Thursday, 15 July 2010

Formidable Female Protagonists #1 - Polgara the Sorceress

Over at Cybermage, Ove Jansson has been running a fantastic series highlighting the formidable female protagonists in science fiction – he mentioned the fact that he would love to see the equivalent for fantasy, but that he didn’t know enough about the characters in fantasy fiction to do the idea justice. I certainly don’t think I am the best-placed to do as long a series as he has achieved, but there are certainly some female characters in fantasy fiction that I would like to wax lyrical about. So I asked him very nicely if I could *steal* his idea, and start my own series, as long as I credited him. Consider this credit, Ove – I’ve loved your posts about the female protagonists in science fiction, and it has made me add numerous books to my wishlist.

Anyhow, this is my first effort at the same – and I am going to tackle Polgara the Sorceress.

Polgara the Sorceress is a character we first encounter in David Eddings’ five book series The Belgariad. She returns in the second book sequence The Mallorean, features in the standalone novel Belgarath the Sorcerer and then we finally hear her full story in the novel Polgara the Sorceress – full list of books below:

The Belgariad

1. Pawn of Prophecy
2. Queen of Sorcery
3. Magician’s Gambit
4. Castle of Wizardry
5. Enchanters’ End Game

The Mallorean

1. Guardians of the West
2. King of the Murgos
3. Demon Lord of Karanda
4. Sorceress of Darshiva
5. Seeress of Kell

Belgarath the Sorcerer

Polgara the Sorceress

Here are my top five reasons why Polgara is a formidable female protagonist:

1. Polgara is an enormously powerful sorceress

Her magical skills are renowned and legendary – from healing to casting out demons to bringing down the full power of a storm when she is angry.

“"I abjure thee, creature of darkness," Polgara said in a great voice. "Return to the hell that spawned thee and never more corrupt this world with thy foul presence. Begone and take with thee the one who summoned thee." She raised her hand, and the force of her will, combined with the will of the God Aldur, blazed forth from her palm. There was a vast thunderclap as the demon suddenly exploded into a huge ball of fire with the waters of the harbour geysering up around it.”

“A frosty smile touched Polgara's lips. "You're not nearly as clever as I thought," She said. "Did you actually believe that I twisted your name from you for my own amusement? Were you ignorant of the power over you that you gave me when you spoke your own name? The power of the name is the most elementary of all. I can keep you out of Ce'Nedra's mind now. There's much more, though. For example, I now know that you're at Ashaba, haunting the bat-infested ruins of the House of Torak like a poor, ragged ghost."

A startled gasp echoed through the room.

"I could tell you more, Zandramas, but this is all beginning to bore me." She straightened, her hands still locked at the sides of Ce'Nedra's head. The white lock at her brow flared into incandescence, and the faint whisper became a deafening roar. "Now, begone!" She commanded.'”

2. Polgara is extremely strong and wise

She is long-lived thanks to her use of sorcery and is forced to watch as people she has loved grow old and die.

“As those we’ve come to know and love grow older, it’s absolutely necessary for us to distance ourselves from them. The alternative is quite probably madness. Endless grief will eventually destroy the human mind. We’re not heartless, but we do have duties, and those duties oblige us to protect our ability to function.”

“"We touch other people very briefly and then we are alone again."”

3. Polgara has immense authority

Whether she is the Duchess of Erat or a cook in a kitchen, Polgara has masses of natural authority that ensures people jump at her commands.

Garion leaped over him, but found himself seized from behind by a half-dozen more men.
"Leave her alone!" He shouted at the guard who was cruelly twisting one of the little Queen's arms behind her back.
"That will be enough!" Polgara's voice cracked from the doorway in the tent. The soldiers stopped, looking uncertainly at one another and somewhat fearfully at the commanding presence in the doorway.'”

4. Polgara is beautiful

Although she grew up as a tomboy, she discovers as a teen that she would far rather dress well and look pretty. I like the fact that she is stunning, but has a womanly figure – her child-bearing hips and large bosom are mentioned a few times, and it is good to know that she isn’t stick thin!

“ ‘Strip.” Arell commanded me.
‘What?” I exclaimed. I didn’t really think I could be shocked, but I was wrong.
‘Take off your clothes, Polgara,’ She said quite firmly. ‘I need to see what I’m working with.’ She studied my near-naked body with pursed lips and a speculative eye. ‘Not too bad.’ She observed.
That was hardly complimentary.
‘You’re lucky, Polgara,’ She told me. ‘Most girls your age are quite flat-chested. I think we might want to take advantage of that to draw away from the fact that you’re just a little hippy.’
‘I’m what?’ I exclaimed.
‘You were built to bear children, Polgara. It’s useful, but it makes your clothes hang all wrong.’
‘Is she telling me the truth?’ I asked Beldaran, speaking in “twin” so Arell couldn’t understand me.
‘You are sort of round down there Pol,’ Beldaran replied. Then she grinned a naughty little grin at me. ‘If we cut it low enough in the back, we could show off the dimples on your bottom.’”

