“She suffered the woman to take her arm and stroll with her as if casually along the battlement toward he inner stairs, careful, Ista noted, to take the outside place between Ista and the drop. Content you, woman. I do not desire the stones.
I desire the road.”
(Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls, p. 3)
This past year, I revisited Paladin of Souls on audiobook, and it didn’t take me long to remember why I love it so. Not only does it feature engaging prose and plotline, but in gods-haunted protagonist Ista, author Lois McMaster Bujold presents us with a type of female hero for which I have a distinct soft spot: the wandering woman, who breaks free of a sheltered, often confining existence to seek knowledge and experience in the wider world.
For Leo Tolstoy, “A man goes on a journey” is one of two foundational plot drivers (the other being “A stranger comes to town”). “Man” in the time Tolstoy was writing may have served as the generic for “person,” but for centuries, in history and literature, going on journeys has been the province and privilege of men. From Sir Francis Drake to Charles Darwin to Buzz Aldrin, men have been the ones to travel and make world-changing discoveries. They’ve been the explorers, the innovators, loosely bound (if at all) to a stabilizing home port maintained by women. While Odysseus’ adventures take him from the Cyclops’ cave to Circe’s island to the halls of the Underworld, Penelope sits at home, weaving, doing what she can to fend off the forces of chaos so that on his return he will find things much as he left them.
Where journeying is concerned, coming-of-age stories are frequently drawn along gender lines: while a boy’s transition into manhood involves facing the perils of the outside world, a girl’s transition into womanhood involves embracing, or at least accustoming herself to the realistic and often mundane responsibilities of home. When a boy, like, say, Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker, leaves home, he rarely looks back. Yet Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz ends where she began, at home, her expectations appropriately pared down to size. The other iconic female voyager of children’s literature, Alice, never truly leaves home at all; like Dorothy in the classic 1939 Oz film, she dreams her whole adventure, and in the end, she wakes up.
For many readers, the most challenging yet satisfying aspect of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is its ending: the title character, having come through one difficult adventure, strikes out for parts unknown rather than succumb to another God-fearing middle-aged woman’s efforts to “civilize” him. Huck Finn may strike us as masculinity incarnate, the embodiment of boys’ and men’s desire for freedom and perpetual adventure, change, and surprise; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s dramatic poem “Ulysses” offers another literary example with a more mature protagonist, one who has come home after much hard voyaging and finds he can’t stomach the stillness. Yet where are the female Huck Finns, the girls and women who choose freedom over security, surprise over stability? The impulse toward adventure has always been the element I’ve coveted most in male protagonists’ stories, yet the scarcity of equivalent stories about girls makes me wonder if exploration and discovery are considered things girls just aren’t meant to care about, even today.
That’s why Ista’s story thrills me to my core.
She isn’t really a female Huck Finn; she bears a closer resemblance to Tennyson’s Ulysses, an older protagonist who actively resists the life of constricting stability she’s presented with. And unlike Dorothy’s and Alice’s travels, her story doesn’t end with a promise of safe and secure normalcy ever after. She has discovered she’s the only one with the gods-given power to save her country from enemy invaders who use daemons as weapons, and in the end, she’s prepared to set out for those distant parts where her help is still needed. Her narrative doesn’t chastise her for her desire for the road. Rather, it affirms it.
Paladin of Souls may be my favorite fantasy story with a female protagonist inclined to travel, but it isn’t quite the only one. Rosemary Kierstein’s Steerswoman series features a female buddy pair, Rowan and Bel, who travel together, confronting and curing the evil magics wrought by wizards (steerswomen’s natural enemies). The recent highly successful Disney animated feature Moana presents audiences with a title character destined to be chief of her people; in leaving her island to cure the curse that afflicts it, she sets both herself and her people free to be the voyagers they were meant to be, and the final shot of her sailing with the breeze in her hair is a thing of beauty. These stories stand apart from those of Alice and Dorothy and all those early heroines whose journeys had to end at home. Even if the wanderers do go home, they won’t stay there. Home is a port, not a destination.
Yet there’s still a key difference between these female wanderers and the Huck Finns of the fictional world. The boys’ journeys are flights from the constraints of civilization and its rules. Shunning society and embracing freedom are still coded as very male. For Ista, Rowan, Bel, and Moana, traveling is (or in Ista’s case, becomes) tied to responsibility. Their wanderings are the means by which they do good in their worlds.
It would be nice if, just once in a while, we met with a female lead who embraces the traveling lifestyle for its own sake. For now, however, I’ll take my lady voyagers any way I can get them.