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Gandalf Shines in The White Rider





Is it cheating to bring a character back from the dead?

I don’t remember reading “The White Rider” for the first time. I’m not sure there was ever a time when I was working under the assumption that Gandalf was fully, irrevocably gone. And at this point it’s hard to even imagine a story in which he doesn’t come back, in which the fellowship struggles forward as they were, imperfect and alone.

And it doesn’t feel like cheating to me: not for any plot or mythos specific reason, but simply because it’s good for the story. Gandalf is a wonderful, vibrant character from his first appearance. He’s funny, charming, wise, and sometimes hasty. He’s fallible and intensely aware of it. He always feels like such a human character, and it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that he’s just a wise, talented old man in a pointy hat. But he’s not. Gandalf is old—nearly incomprehensibly old by human standards. He lived with the Valar, he walked Middle-earth for ages. There are depths to Gandalf—it’s no wonder he and Treebeard got on so splendidly. And one of the great treats of “The White Rider” is catching of glimpse of these depths, as buried facets of Gandalf simmer to the surface.

The White Rider

Gandalf the White makes his first appearance as a threat. Legolas spies him skulking through the woods, a hooded figure in white. He’s meant to be ominous:

At that moment the old man quickened his pace and came with surprising speed to the foot of the rock-wall. Then suddenly he looked up, while they stood motionless looking down. There was no sound.

It’s a creepy scene. The figure’s speed changes jarringly, the silence draws out the tension. When our trio react with fear, they are stricken by an inability to move or speak. The man will not identify himself, and insists the others talk about themselves. At one point he laughs “long and softly” which is a horrifying way to describe a laugh? And even after everyone recognizes this figure, he only remembers his name when Aragorn speaks it to him.

A lot of this is designed to ratchet up tension for first time readers. Most of the trio – especially Gimli – is convinced that this is an impending Saruman attack, so the ominous underlay makes perfect sense. But it also has the interesting side effect of forefronting danger as a key aspect of who Gandalf is. Gandalf himself makes this explicit later:

“I thought Fangorn was dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous, more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli, son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion.”

Gandalf has always been dangerous. But underlining his return with a sense of danger and strangeness makes the reader immediately aware that something has changed. Gandalf has returned, but he’s not quite who he had been.


The Wizard and the Balrog

And, to be fair, who would expect him to be? Gandalf has had a *rough* couple of weeks. After taking a tandem dive off Khazad-dûm with a fire demon, he plunged into an icy pool and then had a forty-eight-hour battle royale on a frozen mountaintop. When he cast the balrog down, he broke the mountain. This is a nice taste of Gandalf’s recent experiences: 

“Far below the deepest delvings of the dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope.”

Yikes, Gandalf! That’s rough, buddy! The degree to which this was a traumatizing experience can be seen in his description of the battle, as he slips in an out of first person:

“But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapor and steam. Ice fell like rain. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin.”

 It’s interesting how Gandalf tells his story, and how he abstracts himself until the moment of victory. Before that, everything is told from the perspective of a hypothetical third party or in the passive tense. It creates the sense that Gandalf only partially relates to that Gandalf on the mountaintop, and creates a distance between past and present identity. And that raises an important question: who is Gandalf the White?

Gandalf the White 

“Then darkness came to me and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.”

We get two different glimpses of Gandalf in the course of “The White Rider.” The first comes from Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. When Aragorn first hears the hooded figure laugh—before he knows his identity—he describes the sound as giving him a “strange, cold thrill” comparable to “the sudden bite of keen air, or the slap of a cold rain that wakes an uneasy sleeper.” After that, nearly every description of Gandalf features sunlight.


The first description given to him after being revealed states that his hair “was white as snow in the sunshine, gleaming white was his robe, his eyes under deep brows were bright, like rays of the sun; power was in his hand.” His laugh, no longer long and soft, is “kindly as a gleam of sunshine.” The Trio looks over to see another gleam of sun, this time filtering through the clouds and filling Gandalf’s hands with light “as a cup is with water.” At one point he looks straight into the sun; at another he recalls Gwaihir’s shock that Gandalf’s body was so light that “the Sun shines through you.”

