I’ve mentioned the Shannara Chronicles by Terry Brooks several times before, and now with season two of the TV show tentatively predicted for Summer 2017, I decided it was time for a re-read. I chose to start with book 2 of the series, The Elfstones of Shannara, because that is where the TV show starts from. Published in the 1980s, Elfstones stands apart from many high fantasy epics by featuring two prominent female characters. Amberle and Eretria, while both involved in a love triangle with protagonist Wil Ohmsford, present two very different notions of femininity in a genre that often lacks any representation at all. But can they be said to be feminist characters?
Plotwise, the story follows Wil Ohmsford on his quest to guide and protect Elven princess Amberle as she attempts to save the magical tree that guards the human world from demons. The Ellcrys (perhaps the only other major female character, if only a semi-sentient tree) is dying and Amberle is the only one who can carry her seed to the Bloodfire to imbue it with new life. Along the way, they twice encounter a Rover’s daughter named Eretria who is taken with Wil and ends up aiding in their journey. A parallel plot follows Amberle’s uncle, Prince Ander, as he commands an army in the epic clash between Elves and demons. There’s not a woman to be named in that whole side plot, so we will skip it in today’s analysis. So, we’ve got Amberle and we’ve got Eretria (and some petty witch sisters later in the book who squander immortality and immense power in a fight over a man, so let’s not talk about them either). Using some of last month’s Feminist Reading Questions, let’s examine these two characters, and see how well they hold up against a feminist reading.
The reader’s first impression of Amberle is as a diminutive Elven girl with a “child’s face.” Wil perceives her as “only a child herself” and this constant reference to her youth and innocence follows her throughout the book. Nearly every time there is a description of Amberle, it contains the words “child’s face.” Yet Amberle is old enough to be one of the Chosen who take care of the Ellcrys, old enough to leave the kingdom of her grandfather and seek a living on her own as a tutor for human children. She is old enough to develop romantic feelings for Wil, which he also returns. I assumed her to be at least within a few years in age of Wil and Eretria. So, if she is not literally a child, why fixate on that descriptor? I found it infantilizing and demeaning.
As the only one of the Chosen left alive and thus the only one who can douse the Ellcrys’s seed in the Bloodfire, Amberle is ostensibly the most important character in the book. Yet she is portrayed as passive, even weak. Throughout the journey, Wil makes all decisions about where to go and how to get there. Amberle spends much of it in sullen silence, mute terror, or quiet compliance. On the last leg of the trip into Spire’s Reach, Amberle has a sprained ankle and can’t even walk under her own power. She is cradled “like a baby” (there it is again!) by either Wil or Eretria until they get where they need to be. Amberle is petrified by her fear when it comes to her duty to the Ellcrys and she relies on Wil to give her strength. Yet in the final moment, she finds herself out of Wil’s reach and discovers strength within herself instead.
Her agency seems to come and go in spurts. We first see her as strong-willed and independent when she refuses to accompany Wil and the druid Allanon on their quest, although they leave her no choice and she eventually acquiesces. Multiple times throughout the journey she confronts Wil about keeping secrets from her or not taking her thoughts and decisions into consideration. “You seem to have fixed in your mind everything that happens from here on. Don’t you think you ought to hear my thoughts on the matter?” she asks once towards the beginning of their trek. Wil, of course, acts contrite but promptly takes action without consulting her at every next opportunity. Amberle’s conversations with Wil often begin with “Listen to me!” and we later see that Wil relies on her for strength and confidence just as much as she relies on him.
In our first encounter with her, Eretria’s physical appearance is described in direct contrast to Amberle’s. While both women are small and delicate, Eretria is “without the childlike innocence that marked the Elven girl.” She is sensual with womanly curves and dark hair that cascades to her shoulders. Both Amberle and Eretria are described as having tan or brown skin, though Eretria’s dark features are brought up more often.
Eretria comes from the intensely misogynistic culture of the Rovers, where women are bought and sold like property and treated like servants. While there is some sense of the injustice of this in the narration, Wil still demonstrates his “cleverness” and cultural awareness by adopting these customs while in the Rover’s company.
Eretria is immediately smitten with Wil, not only because he may be her ticket out of a life enslaved by the man who bought her to be his daughter, but because she is intrigued by his earnestness. She is mischievous but not as much so in the book as in the show, where she seduces Wil to steal his magic elfstones. In the book, her father steals them and she helps Wil get them back. Once she is free of her father, Eretria is absolutely devoted to Wil and follows him willingly into danger. At least she is less useless in a fight than Amberle, saving Wil’s life multiple times throughout the adventure and calling him out on it. During their first encounter, she throws a torch into a demon’s face when Wil’s elfstones fail to protect him. Later, she triggers a booby-trap that Wil almost walks straight into in the witch’s castle. Her Rover skills of sneaking and lock-picking quickly become essential, no matter how reluctant Wil was to have her join their team. Her physical beauty and charming demeanor also come in handy when the witch’s Smeagol-like companion is too frightened of Wil to cooperate but willing to listen to Eretria.
While Eretria is unabashed about her feelings for Wil, it is clear that he cares instead for Amberle. Eretria seems to come to terms with this when she helps Wil carry the burden of Amberle and her quest both literally and metaphorically. “I know how you feel about her. I know. But this is too much for you. Please let me help,” she says altruistically as she lifts the injured princess from his arms. Fiery Eretria’s self-sacrificing behavior and the fact that the only two young female characters in the whole book are both in love with mediocre Wil irk me just a little.
In conclusion, while Elfstones does feature two complex and important female characters, there is still room for improvement in their portrayal. Even if you’re only a fan of the show, I highly encourage you to read the book, as they diverge in some significant ways, including how these two women are portrayed.
What do you think of Amberle and Eretria? Do you find them suitably strong characters or not? Let me know in the comments below!