Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Female Characters in Heroic Fantasy

Under Ben's comment on Books for boys, Books for girls over at 10-4goodbuddy is a disagreement from "Megan." I know who many of Ben's visitors are, but I don't know this one. I don't completely disagree with her point, though I fear she didn't follow the directions and first read the post here that started it all. She would far rather be Fleur than Lucy. She attributes this to a real-girlness in the Rowlings books, in contrast to a rather stiff goodieness in Narnia. I don't think that is quite what she means, though I see what she is driving at instantly.

A clearing of clutter: Megan might just be liking the HP girls because they show the type of imperfection and rebelliousness that teenagers of both sexes admire. Ecch. She might just like modern things better than dated ones. Sigh. I hope this is not the case, and that she means something deeper, but I may be projecting depth onto her that isn't there.

There is not only a difference in the type of young female in the Harry Potter and the Narnia books, there is also a difference in how well we know them. This is only partly a function of skill - Rowlings is quite good at this, Lewis is not - it is also a function of style, technique, intent. The effect of making us feel we know a character is greatly influenced by how much conversation takes place on the page. Narrative voice also plays a part: how much the author lets us listen in on the thoughts of characters.

Do they still teach that in school, BTW? Third-person omniscient and all that?

More conversation is the more modern style, and it is also a more female style. There is no sharp distinction here: there are male authors who use much conversation and female authors who use little, but the tendency is there. This is much of why the Harry Potter books are much longer than the Chronicles of Narnia. The people talk more. Rowlings also uses phrasing that is not only more modern, but more informal. A modern reader is more likely to feel she knows Hermione than she knows Aravis, however she feels about what each is like and what happens to them.

That is a perfectly legitimate preference. It is not always a superiority, however. It depends on what effect the author is aiming for. Lewis tends to make his main Narnian characters coequal, like figures in mythology. He is not unable to do the other. In his Perelandra series there is more conversation and in the first two volumes only one main character, whose thoughts we know a great deal about. We feel we know Ransom.

The mix-and-match, crush and recrush of the later Harry Potter books would be out of place in Lewis's recounting of the tales of Narnia. The focus is on what the children are doing in Narnia, and how that affects historical events in another world. What happens inside the characters is less central to the story. It is important that Edmund, Eustace, and Aravis change, because the changes make the necessary events, the events they were called to, possible. In Rowlings, the characters are much more the point of the story.

Lewis might actually agree that the characters are more important in the eternal view. Because Eustace will live forever, whether he lives eternally as a complete pill or as a follower of Aslan is more important than all of Narnia, which will pass away. But that is what the story ultimately points to, not what it is about. To the people in the story it is the events that matter, not some fine theology of sanctification. The effect is not pure in Rowlings, either: the characters in Harry Potter are focussed more on the unfolding of events than on each other while the plot is moving forward. Yet Rowlings books are "about" Harry becoming something, and the other young wizards becoming someones. Even the titles give this away. Lewis's series is the Chronicles of Narnia. Rowlings books are about Harry.

There is a chick-lit element to Harry Potter. Heroic fantasy written from a more female perspective. Well why not? And some might greatly prefer that type of mix. As Rowlings does the heroic fantasy part with great skill, she keeps her boy audience who might otherwise start wandering away if the series progressed to going to dances becoming too much of a focus. The child readers who have grown up with Harry are likely not too bothered by the romantic angles, as they are going through them themselves. I wonder how the new readers, male and female, are doing with the series if they are reading all of them in fourth and fifth grade.

Kids who like the first few books of a series will go a long way before they give up on it, even if they like subsequent books less.

The Chronicles intentionally have more distance between the reader and the characters, because Lewis is going for a less intimate, more universal effect. The books are shorter, more mythological, and more evocative of many cultures. Harry and Hermione are definitely English, the stories are English, and even the worldwide characters who attend Hogwarts have a certain quality of being flown in to an English boarding school for multicultural purposes. There's nothing wrong with that, and readers are free to prefer that style and intimacy. Harry Potter is a fat summer novel about young wizards. The Chronicles of Narnia are folk tales fleshed out. They're just different.

Tolkien's books lie between Lewis and Rowlings on this scale of intimacy and universality. The Hobbit is more like the Chronicles of Narnia in distance at first, with its obvious narrator exclaiming "Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I had heard about him..." and the crick! crack! sound effects. It is more like a fairy tale, or a folk tale. We move into knowing Bilbo more internally as the story goes forward. Two decades later, we know Frodo in LOTR more like we know Harry. The narrative voice has become different. There is more conversation, and more dropping in on thoughts. And as this happens, the Shire becomes much more England-in-disguise, where in The Hobbit it was "a land far away."


GraniteDad said...

It's interesting. I imagined myself as Peter quite often, but never really as a character from LOTR. Maybe the intimacy of knowing the characters prevents you from replacing them with yourself?

Or maybe I just liked the idea of being High King over my brother.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, when they're a bit generic you don't identify so much as want their slot. I identify strongly with Frodo, but he's always Frodo in the story, never me in disguise.

Ben Wyman said...

I was always Edmund. Edmund was different and a loner and interesting, and in the very end of things, turned out to be the most loyal of them all. I liked that.

I don't know if they do teach third-person omniscient in schools these days. Dear me, what do they teach in schools these days?

Erin said...

To answer your question, third-person omniscient narration along with third-person limited and first person narrations. AND my kids know how to pronounce "omniscient"!