This essay originally appeared in Vector in May/June 2005. It is reprinted here with permission. Since it is quite long, it's split over two posts.
For me, the picaresque is the most relevant context for discussing the character and status as a heroic protagonist of Juliet E McKenna's Livak. A picaresque novel is one in which the picaro (masculine) or picara (feminine) character has the chief rôle; a picara is a woman who wanders, having adventures, and whose morals are, at best, suspect. The feminine equivalent of the picaro, she is nevertheless given less leeway by society than her male counter-part. Anne Kaler notes that the picara has been "revile[d ...] as a sinner, condemn[ed ...] as a wanton, and dislike[d ...] as a woman", largely because she has dared to do what men do, and in doing so, she has refused society’s restrictions (2). For the picara, "her magical weapons are her wits and sexuality, [and] her trip to the underworld [a common feature of male heroic journeys] is [represented by] her criminal career" (Kaler: 2).
In addition to discussing the picaresque in McKenna's The Tales of Einarinn, I also want to consider the issue of heroic female protagonists since Livak is not a conventional heroine, and as Kaler observes "the picara is never considered a hero", for she "consistently [...] falls short of heroism" (2). The picara "is too subjective to be a hero and too objective to be a heroine, who is at best a complacent secondary character, lending the hero moral support while waiting to be rescued. Nor is the picara an anti-hero [... or] a female hero, an emasculated male [...]" (Kaler: 2). The picara is heroic only when she has no other choice, as Livak is forced to be by circumstances.
It is almost a cliché that the hero has a thousand faces(N1), whilst, as Carol Christ has observed, "the heroine has scarcely a dozen" faces (9). For several years feminist critics have discussed in detail what to call heroic female characters, since many critics refuse to use the word "heroine". They believe, with Lee Edwards, that a heroine is "a secondary character", whilst a hero is a "primary character" (Edwards, “Labours”: 36). Edwards observes that the hero is central to his creator, his society and himself, whereas the heroine is not only inferior to all of these, she is also inferior to the hero as well (36). Edwards says that "heroism involves both doing and knowing, that the pattern of action that characterises heroism exists to support an underlying development and growth of consciousness" (39). Action does not, then, exist merely for its own sake, but "as a support or more accurately, as a symbolic expression of underlying psychic structures" (39). Edwards comments that this is an absolutely crucial perception as far as the existence of the female hero is concerned, for if heroism is defined by action alone, limiting those actions which are termed heroic, to those personalities who are marked by "physical strength, military prowess, or even social or political power", then any culture that limits a woman’s capacities in such areas, also, by definition, denies the possibility of heroic women (39). She then goes on to stress that "the possibility of the woman hero is contingent only on recognising the aspirations of consciousness as human attributes"; but "if action is important primarily for what it tells us about knowledge, then any action – fighting dragons, seeking grails, stealing fleece, reforming love – is potentially heroic. Heroism thus read and understood is a human necessity, capable of being represented equally by either sex" (Edwards, Psyche: 19).
