Thursday, 9 February 2017

Oh Hey I Wrote a Thesis

A few people have said they want to read the thesis I completed last year so I figured I'd put the theory part up here. I haven't formatted it properly for the blog because then I might accidentally read some of it which would be horrifying. 
If anyone is interested in reading the creative half, hmu and I can email it to you.


The purpose of this thesis is to prove that feminine traits can be a source of strength for female characters in medieval high fantasy fiction. This thesis examines how femininity and power are constructed in fantasy and history, and how the two have been connected in the work of fantasy authors. By analysing examples of female characters from the fantasy genre, I explore how feminine power can work within existing, male-dominated power structures without having to compromise the qualities that make it feminine. Ultimately this thesis shows that there are forms of power available to fantasy characters outside of ‘masculine’ definitions of power.
Following a bridging document that introduces the creative component of this thesis, a novella titled A Tower for the Queen, I then write a character who conforms to ‘feminine’ expectations while maintaining agency and strength. This work will further disrupt traditional concepts of femininity within fantasy.
In the introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir poses a set of questions:
How can a human being in a woman’s situation attain fulfilment? What roads are open to her? Which are blocked? How can independence be recovered in a state of dependency? What circumstances limit woman’s liberty and how can they be overcome? (29)
In this thesis I shall seek to answer these questions as they apply to female characters in fantasy fiction. This thesis argues that feminine traits can be a source of strength for female characters. It examines how femininity and power are constructed in fantasy and history, and how the two have been connected in the work of fantasy authors. By analysing examples of female characters from the fantasy genre, I explore how feminine power can work within existing, male-dominated power structures without having to compromise the qualities that make it feminine. Ultimately this thesis aims to show that there are forms of power available to fantasy characters outside of ‘masculine’ definitions of power.
I shall first examine historical definitions of femininity both in history and in fantasy literature that I shall then seek to apply to fictional characters. This will reveal commonalities both in terms of a character’s personality and in their common influences on fantasy plots. I follow this with a dissection of masculine power structures and how women can enact traditional hero narratives. Through examining female characters in A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien and especially The Bitterbynde Trilogy by Cecilia Dart-Thornton, I then show how characters who are overlooked by their peers because they are feminine are actually powerful and significant within the texts. Through examining how a female character can be a strong figure without needing to conform to masculine definitions of power. I shall finally show that female characters in fantasy can be feminist as well.
Following a bridging document that introduces the creative component of this thesis, a novella titled A Tower for the Queen, I then write a character who conforms to ‘feminine’ expectations while maintaining agency and strength. This work will further disrupt traditional concepts of femininity within fantasy.
In this chapter I will introduce some historical perspectives on femininity and power in order to define characteristics of a strong feminine female character. I shall explore concepts of femininity from the medieval period – as defined by modern theorists – as well as more contemporary feminist thought. I will then look at how female identity is conceived of by theorists and historians as being made up of a number of layers. The characteristics uncovered in this chapter will be used to analyse female characters in popular fantasy texts. In combining these theorists, it will be possible to identify historical concepts of femininity and of realms and means of power that are specific to women.
Building the Model for Traditional Femininity: Historical Feminist Approaches
The examples of medieval fantasy fiction which I shall be analysing in my second and third chapters take place in societies analogous to European society in the medieval period. This means that in order to understand how women in fantasy fiction may attain and wield power, it is helpful to develop an understanding of how female power may have been conceived of at this point in time. Contemporary perspectives of femininity put forward the idea that women are and have always been able to wield power from within patriarchal structures. Karen Glente and Lisa Winther-Jensen argue in their introduction to Female Power in the Middle Ages that due to ‘their very presence’ and status as ‘objects of power’, women are involved in power (18). Women contribute to shaping and maintaining power (Glente and Winther-Jensen 18). Female power in the Middle Ages operated primarily on a local level, in particular within the home. Glente and Winther-Jensen identify what they term ‘an “own” power of women’, which they say was ‘exercised vertically in the family and horizontally in the village’ (18). This is one of three ways the authors identify for women to wield power in the Middle Ages. The other two ways are both indirect, either as substitutes for men or ‘in influencing male use of power’ (18). In other words, according to Glente and Winther-Jensen, women are able to exercise power both within masculine spheres and from the traditionally feminine sphere of the home. Even as objects, women are not powerless.
