By Kristin Jacques, author of Ragnarök Unwound, forthcoming from Sky Forest Press
The Valkyrie has made a comeback in a big way. While this Norse mythological figure has cropped up from time to time in the modern era, the influx and influence of mythology in recent media has lifted the Valkyrie in a new direction. There is now an abundance of depictions in comic books, novels, television shows and blockbuster films, where the Valkyrie has become synonymous with the B.A.M. (Bad Ass Motha), the tough-as-nails female heroine. This archetypal heroine is a cornerstone in several genres, such as Urban Fantasy.
This representation is not a far cry from their Norse origins, though newer incarnations present a somewhat sanitized version of the original myth, focusing on the noble characteristics of these female extensions of the All Father. The hint of their dark origins is in the etymology of their name.
To break down the old Norse Valkyrjur, Valr referred to the slain of the battlefield and kjósa, meant ‘to choose.’ Valkyrie translated to ‘Choosers of the Slain,’ a title that not only encompassed their choice of which warriors were granted Valhalla status, but who would die in battle. Valkyries didn’t shy away from invoking some heavy-duty black magics to ensure their choices came to fruition. In Njal’s Saga, there is an instance of twelve Valkyrie gathered around a loom, weaving fate like the Norns, though their materials are far grimmer. Here, the Valkyrie use intestines for thread, severed heads for weights, and swords and arrows for beaters, while they gleefully chant their hit list. The Saga of the Volsungs compares the sight of a Valkyrie to ‘staring into an open flame.’ To the Anglo-Saxons, they were spirits of carnage.
At some point the representation shifted from ‘warrior’ to ‘shield maiden,’ and there, a fine distinction began to surface. Valkyrie served as projections, parts of a greater whole. The Valkyrie were an extension of Odin, but as the focus shifted to their nobler deeds, so too did their autonomy expand. Odin might dictate their choice of who died in battle, but the Valkyrie, such as Brunhild or Sigrun, chose their lovers. They chose mortals to favor and protect. They became susceptible to the vices and failings of mortals, just like other Norse deities. They became more human.
It was this association with fairness, brightness, gold, and bloodshed that has resurfaced in depictions of the modern Valkyrie. There has also been a bit of an amputation from the All Father. A single Valkyrie is a B.A.M., but she comes with a sisterhood. Recent Valkyrie representations include everything from Tessa Thompson’s very memorable kick-butt turn as Marvel’s Valkyrie in the third Thor outing to Rachel Skarsten’s Tamsin in the fantasy femme fatale brawl that is Lost Girl. [pictured: Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok.]
In Marvel’s hot take, the Valkyrie were an elite band of female warriors who served in Odin’s army, with Thompson’s character adrift and rudderless without her sisters. (Slight spoiler: she comes back swinging.) Here at least Odin is present, but the Valkyrie, particularly Thompson, have complete autonomy over themselves.
The Valkyrie in the Canadian fantasy drama Lost Girl give a fair nod to their dark origins. Here, the Valkyrie don’t answer to Odin at all, but to Freyja. They still have the soul-taker gig, but with a twist. The Valkyrie consider one another sisters, and they fight like sisters, though the hair is off-limits.
For my own depiction of Valkyrie in Ragnarök Unwound, I draw on the more bombastic qualities present in the myths and modern incarnations in the creation of Hildr—fierce, loyal, and quite literal. Isolated from her sisters, Hildr builds a new sisterhood with the other female characters of the novel to fight the good fight.
A common factor in these modern depictions is while the Valkyrie are singularly B.A.M., the Sisterhood is a force of nature. They draw strength from one another and in turn give their strength to one another.
This mentality of sisterhood carries over into women’s culture. We all want to be Wonder Woman. We want to be the B.A.M., but we are strongest when we lift each other. We raise our sisters on our shields. No matter the depiction, the world they inhabit, or who their boss is, Valkyrie are the Sisterhood of the Fierce.
Sources: The Saga of the Volsungs The Viking Spirit by Daniel McCoy Norse-mythology.org Lost Girl Thor: Ragnarok
Featured image: Arthur Rackham, “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: The Valkyrie,” 1910
“[Friendship] was a bond worth fighting for.” – Ragnarök Unwound
I have the pleasure of introducing this month’s theme—female friendship! We’re going to do things a little bit differently today. As you know, here on Unbound, I write about the depiction of women in fiction. As you may not know, I run a micro-press called Sky Forest Press. We focus on science fiction and fantasy novels with female protagonists and diverse casts. I chose to focus on this niche because it’s a little harder to find in the bookstore, especially adult epic fantasy with female protagonists.
That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Ragnarök Unwound, written by Kristin Jacques, author of Zombies Vs. Aliens and the upcoming Marrow Charm from Parliament House Press. Ragnarök Unwound is the story of Ikepela Ives, who is known as the Fate Cipher. The Fate Cipher’s job is to untangle the threads of fate. The only problem is Ives is the first part-mortal Cipher, and no one ever taught her how to use her powers. She runs away from her duty until one day, she can’t anymore. A Valkyrie locates her in a bar and pleads for her help in stopping Ragnarök, which has been set in motion. Jacques blends Norse and Hawaiian mythology for a truly unique tale filled with a unique ensemble cast.
Ives is an endearing protagonist. She’s a little bit snarky, a little bit messy, a little bit awesome. She deals with having one foot in the world of mortals and one foot in the world of gods—if not gracefully, then with an awful lot of heart. But the real charm of the book is the friendships she makes. At the beginning of the story, she’s already friends with Jules, a brownie. Along her journey to stop Ragnarök, she acquires Hildr the Valkyrie and Hel, the Goddess of Death, too (and a few boys, but that’s not what this post is about!).
