10

A careful study of Sword & Sorcery literature placed its inception as a subgenre of fantasy in 1961 with Leiber's response to Moorcock. The ensuing years (1965-1981) brought forth a meager handful of books, which ultimately led to movie adaptations of Conan the Barbarian (March 1982), quickly followed by The Sword and the Sorceror (April 1982), The Beastmaster (August 1982) and was ultimately distilled into the less-than-female-friendly DeathStalker (1983), as well as the somehow more derivative and even less-female-friendly DeathStalker II (1987).

The influences of these early forays of the genre into screenplay are easily witnessed in the more contemporary Korgoth of Barbaria (June 2006), which could either be interpreted as a celebration or satire of those earlier films due to its accurate depiction of common tropes from those movies. One thing in particular that stood out to me was the treatment (in the literary sense of the word, "the presentation or discussion of a subject") of women in that show.

I have since gone back and watched the movies (in approximate order of release date) that influenced Korgoth, and I was left with questions about the very nature of the subgenre itself.

My question relates to the historical and societal context of the early (1960s-1980's) S&S works (literature and movies):

Was there ever any branch of the Sword & Sorcery subgenre that forayed into modern feminism (i.e., contained themes pertaining to post-First Wave Feminism)?


Based on feedback from the comments, I am adding some specific criteria directly from Second Wave Feminism (~1961-1990, which coincides with the early development of the S&S subgenre). This is intended to clarify the definition of feminism as it applies in the context of this question. A relevant answer to this question would include books, movies or other works in the Sword & Sorcery subgenre that delve into some, if not all of the following topics:

  • sexuality
  • family
  • the workplace (e.g., in the context of this question: profession/trade/quest)
  • reproductive rights
  • de facto inequalities (i.e., physical/biological)
  • official legal inequalities

Also, in order to provide context to some of the comments, the original title of this question (and what I was contemplating when I originally wrote it) was:

Is the Sword & Sorcery genre inherently anti-feminist?

The reason that I'm highlighting this is to clarify that the mere presence of a female protagonist would not automatically satisfy the above criteria. Further, the revised title (Are there any examples of feminist works in the Sword and Sorcery genre?) has re-framed this question as a list-based question that excludes most of the works of the S&S genre, which was not my original intent (i.e., the question "is the genre anti-feminist?" cannot be fully answered without examples and counter-examples). Case in point, the summary of Red Sonja (1973) on Wikipedia contains the following:

Sonja is well known for her bikini armor, consisting typically of scale mail covering only her waist and breasts.

If the above character features were used a platform for plot points to cover some of the afore-mentioned criteria (either pro- or con-), then I could see it as being topically relevant to an answer. In short, I would like to see at least a few specific reasons why a particular work would satisfy (or break) the stated criteria (i.e., not a simple list), because the available online descriptions only highlight the very surface of some of these works, and there may be some non-obvious yet highly relevant themes buried in the content itself.

  • 3
    What about all the titles listed on the Wikipedia page that you linked to (your first link) under the section "Women creators and characters"? – Arcanist Lupus Apr 4 at 3:10
  • 2
    This seems maybe too broad? – Stormblessed Apr 4 at 3:13
  • 4
    Chicks in Chainmail? – user14111 Apr 4 at 3:14
  • 4
    For those who might object to @user14111's suggestion the Chicks series is about being a feminist take on the genre. And there are some really fun and/or funny romps through the tropes therein. – dmckee Apr 4 at 3:31
  • 2
    I don't know if they'd be S&S or even feminist (I tend to not parse things like that nor pay attention to labels), but my first thought on reading the title of the question was Mercedes Lackey's books, in particular the Tarma and Kethry ones. Of course they started as short stories in Sword and Sorceress, so @Stormblessed obliquely mentioned them. Not sure if you need/want more examples, though. – eshier Apr 4 at 14:13
14

This article lists quite a few sword-and-sorcery books that the author viewed as feminist1:

  • The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee (1975) along with two sequels

    • This world has an early medieval culture with “decadent imperial civilizations,” small city states, nomadic groups, constant little wars and skirmishes and conquests, swords and primitive cannons, multiple religions worshipping various deities, and powerful but mysterious magic.
      Wikipedia

    • ...the majority of the book is about women, their interactions with both men AND women, and their impact on Vazkor’s social status.
      from the linked article

    • Note that these are also science fiction, so they might not count as "sword-and-sorcery" according to some definitions.
  • The Gate to Women's Country

    • ...this critiques gender, biology, and destiny while at the same time refusing to offer any easy answers.
      Wikipedia

    • The story explores many elements from ecofeminism, which has been a hallmark of much of Tepper's writing, both in her feminist science fiction and in her pseudonymous mysteries.2
      from the linked article

Additionally, there are the Sword and Sorceress anthologies (currently 30 volumes, published yearly from 1984-present):

...Marion Zimmer Bradley...created the anthology to redress the lack of strong female protagonists in the subgenre of sword and sorcery.

