Alanna: My First Feminist Fantasy Hero

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Since this is my first post, I’m going to write about my first memorable and shaping encounter with a female character in a fantasy novel. When I found Alanna: The First Adventure in my school library, I was eleven. Alanna, the main character in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, is ten. She wants to be a knight, and her twin brother wants to go to the monastery to be a scholar. They trade places, and Alanna goes to the palace to train as a knight, where she must hide her gender until she is eighteen. She finally makes it through her ceremony of knighthood, only to be outed as a female. Then she leaves the kingdom behind and rides off to have adventures. She also leaves Jon, the prince, who is one of the few characters who’s known the truth about her gender all along and who she’s sleeping with.

We’ve all seen this story before: Alanna and Jon are meant to be. He knows she is female, and accepts her for who she is. He’s a handsome prince. They are the much-criticized One True Pairing, they are in Love. Of course, after several months he goes after her, and proposes to her.

And then Tamora Pierce took the concept of the OTP and tossed it out the window. Alanna dumps Jon, goes off and has adventures for a year or so, and then in the final two pages of the series chooses to marry George, the thief, who is described as not being handsome and having a big nose. As a young adult reader, I was utterly baffled by this, for the simple reason that it had never happened that way in anything I’d read. There was always either one romantic interest for a female character, or, if there were two, the author made it apparent that one of them was “wrong” from the beginning. The one was just a surface distraction, and it was always perfectly obvious which one the heroine would choose. Not only does Alanna not pick the prince, she also even has a third love interest in between Jon and George.

Alanna doesn’t state outright the reason she and Jon are “wrong” for each other. She tells him when she refuses his proposal that he needs someone proper. But Alanna is a noble and is perfectly capable of “proper” behavior (although her point that she has been educated in court manners from the male perspective and is sorely lacking in female etiquette makes sense). And she does love Jon; she’s just being sensible about the situation. The real reason Alanna doesn’t marry Jon, which she doesn’t tell him, is that she won’t be able to do anything she wants to do if she’s a queen. It doesn’t make sense for someone who has gone through two books of difficulties becoming a knight to just give it up. Now, we’ve seen this before, the “I don’t want to be a princess!” character. But they usually change their minds. Alanna doesn’t.

Alanna is a hard character to pin down; she’s the least well-developed of Pierce’s female characters. Partly this is because her books are shorter. The series was originally an adult novel split into four parts and edited for a young adult audience. In a lot of ways it shows. I have the omnibus edition, and it is quite easy to read through it as a continuing story rather than four novels. Alanna has also been accused of being a Mary Sue. It’s not that she doesn’t have faults, but she also has red hair, purple eyes, a cat that talks, and a talent for both swords and sorcery.

As an adult reader, I still love what Pierce did with romance in the story. Of course, if you visit any of Pierce’s fan forums, you will find teenage girls congregating en masse to express their dismay at this plot decision. “OMG! Why? Jon was sooooo right for Alanna!” I think it’s reasonable, because it is such a conditioned expectation. The female character exists to have one true love. I remember being that age, reading Alanna’s story, and thinking something about it just felt shockingly “wrong.” But then, something about it felt “right” to me too. And now that I think about it, I believe it’s that Pierce never gave me the impression that who Alanna picked would make or break the story. It was still about her. And I like that. I like that Alanna has two breakups before she decides to marry George. I like that both Jon and Liam are portrayed as the guy that could have been it. I like that Alanna’s romances are appropriately spaced out, with time for recovery and adjustment between each, so we can focus on her adventures and not on any lame “who will she choose?” drama. I like that Alanna has sex with all three of her love interests, and is unapologetic about this fact.

And these are some of the reasons why Alanna was my first hero.

Comments

  1. R. Tuesday says

    Wow, this really takes me back. I also discovered Alanna when I was approximately 11 y.o., and I loved her to bits. It is interesting, I think, that I *immediately* understood why Alanna didn’t want to marry the prince–marrying Jon would be tantamount to giving up being *herself* and becoming Jon’s wife. Because he was king, his interests and needs would *always* take precedence over hers. (IIRC, he understood that himself, but didn’t see what was so bad about that.)

    I have to admit that I was always in favor of Alanna getting together with George, because he reminded me of Han Solo. (Hey, I was 11!)

  2. says

    Oh, I loved George… I think what really shocked me is that he was older and (gasp!) not as good looking! Because that is just not what female characters choose in most fantasy.

  3. says

    Did you know that the original novel had Alanna marrying Jon?

    From her website:

    In the original manuscript (the quartet started out as a single adult novel), Alanna did marry Jon. The problem was that the whole final third of the book then felt awkward and so not-right…

    She did not want to be Queen; she did not want to have to be nice to people she didn’t like. She also understood that sooner or later she would embarrass Jon, or that he would want her to start acting like a proper queen and stop doing the things she loved.

    George has always valued her for who she is. He doesn’t want to change her; she doesn’t want to change him.

    I must confess that when I first read the book, I was a bit disappointed that Alanna didn’t marry Jon. It wasn’t until I had two relationships under my belt — one severely emotionally abusive, and one fairly normal one — that I realized exactly how much it would have sucked if Alanna had ended up with Jon.

  4. ommmmggg says

    i still think that jon was right i mean so what if alanna thought that she would not make a good queen? she is just doubting herself…i think that the main reason that they did not come together was not only that pierce did not think it was right but because it would have been an akward ending…i mean hardly that much adventure but then a lot of romance…yea akward….

  5. Amanda Weinstein says

    Ah, yes, the handling of the romance was also one of the great pluses of the Alanna books (and it stands in very stark contrast the handling of, say, the Eilonwy-Taran dynamic in the Prydain Chronicles, which didn’t bother me much at the age of seven, but from an adult perspective stands a significant blot on a much-loved series).

    The adult Deverry series (by Katharine Kerr) also uses this subversion of conditioned expectations to similarly great effect and takes a similar amount of flak for it, too.

  6. Amanda Weinstein says

    I’m thinking of the end of _Dragon Revenant_, where Jill’s choices disappointed a lot of readers’ expectations (although not mine); Jill’s behavior in the subsequent books also comes in for criticism, for similar reasons.

  7. says

    I read all of the Tortall books annually. And I have since I was around 8 (my sister was 12 when she discovered Alanna…and I read what she read). Every time I crack open Alanna: The First Adventure I forget how much I love George. I forget how right they are for each other. Suddenly, I am a sighing pre-teen. Jon is SO DREAMY! But then, somehow, I grow up again, with Alanna, and by the end of the series I remember that George is the one. And even if he wasn’t Alanna would be okay. And that’s why I love the books so dern much.
    I have to say, Keladry is the character of hers that I prefer, although strangely enough I still like reading Alanna’s books the best. Something about the fact that Kel isn’t that pretty and doesn’t have magic to help her and pretty much kicks ass on her own always has appealed to me.

  8. says

    Here, here! I can’t say enough how much I love Alanna. I read her book first when I was nine years old, and this lovely series informed my so young self that guess what? It’s possible that just maybe I don’t have to compromise what I want from life for love.

    Thank god(dess), and my hat is off to Tamora Pierce!

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