And each woman is unique. Jules, because she’s a brownie, humorously loves cleaning, and she owes Ives a blood oath. That’s not why she sticks around, though. She sticks around because she’s friends with Ives, truly, and does whatever is in her faerie power to protect her. Hildr is a Valkyrie, a warrior from Norse mythology. She’s quite the opposite of Ives and Jules—stoic and unfamiliar with human customs. Even so, she proves her loyalty and does her part in stopping the coming apocalypse. Jacques puts a spin on Hel, the Goddess of Death, and portrays her quite differently from Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Here, she’s a gamer who doesn’t often visit the mortal realm because half her body is skeletal. With Ives, she doesn’t feel the need to glamour herself to appear normal. Even though the gang is up against nearly insurmountable odds, the strength of these friendships is what gets Ives through.
I love stories of oddball people banding together to save the world, and that’s really what attracted me to this story and why I wanted it for Sky Forest Press. I’m hopeful that you’ll enjoy it, too! Ragnarök Unwound will be published on January 8, 2019, but you can add it to your Goodreads list now. You can also check out Kristin and Sky Forest Press on Twitter.
[Featured image: The Ride of the Valkyrs by John Charles Dollman. 1909]
The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts are one of those dark spots of American history that continue to intrigue us even as they warn us about the dangers of mass hysteria and the necessity of due process. As is often the case, the history surrounding this has not been kind to some of these women. We remember the initial accusers—Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and others—as hysterical and attention-seeking, a view that Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible only solidified.
Some women, like Tituba, we barely remember at all, and what we do is hardly accurate. She’s been immortalized in works such as Miller’s or Marion Starkey’s 1949 book The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials, both of which depict her as the cause, however unwittingly and indirectly, of the witch hunt. Starkey suggests that, “in the absence of the elder Parrises, Tituba yielded to the temptation to show [Betty and Abigail] tricks and spells, fragments of something like voodoo remembered from the Barbados” (Starkey 30). She goes so far as to say she put Betty under “the spell of an evil, thrilling dream” (30). Neither is Miller concerned with historical truth when he suggests that hysteria arises because Samuel Parris catches his daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail, in the forest with Tituba, dancing and “traffick[ing] with spirits” (Miller 10). He then says to Abigail, “I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She were swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!” (10)
Essentially, both Starkey and Miller attribute the cause of the hysteria to Tituba’s otherness, whether she’s simply telling the girls stories from her home of Barbados or deliberately teaching them “voodoo.” In reality, we know very little about Tituba. But in her 1986 novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé blends history and fantasy in order to give Tituba a fully realized narrative.
After her mother is hanged for stabbing her master in self-defense, Tituba learns about healing herbs from a woman on the island named Mama Yaya. Mama Yaya also teaches her that “death is merely a passageway and the door always remains open” (Condé 124). Throughout the novel, Tituba is able to talk to and consult with her dead loved ones, her mother and Mama Yaya among them.
As E.J. wrote about Baba Yaga, the witch Condé presents is just as adept at healing as at harming. “I was born to heal,” Tituba says, “not frighten” (12). In death, Mama Yaya warns her that even though she won’t be able to escape the white man’s world, she needs to use her powers to serve others and not for revenge.
This is tested when Samuel Parris brings Tituba and her husband, John Indian, to Massachusetts as slaves. Here, the story becomes familiar. Tituba grows fond of Parris’s wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Betsey. They’re sickly and have little stimulation, so she makes herbal remedies to help them feel better and entertains them with stories about Barbados. It’s Abigail, though, who learns of Tituba’s innocent acts and turns their intentions sinister. Eventually, she’s the one who leads Betsey and the other girls in the accusations.
Condé deliberately ties the girls’ accusation of Tituba to her blackness. In Salem Village, the adults view Tituba and John as having “close connections with Satan” simply because of their skin color. Betsey and the rest of the girls pick up on this belief and eventually turn against Tituba. Later, once Tituba has left Salem Village, she learns that “[t]he girls were being manipulated by their parents. It was all a question of land, money, and old rivalries” (129). She was merely a scapegoat, like many “witches” throughout history. Witches make easy scapegoats because, as K.P. wrote, they live on the outskirts of society while challenging the power structures in place. Tituba was an easy target because of her otherness. She was black and had knowledge the villagers of Salem couldn’t fit into their worldview.
In different parts of the novel, “witch” is defined differently. The girls, before they’re afflicted, define a witch as “someone who has made a pact with the devil” (61). Hester tells Tituba what Cotton Mather says of witches: “Witches do strange and evil things. They cannot perform true miracles; these can only be accomplished by the visible saints and emissaries of the Lord.” (96)
It’s not until late in Tituba’s story, when yet another man has demanded yet another thing from her, that she realizes the truth. “Everyone gives that word [witch] a different meaning. Everyone believes he can fashion a witch to his way of thinking so that she will satisfy his ambitions, dreams, and desires…” (146)
Therein lies the truth of this novel. A witch can’t define herself. Society always does it for her. Tituba doesn’t think of herself as a witch until she’s called one by others. People like Abigail Williams demand unreasonable things from witches, and when these demands can’t be fulfilled, they turn on them. Witches hardly ever get to tell their story, which is part of the reason audiences latch onto stories like Elphaba’s in Wicked. Similarly, in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé gives Tituba the voice she’s been denied all these centuries.
Condé, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. The Random House Publishing Group.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Penguin Books.
Starkey, Marion. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. Anchor Books.
You tell ’em I’m coming… and Hell’s coming with me.
