Notes on the woman warrior, fantasy literature style

The first woman warrior I remember reading was Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. That image of her standing before the Nazgul Witch-King, her sword brandished, her blond hair spilling down her shoulders and catching in the wind is probably one of the most vivid early memories I have of fantasy literature. And I remember feeling a swell of pride, too, that this woman had done something so remarkable in a world so dominated by men.

Just the other day, my husband remarked to me how surprising it was that Tolkien chose to have Eowyn act so. On the surface it sure seems that way; she’s a rare spot of feminine power in the books, and certainly the only one with martial abilities. Was he showing feminst leanings? I don’t think so. Firstly, he was writing from the Germanic lore tradition, in which there were many shield-maidens. The concept was a bit romanticized, honestly, and I think he liked the idea of a kind of Valkyrie figure. But more than anything, Eowyn’s presence served to fulfil one of Tolkien’s favorite literary mechanisms: the riddle. The Witch-King of Angmar can, of course, be killed by no man. And she is, well, no man. I think the cleverness of that scene is what drove Tolkien to do it, rather than any feminist sympathies (because, as much as I love LoTR, I don’t believe his intention was to rally the cry of repressed women).

Though certainly there are moments in the text that Eowyn gives glimpses into her desire to be treated as her brother (“Too often have I heard of duty. But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?”) in the end, she marries and is taken care of, and quite quietly fades into the background. She is a lone woman in the texts–Peter Jackson, of course, had to beef up Arwen’s role in the film to make another engaging character.

There have been many other female warriors in fantasy fiction since Tolkien, of course, and many weild martial power and prowess. But few, I think, have real complexity. I’m thinking of Brienne of Tarth in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, in particular, as she’s the clearest woman warrior in the bunch. She’s complex, in some ways, but her sense of duty and simpleness make her a little grating. I like that’s she’s not the sexiest chick on the block, but she just always felt like one of the flattest characters in the series to me. In some ways, she’s not that different from a guy, I guess.

Of course, there’s also the whole gorgeous, leather-clad, bodice-squeezed warriors we know and love, like the Mord Sith in Terry Goodkind’s books. While powerful, and certainly complex from a psychological standpoint, it always irked me that they were “rescued” by Richard. Okay, lots about Richard irked me in general, not the least of which was his instent chatting and feeding forest animals, but that’s another rant for another day.

I should mention that my critique doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy these books. I have, and I will again. The role of the woman, and anyone who’s not a classic male hero, is changing. What’s difficult for me is that so many women are portrayed as either mannish or sexpots. And there’s got to be some middle ground. Women happen to be warriors, or warriors that happen to be women. Sometimes just writing a character means stripping away ideas of gender, and simply writing them the way they are.

Maybe what the issue here is a desire for more complexity from a society perspective. Anyone who chooses voilence as a means of action in life has reasons, and those reasons are often deep-seeded in politics and societal norms. When fantasy leans too much on the shock value of a female warrior, or the “just because” aspect or, the dreaded “I was abused by a man” trope, it lends a flatness to characters. Fantasy societies have the chance to be truly spectacular, and so many fall short. (I poke holes in my own stuff all the time, and don’t exclude my stuff from the list, I should point out. It’s my pet peeve with, um, myself… However, someone who I think does this particularly well is Joss Whedon, especially in the case of River Tam.)

At any rate, the concept of female warrior has been heavy on my mind as of late, as I have two in Peter of Windbourne who could not be more different. One is a warrior of martial power soley, and the other is a little more complicated than that. As secondary characters to the main POV, it’s a tricky trying to convey the depth of character I want. I suppose, at a point, there’s only so much you can do.

Part of the problem is that readers like the sexy ladies in chain mail, and especially mainstream fantasy–or, big-selling fantasy anyway–is reluctant to piss off their fan base. I don’t blame them, in a way. It’s business. You need only wander in to WoW or any convention to see sex sells, and the skimpier the armor, the more attention.

I wonder if the recession will push writers to challenge or to conform. Time will tell, I suppose. I’m intrigued as to what kind of woman warriors this generation will create.

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  1. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I’m not a woman, but I happen to love women, take part in women’s studies, and I’m a feminist (is pro-feminist man the correct term?). It has bugged me since I was a little kid that the only viable female protagonists in a fantasy story are Disney’s princesses, and any female presence in other stories is relegated to either the love interest, the eternal helper or the amazon who exists to threaten but be defeated by superior male warriors. The latter is especially true in anime, which is full of violent female characters whose defeat of male characters symbolizes the *weakness* of the males, not the strength of the female.

    I’m hoping to get around these pitfalls in the story I’m working on, but as you said it’s difficult to break the pattern sometimes.

    1. @stofoleez It is a challenge, and significantly complicated. Not to mention, much of it is simply due to the perceptions of the reader/writer. I mean, I don’t think many readers of anime and fantasy are particularly concerned. But the concern does grow, and I hope, will inspire some better literature.

      1. Hey ..i intent do amke a film on a Female Warrior …so do help me if u have some notes of historic female warrior figure.


  2. Part of this, I think, is because fantasy tends to mimic a historic medieval or renaissance setting. A lack of female warriors doesn’t pop up too much in urban fantasy, at least, not to the same extremes. And you must admit, woman tend to be smaller and physically weaker than men. I’m not exactly a helpless damsel, nor out of shape, but that doesn’t save me from having to find the nearest guy when a jar refuses to be opened. Sometimes men can do the job when rubber bands, hot water, and my small hands can’t.

