Nothing Comes Easily: Althea Vestrit

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Character: Althea Vestrit

Text: The Liveship Traders trilogy by Robin Hobb.

(Some mild spoilers)

Althea still sometimes felt she needed someone’s permission simply to be herself. Men seemed to sense that in her. Nothing came easily. She felt the struggle was as constant as her breathing

Upon her father’s death, the families ship the Vivacia is passed down to her elder sister Keffria and through her, her husband Kyle Haven. Althea is distraught, having always anticipated that her beloved father would name her captain, despite her youth and gender. She feels betrayed and hurt – but mostly terrified that she will be forced to cut ties with her  ship.

(I should note here for those unfamiliar with the series, the Vivacia is a Liveship meaning she is a sentient ship. Made from a mysterious wood named “wizardwood” Vivacia has living memories and can communicate via the figurehead she uses as her “body”. Liveships bond with the Trader families who own them, sharing their emotions and their experiences)

 

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Althea and the Liveship Vivacia.

 

Her mother Ronica knows that Kyle is not the best choice — he is quick to anger and too concerned with obtaining wealth at any cost —but feels he is their only option to ensure their families survival during uncertain times. Ronica attempts to explain to Althea their situation but the hurt is too deep. Althea begs to be allowed to serve on the ship in any capacity:

I don’t care. I don’t care, really, if I am a pauper or not. Yes, I dreamed that Vivacia would be mine. Because she is mine, Mother, in a way that I cannot make you understand…Vivacia’s heart is mine, and I am hers. I look forward to no better marriage than that. Keep whatever coin she brings in, let all say she belongs to Keffria. Just let me sail her. That’s all I’m asking, Mother, Keffria. Just let me sail her and I’ll be no trouble to you, I won’t dispute your will in all else.

Kyle denies her wishes, claiming she will bring shame to the family for her wild ways. He demands that she settle down and marry – become a “respectable lady”. Of course, Althea wants none of that and instead vows to prove her ability as a sailor and reclaim the Vivacia.

Althea is incredibly headstrong, admittedly sometimes painfully so. She is so determined in her mission that she can occasionally overlook what is going on with other people. She can be selfish, and inadvertently cruel, especially to her mother and sister. She is also fiercely independent to the point of refusing assistance, even when those who offer only mean well. All of these traits could result in a selfish and unlikable character,  yet it is because of all these apparent “flaws” that she is such an exciting and endearing heroine.

In a town (and culture) where a woman’s only real prospects are to marry well, Althea’s determination to follow her own path is refreshing -as are all her flaws and mistakes. She is not a princess, she is not a damsel in distress. She does not charm men with her feminine beauty, nor does she actively look for a romantic partner. In many ways she is not a conventional heroine. She drinks (sometimes quite a lot), occasionally partakes in recreational drug use and has (and enjoys) premarital sex.

She proves herself capable of hard work, taking  the position as ship’s “boy” and completes all of the hard, dirty and back breaking work associated with working on a ship. She is good at her work, but only because she works hard. Nothing is granted to her, she does not have any magical powers, she is not blessed with super strength.

“Anyone can see you’re worth your pay. You were always a good sailor, Althea. And your time on the Reaper has made you an even better one”.

Rather than falling into the trope of the “exceptional woman”, Althea is an example of a well-rounded woman. A woman with many interests and talents, but one who works hard to achieve them. She is neither exceptionally beautiful nor stereotypically plain ( a trope that is often used for those female characters who take on “unfeminine” roles). While she occasionally laments that her skin is rough and weathered due to all the time spent on ships, she feels uncomfortable in skirts and silks.

Althea  is constantly in a state of struggle. While she continues to gain confidence in her ability as a sailor, she is conflicted by how this side of her identity relates to her position as a woman. Her confusion reflects what many women experience in their daily lives: if I’m too strong will I push people away, if I’m too pretty will people not take me seriously? To be a woman is to constantly need to negotiate between what is expected of you and what you desire. Althea represents this struggle so perfectly – yet she never gives up.

Althea demonstrates that yes, nothing comes easily, but if you continue to work hard to make your life (and the lives of those around you) better, things will eventually fall into place.

 

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Lyra Belacqua: A Practical Heroine

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Character: Lyra Belacqua (also known as Silvertongue)

Text: His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.

 

 

 

In many ways Lyra was a barbarian. What she liked best was clambering over the College roofs with Roger, the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war.

When the series begins Lyra Belacqua is a precocious and mischievous twelve-year-old girl, unconcerned with appearances or doing what is “proper”.

Orphaned when she was young, Lyra has been raised by the Scholars of Jordan College and as such has had a rather scattered upbringing. She is well versed in a range of subject areas, yet exhibits no real desire to apply any of this knowledge to anything productive. She has no formal schooling as such and instead spends most of her time roaming around the College and the surrounding grounds causing mischief.

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Lyra and Roger on the roofs of Jordan College

Lyra’s carefree existence is shattered when her friend Roger is taken by the “Gobblers” and Lyra finds herself catapulted into a world of mystery and danger.

Part of Lyra’s appeal is that she is such a refreshingly normal protagonist. As a twelve-year-old she is occasionally bratty, quick tempered and sneaky; she doesn’t like acting like a young lady and is a bit rough around the edges. She gets her clothes dirty, she slouches and grumbles, talks back to her elders and speaks like a gypsy child. She is curious about events around her, but doesn’t give much though to them until they have some direct impact on her life.

