Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
"... But an equally basic passion of mine ab initia was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite... I was from my early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands."
I first read this quotation from a letter J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman published in a recent edition of The Silmarillion when I was about twelve years old. At the time I was too young to appreciate its full content, yet it stuck with me. Somehow I knew there was more to this plaintive, peevish paragraph than usual for english prose, so that it stuck in my mind for more reason than that I was feeling starved of half-decent stories myself. By then I had been a writer almost since learning to make letters, much to my mother's chagrin. The house copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There was getting more tattered as I caught on to more of the word plays and puzzles in it. So I was primed for a fruitful encounter with Tolkien's love of language, and his written expression of it enthralled me. However, my relationship with Tolkien's work was not destined to be an uncritical one anymore than anyone else's.
In time I became a faithful re-reader of Tolkien's books, expanding beyond the "core works" to things like Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles of Ham. But on one fateful day, settled in again with The Silmarillion and a cup of tea, I finally threw the book down in frustration. This was great stuff, sure, but I still wanted some real stories. There were almost no female characters in the book, and those few almost exclusively stay-at-homes or temporarily feisty people. The stay-at-homes apparently went dormant and still as soon as the male gaze left them, reanimating as soon as the men came home. The temporarily feisty ones were usually "tamed" by "a good husband" – which we know is a grim euphemism for something else.
Not that this is a surprise, considering when The Silmarillion was written, and Tolkien soared above what he may or may not have considered flaws himself. At least, this was my naïve rationalization of this failure until the I stumbled upon Athena Andreadis' dry and eye opening reminder that, "People keep saying 'Oh, Tolkien was a man of his time.' Except that Virginia Woolf, who was ten years older than Tolkien, wrote her incandescent condemnation of fascism, Three Guineas (sixty years before the concept of 'intersectionalism' came into fashion), two years after Tolkien wrote... The Hobbit." That certainly gave me new food for thought. On top of that, I was tired of stories almost exclusively about men, and I was tired of depictions of women that were nonsense. For one thing, my mother may have been a real life stay-at-home, but my experience was that she became reanimated as soon as my father walked out the door in the morning, and collapsed into dormancy again when he came back. My real life feisty and awesome fifth grade teachers Mrs. Pelletier and Mrs. Wallace may or may not have been married, I honestly have no idea – but they were two of the most untame women I have ever met, and that's a fact.
Having been taught that nothing comes by sitting and complaining even if that's fun, I had what could be considered a heretical thought: There's no reason women couldn't be at the centre of a cycle of myths, fairy-tales and heroic legends on the brink of history. "A" cycle because there's no such thing as one size fits all, or my copy of The Silmarillion wouldn't have been tossed. Anyway, this is a Feminist age, somebody ought to try it.
I also was taught to always try replacing "somebody" with "I" whenever I came up with an "ought to be done" statement (thanks Mrs. Pelletier!). Having talked myself into trying this out, it was time to decide how to go about it. Taking another page from Tolkien, who was informed by the real stories and deeds of Celts, Vikings, and Finns, I opted to use the stories and deeds of a familiar group of strong women as a starting point. There are many possibilities, but in this time when even mainstream media is trying to co-opt Feminism again via shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, Amazons were the obvious choice – and yes, I watched Wonder Woman too.
Therefore I went about collecting the stories and mythology already associated with the Amazons, together with relevant archaeological and anthropological data. After all, before trying to even pretend to write a myth cycle, it is necessary to uncover and/or build its substructure first. That is the ultimate purpose of this book. It doesn't simply recount all those materials, nor is it a scientific study. Probably the best way to refer to it is as "speculative fiction" which doesn't limit the expectations of what will be written in quite the same way as the "science-fiction" or "fantasy" labels. Few people realize that there are Amazon stories beyond the familiar Graeco-Roman ones, stories from independent Chinese, Cherkesian, and Ukrainian traditions, although Adrienne Mayor's recently published book Amazons is doing much to change that. They were all impressed by the Amazons' bravery, honour, and their undefeatable city.
Originally I planned to simply include my "apparatus" in terms of footnotes, references, and so forth. However, several emails made it clear to me that this was accidentally encouraging a mistaken impression that this is intended to be a literally scholarly work, analogous to Adrienne Mayor's. It isn't anything of the sort, and isn't intended to be. A key reason I wanted to include the "apparatus" was to deal with my own great frustration with Robert Graves, who wrote many interesting things in The Greek Myths, and then provided what seems to be an extensive set of pseudo-references. I have since learned that apparently all of his references were copied over from a reference text on greek and roman mythology he had in his house, and he saw no reason to actually transcribe them or say anywhere that was what he did in the text as usually printed. This means that as I originally wrote before learning about this detail, there is no simple way to tell what he made up as part of his creative retelling, and what he incorporated from other sources. So I still think it is worth providing a full bibliography, and citations of direct quotes and paraphrases. But otherwise there will be no footnotes, although if any reader would like to verify the source of a specific idea to be on the safe side, they have only to email me and I will provide the information – as indeed the people who wrote those several emails did.
"The truth about stories is... that's all we are."
