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.

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.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Margaret Cavendish

Here’s a rather obscure one. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was a female writer from the 17th century who, in opposition to the usual practice of her time, published her works under her own name. She was a poet, philosopher, essayist and playwright. And she wrote “prose romances” – early versions of the adventure novel – including a work that could be one of the first examples of science fiction. Why don’t we try to bring her a little out of obscurity?

Much of what we know of Margaret comes from her own memoir, A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life. She characterized herself as very bashful, preferring to put her thoughts into writing – which was also a somewhat more acceptable outlet than being a verbally outspoken woman. Though her family and later her husband were aristocrats of relatively modest means (partly thanks to the turmoil resulting from their political positions) she was granted the time and leisure for developing her philosophical thoughts and writing skills that women of lower classes would not have been afforded. She also had a dislike for many of the tasks that women of her station were expected to busy themselves with – for example, she described poetry as “mental spinning,” and explained that she was better at writing and therefore preferred it over spinning. For its time, that was a significant critique of gender roles.

So how about that work of science fiction? It’s called The Blazing World, and it falls firmly into the sub-category of utopian fiction. The world mentioned in the title is an entirely separate place from our world, accessed by the North Pole. A women enters this world, becomes Empress over a society of talking animals, and then plans an invasion to defeat the enemies of her homeland. Pretty wild. It was actually published as a companion to her non-fiction work Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, as a sort of illustrative piece to bolster her intellectual discourse. Margaret herself is included as a character in the story, making it autobiographical as well. It kind of has a little bit of everything. Of course back then, genres weren’t the strictly-defined categories that publishers and booksellers use now. And those with the leisure to write tended to write in just about every category, from “natural philosophy” (science) to poetry to plays.

Still, Margaret defied many a convention of her time, and it’s always nice to point out how women have been a part of speculative fiction from its earliest days. However you look at it, she was a pioneer. And since I was rather charmed to read that, among her other ambitions, she had an unapologetic desire for fame, I’ve done my small part to make her just a little more famous.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Agents of SHIELD

It’s a fascinating, though troubling, phenomenon that our perception of female-to-male ratios is considerably skewed from reality. Present a scene with women making up only 17% of the characters, and people will claim it’s a fairly even split between men and women. Raise the percentage to 30% or more, and then they’ll be sure that women are completely dominating. (This has played out in quite a few studies, but if you want an example, check out the Geena Davis Institute and the research they’ve done in gender parity.)

The reason for this vast mis-perception is easy to guess. If movies and television have been consistently offering a skewed ratio where male characters are always far more prevalent than female, we’re going to start thinking it’s normal. And the slightest bit of shifting the balance toward a more realistic 50/50 will have people raising alarmist cries that women are taking over and driving men out. It’s not any single movie or show that’s done this; it’s a long-standing pattern that we’re so accustomed to, it’s become self-perpetuating. We expect a predominance of males, and so we portray a predominance of males and thus continue to expect a predominance….

We can do better. Particularly in comic book films or shows, which create extravagant universe-bending storylines wherein the implausible becomes fully possible. And yet they still shy away from the shocking notion that women can be fully realized, active characters. Anthropomorphic raccoons and trees, sure. But women? Let’s not be ridiculous. (I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t get me wrong – but if we can swallow such gleeful nonsense, why can’t we wrap our minds around a comic book film led by a woman??)  Aside from a few exceptions, the top-billed actress in a superhero film is going to be playing the hero’s love interest. Other women might play a mother, a side character with maybe one or two significant scenes, or someone who shows the promise of an intriguing power and/or backstory…only to get sidelined by the hero’s far more important journey.

