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Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine
By Jane Marianna Tolmie
Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2006)
Abstract: This essay aligns the narrative trajectories of a selected group of contemporary fantasy novels with various medieval sources, with an emphasis on the enduring cultural fantasy of the strong woman who rises above a general condition of female disenfranchisement. The article examines female exceptionalism as a source of narrative pleasure and considers the impact and significance of the insertion of feminist critiques into familiar story-lines. The article also considers the difficulties and delights of attempting to create a flexible language for female heroism in a series of ostensibly medieval contexts. While the reliance of the fantasy market on medieval motifs – its reliance on medievalism, to be more precise – is not news, there remain a few thoughts to be articulated about the means by which so many popular female protagonists continue to have staying power and high market value within particular systems of power, systems familiar to the medievalist even when decontextualized, displaced and relocated elsewhere in the space–time continuum of the imagination.
Introduction: He pressed his lips together in a thin, hard line. Heroes. They were women; he was going to die for two women. Yemus had been wrong, as he had been wrong so often of late, and the salvation of the Machnan was not at hand. The Machnan had paid everything they had to bring in the heroes, and for their pain they were going to get nothing.
Marion Zimmer Bradley and Holly Lisle have a secondary character in their fantasy novel Glenraven muse bitterly on his failed quest to find two heroes. Alas, too bad for him and for his dying people, the people he finds are women – female tourists – and thus of course not heroes at all. What could the novel possibly be about, after such a setup, if not the gradual development of these unsuspecting women into heroes? The overt project of Glenraven is the public reconciliation of the initially opposed categories of woman and hero. This text offers a feminist critique of female disempowerment in an imagined world isolated in space and time. However, the adverse external conditions which shape this world and challenge these exceptional female tourists are readily recognizable to the medievalist, as is the trajectory of the heroine who overcomes adversities rooted in gender-based oppression. The novel offers a critique internal to patriarchal structures, in that it depends on ideas about medieval patriarchy to delineate exceptional women. The women in this novel leave the modern world and enter another, fantastic one, but it is an imperfect and incomplete escape from the familiar.