Undertaking the Heroine’s Journey in Fantasy Books

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The Hero’s Journey. We all know it. We’ve seen it played out countless times–from the classic Greek myths to more modern stories like Star Wars, The Lord of the Ring, Eragon, and the game Journey.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell was the first to propose the archetype. Seeing a common pattern across various mythologies, he suggested the term “monomyth” and broke it down into 17 stages. The gist? Hero receives a quest (usually by some higher being) and leaves the comfort of his home to venture out into the wide world. The hero encounters a mentor and a ragtag band of companions on the way and, through a series of tests, becomes stronger. He succeeds in his goal and returns to the mundane world to share his wisdom and power.

Okay. Simple enough. But what about the Heroine’s Journey?

What about the experiences that pertain to women? Because while the hero’s journey can be undergone by anyone, it has a definite masculine taste and is most often associated with male characters. I mean, one of the stages is named “The Woman As Temptress.” (*raises eyebrow*)

Many people scoffed at the mere notion of a heroine’s journey. Campbell himself had reportedly said in an interview, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” (Which, if true, is enough to make you sprain your eyeballs from rolling them so hard).

Undeterred, women in the past couple of decades have come forward with their own model of the heroine’s journey. But my absolute favourite would have to be Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s interpretation, as outlined in her book, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.

The Heroine's Journey Chart

“The feminine journey is a journey in which the hero gathers the courage to face death and endure the transformation toward being reborn as a complete being in charge of her own life.”

The gist of Schmidt’s version is this: the protagonist starts out living in what they believe is a perfect life. Then something, or someone, shatters their bubble. They are yanked away from their former life–either literally or metaphorically–and they realize they must take some kind of action. Trials and tribulations follow and they fall into some dark times but crawl out of it in the end with the help of others. Fears and baddies are faced, the day is won, and the heroine returns home with a better understanding of themselves and the world.

The important difference between this and the hero’s journey is that the heroine, at some point in their journey, has to fall (Stage 6 – Death). A moment where everything goes to hell and the heroine is left dejected, defeated, and lost. Then, in stage 7 (Support), they realize that they can’t do this alone, that it’s okay to accept the help of others. This is a reaffirming of bonds between the heroine and their companion(s). And with it comes newfound strength and resolve to face their fears.

Another major difference is that the ultimate goal of a Heroine’s Journey isn’t external. It’s not the search of the holy grail or the defeating of a big bad evil. It’s a wholly personal one–an exploration of the inner self; the acceptance of one’s strengths; the proving of oneself to oneself. All that happens on the way, like facing a big bad evil, are just stepping stones.

It’s a story structure that I find myself loving more and more as I grow older. So today I showcase some fantasy stories that I think are great examples of this archetype (note: as with the hero’s journey, heroine’s journey can be undergone by anyone regardless of gender):

1. The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy by Robin Hobb

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The life of FitzChivalry Farseer as a whole can be seen as a heroine’s journey, but I think the structure is most easily evident in the final trilogy. In Fool’s Assassin, Fitz starts out with his loving wife and his adopted children in their beautiful country estate. But, as you learn learn throughout the course of the Realm of the Elderlings series, nothing is ever easy. Things–bad, terrible things–happen and Fitz must undertake his most harrowing journey yet. Fitz has never been able to easily accept love and help from those around him, and his struggles to find himself in a world that is so confusingly hostile has always been the main focus of the series for me. These struggles remain up until the very end of Assassin’s Fate, a point in which all truths are revealed and the circle is closed shut.

2. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the ForestMost of Juliet Marillier’s stories fit the bill, honestly, but Daughter of the Forest remains my favourite of hers. Sorcha is the only daughter in the Sevenwaters family. Though ignored by her father, she is wholly loved by her six brothers and her life at the Sevenwaters estate is more or less idyllic. Then a jealous stepmother steps into the picture and turns her brothers into swans. This curse will only be broken if Sorcha can make six shirts out of nettle plants and remain silent through the duration of the task. Thus begins her quest– an arduous one with many enemies and many friends.

It’s worth noting that while she finds love and support in Red, the British lord who finds her and takes her to Britain, at no point does he swoop in and carry her on his back. The journey is all Sorcha’s–all the pain and losses and tribulations. But while her inner strength is ultimately hers to uncover, it’s not done without the help of a warm hand holding onto hers.

3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted

Uprooted tells the tale of Agnieszka who is unwitting taken from the comfort of her small village to the home of the Dragon, a powerful wizard who keeps the valley safe from the dark forces of the Woods. In her journey, Agnieszka transforms from an awkward village girl who is ignorant of her magical gifts to a young woman with confidence in her abilities and the knowledge that compassion and understanding are some of the greatest weapons one can have in the face of hatred and anger.

4. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls
There’s no sweeping epic journey in A Monster Calls. At least, not of a physical kind–most of the story is set either in the protagonist’s house or his grandmother’s. But emotionally, it is a tale to rival any epic fantasy.

Connor is thirteen years old and dealing with the fact that his mother has terminal cancer and that a tree monster has taken to visiting him at night. The monster makes a deal: it will tell Connor three stories and at the end of the third, Connor will tell his own.

It’s a strange and sad story. And what I love most about it is that, at the end of it all, Connor’s main support comes from the unlikeliest of places.

Letting go can be a form of strength. And Connor’s journey is about realizing that.

 

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I’m always on the lookout for stories that follow this pattern–and there are a lot of them out there–so feel free to comment with your recommendations and suggestions for other books (of any genre) that you would include on this list.

