We’re in the middle of a golden age of sapphic science-fiction and fantasy and with this wave of books comes an interesting trend—the depiction of butch lesbians as sacrificial paladins. Some characters that stand out in this trope are the much beloved Gideon of Gideon the Ninth and Tain Hu of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. (Also relevant is my own Touraine from The Unbroken, but, for reasons that will become clear below, is my own response to this trope, not an example.)
As a queer butch author and reader, I can’t help wanting to pick apart the phenomenon: where it might stem from historically, what we’re writing toward or against as authors, how it impacts readers and societal expectations, and what comes next.
[An important note: in this essay I refer to both the paladin and conniver characters as women/people and use she/they pronoun sets, but I am moving under the interpretation that either character but especially the butch character may also be nonbinary or even transmasculine; however some of the difficulties butch characters and people face have to do with the idea of people-assumed-women transgressing into masculine space and/or being denied women’s space, and this essay is about the butch lesbian paladin regardless of gender.]
There are two noticeable things about the few butch characters we get. First, they’re often attached both narratively and romantically to who I like to refer to as the conniver, who may or may not be ‘femme’ per se, but is usually less ‘butch’ than the butch in question. For our purposes in this essay, ‘less’ butch means that their strength comes from a less stereotypically masculine realm, e.g. magic or politics instead of brute strength. (No, it’s not lost on me how binary these roles are, regardless of the nuance individual characters may display, but let us continue.) The conniver is also depicted as ruthless, cunning, and manipulative, held in stark relief against the charm, humor, and honor of the butch warrior.
The second thing—the butch dies. Specifically, they die in service to the conniver, either to protect the conniver or to further their goals—usually both. For their devotion, the butches become saintly martyrs, representatives of their virtues: physical strength, loyalty, selfless nobility, and sex appeal (I’m not joking; between Gideon’s dirty magazines and the quirk of Tain Hu’s mouth as she tells Baru before they have sex, “Fear not. I’m practiced,” desire is a virtue.)
Oh, and of course, the third thing—the butches are warriors. Rugged, sexy lesbians with swords, those most Freudian of holy implements.
In an effort to trace the origins of the sacrificial butch paladin, I’ve snatched at a couple likely threads.
The first is simply the paladin—a knightly devotee ready to go to holy war in the name of his god. The original noble warrior, for whom the sin of murder is a holy task because his cause is right. Sturm Brightblade is one famous fantasy paladin that comes to mind, part of the Dungeons and Dragons definition of the archetype. A typical inner conflict for the paladin is being torn between the call of their god and earthly desires—be it lust or love or glory. On the simplest level, maybe queering the paladin is just telling stories that queer people can see ourselves in. But writing is history and history is layers, so let’s keep digging.
From that paladin base, we inch closer to our queer butch paladin—we step to Joan of Arc, the OG butch martyr. Dressed as a man, she went to war for the holy visions of her god and when she was given the choice to deny her god or die, she refused to renounce her faith and was burned at the stake. More than her devotion and the sword she carried, though, in her story we see the deviation and punishment so prevalent in narratives of butch women throughout history and literature. She was killed by the very state she meant to protect by stealing the sacred mantle of masculinity for stealing that masculinity.
(Not far to jump from Joan of Arc, is it, if we replace devotion to a god with the almost religious fervor with which our current SFF butches believe in their connivers’ plans to make the world a better, more just place? What else is a god for, after all?)
But there’s something else to consider first, especially taking that idea of deviation and punishment from Joan of Arc to contemporary fiction and the history of lesbian literature. From Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness to Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and all the pulp novels in between, all of these books, some by queer authors and some not, reflected the lives lesbians could expect—or more specifically, the lives society thought they deserved, especially butch lesbians who trespassed upon the sacred grounds of masculinity: Unhappiness. Loneliness. Death.
In these stories, the butch character inevitably falls in love with a femme character and loses her to a ‘proper, safe relationship’ (aka, a heterosexual one) or she dies by suicide, leaving the other woman free to find that safety without the burden of the butch partner. That is what was most palatable to an audience that saw lesbians as titillating at best, or monstrous at worst.
While queer writers might have been writing through their own experiences, in the hands of cis-heterosexual writers, these narratives have historically damaged queer/lesbian readers. Many butch lesbians came of age afraid of ending up alone unwillingly, rejected by society and by partners who would eventually give up the ‘game’ of lesbianism to ‘grow up’ and settle down in the ‘real’ heterosexual world. (While this may be changing, we’re still very much in generations that are impacted by these beliefs and it causes intra-community strife like biphobia and transphobia as well.) And so, with all of this, it’s interesting to see how queer authors both replicate and subvert these same patterns in SFF—and what the genre even offers as a unique medium for these explorations.
I think one reason readers and writers love these pairings is that both characters depict versions of womanhood that are taboo—both women who will do anything for ambition and women who take on traditionally masculine appearances and protector roles, enacting the ‘male’ code of chivalry. (We also come for the deep bond, a love great enough to sacrifice for each other, enough to mourn the other, as well as the idea of a rugged paladin on her knees, looking up at a woman with the power to crush her, and believing that she won’t, because maybe, just maybe, she loves her just as much. Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe some of us want to be crushed.)
