Where Are All The Female Magical Mentors?

Earlier this year I was hunting for examples of good fantasy beginnings for a Tough Travels post. The topic for that month’s feature was inspired by a quote from Diana Wynne Jones, which pointed out that the typical fantasy protagonist usually starts out in poor circumstances until they are contacted by their Mentor:

“you will be contacted by your TOUR MENTOR (normally an elderly male MAGIC USER with much experience) who will tell you what to do, which is almost certainly to discover you are a MISSING HEIR.”

In my hunting, I tried to find an example of a book that flipped the cliché a little bit, and had a magical mentor character that was neither elderly nor male. The elderly part I managed, but finding a female magical mentor? Harder than I thought it would be.

Mentors, Magic Wielders and Women

I’ve read many books where magically-skilled mentors turn up and whisk their new charges off on exciting adventures, and I’ve read a lot of books with female protagonists, so I thought surely I could think of a book where a female witch, sorceress or wizard appears and snatches up her charge.

The trouble is, I could think of female mentors, and magic-wielding women, but rarely a character that fit all three categories. The ones that did were rarely the prominent ‘MENTOR’ character of the story.

The Hunt For a Female Dumbledore

Eventually I did think of some character types that sort of fit:

Seers

Quite a few books and films cast magical women in soothsayer or seer type roles, though they are often an occasionally-consulted source rather than a true mentor, and sometimes they are evil.

Evil Witches

Evil magical women – whether witches or sorceresses – are not hard to find, but they usually end up being antagonists to the young protagonist, rather than mentors (think The Wicked Witch of the West, The White Witch… really any evil witch tale). Some stories, like Maleficent and the Throne of Glass subvert the evil-witch theme a bit, but still don’t quite provide the force-of-good mentors I’m looking for.

Teachers

There are a few magically-gifted female teachers that act as mentors – for example Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter – but they aren’t generally the most prominent mentor of the story.

Mother Earth

Films and TV shows also seem to have female ‘mother earth’ type magical forces (think Gaia in Captain Planet or Eywa in Avatar) but they aren’t exactly real human mentors, more like goddesses or forces of nature.

The point is, finding a female magic mentor to rival the likes of Gandalf or Dumbledore – i.e. an important, positive, inspiring, real guide of impressive magical power – was much harder than I’d anticipated.

Three Contenders

In the end, I came up with three contenders. They’re not perfect, but they’re the best examples I could find:

Book Cover: The Black PrismBrent Weeks’s Lightbringer series has some impressive magical women, but the one that reaches a Dumbledore mentor level, in my opinion, is Orea Pullawr, a.k.a ‘The White’. She’s the head of a powerful magical government called the Chromeria, and takes several young characters under her wing. She’s incredibly wise, clever, humble and good at giving guidance, not to mention much loved and respected. She doesn’t wield magic, not because she can’t, but because she refrains from doing so, which strains the ‘magical’ element a bit… but she’s so powerful in other ways I don’t think that really matters. 

 

Book Cover: The Wee Free MenIn Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, the protagonist Tiffany Aching is a dairy maid living in a country backwater who wants to become a witch. She is visited by Miss Tick, an older witch who gives her information and assistance. Miss Tick doesn’t stick around for long, and isn’t exactly swooping about wielding magic and warding off Nazgûl, but she’s the only female example of the traditional mentor-turns-up-to-pluck-hero-from-obscurity scenario I could find. Granny Aching, Tiffany’s witch grandmother, is also clearly a strong influence and mentor-like presence in her life.

 

Poster: Sabrina The Teenage WitchIt feels kind of embarrassing to admit, but this is the only TV show I can think of that provides prominent, positive magical female mentors that aren’t already dead or insignificant. Whatever you think of the show (I used to like it but find it pretty cringe-worthy now) Sabrina has two aunts who regularly advise and guide her in the ways of being a witch… eccentric though they might be.

I nearly added The Vampire Diaries here, since the witch character Bonnie is also mentored by a family member (her grandmother) but I don’t feel like ‘Grams’ is a major enough character in the show to make this list.

Any I Missed?

I would have thought it would be easier to find female magical mentor characters in fantasy stories. Maybe I have simply been reading or watching the wrong things, or maybe my memory is failing me… but I do feel like there aren’t as many examples out there as I’d hoped there would be. Perhaps the idea of a grey-haired, bearded, old-man-wizard mentor is so ingrained that we find it hard to imagine a woman in this sort of role… but I’d like to see some more authors breaking with tradition, and I think it’s fertile uncharted territory to explore.

What do you think? Are there any awe-inspiring female magical mentors from books or films that I’m yet to discover? Let me know in the comments.

