But how could she
gain the road? Roads were made for young men, not middle-aged
women. The poor orphan boy packed his sack and started off down
the road to seek his hearts hope...a thousand tales began
that way. She was not poor, she was not a boy, and her heart
was surely as stripped of all hope as life and death could render
it. I am an orphan now, though. Is that not enough to qualify
me? (Bujold, Paladin 3)
I first got to know Lois McMaster Bujolds
work around 2006, I think, when I had one of those happy accidents
we bibliophiles live for. At some garage sale or other, I purchased
a copy of The Curse of Chalion. Im a nut for fantasy
and science fiction, and it seemed to fit the bill. When I read
it, though, I realized Id found a new writer (to me) that
stood head and shoulders over much of the genre fiction Id
read. Love is a wonderful thing. A little Googling and I quickly
discovered that Curse was only the first in a three part
series set in Bujolds Chalion fantasy world. As quickly
as I could get to the book store, I purchased the second book
in the series, Paladin of Souls, and inhaled it. Paladin
won my own personal Book of the Year award, and I started pushing
it on anyone not stupid enough to shut me up. Shes been
writing, publishing, and winning awards for years in the science
fiction and fantasy genre, of course, though I did not know it.
Looking back, I think Ista dy Boacias
journey, as the narrator describes its impetus in the quote above,
spoke to me, even as a man, because I was at a similar transition
stage in my own life. One of the changes was going back to school
to complete my B.A. in English at the age of thirty-six after
two careers and at the end of a marriage. So when I needed a
text for my senior thesis, Paladin of Souls was a natural
choice. Imagine my surprise when I put on my literary theorist
hat and noticed what an unusual hero Ista is for a fantasy novela
middle-aged woman with an identity crisis! Not only that, but
her journey as a hero in the book does not involve swinging a
big, phallic sword like a man (or Joan of Arc), nor defying patriarchal
oppression. She does not run away from her evil father, pretend
to be a man, or move off to an Amazonian commune. Her struggle
is to find her own way at a time in her life when all her previous
duties and roles are gone, when she doesnt know who she
is anymore, and is in a spiritual crisis. There is no doubt that
Ista is a feminist hero, but not the kind Id come to expect
in a feminist novel. Maybe thats why, as famous
as Bujold is to readers of science fiction and fantasy, little
scholarly work has been done on her writings. As Bujold freely
admits, her writing is not political or ideological.
In Paladin, Bujold explores a womans
path to power that exists separately from that of men. She creates
a number of women characters who express different feminine ways
of growing into powersome good, some bad, some uglythat
have a movement and urgency apart from the interests and personal
journeys of men. The book is about womens own struggle
to grow as people rather than their struggle to thrive in opposition
to patriarchal oppression. As Ive learned more in my graduate
studies, Ive found feminist scholarsCarol Pearson,
Katherine Pope, Annis Pratt, Nadya Aisenberg, et al.working
to understand what Bujold explores creatively. The overtly political
dimension will always be important in feminist scholarship, but
to limit feminist writing to fighting patriarchy
is myopic. Like gender itself, it seems to me that there are
as many ways to exercise power and be a woman
as there are women, and as many ways to be a feminist
writer as there are women writing.
Lois McMaster Bujold is a prolific science
fiction and fantasy author who has published more than two dozen
novels. She is one of the best-regarded authors in the field
with numerous Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, among
others. Her most prominent series are the Vorkosigan series,
the Chalion series, and her current Sharing Knife
Paladin of Souls (2003) garnered her
the Hugo Award for Best Novel (2004), Locus Poll Award for Best
Fantasy Novel (2004), Nebula Award for Best Novel (2004) and
the Romantic Times 2003 Reviewers Choice Award, Best Fantasy
More information about her work and life,
including interviews and essays, is available at her website:
The Bujold Nexus (http://www.dendarii.com/).
The questions and answers below are collated
from two e-mail interviews, one in December of 2007 and the other
in April of 2009. The order of the questions has been altered
for readability, and they have been lightly edited.
AO: Did you feel you were taking a risk making
your protagonist an older person and a woman? Why did you choose
to do so?
LMB: I prefer non-standard protagonists
generally, as a glance at my other work will show. If a
writer wants to stand out in a crowd, its a wise idea to
pick a direction no one else is going, and head there.