What Lyra does not know, is that she in fact the prophecised saviour of mankind. This knowledge is hidden from her as in order for her to fulfil this destiny she must do so in ignorance of what she is doing. This makes Lyra’s determination and bravery even more significant as she acts purely based upon what she believes is right.

When faced with danger, Lyra is without fail, completely practical. She is not by any means immune to feelings of fear, but she is, however equipped with a sharp and rationale mind that allows her to quickly deduce the best possible scenario.

It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger; or, having thought it, an imaginative child would immediately have come up with several ways in which iy was impossible.

As the series progresses and we see Lyra grow, those qualities that made her so unique remain. She is still unflinchingly brave, loyal to her friends and determined to do the right thing. Even if she is occasionally prone to displays of childish selfishness, she will always apologise and always endeavour to do better, next time.

 

 

 

Brienne the Beauty

Character: Brienne of Tarth

Text: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

Image source: Watchers on the Wall

Brienne of Tarth

In keeping with the theme of female warriors, let me introduce (or perhaps reintroduce) Brienne of Tarth. Brienne’s character is relatively well known due to the phenomenal success of the HBO series Game of Thrones based upon the best selling series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Her transformation from text to screen has been relatively well received and is for the most part, fairly true to the novels. But, as is the case with any adaption, there has been a lot to Brienne’s backstory that has been missed which is a shame because she is one of the series most fascinating characters.

Brienne is an unusual character, she doesn’t conform the stereotypical image of the fantasy heroine, nor does she represent the typical fantasy knight. Yet Brienne is both, a heroine and a knight. Brienne is unlike the other women in the series, she is not conventionally beautiful like Daenerys, Sansa or Cersei, nor is she content to adhere to traditional gender roles. From an early age, all Brienne has wanted to do was become a knight. She is tall, strong and an exceptional fighter. She is also brave and honest, all traits which would make her an ideal knight. However, due to her gender Brienne is not permitted to join the knighthood, a fact that causes her much distress.

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[Image source: HBO]

Brienne is first introduced in the second novel of the series, A Clash of Kings. Catelyn Stark has just arrived at Renly’s camp and there is a tourney of sorts occurring. Catelyn watches as a large knight, armoured in blue beats the King’s favourite:

“His steel was a deep cobalt, even the blunt Morningstar he wielded with such deadly effect, his mount barded in the quartered sun-and-moon heraldry of House Tarth” (A Clash of Kings).

Through the eyes of Catelyn Stark, Brienne’s character is mistaken as a man. It is not until she asks why the crowd appears to dislike him so much that he is actually revealed to be a she.

“Because he is no man, my lady. That’s Brienne of Tarth, daughter of Lord Selwyn the Evenstar” (A Clash of Kings)

Catelyn’s horror upon realising that Brienne is in fact a woman is slightly hilarious, given that she herself has been around other female warriors (such as the Mormont women) and the concept is not entirely foreign to her. Instead what in actuality is shocking to Catelyn is how little Brienne resembles a woman, at least in the most conventional sense. When Brienne removes her helmet, Catelyn is immediately filled with pity:

“Beauty they called her…mocking. The hair beneath the visor was a squirrel’s nest of dirty straw, and her face…Brienne’s eyes were large and very blue, a young girl’s eyes, trusting and guileless, but the rest of her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seem swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once. Pity filled Catelyn’s heart. Is there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?

Can we just take a minute to reflect on that last sentence? IS there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?! This is such a problematic statement for so many reasons, but really goes towards expressing the unreasonable expectations we place on appearance. Martin went to painstaking detail to describe Brienne’s appearance, more so than he did many other characters. Just to push the point that Brienne is not like other women. I think it’s important to note that in this passage it is not the author saying, “Hey this woman is ugly”, its through another character (and a female one at that) who recognises those particular characteristics as “ugly”.

Brienne’s appearance is something I find both refreshing and fascinating. I have been tired of reading novel after novel that describes conventionally beautiful women with “perfect” symmetrical features, long luscious hair, sparkling eyes, unbelievable proportioned bodies…you get the idea. What difference does their appearance make on their character? On their ability? Brienne is a tough, crazy strong, bad ass fighter and a sensitive and thoughtful woman. What does it matter if she has straw like hair and a broken nose?

As the novels go on, more of her character is revealed and I really have to commend G.R.R.M on his characterisation for Brienne. We learn her unhappiness and unease in her own body, the taunts she received as a young girl (and continues to do so) but also the strength of her own resolve. Whilst she can never be a knight, she is arguably the one true knight in Westeros, honourable, determined and dedicated to doing the right thing.

I also particularly enjoy her relationship with Jaime. Like her, it is unconventional. It is not a typical love story, nor is there any indication that it will ever eventuate in one, but it is interesting none the less. The two go from extreme dislike to a—begrudging—mutual respect. The television series definitely plays it up more than was evident in the novels, but you do begin to see how Jaime’s opinion of her starts to creep into his own way of thinking. What I wouldn’t give to have the series finish with Brienne carrying Jaime in her arms, walking off into the sunset!

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Brienne and Jaime Lannister

There is so much more to say about Brienne: her character subverts conventional gender expectations and what it means to be a “woman”, she challenges what a “true hero” is, but ultimately she is an incredibly strong, brave, kind, “ordinary” woman. She doesn’t have special powers, magic, or dragons. She is who she is, because she worked hard at it. And I think that is worth applauding.