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69 thoughts on “Where Are All The Female Magical Mentors?

  1. You got me thinking, although it is not quite fantasy what about The Fairy Godmother (Five Hundred Kingdoms Book 1) by Mercedes Lackey? It’s what happens when there is no prince for Cinderella to find. She has a fairy godmother who trains her. The comparison may fall flat, but it was the only other book example I could think of. If you are into Disney Movies Moana has her grandmother that helps to guide her. Again not a perfect match. Thanks for the post. 🙂

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    • I haven’t read the Five Hundred Kingdoms but the godmother sounds very mentor-like! Did you enjoy the series? I’ve never read anything by Mercedes Lackey but have seen her mentioned a lot and am curious.

      I also haven’t seen Moana but it sounds like it’s along the right lines as well.

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  2. In The Eye of the World (book 1 of The Wheel of Time series) by Robert Jordan, Moiraine finds Rand al-Thor and pushes him on a quest that jump-starts the entire series. Without getting into the gritty details of a 14-volume series, Moiraine is essentially Rand’s only guide through the first book (and then some).

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  3. True enough, I suppose. What exactly do you think would differ between a male and a female old, wizardy type? What makes this uncharted territory so appealing? To me it seems like there would be minute differences but overall the archetype would remain the same.

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    • I guess if you changed nothing except the gender it wouldn’t be that new – but I think the change would often result in a different kind of character, since it involves not choosing the bearded old man wizard archetype and re-imagining how a mentor might look and act. It does all depend what the author does with it though.

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      • I see. So you’re saying that simply by changing the gender and re-imagining the role of the mentor you inherently change the archetype even though some similarities may persist. That it would be unlikely that the archetype could continue in it’s form by changing a significant part of what makes it that way (the old, bearded, wizard male).

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        • Yes, I guess I think of it as altering the archetype we typically associate with the magical mentor role. The character’s core role in the story might not change much (still being a magical mentor), but the type of character they are might surprise us in being different from the typical Merlin-inspired one we expect. The difference may not dramatically alter the story, true, but it might still provide an interesting unexpected flavour or character type.

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  4. Great post! I think somewhere adjacent to the ‘Earth Mother’ role is a related archetype of matronly or even semi-angelic female mentor figures who come from outer space. I’m thinking specifically of the Crystal Gems from Steven Universe and the Mrs. Who, Which and Whatsit from A Wrinkle In Time.

    I guess these examples both merge fantasy and sci-fi elements a little bit but there’s sufficient mythological precedent for goddesses of the moons and stars that I reckon this archetype might show up somewhere in the world of pure fantasy.

    A more down-to-earth example of a proper female magical mentor might be Monkey from Kubo and the Six Strings. While Monkey doesn’t case spells she is explicitly magic and is the main force teaching Kubo the lessons he needs to survive the story.

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    • Thanks! Yes true, I hadn’t thought of it but there are a few semi-angelic female mentor characters in science fiction – I’m suddenly reminded of the Oracle from The Matrix.

      It’s been a long time since I read A Wrinkle in Time but seeing your mention of Mrs. Who, Which and Whatsit immediately rang bells in my memory! Now I think about it, I wonder if they are inspired by the three Fates from mythology.

      I haven’t seen that movie but I like the idea of a magical female monkey as a mentor.

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  5. You mention the Tiffany Aching series, and there are a couple of magical women in it. Tiffany is recruited by Miss Tick, but also trained vy Miss Level and has a significant ongoing relationship with Granny Weatherwax.

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  6. Lark and Rosethorn are two young (in their thirties, I think) magic-users who mentor teenagers in Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series. Rosethorn is a sharp-tongued and spiky but thoroughly good-hearted plant mage, and Lark is a very gentle and upbeat thread mage. The follow-up series, The Circle Opens, has those same teenagers (three of which are female) mentor younger children in the ways of magic. They are great books 🙂

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    • I’ve been meaning to read Tamora Pierce’s books, I’ve heard good things about several of her series now. I added them to my list, but haven’t got to them yet – looking forward to when I do though 🙂

      That’s interesting that they are younger mentors with different specialisations that work as a team – I like that idea!

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  7. It *is* hard to think of a female magical mentor who fits the traditional Mentor role. At first I wondered if we could include Jaga from “Uprooted,” since she was technically Agnieszka’s real teacher of magic, even if she was dead and only living on through her book. But…that’s really stretching the Mentor role, because she’s not alive and doesn’t whisk away the main character. That was the Dragon’s doing. (Although Agnieszka herself might become that female mentor later, as is hinted toward the end.)

