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Women’s Hero Journey: An Interview With Lois McMaster Bujold
on Paladin of Souls
Interview by Alan Oak

June 2009

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 heart’s 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 Bujold’s 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. I’m a nut for fantasy and science fiction, and it seemed to fit the bill. When I read it, though, I realized I’d found a new writer (to me) that stood head and shoulders over much of the genre fiction I’d 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 Bujold’s 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. She’s 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 Boacia’s 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 novel–a 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 doesn’t 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 I’d come to expect in a “feminist” novel. Maybe that’s 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 woman’s 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 power–some good, some bad, some ugly–that have a movement and urgency apart from the interests and personal journeys of men. The book is about women’s own struggle to grow as people rather than their struggle to thrive in opposition to patriarchal oppression. As I’ve learned more in my graduate studies, I’ve found feminist scholars–Carol 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.

© 2005 by Carol CollinsAuthor Biography

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 series.

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 Novel.

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, it’s 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 Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” tropes. 

It was clear to me from reading Campbell and listening to his recorded lectures that while he was very big on the Hero’s Journey, he was utterly clueless about women.  The journey into maturity (for which the above was metaphor, in Campbell’s 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 Hero’s Journey is just the wrong shape for the Heroine.

Somewhere in one of the more amusing Georgette Heyer Regency historical novels–The Reluctant Widow, if I recall correctly–a particularly feckless younger brother makes the airy remark, “I really don’t know what those women can be finding to do all day about the house.”  Plainly, Campbell doesn’t know either.

AO: Do you think Ista’s 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 women’s 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.  It’s something our time is having to invent.  Men’s life spans have been extended as well, to be sure, and we’re 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 workhorse.

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, Isabella’s unfortunate daughter, who dragged her husband Phillip the Fair’s embalmed corpse around half of Spain for a while.  She was the jumping-off-point for the character of Cattilara.

I don’t have to make this stuff up.  History hands it to me on a platter.

AO: Did you intend Ista’s 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 society’s peculiar attempts to downsize women; there’s 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, she’s for-sure broken out of the good-little-girl mode that had so betrayed her in her prior life.  Power and autonomy in play here–not nice, not sweet, not tame.

AO: A scholar might claim that Ista’s 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!

She’s 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 Aragorn’s trophy-wife.  And that Lady of Shallot was darned passive-aggressive.)  Five gods know Ista’d had enough of that in the prior two decades of her life.

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 daughter’s generation.  Cattilara was the worst thing I could do to Ista.  I mean, not only is the man of her (initial) daydreams a zombie, he’s married.... 

Part way through, it became evident that this was a chick book, a women’s 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 Ista’s Book from the get-go–in fact, its working title for a while was Ista’s Book–so 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.)  I’ve 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.  I’m glad I waited.  She needed to be more than just a subplot of Caz’s [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. Don’t 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.  It’s 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 inventions–the 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 [Ista’s domineering mother], a mother in the worst way.  Don’t 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 Bastard gender-ambiguous?

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 Ista’s 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 Bastard’s gift.

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 reassignment–or 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 think–should be flexible enough to take them in.

Also, there is a fine old mythological tradition of gender-switching trickster gods, including, I believe, Coyote, and certainly Loki.  It’s 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 doesn’t 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 Ista’s 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 doesn’t 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 it’s not romantic comedy, it’s romantic satire.  A remark I find... interesting, as satire generally is a mode for which I’ve not much taste.)

AO: Do you think it’s important to the plot that Illvin was less politically powerful than his brother, Arhys, to allow for Illvin’s 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, too.

Oh, and there’s 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 don’t.  My fans seem to care more about the activity and intelligence of the protagonist than the gender.  The one real rule seems to be, don’t 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.  It’s 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 you’re very much alive. I’d 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 they’d been developed at the time of writing, in two older essays:  "The Unsung Collaborator", reprinted in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma (1995) by NESFA Press, and one up on my website, "When World-Views Collide” (http://www.dendarii.com/collide.html).

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 hasn’t changed much in four centuries, but also that an awareness of how reader response works isn’t new, either.

AO: Besides entertaining your readers, were there any lessons or insights you hoped they would get from the book?

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 Tolkien’s 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 Heroine’s Journey (spiritual and otherwise), Ista’s 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 mother’s house; her Woman’s 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.  It’s very much about re-making oneself in mid-life, about coming-of-age-again.

It’s also very much about exploring the different shapes of women’s lives, not only as distinguished from men’s, 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 couldn’t 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, I’ll pass...

This leads me to another thought [...] Women do desperately need models for power other than the maternal. Nothing is more likely to set any subordinate’s 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. I’m just not clear how it became my job to supply it.

Is Paladin of Souls your attempt to find the “third place”?

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 women’s-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, I’d 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 mothers–Ista’s own mother, the Provincara dy Boacia, and Princess Joen–extremely dominating personalities. Does that flow from your concern about the dark side of feminine authority? Or is it merely a coincidence of the story’s needs?

LMB: Story’s needs always come first.  But since, for any deep sense of satisfaction, a coherent theme is part of a story’s 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 not?

LMB: Besides being forty years old, having led an enforced sedentary life for the past two decades, being maybe 5’3”, 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.  Ista’s book explores some of them.

AO: What do you think is women’s greatest form of power?

LMB: In what arena?  Which women?

Certainly, for both men and women, money is the most personal and portable form of social power, and more importantly, autonomy.  That’s 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 that’s something potentially available to either gender.  I would certainly say knowledge is one of women’s (people’s) most needed forms of power.

Fertility isn’t power; it’s more like the universe reaching through us to pursue its own ends.  Which is a very remarkable experience, but it’s 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.  It’s 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.

Works Cited

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/>.

About Alan:

Alan Oak is a graduate student in English at the University of Texas at Brownsville where he is a graduate research assistant to Dr. Javier Martinez, Managing Editor of Extrapolation, a journal of speculative fiction. Alan’s research interests include science fiction and fantasy literature, feminist and gender theory, and applying social science and evolutionary biology in literary criticism. In addition, he is exploring the creative side of writing, experimenting with his own science fiction and fantasy works and formalist poetry, some of which he has presented at academic conferences. He’s currently working on his master’s thesis exploring the women’s hero journey and feminine forms of power in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series.


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