Yet fantasy and science fiction author Ursula Le Guin argues in her essay “Is Gender Necessary?” that if there is a principle which defines the female, it is ‘basically anarchic’ (Le Guin 163). Power structures are built and enforced by the male, whereas the female principle ‘values order without constraint, rule by custom not by force’ (163). She identifies (non-fictional) ‘female’ traits as ‘the valuing of patience, ripeness, practicality, livableness’ (164-165). Whereas Glente and Winther-Jensen seek to explore to role of the feminine in a specific historical period, Le Guin explores contemporary concepts of femininity and applies them to science fiction and fantasy. Like Glente and Winther-Jensen, Le Guin also identifies the family – and by extension the home – as the primary realm of women (164). In other words, all three theorists are positing theories in which feminine traits can be viewed as positive in the context of a medieval society, with the potential to provide female power and agency.
By contrast, in her introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that woman in history and society ‘represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity’ (15). For de Beauvoir, she (woman) is defined only in relation to the male and ‘is not regarded as an autonomous being’ (16). Woman is both object and Other (21). De Beauvoir identifies a certain level of advantage that can be derived from woman’s status as Other, both in ‘material protection’ and ‘the moral justification of her existence’ (21). Women who allow men to make them the Other can ‘evade at once both economic risk and the metaphysical risk of a liberty in which ends and aims must be contrived without assistance’ (21). This implies a way by which women can make patriarchal systems work to their advantage by providing them with security and freedom from personal responsibility. While de Beauvoir condemns the loss of self that must necessarily come with surrendering to status as an object, she nevertheless implies that the existence of systems in which women are othered might be used to the advantage of those women. By extension, women who choose to symbolically surrender to ‘object’ status could theoretically exploit and manipulate patriarchal systems. While Le Guin, Glente and Winther-Jensen all argue for active forms of female power, de Beauvoir’s theory of surrender to objecthood is an example of how passivity can be a form of power through freedom from responsibility. Each of these views show ways in which women might potentially have power in a medieval setting and perhaps by extension show a model by which women may have power in a fantasy setting which mirrors medieval structures. They demonstrate how women at different levels of social standing could find ways to attain fulfilment.
Progressing from women in history to women as fictional characters, it is important to understand what is meant by ‘feminine traits’. de Beauvoir identifies feminine traits primarily in the negative; she argues that the desired traits of an ideally feminine woman include submissiveness, frivolity, irresponsibility and infantilism (24). For de Beauvoir, the grace and charm of the feminine woman come at the expense of her spontaneity and assertiveness; self-control is necessitated by social restrictions and not an intrinsic trait (358-59). De Beauvoir addresses notions of women’s weakness, instability and fragility, coupling them with her physical weakness to mean her internal life is ‘more restricted’ and ‘less rich than a man’s’ (66). However, she also argues that weakness and biological determinism are flawed concepts in themselves. Rather than the body presenting traits which are essential and self-evident, it is instead subject to layers of projection, both from society and the individual (68-69). The implication from weakness being a flawed concept is that physical prowess is not the only factor in determining strength. This suggests that ‘masculine’ definitions of strength are also flawed, and that in order to find strength in femininity, we must hold both concepts in question. Hero narratives which focus on male heroes performing feats of physical strength in order to prove themselves can be redefined with the introduction of broader concepts of power. While women in the real world may restrict their natural behaviour for the sake of social restrictions, fiction has the potential to present women with a broader concept of female potential while still conforming to historically understood social structures.
Significantly for an analysis of fantasy fiction, femininity is defined not only by behavioural traits but also aesthetic means of gender expression. This can include ‘false and dyed hair, make-up and coloured clothes’ (Tseëlon 35). This, too, is an area in which women are able to wield influence while still working within patriarchal confines. According to Marianne Thesander in her work The Feminine Ideal, ‘women contribute in various ways to producing female images themselves, both by adjustment to the ideal and by opposition to it’ (1). Thesander argues that self-expression through physical presentation is a signifier of how a society or period of time views women and ‘the way in which women themselves understand their position in society and their ability to influence this position’ (11). However, according to Tseëlon, aesthetic expressions of femininity are predominantly socially viewed as ‘inauthentic’, not naturally produced but rather ‘external to the self’ (34). If feminine aesthetics are assumed to be artificial, this provides a means for women to transcend boundaries without rejecting the self. This means female characters in fantasy can use any number of aesthetic means of disguise without impeding their discovery or maintenance of their true selves. 
