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Registered User
(8/8/03 7:22 pm)
Older heroines
I'm interested in finding examples of older heroines (central characters) in modern reworkings of tales or other stories in the fantasy genre. This musing was in part prompted by Terri Windling's recent Editor's Letter at Endicott Studio; but, in truth, she partially spoke to thoughts that have been on my mind for a while.

I hope it's OK to quote in part here:
"[i]The great fantasy stories of our day, from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to Ursula Le Guin's rich Earthsea books, have much to tell us about "loving what is mortal," holding tight, and then letting go. "My generation [of fantasy writers]," Ellen Kushner has noted, "are all hitting late-thirties to late-forties. Our concerns are different now. If we stick to writing fantasy, what are we going to do? Traditionally, there's been the coming-of-age novel, and the quest, which is the finding of self. We're past the early stages of that. I can't wait to see what people do with the issues of middle age in fantasy. Does fantasy demand that you stay in your adolescence forever?[/i] " TW, Endicott Studio, June 2003.

And a little musing... I like stories that have older heros/heroines... why can I think of so few? I did try to search on a few items and I'm seeing a reflection of this in the romance genre... but puzzled about the fantasy genre?


Registered User
(8/9/03 4:26 am)
Re: Older heroines
In my Books of Great Alta trilogy, Jenna gets older until in the third book--THE ONE ARMED QUEEN, she is a mother of grown children and the book becomes about the family.

In recent Charles deLint stories, there are elderly, shamanistic heroes/heroines.


Registered User
(8/9/03 8:45 am)
Re: Older heroines
Thank you, Jane. I knew the thread would reveal some ignorance on my part; but, the curiosity has overwhelmed any shyness. I've been ghosting this board for about a year. This is my first post.

The discussion started here:

Instead of illumination, I think I'm spreading curiosity, but so it goes. The concensus seems to be that the stories are bound by a formula structure. Maybe it's my rebellious nature but this isn't sitting well with me. A limited amount of Googling yielded this discussion regarding romance heroines:

The responses were mixed, with some readers echoing my sentiments, and some expressing an interest in revisiting youthful experiences and journeys. Another site proposes that the prime age for fantasy readers is twelve.

I see stories on my shelves that break the boundaries in terms of gender roles, beauty, the heroines role or capabilities, and stories of many cultures. Is it possible that the heroines are mentally aged? By this, as one reader suggests, I mean that the heroine's reactions imply life experiences that seem more comprehensive than what we remember in ourselves as teens?

Although we can both think of a few stories that explore the "after" of "happily ever after" one of my friends notes now feeling as if there's an implication that life (I would say adventures) end as you cross the threshold into adulthood. We are separated by two decades in our physical ages; but we both know that this doesn't reflect our own experiences. That transformations occur throughout adulthood. Perhaps, those aren't of interest to as many readers and writers?

Well, off again for more Googling.

Registered User
(8/10/03 2:46 am)
Re: Older heroines
Aliera: Thanks for the link to the discussion on the other board. It is an interesting topic. The first thing I thought of was Midori's "Tattercoats" and, like Terri, I look forward to see what various authors do with this theme in the future. As for my own writing, I am working on a Snow White tale told from the POV of the stepmother and have penned a poem inspired by ->

A true story...

Several semesters ago, I took a graduate class in fairy tales. One of our assignments was to re/watch a number of Disney movies. This was just about the time the Snow White anniversary film came out and when I went to the video store to pick it up, there were lifesize cardboard cut-outs of the characters placed about the store. Coming around the corner of an aisle, I came abruptly face-to-face with the Stepmother. It was almost like looking in a magic mirror; I knew those cheekbones, that hair, those upturned lips. My response was immediate: Ohmigod! I'm turning into the wicked queen!


Registered User
(8/10/03 11:03 am)
Older Heroines
I'm writing a fantasy novel where the heroine is fifteen and ages only about one year during the course of the story. She needed someone older and wiser to teach her what she couldn't know, especially being motherless. I created a best friend for her who's a middle-aged woman, also giving me the opportunity to "teach" in story form things a fifteen-year-old is unlikely to know. I guess she fills a kind of crone position, though I picture her about my age (38), and I certainly do not feel like the stereotypical old crone! So my solution was to incorporate both the older and younger characters.



