So I had a very productive jaunt to Toronto a couple weeks ago. Connected with my ex, reestablished a friendship (with a possibility for more) and am actually moving there in early to mid-March. Woo!
I ended up quitting my job that I’ve been at for 6.5 years. It was beyond time and I was just growing sick of the place. So much drama, so many cantankerous customers and I was beyond it. Time for a new start, in a new place, surrounded by new people. I’m scared to death and am riddled with my own insecurities about things. Specifically my own worth and level of awesomeness, but it might be because I’m too close to the storm to see the full map. Scary.
But! into a review, I must go. This isn’t a review specific to any book, but rather the most beloved series I have ever had the joy to discover: The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Although it is one of the more popular fantasy series out there, there is not enough significant praise to Sir Pratchett and his deviously delightful books. Although, personally, the quality in their writing has slipped since Pratchett’s descent into the later stages of Alzheimer’s, all respect should be given anyway because he is continuing to write. And respect should also be given due to his contribution to the fantasy genre during its more pivotal evolutionary stages since the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons entered fantastical canon.
The books themselves read in an almost satirical voice to the typical fantasy tropes set by the likes of Tolkien and Leguin. Both of the latter authors displayed more misogynistic viewpoints that created a forced perspective, and a large majority of the fantasy genre (until recent years) focused on pigeonholing their female characters into damsels or whores. I’ve always tended to read Pratchett books in any order I find them, so I have recently begun ploughing through his third Discworld novel, Equal Rites (1987). It’s really, truly great. It addresses the tropes of women in fantasy (as well as children in fantasy) and creates a witty, strong and childish character in Eskarina Smith. As the eighth child of an eighth son, she was destined to be a wizard, but the wizards of Discworld (specifically the major city of Ankh-Morpork) this was a terrible development.
Eskarina’s powers differ greatly from the typical magical caste reserved for women – witchcraft. Yet, her sex prevents her from being taught to control her magical prowess. Although I have not finished the book yet, it has already been a magnificent ride. I was not yet born when this book was published, but I can imagine the ripples it may have caused a reader of fantasy at the time. Firstly: the concept of magic is viewed as an entirely practical force in Pratchett’s world. With wizards, it is entirely theoretical and rarely do its practitioners dabble in actual spells. Conversely, witchcraft is entirely practical in that it encompasses parts of regular human life, particularly midwifery. Witches are respected by their villages, but wizards are revered. There is a minor inclusion of warlocks, who can traverse both divides, but there is no female equivalent of a warlock.
If one were to think about women in modern fantasy, the first thing that should pop into your cranium is The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. It is filled with strong women, although they too are limited in what they can do in their world by virtue of their sex. But I have recently picked up the superb Hild by Nicola Griffiths. It is not a fantasy novel, but a historical one. It has some fantastical elements (basically, the titular character is believed to be a seer to her king) but it shows that women can be strong in a typically male-dominated culture.
Pratchett has an obvious love for women. One of his strongest, and most enduring characters, is Granny Weatherwax. An old witch who is definitely not the sort one would consider beautiful or a damsel, in any way. But, my god, that woman is fantastic. She never admits to ignorance, is inherently prideful, but so knowledgeable and written with a deep love for people. She is strong, fearless and dauntless. She has long been my favourite inclusion to the Discworld universe, apart from Death (who is beyond fantastic – more on him in another post).
As normative gender roles begin to blend away in modern society, fantasy is becoming an increasingly widely-read genre, encompassing both main genders as well as all the iterations of it. Fantasy is moving slowly into the mainstream and, before introducing popular gay or other genderqueer characters, there should first be a movement to create some depth and strength to their female protagonists. It is possible and it should not have to be said, especially with the greater role women are taking in other forms of media. That is not meant to be taken that women should be portrayed as men with uteruses: there are abundant variations for understanding and portraying femininity, without all of them having to become lesbians or lose all aspects of traditional femininity. A real woman is a woman who identifies as a woman and, although fictional women are not physically real, they should serve as inspiration to their readers. And Sir Terry Pratchett is a pivotal point of understanding how women should be portrayed in fantasy. Get on it, lads and ladies.