These identities intersect to provide complex forms of identity. According to Tseëlon, psychoanalytic approaches to femininity present it as a masquerade, something without its own intrinsic essence (93). Theology also sees femininity as ‘fake’ and ‘duplicitous’ (Tseëlon 34). While there is the question of the ‘female essence’, aesthetic manifestations of femininity, or the ‘appearance of femininity’, are constructed as ‘external to the self’ (Tseëlon 34). In order to appease men, the feminine woman may use a ‘disguise’ of desirability (Tseëlon 37). This links back to the notion that femininity is aesthetic in nature and expression. If aesthetic and desirable femininity is a duplicitous layer on top of a female essence, then femininity can be seen as a tool for navigating the world and not as a set of inherent female traits. This means that female characters that are feminine are not defined by their femininity. They are not required by inherent femininity to navigate all situations and scenarios in the same way but can instead adapt the tool of femininity to their advantage as required. This suggests that when feminine characters are required to enact ‘masculine’ narratives they are able to navigate those narratives differently to traditionally masculine heroes. In the following chapter I will define hero narratives and male concepts of strength and look at how female characters are able to navigate them.
As illustrated in the definitions provided by de Beauvoir, Glente and Winther-Jensen, Thessander and Tseëlon, identity, perhaps particularly feminine identity, cannot be determined by a single factor. Indeed, it is made of many layers inclusive of but not exclusive to gender, race, class and sexuality.
In this chapter I will define the hero’s journey as it relates to female characters. I will first explore definitions of masculine power, both structurally and on the level of the individual. This will be contrasted to the concepts of female power outlined in the first chapter. I will then illustrate how feminine female characters are able to adapt female power to masculine narratives. I will then seek to build an understanding of how women can embody traditional hero narratives, with an emphasis on the bildungsroman or coming-of-age structure, focusing on the character of Ashalind from The Bitterbynde Trilogy. Through explaining the use of cross-dressing and disguise by female characters in fantasy, I shall then show how female characters can use the aesthetic assumption of masculinity to navigate their environments and interactions. This will be done using the case studies of Éowyn from The Lord of the Rings and Sansa from A Song of Ice and Fire.
In Opposition: Power and Strength in the Male Sphere
The societies in the examples of medieval fantasy fiction used in this thesis – The Bitterbynde Trilogy, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Lord of the Rings – are predominantly patriarchal in nature. This means men are able to determine what they think the position of women should be. According to Justin Charlebois, men place themselves in positions of power above women, enacting the assumption of ‘men’s natural supremacy over women’ as essential to hegemonic masculinity (24). This is highly visible in The Lord of the Rings, The Bitterbynde Trilogy and A Song of Ice and Fire, in which established heads of church and state are male. The ideal male hero, as defined by Phyllis Betz, is ‘extraordinarily skilled in a variety of martial arts, more physically imposing (and attractive), and preferring a life divorced from permanent social or personal relationships’ (23). According to Ursula Le Guin in her essay “Is Gender Necessary?”, ‘men have reserved the structures of social power for themselves’, and they ‘make the wars and peaces, men make, enforce and break the laws’ (164). These forms of power are obvious and explicit, encompassing title, position and legality. Men are considered positive and neutral (de Beauvoir 15). de Beauvoir discusses man as being ‘not a natural species’ but ‘a historical idea’ (66). This suggests man is more readily visible as an idea or concept – such as the ‘hero’ – not fixed but someone who ‘makes himself what he is’ (66).
According to Phyllis Betz in The Lesbian Fantastic, fantasy heroes fulfil ‘the standard genre function of some kind of restoration’ (18). This restoration often includes that of the ‘proper’, generally fairly conservatively defined social order, which preferences ‘the underlying heterosexual, still predominantly patriarchal, representations of society’ (19). According to de Beauvoir, masculinity is placed in opposition to femininity while also being complimentary to it on the basis of heterosexual desire (29). With the exception of the occasional passing mention in A Song of Ice and Fire, same-sex attraction is virtually non-existent within the above examples of fantasy texts. Both the central male and female characters are all if not explicitly then certainly implicitly heterosexual. This suggests that the hero is likely to be male, to have or to value heterosexual romance, and to want to see similarly male and heterosexual people in positions of power. Heterosexual male characters have a particular investment in this sort of restoration, as it is within this form of society that they have the most power and the most to gain. Men are required to ‘decide on life paths’, while women’s lives are already laid out for them: a suitable marriage, leading to motherhood (Frankel 73).
In the following section I will show how female fantasy characters embody the character of the hero and how they are able to expand and subvert masculine genre functions.
Bildungsroman: Coming of Age and the Female Hero
In Unsung Heroes of The Lord of the Rings, Lynnette Porter discusses definitions of ‘hero’ outside of those of the ‘classic literary heroes’ (3). Female characters may not rank highly in classically conceived conceptions of hero, but in Porter’s proposed traits for an updated hero definition is a framework within which female characters can be heroic (20). She identifies the popular understanding of heroes as being able to ‘rise above their limitations – experientially, physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally – to perform a valiant act’ (21).
