Friday, May 31, 2013

Women of Steel

It may surprise people who have read my second novel, The Golden Lynx, to learn that in the book’s earliest incarnation the story revolved around the interfamily relationships of two Russian clans, one of which would later go down in history as the Romanovs. No lynxes and, as originally conceived, no Tatars. There was a murder; the whole point of the series was to show a young Russian noble couple in the 1530s solving crimes, because at the time men and women lived largely separate lives, so the husband and wife moved in different spheres and could collect different types of information, which made it possible for them to succeed together as neither could alone.

A good idea that didn’t come off, not least because of my own inexperience as a writer. I didn’t create enough conflict between the couple (okay, I didn’t create any) or between them and the other members of the household. I made the classic rookie mistake: I loved my characters too much to let them suffer. Everyone was too nice.

But by the second draft, the Tatars had sneaked in. It came about quite naturally. Elite Russian women in the 1530s lived under many restrictions: they could not interact with men outside their immediate families (although they could boss around their male servants); they could not leave the house except to attend church, visit female relatives, or take part in court/noble functions such as weddings. They were not—and are not, as anyone who has traveled to Russia can attest—weak, but society valued them for obedience, subservience, and passive virtue. Young women especially (on older women, and the power of traditionally raised women generally, see a future post).

These traits make them difficult heroines for a modern writer to work with. The number of readers today who want to read detailed descriptions of sweet, submissive women engaged in embroidery and domestic management, important as those things were and are, is fairly small. So the heroine, then known as Marina, became a half-Tatar so that she could impress her future husband with her horsemanship and her daredevil approach to life. Years later, when I re-conceived the story, she became Nasan, a full Tatar, raised among the nomads.

Only then did I discover that, despite the impact of harems and Islam (the harems preceded the adoption of Islam) on the lives of Tatar women, the steppe peoples have a long and honorable tradition of warrior heroines. The Amazons allegedly were based on the Scythians, another, much earlier nomadic tribal confederation. Less than thirty years before The Golden Lynx opens, a Mongol woman ruled over the restored empire of Genghis Khan, which she herself had reunited through success in war and smart political maneuvering. Her name was Mandukhai (Manduhai), and she died sometime before 1510. The people of Mongolia still revere her as Manduhai the Wise.

I was thrilled. In this tradition I saw possibilities for a strong heroine who could defend her rights and aspire to a destiny of her choosing without being anachronistically feminist. And the tradition itself was so different from what most of us in the West think of as the lot of medieval women—especially among a group of people whom we have typically (and very unfairly, as I also discovered) scorned as primitive and uncultured.

Of course, the reality of steppe women’s lives turns out to be more complex than the sagas. Nomadic women worked (and work) hard, mostly in traditional female occupations such as milking cows, making dairy foods and felt, cooking, cleaning, clothing their families, and caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. The men took care of the herds and went to war. The folklore of warrior women certainly existed, but the reality included a lot more drudgery than glory. Moreover, men often captured women as wives and concubines. You beat an opponent; you had your pick of his women. Women were valuable, but the line between women and property sometimes stretched pretty thin.

But that was only one side of the story. On the whole, women among the Turkic tribes equaled or surpassed their husbands in age. As a result, they usually made the first move in the relationship and decided how far it would go and how fast. Marriage tended to reflect the decisions of parents, but the couple had the right to decide the level of intimacy. Genghis Khan went so far as to outlaw the capture of wives, which he saw as a source of dissension within his army, although his descendants conveniently forgot that part of the Great Law.

Women could own property—like their Russian but unlike their Western counterparts. They had, through their connection with the hearth fire and with birth, exceptionally strong shamanic power. And although they might be captured in battle, they were seldom killed (the same rule applied to children). In fact, in a kind of reverse chivalry, steppe men abandoned their women and children to the enemy while riding off to save themselves. There is a wonderful example of this in Sergei Bodrov’s film Mongol, where Börte, seeing an enemy tribe closing in, whips her wounded husband’s horse and urges it to escape across the river while she allows herself to be captured. It seems passive, but it’s not. It’s a declaration of her love, a conscious act of acceptance. She will survive if captured; her husband will not.

Something similar happens in Nomad: The Warrior, another Bodrov film, when the heroine, Gaukhar, agrees to marry the antagonist Sharish—and stop attacking his men with her dagger—because he promises to spare her brother if she cooperates. The hero, Mansur, kills Sharish before he can claim Gaukhar, but when Sharish’s people then ensnare Mansur, he doesn’t rescue Gaukhar. She rescues him.

And she has to rescue him, because Sharish’s mother, having watched Mansur survive two trials, has decided to take matters into her own hands. She grabs a handy viper and poisons the milk sent to honor the victorious hero whom the enemy khan has agreed to release on the morrow; only Gaukhar’s intervention protects him from a female enmity more implacable than anything the men can produce. Another woman—Hocha, the enemy khan’s daughter—has already risked her life to save Mansur by offering him marriage. He refuses, presumably because he loves Gaukhar. Therefore, it is Gaukhar who saves him. (For more on Nomad as a film, see “The Wild East.”)

Gaukhar represents a different kind of steppe heroine from Nasan: one more comfortable in traditional feminine roles. My new protagonist, Firuza in The Winged Horse, is this kind of character. She doesn’t swing a sword like Nasan or envision herself as an Amazon, but she knows what she wants, and she is determined to let no one stand in her path. Each of them, in her own way, is a worthy descendant of Princess Chichek of legend and Queen Manduhai of reality. Women of steel, even if they don’t leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Gaukhar Rescuing Mansur from the Jungar Camp
Screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

Hocha, daughter of the Jungar khan
Screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Carolyn, here's your promised post! Great stuff. Steppe gals rule. xxx Bryn


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