So any risks were outweighed by the potential rewards.
God knows, the world has more than enough fantasy novels replaying
Joseph Campbells Heros Journey tropes.
It was clear to me from reading
Campbell and listening to his recorded lectures that while he
was very big on the Heros Journey, he was utterly clueless
about women. The journey into maturity (for which the above
was metaphor, in Campbells view) has an entirely different
structure for women than for men, starting from the fact that
while the male goes out into the world and returns to his starting
point to take over the role of his father, the successful female
(in exogamous cultures, which most are) goes out and keeps on
going, never to return. The Heros Journey is just
the wrong shape for the Heroine.
Somewhere in one of the more amusing
Georgette Heyer Regency historical novelsThe Reluctant
Widow, if I recall correctlya particularly feckless
younger brother makes the airy remark, I really dont
know what those women can be finding to do all day about the
house. Plainly, Campbell doesnt know either.
AO: Do you think Istas role
as a mother is important to Paladin of Souls?
LMB: Her role as a post-mother
is very essential. She was a vehicle for exploring a challenge
faced by a very few women in the past, but many in modern times.
The old model of maid, matron, crone for womens
lives was based on a much shorter average life-span. Modern
technology, over the past 150 years, has literally doubled the
life expectancy of women in industrial societies (from 40 to
45 years to 80 to 90 years). With lower birth rates, matron
takes less of a bite than ever out of the prime years, and the
debilitation of old age is pushed off for decades. This
gives instead a life structure of maid, matron, 20-or-30-year-blank,
crone. There are no historical social models for
that second-maturity period. Its something our time
is having to invent. Mens life spans have been extended
as well, to be sure, and were seeing more fellows re-invent
themselves with second and third careers (and sometimes families).
But for men, it seems to be a smoother extension of what they
were doing already, and less of a terra incognita.
AO: Did you intend the soul-energy
connection stealing spiritual energy from Illvin to sustain the
dead Arhys to be a perversion of the umbilical connection from
mother to child?
LMB: No, that was just a pretty
standard solution to the narrative problem of making a form of
magic which is normally invisible to the unaided eye into something
the reader could perceive directly, be shown and not just told
about. There are a number of different ways to play psychic
vampirism. The invisible light-show is a genre
With Joen the Control Freak, later,
however, I definitely picked up those umbilical possibilities
and ran with em.
I trust you are familiar with the
Spanish legends of El Cid, by the by. If not, a
quick trip to Wikipedia would doubtless help.
Also Mad Queen Joan, Isabellas
unfortunate daughter, who dragged her husband Phillip the Fairs
embalmed corpse around half of Spain for a while. She was
the jumping-off-point for the character of Cattilara.
I dont have to make this
stuff up. History hands it to me on a platter.
AO: Did you intend Istas
ability to swallow demons as an inversion of the birthing process?
LMB: No. Emphatically not.
It probably has more to do with a reaction to our societys
peculiar attempts to downsize women; theres a lot of social
anxiety surrounding what women eat that I suspect is a psychological
stand-in for all sorts of control issues. When Ista starts
eating demons, shes for-sure broken out of the good-little-girl
mode that had so betrayed her in her prior life. Power
and autonomy in play herenot nice, not sweet, not tame.
AO: A scholar might claim that
Istas role in the story is a reversal of womens roles
in older mythology: She rescues herself from the tower, she kisses
the prince awake from his magical sleep, she is the prophet,
she is given the man (Illvin) as a "helpmeet." Do you
agree with this statement? Why or why not?
LMB: Why not?, indeed!
Shes the protagonist of an
action-adventure novel. You would hardly expect her to
sit in a tower spinning for the duration. (Cue: Arwen in
the Lord of the Rings books, a 2700-year-old virgin until
she became Aragorns trophy-wife. And that Lady of
Shallot was darned passive-aggressive.) Five gods know
Istad had enough of that in the prior two decades of her
AO: If you agree that Ista reverses
traditional gender roles, was it intentional?
LMB: The effect was similar, I
suppose, even if the springs of action were other. But
Ista is not a mere bundle of surly reactions to prior well-worn
tropes. She has her own agency.
And for all the attendant sword-swinging,
her journey is truly at its core a spiritual one, a pilgrimage
of cleansing and redemption, of serious spiritual rebirth.