As identified by Phyllis Betz in The Lesbian Fantastic, fantasy heroes are typically concerned with proving themselves worthy of a power which will allow them to restore the ‘harmony and balance of the land and social institutions’ (103-104). As discussed in relation to male strength, Simone de Beauvoir describes men as being capable of making themselves, rather than inhabiting a fixed idea (66). She describes women as also not being complete or fixed, but as ‘a becoming’, who often finds her possibilities and capabilities are questioned and stymied (66). This suggests that, given the opportunity, women are just as capable of undergoing a quest to reach self-fulfilment as men. If women are by nature ‘becoming’ then they are well suited to coming-of-age narratives typical to heroes.
Archetypal concepts of strength align ‘strong female characters’ with masculine characteristics and values (Frankel 2). According to Carina Chocano, as quoted by Frankel, these women are stripped of personality traits which constitute any sort of weakness and are defined solely by the quality of ‘strength’ (40-41). This reductive definition of strength is almost purely physical in nature, conjuring images of shield maiden characters with swords and armour, fighting alongside their male counterparts. As established by de Beauvoir, physical prowess-based conceptions of strength are flawed (68-69). This means reducing heroic women to their physical capabilities is forcing them into a definition of strength which already marginalises anyone who is in a position of power that does not inherently rely on physicality, such as heads of church and state.
In The Masque of Femininity, Efrat Tseëlon identifies heroines as women ‘trying to survive in a man’s world by beating them at their own game’ (37). Interpreting this in a perhaps slightly different way than Tseëlon intended, I will define this ‘game’ as the acquisition and use of power. This also means women must be able to succeed at typically male-oriented goals, including the hero’s journey or quest.
Ashalind of The Bitterbynde Trilogy stands in opposition to Frankel and Betz’s definitions of masculine heroes, providing an excellent case study for how feminine women can reshape or subvert the hero archetype. Ashalind’s narrative follows the bildungsroman structure common to fantasy, with a literal finding of the self as her initial goal. While Betz’s heroic trait of restoration is not Ashalind’s initial goal at the beginning of The Ill-Made Mute, as her quest gets more dangerous and she begins to regain memories it is revealed that the restoration of balance to her world has indeed been her quest all along. When Ashalind fails at the last moment, giving in to fear in the climactic battle of The Battle of Evernight, it is not only herself that suffers great loss; the kingdom of the Faeren is closed off forever and sildron, the element which drives almost the entirety of her kingdom’s economy and society, is unmade. While in some ways it seems unfair for so much to be placed upon Ashalind, it clearly demonstrates how chosen one narratives which rely on placing enormous stakes on their main character do have grave consequences – consequences which can seem abstract in narratives with clean, happy endings. This is also typical of the theme of sacrifice common to the narratives of female characters. In the introduction to The Representation of Women in Fiction, Carolyn G Heilbrun and Margaret R Higonnet refer to ‘the sympathetic, even tragic treatment of many fictional heroines’ as ‘recognition of the social and personal cost of defying the social order’ (xviii). It follows from this that being able to enact a hero’s narrative while working within and not outside of the social order is thereby beneficial to female characters, and femininity is a tool which can allow them to do this.
Contrasting between male and female concepts of heroism allows for a more expansive understanding of strength, showing how women are able to work within the social order while undertaking a hero narrative. I will now examine more specific examples of female characters in fantasy and how they are able to use femininity as a source of strength, focusing on aesthetic femininity.
Like a Boy: Cross-dressing, Disguise and Mobility
Femininity is often seen as deceptive, as discussed by de Beauvoir and Tseëlon. This can be used to the advantage of characters who, while not necessarily duplicitous by nature, are able to use their aesthetic talent as a disguise. A common trope within fantasy literature is for female characters to disguise themselves, particularly in ‘male’ clothing, in order to travel ‘safely’. Frankel notes that this has been common through much of history as a means by which women can ‘operate in their world with increased agency’ (72). Disguise is a means of overcoming limiting circumstances, but the implications of this are that being female is unsafe and being male is safe. Frequently one of the forces which women want to remain safe from is men and male desire. This is particularly necessary in a world which Betz has defined as both ‘heterosexual [and] predominantly patriarchal’, where women are rewards for male heroes (19). Cross-dressing also allows female characters to adopt a new identity, one which allows them more social autonomy as well as the physical autonomy of unhindered travel. To refer back to the questions posed by de Beauvoir, it is a means by which ‘independence [can] be recovered in a state of dependency’ (de Beauvoir 29). Disguise is a means of hiding in plain sight.