I’ve often thought these words, while said by Wyatt Earp in the movie Tombstone, had to have been first uttered by a pissed-off witch somewhere in history.
Women overcrowd the rosters of those who bear the label of witch. Even in the modern lexicon, the very word summons the image of a woman… specifically a threatening woman. But why? What is it about these women that are threatening? What about them warranted the extreme punishments we’ve all read about? Was it really just religious?
In my opinion, it was not so simple. I see witch hysteria as one of the many incarnations of the status quo reaction to female agency.
Interestingly enough, the major historic witch hysterias occurred during periods of significant change or disruptions to social norms. In fact, attacks on women in general have been heightened when a social system feels threatened by change.
All witches are dangerous, but more than that, they are influencing, they can spread their ideas to others, they are able to trick or enchant others to their will. Witches are not merely black sheep who do not fit into the social structure, they are dangerous because they are women who buck the system. Even further, they have the ability to instill their ideas as the foundation of a new configuration, disrupting the original power structure, converting it into something new if left unchecked. This is why, during times of witch hysteria, it became important for the existing power structure to expose and eliminate witches. These women were powerful and threatening because they were capable of changing minds and bringing new ideas that decrease the authority of the existing order. It is important we identify witches less with witchcraft, but with women whose ideas, lifestyle and practices challenge patriarchy.
Classical tales seek to teach that women of power are not only dangerous to entire families but also communities. Witches are featured prominently as the stepmother who is wicked and has usurped not only the position of a loved mother but male power. From hunting Snow White to turning children into swans, she disrupts the status quo to the detriment of all. The lesson is clear, if women get power they will cause harm for everyone, men and women alike. It is no wonder, when we examine historic accounts of witch trials, torture, executions and burials they are all conducted with a sense of urgency. It seems that people of the past feared that even in death, these women had the power to spread her ideas. Her very existence having happened at all, is threatening.
Witches feature prominently in my fiction. Sometimes they are purely tattered ghosts of my imagination, but frequently, they are based on a historic figure. In my short story, Tides and Lavender, I created a fictionalized version of the Scottish witch Lilias Adie. What attracted me to her was the manner in which she was buried.
After being tortured and confessing to being a witch, Lilias Adie died in prison and was subsequently buried within a brackish mudflat. Beliefs from the time included the fear that dead witch could rise again, animated by the devil himself, so a hefty stone was placed over her grave sight to ensure she was unable to do so.
In my story, Lilas is buried alive and of course, she does indeed rise again. The fear surrounding a revenant is less about the actions of the undead, but the ability to extend their corruption beyond themselves; zombies bite and create new zombies, vampires suck the blood of others and turn them into mindless servants, companions or new fully independent vampires. They can spread these things to people you know and love, turning them into not only strangers but into villains in their own right. But witches, even in their monstrous fictional form do not spread a physical “disease,” for lack of a better term. Witches spread ideas that are counter to the civilized structure of the society.
Western witch hysterias of the 17th and 18th centuries coincides with the Reformation and Counter Reformation. For a society dominated by the rules of Catholic Christianity for centuries, the threat of Protestantism was just as threatening to the social structure as it was the spiritual. Witches in Catholic regions were accused of fouling the Eucharist or using it for spells. Protestant regions were much more susceptible to this phenomenon. This may be due to the intense need to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Church as beacons of righteousness and in doing so, validate their emerging social structures. This opened the possibility for many ideas and it is no wonder that female agency was particularly suppressed during this transition.
The Lilias Adie of my story is victim to all these things. She recognizes that the label of witch is an attempt to separate her from other women and that the strategy of “divide and conquer” has been effective against women. She chooses otherwise, even in the face of betrayals from her fellow women. In doing so, she plants the seeds of female resistance.
My fictional Lilias is terrifying and angry, she is raw with pain. She is the victim, but despite her torture and death, she rises again. She can’t be held down, no matter how many stones that are put over her grave.
When she rises, it is terrible, but more importantly it is infectious.
Featured Image: Oz the Great and Powerful – Movie Poster 2013
As we read in K.P.’s post, crops and harvest were inescapable concerns of life in ancient civilizations. Today, unless we’re farmers of some sort, we think about the harvest less, but it’s no less important. However essential it is to human life, it’s not exactly the stuff of heroic sagas. Unless they’re writing about a farming family or community who might be devastated by a bad harvest, authors tend to stay away from this theme. Usually, the closest fantasy comes to mentioning it is by making the protagonist an idealistic farm boy who’s somehow the long-lost son of the king and therefore is “the chosen one.”
All of that is to explain why this month, I had to get a little creative when it came to keeping with the theme. I’m going to look at Soul of the World, the first book in the Ascension Cycle, an epic fantasy series by David Mealing. The world is inspired by the European settlement of North America. On the coastline are the colonies of Sarresant, including the capital city of New Sarresant, whose culture is reminiscent of France. To the south are the colonies of Gand, reminiscent of England. To the west of the colonies is the Great Barrier, which separates them from tribes indigenous to the land, among them the Sinari, from which one of the protagonist hails.
Crop harvests are certainly of concern to characters in the story. In fact, the New Sarresant colonies are experiencing food shortages, which help foment the growing revolution against the monarch in Sarresant proper. Although this is an important aspect of the world-building, I’m focusing instead on the harvesting of magic. The book deals with multiple systems of magic instead of the standard single system. The main system I want to look at is one wielded by Erris, one of the three main protagonists.
