Last night my internet refused to work. I pondered skiving off writing a piece , but then realized that it would be the easiest thing to do. Taking the easiest course is not something that this particular character ever contemplates, however, so I figured it would only be keeping in the spirit of things if I shook myself, hurled away those thoughts of relaxing with a bowl of chips and salsa and instead, plunged straight into a hard-hitting piece on the wonder that is….
Egwene and I had a love-hate relationship for a long time. I tend to dislike on principle the girl paired with the hero in any fantasy story—hence my dislike of Cho Chang (I was twelve when I read about Harry’s stirrings of interest in her during a Quidditch match, and knew immediately that this girl was a ‘threat’), Ginny Weasley (in my defence, I am not alone in this), Elayne Trakand (again, I don’t need to justify myself) and Min (she was cool to start off with, then quickly became all about Rand). I think this is something to do with my own burgeoning love/crush on the hero, and my identification of this female as a rival, no matter how silly and psychotic that sounds. It goes to show how deeply the women-beware-women trait has been ingrained in me, that I look upon a character in a fantasy story as a rival out to steal what should be ‘mine’.
Of course, it is a whole other level of neurotic that I look upon the male characters as people to be ‘had’ or romantically inclined towards in the first place.
Another, slightly more generous explanation for my dislike of these characters could be my fear, often justified, that they would lose all individuality and importance as anything other than the hero’s girlfriend. Look what happened to Ginny in the Potterverse- here we had this young, shy girl blossom into a hotshot Quidditch player who then did nothing but ‘snog’ Harry. Another example is outlined in my previous post on Nymphadora Tonks (from the same universe), where a promising character got turned into a baby producing device, lopped off from further growth in her own right. Perhaps I feared that Egwene would suffer the same fate.
Thankfully, I was proved wrong. Not only did Egwene not turn out to be Rand’s ultimate flame, but she laid to rest any fears of becoming little more than a romantic interest for any character. In fact, she turns the tables, with her own consort wondering if he has any role besides being there for her.
(It is partly this inability to remain in her shadow that drives Gawyn on the suicidal mission to destroy Demandred, a mission that results, ultimately in Egwene’s own death. Some things just don’t change, no matter how fantastical the world.)
Why did I choose Egwene to be the standard-bearer of my ‘Women in Fantasy’ series? Quite simply because she has had the farthest to go from all those I have on my little list—not only does she achieve the most, rising from a village girl with ‘unbraided’ hair to position of most powerful woman in the world, but she has changed me, changed my perspective on her through the course of fourteen books in ten years. To put it succinctly, I have had the longest and most involved, emotionally charged relationship with her that I have had with any female fantasy character. I started out disliking her intensely, being annoyed with her and gradually came to grudgingly admire her, until I can finally say with complete honesty that she is my favourite character.
Right after Lanfear, but really, I wouldn’t want to be friends with that one. I feel like Egwene and I have had a relationship and grown together. There’s a difference between liking a character for the entertainment value she affords (Lanfear) and liking her as a person and wanting to be like her. That’s how I feel about Egwene.
Whether its her resourcefulness, her courage under fire, her compassion coupled with professionalism or her endearing lapses into classic twenty-something-ness, Egwene is a woman who has made her way steadily in hard circumstances, and won her place at the top. What I really like about her is this tenacity in her beliefs, her knowledge that she can make things better, that she can push herself and succeed against all odds. She never doubts herself, except for a brief, horrific period early on in the series when she is captured by the Seanchan. This remains a traumatic point for her, and she revisits is constantly in nightmares and revenge scenarios, but ultimately, she overcomes even her debilitating fear of the a’dam and manages to move past it through sheer will.
Egwene is told often that she is ‘stubborn’, a sure match for Rand. She is the only one who has the determination and the courage to face him down, to disagree with him when she finds his plans unsatisfactory. She refuses to let his greater power or vaunted status daunt her, and she is the only one in hall full of usually collected people who manages to keep a clear head when addressing the Dragon Reborn. Surely that says volumes about her faith in herself, even if nothing else does.
As a young woman, Egwene gets her fair share of patronization. She is practically bullied into accepting a position of power, used as a puppet for a time and has to do a fair bit of manipulating and intimidating to ensure that her followers take her seriously as a leader. She makes mistakes, for sure, as any newbie would in her position. Despite her strong views against it, she keeps a woman in slavery, much as it makes her mouth curl with distaste. She treads on toes, makes faux pas and generally tries a bit too hard. But here, I had to sympathize with her. It can’t be easy trying to head a bunch of women, most of whom are centuries older than you and certain that they know best how things should be run. She stumbles, yes, but the important thing is that she rights herself and moves along a path of her own making; she doesn’t just stride smoothly onto a road laid out for her.
I think this, finally, is Egwene’s most important quality, and why I look up to her the way I do. She believes in facing the world head on, looking into the eyes of those who would try to choose a path for her and telling them firmly and clearly, no. She makes her decisions and stands by them; she is not afraid to forge ahead even when all ahead of her seems dark and dreary; she trusts herself far more than she trusts or depends upon the world around her. Egwene exemplifies the power of self belief, the power that rests in the ability to pick yourself up after the world has knocked you down and to just keep on going. She performs the power of the words ‘never give up’ .
So when I find myself wondering what the point of it all is, whether there is any hope of things ever changing for the better in this fear and grime riddled world, I look to her for inspiration. And I always, always find it.
To the strength of self confidence, determination and courage in the face of darkness. To Robert Jordan’s Egwene al’Vere. You are my heroine.