Today I’m delighted to have a guest post by fantasy author Sarah Ash to share with you! Her novels include The Tears of Artamon trilogy (Lord of Snow and Shadows, Prisoner of the Iron Tower, and Children of the Serpent Gate), Songspinners, the Tide Dragons series (The Flood Dragon’s Sacrifice, Emperor of the Fireflies), and more. In addition to writing books, she’s an editor and reviewer for Anime UK News, and she hosts the ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’ blog series in which women who pen science fiction and fantasy discuss writing and the genre (it features some wonderful guest posts by some fantastic authors!).
I never really knew my paternal grandmother. But my maternal grandmother, Sarah Jessie Maude, was a great influence on me in so many ways. Obliged to finish her schooling early in her teens to work in her father’s grocery and wine shop, but always resourceful and imaginative, she was a source of captivating stories of her childhood—and an inspiration for me and my sister, fantasy writer Jessica Rydill. So it’s no surprise that many older women feature in my stories, although the antiquarian Jolaine Tredescar in Songspinners, Orial’s eccentric mentor and soul-guardian, and the intrepid Doctor Frieda Hildegarde from The Tears of Artamon who uncovers a highly significant lost text in a remote monastery are, I now see, a respectful nod to some of my teachers at school, formidable scholarly women who studied at Oxford in the early 1930s.
The archetype in western legends and fairy tales is often not a proactive figure: in Red Riding Hood, bedridden and frail, Granny is used by the Wolf to deceive and entrap the heroine. Too often portrayed as gray-haired, stooped and very elderly, the stereotypes have been perpetuated in fiction, even though many of today’s grandmothers (myself included) are far from being in their dotage.
Or there’s the assumption over the ages that when a women becomes old, she also gains wisdom, that has somehow been warped in the depiction of the witch—the term rarely being used as a compliment and often as the excuse for inhuman treatment of an elderly person. Baba Yaga in Russian folklore is depicted as a predatory witch in some tales, while in others, she aids the protagonist. But she’s always described as hideous and skeletal, in spite of her considerable powers (and a flying mortar to take her wherever she wants to go!). Fast-forward to the 20th century where much-lauded children’s writer Roald Dahl obviously had issues with older women, although Grandmamma in The Witches is a rare example in his fiction of an older woman painted in a sympathetic light (although she’s 86, so surely a Great-Grandmamma?); the hideous cackling monster in George’s Marvellous Medicine is much closer to the typical Dahl caricature.
Two notable exceptions (because of the depth of characterization) are Terry Pratchett’s hard-headed, stern, no-nonsense (yet infinitely wise) Granny Weatherwax—and her jovial companion-in-witchcraft, Nanny Ogg. (I’m only omitting Magrat from the trio of three witches because she’s the youngest, and the Maiden in the triumvirate, so definitely not a grandmother.) From the glorious anarchy of Wyrd Sisters, through Equal Rites to the Tiffany Aching stories, Granny Weatherwax is not portrayed as having any grandchildren of her own, but her place in the Ramtops is that of the admired and respected older wise woman. Granny Weatherwax brought out some of Pratchett’s best writing and one can’t help but read significance into the fact that he gave her a good encounter with Death not long before he came to the far-too-soon end of his own life.
I never made a conscious decision that I was going to have a grandmother character in my fiction because I had ‘stuff to say about the role of the older woman in that particular society’; that’s just not the way I work. Characters present themselves, already fully-formed, and I take things on from there. (I have no agenda—except to tell a tale that demands to be told in the best way I possibly can.) So when (in Lord of Snow and Shadows) servant girl Kiukiu is turned out onto the snowy moors by acting mistress of the household, Lilias Arbelian, I was as surprised as she was when the wild-haired woman in the sleigh who comes to her rescue turns out to be her grandmother. Kiukiu’s family background is complicated, as she’s the lovechild of a forbidden relationship between members of two warring clans, so she’s never met her father’s mother, Malusha. And Malusha, the only surviving member of the rival clan lord’s household, has been living alone in the moors, mourning her lord and her dead son. It turns out that meeting her grandmother is the best—yet perhaps also the worst—thing that could happen to Kiukiu. At last she has an explanation for her troubling tendency to hear and see ghosts. For Malusha is a Spirit Singer, one who can summon the spirits of the dead through her singing and playing—and, if need be, lay them to rest—and Kiukiu has inherited her abilities. But when she takes Kiukiu into the Ways Beyond to meet her dead lord and master, Kiukiu realizes that she is being steered away from her mother’s clan and the man she has come to love, Gavril Nagarian. As Malusha learns more about her granddaughter and teaches her the skills of a Spirit Singer, the relationship between the older and the younger woman deepens and matures, even as the clash of conflicting clan loyalties threatens to drag them apart.
I didn’t set out with an ‘Agenda’ to deliberately insert older women into my stories. It was inevitable, I suppose, that they would figure in my fiction—and, as I gain new perspectives from becoming an ‘older woman’ myself, that I would wish to portray believable older characters that are not one-dimensional stereotypes: grandmothers with rich lives of their own who are not merely plot devices to help—or hinder—the main protagonist on their journey.
(A little disclaimer by way of apology. I don’t read as much in the SFF fiction field as I used to five, ten, fifteen years ago. Why? First of all because I find it hard to read fiction and write at the same time; like many other writers, I just end up mentally editing the novel I’m reading and that’s no fun e.g. ‘Why must he use the word “smirked”? How could they have missed that glaring typo!’ etc. etc. Secondly, because I’m getting on a bit. And I’ve already read a great deal of SFF, good, bad and indifferent. So, if I’m going to spend time reading something new, it has to be rather special. And different. To be honest, I’ve never had the appetite for many of the long epic fantasy sagas—apart from Tolkien; I like quirky, unusual, even eccentric… But you, dear readers, will probably be able to think of SFF novels or stories that you’ve read recently which depict grandmothers—or older women—in a non-clichéd, relatable way. Please share your recommendations!)
|Sarah Ash has been writing since she was a child—but also spent many years teaching music. Creating fantasy novels has allowed her to explore her fascination with the way mythology and history overlap and interact (her second published novel Songspinners is set in an ‘alternate’ eighteenth century Bath, her home city). The five novels in the popular epic fantasy Artamon sequence (Penguin Random House) are also set in an alternate eighteenth century world—with daemons and dragons. Emperor of the Fireflies, the second book of the new Tide Dragons series, is now available as an e-book and was inspired by her love of all things Japanese (especially manga and anime which she regularly reviews). It’s an historical fantasy that draws on the ancient legend of the Tide Jewels and the lifestyle of the Heian imperial court. And of course, there are also secretive shinobi, wily fox spirits—and Tide Dragons.
Tide Dragon Cover/Graphic Credit: Marcelle Natisin