5. Polgara is snarky

One of her favourite past-times is bantering with her irascible father, and she has an extremely sharp tongue when she chooses. Her sarcasm is amusing, albeit rather self-consciously clever at times.

Polgara looked at Ce'Nedra. "Have you ever noticed that when some people find a notion they think is funny, they tend to keep playing with it long past the point where it bores everyone else to tears?"
Ce'Nedra looked at Silk with a sly little twinkle in her eye. "I've noticed that, Aunt Pol. Do you suppose it might be a result of a limited imagination?"
"I'm sure that's something to do with it, dear," Aunt Pol looked at Silk with a serene smile. "Now, did you want to play some more, Kheldar?"
"Ah... No, Polgara. I don't really think so."”

So there you have it – just five reasons why Polgara is worth considering as a formidable female protagonist. Did you enjoy reading about her in the Eddings’ books? If not, who was your favourite character? Do you have suggestions for other formidable female protagonists you would like to see in future installments?


  1. Oh, I liked Silk.

    I would think Elizabeth Moon's Paksennarion ought to be high on any list.

    I'm rather fond of Zafir the dragon-queen too ;-)

  2. I liked Polgara to start with, but by the time I was done with all of the books in the series, I was bloody sick of her. The snark, although quite funny in small doses, was a bit too much for me. By the end of it, she just came across as being insufferably smug.

    I remember one scene where she's sewing something, and Belgarion asks her about it, and she uses magic to fix the tear and then gives him an ear-bashing about magic and it's place in the world and howusing magic for magic's sake is bad and it keeps her hands busy and...Jesus wept, Polgara will you just leave it already!

    What really ruined it for me was another part where she just explodes at someone - Belgarion again, I think - about how she's sacrificed all those years watching over generations of his family. Hell of a sacrifice if you're going to use it as emotional leverage later...

    It doesn't help that Eddings goes to great lengths to describe how brilliant and perfect and totally awesome she is - as one of my friends put it, it felt like he was trying to make up for a missed anniversary with his wife or something.

    But that's just me ranting. She is a strong character, but perhaps too strong at times.

    Anyway I pretty much spoiled the Eddings books for myself by reading all of them one after the other very quickly, along with all the Sparhawk ones (Sephrenia annoys me too, btw) and...well, it's hard to describe why that spoiled it. It was just the sameness of it all, really, like trying to watch the opening sequence of She-Ra without thinking "My God, this is such a blatant attempt to milk the brand".

  3. Oh, I was going to suggest some of the women from Robin Hobb's Assassin/Liveship books...but it's hard to pick. The Fool is still waiting on results from the international sports federation to decide whether or not he/she can compete in the next olympics, Kettricken and Kettle are fairly minor, as is Elliana.

    I would suggest Althea Vestrit, but honestly, a whole book of her going "WAAA I WANT MY BOAT" isn't really strong, is it? :D

  4. @Stephen - I LOVED Silk, he was one of my very first teenage crushes :-) Thanks for the suggestions, I will start preparing a list. Of course, it does mean reading said books to make sure I can talk about them in an indepth manner!

    @Andrew - Yep, I definitely see your point that at times Polgara gets too much, and she can be insufferably smug at times. But I was looking for women who are portrayed in a strong and interesting manner, and she does seem to fit the bill!

    I find it curious, actually, that Hobb's male characters are so much more interesting than her female characters...

  5. A few more suggestions:

    Kahlan out of Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. Despite just about everything that Goodkind in the space of about 10 books throws at her (and believe me it's just about everything that you could possibly imagine!) she still rises above it all and triumphs.

    Anne McCaffrey also has a string of strong female characters. Lisa from Dragonriders series. Killishandra from the Crytal Singer. And if you want to extend things slightly the Ship from 'The Ship who Sang'

    Moiraine or Cadsuane or in fact just about all of the female Aes Sedai in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time epic. They seem to spend most of their time manipulating and telling the men what to do!

  6. For a while now I've been participating in a meme in which I talk about one of my favorite fictional characters each week, and I can't believe that I never thought to talk about Polgara. She is an awesome character (although she can often be annoyingly arrogant). I have been intending to reread these books, and even started a few months ago with Pawn of Prophecy, but I haven't yet moved on to the others.
    Some of my other favorite fantasy female characters are Alanna from The Song of the Lioness Quartet, Aerin from The Hero and the Crown, Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde's books and Alexia from Gail Carriger's Soulless books.