Unregistered User
(8/11/03 5:50 am)
getting older
African folktales have many tales of women--no longer young--who offer interesting heroine roles. My favorite character is the "wise wife"--the scenario is usually the husband gets into a problem he can't get out of by himself (such aggreeing to allow himself to be circumcised by a baboon) and the wife, with a calm and very wry sense of humor manages to rescue him. These are "domestic" heroines I guess--and they say more perhaps about the sensible center of women in the household, that husbands, men need women if they are to successfully negotiate with the larger natural (and fantastic) world. (the Tuareg--a nomadic group--call women the "ridgepole that holds up the tent"--)

The Chinese have their share of older women heroines--who are kung fu queens. In "The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk"--it is the hero's mother who has taught him the art of kung fu that has made him famous--and when he and his father are captured--it is the mother who rescues them. (in the film version of this with Jet Li it has one of my favorite lines--the mother swings herself up on a horse and goes barrelling through an army shouting "don't worry, mother will save you!" which she indeed does.

Unregistered User
(8/11/03 8:37 am)
The Yang family
For older heroines, also look at the Chinese story of the Yang family saga where the women take over their husbands' positions as generals and military commanders.


Registered User
(8/11/03 10:34 am)
Re: Older heroines
Thank you to everyone for your responses! Much appreciated, and I am definitely going to have to expand my horizens, and look at some tales from other cultures as noted above.

I may have more of an attraction to writings that are transgressive and/or subvert the traditional, and *most* likely I am anticipating stories that may be a few years down the road yet.

chirons daughter
Registered User
(8/11/03 6:04 pm)
Re: Older heroines
I love this.

I guess, since you cite a reference to Ursula LeGuin, that you have read the Earthsea books? If you haven't thought about it quite this way, you could re-read The Tombs of Atuan and then Tehanu, to compare the teenaged and the middleaged characterizations of the same hungry intelligence and impatience of the girl, and then woman, Tenar. Twice LeGuin did it in the series (and I almost think she couldn't help it or couldn't stand it otherwise): she started out with a male quest in the odd-numbered books, and then the next even-numbered book sat up and countered it, and told it from the angle of the hero's female counterpart -- once in youth, and once in midlife. It's the heart of perceptive fairness that she did.

There is a fifth book -- I haven't seen it yet, but it's on my short list.

Edited by: chirons daughter at: 8/11/03 6:10 pm
Unregistered User
(8/12/03 4:03 am)
older heroes
Aliera, thanks for de-lurking and initiating a good discussion here.

For me, too, the books that immedately come to mind are Jane's White Jenna series, and Le Guin's last three Earthsea books: Tehanu, Otherwind, and the story collection. (Is it called Tales from Earthsea?) These are all gorgeous examples of how rich fantasy tales can be when following protagonists beyond the usual coming-of-age plots. Robin Hobb's Tawny Man series also comes to mind, and Barbara Hambley's Dragonstar and Dragonsbane. Midori has some great older characters in Innamorati -- I'm thinking of the mask-maker in particular. And one finds them in numbers in magical realist literature such as Marquez's Love in thIe time of Cholera, Molly Gloss's Wild Life, Elizabeth Knox's Vintner's Luck, Marele Day's Lambs of God, Louise Erdrich's The Antelope Wife, etc. Then there are books like Linda Hogan's Power which are basically coming-of-age novels but have powerful older characters as well ... in this case, the aunt that the girl goes to live with.

Writers like Ursula Le Guin, or Carol Emshwiller, who have reached a certain age, are of course going to be more interested in writing about older protagonists than younger writers. My guess is that we'll see more older characters in the fantasy genre now that the generation of writers/editors who came into the field in the 80s (like me) are all aging. On the other hand, the coming-of-age years are such an interesting time of life (and Young Adult fantasy such a hot field right now) that we're bound to continue to see plenty of young protagonists as well.

Carolyn Heilbrun, in her fantastic little book Writing a Woman's Life, notes that historically (and I'm going to paraphrase badly here) the stories of men have tended to follow the quest plot, while women weren't generally allowed a quest plot, they were only allowed a marriage plot -- which of course *ends* with a wedding. The forging of a marriage, a career, a life, a quest *after* the wedding wasn't explored as often, as thoroughly, or as positively -- leading many women themselves to focus obsessively on that small portion of their lives where they were central to the plot (the courtship years) -- for instance, by reading romance novels over and over, or by elevating the falling-in-love part of romance over accomplishments such as creating a marriage, a family, a career, etc. She suggests that it's important to write quest plots for women and the stories of older women's concerns -- stories about what makes a good marriage, for instance, or what leads a woman, often in middle-age rather than youth, into the fullness of her vocation -- so that women too have the encouragement of knowing that other women before them have followed such quest plots...oh heck, Heilbrun explains it much better than this, I recommend reading her directly; it's a fascinating book.