Éowyn disguises herself under the male pseudonym Dernhelm in order to go into battle, something forbidden to her by the male forces in her life. However, in her moment of triumph, when Éowyn defeats the Witch King, she casts off her male disguise and reveals her true gender. Her victory does not belong to Dernhelm, but to her alone. Indeed, in this moment her gender is a literal source of power which places her above the male Dernhelm.
The use of disguise does not necessarily require cross-dressing. When Sansa Stark is disguised as Alayne Stone, she uses her new identity to feign a confidence she does not possess. Unlike her sister Arya who uses a male disguise and adopts increasingly ‘masculine’ traits, Sansa’s disguise is one of exaggerated womanhood. She uses what she has been taught by powerful women such as Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark, rejecting Sansa the girl child to become a more adult version of a feminine woman. In The Heroine in Western Literature, Meredith Powers identifies the moment that heroines reflect on the lives of other women (164). In an archetypal reading of these moments in Sansa’s life, she is reflecting on characters who are ‘versions of the same figure’; she draws strength and wisdom from other examples of feminine women to fulfil her own (164). From her mother and septa she has been taught that a woman’s armour is courtesy, and she uses it well (Martin A Clash of Kings 45). Sansa has little interest in masculine power; she has seen the power women can have, from both positive and negative influences, and she uses that power as part of her disguise.
With the advantage of understanding the importance of aesthetic presentation and performance of gender, female characters are able to exaggerate or disguise their strength. This places them at an advantage over male characters who rely solely on physical prowess and its markers.
In this chapter I will closely analyse feminine characters in medieval fantasy who conform to the feminine characteristics explained in my first chapter – and show how these characters conceive of, acquire, wield and maintain power, especially in the context of the hero narrative. Specifically I will be looking at Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire, Éowyn, Galadriel and Arwen from The Lord of the Rings and Ashalind and Dianella The Bitterbynde Trilogy. I shall contrast these characters to women who choose or are required to reject or suppress their femininity in some way and the context of these decisions, both narratively and as a genre trope. I shall than closely examine Ashalind as an example of a female character who exemplifies the feminine female hero.
Realms of Power: Conception, Acquisition and Use
In The Lesbian Fantastic, Betz defines power as representing ‘the control of the forces at play in the particular world in which the fantasy narrative is set, whether it resides within the individual or is embodied in some kind of receptacle’ (103). Different roles have different kinds of power assigned to them, including gender roles; as Ann Howey points out in Rewriting the Women of Camelot, swapping these roles does not necessarily address differences in how different forms of power relate to each other (102). In this way, simply putting a woman into a male position of power does not necessarily mean she is powerful, nor does it acknowledge other forms of power. As established by Frankel, this often leads to reductive, flat female characters (40-41).
Through examining the definitions of the feminine presented by de Beauvoir, Le Guin, Glente and Winther-Jenkins, I earlier showed how femininity is intrinsically tied to the aesthetic. In both history and historical fiction, this characteristic can be leveraged in a number of ways. In Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture, Joanne Hollows emphasises the importance of clothes and the ability to create certain ‘looks’ as a form of language (152). This ‘language’ is informed by and can be used in ‘the acquisition of particular cultural knowledge, competences and codes’ (152). In the introduction to Female Power in the Middle Ages, Karen Glente and Lisa Winther-Jensen identify language as one of the three forms of power (17). While they refer specifically to writing/speech, Hollows’ conception of clothing as language shows clothing can be a form of power. In fantasy fiction this is particularly visible due to the use of clothing for world building and characterisation. In Ashalind’s kingdom of Erith, and in most scenarios, wealth and social standing are forms of power which are most visibly expressed through clothing. Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen both use clothing as a form of language, using jewels and colour to show wealth and strength and different fashions for different diplomatic purposes.  
The women of The Lord of the Rings are largely feminine in dress and manner. Lynnette Porter identifies the two main responses to the character of Éowyn: she is seen as either ‘a positive role model to represent the strong, assertive woman in a male-dominated world, or denounced because in the book she dresses as a man... thus being perceived as having to renounce her femininity in order to be successful’ (91). The fact that she arguably retakes a feminine role at the end of the series by becoming a wife is also, somewhat conversely, seen as a strike against her (91). Rather than setting out in pursuit of opportunities, Éowyn ‘watches and waits until an opportunity presents itself. Then she launches herself passionately into action and determinedly pursues her course’ (97). In this sense she plays a more passive role than the male characters. Éowyn is both a feminine archetype and a ‘shield maiden’ archetype frequently seen in fantasy – with other examples being present in both The Bitterbynde Trilogy and A Song of Ice and Fire. However, unlike her counterparts in A Song of Ice and Fire, Éowyn does not wish to be rid of her womanhood. She uses maleness as a disguise but only as a last resort. Éowyn may seen to be a character made up of two contrasting halves, but it is her feminine traits of patience and nurture-based leadership that allow her to act when the time is right.
