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a:Wild Women: a Celebration

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I’m writing this close to International Women’s Day. I’ve blogged elsewhere about the vile sexist culture that’s recently been exposed within Parliament House here in Australia, and  the realisation that in many ways we’ve gone backwards since the changes wrought by the Women’s Liberation Movement in the Sixties and Seventies. Having vented my fury on that matter, I want to make today’s post a celebration of women in storytelling, both those who tell the stories and those who appear in them. So here are two of my favourite books featuring great women characters, and two of my favourite female characters from (ancient) story.

The last two novels I read for pleasure just happen to meet the requirement perfectly – both have strong, interesting women in the central roles, and both are brilliantly written. Hats off to Alix B. Harrow for The Once and Future Witches, described by author Laini Taylor as ‘A gorgeous and thrilling paean to the ferocious power of women.’ Focusing on a memorable trio of sisters and set in 1893 in a town called New Salem, this story sees the gradual rediscovery of near-forgotten women’s magic, which is put into service to support the suffragist cause. It’s powerful, engaging, and highly original, drawing the reader right into the heart of the story. In the alternative history that underpins the setting, the magical elements are entirely convincing. Although the focus is on the sisters and the women they recruit to their venture, the author does not overlook the fact that men, too, can be strong advocates for women’s rights. This is a cast of individuals, not stereotypes. And while the story’s message is a strong one, it’s never hammered home. A perfect example of ‘show, don’t tell.’

I’ve just finished reading The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C. M. Waggoner. I loved this author’s first book, Unnatural Magic, and I found her second equally engaging – this was the perfect antidote to my anger and distress over the political debacle of recent days. Waggoner’s novels are set in a beautifully imagined secondary world where trolls are the wealthy, educated class and humans the ordinary working folk. Those who have read Unnatural Magic will be delighted to find a link between the two books, though each is a stand-alone story. Petty con artist Dellaria Wells, desperate for funds, talks her way into joining a motley crew of women bodyguards, hired for their martial or magical abilities. Their job: to protect a young lady in the time leading up to her marriage. But there’s hidden peril and things soon get both dangerous and complicated. The witty writing is an absolute delight. We experience every high and low, every moment of self-doubt, kindness, misunderstanding and terror with our characters. I loved flawed protagonist Delly and her half-troll comrade Winn, but my favourite character was a skeletal reanimated mouse named Buttons.

My two strong female characters are both from folklore/mythology, and one at least gets a book recommendation to go with her tale. I’m now in the age bracket considered ‘elderly’ and I find myself increasingly drawn to write stories featuring strong old women. While writing a story for an anthology – more on that later – I looked more deeply into a figure I recalled from Celtic mythology, the Cailleach or Hag. What a perfect example of a powerful wild woman! She wades into a surging whirlpool to wash her plaid, the tartan colours turn to white, and the land is covered in snow with the coming of winter. She stamps around the Highlands, hammer in hand, and makes a few changes to the landscape – home repairs on a grand scale. With the coming of spring she retreats to make way for a young goddess, Brigid. And so the pattern continues. The Cailleach is a force to be reckoned with and a law unto herself. If you want to read my version of her story (set in contemporary Australia) it’s in Relics, Wrecks and Ruins, a recently published anthology with a stellar list of contributors. The editor, Aiki Flinthart, who passed away in January 2021, was herself a prime example of a strong woman, compassionate, generous and multi-talented. Sales of this anthology help to fund the Flinthart Residency at the Queensland Writers’ Centre.

Then there’s Baba Yaga, a figure from Slavic folklore. A witch? A wise woman? A horrible old hag who eats children for breakfast? I came across her in childhood as the old woman who lives deep in the forest, in a hut on hen’s legs. Her fence is constructed from human bones, and she has the gift of fire, which can mean warmth, comfort, and survival, or destruction and death. Many stories exist about Baba Yaga, and her role in them varies – sometimes she’s helpful, sometimes angry, but she’s always a figure of power. The version I know best is Vasilissa the Fair, in which a young woman is sent to the hut in the forest by her stepmother to ask for fire. The stepmother half-hopes Vasilissa will never come back, but the young woman uses kindness and common sense to achieve her quest. That tale tells us a lot about dealing with possible danger, and how important it is to ask the right questions. I’ve written my own version of that story too, set in an urban high-rise.

The wise messages of folklore remain relevant in our rapidly changing world; they teach us how to be strong, how to be our authentic selves, how to be kind. They teach us respect for our fellow creatures and for the natural world. That’s a good message, not only for International Women’s Day, but for every day.

I’d love to see your examples of stories that focus on female characters, with a positive message that will resonate for today’s women. Or feel free to tell us about your favourite woman from folklore or mythology. Both, if you like.

The image in the photo is the whirlpool of Corryvreckan off the coast of Scotland, where the Cailleach wades in to wash her plaid and bring on the first winter storms.
Photo credit: Photo 33717446 © Grian12 | Dreamstime.com



About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written twenty-four novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world and have won numerous awards. Juliet is currently working on a historical fantasy trilogy, Warrior Bards, of which the third book, A Song of Flight, will be published in August/September 2021. Her collection of reimagined fairy tales, Mother Thorn, will have a trade release in April 2021. Mother Thorn is illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by Serenity Press. When not writing, Juliet looks after Reggie, her elderly rescue dog.


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