Guest Post: Sarah McGuire on Strong Heroines

McGuire, blog hopSarah McGuire loves fairy tales and considers them the best way to step outside of everyday life. They’re the easiest way, at least: her attempt at seven to reach Narnia through her parents’ closet failed. She lives within sight of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where she teaches high school creative writing and math classes with very interesting word
problems. Valiant is her first novel.

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Strong heroines.

There are many good conversations about strong heroines right now: what defines a strong heroine? Why is a strong heroine noteworthy, but a strong hero rarely mentioned?

Can you tell I’ve been thinking about this a bit? And while I do ponder the questions I listed above, I’ve also been looking at my own childhood. When I did, I realized there were two heroines who defined strength for me– and they did it by the time I was ten.

I met the first heroine when I was four. She was on a tiny, blurry TV that played an animated movie. I didn’t remember the movie’s title or plot– I only remembered one scene:

A battleground. A fallen knight beside his horse. A winged monster ridden by a wizard diving from the sky to kill the knight. At the last minute, another knight stood beside the fallen one- sword drawn to protect him from the monster that landed right beside them.The wizard who rode the monster told the defending knight to step aside or die, because no man could kill him.

Then– and it didn’t matter a whit to my four-year-old self that the TV screen was small, or the picture grainy– the knight pulled off his helmet. Blond hair streamed like a banner in the wind. The knight wasn’t a man! And she killed the monster and the wizard who rode it before I could even absorb that amazing development.

It wasn’t until I was sixteen years old and reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time that I realized that the image that stayed with me was Eowyn killing the Witch-king of Angmar.

Anyone who has watched Peter Jackson’s movies would be incredibly disappointed by the little cartoon I saw. The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was crammed into a cartoon less that two hours long. However, the cartoon did what the movie did not: it kept Eowyn’s identity a secret. And for me, that moment when she was revealed, in all her fury and strength, was a moment of eucatastrophe, as Tolkien describes it. I still remember my shock and joy, my heart rising up inside me at her heroism, and my deep satisfaction that a girl– a girl!– had dispatched the monster.

And I wanted, more than anything, to be the defender that turned the story for the people I loved.

The other heroine that stuck with me did not have a sword. Far from it. When I was ten, I read A Little Princess. Sara Crewe was intelligent, insightful, and kind. She was the sort of princess I wanted to be, even though she was reduced to a beggar and her caretaker, Miss Minchin, did everything in her power to break this girl.

Sara wouldn’t be broken.She was always, always, the strongest person in the room. Just look at this scene from later in the book!

(Taken from Project Gutenberg)

The morning after the interview with Ram Dass and his monkey, Sara was in the schoolroom with her small pupils. Having finished giving them their lessons, she was putting the French exercise-books together and thinking, as she did it, of the various things royal personages in disguise were called upon to do: Alfred the Great, for instance, burning the cakes and getting his ears boxed by the wife of the neat-herd. How frightened she must have been when she found out what she had done. If Miss Minchin should find out that she—Sara, whose toes were almost sticking out of her boots—was a princess—a real one! The look in her eyes was exactly the look which Miss Minchin most disliked. She would not have it; she was quite near her and was so enraged that she actually flew at her and boxed her ears—exactly as the neat-herd’s wife had boxed King Alfred’s. It made Sara start. She wakened from her dream at the shock, and, catching her breath, stood still a second. Then, not knowing she was going to do it, she broke into a little laugh.

“What are you laughing at, you bold, impudent child?” Miss Minchin exclaimed.

It took Sara a few seconds to control herself sufficiently to remember that she was a princess. Her cheeks were red and smarting from the blows she had received.

“I was thinking,” she answered.

“Beg my pardon immediately,” said Miss Minchin.

Sara hesitated a second before she replied.

“I will beg your pardon for laughing, if it was rude,” she said then; “but I won’t beg your pardon for thinking.”

“What were you thinking?” demanded Miss Minchin. “How dare you think? What were you thinking?”

Jessie tittered, and she and Lavinia nudged each other in unison. All the girls looked up from their books to listen. Really, it always interested them a little when Miss Minchin attacked Sara. Sara always said something queer, and never seemed the least bit frightened. She was not in the least frightened now, though her boxed ears were scarlet and her eyes were as bright as stars.

“I was thinking,” she answered grandly and politely, “that you did not know what you were doing.”

“That I did not know what I was doing?” Miss Minchin fairly gasped.

“Yes,” said Sara, “and I was thinking what would happen if I were a princess and you boxed my ears—what I should do to you. And I was thinking that if I were one, you would never dare to do it, whatever I said or did. And I was thinking how surprised and frightened you would be if you suddenly found out—”

She had the imagined future so clearly before her eyes that she spoke in a manner which had an effect even upon Miss Minchin. It almost seemed for the moment to her narrow, unimaginative mind that there must be some real power hidden behind this candid daring.

“What?” she exclaimed. “Found out what?”

“That I really was a princess,” said Sara, “and could do anything—anything I liked.”

Every pair of eyes in the room widened to its full limit. Lavinia leaned forward on her seat to look.

“Go to your room,” cried Miss Minchin, breathlessly, “this instant! Leave the schoolroom! Attend to your lessons, young ladies!”

Sara made a little bow.

“Excuse me for laughing if it was impolite,” she said, and walked out of the room, leaving Miss Minchin struggling with her rage, and the girls whispering over their books.

“Did you see her? Did you see how queer she looked?” Jessie broke out. “I shouldn’t be at all surprised if she did turn out to be something. Suppose she should!”

Sara taught me that strength didn’t always require a sword. She taught me that if I could keep my own fury or dismay or hurt in check, I could be the strongest person in the room. She taught me that control of my own self could be the greatest power of all, even if I had no other agency.

I learned so much from Eowyn and Sara. I was an oldest sister who longed to take care of her younger siblings, so I loved Eowyn, who taught me I could be fierce on behalf of the people I loved . But I was also quiet, so Sara taught me how I could be strong, even if I couldn’t be loud. 

Decades later, I still return to that sort of strength– or aspiring to that sort of strength– in myself, and in the heroines that I write.

3 responses to “Guest Post: Sarah McGuire on Strong Heroines

  1. Thank you so much for this guest post! I have recently been struggling with similar questions re: women in fairy tales. Why does a princess always need to be rescued? Why is she trapped / imprisoned? Is she *really*, or do the other characters of the story maybe just not understand her? There is a reason why Gretel and Gerda are some of my favorite girls in fairy tales: the boys got themselves kidnapped and now it is up to their friend to rescue them. These girls are kind and loving and would risk anything for the people they care about. And I think that’s something that needs to be recognized more often.

  2. That was amazing. I really appreciate that you notice the things that women and girls do too, and the different stories that those concepts are evident in. I, for one, get sick of always reading about boys doing things. I could go for more strong heroines in this world

  3. Pingback: Weekly Recap| Apr 12-18, 2015 | Oh, the Books!·

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