Women of Speculative Fiction: Villains and Heroes in Willow

When I first saw the film Willow as a kid (my fifth-grade teacher showed it to our class for the end-of-the-year party) I completely fell in love with it. Before I became an completely obsessive Star Wars fanatic in junior high, Willow was my favorite movie. Turns out I’m a big fan of George Lucas generally. I always wanted to watch it for my birthday, and since this was in the dark ages before the Internet, we would have to scour video rental stores in search of a VHS copy.

I was baffled by people’s criticisms. It ripped off Lord of the Rings? That seems a bit of a stretch; Willow is hardly a copy of Frodo. It was just a re-telling of Star Wars in a conventional fantasy setting? Frankly, that sounds pretty awesome. But it’s not a lazy copy; it has its own original elements. As an adult, I’m capable of seeing that the movie isn’t perfect. But I still love it. And one of the reasons I love it nowadays is the female characters.

The most powerful characters in the story are women. The terrifying villain, Bavmorda. The fairy queen of the forest, Cherlindrea. The sorceress Fin Raziel. The climax has Bavmorda and Raziel facing off in a magical duel showcasing their tremendous powers. There are battles with swords and catapults and two-headed dragons, but this fight between two ancient women is by far the most important. (It’s also kind of hilarious.) Interestingly, as Raziel spends most of the film trapped in various animal’s bodies, telling Willow she is a beautiful enchantress, she has a bit of a shock when she finally gets her human form back and discovers she has aged much more than expected. But there are no cheap jokes about her being old or ugly; just a wistful “Has it really been so long?” before she picks up her resolve and moves on with her life. There is no shame in aging.

Bavmorda, meanwhile, is every bit as threatening as any male villain, with actress Jean Marsh’s delightfully evil performance. Her scariness isn’t dependent on her femininity or lack thereof; she’s just cruel and vicious and single-minded in her determination to have absolute control. She is also part of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship that brings in another important female character – Sorsha, played by Joanne Whalley. She is a formidable warrior, evidently grappling with the fact that she can never seem to gain her mother’s approval. In her struggle to obey Bavmorda’s commands, she is constantly met with sneering criticism and abuse.

Ultimately Sorsha will turn against her mother, a development which might seem disappointing if you assume it’s only because she falls in love with one of the good guys. I prefer to interpret that romance as one element of a larger change within her – rather than continuing to seek love and acceptance from an abusive mother who will never offer it, she finds something far better among good people fighting for a just cause. It’s never explicitly stated, true, but I’ll interpret it as I please. In any case, Sorsha’s role as a skilled fighter – with practical armor, even! – is always nice to see for a female character.

There are a few minor characters of interest, including the unnamed midwife whose courage and resourcefulness save the baby Elora Danan; Elora’s mother who has a few moments of brazen defiance against Bavmorda before being killed; Elora herself for just being so stinking adorable; Willow’s quietly resilient wife Kiaya.

Now, it’s true that the main character is male. But one of Willow’s greatest strengths which qualifies him for the quest is that he is a loving parent. As nurturing is an ability so often considered the sole domain of women, it’s refreshing to have it celebrated in a man. He’s not a fighter, and his magical powers are only just emerging, but he sure as heck knows how to change a diaper, feed a baby, care for her when she’s sick, and scold someone for driving a wagon too fast with Elora aboard. In addition, coming from the diminutive race of Nelwyns grants him the ability to surprise those who underestimate him and his people. A story that skewers the prejudice against a race far too often perceived as inferior? That’s a pretty worthy cause. And of course it’s nice to see Warwick Davis shine in the role. If you ever have the chance to hear his commentary on the original Willow DVD, it’s a real treat.

So, hooray for a variety of powerful females and a hero who loves babies. For that among many other reasons, Willow is still one of my favorites.

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