This paper will examine William Morris’s construction of the female hero in The Water of the Wondrous Isles. The text belongs to a corpus of work by Morris known as the late prose romances, and it can be read as one of the earliest examples of the genre we now loosely term ‘modern fantasy.’ Modern fantasy has been criticised for being male-dominated: the majority of fantasy authors are male, their protagonists are male, and heroic adventure is male-oriented, with the dominant values of ‘quest, contest, and conquest as the plot, sacrifice as the key, victory or destruction as the ending.’ Even within this contemporary genre the female experience is yet to find a prevailing voice.
The decidedly masculine warrior-hero archetype stands as the common paradigm for the fantasy hero. The influence of the medieval on the development of the fantasy genre has meant that the common code by which the fantasy hero operates is that of chivalry, a code that – viewed from a feminist perspective – tends towards the subjugation of women, constructing them as in need of male protection, often positioning women as victims. The Water of the Wondrous Isles represents a significant development toward the femino-centric narratives that are otherwise virtually absent in fantasy literature until the late twentieth century. Morris’s text, while not presenting a deconstruction, per se, of conservative, male-centric heroic tradition, nevertheless signifies as an important step toward challenging the gender-based heroic tradition. The protagonist Birdalone is a problematic for Morris, a paradox; a female hero operating in male patriarchal tradition. She sits uneasily between the traditions of medieval romance and the emerging social movements of the late Victorian era. Morris’s construction of Birdalone is an experiment in how women affect the normal heroic paradigm, and how they are bound, constrained and enclosed by dominant masculine heroic values.
[full paper to be presented at the Evil, Women and the Feminine conference, 13-15 May 2011]