Greetings from a cold Ireland. My brain is jumbled up with thoughts today, and I’m not sure how coherent this blog post will be. I’ll strive to do my best, however!
I read an excellent blog post on the gender of protagonists in fiction yesterday, and whether child readers respond better to stories where the protagonist is the same gender as themselves. I’m not quite sure how links work, but I’ll try this and hope it’s not illegal or immoral, or anything: http://steelthistles.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-master-maid-role-of-women-and-girls.html This issue interests me because my WiP features a female ‘lead character’, who is not a typical heroine; I have often wondered if she will appeal to boy readers, and I think it’s a vital question to ask. The author of the blog questions whether boy readers are less likely to engage with a female protagonist than girl readers are to a male protagonist, and I think there might be something in that viewpoint. I started thinking about female characters in fiction, generally, and why there are so few heroines as opposed to heroes, and whether this is something that needs to be addressed.
This blog post interested me so much that I actually rooted out one of the Middle English romances that I did some research on, years ago, because I remembered there being a wonderful female character in it. After some rather dusty poking about under the stairs, I eventually found it. The text is called ‘Ywain and Gawain’, and the character I remembered so well was named Lunet. A potted summary of the text runs something like: knight goes on a quest, meets a variety of fabulous beasts and wonderful characters; a mysterious girl (possibly a fairy – it’s never fully explained) helps him to win the heart of the woman of his dreams, which he goes on to betray and, hence, lose; knight goes into the wilderness and goes a bit mad for a while, picking up a faithful lion companion on the way; enigmatic girl helps him restore his sanity and win back his wife. Cue joyful and triumphant conclusion, of course. It’s one of my favourite texts for many reasons, not least of which is the marvellous lion, but I really love it because of Lunet, the possibly fae-girl, who – while not being the protagonist, exactly – is absolutely vital to the plot. Without her, the knight would never have won back his lady, they would never have lived together in harmony, and the kingdom wouldn’t have been restored. Normally, in romances, the standard reward for a female character is marriage – the princess gets her prince (and, by extension, the prince gets her kingdom, but we won’t go there), and the faithful serving lady usually gets married off to a lesser nobleman, and everyone goes home happy. But Lunet is different. Lunet is asked what she wants for a reward at the end of the text, and she clearly says something unexpected, because it is described like this:
‘And trew Lunet, the maiden hende./
Was honord ever with ald and ying/
And lifed at hir owin liking;/
Of alkins thing sho has maystri,/
Next the lord and the lady… (lines 4014-4018)
Loosely modernised, this means: ‘And true Lunet, the fair maiden, was honoured for ever among old and young. She lived just as she pleased, and she had mastery/control over everything, after the lord and the lady.’ She gets (and asks for) no husband, and she is left to live as she wants to. I can’t stress enough how much this stuck in my mind when I first read it. It’s so unusual as to be unique, at least in my experience of the medieval romance. I wondered what happened to this type of female character, and why she crops up so infrequently.
Even in the modern world, with our Katniss Everdeens and our Katsas and Queen Bitterblues, we still struggle to shake off the idea that for a story to end completely, the female characters need to get a man, or get married, or settle down in some way. For instance, I love ‘The Hunger Games’ books, but one thing that enraged me about the ending was the way Katniss was forced, in a way, to betray her own desires for her future. I don’t want to give away too much in case you haven’t read it, but when you do, I hope you’ll know what I mean. It wasn’t enough that she suffered as much as she had, and achieved the great things she’d achieved – she also had to sacrifice something vital, and something she had sworn to herself, because a male character wanted her to. I can’t help but wish it had been written differently. I’d love to see more Lunets in literature – heck, I’d even love to see more Wives of Bath! I know her character is defined by her husbands, too, but she’s the one doing the pursuing. I don’t think anyone ever told Alysoun of Bath what she could and couldn’t do.
It’s funny that there are characters in medieval literature that seem somewhat more ‘modern’ in their viewpoints than some contemporary heroines. Of course, though, it’s not as simple as this. The majority of female characters in medieval texts are either not important at all, or do end up married or otherwise under the control of a male character. Even in ‘Ywain and Gawain’, you could argue that Lunet is such a singular woman because she has an element of the supernatural about her – it’s like the author couldn’t conceive of a fully human woman who didn’t strive at all times to find a husband. The ‘romance’ novels we have nowadays didn’t develop in a vacuum; they owe a lot to the medieval romances of the past. I just can’t help thinking that more boys would read and enjoy books where girls are the main characters if those characters didn’t always have to end up giving away their power at the end of their story. Maybe those same boy-readers would then go on to become men who would expect women to own their own choices and responsibilities, and who’d accept nothing less. And wouldn’t that be a good thing?