Wonder women

dragon
Lifesize (?) dragon sculpture outside a bedroom window, Miskin Manor, Cardiff

Jessica Yates editor
Dragons and Warrior Daughters:
fantasy stories by women writers

Lions Tracks 1989

This is a pleasing collection of eight short stories by seven female fantasy writers, featuring pieces which mostly appeared in the 70s and 80s with the earliest first published in the 1930s. Here are big names such as Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee and Robin McKinley, with a couple of doyennes like Vera Chapman and C L Moore, plus one author I know really well — Diana Wynne Jones — and another whom I’d not previously come across — Pat McIntosh. The title gives an inkling of what’s in store: yes, there are dragons (three tales with these), and there are female warriors (three in total), but the collection ranges a little more widely than is implied. Most have settings which feel medieval, but a couple are less constrained, either deliberately located in some parallel universe or involving a descent into nightmare and horror.

Jane Yolen’s ‘Dragonfield’ (1985) is about the depredations of a dragon which have to be combatted in the traditional way by a village having to find a dragon slayer. Easier said than done. In the end the young man foolish enough to volunteer is aided by Tansy, a young herbalist who recognises that fireweed (unrelated though to the rosebay willowherb we also know as fireweed) may be the way to defeat the threat. Gentle humour suffuses this piece — for example Lancot, the unlikely hero, bears a name that only faintly echoes a certain Arthurian knight — equally, the tale wears its message of female empowerment lightly.

‘Draco, Draco’ (1984), by Tanith Lee, is also a tale of dragon-slaying, but all is not as it seems. Despite more Arthurian echoes — an unlikely hero called Caiy, a Merlin-like apothecary, a sacrificial victim with a name reminiscent of Merlin’s paramour and the action set in the post-Roman period — the narrative doesn’t pan out as you might expect it: Niemeh, the brave but unfortunate damsel, is indirectly the cause of the dragon’s death. A fine, bittersweet tale to contrast with the preceding story.

The first of Pat McIntosh’s two pieces is entitled ‘Falcon’s Mate’ (1974). Thula, the first truly warrior daughter of the collection, is escorting a bride-to-be to her intended, an aged merchant, when it becomes clear something is amiss and that the young woman may not turn out to be a virgo intacta by journey’s end. On a superficial level this seems to be a straightforward swords-and-sorcery story, but I noticed that there are more subtle undercurrents below the surface. First, the title: this appears to be related to ‘checkmate’ in the game of chess, and indeed a medieval type of board game makes its appearance a couple of times in the course of the narrative. But it also reminded of a line in the famous medieval Corpus Christi Carol, itself an odd compound of riddle, nursery rhyme, lullaby and religious allegory:

Lully, lullay, lully, lullay | The faucon hath borne my mak [mate] away

The carol, with its striking images of falcon coming to abduct a betrothed and of a knight bleeding on a bed, finds its exact counterparts in this narrative. There are also clear correspondences with one of Marie de France’s medieval lais called Yonec and a similarly-themed folktale, The Canary Prince, this last included in Italo Calvino’s modern collection of Italian folktales. In all of these a shapeshifting lover comes in the form of a bird to visit his beloved, only to be mortally wounded by a sharp weapon or other object placed on or across her windowsill by a third party.

‘Cry Wolf’ (1975), the second of McIntosh’s tales, also involves the warrior Thula, who now finds herself in danger of being ejected from her order for not only failing to stop the bride-to-be from being abducted but also for associating with male warriors. But can she resist coming to the rescue of a man called Wolf who is accused of being a shapeshifter, a werewolf? Especially as she seems to be able to vicariously sense the traumatic experiences he has recently been through?

With Robin McKinley’s ‘The Healer’ (1982) we are in more familiar high fantasy territory, but without all the macho posturing. Lily is born without the ability to speak but, as if to compensate, has the gift of healing. Unfortunately she lacks the ability to heal herself, and it is not until a stranger with his own mysterious backstory arrives in the settlement that a magical way out of her impasse is offered. I liked the gentle and uplifting atmosphere created in this narrative, a real contrast to what comes next.