On subject of taboos, though, let’s head back to the cardinal sin: theft of the sword (that metaphorical—ahem—and literal accoutrement of masculinity) and the audacity to improve on masculinity, but also the theft of a man’s rightful place beside the other woman. Some might even say the butch paladin has taken “what” is rightfully his. Only, the butch paladin is better than that (in narrative, strictly speaking; in the real world, butch women can also fall into traps of replicating toxic masculinity). She claims no ownership of the conniver, or her heart.
One of the most stirring moments in Harrow the Ninth is when Gideon says, “If you think anything I did, I did to make her love me, then you don’t know anything about her and me. I’m her cavalier, dipshit! I’d kill for her! I’d die for her. I did die for her. I’d do anything she needed, anything at all, before she even knew she needed it.” See? Complete denial not just that she sacrificed herself for Harrow’s love, but tellingly, that she wouldn’t try to make Harrow do anything. In fact, Gideon adds that she “died knowing [Harrow would] hate [her] for dying,” and she reiterates her oath of devotion, “Always your sword, my umbral sovereign; in life, in death, in anything beyond life or death that they want to throw at thee and me.”
Likewise, Tain Hu makes her own oath, swearing to Baru publicly so that other members of the rebellion will trust Baru: “This is my vow: in life, in death, I am yours.” It’s one of the first deeds Hu does for Baru without asking anything in return, and it’s echoed at the end, right before her final sacrifice. First, Tain Hu asks, “Will my death bring advantage to Baru Fisher, my sworn lord?” And when Baru answers yes, tries to make her explanations, Hu stops her and says, “You owe me nothing. I swore to die for you…. So it will be.”
In the midst of all these oaths and the language of fealty, both Gideon Nav and Tain Hu acknowledge directly that they are not the whole and sole focus of their conniver and may never be–they go to their deaths (and even reflect upon it after death) knowing that. They expect nothing in return for this sacrifice. . With her sacrifice, butch paladin becomes the purest form of chivalry, placing the desires of the other woman above all, ultimately receiving nothing (negative nothing, in fact, since she’s dead). The paladin knows the conniver, understands her goals fully, and still decides the conniver is worth that devotion. (For a different angle on butch chivalry, see Chivalry Is Undead: Kink, Sword Lesbians, and The Locked Tomb.)
This is not, however, to say that the butch paladin is free from desire; when Baru picks Tain Hu as her lover and royal consort, Tain Hu does say, “I had dared to hope.” She doesn’t deny wanting Baru, but instead of sex being a thing Hu was owed for her sacrifices to Baru, it is something she gave as much as received. When Baru asks, “Why would you give me anything,” Hu answers, “Because it was no lie.” “It” being the night they spent together, her love for Baru–and perhaps her knowledge of Baru’s feelings for her and the understanding that those feelings would get in Baru’s way. Gideon, too, admits that she made her sacrifice “knowing I’d do it all again, without hesitation, because all I ever wanted you to do was eat me.” Lesbian sex double-entendre aside, Gideon’s desire is to be wholly consumed by Harrow in a way that subsumes anything else she might want.
We also can’t have this conversation and ignore the goals of these connivers: Harrow and Baru respectively, are in heated contests for world-dominating power and in contrast to their noble paladins have no moral code that binds them. In fact, as both narratives continue, we see that the connivers have only one weakness, one line they’re not willing to cross to reach their ambitions: they protect their paladins, trying to spare them their fates. It is the paladins who refuse that protection, sacrificing their lives because they know their conniver’s ultimate goal cannot be achieved without their own deaths.
Take the end of Gideon the Ninth, when Gideon and Harrow are trapped under the onslaught of massive enemy bone construct and Harrow is on the last of her strength. Gideon realizes that the only way out of that mess is for Harrow to get a lot more powerful, and fast, and there’s only one way for a necromancer to do that: become a Lyctor. And to become a Lyctor, a necromancer has to sacrifice and eat (ahem) their cavalier. Harrow is prepared to die rather than perform the Lyctor ritual. Gideon rips the choice out of Harrow’s hands:
“Harrow, I can’t keep my promise, because the entire point of me is you. You get that, right?…There is no me without you. One flesh, one end.”
A shade of exhausted suspicion flickered over her necromancer’s face. “Nav,” she said, “what are you doing?”
“The cruellest thing anyone has ever done to you in your whole entire life, believe me,” said Gideon. “You’ll know what to do, and if you don’t do it, what I’m about to do will be no use to anyone.”
Even though Harrow extracted a promise from Gideon earlier in the book– “I need you to outlast me”—Gideon says screw that, and jumps onto a row of spikes just in time to save Harrow and give her the power to reach Lyctorhood.
