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Artist, Heather Oliver             

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Note: This article originally appeared in the Apex blog, with different images. The site got hacked since then and its owner did not feel up to reconstituting the past database.  I reprint it as a companion piece to Sam Kelly’s Privilege and Fantasy.

Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution
– Tracy Chapman

In James Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” three male astronauts are thrown forward in time and return to an earth in which an epidemic has led to the extinction of men. They perceive a society that needs firm (male) guidance to restore correct order and linear progress. In fact, the society is a benevolent non-coercive non-hierarchical anarchy with adequate and stable resources; genetic engineering and cloning are advanced, spaceships are a given, there’s an inhabited Lunar base and multiple successful expeditions to Venus and Mars. One of the men plans to bring the women back under god’s command (with him as proxy) by applying Pauline precepts. Another plans to rut endlessly in a different kind of paradise. The women, after giving them a long rope, decide they won’t resurrect the XY genotype.

The skirmish in the ongoing war about contemporary fantasy between Leo Grin and Joe Abercrombie reminds me of Tiptree’s story. Grin and Abercrombie argued over fantasy as art, social construct and moral fable totally oblivious to the relevant achievements of half of humanity – closer to ninety percent, actually, when you take into account the settings of the works they discussed. No non-male non-white non-Anglosaxon fantasy writers were mentioned in their exchanges and in almost all of the reactions to their posts (I found only two partial exceptions).

I expected this from Grin. After all, he wrote his essay under the auspices of Teabagger falsehood-as-fact generator Andrew Breitbart. His “argument” can be distilled to “The debasement of heroic fantasy is a plot of college-educated liberals!” On the other hand, Abercrombie’s “liberalism” reminds me of the sixties free-love dictum that said “Women can assume all positions as long as they’re prone.” The Grin camp (henceforth Fathers) conflates morality with religiosity and hearkens nostalgically back to Tolkien who essentially retold Christian and Norse myths, even if he did it well. The Abercrombie camp (henceforth Sons) equates grittiness with grottiness and channels Howard – incidentally, a basic error by Grin who put Tolkien and Howard in the same category in his haste to shoehorn all of today’s fantasy into the “decadent” slot. In fact, Abercrombie et al. are Howard’s direct intellectual descendants, although Grin’s two idols were equally reactionary in class-specific ways. Fathers and Sons are nevertheless united in celebrating “manly” men along the lines demarcated by Tiptree.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I enjoy playing RPGs in many guises. But even for games – let alone for reading – I prefer constructs that are nuanced and, equally importantly, worlds in which I can see myself living and working. Both camps write stories set in medieval worlds whose protagonists are essentially Anglosaxon white men with a soupçon of Norse or Celt to spice the bland gruel. To name just a few examples, this is true of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Conan stories, Moorcock’s Elric saga, Leiber’s Fafhrd series, Jordan’s Wheel of Time toe-bruisers, Martin’s fast-diminishing-returns Fire and Ice cycle. The sole difference is approach, which gets mistaken for outlook. If I may use po-mo terms, the Fathers represent constipation, the Sons diarrhea; Fathers the sacred, Sons the profane – in strictly masculinist terms. In either universe, women are deemed polluting (that is, distracting from bromances) or furniture items. The fact that even male directors of crowd-pleasers have managed to create powerful female heroes, from Jackson’s Éowyn to Xena (let alone the women in wuxia films), highlight the tame and regressive nature of “daring” male-written fantasy.

Under the cover of high-mindedness, the Fathers posit that worthy fantasy must obey the principles of abrahamic religions: a rigid, stratified society where everyone knows their place, the color of one’s skin determines degree of goodness, governments are autocratic and there is a Manichean division between good and evil: the way of the dog, a pyramidal construct where only alpha males fare well and are considered fully human. The Sons, under the cover of subversive (if only!) deconstruction, posit worlds that embody the principles of a specific subset of pagan religions: a society permanently riven by discord and random cruelty but whose value determinants still come from hierarchical thinking of the feudal variety: the way of the baboon, another (repeat after me) pyramidal construct where only alpha males fare well and are considered fully human. Both follow Campbell’s impoverished, pseudo-erudite concepts of the hero’s quest: the former group accepts them, the latter rejects them but only as the younger son who wants the perks of the first-born. Both think squarely within a very narrow box.

