Monday, May 27, 2024

Impostor Syndrome vs Exceptionalism in Alanna the First Adventure

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A young girl disguises herself as a man so that she can take the place of a non-martially equipped relative. She then faces several trials in adjusting to military life. There are several close calls with her identity. Through hard work she rises through the ranks to become a good soldier. Her true gender is revealed to one or many of her fellows. However, the story ends with a member of the royal family being indebted to said girl for saving their life.

This could easily describe Mulan, the classic Disney film. However, it also easily describes Alanna the First Adventure the premier novel by Tamora Pierce. First published in 1983, Alanna the First Adventure is the first of many novels (the most recent was published in 2011) set in Pierce’s fantasy world of Tortall.

Over the three decades in which Pierce has been writing, you see an interesting shift in the pattern of her writing. Her writing has always been profoundly feminist, as you’d expect from a series geared towards adolescent girls. But, as time passes, you see the feminism in her stories change. Pierce goes from stories more aligned with first and second wave feminism, to stories with a more intersectional and modern bent.

While Alanna the First Adventure still has many of the trappings of Pierce’s initial mindset, you can still see hints of what will come in it. This can be seen particularly in the way that Pierce develops Alanna’s character and Alanna’s relationship with femininity. Alanna struggles with impost0r syndrome, but, she is also marked by exceptionalism because of the traditions of the genre.

What Is Impostor Syndrome? And What’s Exceptionalism for that Matter?

Impost0r syndrome is the belief that the person does not deserve the accolades of others.  The person believes that they do not deserve the positions they are in when they succeed, or that they are unqualified for things that they are decidedly qualified for. It was initially identified in the 1970s, and was at the time considered to be a uniquely women’s issue. Current research indicates that both men and women experience impostor syndrome to some degree; as much as 70% of the population is the number most bandied about in recent years.

Exceptionalism, on the other hand, is the reverse issue. It is some inherent quality that marks a person as exceptional. In fantasy novels, this is always invariably the case with the protagonists, especially when associated with Prophecy. The Chosen One, the Reluctant Hero, the Born Wizard, all of these common fantasy archetypes are exceptional at one point or another in their story.

This also leads to some unflattering tropes and conclusions, such as the Not Like Other Women trope. Or, the belief that the “exceptional woman” has some specific, inherent quality that makes her equal to her male peers but that leaves the rest of the female population in an unequal position.

The balance between these two makes for a fascinating story, even without all the magic and ‘plot-driven’ elements that Pierce weaves together so easily.

 So Where Does Her Story Start? Or Alanna vs Alan.

Alanna’s story begins with a conversation with her twin brother Thom about their futures. Their father, lord of Trebond, a fief in the north, is going to send Thom to the palace in Corus, the capital city of Tortall, so that he can learn to become a knight. Alanna is going to a convent where she’ll learn how to become a proper young noble-woman.

Unsurprisingly, neither twin wants this. Alanna is better at fighting and the other skills needed to become a knight than her brother.  Thom is extraordinarily bad at those things, and wants to learn to be a sorcerer. Alanna then, in her first example of exceptionalism in the series, comes up with a solution. She will disguise herself as a boy, ‘Alan’ and go to the palace to learn to be a knight. Thom will go to the convent for preliminary training in sorcery. In order to do this they must deceive their father and their two guardians.

This is an example of Alanna’s exceptionalism because of the sheer fact that it works. Alanna and Thom successfully trick one guardian. They convince another by magic. Finally, they forge letters from their father to their caretakers at the palace and convent, and switch places. If this had not happened, we would not have a story, but the way that everything coincides for Alanna and Thom in the right way is surely an example of exceptionalism. Especially since she convinces Coram, her guardian and manservant, of the rightness of the deception when his horse startles and Alanna risks her life to calm it.

Impostor Syndrome

Through the course of the novel, we see many occasions where Alanna doubts herself.

First off, she gets into several confrontations with the bully Ralon. Ralon beats her up for months, and eventually she learns enough to defeat him in hand to hand combat. Ralon leaves the castle after this confrontation but Alanna still thinks,

“No matter what Myles said, she had used fancy tricks to beat Ralon, that was all. She was still a girl masquerading as a boy, and sometimes she doubted that she would ever believe herself to be as good as the stupidest, clumsiest male.”

