Women of Speculative Fiction: Cimorene

This character and series of books (the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede) provided one of my earliest encounters with the notion of turning tropes upside-down. I had a solid familiarity with the usual conventions of fairy tales and fantasy stories when I first discovered Dealing with Dragons as a pre-teen. A story that toyed with those conventions in such a playful, entertaining fashion was just about the perfect book for me at that time.

Cimorene is a princess who voluntarily runs away to live with dragons rather than being kidnapped by them. In addition to managing the household of her dragon, Kazul, she has to fend off the countless princes who keep trying to rescue her. Eventually she discovers, and subsequently foils, a secret plot to overthrow the dragons’ ruling structure. Along the way there are amusing bits like outsmarting a vengeful genie (“CHOOSE THE MEANS OF YOUR DEATH” “Old age, please”) and discovering that wizards can’t be melted with plain water like witches, but if you add soap and just a little lemon…

First and foremost, it’s funny, and rewards those readers who know the typical tropes by heart. Second, it portrays several well-rounded female characters in addition to Cimorene — one of them, a witch named Morwen, is the main character of the third book. Thirdly, the plotlines are engaging and contain just the right level of peril for young readers. There is some romance, but it doesn’t undermine the rest of the story or character development as is too often the case in other books. It’s a series that I was happy to recommend to my own daughter.

There are, of course, plenty of stories that subvert familiar conventions (my sister has noted that it would actually be subversive, at this point, to have a princess who enjoyed embroidery) but this is the particular one that encouraged me to really start thinking outside the box. I started actively looking for other books that told their tales with a bit of a wink or a smirk. In later years, I learned to deconstruct tropes as I studied literature, acknowledging what made them work but also seeking fresh, creative ways to remake them or do away with them altogether. And in my own writing I have gleefully looked for ways to turn conventions inside-out. I have no doubt that all of this carries the influence of Cimorene, who ignored the protests of traditionally-minded sorts to find her own peculiar path.

Well, that’s 26 posts in this series. I’ve spent a year on it and enjoyed it very much; now I think it’s time to wrap it up. There are, of course, countless more women writers and characters that I could discuss, but I’d like to move on to something different next year. To start with, I’ve just finished another novel — hooray! –and I have a few things to say about that. Let’s be honest; I’d love to see my own characters showing up on a list like this someday. Anything is possible…

Women of Speculative Fiction: Luthien

I would be remiss if I failed to mention J.R.R. Tolkien, the widely-acknowledged father of modern fantasy, at some point in this survey of speculative fiction. And yet when it comes to female characters, it might seem like there’s not much to write about. His famous works — and therefore most read — are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but among all the characters of The Hobbit, the book contains literally not a single woman. The trilogy fares a little better in this regard, with several significant female roles including the powerful elf Galadriel, Arwen of Rivendell, and of course the sword-maiden Eowyn. There’s something truly epic about how she reveals who she is just before slaying the Witch-King, who believed himself invincible because of the prophecy that “no man” could destroy him.

Still, it could appear that as far as Tolkien was concerned, powerful women were the exception, not the rule — unless you dig a little deeper. If you’re willing to crack open The Silmarillion,  you’ll find that Tolkien was perfectly happy to create striking female characters. The ratio is still skewed toward men, true, but it’s a marked improvement over zero or three. And then we have Luthien.

As her story begins, you might fear that she’s playing the passive part of a typical princess in a fairy tale. Luthien, the daughter of a elven king and a Maia (basically the angels of Tolkien’s world) falls in love with the mortal man Beren. Her father demands that Beren bring him a Silmaril from the crown of the evil Morgoth as the price to marry her (thinking it impossible) and then imprisons Luthien to keep her from going to help him.

But this is not the tale of a helpless maid in a tower. Using the powers she has inherited from her mother, Luthien escapes and goes to Beren’s aid. She befriends the mighty hound Huan, defeats Sauron (currently the servant of Morgoth), rescues Beren from captivity, transforms herself into a vampire and Huan into a werewolf to infiltrate Morgoth’s realm and mesmerizes him with song while Beren steals the Silmaril. Oh, and she also travels to the realm of the dead and manages to persuade the Lord of the Dead to return Beren to her after he dies, then chooses to become mortal so they can remain together.

If that’s not enough to impress you, Luthien carried deep personal meaning for Tolkien himself. He was greatly moved by the sacrifices his own wife had made, particularly her conversion from the Church of England to Catholicism so they could be married. On the Tolkiens’ tombstone, “Beren” is written below his name and “Luthien” is written below his wife’s. It was the highest tribute he could offer.