I began writing epic fantasy (also known as high fantasy), the kind of fantasy fiction set in an entirely imagined world, partly because I am a woman. That might seem strange, in a genre historically known for stories about male heroes and patriarchal dynasties. Women were often constrained by their roles as love interests or victims in the fantasy novels I had read. Yet epic poetry and literature called strongly to me, and the prospect of making it my own glinted like a spear-tip on the horizon.
I wanted to see a person like me as the lead character in a story. I wanted to see a woman driving and shaping the narrative, not merely fitting into it as a complement to the hero’s journey. I had read and loved The Lord of the Rings, but I longed for a story where someone like Arwen could be the ultimate queen and warrior, instead of Aragorn. I pictured a female character like Arwen ruling, completing the most arduous challenges along the way to the throne. Her husband would fit into her story by supporting her, whilst also contributing his exceptional beauty and grace. My Arwen would be celebrated by the people, the soldiers and the leaders, and my Aragorn would stand by her side at the end, clapping and smiling and exuding love. In gender-flipping the traditional fantasy narrative, I felt more and more possibilities opening up.
What we read and see affects what we can create and imagine. Humans are profoundly influenced by narratives. We launch our own ideas based upon all the stories we have absorbed, consciously or unconsciously. Those who deride the fantasy genre as escapism miss the obvious truth that fantasy cannot be constructed without reference to the real world – even when it is set in an entirely new world – for by twisting, transforming and reworking images of history and myth, a story affirms some elements of our world and rejects others. Fantasy cannot be escapist. It is inherently political, in the same way that all writing is. But the genre of epic fantasy offers a unique set of possibilities for radical reimagining of the status quo, and these possibilities continue to drive my world-building.
As I began to write a fantasy novel with a female protagonist, I knew that a single female character was not enough for me. My fantasy world was not one where an isolated woman fought oppression in a patriarchal system – the kind of “female exceptionalism” narrative that Jane Tolmie analysed in her 2006 article, Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine. I wanted more than an exceptional woman. I wanted a world of women who were scholars, captains, assassins, soldiers, queens, rebels, political advisors, and more… a world in which female power was not the exception, but the norm. I wanted female strength as the default mode. I wanted a world where we did not need to praise “strong women”, because all women were assumed to be as strong as men. Crucially, strength would not be defined by the body alone, but by mental skill, magic, strategy, craftwomanship, financial management, emotional intelligence, talent with weaponry, and the many other skills that a person might wield in a feudal realm… along with physical strength, which could still be very useful.
This world was a gender-equal world – one where women and men shared equal power. In writing a novel with such a setting, I began to experience epic fantasy’s unique capacity for feminist writing. By creating a world where women wielded equal power with men, I had opened up different narrative roles for my female characters. How might a woman act if she had always been a social equal with men? How would she work as a scholar, a soldier or a queen, with a lifetime of training or mentoring? How would she approach class barriers? How would she navigate relationships with the opposite sex? I was particularly interested in exploring the actions of a woman with a preference for sexual dominance in a world where such a preference might be accepted and welcomed by her sexual partners. In our present-day media, depictions of dominance and submission are typically gendered with women as the submissive partners; we need only look to the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey to find evidence for the popularity of the dominant man and the submissive woman. But what if women were accustomed to seeing themselves as confident in all areas of their society? Might the urge for self-expression manifest itself differently, when it came to sexual roles? How would a sexually dominant woman interact with her potential male partners in a gender-equal society?
Interaction between women as peers was also very important, as I wanted to create more collaboration between women than I was accustomed to seeing in famous works of fantasy. In a gender-equal world, women could argue over battle strategies while working as colleagues. They could conduct experiments with magical substances together. They could challenge each other for the throne, team up with each other (or against each other) on a royal council, and share advice on hunting and fighting. Their interactions as women were worthy of narrative space in their own right, not because they added to a male hero’s story.
Some of the challenges of writing gender-equal fantasy came as a surprise. The norms of patriarchal society, both contemporary and historical, had worked their way deeper into my psyche than I had expected. How would royal succession work in this new world? And would all the maids be female? Would the royal hunting party be male? I found myself having to actively work to weed out patriarchal norms and plant new ideas in their place. I changed an all-male group of political advisors to a gender-balanced one, and considered the language that characters would use if they were not encumbered by an imbalance of power.
Since my fantasy world was also based upon the equalisation of power for all sexualities and races, the writing could develop these areas differently, too. The partners in a queer relationship could face challenges that had nothing to do with their queerness. A person with dark skin and a person with light skin could share power without anyone even thinking about their skin colours. Rather than stripping the world of its tension, this allowed me to create new sources of tension and different kinds of social struggle. A setting with power relations that hinge upon magic, geography, and wealth, for example, allows a writer to envisage conflict and resolution in ways might be different from typical patriarchal, feudal storylines.
Some fantasy stories have helped women to imagine themselves fighting oppression and succeeding in their efforts. Such narratives speak to the lived experience of many; in portraying resistance to patriarchy, a fantastical or mythic world can have strong parallels with the real world we live in. Gender-equal fantasy, however, contributes another strand to the tapestry of feminist fantasy literature. In its transformation of the past, it speaks to potential futures. By depicting a world where women wield equal power, gender-equal fantasy helps us to imagine ourselves in such a world – not one where we are fighting for equality, but one where we are living it.
E. J. Beaton completed a fantasy novel as part of her PhD in Creative Writing, along with a study of Machiavellian and Shakespearean influences in fantasy. Her chapter on Machiavellian female characters featured in the Bloomsbury anthology “Women of Ice and Fire.” Her poetry has been published in Japanese, European and Australian journals, and as a collection by the Melbourne Poets Union in 2017. She is represented by Julie Crisp.
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