    I’m having a hard time thinking of other possible examples. oO Door from “Neverwhere”? Hrrrm.

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    • Yes it’s not easy to find traditional examples! Jaga from Uprooted would have been a good contender if she’d been alive, but as you said, it was the Dragon who actually found and sort-of taught Agnieszka. Interestingly, a lot of the female mentors I thought of were already dead and only living on through memories or notes/books. So they were strong influences, but not really active living mentors… which made it difficult!

      Sadly it’s been too long since I read Neverwhere for me to remember Door. But re. Agnieszka, I agree, there’s a definite sense she is going to become a mentor herself later!

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        • Yeah I kind of wondered that too! Perhaps it’s got to do with this idea of forbidden/lost/mysterious witch magic. I think wizards often teach their magic openly and formally, whereas witches pass it to innately gifted relatives, perhaps generations later, and keep it secret to avoid persecution/ridicule, so their knowledge has to be pried from old neglected books and clues. At least, in Uprooted it’s quite like that – the Dragon’s magic is accepted, teachable, and almost ‘scientific’ whereas Agnieszka’s is mysterious and innate, and even suspect at first.

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  8. I would double-down on Discworld (seems I am always mentioning Pratchett in these comments! 😀 ) suggesting Granny Weatherwax fits the bill, though she does her mentoring more from the sidelines. Even so, her presence and influence is felt throughout the Tiffany Aching books. Miss Treason from Wintersmith, is probably an even better example than Miss Tick or Granny, as she is actually Tiffany’s master/teacher for some time. Outside of Discworld, not many examples come to mind. There’s a character in the Star Wars video game Knights of the Old Republic called Bastilla who tries to be a mentor for the player character, but she is young and a bit full of her self (and ironically, she is teaching a Jedi who is far superior to her but who has lost his/her memory). There is also an old sith-y witch in the second game who is a mentor for the PC. Mass Effect, the other big series by Bioware, also has many strong women who offer mentor-ship, though not in a clear teacher/master position. I like Bastilla as an example because she bucks the trend of mentors being old and being experts.

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    • Haha yes, I guess Pratchett does cover all the fantasy bases so well! I’m looking forward to reading more of the Tiffany Aching books and meeting Miss Treason (and becoming further acquainted with Granny Weatherwax).

      That example of Bastilla is a really interesting one! I’ve never encountered a scenario where a younger less experienced character needs to mentor an older superior character due to memory loss. I’ve sometimes seen scenarios where the younger one has a special innate rare magical skill the older one doesn’t have or fully understand, but even in those cases most of the mentoring is still done by the older character. So that’s very unique!

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  9. Barbara Hambly’s Windrose Chronicles and spin-off ought to fit, and in an interesting way. We spend the first two books, The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage, with people who love and are mentored by the elderly male archmage, but we also see the antagonistic middle-aged female mage Lady Rosamund, and the elderly female mage Aunt Min.

    In the third book, Dog Wizard, and the spin-off, Stranger at the Wedding, we spend our time with people who love and have been mentored by Rosamund and Min. The shifts in our perception are effective and believable.

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    • I’ve never read the Windrose Chronicles, but I like the sound of that shift in perspective! It’s always interesting when you get to know and empathise with different characters, especially if there is antagonism between them. Also intriguing that the allegiances of the characters are bound to the mentors – that makes a lot of sense though.

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  10. hehe yes seers always turn out to be evil (or frauds in the case of Trelawney), I almost feel sorry for them 😉 And yes the wicked witch is a bit of staple. I did think Mcgonagall *had to* be on this list somewhere- she was the female version of Dumbledore to me (just more Scottish- I still see the first Dumbledore as the *only* Dumbledore cos the second one didn’t resemble the picture in my head at all) Granny is an excellent mentor too!! Sabrina’s actually a really fantastic example!! I get why this was so hard- I have this vague feeling (and not very connected memories) that there are more female mentors in books- trouble is I can’t remember any of them- even though I’m thinking of a couple of books and wondering “were their female mentors in there? I’m pretty sure…” One I’ve been puzzling over is the Pellinor series- I can at least one matronly character at the start of the book and have a feeling there was someone on an island somewhere… see what I mean about vague!! So yes, this is an excellent topic to bring up! It’s so much easier just to say Dumbledore/Gandalf when thinking of magical mentors!

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    • Yeah seers do get a bad rap! Sometimes they are wise and revered but even then things often go badly for them (I’ve noticed the good ones tend to predict their own necessary death for the future good and then martyr themselves :/ ).