Sacrifice is a common theme in stories about women, with the acquisition of power coming only through the willingness to give up some part of the self. Daenerys Targaryen of the Song of Ice and Fire series only acquires her greatest power – her dragons – through the sacrifice of her husband and unborn son. She also gives up her ability to have more children, despite the significance motherhood has in the lives of women in Martin’s patriarchal world. In a sense she is sacrificing the security of an established narrative of womanhood, as defined by Frankel (73). It is this sacrifice which earns Daenerys the title ‘Mother of Dragons’, a moniker which is both an affirmation and a perversion of the strength inherent to concepts of motherhood. Arwen of The Lord of the Rings must sacrifice her immortality in order to be with Aragorn, while Galadriel chooses to sacrifice the opportunity for absolute power and instead wield the power she has to aid the Fellowship (Porter 117). Ashalind constantly sacrifices comfort, safety, sanity and personal goals for the sake of others. However, through these sacrifices women are able to acquire power far greater than that of the male characters, which can potentially have much more far-reaching effects. Daenerys’s sacrifice not only brings her great power, but is linked to the re-emergence of magic within the Seven Kingdoms. In Bitterbynde, the arrogance and hubris of the wizards of Erith means they are unable to sacrifice even so much as a little of their pride in order to obtain more genuine knowledge and power, while the carlins acquire wisdom which can potentially benefit anyone they come into contact with.
These examples all show the diverse ways in which female characters can be feminine and powerful due to their employment of aesthetics, use and understanding of magic and willingness to make sacrifices. This gives women what Glente and Winthers-Jensen refer to as ‘an “own” power of women’, an almost exclusively female form of power which is undeniable outside of physical-based definitions of strength (18).
Humans and Monsters: Women and Magic in High Fantasy
In The Bitterbynde Trilogy, magic is heavily gendered. Male wizards are powerful figures within society. Powerful houses have their own wizards as a sign of status and significant social events usually contain a performance of their ‘magical abilities’. However, the ‘magic’ of these wizards is essentially akin to the tricks of stage magicians. Real magical power lies with carlins, women who use natural magic to help their communities. This reflects the ‘own power’ of women discussed in the first chapter, as referred to by Glente and Winther-Jensen in Female Power in the Middle Ages (18). They do not seek great power or status or wealth, instead living modesty and only acquiring their wands through sacrifice: the Crone grants them power after taking something from them, for example their sight or speech. This clearly shows how women can hold power outside of the spheres of power which men value, and thus have greater and more genuine abilities. While a carlin may not be able to rise to the king’s court, she is able to produce genuine magic and provide genuine help to her community. In each of the examples discussed, women who are heads of state are almost always in possession of magical ability. Daenyras Targaryan holds the power of dragons. In The Lord of the Rings, the elf women Arwen and Galadriel both possess great magical powers. While not active in the battles or questing of the Fellowship of the Ring, they both use their visions to influence the fate of Middle-earth (Porter 115). Galadriel in particular is a ruler of her people, possessing of great wisdom and ability. She aids the Fellowship despite the fact that it will mean personal loss (117).
Male characters are often entrenched within the system to the point that they lack the imagination to see outside of it, or to expand their understanding of the system to include lifesaving measures. Ashalind’s understanding of the importance of rules gives her power which those around her – especially men – lack. She understands that in working within existing systems it is possible not only to survive but use social structures for her own benefit, including against others. Etiquette becomes a tool which she can acquire and wield against her enemies just as an understanding of eldritch lore allows her to outsmart dangerous wights. The men she comes into contact with often lack this ability; their arrogance, hubris and desire all cloud their ability to operate within the system, and it is Ashalind’s knowledge which must rescue them from wights or from themselves. Here again is where Ashalind uses her understanding of the world’s structures and rules to rescue others. She may not possess the magic of the carlins or the Faêran but Ashalind can still bend magical beings to her will. The moments when Ashalind stumbles or fails in her quest are often moments when she transgresses the rules of the world around her. Her narrative shows what Heilbrun and Higonnet refer to as the ‘social and personal cost of defying the social order’ (xviii). When she disobeys the rules set out for her by giving in to fear, she loses everything she has fought for. As a woman who often travels with scant knowledge of her surroundings or experience in the wild, the structures of Ashalind’s world and her adherence to them are not only a source of strength, but they keep her alive.