Erris is a binder, which means she has the ability to “bind” different energies found along leylines to either herself or others. Here’s an excerpt from her perspective: “Beneath the camp she saw the familiar network of leylines, a crosshatch of energy pulsing with colors and forms. Three she recognized: the green pods of Life, the red motes of Body, and the inky clouds of Death. All the others were gray haze, indiscernible from one another and useless if she tried to bind them. There were six known leyline energies: Body, Shelter, Life, Death, Mind, and Entropy.”  And each binding offers specific gifts. Of the bindings Erris can use, Life enhances her senses and heals wounds, Body enhances her strength and speed, and Death enables her to sever enemy bindings, thus rendering them ineffective.  The more energies a binder has access to, the more powerful and sought-after they are.
There are a finite number of energies, and binders can use only what they find in the natural world. There’s no creating bindings, but it is possible to discover them, and that’s part of what the colonies of Sarresant and Gand are fighting over. “Conquest and colonies brought the great powers gold and trade, but more important, discoveries of new bindings. The academics argued larger claims of territory led to a stronger leyline grid, able to retain a broader spectrum of energies and bolster the gifts of those who could tether them. It had proven true, though, even in her lifetime. The Thellan War, five years before, had resulted in a select few of Sarresant’s binders gaining access to Entropy.”  Part of Erris’s challenge is that the Gand commander has found a new energy, which Erris refers to as Need or Hope. When Erris realizes she, too, is one of the rare binders who can access it, she has to learn to control it on her own with no one and nothing to guide her.
What I think is interesting about this magic system is exactly why I chose to write about it for this theme. In many fantasy books, the causes and conduits of magic are relatively intangible—incantations, mysterious power only certain people or races can tap into, abilities given by the gods. But here, Mealing uses the natural world to influence this magic system. Body is plentiful where there are mass crowds of people, Entropy is caused by decay and chaos within the natural world, and Life is found near men and beasts. The energies don’t simply exist in nature; they arise from within the environment itself, which means binders like Erris basically harvest what nature offers to them. Only in this case, instead of crops, it’s energy.
In a different storyline concerning a different magic system, we learn that these energies aren’t the only things that can be harvested. A Sinari woman named Llanara gains the companionship of a kaas, a dragon-like animal who has access to magic based on a color system. For lack of a world-specific term (at least in book one), I’m calling it “color magic.” Toward the end of the book, during an attack on a neighboring tribe, she finds out about a new color. When the women of the village retaliate against her attack, Llanara’s kaas, Vekis, subdues them with merely a thought.
“What was that?” [Llanara] whispered to her companion. “What did you do to stop her?” Black.
“Black,” she murmured to herself. A new gift. “It takes away the magic of others?”
“Vekis, I would know more. You harvest it from killing our enemies?”
More silence. A maddening trait. It meant she was close, so close to understanding. 
Vekis and the other kaas are reluctant to reveal their secrets, but if Llanara is correct, his black power doesn’t come from nature. Rather, it comes from draining the magic of others. Vekis’s color magic and Erris’s power to bind are similar in their operation—in that the user needs sources of energy to draw upon—and yet vastly different in their targets. In this respect, they form a dichotomy—if not of good and evil, then at least of neutrality and evil. When Erris and other binders draw upon energy within the environment, they’re using the available natural resources, which can replenish over time. When Vekis and other kaas use their power, though, we infer that it’s less than natural and, consequently, negative. Through the use of both, Mealing creates an interesting shorthand for readers and makes it clear that the heroes are ones who ally with the natural world instead of abusing it.
 Mealing, David. Soul of the World. Orbit, 2017. Loc. 3089.
For an avid reader, I’ve never been a huge fan of the so-called western “canon.” One of the biggest reasons is that it centers male stories. Consequently, one of the most interesting and wonderful things about contemporary fiction is how certain authors engage with those stories and challenge them by revisiting families tales from a female character’s point of view. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood looks at Penelope’s life before, during, and after Odysseus’s twenty-year absence. In Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin takes a minor character from The Aeneid and expands on her story. And in Ophelia, Lisa Klein seeks to give justice to a character who receives none in her original text.
I appreciate Shakespeare. What English major doesn’t? But even though it borders on the irreverent in literature circles, I always found myself drawn more to the comedies than to the tragedies. Not only are they more fun, but they tend to feature more women and to feature them in more prominent roles. Beatrice, Viola, Rosalind—they’re all admirable and enviable in different ways. Ophelia, though? Ophelia is a very different story. She always impresses on me a deep sadness.
My freshman writing course was focused on Hamlet. I’ve seen so many adaptations and interpretations of that play that I can’t count them all, but one aspect consistently bothered me in all of them—Ophelia. She’s really handed a raw deal. Throughout the play, she’s infantilized, mocked, and forgotten. To top it all off, she goes mad and she dies. Specifically, she dies in a horrific way that’s typically coded as feminine—drowning. It’s not shown on stage, but Queen Gertrude recounts to Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, what happened:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream….
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. 
Ophelia succumbs to grief and madness after Hamlet kills her father, Polonius. When she’s collecting willow leaves to make into crowns, a branch breaks and she falls into the brook. She sings while her clothes keep her afloat for a bit, not appearing to realize she’s in danger. Then she sinks. It’s a sad fate, even sadder when you realize someone must have been close enough to see this (in order to relay it to Gertrude) but they didn’t step in to help.
In “Beware of Death by Water: Women in Myth and Fiction,” Betty Krasne examines why women and water so often go together in fiction. Typically, for male protagonists, water symbolizes destiny and rebirth. For female protagonists, though, water represents both her passive nature and her inescapable, tragic fate. When Ophelia falls, she takes no action either to save herself from drowning or to hasten her demise along. She is no master of her own fate, but nor would we expect her to be when she has no mother to teach her the ways of the world. She is alone, but not by choice. Her death can be interpreted as the result of neglect from the very people who should love her most.