So when they introduced the main team of characters when Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD first premiered, I was inordinately excited to see there were the same number of female characters as male. Inordinately, because this really shouldn’t be such a rarity. Let’s hope it won’t continue to be. True, the show has undergone a few growing pains, and it hasn’t achieved the mainstream success of most of Marvel’s films, but it’s very satisfying to watch three separate women, each with their own personalities and storylines, play principle parts in the show. They’re not even all young or white. Melinda May (Ming-na Wen) is an experienced senior agent, both mentally and physically extraordinary, but reluctant to reenter the field as she hides the emotional scars from a long-ago harrowing mission. And she’s played by the woman who voiced Mulan, so extra awesome points for her.

Gemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is a brilliant biologist, but her character is more than a collection of broad “nerdy girl” stereotypes (and there’s more than one scientist in the team, helping to at least partly undermine the ridiculous notion that one genius can do ALL THE SCIENCE THINGS). There is one particularly powerful episode in season three in which she carries nearly the entire weight of the storyline by herself.

Skye/Daisy Johnson is biracial, a fact that plays an important role in her origin story. And yes, hers is a superhero origin story, which I never would have guessed when she was first introduced as an admittedly rather annoying hacktivist in the pilot episode. Unlike in a superhero film, which usually tries to cram an origin into the first twenty or thirty minutes so they can hurry along to the  fight-the-villain storyline, the origin of her powers proceeded at an unassuming, leisurely pace until halfway through the second season. Mind you, the reveal wasn’t necessarily a pay-off that made up for every boring bit leading up to it, but it did merit a re-watch to catch the little clues I’d missed before.

Like a lot of tv shows, Agents of SHIELD has an uneven quality – some episodes are spectacular, some are lackluster. But one of the reasons I’ve been willing to stick with it is because it continues to maintain a near 50/50 gender balance in the principle characters, and the stories of the women continue to be some of the most compelling and engaging. And somehow the world has managed not to fall into an estrogen-fueled matriarchal dystopia. Imagine that.

Women of Speculative Fiction: J.K. Rowling

Since I wrote about Hermione last time, I’ve been considering whether to write about her creator as well. Again, she’s such a well-known figure that even the most casual Harry Potter fan could probably recite the details of her rise to super-stardom in the literary world: the idea for Harry came to her while riding a train; the tragedy of her mother’s death influenced how she wrote Harry’s loss; she was an impoverished single mother when she wrote the first book and did a lot of the writing in cafés after the walks had gotten her daughter to fall asleep; she’s the first writer whose career made her a billionaire (though Rowling herself has disputed the actual figures) and promptly stopped being a billionaire by donating a large portion of her fortune to charity.

Her tale has the sort of rags-to-riches trajectory that inspires many a struggling writer. Her books have gotten countless children interested in reading. She may have single-handedly jumpstarted the fantasy craze in children’s literature, or even a fantasy literature craze in general. But that’s all been discussed before. Her fame has also brought plenty of criticism, with a level of scrutiny that other less-famous books and authors never receive. I’m not going to dwell on the criticism either. What I do want to explore is just one specific aspect of her career that raises some important questions about writing as a profession, how we perceive writers and artists in general, and how women carry a disproportionate burden of scrutiny, particularly mothers.

Whenever Rowling’s rise to fame and wealth is mentioned, among all the admirers there is usually some sour commenter who feels the need to point out how she was on government assistance while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. How appalling, they seem to say, that she could squander precious tax money just to indulge her little book-writing hobby. Now, I could get into an entire separate analysis of how we judge the relative worthiness of welfare recipients, but socioeconomic rants are not really within the realm of my expertise. I just find it interesting that the easiest response to the detractors would be, “Well, but look at what came of it! She became a bestselling author! She made millions, and gave back tons of money to the needy!” True enough – but does that mean that if she hadn’t; if publishers had all turned down her little wizard-school story – would all her work have been a waste? An unnecessary drain on society; a bout of neglectful selfishness when she should have been providing for her daughter? The fact that she was a single mother only seems to worsen the criticism, as if she ought to magically go back in time (by Time-Turner, of course) to undo the circumstances resulting in single-parenthood, rather than doing the best she could to deal with those circumstances.

