Aesthetic – Strip it away

 

I like to write about things that are important to me.

I saw today’s prompt and I was excited. So excited that I’ve raced home in order to try and express my response in a slightly more logical, accurate and researched method than my usual ad-hoc ramblings.

Woman in fantasy writing, who are they and how are they represented? As a child I fell in love with Dragonlance. A mouldy paperback of the Dragon’s of Autumn Twilight by Margerat Weiss and Tracey Hickman was what sealed my love for Fantasy. I’d already explored Narnia (thoroughly), Hobbitton and the Hundred Acre wood and Harry Potter hadn’t arrived yet. So here was this book, for adults with all the things I loved about the computer games I immersed myself into: Daggerfall featuring most prominently.

However, as a young woman the main heroine of the saga is Lauralanthalassa. Now, not to discredit this character who grew into the Golden General, Dragon-Flying, Army-Leading incredible powerhouse – but for the entire first book of the initial series she is defined by her beauty. I love the writing of Laurana’s introduction, but it’s all aesthetic. She’d an elf, she achieves an untouchable ideal of beauty by her very race. Not only that, but Laurana is the epitome of womanhood, no trace of age is upon her. Even the mage who see’s decay, looks upon the elf-maiden and sees beauty for the first time.

Now I fell in love with Laurana – but I really wanted a sword. Before she becomes the general she needs to be rescued and protected – a lot. She’s a fairy-tale princess, although not necessarily passive. After all, she decides to follow her true-love instead of waiting for him to come back; and it is this decision that propels her into adventure.

But after I fell in love with Dragonlance, it felt like I spent years searching for a heroine that I could aspire to be. I could never reach the ideal beauty of Laurana and I really really wanted a sword. I wanted to be a knight if I’m honest, and I couldn’t find that story in any of the books I was reading.

I was seventeen when I picked up a copy of ‘First Test’ – By Tamora Pierce in the library. I read it, sat between the stacks whilst my parents did the weekly shop in the supermarket over the road. I still remember shivering with excitement, barely able to read as I was pulled into this amazing world and this story that I had wanted, so badly, for so long, to read. It was like when you watch Peter Pan, then spend all day jumping off the sofa trying to fly – hasn’t worked so far, but I might keep trying. I checked out the entire series and within a day had finished it off. I had to go back to the library over the weekend and took out as many of Pierce’s book as I could. Here were heroines who go to be girls, and be knights. To speak to animals and yet…they could still be girls.

Natalie Babbitt calls fantasy “the most wrenching, depth-provoking kind of fiction available to our children’.”[1]

My desperation was to find a strong, female role-model that I could identify with, and that’s what I want to write.  As study was conducted by Laura Solomon, who analysed 45 fantasy novels for children and young adults. This is one of the results:

Statistically in the books studied: “In Alternate World/History fantasy, beauty is a defining trait for 25% of females.”[2]

That’s it. For a quarter of heroine’s beauty is their defining trait. They don’t get to be brave, intelligent, they don’t have hobbies, talents or skills – they’re pretty.  What’s worse, is if you’re not pretty in the story then you fall at the other end of the spectrum and you’re a hag. In stories, how much emphasis is placed on appearance? It’s something hard to avoid when writing, because you want the reader to be able to visualise your protagonist. However it feels as though there is something deeply harmful in only allowing our young woman to be either an epitome of beauty, or a hag.

“Certainly most children will not describe themselves as ugly, making those at this end of the spectrum unlikely candidates for close reader relationships. Females noted mostly for or only for their appearance fall at the other end and, while some readers may relate to them (and many girls wish to be them), these types of depictions only strengthen society’s message that beauty is all-important.”[3]

I want my characters, male and female to be defined by more than their appearance. I want my readers to engage with role-models that offer ways to deal with a complex and changing world and to come away with a sense of hope; that no matter how crazy this place gets – it’ll be alright.

Here is a brilliant article about writing strong female protagonist and how we’re loosing them. When an inevitable aesthetic is stripped away, I want it to be clear to my reader that their heroine could never be replaced by a floor lamp.

