A Love Letter to “The Song of the Lioness”
Young adult fiction need not be trivial, silly, or irrelevant to our lives. This topic has come up often in the last several years, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, through the Uglies and The Giver. These books impact the readers in significant ways, whether adult or teenager or somewhere inbetween. So today I come to you with a recommendation, for Tamora Pierce’s quartet the Song of the Lioness.
I read the short volumes about Alanna so many times that my local library probably had to replace their copies from dog ears, fingers sliding along the edge, and being stuffed into backpacks. What really got me into the internet when we still had dial-up and I had to sneak on the computer after my parents were asleep was a Tortall-set roleplaying game called Daughters of the Goddess. I bonded with my first real friend in high school looking back at these books. But I’d also say that what really got me into feminism was this series.
The quartet begins in a typical manner: In a quasi-medieval fantasy world, Alanna switches places with her brother in order to join the school for knights, disguising herself and revealing her secret to few. We’ve all heard a story of the girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to join a certain order; in a way, this is nothing new.
And yet it is, in a manner that is hard to convey unless you’ve read them. I will do my best here to outline the elements that for me make this an ideal series for women of any age to read.
Here are some of the elements that make this series stand out for me:
Questioning and a dialogue with traditional gender roles. Alanna is not simply the gender-bending “woman who rides like a man”, she is also the teenage girl who struggles to find a balance between her occupation/goal and the moments she can steal away to try on dresses with mother-figure Eleni. She is also the lady knight who has to navigate her profession in the double-bind of any woman in an old boys’ club.
A secondary role for romance. The place romance occupies for Alanna is not wholly absent, but it is not her main project. In the Hand of the Goddess, she states:
“I just want to be a warrior maiden and go on adventures. I don’t want to fall in love, especially not with George or Jon. They’ll ask me to give them parts of me. I want to keep me for myself. I don’t want to give me away.” (In the Hand of the Goddess, emphasis original)
Alanna aligns herself definitely with a partner only when she feels ready to: not upon proposals from her suitors, and not at the cost of her passion of knighthood, nor a sacrifice of her self.
Overwhelmingly, the use of magic in these books is mastered and linked with women, Alanna learning to master her own powers from the Goddess. Pierce strives for an “equalizing effect of magic. It’s really hard to keep an entire sex down when they can turn around and do all kinds of nasty things to you with magic. … If it were the real world I wouldn’t be able to get away with it, but this is a world where women as well as men can apply magic, so that tends to even the playing field.” (source). There is something incredibly powerful about the idea of women using magic to fight back against the patriarchal, imperialistic, disciplinary systems; something that perhaps the western world’s own histories and obsessions with witches reflects.
We also get a portrayal of class conflict / differences in this series. Readers not only read descriptions of Alanna’s world of knights-in-training and her friend George’s world of lower-class struggle, we feel the tension it creates between them. However, in comparison to Pierce’s more recent books, this series does not engage much with POC: the main non-white ethnicities we learn of are the Bazhir and the Shang. On this topic, many bloggers are divided: some see Pierce’s portrayals as problematic and reinforcing stereotypes, while others have argued their presence is positive. Although I have not kept up with some of Pierce’s recent work, her series seem to have become increasingly intersectional and pluralized.
Among many fantasy books, this is at the perfect level for young adults: medieval-esque, full of magic, but also very personal and emotion focused. I urge every reader: tell your sisters, daughters, cousins, mothers, anyone to pick these up from your local library or to (re)read the novels that have had the same influence on you.
Reader submission by Emily R. Douglas
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