Water also symbolizes purity. After having her virtue questioned by those same people—Hamlet, her brother, and her father—Ophelia is essentially isolated, and that isolation drives her, in one way or another, to the brook. Whereas male characters can be metaphorically reborn in order to find happiness in the world, women “could regain lost esteem, cleanse themselves, by being reborn into the new world”  through drowning, according to Krasne. “Perhaps it follows that there is no woman as pure as a drowned woman—one symbolically purified once and for all.”  Does her death “purify” her in Hamlet’s eyes? Even if it does, he’s not the one I’m concerned about.
The passivity of Ophelia’s death coupled with later statements in the play that suggest it was far from an accident leave us with ambiguity. Did she fall, as Gertrude suggests, and was not in her right mind enough to save herself or even, in fact, realize the danger she was in? Or, as a gravedigger suggests, did she see death as the only way to escape the cage the men in her life had created for her? Either way, her drowning instills discomfort, one Klein attempts to lessen by having her escape it entirely. With her knowledge of herbs and medicines as well as help from Horatio and even Gertrude, she’s able to fake her own death and restart her life in a convent. Though she knows no one outside Elsinore, she can’t get any more alone than she was in the castle. By paying attention to her when no one else does, Klein portrays an Ophelia who is “the author of [her] tale, not merely a player in Hamlet’s drama or a pawn in Claudius’s deadly game.”  And even though it has to smudge the source material in order to get there, Ophelia is finally granted a just ending.
Perspective is one of the most powerful tools available to writers. It defines the reader’s entry point into the story and shapes their view of the characters. One of my favorite examples of this can be seen in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. The series, which is currently made up of five books with a sixth planned, was inspired by ancient Greece. In Turner’s world, three small countries occupy a peninsula off of the main continent—Sounis in the west, Attolia in the south, and Eddis plunked between the two.
The first book in the series, simply titled The Thief, is told in first-person from Eugenides’s perspective. He’s a teenaged thief whose only chance at getting out of the Sounis prison is to try to steal a mythical stone that is said to confer on the holder the throne of Eddis. Although Eugenides, known as Gen, is the main character of this book, it’s a tertiary female character who makes only a minor appearance toward the end—the queen of Attolia. Her given name is Irene, but in Turner’s world, leaders take on the name of their country. Gen is in prison—again—when he finally meets Attolia, whom he describes as follows:
“Standing in the light, surrounded by the dark beyond the lanterns, she seemed lit by the aura of the gods. Her hair was black and held away from her face by an imitation of the woven gold band of Hephestia. Her robe was draped like a peplos, made from embroidered red velvet. She was as tall as the magus, and she was more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen. Everything about her brought to mind the old religion, and I knew that the resemblance was deliberate, intended to remind her subjects that as Hephestia ruled uncontested among the gods, this woman ruled Attolia.” 
This seems like a lot to unpack, especially if you’re not familiar with the series. Our brief glimpse of Attolia tells us two important things—she’s beautiful, and she’s powerful. However, as Gen points out just a page later, though Attolia is beautiful, she is less than kind—to the point of ruthlessness. There are even stories of how she poisoned her husband on their wedding day in order to claim the throne.
Through Turner’s deft use of Gen’s first-person point of view, readers are exposed to the tension among these three countries as well as his strong and poor opinion of the queen of Attolia. Consequently, it’s easy to side with him and dislike her. So imagine the reader’s surprise when Turner gives Attolia a point of view in book two, The Queen of Attolia, titled after the character in question. If she is ruthless, it is because she has had to be. “I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh,” she says. “I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I’ve fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I’ve seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine.”  Perhaps Gen is right when he says she’s not kind, but perhaps she was never given the chance to be.
By using Attolia’s point of view, Turner makes it clear that Gen’s initial assessment, though not wrong, isn’t the whole picture. Through her point of view, we get passages such as this: “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.”  We find that the true Attolia is a far cry from the stony-faced queen she presents to others.
Although Turner’s series offers a fully realized fantasy world as well as twisting plotlines, its biggest strength lies in the characters. I can give only a brief glimpse of Attolia’s development, especially because each installment comes with its own revelations and surprises, but I hope it’s enough to illustrate how our perception as readers is directly influenced by the perspective(s) a writer chooses. I don’t think anyone relishes being proven wrong, but in this particular case, the journey Turner takes us on in order to prove us wrong about Attolia is more rewarding than being right.
 Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. Puffin Books, 1998.
 Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia. Harper Collins, 2000.
Last month, I promised to cover Helen of Troy eventually. Since this month’s theme is “We Thought We Knew Her,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to do just that.
I certainly had an “I thought I knew her” moment with Helen of Troy when I read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. The plot of The Iliad was one my teachers had explained before, but somehow I got through school without ever having to read it. So it was an adult discovery, and boy, was I ever shocked!
Especially about Helen.
You see, I’d always heard the story of the Trojan War. The beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. How Paris chose Aphrodite because…well…love (*ahem* lust). How Aphrodite arranged for Paris to meet Helen. How Paris and Helen went back to his house in Troy…but Helen was already married, and her husband came after her. She was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” And, gosh, kind of a tart for leaving her husband.
And then I read The Iliad. While there were many things that surprised me in that text, I would like to focus on three misconceptions I had about Helen that were reversed in reading this text. Please keep in mind that Homer’s version of the story isn’t the only one, and thus these statements may be true in other versions. Still, Homer’s is a more holistic version, including perspectives from many of the main players in this drama which is why I find it a more “true-to-meaning” version.
