Grandmothers of Fantasy
It’s often said that, until the past two or three decades, both fantasy and SF were completely male-dominated genres. To a large extent this is true, but not entirely. For this article, rather than focus on a specific classic author or book, I thought I’d take a brief overview of some of the women who wrote fantasy up till around 1980.
In a broad sense, of course, fantasy goes right back to the birth of literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh, nearly four thousand years old at least, is a work of fantasy, as is much of the contents of the great Greek and Indian epics, a millennium or so later. Mediaeval Iceland even had a specific term for fantasy: “lying sagas” (merely indicating something implausible, without any negative sense) were distinguished from “true-seeming sagas”, which encompassed both history and realistic fiction.
Female authors weren’t unknown in antiquity – there were several female Greek poets, for instance, such as Sappho and Erinna – but none of the ancient works of fantasy are known to have been written by women. On the other hand, many were written by that prolific author Anon, so those aren’t known either to have been written by men.
The modern tradition of speculative fiction in English could be argued to have stemmed largely from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) which spawned the gothic horror genre. Several of the more prominent authors who followed him were women, notably Ann Radcliffe. Her approach to the genre, though, tended to minimise the supernatural element, often giving a rational explanation for the occurrences. It was largely her style of gothic fiction that Jane Austen parodied in Northanger Abbey.
By far the most important speculative novel written by a woman before the 20th century, of course, is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, but both this and her other speculative novel, The Last Man, an apocalyptic novel set in the future, are SF rather than fantasy, while the remainder of her work is non-speculative. Frankenstein has been called the first SF novel; although that’s a slight exaggeration, since several authors, including Cyrano de Bergerac (17th century) and the 2nd century Lucian of Samosata, recounted journeys to the moon. Nevertheless, Shelley undoubtedly made a quantum leap towards modern SF in her classic.
Apart from Mary Shelley, the major female novelists of the 19th century were strictly realist (give or take the odd ghost haunting Wuthering Heights) but at the beginning of the 20th century, a significant female author entered the growing field of children’s fantasy, pioneered by authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald. E. Nesbit wrote many children’s books, such as The Railway Children, usually about groups of siblings having adventures or getting into mischief. In a loose trilogy of books, however, the children’s adventures are with magical creatures or artefacts.
In Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet, Nesbit essentially founded the strand of fantasy in which a group of very real-world children encounters magic and bizarre happenings. C.S. Lewis later took this style into another world and to new heights, but Nesbit’s classic works are still well worth reading.
Of course, children’s books were always seen as more “suitable” for female authors than many other genres, and a number of women wrote children’s fantasy during the earlier part of the century, including P.L. Travers with the Mary Poppins books. Speculative fiction for adults was a different matter, but a few women began to cautiously break into the field in the mid-20th century, notably three very different American authors.
C. L. Moore (1911-1987) was one of the few women who wrote regularly for the fantasy and SF pulp magazines in the 30s and 40s; another was Leigh Brackett, but her speculative fiction was all SF. Moore denied that the use of initials was to hide her gender, claiming it was originally so that her employer didn’t discover she was moonlighting, but she was almost certainly making a virtue of necessity. Her early stories, appearing in Weird Tales, mostly featured the space adventurer Northwest Smith and the first sword and sorcery action heroine, Jirel of Joiry.
Moore married fellow author Henry Kuttner in 1940, and thereafter most of their work was written in collaboration – apparently, they always left the paper in the typewriter, and whichever was in the mood would work on the story in progress – but it appeared an equal partnership. Their stories came out under both names, as well as a string of pseudonyms, most notably Lewis Padgett.
Andre Norton (1912-2005) certainly changed her name (from Alice) to hide her gender, although this quickly became an open secret. She wrote numerous SF novels from 1951 onward, often for the young adult market, but is perhaps best remembered for her Witch World series, starting in 1963.
The Witch World marks a notable development in epic fantasy, and the female perspective is important in that, although many of her main characters were male. It was perhaps the first series to focus on epic conflicts more in terms of personal relationships than action, and certainly the first where both power and action involved women as well as men. The witches of Estcarp are very much the progenitors of many such potent sisterhoods.
Evangeline Walton (1907-1996), by contrast with Moore and Norton, published only three novels before the 1970s, although almost all her later books were revisions of work written between the 20s and 50s. She’s best known for a tetralogy of novels based on the Mabinogion, starting with The Island of the Mighty, combining speculative historical fiction with fantasy.
By the 1960s, several female speculative authors were emerging, often combining SF and fantasy, with no need to disguise their gender. Arguably the most important was Ursula K. LeGuin (born 1929 and, thank the Valar, still with us). LeGuin first made her name with a series of SF novels, often classified as “soft” SF (though she dislikes the term) in which the “hard” sciences like physics, chemistry and engineering take a back seat to the “soft” sciences, such as psychology, sociology and ecology. Her work includes one of the defining soft SF novels, The Left Hand of Darkness.
She’s written a number of fantasy works, but most important is the Earthsea series. Published originally for the children’s market, although generally regarded now as mainstream fantasy, Earthsea, like the Witch World, reflects a strong female perspective even though the main characters are often male, and is also notable for being possibly the first fantasy series to routinely portray non-caucasian major characters. There have so far been five Earthsea novels and a volume of short stories.
Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999) also straddled fantasy and SF with her main series, Darkover, which has been described both as SF with fantasy overtones and fantasy with SF overtones, but she also wrote several Arthurian fantasies, beginning with The Mist of Avalon. Like Evangeline Walton, these combined magical fantasy with speculative historical reconstruction of an ancient culture.
Anne McCaffery (1926-2011), like Bradley, is most famous for a series that has been classified both as fantasy and SF, the Dragonriders of Pern. Though the books are set on another planet and involve the descendents of Earth colonists, for much of the series the inhabitants of Pern have no idea of this and function very much like a traditional fantasy culture. McCaffery’s other books, such as The Ship Who Sang and The Crystal Singer, are generally solid SF.
I should also mention Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), best known for the YA novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962). However, I have to confess that I’ve never read any of L’Engle’s work, which makes it difficult to comment on. Note: must do better.
By the 1970s, although still very much in the minority, female fantasy authors were becoming more common. Norton, LeGuin, Bradley, McCaffery and L’Engle continued to publish throughout the 70s and beyond, while Walton came into her own, revising and publishing her old work.
They were joined by a number of younger authors, including Katherine Kurtz, Tanith Lee, Louise Cooper, and two excellent YA writers, Joy Chant and Susan Cooper. By the 1980s, quite a few women had entered the fray, including my favourite contemporary speculative author, Mary Gentle.
Today, whatever inequalities still remain, fantasy written by women is too common to need any special note. It’s unlikely, though, that this would have been possible without pioneers like Shelley, Nesbit, Moore, Norton, LeGuin, Bradley and the rest. They deserve to be honoured for what they made possible, as well as for the classic quality of their works.