(Or as serious as it can be when your new god is the Bastard,
deity of all things out of season.) These concerns fall
on, hmm, a somewhat different level than those of folk tale,
which usually cluster on a social or bio-social level.
AO: Did you make an effort to make
each of the female characters in Paladin correspond to
a type of woman, e.g., Liss as the tomboy, Cattilara
as the vain manipulator?
LMB: No. They just walked
on stage as who they were, one by one. Liss owes
something to my admiration of the go-get-em
girls of my daughters generation. Cattilara was the
worst thing I could do to Ista. I mean, not only is the
man of her (initial) daydreams a zombie, hes married....
Part way through, it became evident
that this was a chick book, a womens tale, and I began
cooperating with that. Joen, for example, while still hidden
or latent in the plot might have been either a male or female
villain for all we could see, but by the time she arrived on-stage,
it was apparent she had to be female, to oppose Ista. She
was the worked example of How To Do Empowerment Wrong.
AO: The two most powerful characters
in the book are women, Ista and Joen. Why did you choose to have
the major protagonist and antagonist both be women?
LMB: It was Istas Book from
the get-goin fact, its working title for a while was Istas
Bookso she was not a choice but the starting
point, from which all else followed. (This is a book which
started with the character, from whom and for whom the plot was
subsequently generated.) Ive talked in other interviews
about the last scene of The Curse of Chalion being a promissory
note to Ista for a book of her own. In every scene she
was in (or stole) in Chalion, she generated this gravity
that tried to tilt the story toward her. Im glad
I waited. She needed to be more than just a subplot of
Cazs [hero of The Curse of Chalion] book.
But as the plot developed, it threw
up a whole slew of female actors of all sorts, pretty much spanning
the whole spectrum of possibilities. Dont overlook the
Provincara, Liss, Lady de Hueltar, Umerue, and of course Catti.
This was Chick Book by intent.
Some wag once remarked that she
judged a book or movie by 1) whether it had more than one female
character of note who, 2) talked to each other, 3) about something
other than men. Its amazing how few works pass all
three of those tests.
Joen was developed much later in
the course of the writing than Ista, and was therefore somewhat
more constrained by the needs of a plot already in motion.
Early in the writing, I had no idea yet of the gender, identity,
and backstory of the hidden villain. Joen both utilized
prior inventionsthe Golden General, etc.in a parsimonious
fashion and grew in the thematic interstices as a mirror of both
Ista and the Provincara, the mother that Ista could not be like.
Joen was a toxic, metastatic version
of the Provincara [Istas domineering mother], a mother
in the worst way. Dont forget, all mothers are also
daughters; the problem for a daughter transitioning to motherhood
without becoming like her own toxic mother is as severe a test
as for a man not wishing to become a replica of a toxic father.
Joen was also a worked example
of how to do power and autonomy wrong, an anti-Ista as it were.
She became not free, but a tyrant.
AO: Why does Ista relate to a gender-ambiguous
god, the Bastard, rather than a male or female? Why make the
LMB: There are only five choices
here, you know. The Daughter of Spring was left behind
years ago, the Mother was a betrayal, the Son and his concerns
were never in Istas orbit; the Father, the god of death
in good season, may yet have a part to play. Also, there
was that whole thing with the chaos demons, which are in the
A certain percentage of people
are born gender-ambiguous, and always have been.
No reason for Chalion to be any different from our own world
in that respect. Prior to modern surgical intervention,
intersexed persons lived out their lives as best they could,
without the sometimes-dubious benefit of surgical reassignmentor
butchery, as it sometimes has transpired. Since in
the world of Chalion there is a god for everyone who does not
willfully refuse the gods, it seems only just and fair
that the god of all the leftover bits of which there are
more than one might thinkshould be flexible enough to take
Also, there is a fine old mythological
tradition of gender-switching trickster gods, including, I believe,
Coyote, and certainly Loki. Its actually quite a
common attribute. (It would be interesting to count up
and see if such theological cross-dressing was more or less common
in societies with strong gender role distinctions.)
AO: Why does Ista get the man at
the end? Can you write a Chick Lit book or have a woman hero
who doesnt get the guy, or even want the guy? Why did you
choose to write about the relationship of Illvin and Ista as
a major plot element?