Misconception #1: Helen went with Paris willingly
Helen was tricked into leaving Menelaus, and Homer makes it clear she’s unhappy and torn in Troy. She blames herself for the war, but it doesn’t mean she’s worthy of blame.
She tells Priam, her new father-in-law:
“Would that evil death had been my pleasure when I followed thy son hither, and left my bridal chamber and my kinfolk and my daughter, well-beloved, and the lovely companions of my girlhood. But that was not to be; wherefore I pine away with weeping” (Book III.171).
He replies that she is not to blame for the war, but that doesn’t mean Helen becomes any happier. Though Priam is sincere, she doesn’t really seem to believe him.
In Colluthus’ The Rape of Helen, Paris is disguised as Eros, the god of love (most know him as Cupid, his Romanized name). Helen follows Eros, who reveals himself to Helen as the prince of Troy and “judge of goddesses” (because he’s super humble). Helen agrees to go, saying that she does “not fear Menelaus when Troy shall have known me” (305).
This does seem to suggest that she goes willingly, doesn’t it?…
Perhaps. Until one notices the name of the poem, The Rape of Helen. The word “rape” in its earliest usage could mean an unwanted sexual advance, but it actually meant more than that. Its more common meaning was to be taken by force, i.e. kidnapped. This shows that, if it were not for the interference of the gods (and Paris), Helen would not have gone of her own free will.
In Homer, Helen blames herself for the war, but Priam is there to remind her that “thou art nowise to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, methinks, that are to blame, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans” (Book III).
Whether by Paris or the gods (or both), Helen was kidnapped and is not in Troy voluntarily.
Misconception #2: Helen’s face “launched a thousand ships.”
A truer way to say this may be…
Menelaus launched a thousand ships.
A lot is made of Helen’s beauty and the fact that the war was fought over her (which I’ll address below), but the fact is that many of the men fighting under Menelaus thought the war was pointless and didn’t even want to go. In The Iliad, for instance, Achilles doesn’t want to be there. He actually spends half of the book sitting in his tent refusing to fight because Agamemnon stole his slave girl (did I mention these guys were *super* petulant?). When he does fight, it’s only because Hector killed his BFF Patroclus; definitely not because he cared about getting Helen back.
Even without Homer, though, the other myths about Achilles tell us that he hid among a harem of women just to avoid being dragged into Menelaus’ war in the first place.
Odysseus pretended to be insane to get out of fighting.
For the Trojan side, Hector calls his own brother “evil” and a player (to use the modern term), and he pities Helen. In Book VI, he tells, Paris, “Thy people are perishing about the town and the steep wall in battle, and it is because of thee that the battle-cry and the war are ablaze about this city” (bolding mine), but he is always kind to Helen, and she even remarks that he and Priam alone have shown her such kindness.
Thus, it seems those closest to Paris and Menelaus know Helen is an excuse for the ships, not a reason.
Misconception #3: The Ten-Year Trojan War was Fought over Helen
Helen was incidental in the war.
In the poem, people often say, “we’re doing this for Helen” or “this war is for Helen,” but as the old saying goes, there are always two reasons for war: the stated reason, and the actual reason. The stated reason is Helen. The actual reason is…stupidity.
In many ways, The Iliad is an anti-war text. It certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the evils of war, as well as the impact war has on the innocent. Take, for instance, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the poem (**SPOILER ALERT**): While Hector is being slaughtered by Achilles and his body is being desecrated, Hector’s wife is upstairs in the palace, drawing him a bath (Book XXII). The contrast of Hector–arguably the most admirable warrior in the entire text–being killed in an “unfair” manner while his wife prepares for his return from battle sends a clear message that war destroys lives and families.
The other thing to consider is how much of a moron Paris is. He’s the one who starts the whole mess by selecting Aphrodite in the first place. What Hera and Athena promise him are far more lasting investments. What Aphrodite offers is a temporary investment–Helen won’t remain beautiful forever. Even the start of the war has nothing to do with Helen, not really. Rather, it’s about Paris’ sexual gratification because Helen is never anything more than an object to Paris.
Then, once Paris gets Helen, it becomes about Menelaus’ pride. Helen almost becomes collateral damage, which is the true tragedy of the story.
One might think this is a “modern interpretation.” That perhaps the ancient readers would be able to accept Helen as the “plot device” for starting the war and her fading into the background is just a part of it.
But if that were the case, I would not be writing this post and certainly not for this blog, which aims to show the prevalence of women in ancient literature.
Because even Homer himself acknowledges on multiple occasions that it is not for the sake of Helen the person, but Helen as object that they fight. This, according to Homer, is pointless and unfair, not only Helen and the Trojan women, but to the warriors forced to fight (and die). And since she’s an object, she becomes a point of lust (for Paris) and pride (for Menelaus), and for that, many, many good warriors lose their lives–not for her sake; but for the sake of Paris and Menelaus. Who are both pretty awful. (Paris is probably more awful than Menelaus, but that’s a much longer discussion…)
Hector calls out his own brother for starting the war by being selfish: “But Hector saw [Paris], and chid him with words of shame: ‘Evil Paris, most fair to look upon, thou that art mad after women, thou beguiler, would that thou hadst ne’er been born and hadst died unwed’” (Book III).
He goes on to tell his brother that Menelaus is a better warrior, and almost insinuates that he hopes Menelaus takes him in the fight because he’s a better man than Paris ever will be.
