Schlesinger said...

@Pongo: I loved your post. I read your comments and then looked at each picture.

I'd like to add this monkey-wrench to the discussion on the "reality" of women warriors: Remember that the heroic genre is divided between low-magic and high magic. In low-magic, a woman knight would be rare as an honest politician. (What defines low-magic and high-magic is a great topic, by the way.) Whereas in high-magic, they would not raise an eyebrow. The armor they wear may raise other things, however, as illustrated in this picture from an Asian online game--for which I in no way claim responsibility. I haven't even looked at it, ladies. Honest!

Now this is the type of armor I prefer on a heroine, and I am not just saying that because there are a dozen+ women reading this blog. I really do prefer it, both for its power and its beauty:

writerknv said...

Thomas, LOL about the first picture! And I absolutely agree with you about the second. Beautiful, yet practical.

As for the first-- it's beautiful, too, though it's definitely designed for aesthetics. She looks like some kind of rare bird. I'd love to know how the top is held up, too-- is it by the amazing anti-gravitational pull of her own breasts? Does she use that sticky stuff that Miss America contestants use to keep their suits in place?

The cool thing is that she can fight a battle and THEN go straight to the beach (or to the street corner), and she must have an amazing tan.

Terri-Lynne said... crack me up.

Thomas--I keep coming back to the image of Kiera Knightly playing a warrior Guinevere in King Arthur:

They managed to make her sexy, and yet somewhat practical with the bound boobs and leathery armor and guantlets, as well as a sword she actually could weild. Then again, I remember scenes in which she's thus clad all bare midriffed and shouldered in icy conditions while Lance and Art got full mail armor. Pretty funny.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I agree that one can have all sorts of different styles of heroine. Including fighting heroines. But I also think that one reason why 'fighting heroines' are uncommon and fighting heroes are common is because the latter are intrinsically more convincing, whether as almost unmatched combatants (like Conan) or merely very competent ones (like Aragorn). And the fighting hero is common because the number of fantasy novels that do not revolve around armed conflict are few. There are other reasons of course, like the relative paucity of female fantasy writers pre-80s and the demands imposed by the typical pseudo-medieval culture.

In fact given that the lead character in a fantasy novel is almost always a fighter or a wielder of magic, I think a valid question might be 'why are so many male heroes in fantasy fighters?' (exceptions like Frodo obviously exist). Surely there is as broad a choice of potential characters for male characters as women. While women leading characters may (almsot certainly are) underrepresented in fantasy, I'm not sure they're more pigeonholed than their male counterparts.

What seldom happens though, I think, is that one gets a male leading character who could as easily be a woman (Frodo...?) whereas my impression is that a number of swordfighting women are indeed simply men in drag as the original post said.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Terri -- I remember watching that movie and thinking, "god, she must be freezing!" ;)

Very fun and beautiful renditions of Eowyn, Pongo. (Well, mostly beautiful, anyway.) Thanks for sharing those.

AT -- That first link reminds me of Ziegfield's Follies. Or warrior goddess meets Las Vegas. Also, the difference between high fashion and what real people wear. High fashion is also fun to look at, it's just not practical -- nor is it meant to be. ;)

I want to bring back wendigo's comment -- which I still think is interesting -- that scantily clad women warriors are not necessarily a bad thing b/c it's a reflection of their sexual power, which actually breaks previous stereotypes. This is one of the thoughts in this discussion that has just stuck with me (perhaps b/c I'm all for sexual power. Go, sexual power!)

I haven't a clue how this is related, but has anyone ever noticed how predators in the wild tend to be sexy? The whole family of cats, for example. It's just a sexy group. I've always wondered whether this makes the predator's job a little easier -- do they seduce their prey on some level, as well as ambushing it, or chasing it down?

Sorry I keep rambling off topic, but all of you have just set my brain afire this week.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Pongo -- Just saw your latest comment. Lead male characters who are not fighters...Goodness. Now you have me thinking again. Tyrion, perhaps? Of course, he became a fighter, after a fashion. But yes, I think it's a valid point that non-warrior male protagonists might be hard to find.

Also, I agree the prevalence of war in epic fantasy puts constraints on the kinds of characters involved.

Terri's FINDER has a lead male character who is not a warrior. And he's damn cool. I'd like to see more like him.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

Crocodiles are sexy?

Scantily clad female combatants may or may not be a 'good thing' philosophically speaking but while I think they definitely work onscreen, I'm distinctly less convinced they're effective in books (Belit, for instance didn't wear much but then she wasn't really a fighter either, save when she returned as a ghost, which is somewhat different). But she managed to be a symbol of sexuality and power without having to sully her hands with fighting.

Witches and other female sorcerers seem often (if nubile) to run around semi-clad in fiction though.

Athena Andreadis said...

Plenty of women have fought in resistance movements. Except in those circumstances they usually don't get called warriors.

I find it funny to read nitpicking about "realistic depiction" of characters and gender roles in a genre that postulates magic and all kinds of mythical beasts. The "No 'man' can kill me" ploy can only be used in English. All other languages that I know (and know of) have a separate word for human.