LMB: Part of what was robbed from
Ista by the curse, in the dead middle third of her life, was
her sexuality. Illvin represents the return of that; and
for the very first time in Istas life ever, an autonomous
sexuality, belonging to her in her own right and not to her husband
or family role. Renewal with the emphasis on new.
Actually, I think the central-most
relationship of the book was between Ista and herself, and her
god; once that mess was cleared out, every other good thing could
flow on through. As we saw. Illvin was a perk.
Even, as Ista correctly identified in one of her late conversations
with the Bastard, a bribe.
One might certainly write a Chick
Lit book, or at any rate, a book, where a woman doesnt
get or want a guy, but it would not be this book. It would
be some other book.
(The best distinguishing description
of Chick Lit I have yet seen is that its not romantic comedy,
its romantic satire. A remark I find... interesting,
as satire generally is a mode for which Ive not much taste.)
AO: Do you think its important
to the plot that Illvin was less politically powerful than his
brother, Arhys, to allow for Illvins later relationship
with Ista? Would a more dominant male not have been able to be
the husband of a saint and former queen?
LMB: Very possibly not. Also,
he might have had territory-based oaths and responsibilities
he could not leave. Also, medieval realpolitiks being what
they were, a spouse of too much power, capturing the queen like
that, might be positioned to set up an axis of resistance to
central authority which would do the country no good.
Illvin was the smarter brother,
Oh, and theres no guarantee
the relationship between Ista and Illvin will go to marriage,
after the book closes; in fact, since they are both lay devotees
of the white god [the Bastard], that could be considered an insult
to Him. I see them as partners and publicly-acknowledged
lovers in the upcoming war to clear the demons and the Quadrenes
from Jokona and environs, a social anomaly that people will be
invited to get used to.
AO: Do you think your fans, and
fans of fantasy generally, care about the gender of the protagonist?
LMB: Some do, most dont.
My fans seem to care more about the activity and intelligence
of the protagonist than the gender. The one real rule seems
to be, dont make characters boring.
AO: Are your fans, to your knowledge,
generally male or female?
LMB: Generally, not always.
I have quite a few intersexed or trannie readers. They
have some very interesting things to say on gender construction.
Oh, you wanted to know the numbers.
Its been about a fifty-fifty split, as nearly as I can
tell from convention and bookstore turn-outs. (Plus the
handful who qualify as none of the above.)
AO: One of the things I find interesting
about your previous responses is the way your decision-making
as a writer differs from what I would expect as someone trained
in postmodern literary theory. What are your thoughts on the
differences between what you put in the book and what literary
theorists say is in there? Roland Barthes may have written in
1968 about the Death of the Author, but youre
very much alive. Id like to hear what you have to say!
LMB: Since I have no idea what
literary theorists say, I cannot answer this question.
All that conversation seems to be taking place in a space-time
bubble entirely separate from people who write and read actual
books, as far as I can tell. An echo does not equal a response.
My own thoughts on reader response
are summed up, as far as theyd been developed at the time
of writing, in two older essays: "The Unsung Collaborator",
reprinted in Dreamweavers Dilemma (1995) by NESFA
Press, and one up on my website, "When World-Views Collide
I am put in mind of a quote from
several hundred years ago; it might have been Erasmus, might
have been Descartes, but I rather think Erasmus, because it sounds
like him: "A book is like a mirror. If an ass
looks into it, you cannot expect an angel to look out."
Which suggests several things,
not least that the sometimes-strained relationship between writers
and reviewers hasnt changed much in four centuries, but
also that an awareness of how reader response works isnt
AO: Besides entertaining your readers,
were there any lessons or insights you hoped they would get from
LMB: Reader-response is something
I can only listen to, not command, alas. Every reader will
pull something different from the same text depending on what
they bring to it. Cue Tolkiens famous remarks on
the difference between allegory and applicability.
AO: What, to you, are the most
important themes of Paladin of Souls?
LMB: Getting back to the Heroines
Journey (spiritual and otherwise), Istas book is also very
much about second chances. Her initial run on life came
to grief on just about every level, a failure that sent her all
the way back to square one as a dependent in her mothers
house; her Womans Journey was truncated. Paladin
of Souls was her chance to do it all over and get it right
this time, knowing what she knew now, to re-take her journey
using all that hard-bought experience. Its very much
about re-making oneself in mid-life, about coming-of-age-again.