The truth is, most writers don’t make much money. We hear about the rich ones. Of course we do, because we’re all buying their books and giving them lots of money. But the average mid-list writer probably has a separate job so they can actually pay the bills. And of course, many writers never get published, never make a penny off their work. Does that mean it’s worthless? How do we measure the worth of art outside of monetary value? Are artists less important contributors to society than those in the STEM fields, or the laborers who provide essential goods and services? If we were to judge their contribution solely by how much they get paid, most artists would be almost worthless, aside from the rare ultra-rich ones like movie stars – or Rowling.

This is obviously a very personal question for me, because I currently have no career outside of my as-yet unfulfilled writing aspirations. Now, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My husband has a steady job – he’s a theatre teacher, so we’re not exactly living in a mansion, but it’s enough. And I don’t currently work at a paying job because we have three children and until three years ago, at least one of them was at home, needing full-time care. But now that they’ve all been in school for a few years, I’ve been expending a lot of mental space on how I should spend my free time – whether I should be seeking employment or volunteering in the community or some other obviously productive activity. Yet all I really want to do is write. I’ve put a lot of time into it, but it’s hard to measure whether any of that time has been put to good use. I think I’m closer to publication than I was five years ago – I’ve gotten some interest from literary agents, and some very useful feedback – but there’s no money to show for it. What if there never is? Have I been wasting my time? No one’s ever accused me of this, but I can easily supply enough self-doubt to make up for it.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for some kind of indulgent artist utopia, where the soulful bohemian type is given a free pass just by virtue of their artistic-ness. If my husband weren’t able to support us, I’d find a job, writing-based or not, to provide for our needs. I wouldn’t sit around waiting for someone to gratify my pride and perceived genius while doing nothing. And for some people, they’re perfectly happy to create art as a hobby rather than a profession. They might make a little money here and there, but the joy of creation is sufficient – presumably because their career is sufficient to meet their financial needs. Yes, the world would be a dismal place without art, but without basic essentials like food and shelter, we wouldn’t be around to know it. So there has to be some kind of reasonable balance between supporting artists while also taking care of practical concerns. I don’t have the answers. I only know that a writer shouldn’t have to be as successful as J. K. Rowling just to validate their desire to write.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Hermione Granger

This one’s pretty obvious, right? Almost to the point that I’m not sure what new things I could have to say. But since we’re reading the series to our kids, she’s been on my mind rather frequently lately. The truth is, with the Harry Potter series being so insanely well-known, Hermione’s place as an iconic female in fantasy has been hotly debated from just about every angle. If she’s so talented and smart, why isn’t she the main character? Why must her story take a back seat to yet another male protagonist? And why must she be someone’s love interest? And why is she frequently portrayed as shrill and emotional; or, conversely, too perfect, without any relatable flaws? And so on and so on.

I feel rather bad for poor Hermione – she wasn’t invented to be THE iconic female figure of children’s literature or fantasy. That’s an awful lot to put on a single girl’s shoulders. As I’ve already explored, there are a wide variety of female characters in speculative fiction, all with varying strengths and weaknesses and specific personality quirks – and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Whatever other complaint I could offer about the portrayal of girls and women in fantasy and sci-fi, my first and continual complaint is that there should be more of them – as many as there are boys and men. The more we have, the less we feel that any one female needs to single-handedly represent all that is good or bad about females in the entirety of speculative literature.

So. All that I’m going to explore in this particular post is what personally appeals to me about Hermione Granger. And it will encompass both strengths and weaknesses, which are necessary to any well-developed character.

First off, she’s tremendously intelligent, hard-working and pretty much constantly reading. Highly relatable to any book nerd. With those traits, however, comes an off-putting tendency to be a know-it-all and to alienate potential friends. This, too, is highly relatable. I have unwittingly intimidated people simply because of the way I use multi-syllabic words when I talk. Whoops. My heart really sinks for Hermione every time I re-read the first book and she overhears Ron’s scathing remark about how it’s no wonder she doesn’t have any friends.