Other participants in this debate already pointed out that Tolkien is a pessimist and Howard a nihilist, that outstanding earlier writers wrote amoral works (Dunsany was mentioned; I’d add Peake and Donaldson) and that the myths which form the base of most fantasy are riddled with grisly violence. In other words, it looks like Grin at least hasn’t read many primary sources and both his knowledge and his logic are terminally fuzzy, as are those of his supporters.

A prominent example was the accusation from one of Grin’s acolytes that contemporary fantasy is obsessed with balance which is “foreign to the Western temperament” (instead of, you know, ever thrusting forward). He explicitly conflated Western civilization with European Christendom, which should automatically disqualify him from serious consideration. Nevertheless, I will point out that pagan Hellenism is as much a cornerstone of Western civilization as Christianity, and Hellenes prized balance. The concept of “Midhén ághan” (nothing in excess) was crucial in Hellenes’ self-definition: they watered their wine, ate abstemiously, deemed body and mind equally important and considered unbridled appetites and passions detriments to living the examined life. At the same time, they did not consider themselves sinful and imperfect in the Christian sense, although Hellenic myths carry strong strains of defiance (Prometheus) and melancholy (their afterworld, for one).

Frankly, the Grin-Abercrombie fracas reminds me of a scene in Willow. At the climax of the film, while the men are hacking at each other down at the courtyard, the women are up at the tower hurling thunderbolts. By the time the men come into the castle, the battle has been waged and won by women’s magic.

So enough already about Fathers and Sons in their temples and potties. Let’s spend our time more usefully and pleasantly discussing the third member of the trinity. Before she got neutered, her name was Sophia (Wisdom) or Shekinah (Presence). Let’s celebrate some people who truly changed fantasy – to its everlasting gain, as is the case with SF.

My list will be very partial and restricted to authors writing in English and whose works I’ve read, which shows we are dealing with an embarrassment of riches. I can think of countless women who have written paradigm-shifting heroic fantasy, starting with Emily Brontë who wrote about a world of women heroes in those tiny hand-sewn diaries. Then came trailblazers Catherine Moore, Mary Stewart and André Norton. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is another gamechanger (although her gender-specific magic is problematic, as I discussed in Crossed Genres) and so is her ongoing Western Shores series. Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni cycle is as fine a medieval magic saga as any. We have weavers of new myths: Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Meredith Ann Pierce, Alma Alexander; and tellers of old myths from fresh perspectives: Tanith Lee, Diana Paxson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terri Windling, Emma Bull, C. J. Cherryh, Christine Lucas.

Then there’s Elizabeth Lynn, with her Chronicles of Tornor and riveting Ryoka stories. Marie Jakober, whose Even the Stones have haunted me ever since I read it. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, whose heroic prehistoric fantasies have never been bested. Jacqueline Carey, who re-imagined the Renaissance from Eire to Nubia and made a courtesan into a swashbuckler in the first Kushiel trilogy, showing a truly pagan universe in the bargain. This without getting into genre-cracking mythmakers like Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and Louise Erdrich.

These authors share several attributes: they have formidable writing skills and honor their sources even as they transmute them. Most importantly, they break the tired old tropes and conventional boundaries of heroic fantasy and unveil truly new vistas. They venture past medieval settings, hierarchical societies, monotheistic religions, rigid moralities, “edgy” gore, Tin John chest beatings, and show us how rich and exciting fantasy can become when it stops being timid and recycling stale recipes. As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.”

Everything.

Images: Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan (Miranda Otto) in The Two Towers; Sonja, vampire paladin (Rhona Mitra) in Rise of the Lycans; Yu Shu Lien, Wudan warrior (Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

24 Responses to “A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise”

  1. Rose Lemberg says:

    A pleasure to read again. I love Yu Shu Lien’s expression, and the fact that her hairdo is practical for swordfighting. Eowyn’s loose hair is just silly in this context.

  2. Athena says:

    I’m happy you enjoyed the re-reading!

    Yu Shu Lien is the real hero in that film as far as I’m concerned. As for Éowyn, in that scene she was packing the court to move and found the sword in a chest. So she was not training, but examining the sword for battle-worthiness. When she fought or worked, she put up her hair just like Shu Lien.