 

Moving from YA to Adult Fantasy – Because Not All Adult Fantasy is BDSM Elves

When you’re a small child and you happen to be a frequent visitor of libraries, there’s a certain sense of ritual in moving up from one range of grade-level shelves to the next. It’s the bookish version of being elevated from squire to knight. Except you’re the one holding the sword and tapping your own shoulders. Dub dub. Rise up, Sir Katherine, Explorer of Magic Treehouses, Rescuer of Princesses in Paper Bags. Rise up in the name of our Lord Dewey.

The first time I moved from the children’s section to the YA–out from the forest of rotating pillars of chapter books to the towering skyscrapers of hardbacks and paperbacks, some even thicker than the width of my hand–I felt so damn proud and mature. I strolled over, chin-high, all four-feet of swagger and the dumb little-kid cockiness that comes with knowing that you read way above your grade-level–that you’re a “mature reader,” whatever that means. I browsed over those shelves like I’d always belonged there and knew exactly what I was looking for.

Well, when I was thirteen or so, I decided to take the same stroll over to the Adult Fantasy section. My shoulders were set. I did my casual, totally-mature-enough-for-this perusal. And my eyes caught on a particular name: R.A. Salvatore. Wow, I thought. Now that is a fantasy author name. So I snagged one of the copies and took it to the check-out counter feeling pretty good about myself.

Hours later I was staring at the pages in horror. See, up to that point I had only been exposed to one type of elves in fantasy: the pretty, regal ones from Tolkien’s world. The ones that look like they’ve been airbrushed to hell (or heaven) and back in the movies. Then I discovered Salvatore’s female drows, who were apparently very mean, casually-whip-carrying elves with a penchant for dealing out physical punishments.

I was reeling.

Was this what all modern fantasy was like? Dominatrix elves?

I stopped about two chapters in, wiser of the depraved ways of adult fantasy lovers, then reread Artemis Fowl in an attempt to cleanse my brain.

I eventually discovered books that were much more appealing for a middle school girl, and realized that, no, not all adult fantasy is BDSM elves (though nowadays I wouldn’t exactly complain if it were).

So if you are a teen, or an adult who wants to take a first dip into adult fantasy, here are some recommendations for books–new and old, popular and less-known–that blur the line between YA and adult, and may help make your transition a little less…traumatic.

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1. First Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

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Most of Sanderson’s work is accessible for younger audiences, in my opinion, but I think the first Mistborn trilogy serves as the best jumping-off point to the Cosmere universe. The series is chock full of great worldbuilding and one of the most dynamic magic systems out there, but the characters are what really sells the story. Vin’s struggles to find acceptance and love, amidst revolutions and wars and political turmoils, is one that anyone can easily empathize with. Her journey from unknown street urchin to hero will leave you fist-pumping and clinging to the edge of your seat.

2. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the Forest
The first in a series that is one of my all-time favourites, Daughter of the Forest is a take on a classic fairy tale, The Six Swans, in which a sorceress turns her stepchildren into swans. Well, all except for one–Sorcha, the sole daughter of the Sevenwaters family. The curse on her brothers will only be broken if she can make six shirts out of nettle plants (starwort, in this version) and remain silent through the duration of the task. It’s a story that is at once otherworldly and so utterly human–one of old magics, families, and sacrifice. Sorcha’s selflessness and courage and love in the face of unrelenting evil was nothing short of inspiring to me as a teenager. I think it was one of the first books I read where a “strong female protagonist” didn’t simply equate to a genderbent version of a male fantasy protagonist–physically strong, snarky, and hating “traditionally female” tasks. Though there are many retellings of the original story, Marillier’s version is one that all young women (and men) should read.

3. The Silvered by Tanya Huff

The Silvered
The Silvered is a shapeshifter story done to perfection. Aydori is a kingdom in which werewolves and mages coexist and rule together via marriage. One day, the neighbouring Empire decides to swoop in and kidnap five Mage-Pack women and everything is thrown to chaos. Now it’s up to Mirian Maylin, a mage with very little magical ability, and Tomas Hagen, brother of the Wolf Pack leader, to rescue them.

This may seem like a typical paranormal romance at a glance, but it’s not. Mirian is no heroine falling head-over-heels for the mysterious wolf boy, and Tomas is no brooding alpha douche. She’s a no-nonsense young woman with a practical approach to everything, and he’s a confused young man recovering from a recent tragedy. They’re complex characters and to see their relationship develop from wary trust to friendship (and more…?) is an absolute delight.

4. Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker

Age of Assassins
If any (softcore) grimdark deserves to be displayed on the YA table at the local bookstore without leaving me shaking my head in bafflement, it’s Age of Assassins. Fifteen-year old Girton Clubfoot is an assassin-in-training with a master who is, arguably, the best in the land. But he’s also a sheltered teenager. And when he and his master become tasked with preventing the assassination of the kingdom’s crown prince, he finds himself flung into a whirlwind of court politics. Girton is an utterly likeable character and his struggles to navigate the social cliques within the castle, fend of bullies, and deal with first-time crushes are things that all young readers can relate to.


5. A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin

A Green and Ancient Light
A Green and Ancient Light is one of those stories that feel timeless, perfect for anyone–child, teen, or adult. It’s old riddles and magical creatures and discovery of worlds that exist just beyond our own. It juxtaposes the beauty of childhood and fairy tales with the harshness of human conflict.

I would compare my experience with it to sitting on a porch on an early summer evening with my eyes closed, basking in the the caress of the waning sunlight.

A soft, gentle story for fans of The Book of Lost Things and Over the Garden Wall.