Writing Against the Grain: T. Kingfisher’s Feminist Mythopoeic Fantasy

By Robin Anne Reid. Presented at MythCon 2021:

Writing Against the Grain: T. Kingfisher’s Feminist Mythopoeic Fantasy

WARNING: Spoilers for Clockwork Boys, Paladin, and White Rat series

The purpose of this presentation is to place Tolkien’s theory of mythopoeic fiction in dialogue with fantasy series by T. Kingfisher in order to argue that her work is feminist and mythopoeic. While there are a number of elements of Kingfisher’s fiction that are relevant to my purpose, I’ll be focusing on two: her version of Faërie and system of magic, and her portrayal of female characters whose relationships are with failed warrior heroes.

In “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien defines and defends a sub-genre of fantasy by explicating his poem, “Mythopoeia.” Necessary characteristics for a mythopoeic text include structural, or textual, elements but also reception, or reader response. At heart, a mythopoeic fantasy is set in a secondary world that is internally consistent; the “magic” must “be taken seriously,” and the best in the genre involves “the Consolation of the Happy Ending” (32-33;75). Readers who appreciate the genre experience recovery, escape, and consolation.

Tolkien’s theory has been applied to his own fiction, but, increasingly, scholars are also applying it to films and contemporary fantasy fiction (Croft, Holdier, MacLachlan). However, I have found minimal scholarship on feminist mythopoeic fiction: in a 1989 essay published in Mythlore, Patrick Murphy argues that feminist poets incorporate “high and low fantasy” elements to create what he calls a “(re) mythopoeia, “or ” an alternative heritage” drawing on theories of a “pre-patriarchal goddess” (26). Murphy does not mention the sub-genre of women’s fantasy which draws on the traditions of a goddess worship aligned with strong ecological themes and explorations of psychic and spiritual powers. Scholarship on those writers, such as Janice C. Crosby’s Cauldron of Changes: Feminist Spirituality in Fantastic Fiction, is not concerned with Tolkien’s theory.

In order to think about the question of feminist mythopoeic fantasy, I draw on Faye Ringel’s essay, “Women Fantasists: In the Shadow of the Ring.” Ringel adapts the concept of what Harold Bloom calls the “swerve” in his Anxiety of Influence which he defines as how male poets deal with the influences of earlier male writers on their work through a process of “poetic misreading or misprison proper.” Performing her own feminist swerve on Bloom’s theory, Ringel argues that while “women fantasists accept some of Tolkien’s premises, they differ strongly with him on the subject of women’s roles” (165) which is, of course, one of the purposes of the feminist movement.

In this presentation, I focus on five novels, in three series, published under the pen name that Ursula Vernon uses for her adult fantasy, T. Kingfisher: the completed Clockwork Boys duology, and two ongoing series: the Saint of Steel planned trilogy with one novel in print; and the Temple of the White Rat trilogy with two completed novels. And yes, I am waiting very very VERY impatiently for the next books to be published although luckily for me, she is currently publishing new fantasies fairly quickly.

Three disclaimers. First, I am not able to do justice to the scope, complexity, and sheer wonderfulness of Kingfisher’s work in this short presentation. If you have not read her work, I strongly recommend you do. Second, by identifying these novels as feminist mythopoeic fiction, I am not excluding Kingfisher’s other work from this genre. She has already won two Mythopoeic awards–the first for her graphic novel, Digger, in 2013, and the second for her YA novel, Castle Hangnail, in 2016. I focus on these series because they are set in the same world, as opposed to her stand-alone fantasy and horror novels, and show more of what Liz Bourke calls Kingfisher’s “energetic and atmospherically weird approach to world-building” (Review, Strength). The world of the novels is Archenhold which has different cities: Archen’s Glory, Anuket City, and Rutger’s Howe. In addition, several supporting characters appear in two of the series.

Third, my argument does not require evidence of direct influence by Tolkien. I do not know whether or not Kingfisher has read Tolkien although I strongly suspect she has. Her fiction and essays show a long and deep engagement with fairy tales, fantasy fiction, and games based on medievalist sources. For instance, in her epilogue to Swordheart, Kingfisher describes ranting to her husband about how annoying she finds Michael Moorcock’s Elric because he is constantly whining, and that “the real victim was his sword Stormbringer” who could not escape him. Swordheart was thus written to explore what happens when a “beleaguered magic sword [is] saddled with an inept wielder.” In another self-described rant on Twitter titled “Ursula’s Paladin Rant, or ‘Crapsack Jedi With Guilt Issues,’ she posts about her dislike for the D&D the rules for Paladins which have influenced fantasy fiction and games. Identifying the Paladin class as “broken,” she argues that how the “rules” too often play out leads to a convention of characters who “[screw] up royally [and then] collapse into a wreckage of NOW I MUST EMBRACE EVIL” which “is really counter-productive” and also lacks awareness of how religions include “mechanisms for forgiveness and repentance because if it’s one strike and you’re out, pretty soon everybody’s out.” In both cases, Vernon is clear in this epitextual and paratextual material that one purpose of writing at least some of her novels is to critique not only genre conventions generally but specific authors’ and creators’ use of them. When it comes to the paladins (who are not limited to male characters), other characters who have to deal with them most often are not shy about expressing their opinions as Bishop Beartongue does at the end of Paladin’s Grace: “‘ Yes, yes, you’re a paladin, wallowing in guilt over how you are the very worst person ever is part of the job'” (329).

