Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013 and Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three) is forthcoming in January 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.
by Helen Lowe
A few weeks back I discussed the possibility of a new post series with John and Kristin. As a longtime reader of Fantasy fiction, as well as being a writer myself, I am keen to shine the spotlight on Fantasy heroines who have rocked my world: revealing both who they are and why I feel they kick butt and take names as characters. The focus may skew a tad toward fictional friends of longstanding, but as well as more classic figures I also hope to check out newer heroines – and perhaps surprise you with one or two who may sail below the radar.
Mostly, though, I aim to have fun: I hope you will, too.
Meet Aravis From CS Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy
Aravis, from CS Lewis’s The Horse & his Boy, was not the first Fantasy heroine I encountered, but she was certainly one of my early favorites. One of the first things I learned about her was that she was “mail-clad and riding magnificently.” As later transpired, Aravis knew how to use the sword she carried as well, and I soon discovered that she was fleeing family, home and country to escape a distasteful marriage. Even as a very young reader I was entranced by her adventurous spirit and attracted to her resolution. In fact: “Aha,” I thought, “so adventures aren’t just for boys.”
The very next thing I learned about Aravis was that she was not the white, Western European-style heroine that inhabits a great deal of Fantasy fiction. The Horse & His Boy is largely set in Calormen, the country that lies to the south of Narnia and Archenland and is – loosely – an analog of the Ottoman Empire (centered on the country we know as Turkey.) And Aravis is a Calormene, a young Calormene noblewoman, in fact.
I have encountered critiques of CS Lewis that point to Calormen and the Calormenes as evidence of the inherent racism of his writing. Even as a child, I was certainly aware that the human inhabitants of Narnia and Archenland were very much “British” (none of this broader European malarkey, thank you!) Yet with regards Aravis, the following is what the actual story told me about her, aside from the resolution and adventurous spirit that I have already discussed.
Firstly, she is a noblewoman and a snob as well, as her reaction to the common and ragged Shasta, her chance-met traveling companion, makes plain. So although initially attracted to Aravis’s character, I was then put-off by her ’tude. However, as the story unfolded, I learned more about her again. For example, when Aravis finds herself unexpectedly marooned in the middle of a potentially dangerous situation, “she never lost her head even for a moment.” Later, as she makes her escape from that same situation, it’s clear that she is courageous as well – and will not consider abandoning Shasta, snobbery or no, because she has promised to make the journey to Narnia with him. When Shasta himself doubts her good faith, the reader is assured of the following by means of the narrator’s voice:
“In this idea about Aravis Shasta was once more quite wrong. She was proud and she could be hard enough but she was as true as steel and would never have deserted a companion, whether she liked him or not.”
Later, too, Aravis changes her opinion of Shasta and apologizes for the times when she has misjudged him. This suggests a character who is prepared to open her mind and willing to change, as well as to own when she is at fault., which I have always felt shows both greatness of spirit and strength of character, although of a different sort than that required to embark on adventure and swing a sword.
My final reflection on the character of Aravis comes near the end of the story, when – this being a children’s book – the day has been saved and the adventure is largely at an end. Aravis and Shasta have finally arrived at King Lune of Archenland’s castle, where they are both to live from now on, and Lune comments favorably on Aravis’s part in the adventure and “your valour.” One of the regular Narnia series’ characters, Queen Lucy, then joins them and:
“They liked each other at once and soon went away to talk about Aravis’s bedroom and Aravis’s boudoir and about getting clothes for her, and all the sort of things girls do talk about on such an occasion.”
This could be read as condescending and a dismissal of both Aravis and Lucy to lightweight “girl’s stuff.” Yet I have always read it differently. Firstly, because the reader is first introduced to Lucy (in this book) as a:
“…lady with a very merry face who wore a helmet and mail shirt and carried a bow across her shoulder and a quiver full of arrows at her side.”
Recently, too, in the hard-fought battle that saves King Lune’s castle, the reader has seen Lucy acquit herself with great courage among the Narnian archers – and has had an entire book reinforce the character of Aravis as a young woman with considerable strength of character. So I have always read this final passage in two ways, both positive.
The first is as an affirmation of women’s friendship. So often, both in Fantasy and other fictional spheres, the “strong woman” exists in isolation, with all her important relationships being with men. But here we have two strong women who not only “like each other at once” but soon go off to do their own thing. The positive, as a young reader, that I took from that “own thing” being settling Aravis into her new home, i.e. bedroom, boudoir, clothes, (when earlier we have learned that Aravis has always been “more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming”) was that it is both possible and acceptable to be a heroine who plays a major part in the action of the story, and still be a young woman who takes interest in her personal environment and clothes. In other words, just one more confirmation that Aravis is a multidimensional character.
So – not only brave, resolute, resourceful, coolheaded, and true as steel, Aravis is also a young woman who can kick back and just have fun after doing her bit to save one small corner of the world. I hope you can understand why she rocked my world as a young reader and continues to do so.