In this line of thinking we get the easiest interpretation of Gandalf’s ordeals: it was a process of purification. Gandalf as always been associated with fire. He bears Narya, the ring of fire. Tolkien described him as inherently opposing “the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles… his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within.”

But instead of a buried, turbulent flame, Gandalf’s ordeals have distilled him into purer sunlight, clearer and more assured. All of this also takes on more poignant tone, as Gandalf—when first sent as an emissary to Middle-earth by Manwë—attempted to decline, saying he was too fearful to go. It happens nearly entirely off-page, but it’s a lovely character arc. His battle with the balrog has concentrated him, illuminating the aspects that always lay underneath.

The Turn of the Tide

That’s not the whole story, though. Gandalf is more powerful than he was, and more self-assured. But there is a sense that he still feels somewhat powerless:

There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumor of all the lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone.

And later:

I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.

Gandalf’s knowledge feels greater than it ever was; he can sense Saruman’s thoughts and sense Sauron’s purpose. He can hear the “rumor of the lands” and glimpse far-off things. But knowledge never brings him a sense of omnipotence or control. The “rumor” he hears is chaotic and contradictory, filled with slow, large-scale trends but lacking focus. His knowledge reaches to the “far-off” but not the close up. There is a permeating sense that Gandalf knows so much, but not enough.

It’s a double thematic bonus for Tolkien. It gives Gandalf limitations, so his assertion that “much will be destroyed and all may be lost” and that “I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still” does ring true. And more importantly, it implicitly highlights the importance of free will and individual action in the narrative. Gandalf can know so much, but still not that Sam would accompany Frodo, that Merry and Pippin would be cast into Treebeard’s path, or any of the other “small stones that start an avalanche in the mountains.” All power in Tolkien’s universe must be limited. There are too many factors at play.

[Side note: This also places a nice capstone on Aragorn’s arc. On several occasions he has wished for more information in order to make a decision; it’s suggested here that knowledge does not necessarily come accompanied by the comfort of certitude]


Empathy and the Enemy

Despite all of these character beats from Gandalf, I can imagine complaints from those, ermm, less sympathetic to Tolkien’s style. Gandalf’s massive Balrog battle happens off-page, and is quickly summarized in about two paragraphs. And before we even get to it, we get pages of speechifying. It’s understandable that some people may grumble about trading a mountain battle for a mountain of exposition.

I think it’s good exposition though, and rather needed. Sauron and Saruman have been such distant, obscure threats for most of the story. And that’s been fine: so much of the drama of The Fellowship of the Ring was predicated on that distance and obscurity, and the real conflict happened largely within our characters. But at the same time, it’s nice to get some insight from the newly-insightful Gandalf.

[Sauron] assumes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place… Indeed, he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered his darkest dream.

It is so satisfying to me that Sauron’s—and Saruman’s—downfall boil down to a lack of empathy. The only reason that anything in Lord of the Rings works is because the bad guys simply lack the imagination to consider that the world is different from what they imagined it to be. Sauron’s world is one of conflict, strife, power. That’s understandable, given his history. It’s also, in part, incorrect. Saruman is in the same position:

There is much that he does not know…. His thought is ever on the Ring. Was it present in the battle? Was it found? What if Théoden, Lord of the Mark, should come by it and learn of its power? That is the danger that he sees, and he has fled back to Isengard to double and treble the assault upon Rohan. And all that time there is another danger, close at hand, which he does not see, busy with his fiery thoughts. He has forgotten Treebeard.

It’s a lovely little twist: Gandalf and Aragorn stress throughout the first half of The Two Towers concerning the things that they could not possibly know. They are acutely aware of them. Sauron and Saruman fear what they don’t know as well, but they also assume that they know what to fear. Evil fails in Middle-earth due to a failure of imagination and a lack of empathy. This revelation pairs so well with the newly-minted Gandalf the White’s thoughts and troubles (and Aragorn’s up to this point) that this chapter provides a good argument that Tolkien had a very strong sense of thematic cohesion in his work, and that these themes work on a multitude of levels.