  3. Rose Lemberg says:

    *laughs ruefully* shows you how well I remember the film. Thanks for the correction!

  4. Athena says:

    No worries! I was happy that the Jackson trilogy 1) was unexpectedly well-done, given Jackson’s original specialty AND how it would have been made in Hollywood and 2) expanded the pathetically miniscule female presence in LotR, perhaps because women wrote the screenplay adaptation of the books.

    Mind you, Éowyn’s most bitter words are in the book: “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honor, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.”

    Which sort of says it all for blinkered masculinist fantasy… it’s a “high courtly” rendition of girl cooties or pollution-by-female-association. Like the concept that weapons were “desecrated” or lost potency/mana/whatever if a woman (especially a menstruating one) touched them.

  5. Jim F. says:

    > The Grin camp (henceforth Fathers) conflates morality with religiosity
    > and hearkens nostalgically back to Tolkien who essentially retold
    > Christian and Norse myths, even if he did it well. The Abercrombie
    > camp (henceforth Sons) equates grittiness with grottiness and channels
    > Howard. . . Both camps write stories set in medieval worlds whose protagonists
    > are essentially Anglosaxon white men with a soupçon of Norse or
    > Celt to spice the bland gruel. To name just a few examples, this
    > is true of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. . .
    > The fact that even male directors of crowd-pleasers have managed to
    > create powerful female heroes, from Jackson’s Éowyn to Xena. . ., highlight
    > the tame and regressive nature of “daring” male-written fantasy. . .

    Except, except, except. Galadriel, in _The Lord of the Rings_,
    is an extraordinarily potent character, clearly the most powerful
    of the Eldar remaining in Middle-earth, and in posthumously-published
    writing described as perhaps the greatest of all the Eldar who ever
    lived, except possibly for Feanor, from whom she was forever estranged.
    This isn’t mere lip service on Tolkien’s part — Galadriel seeps
    into one’s psyche, after prolonged exposure to the whole “matter of
    Middle-earth”, as one of the most memorable characters in the
    whole mythology. She seems to have been, for Tolkien, an amalgam
    of the Catholic Mary with H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, “She-Who-Must-
    Be-Obeyed”, quite a juxtaposition of polarities!

    Similarly, in the (admittedly less polished) legends of the First
    Age, the figure of Luthien Tinuviel comes across as far more
    efficacious in the adventure of the recovery of the Silmaril
    than her human lover Beren. I like to think of the foregrounded
    (compared to the book) Arwen in the Peter Jackson movie as a
    sort of transplanted Luthien.

    And lurking in the background is the remote figure of Elbereth,
    or Varda, not the nominal chief of the Valar (that would be her
    spouse Manwe, the “Elder King”), but nevertheless depicted as in
    some sense the “holiest” of the Valar, the Lady of the Stars
    to whom the Elves of Middle-earth pray. In other words, to the extent
    that religion appears in _The Lord of the Rings_ at all, it seems
    to be a goddess-based one.

  6. Athena says:

    Except, except, except… few people read The Silmarillion (which, frankly, is raw jottings) and in LotR Galadriel’s power is the standard “feminine” one of endurance and renunciation of power, rather than destruction or (re)creation; a symbol on a pedestal, rather than an active force. Ditto for Elbereth and both women (Lúthien, Árwen) who renounce their Elven powers to become mortal for the love of men who are their great-grandchildren in age, wisdom, what-have-you — though I agree that Lúthien is given a modicum of heroic action in the book (so is Árwen in Jackson’s first film, as you point out, before she fades into a Victorian lady fainting on her tasteful sofa in the sequels).

    In this connection, women in the Tolkienverse take their husbands’ “nationality” as was the case with most European societies till recently — in the third Elven/Human pairing, Elwing becomes Elven because Ëarendil is an Elf… but Lúthien and Árwen, being “mere” women, cannot elevate their mortal husbands to the upper ranks.

  7. Jim F. says:

    > In James Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” . . . [t]he
    > women, after giving them a long rope, decide they won’t
    > resurrect the XY genotype.

