Protection and fantasy characters

There’s a funny trend I’ve noticed lately. I’m kind of puzzled, so I’m writing this post in part because I’m really curious as to what other people think of it, and if they (alias YOU) have any explanations for it.

Most recently, this trend has shown up in two fantasy, middle-reader-ish novels that I have read lately, The Nethergrim by Matthew Jobin (a Canadian author! Yay!), and the Blackwell Pages by K. L. Armstrong and M. A. Marr, which so far consists of Loki’s Wolves and Odin’s Ravens.

Oh yeah, I should mention that I obtained an ARC of Loki’s Wolves a year or so ago at the ALA Midwinter, which means I got it from the publishers more or less directly. I’m not being paid to write about it, though, and Odin’s Ravens I picked up at my local library. Nafiza found an ARC of The Nethergrim for me and I don’t know where she got it, probably from the publisher. (But again, I’m not earning any money off this.) And now the interests of full disclosure have been served and I can return to the analyzing and help-please-reply-with-your-thoughts that this post consists of, in the main.

Oh wait, I should probably give something of a summary so you know what I’m talking about. Right. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, so my apologies in advance if the summaries sound a bit like the back of a book.

The Nethergrim is the name of “an ancient, unimaginable evil” (according to the back cover) that was killed by the hero Tristan and the wizard Vithric, who alone of sixty men survived the trek to the monster’s lair. Decades later, shortly after an anniversary fair celebrating this victory, bones recently stripped of all flesh begin appearing is secreted corners in Noonvale, the tiny village nearest to the Nethergrim’s former territory, and animals – and then children – begin disappearing. Three friends – Edmund, innkeeper’s heir who longs to study magic, Katherine, local knight’s daughter who is more at home with horses and swords than with her future as somebody’s wife, and Tom, orphan-slave who has a way with plants and animals – know they must rescue the missing children and retrace the paths taken by warriors of a previous generation. Because apparently the legend that everyone knows isn’t quite true. Katherine’s father, Sir John Marshal, also survived. As, apparently, did the Nethergrim.

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The premise of Loki’s Wolves and Odin’s Ravens is that the Norse gods are true – or were, because they’ve all died. Their descendants, however, live on, and are destined to someday fill the gods’ places in Ragnarok, the battle between gods and monsters that will end the world. (More or less.) In the South Dakota town of Blackwell, the Thorsens (guess who they’re descended from?) and the Brekkes (Loki’s heirs) have an uneasy peace – the Thorsens run the show, and the Brekkes cause trouble. Matt Thorsen is a bit of a misfit in his family, until a prophecy reveals that he will take Thor’s place leading the gods (‘ children) in battle. Matt isn’t too pleased to find out that he’s supposed to die, though. Matt and Brekke cousins Fen (shape-shifter and very protective with it) and Laurie (who isn’t much like her family, either) run away to find the right gods’ descendants in the hopes of preventing Ragnarok.

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So. They’re both easy reads, nothing too surprising (I saw most of the twists coming), mostly enjoyable. Except for this one thing that kept cropping up: protection, the idea that the female needs to be protected by a specific male, whether or not there is a romantic relationship between them. In the Blackwell Pages, Fen’s raison d’etre is to protect Laurie. I don’t mean that he has no other reason for existing as a character, but most of his actions spring from an overwhelming need to take care of his cousin. In The Nethergrim, Edmund spends quite a bit of time wishing that he could have some time alone with Katherine, and that he could show her how brave and heroic he is. In one of the final scenes, John Marshal, who earlier left Katherine alone and now decides to more permanently leave the village and his daughter in order to continue fighting evil, charges Edmund “to protect [Katherine], to stand her friend whether or not she ever returns what you feel,” and Edmund swears to do so. This, I think, is supposed to show how much Edmund has grown up over the journey, because he certainly begins as a less-than-heroic boy.*

But. Really? Edmund is fourteen. All three of them are fourteen, as Katherine so frequently points out (the implication that fourteen year olds are too young for heroic deeds is juxtaposed oddly with other characters’ reminders that Katherine is supposed to marry in the new future – a bit like the terrible irony pointed out by Vietnam protesters, that eighteen year olds were deemed old enough to go kill and be killed, but not old enough to choose their leaders). Run that by me again, will you, John Marshal? You’re entrusting your daughter (who is supposedly going marry, run a household, and rear children within the next few years) to a rather immature boy her own age who is fairly useless at most things but means well, and whom Katherine can trump at any physical contest, because that is what she loves: horses, swords, and lances, because she needs protection?