Final Comments

  • FIRST THINGS FIRST: I honestly can’t believe Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, aren’t freaking out over losing Éomer’s horses. It’s been a couple of hours and he basically said that his life relied on them returning them safely. They are so wrapped up in their new mystery-solving club that they don’t even pay poor Éomer a second thought.
  • Gandalf describes Treebeard as “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.” A million continuity purists and Tom Bombadil fans cry out in anguish.
  • As a kid, it bothered me a bit when Aslan rose from the dead in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’m sympathetic to people being bothered in a similar capacity by Gandalf’s return. But at the same time, it feels very different to me. Aslan’s resurrection is unavoidably allegorical; Gandalf’s is not. Tolkien’s worldbuilding is wonky and multifaceted enough that very few things —even those that are obviously influenced by Christianity—feel rigidly Christian.
  • This is a good chapter for Gimli, who continues to be a great character. He’s moody and emotional but always endearing. I very much enjoyed his unbridled faith in Aragorn’s investigative abilities, his shame over failing to recognize Gandalf (and trying to hit in the head with an axe) and his teasing of Legolas. My favorite, though, has to be his dramatic overreaction to thinking Galadriel failed to send him a message. Legolas point out that the messages were… ominous. “Would you have her speak openly to you of your death?” he asks. “Yes,” says Gimli, “if she had nought else to say.” I believe this is what kids these days call being EXTRA.
  • Legolas does well for himself too: he calls Aragorn and Gimli “children” and teases Merry and Pippin for celebrating their escape by immediately sitting down for a snack.
  • “What? In riddles?” said Gandalf. “No. For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.”
    “I am no longer young even in the reckoning of men of the Ancient Houses,” said Aragorn.
    I enjoy how petulant Aragorn sounds here. He sounds like a teenager insisting he’s an adult.
  • Prose Prize: “The grey figure of the Man, Aragorn son of Arathorn, was tall, and stern as stone, his hand upon the hilt of his sword; he looked as if some kind out of the mists of the sea had stepped upon the shores of lesser men. Before him stooped the old figure, white, shining now as if with some light kindled within, bent, laden with years, but holding a power beyond the strength of kings.”
  • Contemporary to this chapter: It is also March in Middle-earth. Gandalf makes his reappearance on March 1st, the second day of the Entmoot. Meanwhile, over the east, Frodo and Sam are entering the Dead Marshes.
    • It’s been about six weeks since Gandalf’s disappearance – he fell at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm on January 15th. His battle with the Balrog on Zirak-Zigil was on January 23-25, which means poor Gandalf spent a solid week in the pits of the earth. After the Balrog’s death he lied on the mountaintop for about three weeks, awakening in mid-February while Frodo was looking into the Mirror of Galadriel. He only missed the Company in Lórien by a day.
  • Éowyn countdown: NEXT CHAPTER. Mark your calendars Tolkienites, our favorite shield maiden makes her debut on March 29th.

Art Credits: In order of appearance, images are courtesy of rysowAnia, Laura Tolton, kinko white, Peter Xavier Price, and Ted Nasmith. 

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.



Book Review: Shattered, by Lee Winter




I’ve been looking forward to reviewing another book by Lee Winter for a while. Her book, The Red Files, about a May-December relationship between two journalists on the case was an engaging read, and I expected nothing less from this book. This review does contain minor spoilers, but more in regards to craft than content.

Shattered leans into Shattergirl, a first-generation alien/superhero who has gone off the grid. Lena Martin, an alien tracker, is tasked with finding Shattergirl and figuring out where she’s been for the last 18 months. From this premise, we follow Lena to Socotra, otherwise known as the Island of Bliss, to track the missing superhero and figure out how to bring her in.

I expected that this book would take much longer to get to the point. Often, when reading a book where one character must find another, the author labors under building up the mystery character, with the detective character spending chapter after chapter following false leads, missing connections. The tension of the book is contingent on finding the mystery character. What this often leads to is a pacing issue, where the action of the story is backloaded, leading to a tedious start, an arduous middle, and frequently an unsatisfying ending. Winter, however, is far too deft of a writer to do that to us. She instead, comes out in front of the pacing issues, and after setting up the world with only as much detail as the reader would need, makes sure that a quarter of the way in, we’re at the tension of the story.