Edwards believes that "the hero must act, as the heroine cannot, to break with the past, journey into the unknown, endure hardship and privation" (Edwards, "Labours": 36 emphasis mine), but this is precisely what Livak does repeatedly in the "Tales of Einarinn". In The Thief’s Gamble, she travels to the Ice Islands, enduring both mental torture and physical hardship before she escapes. In The Gambler’s Fortune, Livak travels into the Mountains, where few lowlanders (those not born in the Mountains) are allowed to go, where she endures "hardship and privation" to discover the secrets of Artifice. And in The Assassin’s Edge, she again travels to the Ice Islands, where she risks life and limb over and over, in order to bring safety to the colony on Kel Ar’Ayen.(N2)
Dana Heller prefers to call female quest protagonists "heroes", like their male counterparts, not, she says, in order to erase the female subject, but in order to join in the efforts which are being made to "redefine heroism from a female perspective" (9). The redefinition of women's quests has resulted in female protagonists who have refused the restrictive rôles imposed upon them as the norm by society, even to the extent of self-sacrifice "in the name of rebellion" (Heller: 15). However, as Heller notes, whilst many women writers in the past allowed their female protagonists to sacrifice themselves through death (N3), madness (N4), or running away (N5), many modern women writers prefer to see their female protagonists survive, even if they do not achieve a happily-ever-after ending (15). Whilst the male hero often goes it alone or embarks on his quest with a trusty sidekick, who is the hero's inferior in skill or social status (and who often has no idea just what he is getting himself into), "feminised quests [...] tend to be more accepting of relationships" (whether platonic or not) on a more equal footing (Heller: 24). Often, men and women are important in the process of achieving a woman’s quest, and friendship between men and women "may occasion mutually-enabling quests" (Heller: 24). Heller goes on to observe that "the woman who rejects the passive 'heroine' and adopts the active term 'hero' for her own identity", relinquishes the subservient rôles that trap her, thereby allowing her to take power for herself (1). She also "accepts the active disobedience of patriarchal law", which tells her that feeding the family, keeping the home clean, and raising the children, are acceptable rôles for a woman (Heller: 1).
Joseph Campbell has categorised the women who have a rôle in the male hero's quest for self-knowledge as "the mother whose admonitions the hero must ignore, the wife who remains silently steadfast and heedful, or the maiden who becomes a bride and trophy for the hero" (116). Thus women can never be expected to do more than help or hinder the hero's progress, notes Heller, since they are only "accessories for the male's heroic adventure" (2). As Carole Pearson and Katherine Pope observe, "Patriarchal society views women essentially as supporting characters in the drama of life. Men change the world and women help them" (4-5).
A woman is "always subordinate to the masculine quest", says Heller, and thus a woman does not achieve a quest of her own, but she make men's quests possible (2). Therefore, although women may inspire heroes, according to psychological and critical assessments they may not aspire to become heroes themselves (Heller: 2). Traditionally, then, women's only desire is believed to be the desire to be "chosen and adored" by the hero (Heller: 2). Rachel Brownstein observes that the traditional distinction between 'hero' and 'heroine' can be summarised thus: "the hero moves toward a goal; the heroine tries to be [the goal]. He makes a name for himself; [but] she is concerned with keeping her good name" (2-3). Readers of The Tales of Einarinn will immediately note that Livak cares little for her good name, since she is far from being a traditional heroine. Whilst she is discreet in her sexual relationship with the scholar Geris, she does not try to hide it from her other travelling companions, Shiv and Darni (The Thief's Gamble, hereafter TG: 111). Similarly, she lives openly with Ryshad although they are not married, and she expresses no desire to marry him, in spite of the teasing she receives from her friend, Halice (The Assassin's Edge, hereafter AE: 549, 33).
Whilst Livak is not a traditional romantic heroine, she is not a woman warrior (sometimes referred to as a lady hero) either. Livak refers more than once in The Thief’s Gamble, to wizards using others as a means to their own ends and she observes that she has no desire to play that rôle herself (TG: 28, 78). At this point in Livak’s career, her heroic potential is undeveloped. When Geris shows an inclination to make a romantic heroine of her, she snaps at him and rejects his attempts to do so (TG: 107). Later she feels concern at Geris' "nest-building" instincts and knows that she will have to find a way of letting him know that she has no intention of settling down with him as he seems to expect (TG: 151). However, when he wants to play the rôle of 'knight-protector' to Livak’s romantic heroine, and she wants to go out to do some reconnaissance, she puts him off as gently as she can (TG: 155). In complete contrast to Geris' behaviour is that of Ryshad Tathel, whom Livak encounters during her reconnaissance of the town of Inglis. After Livak is attacked by the Elietimm (a few hours after her first meeting with Ryshad), she gets back to the inn where her party is staying and finds Geris is missing. She recalls that Ryshad had been interested in hearing news of blond-haired men and goes off to get some information from him. When he offers to walk her back to her inn after their conversation, she refuses, telling him she will be safe; he walks away (rather than watching her out of sight) and she is pleased that he did not make an issue out of it, but has accepted her at her word that she can take care of herself (TG: 181).
