The Female Warrior: a Figment of the Modern Imagination?

Dodging past some battle-ready men, I glided into one of the lodges and threw the door shut behind me. Fairly ripping off my dress, I pulled on the men’s leggings and tunic that warriors wore, strapping the leather belt about my waist. For a moment I was stricken dumb with the familiar pleasure of being in warriors’ clothes once again. But the cries that sounded outside the hut reminded me of the need for haste.

Quickly I slipped my feet into the sturdy but light-weight leather boots and strung them tight against my leg, snatching up the knife that lay on the floor near the other garments. The last thing I took was the bow and quiver of arrows leaned against the wall, and then I left the lodge to go find Clare.

The camp was in an uproar now; Falker and Blakkrthorn swords clashed, and arrows hissed, while slaves scurried to and fro, trying to hide somewhere safe. Having not witnessed a camp raid in seven years, I’d forgotten how bloody they are. Members of the attacking clan lose themselves in the lust that overtakes and drives them to kill, to burn, to sack, and to destroy everything in their path. Homes go up in flames, wells get polluted, animals end up slaughtered, children end up dead. If I had ever been on a raid, I imagine I would have done the same.

The Exile, p. 34

All right, I admit that when I started The Exile, I had very little idea whether female warriors actually ever existed.

But that question wasn’t enough to stop me—a sentiment that countless other writers apparently share. I mean, have you seen the sheer volume of warrior princess stories out there?

But while writing it, I realized The Exile is not a “warrior princess” story:

Number 1, because Delta is not a princess; and number 2, because she spends very little of the novel actually being a warrior. Because of this, it wasn’t terribly problematic to think that the female warrior phenomenon might be a myth.

That being said, I couldn’t help noticing during my background research a lack of solid facts in early Scandinavian history regarding women. Some archaeological findings suggest Viking women may have fought, but historians and scientists seem unable to agree decisively.

Even so, it seemed odd to me that contemporary culture would have such a fascination with the medieval female warrior if no such women ever existed. Even in shows such as “The Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom” whose main protagonists are men, you still have women like Lagertha and Brida who charge into battle alongside them.

Is all of this really just our modern attempt to feminize the past?

If you want a simple yes or no, you’ll be disappointed. On one hand, it is entirely possible that the female warrior is the product of imagination. But on the other hand, we were not the first to imagine it.

The most commonly known female warriors date back to ancient Greece: the Amazons. You’d think that once you go back far enough, you’d find some hard and indisputable facts. But as Amanda Foreman points out, even the earliest references to the Amazons are shrouded in legend. Even closer to home, I found that the Norse did in fact have accounts of shieldmaidens—but their status as legends has made it difficult for historians to separate fact from fiction (see also Valkyries). Professor Joshua J. Mark sums it up, “It seems clear that the Norse culture valued women enough to not only include female deities in their pantheon but also attribute to them the same martial skills and ability to determine their own fate as men were allowed.

What becomes clear is that, even if the female warrior is a creative invention, it is not a new invention—and so the sharp criticism of contemporary stories about female warriors (yes, even the “warrior princess” stories) is not warranted. If the Vikings fantasized about women fighting in battle, so can we. The value of a story in this genre shouldn’t be based on whether the genre has a right to exist or not. It does have a right to exist—unless you want to argue with the Greeks and the Vikings. The real measure of value lies in the story itself—the vivacity of its characters, the originality of the plot, the quality of the writing.

So what’s your take on this?

Is there a problem with today’s depiction of female warriors?

Is the subject simply too cliché at this point? Or are modern portrayals just too unrealistic?

10 Comments on “The Female Warrior: a Figment of the Modern Imagination?

  1. Interesting post. I liked your book excerpt.
    As a kid, I used to dream of being a warrior. (As a praying believer, I guess I am😉)
    There were a couple of reluctant women who participated in war in the Old Testament. Deborah, judge of Israel and prophetess, told Barak he would win the battle, (Judges 4) but Barak wouldn’t go to battle without her. Deborah warned him that if she went, a woman would get credit for the victory. The first-time reader might think she was referring to herself, but the commander of the opposing army was, in fact, killed by a woman, Jael, who invited him into her tent, then drove a tent peg through his temple as he slept. Not exactly orthodox soldiers, but then who said women were dull and predictable? 😏

    • I always find that passage fascinating too! I have to wonder if Deborah knew that she wouldn’t be the woman though… Just like we wonder how much the prophets understood about their own prophecies in the Old Testament! Yes, I also dreamed of being a warrior, while other girls dreamed of being princesses. I guess we’re the special ones in that sense! 🙂

  2. congrats on the publications!

    Women’s warrior strength is needed to deal with the mundane … bearing and raising brats, serving an ungrateful man, no status or financial rewards, no annual leave or benefits … that takes a real warrior!

    • Ha! That is a perspective I had not considered until now, but that’s quite valid! While the strength and determination of legendary women was expressed in more “glamorous” forms, women today certainly do exhibit the same level of grit– even if they don’t serve in the military. Courage and resolve never go out if style.

      • they serve in the military of my and many other countries, so that’s a very odd thing to say!

        But to hold down impressive careers and still be domestic goddesses is a feat that should be celebrated 🙂

      • Oh they certainly do! What I meant was that the warrior strength can apply to any woman, even if she doesn’t personally serve in the military. Our freedom to exercise our strength in such a variety of ways has never been so great, although it breaks my heart when I read about women in cultures that undermine their dignity. It reminds me that freedom is never something to take for granted.

      • well said Shiloh … I honestly wonder how many women are truly “free” to make their own choices and decisions 🙁

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