Baru also tries to save Tain Hu at the last, sending her away in disgrace, but, ever devoted, Hu tries to return to Baru’s side and is captured so that Falcrest can use her as leverage over Baru. When Tain Hu describes how, “unflinching, unmoved,” Baru will need to watch her death to become one of the Cryptarchs who controls Falcrest, Baru recalls the fearful thoughts that have plagued her about this final test from empire: “spare her, spare her; I will do anything to spare her.” She thinks, “If I beg, she could live.” But Tain Hu denies Baru the peace that comes with surrender, reiterating all the reasons Falcrest wants her alive so that Baru will stay strong enough to kill her: “They fear you, Baru Fisher. They fear your wit, your charisma, your power to raise the commoner. They fear the loyalty you command. Without a powerful secret to bind you…they fear the strength you will have among them.” Tain Hu’s words hold Baru strong all throughout Hu’s execution, to the point where Baru’s narration reuses Hu’s phrasing without quotation marks (“I wish you could see me, Hu, she thinks. Unflinching. Unmoved.”) showing how Baru has internalized Tain Hu’s reminder. Tain Hu’s exhortation.
Like a sacrificial lamb, the paladin’s death also absolves the conniver of all past and future sins that she will now carry out in her martyr’s name, because to back down from the goal, no matter how high the stakes become, is to diminish the ultimate sacrifice of the paladin—who is the more honorable, more ‘good’ character.
That these paladins—historically, military instruments of state power—sacrifice themselves to change the state—very specifically, to end it—is also of note if we’re talking about queering society’s historical narratives of butch lesbians. With the power of the state, they ensure the state’s destruction. It addresses one of the key questions asked specifically in Baru: can you change an unjust state from within? Through Tain Hu’s sacrifice, Baru rises through the ranks of the unjust state (Falcrest) as a Cryptarch, unfettered by the same blackmail that leash the other Cryptarchs. Without these checks on her power, she finally has the power to destroy Falcrest for the sake of Taranoke, her homeland, but also for Tain Hu: “I will write your name in the ruin of them. I will paint you across history in the color of their blood.” And so, in these narratives, as a butch lesbian queers the assumed trappings of manhood, Harrow and Baru use their paladins in an attempt to subvert the ruling structures of their worlds. In both cases, the results are dubious but inconclusive as these series remain as of yet incomplete.
Why does the butch character accept so readily that their sacrifice is necessary? Why do they strive for their deaths—literally throwing themselves in harm’s way in both of these novels? Maybe we can go back to the history of lesbian literature for that. Butches are already tragic characters; we’re used to seeing them in pain, watching them bear it. We watch them sacrifice themselves with love and awe. With that history of literature behind us, however, we can’t help but ask, is this sacrifice an act of self-destructive punishment or is it absolution? Is it the character becoming more and ultimately herself with this choice? By achieving the most noble form of masculinity, self-sacrifice, is her trespass no longer wrong? Does her death justify her own transgressive existence, make her better or more worthy of being?
Or maybe it’s because of the similarity of the butch warrior to the working class butch, who in turn learned her masculinity from their grease-stained fathers who also sacrificed their bodies for their own families?
I can’t speak for why others are drawn to the inevitable heartbreak of these pairings, but for me, I’m pulled by the love necessary to be willing to make that sacrifice—something butch lesbians are not allowed in earlier literature. In those books, love—if it was allowed to be more than experimentation or a mistake—was punished. When written by queer authors, love ended in sorrow driven by societal reactions.
Here, though…queer love is elevated to holiness. In death, the deviant becomes divine.
In this move, however, regardless of the point-of-view character, and despite the active choice of their heroic sacrifice, I sometimes find myself disappointed when the paladin gives up their agency for the conniver. It feels like, despite the archetype, they’re not the hero, but what keeps the hero from straying in the dark of the night. They are what turns the villain-conniver to [some type of] heroism. They force the conniver to live up to the paladin’s faith.
I write about this because it’s no secret that I love this pairing in genre fiction and character sacrifice is one of those heightened moments that glues readers to the page. The moment of death would seem to be one of the most agency-filled moments for the paladin. But I would like to see this beloved trope stretched further. The butch paladin still necessitates devotion—that’s what a paladin is after all. But there’s potential in giving them their own causes at odds with the conniver they’re also devoted to—what will the paladin sacrifice then? Love? Duty? What happens if the conniver sacrifices herself instead, repaying the undying loyalty with devotion of her own, and showing readers that butches are worth being sacrificed for? Or what if the paladin realizes that the conniver they’ve devoted themselves to isn’t worth their loyalty after all, and instead lets them die or fail at the crucial moment—what if the paladin’s duty is to kill the conniver herself?
While there can be enormous power in this world in claiming the time and place of your death for a cause, in deciding what you are willing to die for. There’s even more power, though, in deciding what you will live for, and how you will do that living. We owe no one our repentance for existing.
C.L. Clark is a BFA award-winning editor and the author of The Unbroken, the first of the Magic of the Lost trilogy. When she’s not imagining the fall of empires, she’s trying not to throw her kettlebells through the walls.