After Livak and her party learn from Ryshad just what the Elietimm have been doing in Tormalin, and after she considers what the Elietimm did to the merchant Yeniya, Livak seriously considers abandoning the men to their “quests” and returning to Ensaimin, where she knows the sort of dangers she will be facing (TG: 191). However she feels that she owes it to Geris to find out what has happened to him, and once she reaches the Ice Islands Livak's heroic potential begins to manifest itself, and she even refers to herself (in a roundabout way) as a hero, when she notes that the "ballads about great adventures leave out" a good deal of information, such as the "hero getting bored rigid waiting for something to happen, or soaking wet in a rainstorm" (TG: 308). When Livak thinks that Shiv, Ryshad and Aiten are treating her as a romantic heroine, with their proposal to send her, via magic, back to the mainland from the Ice Islands, she objects (TG: 327). However, this does not stop her from considering giving up in the hope of a quick death after she is mentally raped by Ilkehan, but her gambling nature (rather than her heroic nature) takes over at this point, and persuades her to go on hoping (TG: 343).
Jessica Benjamin, a feminist psychoanalytic theorist, has suggested that the importance of recognising that others are "subjects in their own right" and recognising that the "relationships between two equal subjects", whether woman and man, man and man, or woman and woman, are essential to the heroic development of the protagonist in feminised quests. Heroism may be defined, therefore, in the "heroic pairing of subjects" (qtd. in Heller: 31). This is a model used extensively throughout The Tales of Einarinn, most notably (but not exclusively) with Livak, thus helping to develop her heroic potential. She is paired with Halice in the early sections of The Thief's Gamble and The Swordsman's Oath, with Usara in the early section of The Gambler's Fortune, and with Ryshad in the early section of The Assassin’s Edge. Livak later joins forces with other pairs, trios or quartets, such as when she joins up with Shiv, Darni and Geris in the middle section of The Thief's Gamble, then with Shiv, Ryshad and Aiten (themselves a heroic pairing) in the final section. She and Halice are joined by the trio of Ryshad, Shiv and Viltred in The Swordsman's Oath. Whilst Livak is initially paired with Usara in The Gambler's Fortune, they are joined by Sorgrad and Sorgren (usually known as 'Gren), who represent a heroic pairing of brothers, and then later by the pairing of Darni and Gilmarten, before Livak reverts to working with Sorgrad and 'Gren. In The Assassin's Edge, Livak and Ryshad are joined with Shiv, Sorgrad and 'Gren. Other pairings include Ryshad and Temar in The Warrior's Bond, Halice and Temar in The Assassin's Edge, and Livak and Shiv in the short story, The Wedding Gift. The idea of such a heroic pairing is that the skills of the individuals in any pair are complementary, which enables the feminised quest to achieve its goals.
Livak expresses a preference for working with Halice at the outset of The Thief's Gamble, explaining:
I did not want to work the Autumn Fair alone. Lucrative as it is, it can be a dangerous place and while I can take care of myself nowadays, Halice is still a lot handier than me with her sword and her knives. Working as a pair has other advantages too; when someone feels their luck with the runes(N6) is going bad, it’s much harder to see why when there are two people adjusting the odds. As an added bonus, people never expect two women to be working the gambling together, even in a big city (TG: 4).
