Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Female as Fantasy Goal

Fantastical fiction is, felicitously, no longer the forbidden fiefdom of phallus-kind.  In spite of the success of female authors and the growth of female fandom, the ongoing strength of male, and specifically heterosexual male, perspective is undeniable.  For good or ill, fantasy was and still is highly popular with male readers.  The extent to which fantastical fiction is subject to this perspective and to which it incorporates the quest motif, is the extent to which the male quest for a woman, or women, or The Woman, exerts itself in fantastical fiction.  This came to mind as I thought back over three novels that I have read in the past year in which main male characters' quests for female companionship end in ways that suggest certain patterns.  For what it is worth, I am assuming that there is nothing particularly significant about the fact that these three novels are all game-related.

Saga of the Old City (1985) by Gary Gygax,  
Man of Gold (1984) by M. A. R. Barker, 
and Prince of Wolves (2010) and Master of Devils (2011) by Dave Gross.  
If you haven't read the latter three books, I highly recommend that you bookmark this post and come back later.  I will at least try to soften the spoilers for Gross' novels, so as not to undermine my ongoing campaign to convince everyone to read them.  No seriously, go read Gross' two NOW, then come back.  I'll keep the post up.

In Gygax's first novel, the young thief Gord strives to rise from his humble beginnings and make his way in the world (of Greyhawk).  A part of his rise is finding a woman.  The first two are false prizes, but all indications are that he finally has found The Woman in Evaleigh.  (PS She's a princess.)  Only she turns out to be The One Who Got Away.  Thus Gord is free to continue his Oerthly wanderings.

In Barker's first novel, the young scholar-priest Harsan leaves his life of quiet study in the temple and is set upon a path of adventure and advancement in the world of Tekumel.  First he meets the bad girl.  Then he meets the good girl.  Finally {MAJOR SPOILER} he ends up getting both the sexy bad girl (who is high caste) and the sweet good girl (low caste and with a curse), because -- hey! -- who doesn't want to have the wish fulfilled of having the best of both?  (It is natural to suppose that Barker's conversion to Islam makes polygamy a live option for his character.)  My expectation from the double domesticity of the hero at the denouement is that Harsan's career as an adventurer is at an end.

Dave Gross' excellent novels, set in Pathfinder's Golarion, follow the exploits of Pathfinder and nobleman Varian Jeggare and his bodyguard of partially demonic heritage, Radovan.  In the first, we glimpse a noblewoman of Count Jeggare's past: a youthful flame who gives every indication of having been a female mentor and a bad girl.  Radovan, however, meets both the sexy bad girl (a real bitch!  No, I'm not being a male pig, honest!)  and the sweet good girl (with a curse).  Radovan leaves them both behind when he must leave the scene of adventure for home, though he certainly continues to think of them (am I wrong to think the former carnally and the latter as something more than merely carnal?) afterwards.  In the second novel, the ladies are off-limits to Radovan, because he gets stuck in a state of demonic, uh, enhancement.  So it's Jeggare's turn to have a love interest: yep, she's a princess and has the potential to be The One.  However it doesn't work out, and there's some indication that she may instead turn out to be The One Who Got Away. 

From this selection of three authors and four novels, common characteristics recur in regard to the female love interests of the male main characters.  In the stories of Gygax and Gross, the females who are the characters' goals elude them.  The character (particularly in the case of Jeggare) is deepened by loss and is kept free for further unattached adventuring.  Further, male readers who have suffered the loss of a beloved woman are given the opportunity to strengthen their identification with the heroes.  In Barker's story, the struggle of the book is doubly rewarded, and the male reader enjoys the fantasy of not having to choose between two desirable women -- who, incidentally, resonate with different archetypes.  Hmm, now I'm tempted to go back and analyze all these female love interests in terms of four feminine archetypes.  Maybe I will save that for a future post.


  1. Interesting points. One data point to add would be Hugh Cook's "The Walrus and the Warwolf" in which the pursuit of The Woman is carried to an absurd extreme. Despite the seeming heroics the main character undertakes, Drake Douay's goals are by no means chivalrous. They are instead aimed at merely conquering the seemingly unconquerable. As China Mieville points out in his introduction to Paizo's printing of the novel, Drake learns nothing and grows imperceptibly as a result of his quest, which makes the whole story an interesting read when compared to other fantasy fiction.