What I'm trying clumsily to get at is that I think this is important in fantasy too, where we're dealing with quest plots in a very literal way, where metaphors and symbolism are the tools of our trade. Personally, I find that characters like White Jenna and the aging Ged and Tehanu are deeply important to me as I move through my own middle age and face old age ahead... particularly in a society with a youth-obsessed media, where I'm constantly being told stories through movies, television, advertisements that imply that excitement, romance, creativity, fulfillment, and beauty all belong to the young. I don't know what Otherwind, for instance, reads like if you're a sixteen year old fantasy fan, but for a 44 year old reader, the relationship forged between Tehanu and Ged, made possible only by their years, is powerful, even necessary stuff.

I had an amazing 96 year old neighbor here in Devon (she died this winter, alas) who told me: "Aside from physical stamina, I don't envy young women in their teens or twenties. You see, I'm every age I've ever been -- I'm an 18 year old girl, I'm a 23 year old young woman, I'm a middle aged woman, I'm an old woman -- I have all those selves, I'm all those ages. A 23 year old has only 23 years worth of selves. I'd never trade this richness for her youth."

I think about that when I read an older writer like Le Guin compared to a new young fantasy writer like, say, China Mieville. I admire China's work a great deal, mind you -- the vigor and freshness of youth he brings to it; I use him as an example because he's one of the best and brightest of the younger writers, for sure. But Le Guin, now, she has all those years worth of selves to draw on -- and that makes for impressive fiction indeed.

Registered User
(8/12/03 4:08 am)
Thanks, Terri. As always, a beautiful summation.

I should mention, I suppose, my books GRAY HEROES:Elder Tales from Around the World, because it does with folklore what we have been discussing in fantasy. Though I do always sound as if I am tooting my own particular horn.


Registered User
(8/13/03 9:35 am)
Re: Older heroines...wayyyy too long...
...but I seem to keep writing and never get close to the end so I better post this before it gets any longer.

Jane: Toot away! You might be interested to know that Grey Heroes was quickly recommended to me at one of the other places I have this question posted, and I'm also interested in reading your non-fiction and the book that Terri mentioned by Carolyn Heilbrun.

I have a fascination with understanding what's underneath the surface. When I read or view something for the first time, I like to do so without as they say "spoilers", but after that I'm fascinated to read what writers have to say about writing both as a craft and an Art, and also about the space where the individual reader (or viewer) melds with the work to create something more. How the reader will enfold your words and carry them with him or her and like a pebble in a pond the eventual effects might be unknown but tsumani like. I read "Gutengerg Elegies" a few weeks ago for the first time, and I was much struck by Birkett's remarks on reading as a youth:

The reading I did in late boyhood and early adolescence was passionate and private, carried on in high heat. When I went to my room and read it was to seal myself off as fully as possible in another place. I was not reading, as now, with only one part of the self. I was there body and soul... I remember so clearly the shock I would feel when ever I looked up from the vortex of the page and faced the strangely immobile world around me. My room, the trees outside the window--everything seemed so dense, so saturated with itself. Never since have I known it so intensely this colliding of realities, the current of mystery leaping the gap between them. Sven Birketts --The Gutenberg Elegies, p37

And I didn't mean to sound critical of writing for a young adult audience in any way, or for children. I hope I didn't. Like Birketts I 'll have many books that affect me now. But, I don't know if I'll ever experience books in the way I did as a teen, with that nearly all consuming passion. I can't, in fact, think of any audience that it's more important to write to.

PS On posting this in three discussion areas, if your getting a visual of me as a grey furred terrier worrying a large bone… you've pretty much got it right!

Chiron's Daughter:
Thank you! I have read Le Guin but I would like to give your suggestion about the comparision reading a try. It sounds intriguing.