I've read enough biographical info about Tolkien to conclude that he didn't really know his wife, but idealized her the way he had the human men in his stories idealize their elven women (it's interesting, incidentally, that in the one case where a elven man falls in love with a human woman, he doesn't give up his immortality or Valinor). I, for one, am very happy that they made Arwen a more assertive presence in the films, and detested her fainting-on-the-couch stance in the third installment.

Many iconic female heroes seem to be missing from this discussion:

Alma Alexander's tightly knit group of friends from The Secrets of Gin-Shei.

Jacqueline Carey's many women heroes, from female kings to empowered holy prostitutes, even though her main character becomes boringly monogamous early in the first Kushiel trilogy.

Elizabeth Lynn's Chronicles of Tornor trilogy and her Ryoka stories.

Ursula Le Guin's determined Western Shores women (I consider the Earthsea series problematic until its coda of short stories).

This is just a random pass through fantasy, not even touching other genres. I said a bit more in an article about epic fantasy that first appeared on the Apex blog: A Plague on Both Your Houses

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--that begs the question, are the cats "sexy" or is it the human mind that percieves their sort of power as sexy? Know what I mean. You're right--when we think of cats, most adjectives we'd use to describe them go into that sexy category, but which is it? Cats are sexy, or do they embody all those things we deem sexy? Not sure I'm making myself clear. I know what I mean, at any rate!

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I was actually thinking about Finder in response to the Pongo's comment about the bulk of fantasy fiction revolving around armed conflict (which I feel is true.) I'm not really good with the whole political intrigue/battle sort of thing. I like the goings-on behind the goings-on. The novel I'm working on at the moment (a whole other story!) exemplifies that in a big way!

And thanks! You won't be seeing a great deal of Ethen (though he does appear in ATNL) but Vic's a fine protag if I do say so myself. :)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

haha! Crocs not so much, but snakes are pretty sexy. As are spiders, if you really take the time to look at them.

Terri -- All good points, but I really don't want to de-rail this into a discussion about sexy predators. Maybe we should forget I mentioned it and give consideration to Athena's post who, in addition to have a totally cool name, makes some interesting points, and a nice list of heroines to add to our roster as well. ;)

I thought Finder had a good deal of intrigue in it, so while you didn't talk about war, there was plenty of tension to go around. I really can't wait to read the second book, though I'm sad to hear I won't be spending much time with Ethen.

(My word verification is DESSIST. Perhaps I should take that as a cosmic hint...)

Terri-Lynne said...

Hello, Athena! So glad to have your input here. You do have a point--we're niggling over the dress codes of warriors, both male and female, in worlds where such things as magic and mythic beasts. It reminds me of a conversation had between my son-in-law and his friend:

So which is faster, the Millenium Falcon, or Serenity?

That depends? Who's flying? Han or Wash?

It was a very serious discussion.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--agreed! All talk of sexy predators ends here! :)

Athena is I'm stoked to have her input, even if she's added another few books to my TBR pile (that NEVER shrinks!)

Athena Andreadis said...

Awww! Karin and Terri-Lynne, thank you for the wonderful greetings. I look forward to more discussions!

Terri-Lynne, this list is peanuts. I just named a few titles off the top of my head because I'm racing several deadlines. I also misspelled a word; it should be Jin-Shei.

And of course, it's Serenity and Wash, hands down!

Terri-Lynne said...

Athena--that was the end result of that conversation. It still cracks me up!

A. Thomas Schlesinger said...

I would like to pose this question to the community. Would it be possible to write a story like the tale of Boudica? Could we write fiction like that today?

Those of you who do not know Boudica: First of all, shame on you! Second, I don't want to spoil the ending of her story by telling you, but I want to have this discussion.

If you don't know her story, it will hit you in the face like a rock.

Your first thought--whether you know Boudica or not--is probably, "Yes! There is nothing you cannot write fiction about. Why would Boudica be any different?"

Think about it...

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah, Boudica--a fantastic and tragic tale, but ultimately and despite the outcome, a true tale of woman-power.

I'd say that the Romans were a pack of misogynists for how she and her daughters were dishonored, but they'd have done the same to male heirs. Well, they were still a pack of misogynists, but that's another subject.

I seem to remember, but maybe I'm wrong--rememeber that show back in the late 90s? Roar? Heath Ledger played the starring role. Fox, I think it was. Didn't they give Boudica a cameo in there someplace?? Or maybe just the gist of her in another character entirely.

Athena Andreadis said...

To those who badmouthed Xena -- the series was a radical groundbreaker despite its defects. Nevertheless, they touched upon every single neglected and maligned female hero, from Boudicca of the Iceni to the Amazons to Lao Ma ("What difference does it make who gets credit for [this wisdom] -- Lao Ma or Lao Tzu?")

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thomas, I'm not sure I understand your question. Are you saying Boudica wouldn't work as fiction today b/c of how her story ended?