    There’s a decent New Outer Limits episode called “Lithia”
    which has a similar theme. A plus is that Julie Harris is
    in it. ;->

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJWbFHIuQq8

  8. Athena says:

    I saw that episode, now that you brought it back into my memory. The major problem with it is that women are shown incapable of reviving and maintaining technology if deprived of perceived male-specific ingenuity (granted, there was a devastating war; but if they can keep the cryogenic tanks, they can do better than stone-age agricultural implements).

  9. Jude says:

    Galadriel did indeed renounce power in her choice to go into the West. However, I would query what kind of power it was that she choose not to take up. All power is not the same. Was she weakened by her decision? In terms of the power renounced, certainly. Was it the best decision she could have made? From where I am standing…that’s an unequivocal YES! Thanks for such a wonderful posting…and I would also mention some of Diana Wynne Jones’ female characters as worthy additions to your partial list…

  10. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jude! Jones is a terrific addition to the list, I should have included her because I read several of her books.

    As for Galadriel, what I had in mind was not her refusal to wield Sauron’s Ring. Given her knowledge of what such power did to him and to Feanor, it was the wisest thing she could have done. But she could/should have been as active as Gandalf in the struggles against Sauron and as effective (if not more), given her combined powers.

    In fact, one of the changes I found incredibly right and fitting in the film version of LotR (besides Arwen’s strengthened role) was the appearance of the Elven contingent at Helm’s Deep. As Merry and Pippin tell Treebeard, “You are part of this world.” The Elvenfolk are, too, even in their twilight. And Galadriel should have been there, on a steed as uncanny as Shadowfax — better yet, on an eagle.

  11. Rose Lemberg says:

    The problem with saying “but Galadriel…” is that we’re basically trying to find something to hold on to in an otherwise not woman-friendly work because we might love it for other reasons. Reading it in my teens, I felt betrayed by the whole Aragorn-Eowyn thing, since I identified strongly with both those characters (please don’t laugh). Aragorn’s adoration of the passive Arwen seemed pathetic to me, even back then. And Eowyn ending up as just another trophy wife for a man I felt was kind of an Aragorn-wannabe? Bah!

    Of course, I was a teen.

    Mind you, LoTR made me learn English; they only translated the Fellowship into Russian back then, and that hooked me. Russian-style, the Russian translators introduced a lot of humor into the book. But yeah I spent months painstakingly looking up every single damn word in the dictionary. It was a good exercise for a 15-year-old.

    However, back to the gender balance, I looked up Tolkien’s sources and got into Norse/Old Icelanding stuff, which is not exactly feminist either, but had such (historical) characters as Aud the Deep-Minded.

  12. Athena says:

    Agreed on all points. If you count the women in LotR, we have three quasi-major presences (two completely pedestalized and the third becoming so at the end) and two very minor ones (Bombardil’s mate and the Gondor goodwife ). Collectively, they show in how many ways epic fantasy can stereotype women (even shades of the strumpet are there, though Tolkien’s decorum forbade explicit showings of bosoms and rapes).

    The Éowyn/Faramir pairing was totally unconvincing from her side and concluded with unseemly haste on Tolkien’s part. It’s reminiscent of fobbing Hermione Granger off with Ron Weasley, though she’s more than Harry Potter’s equal. At least Faramir is far less annoying than Ron. The Éowyn/Aragorn (and Lúthien/Beren) stories are essentially glamorized retellings of Tolkien’s courtship of his wife: her value was essentially in being initially unattainable; after their marriage she was left to dwindle into domesticity, excluded from her husband’s intellectual pursuits.

  13. Rose Lemberg says:

    she was left to dwindle into domesticity, excluded from her husband’s intellectual pursuits
    It is my impression that by the end she couldn’t stand him.

    The Hermione/Ron pairing doesn’t bother me, honestly; there is no reason, in my mind, why a woman wouldn’t be able to marry a guy who is not as smart as she is, but adores and supports her. I mean, men do it all the time, right? Ron’s heart is in the right place, he loves her, and he never does try to one-up her intellectually. Much better marry him than play second fiddle to Harry the Perfect. Just my 2c.