What works more than anything in this story, is the tension between Shattergirl (who goes by Nyah once she warms up a bit) and Lena. Lena, who poses as a writer so as not to immediately give herself away, begins to interrogate Nyah. And while it is revealed that Nyah knew all along that she was indeed a tracker, the sharp tongues and wit between the two sets the stage for further relational development.

Winter has the ability to profoundly flesh out a character without dropping information. Characteristics are dropped in during moments of suspense, without much staging, allowing for a roundness that I don’t usually see unless I am 5 books into a series. The way characters are painted allows for broad strokes, providing only the most necessary and relevant information first, then going in with finer detail later. This allows for the plot and action to take center stage, and for the characters to be more complimentary.

What struck me most about this book was the angle of looking at celebrity and heroism. The way Lena’s perspective changes through the book, both in response to her job and to Nyah reflects that of the reader. Lena can’t be bothered to have a personal life because she is renowned in her field, leaving her only with the soft reminder of humanity in her apartment neighbor. Nyah, who is adored by the world as a hero, is burdened with the pressure of trying to save everyone, and crushed by the weight of the vulnerable ones she can’t save. Lena, who spent her childhood admiring Nyah for her heroism, is knocked down a peg to the reality of what heroism really looks like.

In a book filled with grace and profound observations, I wish more than anything that this book was longer, or that it had a movie deal or something. Winter has a way of crafting stories that feel real and raw and cut past genre or the obvious direction a book could go in. My only criticism for such a short book is waiting for the other shoe to drop. This book builds itself up to the highest peak, and with thirty pages left, you as the reader are left wondering where exactly all this build up is going. I won’t say that it doesn’t have a satisfying ending, because it does, but the reading experience is certainly unique.

You can find Shattered by Lee Winter by clicking here.

*An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Lee Winter as Lee Winters. This has been corrected and we regret the error.

Images Courtesy of YLVA Publishing

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Christopher Tolkien, Gil-Estel, Has Retired From Tolkien Estate





I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae a han noston ned ‘wilith.

It is a busy time in the world of Tolkien. Fresh off the announcement that Amazon will produce a new series based on The Lord of the Rings, a perhaps more significant change has occurred. According to Christopher Tolkien, for decades the editor of his father’s work and arbiter of the Tolkien legacy, has stepped down from his role at the head of the Tolkien Estate. While not a shock to some, thanks to his statement in the preface of Beren and Lúthien that “this is (preemptively) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writings,” it still feels like the end of an era.

There From The Start

Considered the undisputed chief scholar of Tolkien, Christopher has been a part of the creation of Arda since he was a child. As a young boy, he was told the tales of Bilbo Baggins that, after his incessant demand for consistency force his father to write the stories down, became The Hobbit. He served as a sounding board for The Lord of the Rings and, when he was 25, became a member of the Inklings, the Oxford University literary society that also included C.S Lewis, Nevill Coghill, and Charles Williams. And those famous maps of Middle Earth adorning walls, book covers, and body parts? All drawn by “C.J.R.T” a.k.a Christopher John Reuel Tolkien.

Editor and Guiding Hand

But it was his contribution to Tolkien’s lifelong project and arguably magnum opus The Silmarillion that truly ensured Christopher’s importance within his father’s legacy. Gathering up over fifty years of notes, scribbles, and drafts that his father had made over the years, Christopher set out to edit it together into what he hoped would be close to his father’s vision. With character names changing from paragraph to paragraph and an entire legendarium to try to distill into a narrative, it was no easy task. Thanks to editorial decisions that have proved controversial, even ones that he himself later debated, he was able to put the pieces together and release The Silmarillion in 1977, four years after it’s author’s passing.

He followed it up with his edited collections of his father’s writing, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle Earth-the molten metal from which The Silmarillion was cast. For the first time, fans could see characters like Sauron, Gandalf, and Elrond develop over time. He also released, in the new millennium, more compact and edited works from his father like The Children of Húrin and the aforementioned Beren and Lúthien. He has also helped release some of J.R.R Tolkien’s non-LOTR work like Beowulf The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, and The Fall of Arthur. 

