Female Leads

When Ursula Le Guin wrote the The Tombs of Atuan (published in 1970), the second book in the Earthsea series, female leads in fantasy books were almost nonexistent. It was countercultural for her to include Arha, a young priestess, as the main character. She discusses this in the more recently written afterward to the book.

These days there are plenty, though I wonder about some of them. The women warriors of current fantasy epics—ruthless swordswomen with no domestic or sexual responsibility who gallop about slaughtering baddies—to me they look less like women than like boys in women’s bodies in men’s armor.

To her point, I found, when looking for a fantasy novel to read, that many of the recent ones have female protagonists. They are almost always described as “strong female leads” and sometimes (though not always) meet the description that Le Guin gives. It seems requisite that any women who are main characters in fantasy books can be described as tough. The reviews of these books reap praise on them for having female characters that meet certain criteria.

Le Guin took a more nuanced approach to developing her characters, one that saw the importance of elevating strong women but not overcorrecting for the centuries of neglect. One that considered both men and women in their totality, fleshing them out in three dimensions. She also conceptualized the relationship between men and women in a different way than is typical now.

In contrast to the contemporary idea that life is a zero sum game in which for one gender to thrive, the other has to wither, Le Guin imagines them in complement.1 Men and women are better together, cooperating for mutual benefit. This doesn’t have to mean a proscription of roles, but it does mean an acknowledgement of interdependence.

Some people have read the story as supporting the idea that a woman needs a man in order to do anything at all (some nodded approvingly, others growled and hissed). Certainly Arha/Tenar would better satisfy feminist idealists if she did everything all by herself. But the truth as I saw it, and as I established it in the novel, was that she couldn’t. My imagination wouldn’t provide a scenario where she could, because my heart told me incontrovertibly that neither gender could go far without the other. So, in my story, neither the woman nor the man can get free without the other. Not in that trap. Each has to ask for the other’s help and learn to trust and depend on the other. A large lesson, a new knowledge for both these strong, willful, lonely souls.

This was radical at the time it was written and is probably even more radical now.


  1. I know the term “complement“ can be loaded in this context with all sorts of cultural baggage, but I assure you I bring none of that with it. ↩︎

Robert Rackley @frostedechoes