So, a quick recap: Tolkien’s mythopoeic elements are an internally consistent secondary world; magic that is taken seriously; and eucatastrophe, with readers responding by feeling recovery, escape, and consolation (32-33;75), Ringel’s feminist elements are accepting Tolkien’s sense of the importance of ‘ordinary’ rather than traditional epic characters (including Paladins!) while rejecting both his “medieval ideals of kingship and class structure” (165-166), and his portrayal of women’s roles. Kingfisher emphasizes ordinary people rather than kings and nobles in all her work: minimal narrative time, if any, is given to the rulers, and when they are mentioned, in at least two cases, they are women, holding the title of Dowager. In a third case, a man holds the elected office of Archon.

In two of the three series, a Kingfisherian version of Faërie, called the Vagrant Hills, plays a significant role, and in all three series, her system of magic, called “wonderworking” exists alongside a polytheistic belief system without major conflicts. The gods who have been identified in the series so far are: The Dreaming God, The Four-Faced God, The Forge God, The Hanged Mother, The Lady of Grass, The Many-Armed God, The Saint of Steel (who, despite the name is definitely a god) and the White Rat. More information about The Dreaming God and the White Rat has been given so far, but each God has their own church or temple system with priests, nuns, and paladins as well as support staff. Each God seems to have their own specialization–the Dreaming God empowers paladins to identify and destroy demons while the White Rat’s hierarchy provides legal and material support for people who need help. According to Zale in Swordheart, these different and autonomous churches exist without major conflict except for the Hanged Mother’s priesthood, called the Motherhood, which attempt to control or destroy all other groups. In the Paladin series, the churches in Archon’s Glory cooperate to make sure that the Motherhood, who are favored by the Archon, are restrained from gaining too much secular power.

The churches play a larger narrative role in the Paladin’s and White Rat series than in Clocktaur Boys, especially the Temple of the White Rat, and some of those called to the gods’ service are granted powers (becoming, in most cases, paladins). But the powers of the church have failed to suppress or control Kingfisher’s Faërie, the Vagrant Hills: according to Zale and Halla, the various churches’ attempts to “burn out bits of the Hills ages ago” led to a number of unhappy songs (Swordheart).

The Hills, which feature significantly in the Clockwork Boys and Swordheart series, have not so far played any part in White Rat series. They are an area of unknown/unknowable dimensions that seem to move or are able to pull characters who are nowhere near the Hills into them without warning. The descriptions of how characters enter the Hills are similar to traditional folktale images of the way to Faerie. In Swordheart, the major characters find themselves in a “hollow way” in the middle of an acorn wood: “Trees leaned over the road, their bare branches laced tightly across the sky. ‘It’s a hollow way,’ said Zale. ‘One of the old, old roads.’. . . .They reached the end of the hollow way and emerged, blinking, into the sunlight. They were no longer in the acorn wood. They were halfway up a hillside, near a drop-off.”

In The Clockwork Boys, characters find themselves on “a narrow path, barely a lane, and badly overgrown. It did not look like the hard-packed smugglers’ road. Between patches of grass and horsetail rushes, the mud and packed pebbles glittered like the reticulated hide of a lizard. ‘This isn’t our road,’ said Caliban (197).

The Vagrant Hills are home to a number of magical non-humanoid species such as rune (speculated to be the descendants of “stag men and dryads”), but also to talking rabbits, aggressive mandrake roots, a large stone fish swimming upstream to spawn, and parasitic predators that are described as translucent “sky-swimmers,” beautiful but deadly. Various characters make it clear that nobody knows enough about the Hills to be sure of what exists in them, nor is it possible to study them. Travelers caught by the Hills have no more control over when or how they leave than they did in how the entered, and not all travelers survive to leave. The reason that characters are drawn into the Hills seems to be that they have a strong connection to magic or other types of supernatural power–Caliban in the Clockwork Boys carries the remnants of the dead demon that possessed him and could not be fully exorcised, and Sarkis in Swordheart exists within a magical sword and belongs to whoever owns it.