Critic and Fierce Protector

In recent years, he has become known for his tight grip on his father’s legacy in the aftermath of an explosion of interest thanks to the Peter Jackson film trilogy of the Lord of the Rings. When said trilogy was announced, his opinion was that the films would lose the “essence” of the film. In a 2012 interview, he further declared the films to have “gutted” the book, calling them “making an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds.” His views on Jackson’s The Hobbit films was seemingly even lower, raising legal objections with New Line and in the aftermath declaring that The Silmarillion would not be touched for “a very long time.”

What This All Could Mean

The biggest question is all this? Whether the Amazon deal is a direct result of Christopher giving up the reins. The estate still counts among its members Christopher’s younger sister Priscilla Tolkien as well as multiple Tolkien grandchildren. But Christopher was always the chief arbiter and, with his orthodox control gone, will the Amazon deal be the first of many? The Tolkien legendarium is ripe for the very cinematic universes that Hollywood is currently desperate for. For better or worse, the new management may seem more amenable to adaptations and expansions than Christopher ever was.

As it is, it’s important for fans to thank Mr. Tolkien for his service to his father’s legacy and we all wish him a very happy retirement.

Nai tiruvantel ar varyuvantel i Valar tielyanna nu vilya.

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema

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Racism and Some Sexism in Woman Who Rides Like A Man




Image Courtesy of Athenum Books for Young Readers

The Woman Who Rides Like A Man makes me look at the premise of these articles and cringe. Trying to find the evolution of feminism in a book with a hearty dose of racism and sexism is… hard. Very hard. The fact that it reads like Pierce is trying to be sensitive to these issues and is failing makes it worse. To be  fair, in 1986 when this book was published, it probably would have seemed more progressive. Pierce including characters of another race and being respectful of them was outstanding for that time period. But, time marches on. Things that were once seen as progressive become backward. So you read about racism and sexism in a mostly feminist series from a consistently feminist author.

Nothing exists in a vacuum and we can’t look at anything outside of our current lens. But, this is the one time Pierce makes this mistake so egregiously. She gets better, and actively addresses these issues again in one of her most recent books.

Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for The Woman Who Rides Like a Man and both of the books covered in previous articles. I am also white, so I may miss several more subtle examples of racism in the text or even in my interpretations of it. If I make mistakes because of this, please let me know so that I can fix them.


This is the first book in the series that does not center around Alanna gaining her shield. As such, Pierce breaks the mold a little and then goes on to break it a lot. Woman Who Rides Like a Man starts with Alanna and Coram in the Great Southern Desert. They left the palace after Alanna killed her great enemy, Duke Roger. Alanna’s goal was to become a knight so that she could go and have adventures, so adventure is what they’re looking for. They run into some bandits and defeat them with the help of the local Bazhir tribe.

They eventually join that tribe, although Alanna has some difficulty with the Shaman. Akhnan ibn Nazzir, said Shaman, views Alanna as a witch and demon because of sexism. They quarrel and Alanna winds up killing him in self defense. This means she has to take his place until she can train his replacement. Alanna decides that the replacements will be three young children she befriended who have the magical Gift. Ishak, the one male trainees, overreaches his Gift and dies for it. The other two girls survive and become Shamans in turn.

Jonathan, Myles, and Ali Mukhtab arrive at the tribe’s camp. Jonathan learns from Ali Mukhtab and becomes the religious leader of the Bazhir. Myles adopts Alanna. Jonathan and Alanna quarrel and it ends their romantic entanglement. Alanna goes to visit George in Port Caynn, and the two of them begin a romantic entanglement. George then goes back to Corus and faces rebellion in the Court of the Rogue. Alanna returns to the hill country around the desert and saves documents from a friend of the tribe’s leader.

What this Book did Right:

Alanna’s Character Development

Unfortunately this section is very short. For a book series that is supposed to be centered around Alanna, this does very little to advance her character. Alanna says two things that she has learned, at two points in the story, but I find these hard to believe that these are new to her.

Alanna and Female Friendship

Halef Seif, the leader of the tribe of Bazhir that adopted Alanna talks with her after she returns to the tribe. He says, “you’ve discovered you like your own sex?’ ‘How can I not like other women?’ Alanna inquired. … I don’t feel nearly as odd about being female as I did before I came here.” (265). Alanna, through the positive female interactions that she had during the events of this book, has developed a more positive view of her gender. This is great and ultimately feminist to love and appreciate women for what they do and who they are. Alanna mentions that when she disguised herself as male that she didn’t talk much with other women.