  7. Cool that you've started this Amanda :-)

    Terry Pratchett has a few strong females notably Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching.
    Althea Vestrit from Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders is also a possibility of course.
    Then there's Alexia Tarabotti from Gail Carriger, I think those books are more Fantasy than Science Fiction.

    Not sure I agree with Werehamster that Kahlan is a strong character. And I certainly wouldn't suggest anyone read through more than the three first books of the Sword of Truth series.

  8. Amanda,

    I love Eddings, he was my "gateway" fantasy author and got me hooked on fantasy forever, and Polgara was a great character even though Silk and Belgarath were my favorites.
    I'll have to chime in with Mara Acoma of The Empire Trilogy. She had to work her way up to become a powerful noble by being smart, innovative and a bit ruthless and yet she makes mistakes along the way. Cersei Lannister could use Mara's lessons!


  9. @Werehampster - I can sort of see your point about Kahlen, but I didn't enjoy the Goodkind experience and I think I'll keep her on the backburner ;-). The Aes Sedai angle is a good one though - I'll save some of them for when I do my full WoT re-read on the publication of the last book!

    @Simcha - I think I've seen that meme. Hell, do you think they might believe I've nicked the idea? *shamefaced* Mine is all about the fantasy though. If you link me to the original blog who does that, I will give credit to them as well - don't want to step on any toes. Great call on Alanna and Thursday Next - look out for them sooner rather than later :-D

    @Ole - Love your Terry Pratchett character ideas. I would add in Susan as well - in fact, Sir Pratchett does a good line in strong, effective female characters!

    @Jennifer - Snap, Eddings was my first real lone foray into fantasy (those that came before were read with my dad). The Empire trilogy by Feist and Wurts? I have them on my shelves, might be time to brush them off and give them a read :-)

  10. Now, I have to admit I haven't read all of the various books that feature her, just a few of the Belgariad. And then I only persisted because I'd been assured they get better. But Polgara never appealed to me as a character. She's too one-dimensional.

    Your first four points are variations on how powerful and all-round great she is, and even the snarkiness could be construed as wit, and therefore be seen as an asset. So she doesn't really have any flaws, and that's what I don't like about her, or indeed most of Eddings' characters in those books.

    When the good guys are so fantastic where's the room for conflict? How can you identify with characters so uniformly super-duper? What is Polgara telling us about the human condition? She's strong all right, and perhaps that stood for something more in the 1980s when she was created, but she's far too godlike for my preference.

  11. You make a good point, Ros, about her godlike abilities and attitude, but I actually interpreted that as one of her flaws as well: she sees herself as so powerful and in the right that it makes her stubborn and comes across as arrogant. I would also put forward as a foible of hers that she is a big nag. She is also grumpy on occasion, and has a flashing temper. I could highlight the many occasions when she causes problems by being all 'I know everything, and I'm not going to tell you because you don't need to know yet.' She also always thinks she knows best, probably because of her longevity. Sure, I highlighted her strengths, but I do think that Polgara is a rather well-rounded character in terms of virtues and flaws.

  12. *jumps into the comment thread* I'm home from work ready to comment ;)

    So as I said I adore Polgara, because of the snark and because to me she's always seemed to have this profound ability to love people. Sometimes more deeply than even she wants to admit.

    Of course since Eddings was my first foray into fantasy as well (I only read it because my highschool crush was reading them *mortified* and then I decided I liked the books better than I did him lol) so I have a soft spot for these books, despite their many flaws.

    As for some suggestions: How about Phèdre from Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books? She's all about the awesome and then some!

    Another female protagonist I adore is Karigan from Kristen Britain's Green Rider series. Gutsy, daring and stubborn as hell!

    And ofcourse, though I don't know how many would agree with me lol, Talia from Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series. If Eddings got me in the door, Lackey got me happily snared in the genre of fantasy. I love how Talia escapes her awful childhood with her sweetness intact and how said sweetness overlays a core of steel.

  13. Hi Amanda,
    Love the idea of looking for strong women in fantasy - so often it's thought of as male dominated - you know, the orphan boy with hidden destiny...
    I have a few suggestions to add to the list - Amara from Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series (fantastic series - really recommend!), Marla Wolfsblade from Jennifer Fallon's Wolfblade and Demon Child trilogies and Phedre in Jacqueline's Carey's Kushiels series. All women who grow and change in the course of the books.

  14. Amanda,
    I love it. Wonderful. Eddings and Polgara is a perfect start.

  15. Nah, I don't think you have anything to worry about.

  16. Thanks for all the great suggestions for female protagonists to portray in future editions of this topic :-D

  17. Thanks for the post though. I have been on a look out for books lately and this is really a good post. This is helpful for me while working on a project. The thesis is really a great help too for research.. I was just wondering if this book can be shipped in our country? Also, if it's available in our country, does it come in the same title?