I also agree that being a strong, female protagonist doesn’t mean that you can’t like pretty dresses and make-up. Readers, especially our young adult readers, should be able to engage with characters that they feel represent them or they can identify with, no matter what race, gender identity, sexuality or disability. There’s another amazing series of articles here if this is something you want to carry on reading about.

[1] AUTHOR Solomon, Laura

TITLE Images of Women in High Fantasy for Children and Adults:  Comparative Analysis.

PUB DATE1998-10-00

Solomon, Laura. “Images of Women in High Fantasy for Children and Adults: A Comparative Analysis.” (1998). – Page 6

[2] Ibid., Page 15

[3] Ibid., Page 16

My Response to the Daily Prompt: –Aesthetic

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Challenge: 10 Books

So this challenge popped into my inbox today. The 10 books you read growing up that have stuck with you, from Write on the World and my list is of course below. I was quite surprised by my own choices and memory of the books that have stuck. I was trying to think way back into the origin of my Fairy and Folk-tale obsession and couldn’t find it. I have always loved Disney so perhaps these films are the cause of my fascination?

I’ve tried to put the books in order of how I remember them, so they’re listed as I grew up and they’re an odd mix! But they all had an impact on my life, reading and writing ambition. I was a voracious reader as a child but time and ‘being busy’ has limited my ability to just indulge in a good book.

  1. Narnia – Horse and his boy – C.S.Lewis

Again this was inspired by a film. We used to watch the animated Lion Witch and Wardrobe over Christmas and on sick days. I absolutely loved it! However I realised that our VHS recording ran out 5 minutes before the end of the film so I saw the Pevensie’s following the white stag and then….well I don’t know what I assumed happened!

But my older brother bought me the box set of the chronicles and I devoured them all. I must have read the whole set about 100 times, but my strongest memories are of the Horse and His boy. I have to admit, that it inspired a few of my early attempts at writing, a protagonist sent away as a baby to protect him from an evil wizard. Excellent work. Talking horses – even better!

The Pevensie’s always struck a particular chord with me in that I have three siblings. Including an older brother (the oldest) and gorgeous older sister. Two son’s of Adam and two daughters of Eve. Narnia, here we come!

So many disappointed attempts to cajole my siblings to climb into a wardrobe…

 

  1. Five go on a hike together / Valley of Adventure – Enid Blyton

There was a definitely point in my life when I was Enid Blyton obsessed. I read everything she’d written that I could lay may hands on. I even asked my Mum if I could go to boarding school and was more than a little bit heartbroken when she said no. So I started writing plays about what it would be like, largely based on Blyton, I have to admit! I planned out props, costumes, stage directions. I don’t think the drafts ever developed beyond coloured pencils on scrap paper, but I was determined.

The two books above are ones that I remember most clearly. Five on a hike has the children and Timmy (their dog) trying to recover ‘treasure’ from the bottom of a river. The scenes where lights are flashing over the moors and Julian is diving in freezing water has stayed with me. Including a love of Ginger Beer (Best hangover cure. Ever. I love how things evolve.) I was also beside myself when my family adopted a dog, not quite called Timmy, but Sammy was close enough.

 

As for the Valley of Adventure this gave me such a vivid image of a exotic jungle location and a secret civilization inside a volcano, that when I read H.Rider Haggard’s She for the first year of my degree, I felt I already knew the landscape and exactly where She resided. Very strange but quite amazing.

 

  1. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge and Heidi from Johanna Spyri

I loved both of these books equally and also feel that mention should be given to Anne of Green Gables as well, for some reason they all a grouped together in my mind. However, Katy and Heidi I always found poignant as my cousin had Cystic Fibrosis. Both Katy and Heidi’s cousin (Claire?) are ill. Katy is bedridden for much of her book after an accident and Claire seems to have a degenerative disease. Heidi definitely brings home the idea of healthy food, fresh air and good simple living. I loved the Grandpa that lived on the hill, and the image of Heidi sleep walking when she stays in the city is still haunting.

