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Heroines of Fantasy

 

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Black Dragon

Heroines of Fantasy

In the early days of epic fantasy women were often characterized as damsels in distress and nothing more than window dressing for heroes to rescue. This didn't last long as a host of writers created memorable female characters that were skilled swordswomen, capable world conquerers, and adventurers in their own right - yet still alluring. This article introduces you to some of the best heroines that have appeared in epic fantasy over the past several decades.

The presence of heroic women has been felt all throughout the history of fantasy literature and this can be easily displayed in the tales of the Arabian Knights where Sheherezade uses her sensuality and her wits to survive. This characterization of the woman as witty, wily, and sensual was pretty much the norm, and it was the stereotype for the first thousand years of fantasy literature.

But women took on a new, and more powerful, role in epic fantasy in 1934 with the creation of the Red Sonya of Rogatino character in the Robert E. Howard short story The Shadow of the Vulture. In this story Red Sonya was a swashbuckling heroine who was capable with both the pistol and the sword. (Howard is also the creator of the famous Conan character). Read a complete article about the heroines of fantasy here.

 

This Red Sonya character was inspiration for the 1974 creation, and now famous, Red Sonja who fulfills two very important archetypes in traditional epic fantasy. The first archetype is that of the fierce yet savagely beautiful warrior who often times wears nothing more than some kind of a metal bikini. It's an overused, yet wildly successful stereotype. The second archetype she fulfills is one that is used very often in the development of the typical hero in epic fantasy. That is the archetype of the young boy who witnesses the killing of his family and the destruction of his village then grows up to become a powerful warrior that exacts revenge on the pillagers. This is a very familiar archetype and it has been done many times with male characters and Red Sonya is the first woman to take on the role successfully.

In the 1980's the genre of woman as protagonist and heroine was taken to new heights with the publication of the first book in the Swords and Sorceress series edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This anthology was created to offer alternatives to the typical stereotypical roles of women in fantasy and it has become a force that remains to this day. The series of anthologies is currently 22 volumes and the most recent volume was just published this year (2007).

Bradley herself, aside from the Swords and Sorceress anthologies did much to promote the image of woman as heroine in her own novels and one of the best examples of this can be found in her Mists of Avalon books. The first book, which was published in 1979, was a re-telling of the Arthurian Legends from the perspective of the women involved in the legend of the round table. These books are often credited by many now successful women as being inspiration for them to pursue a career in fantasy writing.

Some other authors who have had tremendous success in a similar way to Bradley are Lin Carter, Mercedes Lackey, and Anne McCaffrey. Each has created all encompassing fantasy worlds complete with strong heroic women characters.

Every archetype that was previously the domain of men has now been explored with female protagonists and one of the most powerful of these archetypes is the coming of age story. It is a very familiar story and usually follow a young boy as he grows painfully into manhood and follows a destiny that is loosely laid out before him. This archetype has now been fully explored from a woman's perspective and one of the best examples of this is found in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Tombs of Atuan which is a coming of age telling of the main character Tenar. The Tombs of Atuan is the second novel in LeGuin's Earthsea Cycle books. In the first book A Wizard of Earthsea we experience the coming of age of a young man named Ged. This young woman coming of age and following her destiny to make the world right can also be found in the currently popular Golden Compass books the first of which is now a major motion picture.

The heroine has taken her rightful place in the world of epic fantasy and there are now lots of wonderful works out there that explore the challenges of our world and other worlds from the perspective of a woman who is more than just a damsel in distress but a person ready and capable of taking up a sword to face her destiny.

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