To your question about the switching of gender in the protagonist, my impression is perhaps slightly different in regards to the Other Winds Book. I believe Le Guin's work may be, either consciously or subconsciously, reflective of the larger gender issues we're hearing so much about in society today. Just for two small pieces of this, last week, I read a friend's paper on Japanese Manga in which one of the main subtopics was the issue of young females appropriation? of Beautiful boy stories, and an essay on the gender blending in Buffy the Vampire Slayer particularly as seen in the character of Spike, not just on the show but in the prolific fan fiction, where the feminine coding of the character seems even more pronounced.

From the Green Man Review of Other Winds:

(edited to remove quote... since belatedly realized the GM requests no quoting w/o prior permission)

From the review, she's doing many things with the book; but, I have the sense that one thing is Le Guin is bringing us or working towards a blending of the stories that are possible for each character both men and women, old and young, and I think (hope) it's where we're headed as a society also:

Le Guin writes elsewhere, "Praise then creation unfinished!"

Farther west than west
beyond the land
my people are dancing
on the other wind.

the song of the Woman of Kemay

Terry: Thanks for the reply! Do you feel in any sense that you are talking to yourself since my original quote came from you? I hope you don't mind that I posted it here.

That quote really caught my attention when I read the Summer issue of JMA, in that it echoed something I was already wondering about. There's a delicacy in my wonderment in that I don't wanted to criticize the wonderful work that being done by both women and men today. But more, as a friend of mine once said, "in the spirit of a young child jumping on the bed", I am very, very curious.

I was also struck by what you mentioned about cultural messages, and by DonnaQ's mention of her dream of the Wicked Queen, for here is a older character that epitomizes obsession with youth and beauty and to a very bad end.

We have still the message that you need to be young and beautiful to be happy. I thought of this in Midori's body art thread, that we’re not just painting ourselves but through chemicals and plastic surgery we've become interested in sculpting now too. And yet there's this old dichotomy of donuts next to diet pills, and of the beautiful young girl juxtapositioned against the Wicked Stepmother. All very odd. I still have hope for the stories we tell ourselves over the stories some of the commercials and other media tell. And that we may come to a multiple visions of the Queen, not just as villainess. For some reason the Fisher King pops into my head. No idea why. Also, just a sidenote, instead of getting farther away from a limited perception of beauty as we reexamine gender and aging and also culture, what you're equally likely to see is that at least in one way we've expanded the problem. Boys are now receiving the same types of messages about physical appearance.

Back to your post: I think that Magical Realism is one of the genres that caught my attention as I was writing the original bit, not just for itself but for the way it has perhaps opened the door for further blending of the genres, and expansion, and encompassing, the feel of this is very close to the potentiality I'm feeling for women's (and men's) stories in general. The image is the three faces of the goddess no longer split apart; but instead all blending together. Very like what your wise friend had to say.

And I also wonder if with how many popular magical realism works were published (I felt for a while that there was an emphasis here and away from quest or alternate worlds) hopefully, created greater exposure to fantasy, since many of the books I'm think of end up shelved in regular fiction. I wonder where they are putting Chabon's Summerlands?

In Magical Realism it's as if, faery and reality were no longer separate but all mixed together. That magic permeates everything. Isn't this the feeling that some have as children that the real world is full of enchanted cupboards, and mystical beasts and monsters… Magic. So with this reading of "reality" there's a blending of the childlike and older or the "realistic." A potentiality for a different view of the world, one which embraces the possibility of the inexplicable, which falls in love again with Mystery, which doesn't require the giving up of Magic as a prerequisite to adulthood.

The Romance genre also is very interesting… the average age according to one article of their readers is thirty and the typical reader buys many books in a given year. So you would have the market to supoort a niche. My percepetion is that there's a strong and vocal interchange online and otherwise, between fans and writers. Two things. In the last couple of years, I notice what seemd like a large number of romance books with blending into fantasy/horror or SF and there is a niche market for books about older heroines. Don't know where I 'm going with this though.

It is true that theses heroines are (or become) focused on romance; but, if we look at one of my favorites: Crusie's Tell Me Lies, we have a 38 year old heroine whose primary concern is not the romance but self actualization. The romance becomes one of the ways she (and the writer) explores this. And it very clearly falls into the what happens "after" the "happily ever" part… when you kiss the prince and he becomes a frog. I may be doing a disservice to frogs here. This is the shift I am lookin towards… realization of self at other ages.

