Epic Fantasy and the Eowyn Problem a Guest Post by Author G R Macallister

J.R.R. Tolkien isn’t the only dead white male author to write epic fantasy dominated by male characters, though you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the internet. The debate over his authorial intent has only increased recently as early scenes from the upcoming adaptation “The Rings of Power” have been released, showing women and non-white actors portraying Tolkien’s characters, something that depending on who you ask, is either a genius move, table stakes, or a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem.

While it was once commonplace for epic fantasy to center only its male, cisgender, generally white-coded characters, it’s much rarer today. Such books aren’t unheard of, but many of the most lauded, popular books of the past decade break that mold wide open—such as N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, winning three Hugo Awards in three consecutive years, an honor no other author or series has won in the award’s history.

Centering women’s stories doesn’t make any particular book good, just like featuring men doesn’t make a book bad, but it’s undeniable that the reading public’s expectations have changed over time. When I was a D&D-playing, Dragon Magazine-subscribing kid, I quickly devoured the limited fantasy options in my town’s tiny library: Piers Anthony’s Xanth books and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Both were popular at the time, or they wouldn’t made it to my small town, but both are now widely criticized for sexism and misogyny—and whether or not you agree with those criticisms, it’s clear that publishing either series today would have been a different enterprise.

Both Donaldson and Anthony had female characters in their fantasy novels, of course, just as Tolkien did. And in the same decades, renowned speculative works from women writers—Ursula K. LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler—put women front and center as narrators, protagonists, viewpoint characters. To say that “classic” fantasy never made room for women isn’t true—but neither is it accurate to say that women and men were set on equal footing, either in these fictional worlds or our real one.

Because when someone points out on the internet that, say, Tolkien’s work focuses pretty clearly on male characters, there’s an immediate cry of disagreement: but Arwen! But Galadriel! But Eowyn! Yes, again, women (human or otherwise) appear in the work, on occasion. But here’s where what I’m calling the Eowyn Problem comes in.

Part of the point of epic fantasy is, of course, to feel epic. That means a high page count, painting on a big canvas, depicting dozens of characters, maybe even hundreds. If only a handful of characters present on the page are women (or people of color, queer, nonbinary, etc.), those specific characters become representative of their entire gender/class/type of person. (This is also true if a book has dozens of female characters and only a couple of men, but even today, those books are rare.)

The lack of female characters in many "classic" epic fantasies meant that women's roles were often limited, serving very specific functions within the plot, while men got all the range. It probably wasn’t a conscious choice for many of these authors, who were writing primarily about the things that interested them most: men’s quests, men’s struggles, men’s heroism. And Eowyn the shieldmaiden, reportedly inspired by Tolkien’s experience with “war brides” from WWI, is an interesting curiosity. She gets one great military moment, killing the Witch-King of Angmar, who declares “No living man may hinder me,” to which Eowyn quite accurately replies, “But no living man am I,” then stabs him to death. Afterward, does she ride on to greater glory? Command an army? No, she meets Faramir, falls in love, and gets hitched.

"Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. ... I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”

If there were a dozen featured shieldmaidens in the story, even a half-dozen, there would be nothing wrong with one of them giving up her shieldmaidening to get married and “love all things that grow.” But to have the one female character defined as having a lifelong desire for renown in battle renounce that life to embrace domesticity implies that all women do or should do the same. Representation isn’t a box to be checked; it’s a conversation, a range of expression, an opportunity to broaden perspective and help an individual work of epic fantasy live up to the promise of the genre’s name.

Part of my inspiration for writing Scorpica, the first book in an epic fantasy series set in a matriarchal world called the Five Queendoms, was to feature dozens of female characters in the widest range of roles I could think of: queens and farmers, priests and shepherds, magicians and warriors, senators and servants. There are mothers who would give their lives for their children or would sacrifice their children’s lives for their own. There are shy, benevolent rulers and bold, destructive ones. I’m proud of the way this book, and its world, showcase how many different roles women can play. Anyone’s story, anyone’s perspective, if properly handled, can be epic.

Read the SF Book Review at sfbook.com/scorpica