The Object of Our Affection: Women as More than Prizes in Epic Fantasy

The Epic Fantasy genre has accumulated a substantial following over the many decades since its inception, arguably with William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End. It is a genre defined by its themes, characters, setting, and story, which are by nature grand in both presentation and scope. Works such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to name a few have influenced and grown this sub-genre of Fantasy, building a rabid and loyal following of tens of thousands of readers looking for the next massive tome to devour in their insatiable hunger for new worlds to explore and become lost within. Suffice it to say, the Epic Fantasy genre is alive and thriving, but unfortunately its growing popularity has not come without some troubling side effects.

Misogyny, sexism, and a general sense of disdain or otherwise “inability to understand” women has become a prevalent and dominate aspect of many Fantasy stories.  This is particularly apparent within the subgenre of Epic Fantasy, despite statistics implying there is a nearly 50/50 split between male and female authors and audiences. The question then, is why are women all too often portrayed as mere caricatures of real people? Why are they devalued as human beings, displayed as sex idols or conquests for male characters to dominate and then discard? Pick a random novel from the epic genre, and it won’t take more than a couple of pages to find examples of this. Brian Staveley’s series, The Emperor’s Blades, is a relatively new foray into the genre, a book series detailing the conflicts surrounding the aftermath of an emperor’s death. Not four chapters into the story, we first meet one of the major female characters and we find our male POV (point of view) character eyeing his companion sexually, commenting on her attractiveness and his general desire for her. Now, surely this isn’t so odd, you might be inclined to say, people do this all of time. The caveat however, would be that this sexualized “rubber-necking” takes place amidst a crime scene, where dozens of men have just been brutally murdered, had their body parts scattered across the deck of a ship. The readers are dropped into an engaging sequence, with mystery, horror, and suspense, and instead of letting the characters organically demonstrate their relationship (or the possibly sexual undertones shared between them) the audience is bludgeoned over the head with the protagonist’s inability to focus on his job as he begins espousing his inner musings regarding a companion he’s clearly worked with for years. All the wile standing waist deep in blood and guts…

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia is an epic fantasy set in a mythical world of Narnia. Over the decades since its creation, the novels have enjoyed a large fan-base and great financial success, and they have become a cornerstone of the Epic-Fantasy genre to many. However, criticism quickly arose against the works, with many labeling them as “sexist” in regards to the stories’ depiction of several of its female cast. Author Philip Pullman, of the His Dark Materials Trilogy and more, launched several attacks specifically targeted at Lewis for what he described as “blatant sexist and racist allusions…underpinning the fabric of the work. It is monumentally {Chronicles Narnia} disparaging of girls and women. One girl was sent to hell because she was getting interested in clothes and boys.” Pullman isn’t alone in his criticism. J.K. Rowling, famed creator of the worldwide phenomenon Harry Potter, attacked the portrayal of women as well. “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.”

Indeed, Lewis’ works do carry a prevailing theme of sexism and worse throughout the series. Female characters are often relegated to supporting roles, or as Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling both illustrated, they are damned for innocent acts any child, boy or girl, would make. This revelation is troubling, and helps to highlight the disparity between men and women within the genre. The male characters, specifically Edmund (the Judas of the first novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) are offered multiple chances to redeem themselves after their mistakes. The character of Susan, as Pullman mentions, is merely damned.

In and of itself, it is important for readers to keep in mind those unfair consequences or actions befalling a character do not make the work inherently wrong or “sexist”. The criticism against authors such as Lewis stems from a prevailing idea or theme carrying through the entirety of the structure of their works. George R.R. Martin, the current literary darling of Epic-Fantasy, enjoys burying his female cast under mountains of awful occurrences and experiences. However, the difference his works and those of Lewis and others are in the “fairness” of the punishments of his characters. Men and women rise, succeed, or fail, equally. Bad things happen to many of the characters, from limb removal, to death or other fates worse still, but never does the author prevalently punish women at the expense of his male cast. Bad things can happen in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, but those bad things can occur to anyone, be they rich noble, or lowly peasant, man or woman.

Brienne of Tarth, a major supporting character in the series, has come to embody much of what can be done right in the genre with female characters. Brienne breaks many of the stereotypes of female characters, beyond being a woman who dreams of fighting as men do in a society constructed to disallow women from important choices regarding their own destiny. Brienne manages to break the stereotype of the typical “tom-boy” or “tough-chick” that authors often fall into when trying to be different. Brienne is a much more believable and three-dimensional character. While yes, she does rebel against the rigid orders of her world by donning armor and mail and swinging a sword, she is illustrated by Martin to be someone who in fact does long for love and the life of a lady, like many of her counterparts. The character of Renly Baratheon, an early contender for the Westeros throne, is the subject of her infatuation, as well as a device for her misery and apathy to the world. Brienne longs for Renly in a way she will never obtain him, and she chooses to become a warrior instead to remain by his side. Her story is tragic, beautiful, and starkly real. Its no wonder the character has become such an integral part of the television adaptation. Her storyline also offers a look at the other side of female characters in Epic Fantasy. Martin twists the usual tale of the tomboy on its head, making Brienne a rebel against the system, but also someone who wishes she could be a part of it. Beneath the surface of her character, the audience can almost sense the inner turmoil raging inside of Brienne, as she longs to have her king’s love despite knowing it can never be (for many reasons…). With Brienne, George R.R. Martin has illustrated a masterful sense of character creation. He instills Brienne with traditional values associated with women, but manages to subvert several tropes all the same, giving her believability far beyond many of his counterparts.

This is the most important thing to take away when discussing female characterization in fantasy or any genre for that matter. Women do not have to fall into a single archetype. They do not have to be the hero every time. They do not have to succeed even. Women can fail, or be as flawed as any male character. What’s important is that they do so in a believable way, without falling prey to the conventions of backwards-thinking views. Female characters need to have a stake in the plot. They have to have a reason for being there. Without that, they are merely eye-candy or window-dressing. Superfluous additions to the stories plot that have no purpose other than to be the object of the male lead’s desires.

There is of course an argument to be made that fantasy worlds (unless specifically referencing our version of Earth) do not need to heed the common ideologies or practices of our male-dominant culture. If your fantasy epic occurs on another plane of existence, far beyond our own, I see no reason your created-world can’t exist within a context that women are already on-par with their male counterparts, but that is a conversation for another piece at another time.

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Byron GillanByron Gillan is an avid reader, recent college graduate, and freelance writer, with multiple publications in various newspapers, magazines, and online publications, including work for the Buffalo News. His first novel, The Children of the Forest, is currently seeking crowd-sourcing through Inkshares.com.

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I'm a native New Yorker looking to break into the literary world.
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