      Yeah I probably should have added McGonagall! I just felt she was so overshadowed by Dumbledore and Sirius (Harry is always angsting about what those two would want him to do and rarely thinks of her except to worry about not having done his homework or being punished for wrong doing). I LOVE her and she does become a lot more important to Harry later in the series (especially when Umbridge is around and Dumbledore is absent), but she didn’t get to do as much mentoring as I would’ve liked and I don’t feel Harry looked up to her as much as he should have. That said, maybe I should not be comparing her to Dumbledore but instead judging her by her own merits! 🙂

      I’ve never read Pellinor, but it’s on my to-read list so if I notice a matronly mentor character I’ll let you know! Yeah it’s really hard to think of examples (I had the same feeling that there must be a bunch of them but I just couldn’t bring them to mind). They are definitely out there, but perhaps just not as plentiful or as easy to think of as characters like Dumbledore and Gandalf.

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      • They do!! Oh yes you’re right!! It’s a bit line the “Cassandra effect”. Yes that’s true!
        Oh that’s true, she does have her moments, but she is someone harry goes to less. You are right- yes especially with the unbridge thing (though I also think that’s an example when he could have gone to her)

        Yeah it is a really long time since I read it (about ten years!) So it really needs a reread, especially since I think there’s a new one coming out I think. Hehe please do!

        It is!! True!

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        • Ah yes true! And you’re right, the Umbridge thing is a prime example of where he could have gone to McGonagall. I guess that wouldn’t have shown him & the others standing up to tyranny by themselves… but still.

          Wow, ten years! Interesting there’s a new book in that series coming out after so long. Reminds me of the new companion trilogy to His Dark Materials that’s coming out (another series I’ll need to re-read – it’s been about 15 years for me with that one!).

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  12. I thought about Viviane from “The mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I guess she’s not so much of a prominent mentor (at least not to the male protagonists). Still she may qualify with a bit of a disclaimer – she has magical abilities, wisdom and mystery, and is also a mentor to Morgaine, who is the main character after all 🙂

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    • Ah yes I did think of The Mists of Avalon, since I vaguely remembered someone mentoring Morgaine, but it’s been so long since I read it that the characters and events are sadly a bit of a blur in my mind. I just looked up more info about Viviane and her role though, and you’re right, she definitely sounds like a magical mentor!

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  13. I noticed a few other people mentioned Mercedes Lackey. In The Last Herald Mage Trilogy by her Savil, the main character’s aunt, acts as a mentor to Vanyel (the MC) and several other people in the trilogy. She doesn’t sweep him away, but when he is put under her wing she does the best she can for him and becomes like his second mother. Savil most definitely has magic as well since she is one the most powerful Herald-Mages. I just thought I’d mention her since she was the first character to come to mind when I read this post.

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    • Savil definitely sounds like an influential magical mentor character, thanks for mentioning her! I have been debating what to read first by Mercedes Lackey because she just has so many books… but I think I’ll start with Arrows of the Queen since that seems to have been her first and most popular book, and the one all the others springboard off/are connected to (though Magic’s Pawn, the first in The Last Herald Mage Trilogy that you mentioned, also seems to be very popular…)

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      • No problem 🙂 Starting with Arrows of the Queen is a good way to go because it introduces you the world and (as you said) all the other books are connected to it. I read that first trilogy and then The Last Herald Mage Trilogy. Another interesting to do is to check out the songs she wrote about the books. You can find them on YouTube if you type in her name and the trilogy you want to hear about, I believe.

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  14. After reading this post, and all the comments, I’m really impressed. You’re right that we don’t have any Gandalf or Dumbledore-equse women in fantasy often. I could only come up with Mrs. Who, What, and Which from A Wrinkle in Time, and they don’t obviously use magic… Moirainne from The Wheel of Time and Skifir from the Shattered Sea trilogy. Still not quite the same characters, though.

    People above seem to have found quite a few (and greatly increased my TBR!) so it’s hard to say if we really get a Dumbledore-eqsue figure from them. That said, perhaps that’s the point? Perhaps the female mentors in fantasy are too busy kicking butt and taking names to be all sage-like?

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    • Yes my TBR has expanded from this too! 🙂 And true, perhaps that is the point – I guess we don’t need an exact female copy of Dumbledore, it’s not bad to have female mentors that also break the mould in other ways. Though I think I still enjoy seeing him matched in terms of the much-beloved and respected factor (which is why I loved Orea Pullawr in Lightbringer) because it’d be frustrating if all the female mentors were under-appreciated, overshadowed, forgettable or already-dead (though from examples above I don’t think they are!).