Ah just remembered, the Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Another haunting novel of a young boy kept prisoner by his illness and inept medical professionals who inflict torture in misguided attempts to keep him alive despite being afflicted by ill-health. Fortunately the protagonist is a rule breaker and sneaks him out of his room and again, fresh air and good fun enact something of a cure. That is how I remember it anyway.

  1. Danny champion of the world – Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was a wizard of words. This was my favourite though, a boy who lives in the forest and tries to pheasant poach with his Dad. I can’t help but remember what Dahl says about baths in this book, and every time I see a pheasant I wonder how it would taste…

  1. Machine Gunners – Robert Westall

I found this book accidentally. It was just one that was in a book case at home and I’d never noticed it before. It’s a powerful portrayal of the second world war. A group of children create their own air raid bunker complete with anti-aircraft defence. My strongest images of WW2 on the home front is a mash of Dad’s Army and this text.

  1. And then there were none – Agatha Cristie

Between the ages of 12 -14 I went through a serious spooky phase and read a lot of Agatha Cristie. The chilling tale of how a group of men and woman are stranded on an island and killed off one by one still gives me nightmares! I think it’s the reason I stopped reading crime. Well a mixture of Cristie and Goosebumps. Too many dark tales. I realised that my imagination didn’t need help coming up with villains.

  1. Dragons of Autumn Twilight – Margarat Weis and Tracy Hickman

When I bought this battered, slightly mouldy copy for 5 pence from a Village Fete I fell in love. Yes Dragonlance has been criticised for bringing stock ‘Knight, cleric, wizard, barbarian etc’ to life but I loved it. It had dragons, it had a brooding half-elf. It had a beautiful princess who turned into leader of armies. After Narnia I’d entered a period where I needed fantasy in my life. Dragonlance opened up a whole series. And from Dragonlance I found Forgotten Realms, Drizzt Do’Urden, the Harpers and on and on. I was bowled away.

  1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I was a teenager when Harry Potter first emerged. My younger brother insisted that he had to have the first two books after reading the first at school. I don’t think he’s ever asked for a book before or after and so my parents were willing to oblige. I however, was far too cool at 13 to jump on any bandwagon! Then I got bored on the way to my grandparents and they were both in the back of the car. I finished the first and then spent the day sat in the loft of their bungalow devouring the second. I was just in time for the third book which is still the best in my opinion. It had enough of my Blyton boarding school nostalgia and my love of fantasy. It had depth, a mystery to be solved and a wrong to be righted.

  1. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

I was introduced to Jane and Mr Rochester by the school curriculum and I have to admit that the ‘red room’ scene has inspired a similar claustrophobic and hysterical scene in my own manuscript. I just remember feeling young Jane’s heartbreak and fear at being locked in the room. The chapter still makes me cry. Amazing stuff.

10.Tamora Pierce – Page, Lady Knight then all of the rest of everything she’s ever written

I was so late to find Tamora Piece. I got a random book out the library called Page because it had a girl who was in training to be a Knight and I so badly wanted to be one to. I had to go back the next day and get out the rest of Tamora’s back collection. It was like finding a soul mate. Here was Alanna, Daine, Keladry. The female protagonist’s I’d spent my childhood searching for. I’d found them at long last! I find it really difficult to express my sheer joy at the discovery. It actually hurt. I might have cried a little bit.

One of my outstanding memories of Tortall is when Kel returns after becoming a traitor. She disobeys direct orders from the King to save refugees that had been under her care, and children who would have been murdered in the name of dark magic. Here is my more artistic representation of the moment Kel returns to Tortall and falls to her knees at the feet of the King. Prepared to face her punishment.

It’s been fascinating remember how important these books have been in my life and the decisions and choices I’ve made. I write because I want to return the feeling of euphoria to my readers. That sense that, as a growing child, a young adult, anything is possible.

Have lovely weekends.

Fibi xxx