Imrhien-Rohain-Tahquil-Ashalind: Constructed Identity and Inherent Traits
Ashalind exemplifies the use of femininity and its aesthetic components as a means of negotiating a world and its power structures. While most of these characters adopt one or two disguises to fulfil a narrow set of specific needs, Ashalind is almost never ‘herself’. Ashalind begins The Bitterbynde Trilogy with no identity whatsoever and goes on to inhabit a wide range of extremes in the disguises and names she takes on. She is subject to both physical and social extremes in how she is perceived and the roles she plays, some of which she chooses and some of which are chosen for her. Even after regaining her true identity, Ashalind still opts for both male and female disguises in order to navigate the world and complete her assigned tasks. Her employment of disguise to evade others who have objectified her is also a means of asserting herself as non-object and as a being with agency. At this point Ashalind has achieved to goals she set out with at the beginning of the series: to find a name, a face, and an identity. While the resolution of this particular quest fulfils the typical requirements of the bildungsroman structure – Ashalind’s coming of age and discovery of noble birth and high purpose – her personal narrative is shown to be a small part of a cosmically important conflict. She exemplifies Porter’s definition of a hero as someone who is able to ‘rise above’ her circumstances (21). She is not concerned with proving herself worthy but rather with doing her duty and fulfilling the tasks she feels she has been assigned. By employing the use of disguise after this point of the narrative Ashalind is protecting not just herself, but her world.  Despite rarely being her true self, and even when completely stripped of identity, however, Ashalind still holds onto distinctive character and personality traits. She is impatient but polite, level-headed and tenacious. She conforms to the feminine archetype, fitting into it more comfortably as each new identity brings her an increasing set of skills and behaviours.
Ashalind’s first female identity, after discovering her true gender, is as Imrhien. She is at first led to believe that her secondary sex characteristics were in fact ‘deformities’, and when her true gender is ‘discovered’ those characteristics then mark her as a target for the desires of men. She learns that her body is extremely desirable, while knowing that her face is not. This interferes with her ability to interact normally with others on two levels; she is rejected on sight due to her extreme facial scaring but must hide the ‘normal’ parts of her body or risk becoming a target. As Imrhien she is also unable to talk and thus defend herself. Despite this, Ashalind-Imrhien is able to use her intelligence and ingenuity to survive in the wilderness, rescue her brash and testosterone-fuelled companion Sianadh and learn sign language. She makes a stark contrast to the ultra-masculine Sianadh, whose reliance on physical strength and bravery get him into a number of dangerous situations from which he is only saved by Ashalind-Imrhien’s sensible problem solving and level-headedness. While Sianadh gives her a name and his friendship, it is her first teacher Grethet, a female servant of Isse Tower, who shapes Ashalind in her instinct for survival.
In her second female identity as Rohain, the Lady of the Sorrows, Ashalind meets Dianella, a high-born woman who holds a great deal of social power within the court. She is emblematic of the ways in which patriarchal structures try to keep women from holding true power by restricting them within an arbitrary framework of competition. Ashalind poses as a woman of noble birth – believing at this point that she is extremely low-born – in order to live at court until she is able to meet the king. At court she struggles to fit in to the highly structured society, full of complex and arbitrary rules. Dianella offers help while planning sabotage. She is an example of a character who plays completely within a patriarchal structure, viewing other women as threats and seeking more power through masculine means of undermining her opponents. She is beholden to the whims of her uncle, a powerful wizard. She holds power over Rohain through her ability to perform high-class femininity.  We are not given any real insight into Dianella’s thoughts, making her something of a problem character; she conforms to negative stereotypes about women and their desire to compete with each other. She is cruel, petty, self-serving and vain. She represents the toxic side of performed femininity and is in contrast to characters such as Viviana who live at court and are feminine but in a more ‘natural’, less performative way. Viviana is another mentor figure for Ashalind, teaching her how to behave in the foreign environment of court.
The next identity that Ashalind assumes for herself is Tahquil. This is the identity she uses to travel unheeded to Huntingtowers, where she regains her memories of her true identity as Ashalind. However, she continues to travel under the assumed identity of Tahquil. She is making a choice about who she will be, now that she has the full information of who she is. Her use of disguise and falsehood to travel allows her to wield her true identity only when necessary.