‘Dragon Reserve, Home Eight’ (1984) is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ quirky titles that exactly match the flavour of what is to come. Despite some SF features this is a delightful if hard-edged fantasy set on one of her so-called Related Worlds, part of a multiverse where humans live in environments like, but not quite like, ours and where magic and technology co-exist in an uneasy fashion. Siglin is a young woman investigated by the so-called Dragonate for having inherited supernatural powers somehow related to those dragons kept in a reserve on this planet, Home Eight. If proved such powers would mark her out as a witch in all but name, with the ultimate penalty being visited on her, but the arrival of an external menace throws all up in the air — meaning her suspected powers may then come in handy. As is the case with many of this author’s wonderfully offbeat stories ostensibly aimed at younger readers she doesn’t shy away from death, though you’ll be glad to know there is an upbeat ending — of sorts.

Vera Chapman is the first of a pair of doyennes amongst fantasy-writers to grace this book, and may be better known as the founder and first secretary of the Tolkien Society. Her ‘Crusader Damosel’ (1978) is rooted in the world of the 12th century and features a brief appearance of a fictional Abbess of Shaston (or, as we know it, Shaftesbury in Dorset). Adela of Stoke Bassecourt, Kent — the Crusader damosel of the title — repairs to the Abbess for help in the Holy Land when the young lady falls in love with a Templar. How Adela makes a mental connection with Hugo and how she reencounters him at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187 is the stuff of the narrative, often told as though through a dream. The ending felt a little inconsequential, perhaps because it’s one of a group of related stories collected together as The Notorious Abbess.

The final tale, ‘Black God’s Kiss’ (1934) is by C L Moore and is extraordinary in having been published a good half-century before this collection and yet having every appearance of being contemporary with the later tales. Moore, as a recognised pioneer of feminist fantasy and SF, is well represented by this short story (almost novella in fact) wherein the chatelaine of a castle proves to be a brave warrior in both the human and the supernatural worlds. Jirel is captured during the siege of her castle Joiry and virtually violated by Guillaume, her cruel conqueror. She manages to escape confinement but chooses instead to descend into the bowels of the earth, into a kind of cold inferno. Here she seeks a way to revenge herself on Guillaume — who lewdly forced a kiss on her — and hopes that she will be able to return with the means of vengeance before the dawn of a new day in the netherworld. Moore’s depiction of this hell is — almost literally — chilling, and the reading of it one feels almost happens in real time.

This is a fascinating and varied collection, depicting women who are proactive or brave — or both — in situations traditionally seen as men’s domain. The editor Jessica Yates was (maybe still is) active in the Tolkien Society and the British Science Fiction Association, and though I haven’t come across anything else she’s either edited or authored it’s clear that she had a good overview of the two interrelated genres.

• Y in my author alphabet challenge

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8 thoughts on “Wonder women

  1. That sculpture is really striking.

    I enjoyed your summaries of the tales told, and they set me to speculating about how many women fantasy writers feature female protagonists, as against men and males, and then how many reverse that. I thought I was being fairly revolutionary in featuring a female as a Champion Knight in a fantasy, but it seems I was way back in the queue.

    1. This sculpture was an unexpected but, given this is Wales, a not really surprising apparition on the parapet outside our bedroom when we stayed in this hotel.

      I think the 70s were the time female warriors came into their own, possibly as a reaction to the paucity of such figures in Tolkien (saving Eowyn in LOTR). Naturally, given the surge of feminism at that time, their time had come. When did you write your Champion Knight then, Col?

      1. I would love to have a sight like that outside my bedroom. I might have known it was Wales!
        ‘Regina’ was completed in 2008 and was thus, obviously, very late to be feminism-driven. I found it amusing to have her as the foretold Champion in a society entirely class-separated and male dominated.
        Funnily enough, I have just read, by chance, a review on a forum where ‘brats’ progressing into rounded characters was under discussion. The writer had found a copy in a library and was quite complimentary..

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