Revisiting the Song of the Lioness series and its impact on girlhood
by Anna Dovre
Last summer, I was back in my childhood home. Instead of organizing my old school supplies in the basement or whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing at the time, I found myself taking a nostalgic tour through our bookshelves. On the same shelf as Twilight and assorted tomes by Dr. Seuss, I stumbled upon the Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce. Each of the four paperbacks were wrinkled, bent, in some cases torn, and the pages had been dog-eared so often by my small and eager young hands that the upper corners of each page were soft and thin, like tissue paper. I opened to the first page of Alanna: The First Adventure (first published in 1983) and was soon devouring my way once again through the whole series, finishing the final book, Lioness Rampant, late into the night, flipping the soft pages by the light of my old star-patterned lampshade and holding open my dry, tired eyes through the sheer force of will.
This is a thank-you, about 8 years delayed, to Tamora Pierce. It is also a re-visiting (for the sake of nostalgia and, hopefully, some gained wisdom) of the influence her books had on my childhood and on the woman that I have become. And in the end, it is me coming to terms with the insidious cultural narratives that creep their way into even our most cherished childhood literature.
Tamora Pierce has written eight series of fantasy novels for young readers, most of which focus on strong female protagonists. I read all of them, and found a different joy waiting for me in each series. But it was the story of Alanna, the girl who wants to be a knight, that first entranced me and continued to call me back again and again over the years. Raised from a young age to share in my father’s passion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I was always a fan of fantasy, especially in medieval settings. I was immensely fortunate to have grown up alongside the Harry Potter series, which has remained a lifelong obsession. But what I lacked was a narrative that could satisfy my love of fantasy while also reflecting my own reality as a girl; what I was probably too young to recognize was that the genre needed more female protagonists. When I was given the Song of the Lioness series at the age of eleven, I felt I had stumbled upon a gold mine. Re-reading it now, I am reminded of how I was transported by this universe of knights and gods and magic, but I am also struck by the way that Pierce wrote about feminism, womanhood, and sexual liberation—concepts that my eleven-year-old self certainly didn’t understand but which nevertheless constituted a part of the reading experience, and which eventually became part of my worldview.
“D’you think I want to be a lady?” [Alanna] asked. “‘Walk slowly, Alanna,’” she said primly. “‘Sit still, Alanna. Shoulders back, Alanna.’ As if that’s all I can do with myself!” She paced the floor. “There has to be another way.”
In a society that still tells young girls that their identity and womanhood is contingent upon being simultaneously chaste and desirable, that our importance hinges upon our ability to captivate and please the male gaze, these books came as a welcome antithesis. Alanna was a female protagonist who did not derive her identity from a male counterpart, but who nevertheless had to navigate the intricacies of gender politics and sexual awakening. And not only was she strong, spunky and rebellious, she was sexually liberated.
As Alanna began her journey of becoming a knight by disguising herself as a boy, I was entering the stage of puberty, where one becomes at the same time more aware of one’s womanhood and more eager (and encouraged) to suppress it. Alanna’s attempts at concealing her changing body had particular resonance with me. As I began menstruating, the first thing I was taught was how to hide it; tampons were seen as miraculous because they allowed us to go on like nothing was different, and leaks or unexpected stains were a mark of shame. We all participated in this ritual of disappearance, suggesting to each other which scented pads to use so that no one could smell our blood.
Re-reading the sections where Alanna learns how to wrap cloth around her chest to hide her growing breasts, I am now struck by how this part of the narrative parallels the struggles of trans men fighting against a body that contradicts their own identity—a struggle which is fraught with pain and fear that I have never experienced and which goes far beyond the struggle of growing up a woman in a female body. I can only speak to my own experience of finding a reflection of myself in Alanna and the way that her womanhood resonated with mine, and I believe that her narrative gave strength to me as a young woman by embodying this instinct to hide a female identity in a male-dominated world, and eventually liberating herself from it. Though Alanna was hindered by her own body, she maintained agency over it; when it became no longer possible to conceal her identity, she embraced it, and was supported by her close friends and mentors—a trajectory which was inspiring and liberating to me as a young reader.
