My Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party

Last week, I promised to reveal my ultimate fantasy questing party. The rules of the exercise were covered in that post, but to summarize the rules for this exercise briefly, the party must consist of nine members (like the fellowship in Lord of the Rings), be selected from fantasy literature (books, including comics, not movies, tv, or other mediums), and consist of only one member from each book or series (no doubling, Gandalf and Samwise could not both be included, for example). The party would go on a hypothetical high-fantasy quest, involving magic (rather than technology). It was a more difficult task than I thought, and it taught me a lot about the types of characters to which I gravitate. (Apparently, I am a big fan of talking animals. Who knew?) It was a fun exercise, and I encourage those of you who have not yet tried it to do so, and to post your traveling parties in the comments.

A few notes before I reveal the members of my questing team:

–There were some difficult decisions, some of which I explain in the comments. When unsure of which character to include, I often considered the role the character would play within the group: hero, mentor, muscle, friend, foil, etc. My team would have a better chance to succeed if all of these traditional roles were covered.

–I also considered team chemistry. How would the members interact with each other? Who might like or work well with whom? Who would, potentially, not get along? Who would improve the party’s moral in the tough times, etc. Ultimately, these questions are subjective, but then again, so is this entire exercise.

–I only included characters in series that are completed. Therefore, though I love many characters in Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy, the series is not yet complete, and therefore I have not included any characters from either of the first two books. I do not know what will happen to those characters, so I cannot yet include them. Same for George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (remember we are dealing with books exclusively, not the TV program).

–I also did not include any characters from series with which I, personally, have not yet finished reading. For example, I came late to NK Jemisin, and am in the middle of her Broken Earth series. I loved the first book. It was one of the most literary fantasy novels I’ve read in a good long while, but I have not finished it, and therefore I do not know the fate or development of the characters. The fault is mine, but, alas. Maybe my list will change in a few years.

–I strongly considered both Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Van Helsing. Each of these characters would be brilliant on a quest, however, neither really comes from a fantasy novel, even though Van Helsing does come from a speculative novel.

–The most difficult omission for me was Dune. Though there are many fantasy elements in Dune, ultimately it is more of a scifi universe than a fantasy one. Thus, no Paul, no Gurney, no Lady Jessica, no Stillgar, etc.

–My final cut, so to speak, was Sir Tristan. Le Morte de Arthur is the godfather of the genre, but I decided to stick to more modern titles.

–It goes with out saying that these choices are based on the original, literary depictions, not any of the versions from various adaptations.

Without further ado, here are my nine:

Iorek Byrnison (His Dark Materials): An armored polar bear is the ultimate enforcer for my traveling party. He is strong, principled, and though he does manifest a daemon, he has as much soul as anyone. He also has smithing skills, which will come in handy. Iorek is the ultimate protector for my hero, and even though it meant I couldn’t include Lyra, including him was an easy choice.

Lucy Pevensie (Narnia): She will be the young heroine of the quest. I’ve been reading the Narnia books with my 8 year old daughter at bedtime each night, and rereading the books as an adult, it is clear to me that Lucy is the best character in the series. She is brave, smart, and true. She is willing to stand up to and go against her older siblings when she knows that she’s right, and yet she’s humble and isn’t seeking power. She also possesses a magical healing potion, which will certainly come in handy on any quest.

Tenar (Earthsea): It takes a lot to give up power, to go against the conventions of society in the name on right, to abandon the only traditions and systems you have known–the very systems that have brought you power–to do what your conscience says is right. Tenar does all of these things. This was a tough one for me, as I really wanted to use Ged Sparrowhawk as my wizard, but there are many great wizards throughout fantasy literature. There is only one Tenar.

Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings): The ultimate friend. Sometimes the obvious choice is the right one.

Belgarath the Sorcerer (The Belgariad, etc.): Perhaps some of you can relate to this: There was a writer whose books were essential to my falling in love with fantasy. I read all of their books in high school, mostly as they were being published. It was just the second fantasy series I read. It fanned the flames of my nascent ideas about wanting to be a writer. Later, as an adult, I found out some very disturbing things about the author. I try to separate my nostalgia for the books from my opinion of the person who wrote them. No, it’s not the one who immediately springs to mind for most of you. It’s David Eddings. Anyway, Belgarath is just as powerful as any other classic wizard. He has the same types of powers, and generally fits the archetype, but he’s more down to earth and fun. You’d rather have a beer with him than with Gandalf, for example.

The Fox (The Little Prince): “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ‘Nuff said.

Lu Tze, The Sweeper (Discworld): There are many fine choices across Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Sam Vimes would probably be the most popular with his blend of street smarts and combat experience, but Angua the Werewolf, DEATH, Granny Weatherwax, or even Rincewind (sometimes running is the best option) would make fine choices as well. Ultimately, Lu Tze is my choice. He is a 6000 year old Time Monk who does not hold rank in the hierarchy of the order. He just sweeps floors (hence The Sweeper). Yet those who know, know his kung fu–snafu to be precise–is better than anyone else’s. He is irreverent as well and would make a fine mentor and foil for Belgarath. Anyone who disagrees should remember rule number one.

Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride): Book Inigo is much like the movie version, except there is way more background about his father in the book (which is at least as hilarious and awesome as the movie). A skilled sword master should balance out the fighting skills in the party. With Iorek as the brute strength, The Sweeper as the unarmed combat specialist, and Inigo as the skilled swordsman, all phases of battle are covered. Also, much like Samwise, Lucy, Tenar, etc, Inigo is principled as well.

Door (Neverwhere): The last choice is always the hardest. I had planned on including a character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’ve been doing a reread since the show came out, and it is reminding me of how much I love that particular fantasy framework. The question is, who to pick. Dream is right out. He would get bored and leave. He prefers to quest alone. Death has other responsibilities. My favorite character in the series is Hob Gadling, but while he does bring a wealth of experience, I don’t think he quite fits. I would have loved to include Barnabas, Destruction’s sarcastic talking dog, but that seems like overkill the way my party is currently constructed. We already have two other talking animals. Destruction himself is really interesting. He has abandoned his position in the Endless, and is living as a mortal, almost. He writes poetry, paints, and cooks. He seems like a good guy, and everyone seems to get along with him. The problem is that as the embodiment of destruction, destruction follows him around. People die. Things get destroyed. We don’t need that hanging over the quest. Therefore, I decided to pivot to another Gaiman work, Neverhwere. Door has the ability to open and create doors. That is a skill that will no doubt come in useful on a quest.

So, how did I do? Let me know in the comments.

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

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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