One of the reasons that Livak is not so handy as Halice with a sword, is that she is fairly small and slight, so she has less heft for using a sword against a bigger and stronger opponent. As a consequence, Livak has learnt other skills, such as an accurate throwing arm for use with daggers, or more often, poisoned darts, or even rocks (TG: 123; The Swordsman's Oath, hereafter SO: 79; AE: 17, 379). Lissa Paul observes that the repression of women is easily achieved since they are, generally, physically smaller and weaker than men; but, as Paul points out, characters who are small and weak can win against "the powers that be", like David (who also had a good throwing arm) against Goliath (190-191). Their stories are "the trickster's story", but also the story of the child and of the heroine (Paul: 190-191). Paul notes that tricksters such as Bilbo Baggins (with his riddles) have previously been regarded as "culture heroes, valued for their craftiness", but deceit has not been considered a manly virtue, and therefore it has often been considered to be "a lower-order survival tactic", below the value of a man who fights for either his honour or his country (190-191). Deceit is therefore a valuable survival tactic for a heroine. Northrop Frye similarly notes that in "Homeric conditions of life – that is, the conditions assumed by Homeric poems" – the chief weapons of a woman are guile and craft, since the physical weakness of most women means they cannot rely on strength alone. The other womanly weapon is secrecy (69-70).
Livak has certainly cultivated the weapons of secrecy, craftiness and guile. She has learnt how to pick locks from her friend Sorgrad, who teaches her on the fiendishly difficult Mountain Man locks, and who presents her with her own set of lock-picks early in their acquaintance (Win Some, Lose Some, hereafter WS, LS: 8). She has taught herself to move quietly and stealthily (TG: 11, 276, 319, 362) and to wear charcoal grey rather than black when she is creeping about places she has no business to be (TG: 6). Livak has also mastered the art of disguising herself by hiding her tell-tale Forest red hair (TG: 159; SO: 180; The Gambler's Fortune, hereafter GF: 4-5) or by changing her clothes (GF: 4-5). Kaler notes that despite the fact that around four percent of the world’s population is red-haired, this trait is used in literature to "symbolise the alienation of the hero or heroine from society", although in romance and in fantasy, red hair is usually "an acceptable and desirable attribute", particularly for a heroine (144-145). Both Kaler's remarks here are true of Livak: as a gambler and occasional thief, she is largely alienated from "polite society", but as a member of the Forest Folk (even though she is only a half-blood one), she is often considered sexually desirable. Livak both bemoans and uses the reputation of the Forest Folk for being sexually insatiable: "One of these days I’m going to take the Great West Road and search those unholy woods until I find someone who can tell me if the Forest Folk really are as insatiable in bed as all the stories say [...]. It's a cursed inconvenient reputation to live up to you know" (SO: 107-108). When Ryshad suggests that Livak should use that reputation as she might find out something useful from the stable lads if they are too busy watching her "bodice buttons" to watch what they are saying, she admits that "it wouldn’t be the first time" she has done this (SO: 107-108). Interestingly, although Livak does go to the Great Forest in The Gambler's Fortune, she is silent about whether the stories are true or not. She also tends to dress in a nondescript fashion so that her sex, age and business are difficult to determine; as she says, "being unremarkable is a talent I cultivate" (TG: 3). Kaler has observed that "the picara learns to blend into her surroundings" wherever she travels, and "as a thief, this ability to fade into the crowd allows her to escape" (161); Livak uses this ability as both a thief and a con-artist (GF: 4).
In other areas, Livak knows how to get information from others, sometimes just by looking at their appearance or manner: such as when she guesses correctly that Darni is carrying a knife up his left sleeve and probably another one in one of his boots (TG: 25), or when she guesses that Geris is a scholar (TG: 30, 33), or when she spots that there is more to Ryshad than meets the eye; she notes that he is watchful and that he is used to using the sword he carries (TG: 157-158). Livak also gets information by craftiness/guile: such as when she encourages Geris, through apparently idle conversation, to tell her why he, Shiv and Darni want a particular ink-horn that she is supposed to steal from a scholar in Drede (TG: 60-63). Another way in which Livak acquires information is by close observation of her surroundings (TG: 67, 155), by acting mad or drunk (TG: 155), or by prying into locked boxes or rooms (TG: 101, 320-321, 364-369). It is also worth noting that Livak has no qualms about keeping secrets, such as when she does not tell Usara that she plans to tell the story of the Elietimm threat to the Forest minstrel Frue, so that he can create a ballad about it, in order to spread the news in direct opposition to the intentions of Messire D'Olbriot and the Archmage, Planir (GF: 110, 107, 53).