However, I don’t see this as new character development, because we see this happening before in the series. Alanna goes to Eleni Cooper, and Eleni teaches her how to dress in a female manner. The two of them spend a good amount of time together. We also meet Rispah in this book, who is George’s cousin, and well acquainted with Alanna beforehand. Alanna mentions that she’s friends with several sex workers in Corus when discussing whorephobia associated with Bazhir customs of modesty. Because of this we know that Alanna is friends with women, and has been for a while.

There is nothing wrong with Alanna spending time with more female characters. It’s wonderful, having several female characters that can talk to one another and support each other as the women in Woman who Rides Like a Man do. However, when Pierce presents it as something entirely new to the series, that I take issue with.

Alanna and Magic

Another thing that Alanna says she has learned over the course of the year that this book covers, is that she has accepted her magic. She says, shortly before the end. “I was afraid of magic, partly because I was sure it couldn’t be controlled. … I guess I’m not afraid of my Gift anymore. I’m the one who wields it.” (283). Alanna’s Gift, her magic is inborn within her. Being afraid of herself isn’t healthy.

But, as with Alanna’s relationships with other women, this is a beat that has already been covered in the series. In the first book, we see Alanna use her magic after hiding it for a year. She heals Jonathan from the Sweating Sickness, something no other healer has done. Alanna uses her Gift again to heal during the Tusaine war in the second book. Alanna even takes lessons in magic from Duke Roger, uses it to fight in him during their duel. She and Jonathan use magic to be victorious in the Black City at the conclusion of the first book. Alanna learned this lesson years ago.

Yes, Alanna has learned how to use her magic better and more frequently here. But she has conquered these fears before, and it’s a retread of a thread from the first two books, not a revelation as it is made to seem.

When a book series does character development really well it hurts when that strength falters. Compare this book with In the Hand of the Goddess. There we see Alanna conquering three of her deepest fears, Duke Roger, Love, and the Chamber of the Ordeal. It’s fantastic character development wrapped in a coming of age story. But in Woman Who Rides Like a Man Pierce reduces Alanna’s character development to repeating lessons she has already learned.

Alanna and Jonathan

As has been covered before, I did not enjoy the relationship between Alanna and Jonathan. I felt the power dynamics that existed between them made the romance unhealthy. This book informed part of that reading of the text. Jonathan asks Alanna to marry him, and Alanna hesitates. There are several chapters where she ponders the responsibilities that would be hers if she accepted and the freedoms she would lose. Quite reasonably she demands time to think about it, which Jonathan grants.

Alanna’s problem with Jonathan’s proposal is that she cannot separate his proposal to her with his desire to rebel against his family. Or from his desire to rebel against the cultural norms of Tortall. She’s concerned it’s not sincere that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, and just marrying her as something selfish.

Jonathan proves that fear right after he becomes the Voice of the Tribes. He orders Alanna’s things packed before he gets a solid yes from her. “How dare you take my acceptance for granted?” (202). Jonathan says Alanna kept sleeping with him, so her answer was yes. Alanna brings up affairs he had with other Court Ladies. It ends with, “And they know how to act like women!’ … ‘I refuse to marry you.’ … ‘I think I’m well out of a potential disaster!’ … ‘Find yourself someone more feminine, Jonathan of Conte!” (203-4). This ends the relationship between the two of them.

Jonathan’s romantic relationships in this book are reactive rather than intelligent. He wants to marry Alanna to rebel against his heritage. He then goes on to court Princess Josiane, in a scene from his POV reacting against, “that – female in the south.” (206). This is not a healthy way to court anyone, and Pierce shows that toxicity in the text.