This is a classic case of impostor syndrome. Alanna defeats Ralon, but she thinks it was because of luck and fancy tricks. She thinks that she can never be as good as a boy simply because of her gender. Her impostor syndrome is likely exacerbated  because she is literally impersonating a man and therefore must live up to ‘male’ standards in perception as well as ‘reality’. Still, she doubts that she can make up for the ‘deficit’ of her gender.

Another example is when she goes to Barony Olau with Myles. Myles is one of Alanna’s teachers, and is a better male role model to her than her own father. They explore some ruins, and Alanna opens a door that leads into a room with a sword. Something magical almost kills her, and a massive storm strikes until she leaves the ruins with Myles. Myles then gives her the sword, newly named Lighting,  and she almost cries because she does not believe that she deserves it, or that Myles should give it to her, despite the mystical events surrounding it.

The last and most important instance happens towards the end of the book, when her older friends are choosing squires. Alanna says,

“Look at me. I’m the shortest, skinniest boy in the palace. My wrestling is terrible, and I’m not that good a swordsman. No one will want a weakling like me for a squire.”

Of course, the Prince Jonathan winds up choosing Alanna as his squire due to her improvement as a swordsman, and because she saves his life.


Despite all the times Alanna thinks herself unworthy, she stands out from the other pages and squires, even aside from Prince Jonathan picking her as his squire.

Her confrontation with Ralon leads her to learn how to fight from a friend, yes. However, George is in charge of a large criminal organization, and Alanna could have asked him to send people to attack Ralon. When she approaches George, he thinks that is what wants. Alanna becomes offended, and George reflects on the fact that she’s different from other nobles who were friends with thieves in the past. Then she spends months learning how to fight hand to hand from someone very skilled at it, which gives her a skill set different from most knights.

Then there’s the Sweating Sickness, which is a magical plague that strikes Corus. After one of her friends dies, and Prince Jonathan falls ill, Alanna goes to his aid. The Royal healer tests her magical strength and ability and afterwards he says the prince has a chance. Previously, everyone thought that he was going to die because of how badly ill he was. Alanna takes over his care and brings him back from the almost dead. She proceeds to give all the credit to Myles, who did next nothing but support her, because she does not want the credit.

That’s not her only contact with exceptional magic of some kind. Several people tell Alanna that she is shielded from other people’s magic, and the implication is that the gods are shielding her from potential magical harm. She again denies it and says that the people who are telling her this are exaggerating. The trip that leads to her retrieving Lightning mentioned earlier was precipitated by several prophetic dreams by Myles. And the dreams stop when he invites her to Olau.

Finally, Alanna goes to the Black City, a place where local legend says monsters live. Actually, Prince Jonathan goes to the Black City, and Alanna follows to protect him. They meet the Ysandir, the immortal beings that inhabit the city, and defeat them. Alanna’s true gender is revealed to Jonathan during the fight.

After the fight, Alanna realizes how much she has done and recognizes her own worth, then Jonathan chooses Alanna as his squire.

In short, Alanna breathes exceptionalism.

So What Does This All Mean?

In many ways, the exceptionalism is part and parcel of the genre. However, the fact that almost all instances of exceptionalism are paired with moments of doubt about her abilities complicates matters. As was said at the beginning, impostor syndrome was identified in the 1970s, and Pierce published Alanna the First Adventure in 1983. It is therefore extremely likely that the impostor syndrome that Pierce gives Alanna is a function of her second wave feminism—the acknowledgement that women ‘in a man’s world’ will struggle to feel as competent as the men are.

The way Alanna views her own gender supports this conclusion. Even before she disguises herself as a boy, Alanna disdains the trappings of femininity. She complains that if she goes to the convent she will be forced to do things that are traditionally feminine, such as sewing. This rejection of feminine behaviors is extremely indicative of second wave feminism.

This is especially true coupled with the fact that Alanna is working for her own, personal right to be a knight, not for greater societal change. This is mostly because Alanna does not have the social capital to leverage for societal change. But the fact remains, Alanna at this point is only interested in changing her own circumstances, not the way women in the world at large are treated.

This will change not only for Alanna over the course of this series, but also for Pierce’s universe at large. Nevertheless, this is where we stand now at the conclusion of Alanna the First Adventure. 

Image Courtesy of Atheneum Books

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