It’s not only Hector who sees through to the real reason for the war, but also his father when he reminds Helen the gods are the ones who started this war. Priam avoids directly blaming his son who chose Helen, but he acknowledges the gods have stirred up this war–which does, in fact, make sense, given that it was Eris, the goddess of discord, who started the whole apple beauty contest thing.
So is Helen the femme fatale I’d always been told she was? After all, I remember learning about the femme fatale archetype, and Helen being listed as a “good example” of such a woman–a woman who seduces men to their deaths.
Yet, when digging into the story, I just cannot come to that conclusion. Helen did not lead men to their deaths. Aphrodite did. Athena did. Paris did. Menelaus did. But Helen? Helen, like most people in these Ancient Greek dramas, was merely a pawn of the gods to use in their war. The Iliad is a good representation, not just for Ancient Greece, but also the modern-day world, of how wars often begin. Not over beautiful women…but over greed and pride.
But Helen is also a reminder that, when people are treated as objects, they do not become objects. Though to Paris, Helen was a commodity to which he thought he had a “right” (since Aphrodite “gave” her to him), Helen was a person who took on pain and blame, feeling that the world was on fire because she set it.
That, of course, was not the reality. But it was her perception that no one, no matter how any times they told her it wasn’t her fault, could change. In the story of Helen and the Trojan War, everyone loses–The Trojans, the Greeks, the heroes and the kings on both sides, the wives on both sides. No one escapes this war without injury.
But perhaps Helen loses most because she feels the weight of the responsibility. She understands the yoke to which Paris has tied her, even though he does not. Though one might take some comfort in knowing that Paris dies in the war he created because his first wife–whom he cast off for Helen–refuses to heal him, no amount of pain caused to Paris can take away the pain he caused Helen. As Lady Macbeth would say, “What’s done cannot be undone” (Shakespeare V.1)…so perhaps it’s best to consider the consequences before doing something that cannot be undone.
Though history has tried to make her an archetype, a pawn, a McGuffin in the tale of the Trojan War, Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey gives us a fuller picture of her story and her pain. Which is why it’s so important to read the original sources rather than rely on someone else’s summary–for in summary, Helen can be flat. A femme fatale. A reason so many died.
But in reading Homer, Helen ceased being an object to me and became a person. And isn’t that the purpose of literature?
Poison is frequently referred to as “a woman’s weapon” because it allows murder to be committed from a distance and often requires subterfuge to deploy, which is probably why it doesn’t come as a surprise that women were at the heart of the so-called Affair of the Poisons that plagued Louis XIV’s court from 1677 to 1682.  Both men and women of the court sought out supernatural means to win Louis’s favor. The king’s longtime mistress, Madame de Montespan, was accused of resorting to love spells to keep his affection after childbirth had changed her figure.
The unravelling began with the execution of Madame de Brinvilliers, who was charged with poisoning her father and brothers in order to inherit their estates. She and her accomplice, the Chevalier de Sainte Croix, were alleged to have used Aqua Tofana, a poison that originated in Italy and was sold primarily to women who desired to be rid of their husbands, although other sources point to arsenic being the poison of choice.  de Brinvilliers was executed in 1676 by beheading and burning at the stake.
It’s been written that in her final moments, de Brinvilliers implicated “half the people in town.”  Deaths of courtiers that previously seemed unfortunate but not suspicious were now looked at from a new perspective, jumpstarting an inquiry that would last for years and end in the execution of over thirty people.
The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley is loosely based on this time period and straddles the line between historical fiction and fantasy fiction. The story is narrated by Genevieve Pasquiers, who later becomes the famed (and fictitious) Marquise de Morville. She describes herself as “an ugly girl who can’t walk right” . Her father educates her in classical languages and philosophy, instruction which leads her to view herself as a woman of logic.
Genevieve’s mother is based on the infamous Madame de Brinvilliers. It was purported that de Brinvilliers and her lover, de Sainte Croix, tested their poisons for the thrill of it, and much like them, Madame de Pasquiers is depicted as poisoning under the guise of charity. de Pasquiers and the woman she’s based upon are arguably psychopaths, as they need little encouragement to take a life beyond the prospect of their own pleasure.
When Genevieve’s mother poisons her husband and mother-in-law, Genevieve’s uncle assaults her in an effort to take her inheritance. Genevieve vows to avenge herself and her father, runs away, and crosses paths with La Voisin, a historical figure and, supposedly, a witch. La Voisin promises Genevieve, who can truly see the future by looking in an orb of water, to make her “strong enough to destroy” her uncle and transforms her into the Marquise de Morville, a 150-year-old fortune teller.  Fortune-telling allows Genevieve to support herself as well as repay La Voisin for the education. Although Genevieve focuses on fortune-telling and leaves the poisoning to La Voisin, she’s also determined to get revenge on her uncle, and she can’t escape getting caught up in the Affair of the Poisons.
As a doctor treats Genevieve for a broken arm, he correctly guesses she’d been injured by a man and says, “If it had been one of your witches, now, you wouldn’t have lived out the week, and there wouldn’t be a mark to show.”  The implication is that patience, thought to be one of women’s primary virtues, can also aid in immorality, for women are patient enough to wait for an opportune time to slip poison into a drink, to wait for a note covered in poison to be delivered, to wait for poison to take effect.
The Oracle Glass presents a variety of women who murder for a variety of reasons—for personal pleasure, for societal advancement, for money, for revenge. In real life, these women intrigue us because they’re statistically less likely to commit murder than men. Fiction allows us to explore the motivations behind such crimes and offers a means of coping with the fact that, in real life, there are often no easy answers.
 Duramy, Benedetta F. “Catherine La Voison: Poisons and Magic at the Royal Court of Louis XIV.” Toxicology in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Philip Wexler. Academic Press, London, UK. 2017. 135-140.
