Women of Speculative Fiction: Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter

I’ve already written once before about this character, but since she’s one of my favorites, I wanted to include her in the this series. And today I really wanted to write about someone who is deeply principled, unselfish, and just plain good.

In The Deed of Paksenarrion, Elizabeth Moon set out to create a truly believable, well-developed paladin character. She felt like the ones she saw in Dungeons and Dragons games were kind of stupid and unreasonable. That seemed highly unrealistic to her. So she created a tale of a paladin’s origins, from her humble beginnings through all the travails that bring about her transformation into a holy warrior. Pakesanarrion isn’t flawless. She’s not just blandly good. But she wants very much to do right, to use her abilities for something good. And her understanding of how to do this matures and grows over the course of her story.

In the first book of the trilogy, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Paks is a headstrong young woman who runs away from home to avoid being married off. She signs up to become a mercenary because it’s what her older cousin did, and because she’s heard positive things about this particular group of mercenaries. Much of this book describes the nitty-gritty details of (psuedo-medieval) military life. It’s not all glorious battles. There’s lots of training, doing chores, marching, and studying tactics and strategy. Her first experience in battle isn’t particularly impressive, but she’s learning.

Then they encounter a particularly brutal army whose leader doesn’t obey the rules of the other mercenary armies. The honorable mercenaries decided to band together to defeat him. Paks believes with all her heart that this is a worthy cause, and she is eager to serve, particularly to honor the friends she has lost. But the ethical implications are not so simple after their enemy is defeated. As the second book, Divided Allegiance, begins, she realizes that one of their allies is himself an unscrupulous man, and as a part of their alliance with him they are required to enact harsh retribution on his enemies. Paks struggles greatly to reconcile her conscience with what she is being commanded to do. Obeying one’s leader is a virtue, isn’t it? And her leader is a good man, isn’t he? But what if he has allied himself with a bad man? Does that make him bad as well?

Paks is very naive still. She doesn’t want to confront the complexities of human nature. She wants to believe that once she has made an initial judgment on someone’s character, it should be easy to determine whether they’re good or bad. At last, however, she can’t stomach what they’re doing, and requests an honorable release from the mercenaries.

She wanders a bit, offering her sword to whatever cause she believes is good. This doesn’t always work out well for her. Again her naivety leads her to trust people who aren’t particularly trustworthy. And her headstrong nature gets her into trouble again and again. Throughout all this, there are hints that her destiny is leading her to something greater, but she tries to ignore it. She resists the call of Gird, the patron saint of righteous fighters, until at last someone shows her how she has been blaming Gird for the death of her friends who followed him — blaming him for not saving those of his own. He explains that Gird’s followers are not sheep seeking his protection. They are his shepherds. And if they fall in their fight to protect others, they fall doing just what the code of Gird would have them do. Now Paks is happy, even eager, to follow Gird.

It is upon this realization that Paks is offered the opportunity to become a paladin candidate. She can hardly believe it. She has always dreamed of such a glorious thing; the regal mount, the shining armor, the admiring crowds. But all of that is a long way off, as she must learn her hardest lesson yet. First, the nature of morality is examined a little more closely. Though paladins can detect good and evil, that doesn’t mean, as one teacher jokingly describes, that “on one side are the bad people, and you kill them, and over here are the good people, and they cheer for you…It would be nice, but that’s not how it works…Most people — and that includes us, candidates — are mixtures, neither wholly evil nor wholly good.”

Paks tries to understand this. But later, when she is kidnapped and forced to fight for her life again and again, she cannot see that the fighting is providing an opening for great evil. If she is fighting against evil beings, surely she is in the right. Surely she is good. She learns otherwise, to her great sorrow.

At the start of Oath of Gold, Paks is at her lowest point. Alone, weak, despairing and afraid. She finds healing in the most unlikely of places, where she begins to comprehend the true nature of courage. She learns to see that the path of her life, though very painful at times, has given her an understanding that many paladins lack. She understands how it feels to be helpless, and so she is best qualified to serve the helpless with true empathy. She is unique among paladins, receiving her qualifications and powers through unconventional means. And so she embarks on a quest to restore a lost king to his throne, undoing an evil plot that has been going on for decades. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale in its own right, but I enjoy it all the more after watching the development Paks has undergone in order to prepare her for it. I’ve probably re-read the trilogy or parts of the trilogy at least a dozen times, and I never get bored of it.

Paks is one of the most compelling, multi-faceted characters I’ve encountered in a work of fantasy, either male or female. I find myself identifying with her again and again, even though the superficial details of our lives are completely different. I recognize the deeper traits –her determination to do the right thing, to see the good in people, to put her talents to the best possible use. Her anguish when her dream seems to be ripped away from her forever. Her growing maturity as she walks a different path to her dream, no longer seeking glory, focused instead on doing the most good she can with what she has been given. I’d like to see more characters like her. I’d like to see more people in the real world as unreservedly good as Paksenarrion.

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