“You are a terrifying creature,” the Voice told her solemnly. “You do not take your place in your father’s tent, letting men make your decisions for you. You ride as a man, you fight as a man, and you think as a man—”
“I think as a human being,” she retorted hotly. “Men don’t think any differently from women — they just make more fuss about being able to.”
Another significant character in the series, who serves as the literal embodiment of feminine wisdom and power, is the Great Mother Goddess. The most powerful of all the gods in this universe, the Great Mother encompasses the multifaceted experience of womanhood and provides strength and love to her female devotees. It is Alanna’s introduction to the Great Mother Goddess that encourages her to embrace her power of healing, a more ‘feminine’ role, alongside her skills of warfare.
The second book, aptly dubbed In the Hand of the Goddess, deals with Alanna’s desire to express her femininity, though she can only do so among close friends because her identity is still a secret. This is also the book where Alanna falls in love and begins to explore her sexuality, and where, at the very end, her identity as a woman is revealed during a duel. As the two subsequent books depict, this revelation is not easy, nor simple, and Alanna escapes the public uproar for much of the third and fourth books by traveling on different quests. At one point in the third book, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, Alanna’s close friend and future king Jonathan proposes marriage, and upon her refusal tells her he’d rather marry a woman who knows how to act like a woman. Alanna must navigate all the complexities of being a strong female in the dominion of men, and Pierce gives this struggle the attention and care that it deserves.
As she ages and matures, rather than espousing the value of ‘chastity’, Alanna embraces her sexuality, and is in control of her own body—at one point she obtains contraception in the form of an enchanted necklace (which led to some disappointment when I later learned that non-magical birth control is not so easy, nor as fashionable). She expresses her freedom to have sex with who she wants, or to not have sex when she doesn’t want to; she later has children but does not give up her role as one of the kingdom’s most powerful and influential knights.
Pierce does not strip Alanna of her sexuality in order to make her more palatable to ‘innocent’ readers (or perhaps their overbearing parents), but nor is she hypersexualized, as happens all too frequently with central female protagonists. She is simply, and beautifully, a woman: a healer and a warrior, a lover and a mother. And, most importantly, she stands upright on her own—a woman among men but completely independent of them, who has agency over her own body and her own narrative.
Now, let us take a short side trip to another book that was sitting on that basement bookshelf: Twilight. The series came out around the same time I that started reading Pierce’s books, and though I enjoyed both of them at the time, I now look back on them as completely antithetical sets of teenage novels.
Stephanie Meyer taught me that I have no meaning without a male companion, that it is acceptable—nay, romantic—to be pursued and stalked by a dangerous and much older man, that heartbreak is best treated by sitting in one’s bedroom, refusing to speak, and essentially forfeiting the will to live. Bella didn’t make me feel empowered, didn’t teach me anything about womanhood or sexuality, and actually caused damage to my perspective on healthy relationships. That is why I consider Alanna a kind of balancing force in my childhood, who was able to instill her empowering messages despite the surrounding onslaught of Twilight-esque narratives.
But these two works, which I placed on opposite ends of the spectrum of female empowerment, actually turn out to contain some narrative similarities. While rereading the story of Alanna, I was surprised to encounter moments which evoked the same disturbing themes: romanticizing stalking behavior and normalizing the idea of males who tell their female counterparts, “I know what you want better than you do.” Consider the following passage, in which Prince Jonathan has just declared the inevitability of romance between himself and Alanna, and Alanna continues to refuse his advances:
“You’re fighting what has to be,” he said, “and you know it as well as I do.”
“I—I know no such thing,” she stammered. “I promised myself once that I’d never love a man! Maybe I almost broke that promise just now because of moonlight and silliness—”
“Stop it,” he told her sternly. He made her look up at him. “We belong to each other. Is that silliness? Surely you’ve realized all along this had to happen.” When she did not answer, he sighed. “Go away, before I change my mind.”
Alanna ran. Once inside her room, she bolted the door, undressed, and threw her clothes into a corner.