    The presence of female warriors in fantasy can depend largely on the setting and circumstances you place them in. You’ve mentioned George R.R. Martin’s Brienne, yes, but she’s a clear exception in her setting. Consider the wild women beyond the wall (certainly warriors), or even Mortenson’s isle, where they once described the mural with of the bare-chested woman with a baby in one hand and a weapon in the other (was it a mace? I forget). Women tend to be warriors up in tho north because it is necessary.

    1. @elizaw It’s been so long since I read the books, that I’m getting fuzzy. I hadn’t thought about the women in the north. In general, I like Martin’s approach on women; in particular it’s Brienne’s character that bothers me. But, likely, it’s just personal preference!

  3. I can’t recall a lot of women warriors in my writing, mainly, I think, because it tends towards the realism end of fantasy (for as realistic as you can get with dragons and minotaurs and magic that is…).

    Not to say I don’t have any – I’m writing a short story now which features an escaped female gladiator, and there is another one in a darker fantasy story – but they are the exception.

    I do have a number of female adventurers and heroes though, but they tend to favour brains over brawn and none of them are depicted as sexpots..

    1. @qorvus I think the rule of thumb is simply to write good characters. Women can be sexpots or crazed warriors, but there’s got to me more than shock value–it’s got to come from somewhere, and mean something in the end. Otherwise it’s just the old stereotype of the hot chick in a metal bra.

  4. Joss Whedon is very interesting in this respect. From Buffy to Echo, he never apologizes or develops elaborate backstories for making the women powerful — that’s just what they are.

  5. […] Notes on the woman warrior, fantasy literature style […]

  6. Interestingly, of course, in real history, rather than history filtered through the glasses of 19th and 20th century writers, female warriors were not unknown. Most notable is Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, who may not have mown down Romans from a chariot with scythes on the wheels, but certainly was a military leader in at the kill. This fact alarmed Roman civilization, but, interestingly, also intrigued it too. We know that there were female gladiators (gladiatrix to give them their proper title) as their graves have been found and, naturally, it was felt most appropriate that these women were recruited from Britain (or, if from elsewhere, at least pretend to have been).

    There are records of female soldiers taking part in the Crusades too. We know of at least one female archer and one mounted knight who was a woman. Women were allowed to join the Knights Templar, more as patrons in a kind of honorary membership role for fund raising, but certainly on the frontline in Syria and Palestine there were women fighting. Due to the tenuous nature of the Crusader Kingdoms, women enjoyed far greater rights there than back in Europe. To some extent Sybilla in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ movie illustrates this, but that portrayal, in fact, does not go as far as many noble women did in the Frankish kingdoms of the Levant at the time.

    Medieval women played strategic as well as tactical and combat roles, most notable is Queen-Empress Matilda who fought the 12th century civil war as military leader to try to gain the throne of England to add to her other domains. Given these scraps that we have, it is safe to suggest that there were in fact probably many more female warriors written out of history; the valkyrie might seem exceptional, but their portrayal must have stemmed from actual fighting women.

    Of course, much of our understanding of the Middle Ages is through Victorian perceptions and they overly emphasise the weakness of women and their lack of martial role in previous eras. The difference in physical strength is likely to have been far less in earlier times than Victorians believed. If you think about it, anyone who managed to survive infancy in medieval times, whichever gender they were, had to be very tough and manual labour and fighting built physical strength further. All people were smaller five hundred years ago than now, you can see from the buildings that remain, but there is no suggestion that a woman could not have worn armour or hefted a sword just as well as a man and a grown woman probably better than the average squire.

    People also forget that in a time with a high mortality rate, women were often left in control of estates when their husbands/brothers/fathers were off warring on crusade or were killed and it would be them seeing off the brigand raids as well as keeping the accounts. Until the 10th century reforms, monasteries, which then generally housed men and women, were always overseen by abbesses of noble or royal blood. It was only later that abbots became common.

    It is not only simply western culture from which we know real warrior women, they appear in Japanese culture too. I wish I could remember the names of the two Japanese samurai daughters who trained to take revenge on their father’s killers. One specialised in the naginata (effectively a sword on the end of a pole) and the other in the complex chain-ball-sickle weapon. Three women warriors appear in the Chinese classic ‘The Water Margin’ (admittedly there were 105 males in the group of nine dozen heroes) and they would not have been accepted if that was far away from the reality that audiences knew.

    I think if we read contemporary fantasy work to medieval audiences they would be surprised when women were given the roles that the Victorians assigned them and projected back on to medieval eras. At the moment, the culture being pressed on children here in the UK, is, as Stofoleez highlights, emphasising the passive and demanding (in terms of demanding consumer items) princess role for girls and in turn emphasising to boys that men are not men unless they are strong and violent. This has been going on long enough in this country to see the outcomes in adults, men who fight in car parks every weekend and women who do not feel it is their role even to put up their tents on a female-only camping trip!

    Warriors of any kind have to be used carefully in fiction as we do not want to live in a warfare state (too many people still do), but there is a lot that can be communicated to readers both male and female through warrior characters, about taking initiative and above all, the one thing so many young people shirk, with dire consequences: taking responsibility for one’s actions.

  7. I love warrior women in fantasy literature (but not the metal bra type), and I hate that in some stories women warriors are portrayed as lesser than men. For that reason, I love Robert Jordan’s portrayal (in The Wheel of Time) of the Aiel “Maidens of the Spear”, absolute equals of their male counterparts on the battlefield.

  8. I love your blog

    I have read this article and enjoyed it

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