The other strange nearly unexplored country in Kingfisher’s mythopoeic fiction is the relationships between her female protagonists and the broken warrior. Ringel pointed out that the fantasy writers she interviewed rejected Tolkien’s marriage plots to show female protagonists living as witches, wizards, or warriors, not wives (167). Kingfisher goes a step further in writing mature romance plots that do not always involve marriage. At the start of the novels, her female protagonists are older and sexually experienced but have left unhappy or abusive relationships (sometimes but not always marriage) to support themselves. During the course of the story, they enter into sexual (and sometimes marital) relationships with male characters that swerve from the typical warrior-hero protagonist of fantasy through a process of feminist deconstruction.

The female protagonists are Slate, a forger (Clockwork); Grace, a perfumer (Paladin’s Grace); Clara (a nun of the convent of St. Ursa and a werebear); and Halla (a housekeeper). The male characters are three paladins and one magicked mercenary. Caliban (Clockwork Boys) was a paladin of the Dreaming God who was possessed by a demon and murdered eleven novices and nuns. Stephen and Istvahn were holy berserkers for the Saint of Steel and were among the few survivors of their God’s death which nearly destroyed the order. Although they have survived, the death of the Saint of Steel means that they are at risk for entering the berserker state without the God ensuring that they do not harm the innocent. Sarkis was a mercenary punished for betraying the city he and his troop were hired to protect by being killed and trapped in an enchanted sword five centuries earlier. All the male characters consider themselves, to varying degrees, to have failed, but in Kingfisher’s world, such failures do not lead to the simplistic result that Vernon describes as “Crapsack Jedi with Guilt Issues,” that is immediately turning to the dark side. Instead, the world of the series through the social support systems provided primarily by the Temple of the White Rat and their relationships with the female protagonists offers a range of “mechanisms for forgiveness and repentance” including Kingfisher’s own version of quests which are another example of swerving from the conventions of fantasy established by Tolkien. I should note that the female characters are not presented simplistically as saviors: they also consider themselves failed in many ways, often blaming themselves for the failure of their past relationships.

These swerves from Tolkien’s definition strengthen my experience of recovery, escape, and consolation as a reader, responses that grew stronger during my re-reading of her work during the first year of the pandemic. A number of the readers who review her work report similar experiences, including multiple readings of favorite books in the series. Thinking about her work in the context of Tolkien’s theory of mythopoeic fantasy raises questions about what a “feminist mythopoeic” work might be that I’ll be thinking more about in the future.


Working Bibliography

Bourke, Liz. Liz Bourke Reviews Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher. Locus, April 21, 2021.

Croft, Janet Brennan. “Tolkien’s Faërian Drama: Origins and Valedictions.” Mythlore, 32.2, Spring/Summer 2014, pp. 31-44.

Crosby, Janice C. Cauldron of Changes: Feminist Spirituality in Fantastic Fiction. McFarland, 2000.

Holdier, A. G. “On Superhero Stories: The Marvel Cinematic Universe as Tolkienesque Fantasy.” Mythlore, vol. 36, iss. 2, Spring-Summer 2018, pp. 73-88.

Kane, Douglas Charles. “A Modern Fairy-story: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Seen Through the Prism of Tolkien’s Classic Essay.” Mythlore, vol. 37, no. 1, Fall-Winter 2018, pp. 133-45.

Kingfisher, T. Clockwork Boys. Clocktaur War: Book One. Argyll, 2018.
—. The Wonder Engine. Clocktaur War: Book Two. Argyll, 2018.
—. Paladin’s Grace. The Saint of Steel: Book One. Argyll, 2020.
—. Paladin’s Strength. The Saint of Steel: Book Two. Argyll, 2021.
—. Swordheart. Argyll, 2020.

MacLachlin, Christopher. Chapter 8 “‘On Fairy Stories’ and Tolkien’s Elvish Tales.” New Fairy Tales: Essays & Stories. John Patrick Pazdziora and Defne Cizakca, eds. Unlocking Press, 2013. pp: 147-66.

Murphy, Patrick D. (1989) “The High and Low Fantasies of Feminist (Re)Mythopoeia.” Mythlore, vol. 16, no. 2, article 5. Available at: https://dc.swosu.edu/mythlore/vol16/iss2/5

Ringel, Faye. “Women Fantasists: In the Shadow of the Ring.” J. R. R. Tolkien and his Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth. George Clark and Daniel Timmons, eds. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, no. 89. C. W. Sullivan III, Series Adviser. Greenwood Press, 2000. Pp. 159-71.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.”Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Expanded edition. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson, eds. Harper Collins, 2014.

Vernon, Ursula. “Ursula’s Paladin Rant, or ‘Crapsack Jedi With Guilt Issues.'” Twitter. Oct. 13, 2017.

2 thoughts on “Writing Against the Grain: T. Kingfisher’s Feminist Mythopoeic Fantasy

  1. … I never know how much to reply to stuff like this, but wow! This is cool!

    And also I have totally read Tolkien, and also approximately a kajillion post-Tolkien fantasy novels, and watched the Rankin-Bass Hobbit a few dozen times, so I’ve undoubtedly been influenced!

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