 Riley, Judith Merkle. The Oracle Glass. Sourcebooks, Illinois, 2012.
Shadow on the Crown is the first book in Patricia Bracewell’s trilogy about the real-life Emma of Normandy, who was queen of England twice over. Emma was married off to King Æthelred of England in 1002 by her brother Richard, the duke of Normandy, to form an alliance they hope will keep the Danes away from their shores. Although Æthelred’s first wife was only a consort, Richard makes Emma’s crowning a requirement of the treaty.
In the context of the novel, men view women as having one purpose—to bear children. Kings, especially are in need of heirs. Before the news of her marriage, Emma overhears her brother speaking with Swein Forkbeard, the king of the Danes. She’s surprised that their conversation moves “from the breeding of horses to the breeding of children” so easily. 
Because men need women in order to further their own lines, in a way, childbirth is also where women’s power originates. Æthelred disrespects Emma and resents that her brother made crowning her part of the treaty. The one thing that would solidify her place as queen would be to give birth to a son. Before she sails for England, her mother tells her, “Never forget that your first and most important task is to bear a son. It is your son who will be your treasure and your protector, even while he is yet a babe. It is your son who will give you power, who will bind the king to you in a way that he can be bound to no other living woman.” 
In “Medieval Mothers Had to Marry and Murder to Get Their Way,” Carolyn Harris writes, “Queens were supposed to value their roles as both wives and mothers, but when forced to pick between the two, the children always came first.”  Like with Emma, there is a breaking point where queens who are both wives and mothers must choose to honor and elevate their husband or their children. Many choose their children because motherhood imparts greater power than mere wifehood.
If bearing children confers power on women in general and on queens in particular, it’s a power that isn’t absolute. Æthelred’s first wife dies in childbirth, and Bracewell mentions that Emma’s own mother had lost three children in addition to giving birth to eight surviving ones. Emma’s rival for the king’s affections, Elgiva, knows that if Emma has a child, it will reinforce her standing as queen. When Emma becomes pregnant, Elgiva has her waiting woman slip poison into Emma’s wine to cause her to miscarry. There is no easily available source for Emma experiencing a miscarriage, so it’s safe to say this is a fictional part of historical fiction. However, the point stands. Forcing Emma to miscarry is a way for Elgiva to take Emma’s power away and to assert her own.
Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, allows authors more leeway with how they represent traditional relationships. While historical fiction should adhere to facts as thoroughly as possible, fantasy, though often based on history, has no obligation to history. In Shadow on the Crown, although Emma is a queen, her power is limited. In Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins presents a medieval-Norse-inspired fantasy world where women can take the throne and rule. Women are seen as more than simply vessels for bearing children, but that doesn’t mean they can always escape the importance of motherhood.
The book follows five sisters who are daughters of the king of Thyrsland. A few years prior, Rose, the second daughter, was married off to a neighboring king, Wengest, in order to promote peace. Her central conflict is tied to her motherhood. She’s given birth to a daughter, Rowan, but Rowan’s true father is Wengest’s nephew. The king himself seems to be barren, though he doesn’t yet suspect. Unlike her historical counterparts, Rose feels a lack of power in her situation. She wrestles with her duties as a mother and a queen as well as her desires as a woman. Ultimately, much like as the historical queenly mothers Harris writes about, Rose realizes that “[s]he was a mother before she was a lover.”  Her identity as a mother, particularly the mother of a future ruler, outweighs all else.
The importance of family line comes into play with Bluebell’s story, too, even though she doesn’t have any children and expresses no desire to have any in the future. The oldest and already trained as a warrior, she’s the natural choice for her father’s heir. Wylm, the sisters’ stepbrother, is goaded by his mother into wanting his ailing stepfather’s crown. Consequently, he must come up with a plan to best Bluebell, who is said to be unkillable.
Through a misunderstanding, Wylm comes to the mistaken belief that Bluebell has a child she’s kept secret. Wylm is able to persuade the boy, Eni, to accompany him and uses him as a hostage when he confronts Bluebell for the crown. When he finally sees his stepsister, he cries out, “Is he important to you, Bluebell? Do you love him? I find it hard to believe that there’s a heart inside you.”  His opinion of Bluebell is so low that even though he believes Eni to be her son, he seems to doubt she’d give up the crown to keep Eni safe.
Wylm believes Bluebell cannot be a mother figure as well as a warrior or ruler. He believes she must choose. Consequently, when Wylm tries to push Bluebell into the role of mother and use that seemingly compromised state to his advantage, she’s able to resist that push. She’s compassionate enough to give herself up so Eni will be safe, but she’s also strong and determined enough to best her stepbrother anyway. In this, Bluebell has managed to sidestep the usual expectations that women, especially women who would be queens, marry and bear children to further the royal lines.
The common thread in Shadow on the Crown and Daughters of the Storm is that the prospect of bearing children often imparts a certain amount of power upon women. While not universally true, women like Emma of Normandy who were able to seize and use one of the few forms of power available to them can be inspiring to read about.
At one point in Daughters of the Storm, one of the sisters advises a dying woman afraid of leaving her son alone to tell herself “that, in him, you will live still. And in his children, and in their children.”  This doesn’t have to be limited to literal children, but rather legacies of any sort. Emma of Normandy lived a thousand years ago, and yet her legacy lived on through her children, and it lives on today through the stories we tell of her. So, you see, immortality is already within our reach.
Featured image: The Ordeal of Queen Emma, William Blake.
 Bracewell, Patricia. Shadow on the Crown. Harper, 2014.