Truth be told, most everything written about Boudica might qualify as fiction. So much of her story has not survived the historical record, and while we know about the movement she led, we don't really know all that much about her.

I was living in Costa Rica back when Xena was popular, so what few episodes I caught were dubbed in Spanish, which was kind of fun. Costa Ricans liked her a lot, too.

A. Thomas Schlesinger said...


What I mean is with the tight standards of today's fiction, could you make a story line about a noble woman revenging the rape of her daughters and her own beating, and have her fail? To my knowledge, Boudica has been mentioned in many places, but there has never been a work of fiction that parallels her story. And I wonder if that is the reason. It's almost too tragic!

Stephen King will kill off his protags and make them fail against the greater evil, but there is always some seed of their own distruction woven into the story. That could work with Boudica: "revenge is good, but don't go too far!"

Terri-Lynne said...

Thomas--well, Braveheart was a huge success, so I think Boudicca could work too. It's about having the courage to stand up and fight against wrong, even if ultimately no one beats the Romans but the Romans.

And it also makes me wonder--because history is written by the victors--if there are details of her story NOT recorded on purpose.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

It's unlikely that Tacitus (the main source) omitted much of Boudicca's story as it came down to him as he wasn't very keen on the Julio-Claudian dynasty so seldom painted things in their favour.

In fact he really gives the bald facts and plays no favourites between the sides.

Boudicca flogged and her daughters raped, the Icenian chiefs deprived of their lands (this latter, I suspect provided rather greater incentive for their revolt than the outrage to their late king's womenfolk, however female-friendly we may wish the Celts to have been compared to the nasty old Romans...). Roman veterans are massacred, London sacked, half a legion ambiushed and destroyed. Then the revolting Celts are cornered and destroyed. Boudicca poisons herself.

Tacitus does put a little rallying speech into Boudicca's mouth pre-battle though it's unlikely this bore any relation to any actual words she may have said pre-battle... but it's actually quite a good example of his relative impartiality, he makes no effort to hide Roman 'war crimes' (and neither does he shy, previous to this speech, from mentioning the considerable excesses of the rebel tribes towards their fellow Celts).

I think you could paint Boudicca pretty much any way you like from Braveheart style historical tosh (though it was a good film) freedom fighter to mere figurehead, with just about anything inbetween (though only some interpretations would really be reasonable).

As an aside, it's quite hard to see how Roman 'oppression' was generally much worse than Celtic 'freedom' if one was an ordinary Celt.

If one were to take Boudicca's story and keeping the essentials but change the names, etc to make it the foundation to a fantasy, I think it would easily pass today even though (in fact probably because) there is no happy ending. she could be made an excellent tragic heroine or indeed a good 'villain' leading her people to utter ruin to avenge personal wrongs. Both would require roughly equal meddling with/distorting of the facts as we know them.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

There's also a financial side to the cause of Boudicca's revolt that is sometimes overlooked - a calling in of very sizeable loans made by Romans to the Celtic nobility that the latter were unable to pay, leading to the seizure of their lands. Of course this doesn't excuse rape, beatings, enslavement, etc, but one would be naif to assume that such measures would not have been adopted by a Celtic chief towards a defaulting debtor (and like many 'freedom loving' peoples, the Celts were no strangers to the practise of slavery).

Athena Andreadis said...

Many archetypal myths are those of loss, though they tend to have male protagonists (often trickster Firebringer figures). However, there is one major exception, the figure of Lilith.

US SF/F tends not to show true defeat (dystopian SF is ersatz tragedy) -- possibly because the present nation has never been invaded or occupied nor has it experienced the massive famines and upheavals of other countries (and of course the Indian nations have a completely different view of this, but they didn't write history either).

Joanna Russ wrote a total defeat story, We Who Are about To... Not an easy read, but an unforgettable one. I could name many from my culture, but since they haven't been translated it's a futile exercise. Other women warriors who have been celebrated despite their defeat: Jean d'Arc; the Truong sisters; Lakshmi Bai (the Rani of Jhansi); Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria).

The Celts indeed had a stratified society, very much along the lines of Homer's Bronze Age Myceneans. But the Romans needed non-stop wars of aggression (not of defending home territory) to sustain their economic and political supremacy.

Let's put one of the sentences on a previous post in contemporary terms: "It's quite hard to see how US 'oppression' was generally much worse than Iraqi 'freedom' if one was an ordinary Iraqi."

Scottish fighter Galgacus of course had the answer to that, recorded by Tacitus. His closing words: "They made a desert and called it peace."

Athena Andreadis said...

P.S.: If anyone is curious about warrior women in Hellenic culture, I discussed them in Stone Telling: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Dennis Young said...

I have plenty of heroines in my books; Audrey Vincent, Eva Lee, Galandria Telveperen, Jewelle Chandler, E'dhel'wen, et al. Women have different motives and reasons, which makes them unique to write and read about.

Terri-Lynne said...

Dennis, always good to hear about more female protags!