Category Archives: Literary Legislation

Literary Legislation (Part 3)

In contradiction to how I ended my last post, I had an easier time then expected in finding a commendable female character from ancient mythology. Though she did not do anything particularly heroic, Nausicaa is described favorably in The Odyssey for helping Odysseus after he washes up on the shore of her father’s kingdom. Still, she was relegated to a role which was typical of the times. At least her mother, Queen Arete, was alleged to have been wiser even than King Alcinous, her father.

Nausicaa by Frederic Leighton, c. 1878
Nausicaa by Frederic Leighton, c. 1878

The compassion and nurturing nature of Princess Nausicaa in this tale by Homer evidently inspired the title characterfrom Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the manga comic series (and subsequent feature animation) by Hayao Miyazaki.

Color illustration from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.
Color illustration from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.

This character lives in a post-apocalyptic world of monsters, deities, and warring nations. Her mixture of humility, heroism, innocence, and femininity is a refreshing departure from an overworked device of more recent manufactured mythologies.

The device to which I alluded is a type of template for female heroes: sexual attractiveness (within narrow cultural stereotypes) combined with attributes more traditionally associated with men. The latter include anger, aggression, and violent capability. The right measure of tomboyishness adds nuance. Too much tends toward boring predictability and limitation, and I appreciate Miyazaki for avoiding this. As a general observation, he gets women and girls right, and he does so with insight, variety, and respect.

An example of a writer who did something similar (especially with younger characters) is  C. S. Lewis. Lucy Pevensie, Polly Plummer, and Jill Pole from various installments of The Chronicles of Narnia series are a few of the endearing and interesting personalities he invented. In The Silver Chair,  he used Jill in a subtle but clever plot development to demnostrate the ways in which adults demean younger girls. His social statement  was tangential to the main story line and not at all heavy-handed. Such critiques are often more effective when they are not emphasized.

1998 watercolor update of her 1953 original black and white rendering from The Silver Chair, Chapter 2
1998 watercolor update by Pauline Baynes of her 1953 original black and white rendering from The Silver Chair, Chapter 2
Jill is given a Task by Alice Raterree, from The Silver Chair, The Chronicles of Narnia
Jill is given a Task by Alice Raterree, from The Silver Chair, The Chronicles of Narnia

Finally, I must mention Meg Murry, a central character in the Time Quintet of Madeline L’Engle. Given the fantastic nature of these stories, she and her mother are still put across as intelligent and believable. It is good to read a constructed myth written from a female perspective in which the heroine is neither sexy nor violent. In fact, I wish there were more male figures like this as well.

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Literary Legislation (Part 2)

Moving toward the acceptable end of the spectrum mentioned in my last post, I would like to consider female characters who are part human and part divine. Typically, they are the products of unions between gods and mortals. That the vast majority of ancient offspring from such unions were men should not surprise us, given the historical context. Whether male or female, such children often did not turn out well. Take, for example, Helen of Troy (also called Helen of Sparta). Though accounts vary, she is sometimes said to be a daughter of Zeus and Leda. The circumstances of her conception are at least slightly disturbing, her immortal father taking the form of a swan before procreating with her mother.

Leda and the Swan by Cesare da Sesto, c. 1506-1510
Leda and the Swan by Cesare da Sesto, c. 1506-1510

Her life from there does not particularly take to higher moral ground. Helen’s main (and perhaps only) attribute is her beauty, and throughout her life she is good chiefly for… well, you guessed it.

Helen of Troy by Evelyn Morgan, 1898.
Helen of Troy by Evelyn Morgan, 1898.

So how, exactly, does this qualify her as a positive example for the role of women in mythology? Uh, good point. Actually, it underscores another point I made last week. Older mythologies show a paucity of female role models, and newer constructions can be used to fill the social void. Jumping back into our own century, consider the title character from Ponyo by Hayao Miyazaki. She is the daughter of a wizard and a sea goddess and is stubborn and strong-willed. Her devotion to Sosuke is pivotal to the plot and to a touching depiction of friendship between young children of opposite sexes.

Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008.
Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008.

Another compelling example from animation is Saoirse, the daughter of a selkie and a lighthouse keeper in Song of the Sea by Tomm Moore. This is a truly admirable character who is redemptive to those around her, especially after her transformation.

From Song of the Sea, directed by Tomm Moore, 2014
From Song of the Sea, directed by Tomm Moore, 2014

Next week, I need to take on what could turn out to be a tougher assignment: finding positive examples of “normal” women in mythology.

Literary Legislation (Part 1)

A writer is something of an absolute monarch. In the domain of the author, literary legislation may be unilaterally enacted to improve the lives of women in created myth. This is not necessarily novel if the female character is divine or otherwise supernatural. Homer wrote reverently of “clear-eyed Athena” (the goddess of wisdom) in The Odyssey, and her assistance to both Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, was instrumental in driving the plot forward.

Pallas Athena by Jan Styka
Pallas Athena by Jan Styka
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athen inspires Odysseus to take vengeance
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athena inspires Odysseus to take vengeance

Fast forward, and switch media to Ponyo, the animated feature by Hayao Miyazaki. The sea goddess, Granmamere, is wise, kind, benevolent, and powerful. She has an uplifting and restorative effect on other characters in the story.

Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008
Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008

In another beautifully made animation, The Secret of Kells by Tomm Moore, there is the wood sprite, Aisling. She is a loyal friend who aids a boy in the completion of a righteous task despite dangerous opposition. She is also an interesting and well-conceived character.

Still shot from The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009
Still shot from The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009

By now, someone reading this has probably cried foul. I became aware in the 1960s that many feminists objected to the so-called “goddess image” as being a restrictive presentation of female identity which carries with it the burden of meeting unrealistic expectations. Their complaints did and do have merit, but it is important also to keep in mind that fiction is fiction. Such devices can be good for a story as long as they are handled responsibly. There is a literary spectrum in the presentation of women. If positive portrayals are limited to goddesses, excuses might be made for denying this respect to feminine characters who do not possess divine powers and who therefore more closely resemble women encountered in real life. Moving across the spectrum, I will address additional categories of female characters in my next two posts.

Heroes, Gods, Monsters, and…

Perseus saves Andromeda in this painting by Edward Burne-Jones
Perseus saves Andromeda in this painting by Edward Burne-Jones

Heroes in mythology interact with a variety of constituents. They are cursed or favored by the gods. Sometimes they are sired or born by them. Romantic liaisons have been described between gods and mortals. A hero may be called upon to do battle with (or enlist the help of) some kind of fantastic beast, and it is not unusual for this to be in response to the wrath of (or a commission from) the gods. Men of ancient valor have also been portrayed as lovers, assailants, or rescuers of beautiful maidens.

Andromeda by Gustave Dore
Andromeda by Gustave Dore

This brings us to the “AND” in the title for today’s blog. Myths feature heroes, gods, monsters, and (perhaps tellingly) helpless and often scantily clad women. As an example, try finding a portrait of Andromeda in which she is not wearing nothing or next to nothing. Then, of course, there are the chains. All of this is in accordance with the written account of her rescue from the sea serpent by Perseus, and it may be argued that this reflects historical and cultural attitudes toward women and their roles in society.

New mythologies can be of social benefit by fashioning noble and honorable niches for female characters. Regardless of what the reader might think of the movie Avatar (directed by James Cameron), it does contain some of the characteristics of a modern myth: a spiritual element, a hero, an invading army, monsters, and a love interest. Neytiri (as played by Zoe Saldana) is in some ways stereotypical, but she is far from weak. Okay, she is scantily clad.

Still shot from Avatar, director James Cameron, 2009
Still shot from Avatar, director James Cameron, 2009

In the stories I write, I try to portray women and girls as having more strength and depth, and I am currently attempting to develop plot lines for future works in which they assume more central and heroic roles. I owe that much to my wife and my daughters.