  2. I enjoy Hugh Cook, but I wonder if a part of what makes TW&TW an interesting read in which the main character learns nothing and evinces virtually zero soul growth is because it is the exception back-lit by the rule. Whereas I will always enjoy an endless flow of fiction in which characters grow and never tire of character growth along some quest arc, I'm thinking that the adolescent rebellion/mindless male thing is something that I'd enjoy as a rarity, and would tire of if it were the rule (and tire is probably putting it mildly). Though it has been a while since I read Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories, my memory-impression is that even they grow compared to a Drake.

  3. Minus 10 points to House Obscure for linking to TV Tropes aka "The Hotel California of Time Sinks" without so much as a warning to the uninitiated. :)

    The women in Leiber's Ill Met In Lankhmar and Lean Times In Lankhmar collections (White Wolf) still fit the criteria as "goals," but they are at least much more realized and fleshed-out than just the typical 2-D cardboard props in a lot of fiction and movies (even today). "Adept's Gambit" has probably the first female supporting character I could relate to as a pre-teen reader.

    (I used to reimagine Mouser as a female too, but remaining as Fafhrd's best bud and strictly non-romantic partner.)

  4. I would suggest, politely, that it's worth looking at from two other points of view as well though.

    1. Consider the nature of a lot of these stories -- young-ish hero (male) goes into the world on Adventures (!) and encounters The Woman (women) and has romantic experiences including, "bad choices, good choices, unrequited love, and Ones Who Get Away." Now, remember your own High School and College years... You can make the connection. A lot of authors include these sorts of things not strictly (I assume and give the benefit of the doubt) because they are sexist, but because they are normal people who expect a "love-life" to be a part of a hero's experience. And our love-lives are often all encompassing parts of our lives at some point.

    2. Thinking back on the fiction I read as a kid, a lot of it had female protagonists and they were often portrayed very similarly to the male protagonists in that they had experiences with love and sex and had ones that got away and hard choices, etc. I simply think these patterns seem to emerge the way they do because we as people expect this pattern of life experience.

    Just a thought.

  5. Rhetorical Gamer: I don't disagree with anything you've said here (When is the last time somebody's told you that on the internet!? And with a first name like Rhetorical! /wink/). I'm not really about accusing anyone of sexism, I'm more interested in how, as you put it, the patterns of life that people experience and patterns in fiction are connected, and whether there is something about mythic structure or the fairy-tale or the Collective Unconscious or the immanent Logos in human nature or what have you that is intimately bound up, expressed, underlying or what have you in those patterns. I guess I'm of the nature to generally suspect the prosaic of hiding something profound, and optimistic enough to hope that something is good more often than sexist [or substitute whatever folks are calling evil at the moment].

    Thanks for your comments. They also highlight a fear that a friend messaged me about: calling Female the Goal of male fantasy heroes may be problematic for some folks. I don't mean goal simply as Score! (although this applies when the hero quests for women (plural) in a certain well-known way), but goal as the Object of the Quest or one of the critical Objects of the Quest. Even when a hero prosaically cruises for tush, or moreover does so in extremely unacceptable ways like Drake Douay, there is a possibility that the drive represents a deeper significance than such a loutish so-called hero may have any consciousness of. And I might add author to the previous statement, just to really drive the point home, but again, I'm not accusing anyone of anything.

  6. Sarah: Fascinating! Are you sure that's all you want to say about F&GM? I purposefully set that up just for you...

  7. For what it's worth, I didn't see the original post as an accusation of sexism but as pointing out a common element of adventure fiction.

  8. Dave: I also know that you got the super-secret, deeply encoded message on behalf of all Azra fans. :D

    And while I'm hitting people up for things, why hasn't Butterfrog drawn Azra? He could totally premiere such a pic on this blog. Okay, fine, on this blog and Dave's simultaneously.

  9. That Azra thingy may be happening soon... ;)

  10. Theo, I think you are correct about TW&TW. Drake Douay's journey is interesting precisely because it is the exception. It's nice to be able to let go of certain conceptions from time to time, but the fact is that people DO learn from their experiences...or we expect them to. In some respects, Drake is a caricature...he is an impossible figure precisely because he refuses to learn (although the fact that he is a teen male might say something for his inability to learn anything except where to find the next source of physical pleasure...ahem).

    Loving and either losing or never quite attaining love in return is central to the experience of human emotion and defines a portion of who we are. The search for connection with someone else is obviously going to be a major motivation.

    And for the record, I also think you are correct in requesting the two items above. Dave, have been called out. ;)

  11. I wonder if adventure fiction with female protagonists has similar arrangement. Certainly, viewing the TV version of True Blood would suggest good guy/bad boy dilemmas abound, but I haven't read any single female (non-assemble cast) fantasy novels I can think of since Tomoe Gozen (which does have some of the "get the guy" thing as I recall) to be able to say how common it is.