Its also very much about
exploring the different shapes of womens lives, not only
as distinguished from mens, but also from each other, each
according to her choices and measure.
AO: In a correspondence with feminist
scholar Sylvia Kelso, published in Women of Other Worlds
(1999), you wrote:
Where has anyone experienced a matriarchy for test comparison?
you may ask. In fact, most of us have, as children. When the
scale of our whole world was one long block long, it was a world
dominated and controlled by women. Who were twice our size, drove
cars, had money, could hit us if they wanted to and we couldnt
ever hit them back. Hence, at bottom, my deep, deep suspicion
of feminism, matriarchy, etc. Does this mean putting my mother
in charge of the world, and me demoted to a child again? No thanks,
This leads me to another thought [...] Women do desperately
need models for power other than the maternal. Nothing is more
likely to set any subordinates back up, whether they by
male or female, than for their boss to come the mother
knows best routine at them. We need a third place to stand.
Im just not clear how it became my job to supply it.
Is Paladin of Souls your attempt to find the third
LMB: Among other things, yes.
Ista, certainly, is looking for another place to stand; being
neither maid nor matron nor crone, there is no slot in the standard
womens-lives-grid her culture supplies that fits her.
So she has to break out through the walls of the box.
One of the more bemusing male-female
contrasts is between the opening of The Curse of Chalion
and that of Paladin of Souls, with a wearied man seeking
refuge in the same castle that a wearied woman seeks to escape.
If I were Stella Gibbons, Id point that out with three
asterisks. (I recommend reading Cold Comfort Farm.)
AO: Following on the previous question,
in The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls you
give two of the mothersIstas own mother, the Provincara
dy Boacia, and Princess Joenextremely dominating personalities.
Does that flow from your concern about the dark side of feminine
authority? Or is it merely a coincidence of the storys
LMB: Storys needs always
come first. But since, for any deep sense of satisfaction,
a coherent theme is part of a storys needs, these things
turn up to supply it. The tale was about Ista getting her
head straight; her finding a healthy balance of power, and balance
in power, turned out to be part of that.
I cannot emphasize enough that
I do not start with a plan or agenda and mechanically manipulate
characters and events to carry it out. I set characters in motion,
and let them teach me what the book is.
AO: Many fantasy stories have heroines
exercise power by taking on male-style violence, often becoming
experts in the martial arts, for example. Ista does not. Why
LMB: Besides being forty years
old, having led an enforced sedentary life for the past two decades,
being maybe 53, and being the queen mother of her
country, that is?
There are many and subtle forms
of very real power that have nothing to do with young males whacking
each other frantically about the head in a quest for enhanced
bio-social status. Istas book explores some of them.
AO: What do you think is womens
greatest form of power?
LMB: In what arena? Which
Certainly, for both men and women,
money is the most personal and portable form of social power,
and more importantly, autonomy. Thats why women are
so often diverted or blocked from obtaining it. Political
power rests in how many other people one can get to cooperate
with one, and there are about a million different channels, great
and small, for that, of which force is one of the least reliable
and efficient and yet the most envied, albeit not by me.
Knowledge is not necessarily power,
but ignorance is definitely weakness. But thats something
potentially available to either gender. I would certainly
say knowledge is one of womens (peoples) most needed
forms of power.
Fertility isnt power; its
more like the universe reaching through us to pursue its own
ends. Which is a very remarkable experience, but its
not the kind of power that this question seems to be about.
In fact, the more I think about
it, the more of an undefined term "power" seems in
this question, and in much other discourse. Its not
something inherent in an individual, like, say, intelligence,
being a shorthand descriptor of flow of will in social relationships,
and therefore requiring a context of other people, the permutations
of which swiftly rise with numbers. So without defining
the context, the question is, um... meaningless, actually.
There are worse problems with the
vague abstraction women, which I will leave as an
exercise for the reader.
Bujold, Lois McMaster. Paladin
of Souls. New York: EOS, 2003.
Bujold, Lois McMaster and Sylvia
Kelso. Letterspace: In the Chinks Between Published Fiction
and Published Criticism. Women of Other Worlds: Excursions
Through Science Fiction and Feminism. Ed. Helen Merrick and
Tess Williams. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western
Australia Press, 1999.
The Bujold Nexus. Ed. Michael
Bernardi. 2008. 16 May 2009 <http://www.dendarii.com/>.