Can’t you just imagine Hermione’s life before she learned about the wizarding world? Always knowing there was something weird about her, but unable to explain it…struggling to make friends, figuring it was because of her different-ness….and then her elation upon getting her Hogwarts letter, thinking that it all made sense at last, that she would finally be among people like her…and then she’s friendless all over again, because magic or not, she’s still weird and different. And how wonderful that she is finally able to break through and form a real, lasting friendship with Ron and Harry.

She has certain stubborn traits that are both exasperating and endearing. She’s so determined to take ALL THE CLASSES in her third year that she actually uses time travel just to accommodate her schedule – and quite reasonably, by the end of the year she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s bitten off more than she can chew, and she can’t even confide in anyone how exhausted or desperate she is because she’s sworn to secrecy about the Time-Turner. I have to say that one of the things I thoroughly loathed about the movie adaptation was removing any sort of indicator of the strain Hermione was under. She has everything perfectly control from beginning to end. When she punches Malfoy in the face we’re expected to cheer. But in the book, lashing out at Malfoy is just one more sign that she’s completely losing it. They also cut her conflicts with Harry and Ron – worrying that Harry’s mysterious Firebolt Christmas present is cursed; refusing to admit that her cat might have eaten Ron’s rat – and we don’t get to witness how devastated she is without the support of their friendship. I don’t want to see a steely, perpetually-in-control Hermione; she doesn’t seem human. I want to see her struggle and have real human reactions when the stress gets too much for her.

And in the fourth book, Hermione starts on a house-elf rights crusade that’s simultaneously admirable and ridiculous. It’s a pretty potent metaphor for impassioned but slightly misguided social justice warriors. She’s well-meaning, and her outrage against house-elf abuse is probably warranted, but telling oppressed peoples they should grow a backbone and rise up against their masters is, well, not the best way to go about it. Presumably by the time she’s an adult, she’s learned more compassionate and practical means to seek justice and fight oppression. But it’s quite realistic to see her struggle to find the proper methods for her enacting her ideals – and it makes an awfully nice moment for her first kiss with Ron when he shows, quite independent of any desire to impress her, that he’s developed a similar concern for the welfare of non-privileged people like house-elves.

Not that Hermione’s story ever revolves completely around romance, but the romance sub-plot is pretty entertaining. For all her intelligence and pragmatism, she’s just about as hopeless as any other callow teenager when it comes to crushes and such. The way she and Ron dance around each other for years is both charmingly familiar and teeth-grittingly infuriating. You get to see it from Harry’s perspective, which makes it all the more fun, since he can see pretty clearly what neither of them will acknowledge. And the dynamics of their trio also offer a nice little subversion of “the hero, the hero’s buddy and the hero’s love interest” trope – Hermione is not, nor ever was, Harry’s love interest. Their relationship is more like brother-sister, which he must patiently explain to every character who assumes otherwise (perhaps standing as surrogates for the readers who have also assumed otherwise). Shippers may argue, of course, over whether Hermione is really better suited for one boy or another, but according to official canon, it was never Harry. (And if I weren’t focusing on female characters right now, I could give you a whole earful about how much I love Ron and the role he plays in their trio and how the movies did a deep, deep disservice by reducing him to buffoonish comic relief…but anyway.)

So what are we to make of Hermione in the end? J.K. Rowling says she always had a boy in mind for the hero of her tale. Analyzing the notion of some alternate universe with the Henrietta Potter series would have to be the topic of an entirely different post. What we have is a story with a male protagonist whose female friend is satisfyingly complex and memorable, and far more than somebody’s girlfriend. And maybe, just maybe, that means that young readers will come to appreciate and seek out more stories with female characters like Hermione. Hooray!