Does this add up?

In the Blackwell Pages, Fen at least has some reason for his overbearing Laurie-you-can’t-do-this-it-might-put-you-in-danger attitude: most of his relatives are shape-shifters (although the only form they can take is wolf) and at least half of them are nasty types. Similar to Edmund, Fen is asked by Laurie’s father to protect her, because he, like John Marshal, has to leave the town. Again, our three heroes (funny that – two boys and one girl) face physical danger, and it is true that Laurie doesn’t have super-strength, like Matt, or a wolf form, like Fen. But. Fen and even Matt** are annoyingly concerned with Laurie’s safety, and while their concern does them credit, they take it way too far. Checking to see if she is okay is one thing (and she certainly does the same for them); telling her she can’t do x, y, or z, is completely out of line. Also, they’re all thirteen years old, which means that at this stage in life, Laurie is probably taller than Fen and Matt. Greater height doesn’t necessarily mean greater strength (and definitely doesn’t confer invulnerability), but some acknowledgement of biology would have been nice.

Sorry. That was mean.

Don’t get me wrong, I think everybody needs people looking out for them, across sexes and generations, and chivalry in itself isn’t a bad idea, but this trend defines protection as limitation: males (whether relatives – dads or cousins – or friends, even if the male and the female are exactly the same age) setting limits on what the female character can do or know. And not because she is necessarily incapable of doing or understanding whatever it is the males are doing or learning, or whatever it is she wishes to do (whether or not the males plan to do this themselves), but because if she knows all the facts or does whatever feat, she puts herself into danger (please note, the same danger that the males voluntarily put themselves into) and the males will be unable to rescue her.

*Blink* The last time I checked, the year was 2014. In this century and place (Canada and the USA, where the authors are based), it is no longer the case that women and girls are legally and culturally/socially deemed the property of a man (father or husband). Thank God!

So… that brings me to another question, one which I’ve had on my mind for a while and is not linked solely to these books but to almost all of the fantasy and science fiction I read:

Why is it that we can imagine all things fantastical except a world in which women are equal to men?

Authors create dragons, griffins, magic that creates substance out of nothing, magic which opens doors to other worlds. Readers enthusiastically swallow conjured demons, lands that they will never inhabit, and cultures that are completely alien to theirs. And yet the one thing that almost never appears is a whole-hearted and naturalized acceptance of equality, an acceptance that is taken for granted to the point that it is completely casual and normal to the world. I’ve read plenty of the “women cannot do x” books, and plenty more of “this exceptional woman will prove that women can do y”, but what I have not found in abundance are tales where sex (and gender) exist without being somehow a problem.

I thought I’d throw that out there and see if any of you have been troubled by the same observations and questions. I was hoping that some of you have ideas or at least a shared experience – and I bet you have opinions! What do you think about this peculiar question of protection and fantasy?

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* The focal character I liked most was Tom, and he is the character whose focal point is given least. I spent a good third of the book trying to determine whether I detested Edmund or tolerated him with a limited amount of sympathy.

** One very nice thing is that there is no romantic attraction between Laurie and Matt. I was worried in the beginning of Loki’s Wolves that there would be, but fortunately no.

Oh: final complaint [and spoiler]: the Nethergrim takes the form of a young maiden. So why in the novel and in the advertising on the author’s site, is the Nethergrim consistently referred to as “him”? It reminds me a little of a similar question in Nimona, when some commenters assumed that the Hellbeast “Mr. Toasty,” despite Toasty’s emergence from (female) Nimona. Is a truly frightening and inhuman monster too powerful to be imagined female?