Oftentimes, in this blog, I will share a passage from a book that I’m reading to illustrate a lesson about writing. Today, I would like to share a book excerpt for an entirely different reason. Something I read recently, in a book that I’m enjoying otherwise, doesn’t seem right to me, and as such, I would like to ask you, my community of readers, for your opinion about the passage in question.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones, is a satirical travel guide to Fantasyland, the mythical world where all fantasy stories take place. After a generic fantasy map and a brief introduction, the bulk of the book consists of a glossary of the common terms, peoples, species, magic, buildings, etc. which one is likely to encounter as a “tourist” who finds themselves in a fantasy story.

Jones is a very funny writer, and if you are either a reader or writer of fantasy stories, you will likely enjoy her parodies and criticisms of common fantasy tropes, such as the prevalence of stew in fantasyland (at the expense of other culinary options) and the paucity of cattle compared to the amount of clothing made from leather. For the most part, I found myself laughing along with the loving critique, remembering these clichés in stories I’ve read, and analyzing my own writing to see how many I, myself, employ.

There was, however, one entry that did not jibe with my experience reading fantasy literature: In her entry entitled “Dark Lady,” Jones writes, “There is never one of these, so see DARK LORD instead. The management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister…” (P50; see pic for full entry).

When I read this, my mind immediately leapt to Jadis, AKA the White Witch, from CS Lewis’ famous The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. Jadis is both the main antagonist in the most famous of the Narnia books, and, as she represents the devil in Lewis’ allegory, she is the personification of evil. While she is described a “white” witch because she covers Narnia in snow and ice, her behavior, power, and function certainly qualify her as a “dark lady.”

Was Lewis unique in his use of a “dark lady” antagonist? He most certainly was not. In the previous generation of fantasy literature, female antagonists were common. Both Alice in Wonderland (1865) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) feature female antagonists, and, while the Lewis Carrol’s Queen of Hearts doesn’t fit the stereotype exactly, L. Frank Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West certainly does. The witch, who performs evil magic, lives in a dark castle, and has legions of terrifying minions, tries to thwart a questing party from achieving its goal and rules the land largely through terror. Functionally, she is similar to Tolkien’s Sauron (or any other standard Dark Lord.

Classical literature, too, is filled with a myriad of women who function as “Dark Ladies” in their respective stories. Whether they are goddesses, like Circe, witches, like Medea, or displaced divinities, like the furies, female villains are at least as common as their male counterparts in the mythic tradition which inspires much of fantasy literature.

Additionally, there are many instances of “Dark Ladies” in classic fairy tales, which if they are not technically fantasy literature, are definitely close cousins. The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, which contains many elements of fantasy (magic sword and shield, dragon, hero as knight, royalty in disguise) features Maleficent, who is a prime example of the Dark Lady archetype.

I did have a bit more trouble coming up with more modern female Dark Ladies. Kossil from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tomb of Atuan (1970) comes to mind, but I can’t think of many others. Whether this is because they fell out of favor after the 50s when Narnia was written, or whether this is the result of a gap in my own reading, I do not know. I do know that there are many contemporary examples where an older story featuring a “dark lady” is rewritten from her perspective (Wicked, etc.). That these books exist, however, negates Jones’ claim that such characters are missing from the fantasy canon.

Now, I realize that satirical writing in general, and Jones’ book in particular, are subject to hyperbole, but given the relative veracity of the criticisms of fantasy literature in the rest of the Tough Guide, the “Dark Lady” entry seems incorrect and out of place.

So, my questions to you are as follows: First, can you think of any examples of the “Dark Ladies” in the fantasy literature of the latter part of the 20th Century? Second, was there something that changed in the fantasy landscape that caused this alleged switch which seems to go against the history of the genre? And, lastly, who are your favorite “Dark Ladies” in fantasy literature from any era (and why do you like them)?

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One thought on “Whither The Witch: Finding the “Dark Lady” in Fantasy Literature

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