That final phrase uttered by Jonathan is especially ominous. He is condescending and disrespectful throughout to Alanna’s objections, but what he says at the end comes across as an outright threat. He’s obviously an entitled douchebag, but the real problem with this scene is Alanna’s response, or lack thereof. Pierce depicts Alanna in this moment as meek and submissive—the character that we’re used to seeing as independent and opinionated is shunted into a Bella Swan-like role and expected to be flattered by Jonathan’s disturbing persistence. Here’s another scene, which takes place between Alanna and her other close friend, George, the day before her test to become a knight:
Alanna yawned. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, George.” She yawned again, and again. “So sleepy…” She looked at her friend through rapidly closing eyes. “You—you drugged it!” she accused.
George caught her as she sagged, her eyelids fluttering shut. “Did you really think I’d let you fret yourself sick, with such an important night ahead of you?” he asked softly. Alanna muttered and stirred, sound asleep. George scooped her up and carried her to his bedroom, placing her gently on his bed.
In evoking a scenario which is startlingly reminiscent of date-rape, Pierce allows Alanna to lose all agency over her own body, with no repercussions. The next chapter begins and there is no outrage, no sorrow, not a single remark by any character on the preceding event. Young readers are expected to view this action as chivalrous and protective: George appears to be acting ‘for Alanna’s own good,’ just as Jonathan had asserted that he knew best about their relationship. In any context, this is a dangerous narrative to perpetuate, but it is especially insidious when it is found in youth literature.
I began this piece because I felt the need to say “Thank you, Tamora Pierce.” Thank you for showing me that womanhood is messy and complex and beautiful. Thank you for teaching me that I can be feminine and strong, respected and sexually liberated; that I need to be a fighter and a healer; that my identity and my narrative are not contingent on the presence or absence of men. I still stand by that sentiment. And it’s easy to write off the above excerpts as unimportant in the larger context of what Pierce has done for me as an author.
Except I can’t.
These moments are important because they tell us something about ourselves, about what we’re teaching each other—especially young girls—through the stories we create, and also about what often goes by unnoticed. We praise these sort of books for having strong female protagonists and yet we don’t notice the way that these very characters are rendered powerless in romantic contexts. Why, as a young girl, was I expected to believe that a badass female knight like Alanna would allow herself to be treated as an inferior by her two love interests? How entrenched must this psychology be within the genre of adolescent female-focused literature that it could be found in otherwise liberating, feminist work; and how deeply a part of my worldview it must have become that I was not capable of recognizing or critiquing it?
Looking back, I realize that a significant part of my growing up was about relinquishing my faith in fairy tales. It was a natural process, brought about mostly through contact with so-called ‘reality’, with the adult world. I continued to cherish the stories I had loved as a child, while also recognizing (painfully, with much resistance) that they were neat, romanticized simplifications of real life. But that doesn’t mean that we should replace every child’s copy of Harry Potter with Game of Thrones to strip them of any trace of optimism or naïveté. Reality will do that for them, to some extent, in its own good time. Adolescent literature has its own purpose: the books I read as I child seized my imagination, kindled a passion for the written word, brought me into contact with a panoply of people and worlds.
The best of them, like the story of Alanna, were validating and empowering, actually preparing me for the moment I set down the book and had to engage with and navigate through the world around me. As I got older, I gave up on the possibility of magical powers but held onto Alanna’s feminism (a power of a different kind). And it is also thanks to Alanna that I now feel obligated and compelled to engage with these texts, to expose their momentary undercurrents of misogyny, their subtle (perhaps even unconscious) attempts at undermining female power and agency. Because we want young girls to feel like they can be female knights—but even more essentially, we want them to feel in control of their bodies, their relationships and their lives. They need to have the strength to speak out, even (and especially) when Alanna wasn’t able to.
“You know something? There are sandstorms that strip man and horse and bury them — I’ve seen them. I saw bones piled higher than my head for the folly of a bad king and those who wanted his throne. I lived through a blizzard that froze every other living creature solid. Against those things, you’re only a man. I can deal with you.”
 Pierce, T., 2009. Alanna: The First Adventure. Simon and Schuster.
 Pierce, T., 2009. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. Simon and Schuster.
 Pierce, T., 2009. In the Hand of the Goddess. Simon and Schuster.
 Pierce, T., 2009. Lioness Rampant. Simon and Schuster.