Thursday, May 30, 2024

Pierce’s Feminist Questions In the Hand of the Goddess

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It’s always difficult to realize when you’ve made a mistake, and what a mistake I have made. When I first began this series, reviewing Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels, the premise was easy. I thought that I would track the change in Pierce’s feminism from second wave to third wave. I thought in re-reading each book I would find that progression and document it. Yet things are always more complicated than they initially seem, and In the Hand of the Goddess Pierce proved that maxim right.


In the Hand of the Goddess, Pierce’s second novel, continues the story of Alanna. We see her maintain her disguise through her years as squire to Prince Jonathan. Alanna’s distrust of Jonathan’s older cousin, Duke Roger, grows, and for completely justified reasons. We see her face the various challenges of romance, war, and having a man completely trusted by the court try to covertly kill her several times. We also see Alanna finally succeed in her dream of becoming a knight. The book ends with seeing her on her first of many adventures as a knight.

Furthermore, we see Pierce examine both shades of pre-existing feminism. We also see a somewhat prophetic failure of the wave that she’ll later focus her books in. This is where I was wrong, in In the Hand of the Goddess we see events that are evocative of first wave feminism in Alanna’s struggles for her shield and her feud with Duke Roger. We see some subversion of second wave feminism in Alanna’s careful exploration of her gender. Yet elements of second wave feminism also appear that are not subverted. We also see a failure of what will become third wave feminism in Alanna’s romantic relationships.

First Wave Feminism

First wave feminism has a history that goes back to the 1800s and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which ironically was published in 1792. It focused largely on the legal equality of women, and women’s suffrage. While it can be rightly critiqued now for a lack of intersectionality, it was highly progressive for the time. First wave feminism led to women being able to vote, to own property, and to become educated. All of which was systematically denied them beforehand.

Alanna and Knighthood

In many ways this parallels Alanna’s feud with Duke Roger and her desire to become a knight. Alanna disguises herself as a man initially because she knows her father won’t allow her to win her shield. However, she also knows that no one in Tortall will allow her to become a knight as a woman, even if there is historical precedent.

When people discover Alanna’s gender during her duel with Duke Roger, this perception is reinforced. Alanna discovered that Roger was bewitching several members of the court and causing the queen’s recurring illness. She took the proof to the King, and Roger demanded trial by combat. During the combat, Roger managed to slice through her shirt, and the binding that kept her breasts flat.

Needless to say, the reveal that Tortall’s newest knight was female lead to a temporary halt to the duel. The King asks who knew and then says, “What have you to say for yourself?’ … Would you have let me win my shield if I had told the truth?’ The king’s silence was answer enough.” (p. 258). Alanna could not become a knight, because that honor was restricted to men, in the same way that voting and education were in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Alanna and Duke Roger

Immediately after this conversation with the King, Roger resumes their duel with, “You demon!’ he screamed. ‘You lying, cheating—‘ … He was her enemy; he had tried to kill the people she loved. And he was acting like the wronged one!” (258-9). Roger is infuriated once he finds out that the person thwarting him in his plans all these years was a girl. We see several points in the novel where Roger offers ‘Alan’ the chance to be his friend. We see Alanna promptly reject those offers. While Roger does not like ‘Alan’, it’s clear that the Duke respects in some way the squire standing in his way.

Then comes the reveal that ‘Alan’ is Alanna, and when Roger discovers the one thwarting him is female, he flies off the handle. The duel resumes and Alanna kills Roger to protect Jonathan, the King, and the Queen. Roger seemed perfectly content to deal with ‘Alan’ and had a good deal of respect for his audacity and ability, if the various attempts on Alanna’s life are any indication. However, Alanna’s femaleness, once revealed to him, makes him incoherent and leads to his downfall. Roger’s status as the antagonist and Alanna’s defeat of him through the trial by combat and her education as a knight—thus exercising her newly-gained rights as a woman—lead to a triumph of first wave feminism.

Second Wave Feminism

Second wave feminism took place in the 1960s to the 1980s. It was focused much more on reproductive rights and de facto inequalities, which lead to the denial of traditional gender roles. To put it (very) simply, the strict enforcement of gender roles in the 1950s led to rebellion against them and to the iconic imagery of ‘bra-burning’ women in the 1970s.

Alanna, Sexuality, and Femininity

This applies to Pierce’s work in two ways. Second wave ideology is played straight with regard to reproductive rights. When her menstrual cycle starts, Eleni Cooper, George’s mother, gives Alanna a charm that prevents pregnancy as a matter of course. It is mentioned several times before and after she becomes sexually active.

Second wave feminism also applies to In the Hand of the Goddess in how Alanna negotiates her relationship with femininity. Alanna presents as masculine for the majority of this book. However, we also see her behave in a different manner. After the Tusaine War, we see Alanna go to Eleni and asks her, “Would you teach me to dress like a girl?’ … ‘I’ve been thinking lately I like pretty things. I’m going to have to be a girl someday. Why shouldn’t I start practicing now?” (156). We further see her practicing dressing and acting like a girl on several occasions after this, and even see her grow to enjoy it.

