I can’t remember when I first encountered her. Maybe I saw her on a kids’ cartoon. Maybe she was in one of the animated movies that was set before me on VHS, or in one of the games I played on the family Play Station. Maybe she was in a book—I like to think I first met her in a book.
If you’re a woman who reads high fantasy, you already know her. Odds are you met her when you were young.
She is the “Girl with the Sword”.
She lives in a world of magic and warriors. She is a warrior—but women are rarely warriors in her world, so she hides her gender, posing as a boy to learn the way of the sword or to become a knight. In other stories she is so active and strong-minded that she is taken for a boy by everyone she meets. A bound chest (hiding the only clues to her femaleness), a bulky suit of armour, or a masking helm is all it takes to turn the maiden male. Sometimes it’s as simple as cutting her hair short or donning a boy’s cap. Apparently clothes really do make the man.
The Girl with a Sword is a trope that appears in many, many fantasy stories in multiple media. You can find her in anime and Western cartoons, videogames, movies (Mulan comes to mind), comics, and many Young Adult novels. She is an inspiration to young girls and heaven knows I needed that inspiration growing up.
You see, female characters are generally few and far between in most forms of media. Oh, yes, we can all think of many Strong Female Characters, but they are still so easily lost in the crowd of male heroes that have and still do march throughout the world of story-telling. When there is a female character in a fantasy movie, game, or novel, more often than not she is a love interest. And in a fantasy story, a form that draws on chivalric and epic traditions, the love interest is a Princess. Princesses have long been the prizes to be won at tournaments, victims of breakable curses, and prisoners of slayable beasts. They may swan around in mystic robes, bestow an enchanted weapon upon the hero, or act as a magical trump card. Many Princesses can open a portal or summon divine or magical beings—but they are the assistants. They facilitate the hero’s rise to glory and help him complete his quest. Princesses traditionally do not act themselves. They do not wield their own power.
The Girl with a Sword is a non-Princess: she is not rescued, she is not imprisoned (for long; no dungeon can hold her), and she fights her own battles. All these traits make her refreshing in a genre that tends to rely heavily on female helplessness to drive its plot.
There may be Shield Maidens in her world, or Spear Wives , and sometimes there were other Lady Knights in days long past. But we rarely see these other women warriors; we are simply told they exist, or that they used to. We take it on faith that there are other women who do and act rather than remaining behind castle walls, serving as the inspiration of others.
Not that swinging a sword is the only (or best) way for a woman to make her way in the world. There are other means of gaining power, influence, and glory. But the Girl with a Sword is such a sharp contrast to the restrictions of the Princess trope that she wins girls’ hearts every time. She too is evolving—one day the Girl with a Sword may embark on her quest without a disguise. Unmasked, and so unmanned, she will serve her cause and live her story openly.
Ever since I met the Girl with the Sword, I’ve dreamt of learning to fence. And when I finally do learn, I will salute Arya, Alanna the Lioness, Éowyn, Keladry of Mindelan, Mulan, and their sisters. They are glorious warriors and their stories have helped me, honed me as a smith shapes steel. They shine—but they shine because they are alone.
Because we can imagine a world where dragons soar in the sky and magic raises the dead—but we still struggle to imagine a world where women are free to have their own adventures.
-contributed by Miranda Whittaker