Academic journal article Arthuriana

Helping Girls to Be Heroic?: Some Recent Arthurian Fiction for Young Adults

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Helping Girls to Be Heroic?: Some Recent Arthurian Fiction for Young Adults

Article excerpt

Study of the female protagonists in several post-2000 novels for young adults reveals that Morris and Reeve provide healthy and flexible models of gender roles and gender identity. In contrast, McKenzie, Springer, and Wood provide restrictive and old-fashioned ones while Kemp presents a dangerously negative model of womanhood. (FT)

In order to complement the broad survey of female-authored Arthurian fiction for children and young adults that Roberta Davidson offers in this volume, I examine eight novels for young adults published since the year 2000 but compare the work of male and female authors. Although a sample of this size cannot encompass the enormous range of fiction currently being produced, I selected these novels using the method by which most undertwenties shop for books-reading online descriptions. By purchasing several novels whose online blurbs appealed to me, I gained access to extraordinarily varied models of heroine-ism and female heroism. Certainly, contemporary Arthurian fiction continues to build upon the feminist-revisionist tradition that Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982) and Persia Woolley's Child of the Northern Spring (1987) helped to found.1 This tradition gives readers-particularly female ones-access to retellings of the Arthurian legend that displace the male-centered and overtly Christian worldview palpable in medieval texts such as Chrétien de Troyes' Chevalier de la charrette and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur.2 As Norris J. Lacy has noted, the 1990s produced nearly three thousand Arthurian works in English that constitute a 'growing body of Arthurian literature focusing primarily on female characters and written, in most but not all cases, by women.'3 Since the year 2000, both male and female writers of young adult fiction in English have continued to create both secular and pro-pagan novels with female protagonists that offer potential role models to female readers aged ten to eighteen.

A useful framework within which to study these female protagonists is that of Maureen Fries, for the categories of heroine, female hero, and female counter-hero enable readers to define with precision the gender roles at work in medieval Arthurian literature. According to Fries, a heroine inspires and awaits male heroism, frequently as a damsel in distress (e.g. Guinevere); a female hero temporarily takes action to aid male heroes, whether she is a virgin-hero or wife-hero (e.g. Enide); and a female counter-hero wields power in her own interests rather than in those of males and is often both sexually aggressive and dangerous (e.g. Morgan le Fay).4 Fries' schema certainly provides a useful starting point for considering the roles of female characters in the Arthurian tradition, but in contemporary fiction many female protagonists occupy more than one of Fries' categories while others occupy categories outside of her schema, most often those of tragic heroine and female warrior-hero. In the discussion that follows, I categorize a character as a tragic heroine if she loses the love of her life because of a flaw in her character and/or an error in judgment, and as a female warrior-hero if she wields a sword or other weapon for her own ends. Adding these two categories to Fries' schema makes it easier to distinguish between authors who offer girls models of female heroism and those who offer models of heroine-ism as well as between authors whose characters embody healthy ideas about womanhood and ones whose characters embody unhealthy ideas about it. As a group, Gerald Morris, Philip Reeve, Nancy McKenzie, Pamela Smith Hill, Nancy Springer, Maryrose Wood, and Debra A. Kemp offer some exciting additions to and revisions of standard Arthurian characters. However, their novels provide evidence that undermines any assumption either that female authors treat their female protagonists more generously, or that female authors question traditional gender roles and rigid notions of gender identity more rigorously, than do their male counterparts. …

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