Despite her variety of disguises, Ashalind is never able to simply ‘blend in’. As the nameless mute and as Imrhien she is considered so ugly that people recoil from her, and after a carlin restores her face she is so beautiful that she continues to draw attention. She is the peak of white-centric fantasy beauty, with long golden hair and a perfect face and body. This affects her relationships with others, especially men, complicating her attempts to acquire help. People see Ashalind by her face first, beautiful or ugly, and in doing so fail to see everything else that she is. When she is finally able to see herself as others see her in The Battle of Evernight, she describes her own perfect face as ‘a mask to hide sorrows’ (358). She is able to use her own face to disguise her feelings and intentions from others. It is how others see women that leads to the belief that they are less capable. Éowyn is seen as fragile, Daenerys as desirable, and these are the traits others reduce them to. This marks their triumphs as being not just over the hero’s typical adversities but also over expectations.
What remains consistent across all of Ashalind’s disguises and identities is her personality. She is kind but impatient, clever at coming up with solutions, and always looking out for others. The face that she has traits which remain consistent and these traits correspond with concepts of femininity show that her femininity is not a disguise or a device but an inherent part of herself. She carries these traits across roles and faces and uses them to succeed in difficult situations. This shows that there is nothing artificial or inauthentic about her feminine identity. She does on occasion attempt to cover up or tarnish her femininity, by donning male disguise or cutting off her long, beautiful hair as an act of defiance.
In the introduction to this thesis I introduced a series of questions posed by Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex.
How can a human being in a woman’s situation attain fulfilment? What roads are open to her? Which are blocked? How can independence be recovered in a state of dependency? What circumstances limit woman’s liberty and how can they be overcome? (29)
Through examining the work of de Beauvoir, Tseelon and Winther-Jensen, I have defined what is meant by ‘a woman’s situation’ in medieval high fantasy fiction. I have outlined the structures of power in the societies contained within these texts and examined ways in which characters have and are able to obtain and wield power within those structures, while also having the potential to subvert them. In doing so I have proved that women are capable of being heroes within their narratives without abandoning their femininity. I shall now introduce the creative component of this thesis with a short bridging document.
In the creative component of this thesis, titled “A Tower for the Queen”, I am seeking to apply the studies of female strength and power to an original character and narrative.
In Gender and the Construction of Dominant, Hegemonic, and Oppositional Femininities, Justin Charlebois notes that gender differences cannot be viewed in a vacuum, but that ‘other factors such as race, social class, and sexuality [...] intersect and inform the social accomplishments of gender’ (8). He refers to aesthetically concerned expressions of femininity as ‘emphasised femininity’, and argues that this category is both ‘geographically mobile’ and ‘unfeasible for many women’ (26). In other words, expressions of femininity which do not align with dominant, hegemonic conceptions of femininity can be seen as ‘subordinate’, ‘subversive’ or ‘noncompliant’ (27-28). Emphasised femininity and aesthetic femininity are particular means of gender expression which, in interpreting femininity as an artificial layer, do not necessarily coincide with gender identity.
In The Bitterbynde Trilogy, features which can be read as non-white – such as the thick lips and heavy brows of siofras or the ‘slanted eyes’ of nymphs and swan maidens – are assigned to non-human (eldritch) creatures. By contrast, Ashalind is blonde, white, heterosexual, and upper class. She is the pinnacle of human Erith beauty, while non-white features are marked as unnatural and Other. All the human ‘races’ in Erith are white. Gender operates within a strict binary, with a single example of drag in ‘The Battle of Evernight’ as part of a ceremony. These forms of rigidity, erasure and Othering all reinforce a strictly white, heteronormative paradigm. Fantasy fiction which maintains this paradigm does a disservice to the potential of the genre, which has unlimited creative potential in regards to non-white, non-heteronormative, non-cisnormative narratives. In the creative component of this thesis I shall attempt to create an in-world paradigm which, while patriarchal, engages with a broader spectrum of race, genre and sexuality. The intent of this is to show that fantasy tropes can be maintained without the narrow and normative world-building implied by a white, heteronormative paradigm or reliance upon a masculine hero.
My central character of Adalee has been left without a patriarch to exert control over her life, but she chooses to retain her femininity and work within established structures as she knows they are a source of strength for her. She redefines her own sense of importance within her family, learning that while her father’s fortunes no longer rely on her conforming to certain expectations, she has a larger family within which she plays a small but symbolically important role. That is the role which she chooses to honour. The story is open-ended, just as Adalee’s options have opened up before her.

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Tseëlon, Efrat. The Masque of Femininity: The Presentation of Woman in Everyday Life. Cambridge: SAGE Publications, 1995. 

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