What This Does Wrong

Character Development Ratios

The List of Male Character Development

  • Coram
    • Becomes a member of the Bazhir tribes
    • Enters into a romantic relationship with Rispah
  • Myles
    • Officially adopts Alanna
    • Has a ‘merchant-like’ interest in finance
    • His barony is wealthier than typical
  • Thom
    • Morals more carefully developed as he steals Alanna’s Gift for a major working
    • Enjoys court life an excessive amount and is socializing with Roger’s friends
    • Has been challenged to raise the dead by said associates of Rogers.
  • Duke Roger
    • Made magical weapons in his youth which are scattered all over Tortall
  • Ali Mukhtab
    • In addition to being the Governor of Persopolis, is the Voice of the Tribes, the central Bazhir religious figure
    • Has visions of the future which make him turn that title over to Jonathan
    • Has a terminal illness that means he will die within months
  • Halef Sief
    • Had a past friendship with a Bazhir woman with the Gift, which meant she had to leave the tribe
    • Learns to accept women as shamans
  • Akhnan ibn Nazzir
    • He advocates for Alanna’s death so that he will get a third of her belongings showing his interest in money
    • Selfish and protective of his role to the point where he will not train successors because he does not want any challengers
    • Incredibly sexist
  • Ishak
    • Learns to respect Kara and Kourrem as his fellow shaman trainees and women’s work as important
    • Is conceited about his powers and the fact he had a minor amount of training before Alanna
    • Overreaches himself with his Gift, leading to his death
  • George
    • Enters a romantic relationship with Alanna
    • Learn more about the structure of the Court of the Rogue
    • Learn more about his relationship with his mother, Eleni
  • Jonathan
    • Ends his romantic relationship with Alanna
    • Enters a romantic entanglement with Princess Josiane
    • Becomes Voice of the Tribes and views that as freeing

What Does This Mean?

As I mentioned above, Alanna doesn’t get much new character development in this book. In comparison, every single male character present for a decent period gets at least one new moment of development or meaningful experience.

In addition, Kara and Kourrem are the only other two female characters that get significant development. But their development is both the same, they learn to become shamans and take that place in the tribe. Pierce differentiates their characters, but they are on parallel journeys, as no other characters are. This blends their development together, making them more one development rather than many.

There are several female characters mentioned that do not get development at all. Our view of Eleni doesn’t change, and we don’t even meet Rispah before now. The other Bazhir women serve mostly as a gestalt entity described by Alanna, with one exception. Mari Fahrar is the first Bazhir woman who accepts Alanna, Kara, and Kourrem as shaman and shamans to be. This ‘change’ is facilitated simply by one conversation with them, and there is nothing in the text that suggests she was particularly prejudiced before. Admittedly, after Mari is convinced, she convinces the other Bazhir women to give them a chance, which allows for some development of the Bazhir women as a whole.

However, four female characters that all get minor development in contrast to several major developments to numerous male characters is dodgy. This ratio is difficult to see and not think of sexism. It’s not wrong for an author to develop her characters. But balance, especially in feminist works, is something you should strive for.

Racism, Colonialism and the Coding of the Bazhir

The Bazhir are a group of people loosely organized in tribes with only one major city. They live in the desert south of Tortall and the other civilized lands. Tortall conquered them two generations ago. There are tribes that are at peace with the Tortallans and those that are not. They are notably darker skinned than the civilized people, and the women wear veils that hide their faces. Their religion that loosely ties into that of the civilized nations but which they’ve added on other beliefs to. They have one person that serves as the center of their religion. What does that sound like?

If you answered Islam, the Middle East, or the Colonization of Indigenous people, then you can see the problems inherent with the culture that Pierce has created here.

There are many pieces that need to be addressed here, and it may very well be that I will miss some or misinterpret some. I will not be addressing everything that I caught in the book, only the most egregious things. I know that it will be impossible for some people to see the series as feminist because of the issues endorsed here. The fact that I can see this series as feminist overall despite this book is in some ways an expression of privilege. I hope this discussion will be educational for those who missed things, as I did when I first read this book at 12.

Racism and Colonialism

One of the major events in this book is chronicling Jonathan’s journey to become the Voice of the Tribes. The Voice of the Tribes is the central religious figure of the Bazhir. He gains several magical powers because of this position. The ability to commune with all of his people, to see the past lives of other Voices, and to know the date of his own death are some of them. The Bazhir are a people who are largely fractured into tribes, and the Voice is the one who binds them all as one people despite their division.

