A few weeks ago I was the Fantasy Guest of Honour at Eastercon (UK) and we had a panel entitled, “Maiden, Mother, Who?” discussing the invisibility of older characters, specifically older women, in fantasy fiction. This is a subject very dear to my heart. By sheer coincidence I had pulled down a book from my attic – one I first read in the early 1990s – to reread. That book is The Crone by Barbara G Walker. Ms Walker explores how the figures of the Crone, the Wise Woman, the Witch, indeed older women in general, have become invisible in our culture. And not only invisible but – not so very far in the past – reviled as evil, and even mass-murdered, hanged, burned at the stake. Her thought-provoking study examines how women were once attributed with supremacy over life and death – naturally so, since it’s women who give birth, and have always acted as midwives, healers, layers-out of the dead. Terrifying, dark goddesses such as Kali were believed to have the powers both of Creation and Destruction, the power to destroy all other gods and to consume everything into her black Abyss at the end of time.
Walker dissects how male religions arose and set about rejecting the dark goddess – far too terrifying! – by crushing all aspects of female wisdom, sacredness and autonomy. This was in a futile urge to deny Death itself. Female religion was circular, a churning cauldron of life, death and rebirth. Male religion was linear: one life, one God, one afterlife in eternal bliss or torment. In the process, the Crone figure was demonized until she became virtually invisible.
We’re still living with the consequences today. In spite of a long battle for equal rights, there remain societies – not excluding our own – in which women are treated like scum.
The Crone, and numerous other books on female spirituality, helped me understand how the idea that women are naturally secondary and subservient to men is a Great Big Lie. What a relief to learn that! However, the idea is distressingly persistent. We seem to be taking backward steps, if anything, as young girls are treated as sex objects and women still fight to be taken seriously. The term “witch” is still used as an insult, and there are countries where “witches” are still persecuted and murdered. Sometimes you’d hardly know we were in the 21st century!
So for years, in my novels I’ve been doing my tiny bit to redress the balance. On the question of older characters, Midsummer Night (Tor) revolves around Juliana Flagg, a sixty-something grande dame and famous sculptor, a legend in the art world, who becomes entangled with problems both practical and supernatural. (She also appears in my new Tor novel, Grail of the Summer Stars). Juliana was one of those characters who leapt into my head fully formed: a tall, strong woman, silver-haired, bohemian, usually dressed in pale grey silks and velvets, like a tower of silver. She’s sharp-tongued, confident, intolerant of fools. That’s not to say she lacks warmth, or insecurities, or has no fear of ageing. Yet she faces the future with courage, remarking that when she dies, they will have to fell her like a tree and lash her to the back of a truck!
Perhaps Juliana isn’t yet old enough to be a full-on Crone, but she’s certainly an older woman of wisdom and power. The Crone figure also morphs into the concept of the Hag goddess, who has many incarnations in many cultures. She’s a goddess of death and war, such as Kali, the Cailleach, the Morrigan, Morgana, Lilith and many others. Again she represents the demonic aspect of the woman who cannot be controlled, and must therefore be Evil. And this brings me to the connection with vampires.
Ancient folklore is full of night-flying demons who copulate with sleeping men (and women) stealing their seed and blood. In Dracula by Bram Stoker, the female vampires are shown as being lascivious, wanton, dangerous – everything a “good Christian woman” should not be. The only way to control them is to pin them with a stake through the heart! In A Taste of Blood Wine, this idea is turned on its head as my protagonist Charlotte moves from the shadow of her controlling father into becoming her true self. Mirrored externally by the social changes of the 1920s, and internally by her encounter with the irresistibly gorgeous vampire, Karl, she discovers that she’s not destined to be an obedient mouse, but someone strong, independent, sensual, and… certainly not evil, but with a very different set of values.
Karl is far from the patriarchal, controlling figure that’s still encountered in modern vampire novels. (Personally, I don’t buy the idea that women secretly want to be dominated, so if I meet a fictional “hero”, vampire or not, who’s in any way macho and bullying towards his lady love, I just feel turned off and slightly sickened). And so it’s possible for Charlotte to enter a relationship of loving equals, without being “diminished” by her man, or incomplete without him. Still, she’s an old-fashioned girl compared with Violette – a very different character whom we meet in the second Blood Wine novel, A Dance in Blood Velvet.
Violette was another who leapt into my head fully-formed: an ice maiden with jet black hair. I knew she was a ballerina, and that she had a connection with the dark goddess Lilith. First appearing as a demon in Babylonian legends, Lilith was refigured (in some Jewish traditions) as the first wife of Adam. She refused to submit to him, disobeyed God, and ran off to copulate with demons instead. She had the audacity to want to be Adam’s equal! And so Lilith came to personify everything that women should not be – angry, disobedient, sexual, powerful, unrepentant. With a propensity for eating children, of course. Now Violette assumes that her mysterious connection with Lilith makes her wicked… but is this actually true? Violette’s path of discovery is deeply painful, and touches on a lot of deep questions about the nature of good and evil – especially when it comes down to questions of female autonomy.
Feminists have reclaimed Lilith. She represents the strength and wisdom that’s been viewed as such a threat to male power. It’s time for the Crone, the Hag, the Witch, the Lamia, to come in from the cold. They may not always be “nice” and “good”. They may be reviled for telling the truth. Sometimes they may drink blood or bring death. But they are necessary.
Returning to the start of this post – the panel discussion left me
somewhat optimistic as we uncovered lots of examples of strong,
powerful, older female characters in SF and fantasy. The situation’s not
as dire as I’d thought! In the ‘real world’ too, more attention is
being paid to older females – usually in the shape of Helen Mirren, Judi
Dench, or Sophia Loren! Which raises the question, can you only remain
visible as you grow older by being a glamorous film star? The TV
academic Professor Mary Beard has come in for irrational criticism for
refusing to glam up, having unkempt grey hair and crooked teeth. For
goodness’ sake! She is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University
and a fantastic presenter! But I think the tables are turning. People of
discernment love Mary Beard. And folk the world over adore the Queen,
who seems to be admired more and more the older she grows. Truly a woman
of wisdom, compassion and power.
So let’s hope we can look to a
future where the older female – both in real life and in fiction – is no
longer denigrated for her lack of youth and fluttering eyelashes, but
celebrated for her long, rich life and simply for her magnificent self.
A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington (released 3rd May 2013) is now available in all good bookshops published by Titan.