Additionally, there are definitely others; these are just a few examples so that I have evidence there are feminist sword-and-sorcery works but this doesn’t become a list.

TL;DR there are definitely sword-and-sorcery works that are feminist or described as feminist.

1I've not read any of these, so they may not all be obviously within the sword-and-sorcery genre.

2 Wikipedia says "citation needed", so take that with a grain of salt. However, the author's page says she wrote "eco-feminist...science fiction literature" with a source, so this should be a particularly small grain, probably.

  • 2
    Thank you so much for providing a relevant answer to my original question. – vallismortis Apr 4 at 3:46
  • 6
    I would have thought any discussion of swords & sorcery & women would have to start with C L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry series, which began in 1934 with "Black God's Kiss". – user14111 Apr 4 at 4:40
  • 4
    I would not call The Gate to Women's Country S&S. However, Joanna Russ' The_Adventures_of_Alyx is a classic of feminist S&S. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Alyx – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Apr 4 at 8:36
  • 3
    @vallismortis -- If you're referring to what I think, the hesitancy is understandable. Newcomers should be warned specifically about MZB, so they don't have a crushing discovery later, leaving them distraught about previously fond reading. Even before her children's allegations, her defense of her husband was inexcusable. Anthologized authors shouldn't generally have work forgotten for sins of others, but Lisa Waters, who took over the anthology, is herself deeply problematic. – Jacob C. Apr 5 at 20:42
  • 2
    I'd recommend seeking out the anthologized authors in independent collections of their own works or in non-Sword & Sorceress collections and magazines, which can be found by looking up the stories' appearances via isfdb.org – Jacob C. Apr 5 at 20:45
2

Equal Rights by Terry Pratchett. The introduction says:

It may, however, help to explain why Gandalf never got married and why Merlin was a man. Because this is also a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense..."

Its overt focus is on the workplace and official legal inequalities: the protagonist, Esk, is a young girl with magical talent who is destined to become a wizard rather than a witch, but Unseen University is male-only. However the sub-text is also about the sexist assumptions in fantasy literature generally. At one point Esk considers the division of magic between the sexes on the Disc, which is very much the standard fantasy model:

She thought about wizards. [...] They were wise, she recalled, and usually very old, and they did powerful, complex and mysterious magics and almost all of them had beards. They were also, without exception, men.

[...] Witches were cunning, she recalled, and usually very old, or at least they tried to look old, and they did slightly suspicious, homely and organic magics and some of them had beards. They were also, without exception, women.

There was some fundamental problem in all that which she couldn't quite resolve.

Later on the book also touches on birth control and sex when Esk meets Hilta Goatfounder, a town witch:

"The council have tried to run me out once or twice, you know, but they all have wives and somehow it never quite happens. They say I'm not the right sort, but I say there'd be many a family in this town a good deal bigger and poorer if it wasn't for Madame Goatfounder's Pennyroyal Preventives. I know who comes into my shop, I do. I remember who buys buckeroo drops and ShoNuff Ointment, I do."

  • I appreciate the additional answer. For anyone missing the context of count the legs and divide by two - I thought I'd heard everything, but I had to look that one up. – vallismortis Apr 14 at 19:24
  • @vallismortis I'd always taken it as referring to the fact that during sex in the missionary position the woman's two legs are divided by the two legs of the man. I've never encountered the phrase elsewhere so I think Pratchett made it up as a simple one-line joke. – Paul Johnson Apr 15 at 10:35
  • There are quite a lot of other bits of feminist (or at least reaction-against-patriachy) titbits scattered around in the Diskworld, from the description of Herrena in the Light Fantastic to the gay-lib-feminist mash-up of Cheery (Cherie) Littlebottom. But a full catalog would be long and they don't make any of the other books "feminist works". – Paul Johnson Apr 15 at 10:41
0

If you accept Clarke's Law (Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.), then Cherryh's Morgaine Quadralogy ought to count.

Morgaine is a product of a technological civilization which was shattered by time-travelling gates produced by the qhal. She travels alone, on horseback and armored, passing from gate to gate, destroying each as she passes. She was once part of a team, and is now the last survivor.

Jane Yolen's Sister Light/Sister Dark and White Jenna probably fit the bill.

The two are a magical pair, and Sister Dark only manifests herself in the dark.

Chicks in Chainmail edited by Esther Friesner, definitely counts.

The title says it all.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.