Ali Mukhtab knows that he is dying, has known when he would die since he became the Voice. He knows the day is nigh. He also knows that,

“[the northern] king will win if we continue to fight …

[the renegade tribes] will make peace and the Voice will bring

them into Tortall without a fight. We must accept the

King in the North; there is no other way. But we can do it

so that we never forget who we are. Prince Jonathan is the key.” (57).

It is understandable that Ali Mukhtab wants to keep his people safe and whole from a Watsonian perspective. He has future sight, he knows exactly what will happen, what destruction that will be meted out to his people if they fight.

However, a Doylist perspective reveals problems with this situation and this method of resolution. That the only way to save an Indigenous culture is to have a white man take the place as their leader is bad. That said white man will bring their culture in line with his own rather then respecting them is worse.

After Jonathan becomes the Voice he says to Alanna, “for the first time since I was named, I am free.” (197). He complains about his life as a prince being confining with too many responsibilities. Then he takes on responsibility for the saving of an entire other culture and views it as freedom.

It relies on so many racist and colonialist tropes, the White Savior, the idea of the ‘good oppressed person’ who just rolls over and accedes their agency to their oppressor, the idea that colonialism is inevitable.

Jonathan could have helped the Bazhir in a different way. He could have reversed the conquest. He could have brokered a peace treaty so that their peoples wouldn’t fight. Tortall receives next to no resources from the Bazhir anyway. The only thing Tortall gets from having conquered the Bazhir is bragging rights. Tortall just won a war against Tusaine, so giving the desert back to the Bazhir wouldn’t loose Tortall their strong image. Pierce chose to have Jonathan become the new leader of the Bazhir rather than any other options in endorsement of colonizing people of a different race.

Racism, Feminism, and Islamophobia

The Bazhir women wear veils, which codes their society is Islamic. Hijab is an issue that is hotly debated in feminist circles. There are many, many arguments about the nature of it. Is it feminist to wear it of your own free will? Is it just submitting to the will of a patriarchal society? There are a thousand questions and no concrete answers. The best discussion of Western feminism and feminism in the Islamic framework is Saba Mahmoods The Politics of Piety. For general questions about hijab and feminism I suggest you go there, as I cannot cover all the different facets of this question.

In the fictional universe that Pierce presents, we see these issues come up as well. Alanna becomes the first female shaman of the Bazhir, and forces the Bazhir to accept her apprentices into the tribal meetings. In doing this she maps her own notions of feminism onto a different culture. It is not bad that Alanna wants to emancipate other women, to allow them the same freedoms she has. Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a title that the Bazhir give Alanna, which shows that she exerts power amidst them in a masculine coded way.

Alanna refuses to follow the gender norms of the Bazhir, which makes sense because she does not follow all the norms of her own culture. However, the problem with Alanna is how she expects other women to behave. She mentions at several points in the novel that she wants Kara and Kourrem to stop wearing their face veils. The girls are mentioned as crying whenever Alanna brings it up, so she grudgingly stops. Feminism is about allowing women agency and choices of their own. They can choose to act in a traditionally feminine manner or to not. Kara and Kourrem have made their choices, and Alanna and the narrative do not respect that. The reason that they don’t is because feminism, especially second wave feminism, is not always immune to racism and Islamophobia.


Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a book that ultimately makes many mistakes. The balance of character development is askew, focusing overwhelmingly on the men rather than on the main character. There is racism, Islamophobia, and colonialism inherent in every thread of the world-building surrounding the Bazhir. However, there are some of my favorite payoffs in the series. Jonathan and Alanna breaking up, George and Alanna getting together, and Myles adopting her are some of my favorite moments in the series. But they are located in a book that has many problems.

The one comfort that I take from this novel is that after this, when Pierce returns to these issues, she does it right. It takes her almost twenty years, but she fixes her mistakes. So, in some ways I can place this novel as a product of it’s time, and use it as a reminder that change can occur. That feminism has become inter-sectional and more accepting of different viewpoints. That people can get better, because if Pierce was writing this now, I know she’d be looking at it from a different more compassionate perspective. But I also probably won’t re-read this book as often as I do the others in this series and all of Pierce’s other writing.

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