My boyfriend James stated the other day that girls don’t like high fantasy (which he is perhaps regretting now), to which I responded that I was currently reading Lord of the Rings, so was I to be included in that sweeping generalisation? He quickly amended it to ‘all girls except Catherine’.
Admittedly, Lord of the Rings has not thrilled me so far. I am several hundred pages in and Frodo and the gang have only just left the Shire. The songs are so badly written as to be laughable, and the dazzling ‘Goldberry’ a poor excuse for a foray into female character. All this has left me wondering: what exactly is high fantasy?
That font of knowledge, Wikipedia, defines high fantasy as:
‘fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the real, or “primary” world… By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.’
This barely scratches the surface, but you could broadly sum the genre up as: epic magical fantasy featuring an overarching plot concerning deep questions about human nature, with characters and tropes borrowed from popular myths and legends (things like wizards and dragons). Fairytales for adults, you could say.
The subject captures my attention for several reasons, such as the fact that I really like the fantasy genre. One of my life goals is to write a fantasy novel featuring a female protagonist, because I believe that I lost interest in reading fantasy novels as I grew up because I couldn’t find one of significant quality which appealed to an adolescent female reader. Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, Rincewind and Lucy Pevensie of childhood fantasy fiction seem to dissolve into the drama of teen fiction.
Since boys and girls are less differentiated than men and women are, I think the gender of the protagonist in children’s fantasy literature is less important than in adult fiction. Unfortunately, as my hormones raged, my interest in the genre wilted due to the absence of a credible teenage female heroine. I needed a character to identify with, but whether due to a real lack of candidates or an unfulfilling library, I abandoned the genre.
As a child, I was captivated by heroic tales far removed from the banality of the everyday. After reading His Dark Materials series (1995-2000) by Phillip Pullmann , I wished desperately for a daemon of my own (a kind of spirit comrade that takes the form of an animal). I was also very keen on Pokemon and the Dragon Ball series, which could be classified as a high fantasy-anime hybrid. The vivid and fantastical nature of the stories complemented my interest in drawing, and my desire to spill the contents of my mind onto the page.
The assertion that women are less interested in high fantasy, which I feel has truth in it, almost suggests that women are more egocentric than men because they cannot feel much interest in subjects which are removed from their immediate experience, and are impoverished in imagination. It also implies that women are not fully-rounded individuals who wish to explore personal values and principles through works of fiction, or gain exposure to new ideas whilst being mentally thrilled.
That, I disagree with.
I think one of the main reasons women lose interest in stories the more fantastical they become is because these types of stories are innately masculine; employing tropes like the hobbits’ band of brothers, wise old men, war and quests. Women are relegated to romance only, the quivering damsel awaiting her hero, and there seems to be no equivalent story arc for us. Where is the band of sisters, wise old witch, or motivation so powerful that a woman will confront monsters and wild landscapes to fulfil her bildungsroman? Usually only when in search of a prince.
One reason that female characters might be less prevalent in high fantasy stories is probably because women have traditionally been less concerned with overarching questions of good and evil, which Wikipedia rightly says is a prevailing feature of high fantasy literature. Women are more commonly associated with human relationships, usually love, whether that’s between a man and a woman or that of kinship.
Except in George R. R. Martin’s wildly popular series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), adapted into television sensation Game of Thrones. He has somehow smashed the gender boundaries while staying true to the gritty misogyny of a barely-disguised medieval society, and created female characters that are all the more powerful, inspiring and riveting because of their constraints. His deft parallel of Arya, who rails against feminine stereotypes to evolve into a savage killer, and her sister Sansa, who passively accepts her entrapment, is skilful and insightful beyond anything I’ve seen. All the while, these struggles are set against a backdrop of ever-more gruesome battles between bloodthirsty men vying for power, who are also contending against vengeful harpies wronged by the world.
Another reason for a lack of female characters is that high fantasy stories are often based on familiar myths and legends, commonly those of Great Britain, such as the Arthurian Cycle, or Norse legends, and these contain a notable lack of interesting female roles. Many of these stories revolve around war, from which women are usually conspicuously absent – although the recent King Arthur (2004), starring a wooden Clive Owen, was a breath of fresh air, with Keira Knightly playing a sassy Guinevere.
I disagree with the use of the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ in regards to culture because they imply a hierarchy of quality which I don’t think is useful. There is a tendency for fans of genres to exclude certain examples that they don’t consider to be ‘pure’ enough, and this might also end up excluding novels that fall outside the usual boundaries of high fantasy by including features that could be considered more ‘female-friendly’, like relationships (admittedly, I do love a good romance). I think women should take a greater interest in high fantasy and devour the more ‘feminine’ novels we already have, like Ursula Le Guin’s books or Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments (2007-present) – then maybe we can dispel the myth that women aren’t interested in wizards and dragons.