Last Saturday afternoon at Boskone I was fortunate enough to be on an excellent program item about the heroine’s journey. My fellow program participants were Lois McMaster Bujold, Greer Gilman, Rosemary Kirstein and Margaret Ronald. I didn’t make notes and I’m not going to do a proper panel report with everything everyone said, I’m going to give you an impressionistic overview of what was nifty about it. I’m not going to specify who said what unless it particularly stood out, but you can safely assume that everyone on the panel was brilliant and that we also had some terrific audience response.
The problem with this sort of item is that it’s impossibly broad. We weren’t just talking about stories with women in, but about heroines as parallel to heroes. The panel description asked us to consider how the heroine’s journey differs from Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. (John Campbell’s hero’s journey is also an interesting thought, with rather a different trajectory.) I said that the Hero’s Journey made rather an odd life, with a distinct lack of what most people do, such as making things and having children. Lois said that traditionally in most cultures men went out and came back again, off to have adventures and then home to settle down and inherit from their father, whereas women went out and didn’t come back, inheriting from strangers—their husband’s parents. You can see this in a lot of fairy tales.
There aren’t many books that give a heroine a Campbellian Hero’s Journey. If there is a parallel canonical Heroine’s Journey it’s one that ends with marriage, and that’s seen as a kind of ending. In genre romance, the woman’s agenda wins. But in many books ending in marriage closes the doors of story, as if it isn’t possible to see past that—once the heroine has chosen her man there’s no more to be said. And there are the stories where the adventure ends with becoming a mother—I thought about the great line in Mockingbird “The longest trip I ever took, from being a daughter to having one.”
In fairy tales you have the hopeful young girl. Her great virtue is kindness to the helpless. She is often aided by those she has helped, by animals, old people, servants, and dwarves. She has a good mother who is dead, or turned into a tree or animals, who may give magical help on occasion. She has a bad shadow mother, often a stepmother. She may have rivals, sisters or stepsisters, but she rarely has friends or equals. Her aim is to survive, grow up, and marry a prince. Older women are represented by the two formats of mother, and old women by witches, who may be benevolent but are generally tricky to deal with.
In myth it’s rare to have women who journey, who are changed by what happens to them. There’s Persephone’s descent into hell and Demeter’s search for her daughter—and you can take that any way around. I’ve written a poem where Persephone doesn’t want to leave. Margaret mentioned Inanna and the idea that the women’s journey of labyrinths and finding your way out of them. There’s also Isis and her quest for the pieces of Osiris—was gathering together the pieces of a man a useful way of viewing woman’s journey? (Pieces of a man as plot tokens… it’s odd that this hasn’t been done more.)
From labyrinths we talked about Le Guin for a while, and what she did with heroine journeys in The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu. Greer and I admitted being dissatisfied with Tehanu, but a number of people in the audience claimed it worked for them. Greer said it had been “the grit in the oyster” inspiring her novel Cloud and Ashes, and I admitted it had been the same for me with Lifelode.
We moved on to talk about the difference between coming of age stories and the stories of older women—we discussed Lois’s Paladin of Souls which is all about the older woman having an adventure. There aren’t many books like that. We also mentioned domestic fantasy, of which, again, there isn’t much. We talked about women as goddesses and as minor characters and how that’s different from having a journey, a trajectory. Someone in the audience asked if there was a crone’s journey to go with the maiden’s and the mother’s, and someone mentioned Granny Weatherwax, and we discussed whether she changed over the course of the books. After the panel someone suggested Howl’s Moving Castle as an example of a crone journey, and I’m still thinking about that. Of course, there aren’t many old man stories—but Beowulf slays the dragon at the end and is killed by it, you don’t hear about Cinderella doing that.
Where are the books about heroines who change and who aren’t defined by the men around them? There are some, especially in SF, but not enough, especially when you’re thinking in terms of journeys and being heroic.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.