  14. Athena says:

    Agreed, though Ron doesn’t strike me as supportive in the films (I haven’t read the books). My real bone of contention (bad pun, but it fits) is that Hermione is/should be the first fiddle. She’s not The Chosen One because of that wrong equipment between her legs — plus, of course, she has the wrong “blood”, that of a commoner (also crucial in Tolkien’s reckonings: the steward’s line can never assume the kingship because they are “lesser men”). Several people have noted that a girl with Harry’s attributes would be considered universally insufferable.

    On Aud and others like her: reflecting on another non-woman-friendly culture (mine) I can list women generals, admirals, heads of important households… In that respect as in several others, fiction is far tamer than fact.

  15. Rose Lemberg says:

    Re: blood, it’s a class thing, that both Rowling and Tolkien share. However, Harry is a half-blood; neither the pure-blood Neville, nor the Muggle-born Hermione can fit the role. I feel it is not nearly as bad as Tolkien; in that respect, Harry is a boundary-crosser. Personally, I think Harry is obnoxious and unsufferable. Yes, I’d much rather see a Muggle-born girl be the chosen one (surprise?) but I am not unhappy with Hermione Granger overall. It makes me happy that the know-it-all geek girl has friends who appreciate her for what she is. I was quite lonely at that stage, and had to hide large parts of myself to be even marginally accepted.

    Ron grows in the books, and you can see the turn-around point in him in Book Seven, which, I think, is more or less true as teens go; one is rarely born fully socialized. I’m not a big fan of Ron, but he’s better than HP in my mind. Out of the boys, my favorite is unsurprisingly Neville.

    On Aud and others like her: reflecting on another non-woman-friendly culture (mine) I can list women generals, admirals, heads of important households… In that respect as in several others, fiction is far tamer than fact.
    Amen.

    I do not think Old Icelandic culture was necessarily entirely non-woman-friendly. In comparison to the rest of Europe, they were ahead. There’s any number of strong female characters.

    As for fiction, well, I am really curious to hear what you’ll think about my secondary-world shit. I don’t think you’ll like all of it, but parts might appeal to you.

  16. Athena says:

    Uh oh. That last paragraph is like a waving banner to a bull. *laughs*

  17. Rose Lemberg says:

    Uh oh. That last paragraph is like a waving banner to a bull. *laughs*
    *Checks Duotrope again*

    Re: Tolkien and co, you know something’s really off when fantasists rewrite the middle ages to make them MORE rigidly patriarchal than historical reality.

  18. Athena says:

    Hehehe!

    As for the latter, indeed. You and I have often discussed this failure of the imagination: much of it comes from lack of reading primary sources and relying on faded, degraded iterations. Of course, this particular excuse won’t work for Tolkien who should have known better, given his academic domain. In his case, it’s a clear love of rigid hierarchies, where everyone knows (and likes) their place — which is why Éowyn is made to repent of her crazy desire to be a warrior and declare herself satisfied with knitting, instead of having a heroic death at Pellennor or becoming the female king of Rohan as Eleanor was of Aquitaine… Elizabeth of England… Joanne of Navarre…

  19. Rose Lemberg says:

    Of course, this particular excuse won’t work for Tolkien who should have known better, given his academic domain

    Alas, historical literacy is only useful if one wants to move away from the rigid patriarchal paradigm, not glorify it.

    Ehh. Have lots more to say, but clicking Duotrope made me mopey.

  20. intrigued_scribe says:

    I agree, Yu Shu Lien is an excellent character, one of the elements that make (and keep) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a favorite. Likewise, Eowyn and Arwen’s altered roles do the same for the Lord of the Rings films (except for Arwen’s passive wilting in the last installment).

    This is a wonderful read. Thanks for sharing this, and the list of authors; works like theirs do indeed encompass and encourage the facets of richer worlds and broader thinking.

  21. Athena says:

    I know you have a lot more to say, Rose — I look forward to the essay!

    I’m very glad you enjoyed the article, Heather! There has been a lot of Sturm und Drang lately about neglecting women SF/F and non-genre authors… but what these people mean is that men haven’t been reading and writing about them. One step forward, two steps back.

  22. Walden2 says:

    A news bit about Hilary Swank playing a tough Marine commander in the year 2250, helping the last free space colony in the Sol system fight the Evil Empire:

    http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118040190

  23. Athena says:

    She will be great in this, although I hope the material rises above the usual hopeless level of its kind.

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