One of the things I’ve always loved about fantasy literature is that it provides an escape from the real world. When I’m comfortably ensconced in a Robin McKinley novel or re-reading the Wheel of Time series for the ninetieth time, I am not worried about real life things like job hunting or school loans. It’s a mini-vacation from the suckiness of meatspace, and so it’s all the more depressing when some of the crappiest things in real life—sexism, racism, entrenched heteronormativity—show up in my fantasy novels.
One of my biggest frustrations in this sense is that, because fantasy novels seem to have become synonymous with “medieval stuff but with magic”, women are constantly relegated to the tasks and roles that would have been theirs during the Middle Ages. There’s a lot of embroidery and marriage-drama, and the female characters who do defy the gender norms are not met with societal acceptance or approval. Unfortunately, in the case of a lot of fantasy novels, even the mythical deities seem to have been stuck into very traditional gender roles.
I first noticed this in A Song of Ice and Fire with the Seven, the seven-faced deity that is worshiped by many Westerosi. The seven aspects of the god are thus: the Father, the Warrior, the Smith, the Mother, the Maiden, the Crone, and the Stranger. The first three are masculine aspects, the second three are female aspects, and the Stranger is of indeterminate gender. The male aspects are diverse and based on profession, and what one does with one’s skills, be they nurturing, destructive, or creative. They allow for a wide range of interpretations as far as what it means to be masculine is concerned.
The feminine aspects, on the other hand, are based on a much more limited view of female agency. You can be a maiden, a.k.a. a virgin—a dated concept that suggests that men’s penises are so important that they can change the inherent worth of a woman’s body. Being virginal comes with the connotations of being sweet, shy, and innocent. You can be a mother, another kind and nurturing archetype, or you can be a crone, which is a word with connotations of ugliness and maleficence. All of these aspects hinge on the presence of men to create them: a maiden is only a maiden until she lays with a man, and then she may become a mother; once she is no longer of worth to the male gaze, she becomes a crone. Compare these with the more profession-based options of the male aspects. Why couldn’t the Artist or the Queen be a female aspect rather than the ones presented?
In modern neopaganism in the real world, the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity, also called the Triple Goddess, is actually often considered a feminist rejection of patriarchal religious beliefs. However, society in George R. R. Martin’s world hasn’t really progressed to a realm of philosophical thought where concepts like “reclaiming slurs and/or identities with negative implications” is something people are worried about.
This tradition of heteromormativity is also present in The Lord of the Rings’ mythology. The female Valar in Tolkien’s writings are similarly relegated to feminine patronships. While male Valar like Ulmo and Tulkas guard the seas and fight, respectively; the women of the Valar weave, garden, cry, dance, and heal.
This is not to say that the female Valar are not powerful in their own right, nor to say that traditionally feminine pastimes are not worth pursuing; rather, the problem arises when there is no other option for women besides the traditional. It’s no wonder, then, that there are only two notable female warriors in the annals of Middle-Earth, Lúthien and Éowyn. Tolkien’s women are given no female deity or role model that says they can be anything besides wives and nurturers.
What’s disappointing about this, in the end, is that these authors clearly do possess endless imagination. They have created worlds that I could have never dreamed up on my own, but they cannot imagine their realms without putting even the most powerful of their characters into the most simplistic of gender boxes. It’s not even like there isn’t a precedent for goddesses who eschew gender roles in real historical belief systems. Tolkien’s mythology is based heavily on the Old Norse deities, which included goddesses like Freya, who is associated with war and death, among other things. And in Greek mythology, Athena was the goddess of war, and Artemis rejected male companionship to hunt in the woods with her nymphs. There’s no reason, aside from institutionalized sexism, that the diverse women of these tremendous fantasy worlds should not have a diverse pantheon to pray to.