There was so much in your posts that echoed or reinforced what I'm feeling at this time. SureLaLune and Endicott Studios are both two of my regular watering holes… in a very Campbellian sense of not just a place to stop, but as liminal and transformational space, a doorway. Thanks again, everyone… this is a thread I'll be printing and saving.

For there are only two worlds -- your world, which is the real world, and other worlds, the fantasy. Worlds like this are worlds of the human imagination: their reality, or lack of reality, is not important. What is important is that they are there. These worlds provide an alternative. Provide an escape. Provide a threat. Provide a dream, and power, provide refuge, and pain. They give your world meaning. They do not exist; and thus they are all that matters. Neil Gaiman--Books of Magic

I might have worded the last bit a little differently; but none-the-less. ;-) And thanks once again to everyone in the thread; I've really enjoyed the conversation, and am very tickled that others enjoyed it too.

Edited by: Aliera at: 8/13/03 5:25 pm
Registered User
(8/13/03 12:31 pm)
Re: Older heroines...wayyyy too long...
The first fairy tale I wrote, The Heart of the Matter, was inspired by a friend turning 40 and explores the fact that many of us have put our own dreams on hold while we raised a family or simply struggled to make a living. The unnamed heroine does find a way to continue her personal quest after years of looking after others.

You can read an excerpt on my website

or I could email you the text if you would like. It is about 4,000 words long.

Keep looking. There are some great older heroines, though I would like to see more that are still fully active (physically & sexually) rather than "wise crones" sitting around waiting to hand out knowledge.

Registered User
(8/13/03 7:32 pm)
Re: Older heroines...wayyyy too long...
Thank you, that would be lovely. Can I email you through the web site?

No worries... I'll certainly keep looking for tales. I'm not sure I'd be able not to actually.

Registered User
(8/16/03 8:37 pm)
Ongoing on older....

Are you familiar with the work of Charles DeLint? He is well known for the strong female characters that permeate his books. The women come in all age ranges and are wonderfully remarkable in a heroic, yet very real way.

FYI: My run-in with the wicked queen in the video store broached no negativity. I found it rather amusing, actually! "Please Pass the Salt," the poem that resulted from this "meeting" can be found on my Home Page. Perhaps "Mirror, Mirror" and/or "Fireside Views" may be of some interest to you as well.

(You can also click on Donna~Q~ in the corner of this post and then click on the link there to my personal site. Then go to Fairy Tale Poetry.)

While I'm at it: (posting, that is) I'd just like to say "THANKS" to Heidi and all the contributers to this board for the consistently informative and inspirational discussions!

Edited by: DonnaQ at: 8/16/03 8:50 pm
Registered User
(8/17/03 4:21 pm)
Re: Ongoing on older....
Thanks, wonderful (or rather wicked!) Could I put a link up in my Journal to your poems to share with friends?

Registered User
(8/19/03 11:30 pm)
Re: Ongoing on older....
Aliera ->

Can you send me an addy to your journal site? If you'd prefer to contact me off-board, you may do so at


Edited by: DonnaQ at: 8/19/03 11:32 pm
Registered User
(8/20/03 4:28 am)
Re: The Journal....
Certainly, it's:

My journal is more of a scrapbook of things that strike my fancy but aren't really OT to my discussion groups. The entries that are viewable to the average visitor are all public. That means that not only can you read them but by clicking on comments you can view any ensuing conversation, and by clicking on reply anywhere you can participate.

You'll see a few for Endicott Studio and SurLaLune if you scroll down past the Gambara and pre-1700's women writers notes... most recently a mermaids entry (prompted by all the rain we've gotten here in Albany) and the question about mature heroines, and there's one about writers block that was prompted by the query of an acquaintance who's currently dealing with it. Throughout the journal, much poetry of course. And I've been rereading the Endicott Studio site so it's been in my mind of late, hence the recommendations and the links.

At the very top of the page, you'll see User Info. Clicking on that, will take you to a listing of interests and friends and a few RSS feeds like Gaiman's blog. Most of my friends are are involved in either writing or Buffy (the late Joss Whedon show.) You can also reach me through the email address on that page.


Edited to add: Just wanted to say that I'm not promo-ing the journal in any way. But, of course, the invitation to visit is extended to everyone here.

Edited by: Aliera at: 8/20/03 5:18 am

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