(or, What Happened When My Childhood Met the Works of Patricia C. Wrede)
Believe it or not, I spent the better part of my early childhood as an insufferably girly girl. Everything I owned was pink. There were unicorns and butterflies and rainbows everywhere. My number one fantasy was to be a beautiful princess awaiting rescue by a handsome prince. And when I played make-believe with my little sister, we usually played house.
Then, around maybe fourth or fifth grade, something began to change. Suddenly, I was reading tales about princesses being rescued from fire-breathing dragons, and I was rooting for the dragons. I began thinking it was awfully rude of those brash princes to just rush on in and slaughter an innocent dragon without asking the princess if it was really necessary. What if the princess and the dragon had become friends?
For anyone who was not so fortunate as to encounter these books as a child, let me sum them up for you: The story starts accounting the adventures of a dark-haired princess named Cimorene who, in a world where her pretty blond sistren are traditionally kidnapped by dragons so as to be rescued by princes, chooses to run away from home and become a dragon’s housekeeper. She befriends a lady dragon named Kazul who eventually becomes the Dragon King (because in dragon society, the King may be male or female) and a witch named Morwen with a plethora of clever talking cats, among others, battles evil wizards with soapy wash water scented with lemon, wields swords and flying carpets, marries for love a man who respects her for her power and spirit, and goes off on a mission to save magic while pregnant with her first child. The series addresses and delightfully satirizes nearly every fairy tale trope in existence, and in the character of Cimorene, you get a brilliant, willful, resourceful character who is absolutely true to herself. She is both warrior and housekeeper, adventurer and mother, shrewd problem-solver and compassionate friend. Kazul, likewise, is an icon of strength and perseverance, and Morwen a wise and steadfast individual who also knows how to be comfortable in her own skin. These women became role models to me at a young age, and I think I’m a better person for it.
Since then, I’ve encountered numerous works that attempt to do similar things, satirizing and parodying old tropes, painting dragons in a positive light, presenting tomboy princesses who don’t do as they’re told, but for me, these books were the first, and still to this day among the best. I was a voracious reader as a child, and I can’t remember most of the books I devoured, but these stories have lingered with me fondly. They resonated with the desire in me to be a part of a world of magic where my role as a female wasn’t to be bandied about as a plot device or used as bait to lure magical creatures to their demise. These books were the first to teach me that a woman can be a hero, can fight fear with understanding and compassion (or soapy water, as the case may be), can live the life she chooses no matter what popular opinion may say to the contrary. These books will always hold a special place in my heart, and if I ever have children of my own, you can be sure I’ll read these books to them a hundred times … which probably means I should invest in some nicer copies. My old paperbacks have certainly seen better days!
As an aspiring writer now, I have a renewed respect for many of my favorite works of fiction, and a devastatingly more critical eye. It’s all too common to return to an old favorite and find its brilliance dimmed from what you remember. I will never again be able to read these books with the kind of wide-eyed fascination and unconditional adoration I met them with as a child, but I can still learn from them and see what it was that made me love them in the first place, applying those lessons to my own storycraft. Maybe one day I too will have written something that will find a nostalgic niche in some girl’s heart. Until that day, for all that these books did to help me realize my potential, for all the times they made me laugh or read on with bated breath late into the night, and for all they did to open my eyes to what women in fantasy could be, I tip my hat most respectfully to Ms. Wrede.