‘Why Gandalf Never Married’ and the Fantasy Glass Ceiling

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?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

12 thoughts on “‘Why Gandalf Never Married’ and the Fantasy Glass Ceiling

  1. Loved your ideas. I’ve thought about this long and hard as well. Guess that’s why I made the heroine of my urban fantasy stronger than the male. And he’s actually supportive of her role. 😉

    Monica Peters

  2. In the first LOTR movie, they changed Arwen’s character so that she saved Frodo from the charging black riders — in the book, it was all Frodo. The books do seem male-centered (surprising because Harry Potter was written by a female). I featured alot of females in my novel just because I thought it was a refreshing change to have women witches, demons, vampires and werewolves.

    Nominated you for an award, Suzanne: http://nicole-hadaway.blogspot.com/2010/05/writers-wednesday-blogging-award-to.html

  3. Monica & Nicole–I feel as if I’m seeing a lot more strong women in books these days, although they’re still more likely to be in comedic or “lesser” roles. Urban fantasy is helping a lot, though!

    Thanks for the nomination, Nicole!

  4. Mercedes Lackey has strong women ‘magic’ users in her Elemental Masters, Valdemar (specifically Vows and Honor but in general as well), and the 500 Kingdoms series.

    Anne Bishop has Queens as the highest ruling caste in her Black Jewels series – not standard magic but still magical in nature. And they are both good and bad depending on the persons personality.

    Gael Baudino wrote strong female magic users.

    Maria V. Snyder’s Study series has a strong female magic user.

    Tanya Huff writes strong female characters with magic in the Keeper series and the new Enchantment Emporium.

  5. That’s great info, Beth! You can tell I’m not up on my traditional fantasy reading, but I’m glad to hear Gandalf has some competition 🙂

  6. The Dresden Files do have both male and female wizards. Harry’s apprentice is a young female wizard.

    But you’re right, we don’t see very many female wizards. I hope we get to see more of them in the future!

  7. The Dresden series is one of my favorites, Elizabeth, and you’re right! I thought it was ironic that the lone male author among the series I looked at did the best job at equal-opportunity magic. At least one of the high-ranking Wardens in the series is a woman as well.

  8. Really fantastic post! I can’t say I had really thought about this before. Now I’m going to have to look out for more strong witch books…

  9. I recently read a book by Alison Goodman called Eon. The main character has to pretend she is a boy throughout most of the novel, but only comes to her true power once she excepts that she is female.

    Some other great series/ authors with strong female protagonist are Tamora Pierce’s books and Michelle Sagara’s Cast books.


  10. What a great article!

    I used to be a big fan of Fantasy back in High School and have recently returned to reading the genre after a big break with horror, which with its current urban fantasy influences (paranormal romance etc) is practically a modern day version of these tales.

    I find it true that the cliche of powerful wizards and lithe bow-wearing Elves can get a bit old, but it’s always great to look out for something new.

    I am currently enjoying Goodkind’s SWORD OF TRUTH series, and while it does have a wise old powerful wizard in Zeddicus (A Wizard of the First Order no less), there isn’t an elf or really any other magical races besides humankind in sight.

    By the way I enjoy your blog so I’ve given you an award over at mine:


  11. Great post, Suzanne. My current WIP features a female witch but she’s quite powerful. I’ll have to keep your thoughts in mind for another story and incorporate female wizards.

  12. Fabulous, Suzanne! I’m looking at feminist issues in urban fantasy as part of my thesis work, so I love that there’s dialogue about this topic.