Twenty-five years ago, fantasy author Terry Pratchett gave a talk called “Why Gandalf Never Married,” all about the need for “equal rites” in fantasy literature and what he called the “consensus fantasy universe.”
“The consensus fantasy universe is full of cliches, almost by definition,” he said. “Elves are tall and fair and use bows, dwarves are small and dark and vote Labour. And magic works.” Magic also works differently for men and women. He noted that, at that time, wizards (always men) were strong and wise and powerful. Witches (always women) were petty, and used their powers for personal gain or ill.
I first read a transcript of this talk when my first book Royal Street was percolating and I did a bit of research on wizards. There’s no real reason, beyond Tolkeinism and the long history of epic fantasy, why wizards have to be male. “Sorceress?” Pratchett asks. “Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs.The fantasy world..is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise.”
So I decided to do some research on magic-wielding female heroines in urban fantasy, eliminating shifters and vampires since they’re not technically magic-wielders. Here’s what I came up with:
* The Sookie Stackhouse series from Charlaine Harris has both male and female witches. No wizards. They’re all a bit flaky, and magically shaky. The main witch character spends much of one book with her boyfriend accidentally turned into a cat.
* The Kim Harrison Hallows series. Rachel Morgan is a witch, and there are both male and female witches. No wizards. Rachel is a bit of a scatterbrain sometimes and the whole half-demon thing starts working its way in. She spends much of the first book trapped in the body of a mink. By the last in the series, she’s become quite powerful but is still prone to mishaps.
* The Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling has male wizards and female witches. The witches aren’t less powerful, necessarily, nor are they all good or all bad. Hers is mostly a gender delineation. Still, the truly powerful? Male.
* Jim Butcher’s Dresden series. Yay! I’d have to check to make sure, but I believe his wizards are both male and female, and he has some seriously powerful women magic-wielders. Ironically, the lone male writer under consideration here.
* Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine and Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake: necromancers. Different category in my mind, so I don’t count them.
* Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld books. Witches. Female.
* Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniel series, which, thanks to my blog readers, is moving high on my TBR pile. It looks like Kate is a magic-wielder. Is she a witch? A wizard? Somebody tell me.
I ended up making my heroine, DJ, a wizard, by the way. She gets really pissed if anyone calls her a witch.
So why did Gandalf never marry? No, it wasn’t because his beard kept getting in the way, or because the chicks didn’t dig his pointy hat. It was because wizards don’t go in for such foolishness–or at least they didn’t back in 1985 when Terry Pratchett gave this address. He likened the wizarding brotherhood to a monastery. But urban fantasy hadn’t taken off a quarter-century back, and I think now it’s helping women push past the fantasy “glass ceiling.”
Who have I left out? Is there still an “old boys’ network” among the powerful fantasy characters?