Second wave feminism allows women to reject traditional gender roles and not be penalized for it. In some ways, Alanna personifies this in her dressing as male, which is decidedly not a feminine thing to do. But Pierce complicates this in this book when Alanna learns to behave in a feminine manner, to appreciate pretty things, skirts, and earrings. As opposed to a strict reading of second wave feminism, her enjoyment of this is in no way decried as a bad thing. Pierce allows Alanna to grow out of just being one thing or another. Alanna can be a warrior. But she’s also allowed to be a woman and appreciate the more traditional aspects of femininity. Pierce lets Alanna be both, not just a warrior, not just a woman.

Third Wave Feminism

Third wave feminism is an ongoing movement and discussion that began in the 1990s. It focuses on issues of rape culture and consent, as well as looking at inter-sectional experiences. Third wave feminism looks at sexual orientation, gender, race, class, and more, as well as examining how these differing identities interact with each other.

Pierce published In the Hand of the Goddess in 1984, and third wave feminism is typically dated to ‘officially’ starting in the 1990s. Despite this, there are elements in Alanna’s romantic relationships that harken to ideas covered in third wave feminism. Pierce’s second novel begins with Alanna in the forest. She meets the Great Mother Goddess, who tells Alanna three things she fears. Duke Roger is one, the Chamber of the Ordeal, the magical room that tests knights, is another. The last fear that Alanna has is love.

As is fitting for a young adult novel, she spends the course of the book learning to overcome these fears. She enters into her first serious romantic relationship with Jonathan. Pierce plants the seeds of a potential romantic relationship with George as well.

There are elements in both these romantic relationships that are not as feminist when read through a third wave feminist lens, as well as the reverse. Just as a mild disclaimer, I have read the series before, and my feelings about Alanna’s relationships with these two will doubtlessly be colored by the events of the next few books. I appreciate what each relationship does for Alanna, but I undoubtedly have my biases. Those biases allow me to overlook some ‘problematic’ early elements, and not others. Problems I have may or may not be shared by others, same as things we enjoy. This is a long way of saying, I ship what I ship, and you are free to do otherwise.

Alanna and George

The main hints at a future romantic relationship between Alanna and George come in the first third of the book. Alanna has gone down to the city to collect a package that Thom, her twin brother, sent through George. George talks about romance amongst the lower classes for a few seconds. Alanna explicitly says that she is not interested in romance. She’s still scared at this point. George then offers to walk back with her because the package is bulky and valuable. Before they reach the palace, George says, “Alanna, … I’m takin’ advantage of you now, because I may never catch you with your hands full again.’ He kissed her softly and carefully.” (57). This is her first kiss. Afterwards Alanna stalks off rattled because she had, in some way, enjoyed it.

Third wave feminism spends a lot of time talking about rape culture, and thus about consent. Alanna does not say yes to being kissed. She had actually explicitly said no a few minutes previously on a very similar topic, admittedly due to internalized issues on romance between different social classes. Still, these moments casts a pall on the early seeds of their potential relationship.

To be completely fair though, after this moment, George never crosses Alanna’s boundaries again. Not in the rest of the book, not in the rest of the series, not in the rest of the continuity. He shows that he is still interested in Alanna romantically, but he allows it to take a backseat to their mutual friendship and never pushes again.

Alanna and Jonathan

Alanna’s relationship with Jonathan begins when Alanna turns seventeen. Jonathan approaches her and makes a speech about how he loves her, how they belong together. Alanna flees the conversation. She later regrets doing so and goes to speak with him. She says, “I’m scared. Help me, please.” Jonathan replies, “I’m scared, too. At least we can be scared together.” (178). Thus begins their sexual and romantic relationship.

It seems innocuous. But then you remember that Jonathan is her knight master, the one that finishes teaching her how to be a knight. Then you remember that Alanna is disguised as a boy, that the only one in the palace that knows is Jonathan.

Then you remember a conversation Alanna had with Eleni a few months beforehand. Alanna says about Jonathan, “Sometimes I’m his best friend in the world. And sometimes he acts as if I’m poison.” (155). She relates how he accuses her of flirting with court ladies and leading them on. Then he also accuses her of flirting with Gary and Raoul. Neither of these things actually happens. Admittedly part of that behavior is likely the fact that Jonathan is dealing with jealousy and budding feelings for Alanna, but still.

Jonathan is incredibly possessive, jealous, and currently in a position of power over Alanna. It doesn’t make for the healthiest start to their relationship. You can see how this same relationship could become something toxic and coercive. Obviously this doesn’t happen in the books; their relationship is mutually fulfilling and teaches Alanna that love isn’t a bad thing. I personally cannot get past the fact that Jonathan is technically Alanna’s teacher when it starts. If it had begun after Alanna had become a knight it would be easier to accept. It wouldn’t negate Jonathan’s possessive traits, but there would be less of a pattern.

In Conclusion

In the Hand of the Goddess is very much a story with three feminist readings. You can see the trace elements of first wave feminism in Alanna’s feud with Roger. You see second wave feminism in Alanna’s reproductive control over herself, and her relationship with her femininity. Third wave feminism also has issues that begin to be addressed in her relationships with Jonathan and George. It’s also a fantastic young adult fantasy novel by an excellent author. Pierce creates intrinsically human characters in a well-developed fantasy world that teach us things about human nature and about ourselves. In my opinion, it’s well worth the read.

Image Courtesy of Atheneum Books

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