– Thomas King"
In 1999, still unsure where the Amazon thread was leading, I finished the first draft of what would become Chapter One. Being an early laptop adopter because in those days I was both a lousy typist and a frequent traveller, all of my research, notes, and drafts resided on an oldish laptop, an external hard drive, and a pile of disks in storage. My travelling was encouraged by dire economic straits and the difficulties of finding a real job. In the course of one work term, budget cuts killed my chances of longer term employment, and my landlord stole my entire computer set up to pawn for gambling money. (Do I ever wish I was making that up.) Before I left the building, the landlord handed me fifty bucks. I suspect that was all my ancient computer system was actually worth to the pawnshop owner, who couldn't have cared less that over five years of research and writing was piled haphazardly on the counter of his shop. This was still early days, when back up disks could only be read by the specific machine that had made them, so in fact I had lost everything. I would have to start all over again. The starting over took a long time, not least due to the need to get out of the dire economic straits already mentioned and reconstruct all that research.
One day, I stumbled on a recording of The Truth About Stories, a series of lectures given by author and teacher Thomas King. At the start of each lecture, he would repeat the quote at the head of this section. It's so important it bears repeating right here: "The truth about stories is... that's all we are." He didn't mean just passively received stories, insofar as there is such a thing. He also meant the ones we all create and retell, recreate and tell, whether we consider ourselves writers or not, the stories that tell us where we are in the world and how to behave in it. Every story does this, even the ones we don't take seriously or even like very much. King's lectures helped me unpack that peculiar, plaintive, peevish, paragraph Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman. And, it helped clarify for me just what I was writing for, let alone why I was writing this specific book.
Tolkien's paragraph is more than just peculiar if you're an Indigenous lesbian woman, as I am. From my perspective, that paragraph is downright bizarre. Here is a privileged white man of a colonizing culture that actively destroys and appropriates other peoples' stories, bemoaning his lack of access to stories he likes. Think about it. In his time, Tolkien lived immersed in a world of stories where every story he read, saw, or heard, was about him – or at least, the sort of image he was expected to freely relate to and emulate. The stories he misses, the stories he wants made accessible to him, are Indigenous stories, stories "bound up with tongue and soil." Tolkien's beloved country is itself the product of repeated invasion and colonization. Colonizers act to destroy those stories, because they are the stuff of survival of the Indigenous peoples they expect to eliminate and replace so they won't feel like colonizers anymore. Furthermore, those stories encourage an attachment to place that colonizers despise, because there is always more colonizing to come, somewhere else.
By now you may be thinking, look, everybody knows stories matter. That's why we worry about censorship and despise book-burning. Unfortunately, this limited perspective misses the point. (This isn't a criticism of those who hold it, I used to hold it too.) Stories are the stuff of our very selves, so we allow the power of story-making to be taken from us at our peril. As long as we are able to make stories for ourselves and share them freely, we have the power to question and change stories that have become warped and destructive. Any member of an oppressed group has learnt this lesson first hand, and gets free refreshers every day without trying. Women have the dubious fortune of being an oppressed group across all those cultures that have been colonized by adherents of patriarchal mores. Women are encouraged to forget these human origins of their oppression by a combination of erasure of memory and independent stories plus new stories with different messages. The newer stories claim a deity said so, and anyway women are in some way inherently inferior, limited beings, not that women can help that, especially Indigenous lesbian women.
In hindsight, I'm glad that I wound up learning all these things about stories, about how we live by them, how powerful they are, how they can be used and abused. That said, I would have liked a less distressing path to get there, even if otherwise the chances I could do better than an "add women and stir" approach to yet another Tolkienesque fantasy series would be nil. Perhaps my chances are still small, but there's no way to take a different path if you have no idea there are others to be taken, and it's those others I'm most interested in. In any case, I'm well aware of how bitterly disappointing it is to read the "add women and stir" approach (e.g. the Dragonlance series by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, compulsively readable and yes, enjoyable though it is) versus the joy of finding an author who takes one of the roads less travelled (e.g. Amazon by Barbara G. Walker).
With that background information laid out, a brief overview of who the Amazons are in this book is provided below, to make quite clear what's coming next. For real life Amazons though, your best introductory sources are Adrienne Mayor's Amazons, and Jeannine Davis Kimball's Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines.
– Somewhere on Turtle Island, 2018
The Premise of This Book:
The Amazon Nation consisted of numerous all-women, Goddess-worshipping communities. Typically they worshipped aspects of Goddesses or Goddesses (a semantic difference rather than a real one) solely concerned with women and their interests, which of course means in fact, everything. Those interests originally included such supposedly 'masculine' pursuits as sports, hunting, fishing, scholarship, science, and religion. As pressure from invading patriarchal groups increased, the warlike facets of these Goddesses, best exemplified by Artemis and Athena, grew in importance. The martial nature of the Amazons was emphasized by the invaders in turn since this is understandably what they encountered, and their ability to defend themselves differentiated them sharply from the women absorbed into those groups. Contrary to what the invaders tended to assume, the Amazons were not necessarily all lesbians, or completely disconnected from non-Amazon societies. This is one possible reconstruction of some of the Amazon Nation's component histories, cultures, and mythologies.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1999. Page xi.
- Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson's Hobbit, from Athena Andreadis' blog Starship Reckless.
- King, Thomas The Truth About Stories, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2003. Page 2.