Sunday, 23 January 2011
Foster's style is very engaging and I can see that whether I always agree with him or not I am going to get a lot of pleasure simply from spending time in his company. If he lectures as well as he writes then his students are fortunate indeed. I set out this morning to read just the introduction and before I knew it I was half way through the first chapter as well.
In that first chapter Foster discusses the concept of the quest, the driving force behind literature from Beowulf through The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. What I found most interesting about this discussion was the text that Foster chooses to illustrate his thesis, Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. I have to admit that it isn't a book I know well, but those of you who are familiar with it will recall that the protagonist, the person who is on the quest, is Oedipa Maas, who, just in case you weren't sure, is a woman.
This set me thinking about the idea of the woman as quester, because I wouldn't mind betting that they are about as rare as the dragon's eggs your average quester might be searching for. It's noticeable that when Forster is talking in more general terms the novels he mentions all feature male protagonists and he always uses he as pronominal reference.
I toyed for a time with the notion of Jane Austen's heroines as going on quests. Certainly, they meet Foster's requirement of attaining a greater level of self-knowledge by the end of their respective novels and I suppose you could argue that they are on a quest for marriage, but if you're going to accuse Lizzie Bennett of setting out to look for a husband can I please get out of the line of fire before you do so. So perhaps not.
I thought then about some of the children's literature I know. I'm in the middle of reading an ARC of Elizabeth Laird's forthcoming book, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, and although I have yet to finish it that does seem to be moving towards meeting the criteria. Set in Scotland in the time of the Covenanters, it is about a young woman who is forced to go questing by the superstitious minds of the people amongst whom she has been brought up. She is certainly meeting with perils on the way and although it asks for role reversal there is the equivalent of the evil knight and the beautiful princess who is going to need rescuing. Whether or not it will finally resolve itself with Maggie growing to greater self-awareness I shall be better placed to tell you towards the end of the week, but it looks as though it might.
So, perhaps there is greater scope for the female quester in literature being written for children growing up in an age where woman have more expectation of being allowed to follow paths traditionally prescribed for men? Can I think of any others?
Well, there's Philip Pullman's Lyra, of course, who is certainly the protagonist in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) and without a doubt ends up with greater self-knowledge. That, after all, is what the sequence is about. Even there, however, the main role is taken over in the second book by Will and Lyra never completely regains the ascendancy she had in the first novel.
And perhaps I don't have to stay with modern children's literature. What about Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden? Her quest, it could be argued, appears to be to rescue the garden, but she definitely finds out more about herself in general and comes specifically to a greater self awareness as a result of the journey she undertakes. I'm not sure how Colin would feel about the role of princess in distress, but as far as I'm concerned he fits the bill nicely.
But where are the adult female questers? Who am I missing? Who are the obvious contenders? What do you think?