Questing Feminism: Narrative Tensions and Magical Women in Modern Fantasy

Kimberly Wickham, University of Rhode Island


Works of Epic Fantasy often have the reputation of being formulaic, conservative works that simply replicate the same tired story lines and characters over and over. This assumption prevents Epic Fantasy works from achieving wide critical acceptance resulting in an under-analyzed and under-appreciated genre of literature. While some early works do follow the same narrative path as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings , Epic Fantasy has long challenged and reworked these narratives and character tropes. That many works of Epic Fantasy choose replicate the patriarchal structures found in our world is disappointing, but it is not an inherent feature of the genre. Other possibilities exist. This study uses the figure of the magical woman—a character found throughout Fantasy literature—to investigate the ways in which works of Epic Fantasy challenge, modify, or discard patriarchal narratives that work to contain powerful magical women characters.^ In order to investigate the ways in which works of Epic Fantasy are reworking patriarchal narratives and challenging generic conventions, this study first looks to the genre of Epic Fantasy itself, tracing its inauguration as a widely recognizable, marketable genre through the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. In order to investigate new and compelling imaginings of the magical woman, this study analyzes a number of types and approaches to Epic Fantasy including: Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls , and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. This study finds that the magical woman, while often powerful in her own right through her access to magic, is often constrained by narrative and generic expectations. It is only when these structures are modified, or discarded, that powerful magical women characters are not subsumed beneath patriarchal narratives.^

Subject Area

Comparative literature|Literature|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Kimberly Wickham, "Questing Feminism: Narrative Tensions and Magical Women in Modern Fantasy" (2018). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI10787982.