Heller notes that often female quests involve an abandonment at an early age of the hero, or an experience of injustice or abuse that, in one way, serves to mark the call to the protagonist to embark upon the quest (27). Livak had little contact with her wandering minstrel father when she was a child, and after her ninth year she had no contact with him at all; by the time she is in her late 20s, she has to think hard just to recall her father's Forest name (TG: 106-107; GF: 102-103). When Livak left home, she had a vague idea of tracking down her father, but by the time of the events of The Gambler's Fortune, she has entirely lost interest in the idea, being more interested in securing a future for herself with the man of her choice, than in finding a man from her childhood past (102-103). Leaving home when she was in her mid-teens, Livak wandered the length and breadth of her home country of Ensaimin, initially alone, but most often in partnership with her friend Halice, a woman of Amazonian proportions who, as mentioned before, backs up Livak with her swords, and partners Livak in their rigged gambling games (TG: 4; WS, LS: 1; SO: 48-50). Halice introduces Livak, in turn, to the Mountain Men, Sorgrad and 'Gren, brothers whom Halice knows from her time as a mercenary. Livak, like the picara, has a fairly relaxed moral attitude: she has no qualms about stealing (TG: 12, 68; SO: 52-53, 351; GF: 132; The Wedding Gift, hereafter WG: 29-33); about using men to raise funds and get herself a meal (TG: 9) or to get information she believes will profit her (TG: 33; SO: 108); about cheating at games of chance (TG: 4, 36; SO: 52; GF: 3-4); or about sleeping with men with whom she has no intention of making a commitment (TG: 111). However, she reacts angrily to the assumption that she can be bought (that is that she will do anything so long as the price is right), when it is made by Shiv and Ryshad respectively (SO: 53, 56). She also feels guilty for robbing those who are poor (TG: 12, 69), and she will not let an innocent man take the blame for a murder that he did not commit, although she would have let him take the blame for a robbery he did not do (TG: 172, 163).
Kaler notes that the picara rarely achieves "the creativity symbolised by motherhood" since her tricks serve as a creative outlet for her, which allows her to ignore "the awakening to motherhood" (2). However, whilst Livak uses the herb Halcarion’s Vine to prevent herself getting pregnant, since she has no intention of allowing her fun to spoilt, as happened to her mother when she fell for Livak’s father (TG: 111; AE: 43), she does give up most of her tricks, insofar as she swaps her wandering, gambling life for a more settled life with Ryshad on Kel Ar'Ayen. On the other hand when the opportunity arises, Livak does not hesitate to turn thief again, although the jewellery she steals is not for herself, or even to raise funds, but for Temar D'Alsennin to give to his bride-to-be, Allin, whom Livak likes a good deal (WG: 2, 26). The mere thought of sneaking into the guesthouse of the shrine where the jewellery is hidden away, causes Livak to feel "the old mischievous excitement" (30), and it is worth noting that she still carries her lock-picks even though she has no real reason to expect she will need them again (29).
1. See Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973).
2. Interestingly, Ryshad is also forced to “journey into the unknown [and] endure hardship and privation”, when he is sold into slavery in the Aldabreshin Archipelago in The Swordsman’s Oath. This could, in part, be the result of Ryshad’s heroic pairing with Livak as I will discuss elsewhere in this paper.
3. For example, George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss.
4. For example, the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
5. For example, Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.
6. Runes are the Einarinn equivalent of cards.