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      • Ugh. That’s a great point. I just wonder if it’s that we’ve broken from the trope so much with women that we can’t find anyone to fit it? But we should be able to look back at the fantasy books we’ve read and say, “Ah, yes. That woman fits this trope.” How sad that finding a woman to fit a trope would make something, well, less-trope like. XD

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        • True – I do think there are typical fantasy roles/tropes that regularly have both male and female characters in them and follow predictable patterns (e.g. evil sorcerer/sorceress), where having a woman in the role wouldn’t necessarily make it any less trope-like… it was just surprising to me that it was a bit harder to find the same thing with the magical mentor role.

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  15. I couldn’t think of any either. The only person who came to mind who could fit the role was a character from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga/anime series — Izumi. She was a mentor of sorts to the protagonists.

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  16. She may not be a perfect fit, but Moiraine Sedai from the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan is a female mentor of sorts for many characters in the series. Yes, she is manipulative and she has her own agenda, but she does fill the role of being the wise instructor.

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    • Ah yes, someone else also mentioned Moiraine – it’s been so long since I read Eye of the World that I had sadly totally forgotten about her, but she certainly fits the bill! And I think a lot of mentors/instructors have a manipulative side or their own agenda – even Dumbledore had a bit of that going on.

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  17. Just off the top of my head:
    From older sources, the first one that comes to mind is the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, or the various fairy god-mothers from fairy tales. Mythology is replete with female mentors (Ariadne to Theseus, Medea to Jason, Calypso to Odyseus, just looking at greek mythology alone).
    From modern fantasy, there’s Moiraine from WOT, the witches from Discworld, Patience from Farseer, several female mentors in Stormlight (syl, Jasnah Kholin, etc.), Jessica from Dune, not as prominent as Gandalf but still important, there’s Galadriel, and perhaps Eowyn as a mentor to Merry.

    If you’re wondering where all the female magical mentors are, its because you haven’t really looked. If you’re looking for female bearded wizards, well, you’re just not going to find them for obvious reasons (although there is Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg).

    But kidding aside, I think that female mentors are going to be rarer in fantasy so long as you have predominantly male heroes, since if there is a female mentor figure you are going to have a lot of jealousy from the hero’s love-interest, though there are several interesting solutions to this quandary. The solution in greek mythology seems to have been to conflate the roles of the female mentor and the love interest, while in modern fantasy, to make the female mentor incompatible as a love interest, such as a mother, a member of another species, or to simply write a straight female hero.

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  18. I’m so glad Nicolas mentioned the witches from Discworld, because to me you cannot get a better mentor than Granny Weatherwax (but this may be due to my absolute love for this character!). Although she is elderly – and so does not escaping that cliche – she is also not side lined because of her age and acts as the main heroine in a number of Pratchett’s books. In the Wee free men series Tiffany is mentored in the true sense by both Miss Level and Miss Treason who guide her in maturity and knowledge of magic and its uses. While Granny Weatherwax does not mentor Tiffany in the directly she does play an interesting role as an elder to impress but also challenge. Granny plays a better mentoring role to Esk – a female wizard – in the book Equal Rites, by enlightening Esk to her magical abilities and taking her under her wing to try train her in the ways of witchcraft. Eventually she has the wisdom to acknowledge the wizard magic in Esk and takes her to the Unseen University for proper training.

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  19. Hey, I stumbled on your blog and this article caught my eye. Moiraine from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series immediately came to mind, but I see many other comments mention her.

    While it is easy to pinpoint a few examples of female mentors in the genre, you are correct to assume we automatically associate “mentor” with “bearded old fogey”.

    Your Uncharted Territory is fantastic for fantasy. Thanks for the entertaining read!

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      • Women are considered to have more political power in the WoT series, so there are a lot of strong women characters. There are some issues Jordan had with writing about their cleavage, but besides that they’re strong. I’d really suggest you read them. I’m almost finished with them. I’ve been listening to them on Audible over the last year and its been awesome.

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  20. Thank you very much for this post, I was also curious about this. To me, the most interesting thing is when the “mentor” and the “female love interest” characters are combined. I believe it would have been particularly fascinating for the female love interest to be some sort of eccentric oracle/Zen sage who speaks in riddles and cryptic koans and teases the male protagonist (speaking in riddles is common both in romantic relationships to intrigue the partner and in the mentor-apprentice relationships, so IMO, it would combine naturally). Unfortunately, this is not common in fiction; the only example that comes to my mind right now is Tia Dalma.

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    • Ah yes true that is an interesting combo! I’ve seen it once in the Lightbringer series – a character called the Third Eye (who’s a powerful seer/oracle kind of character and also a little bit of a mentor) becomes a lover to one of the other characters, and the main character is also attracted to her… she definitely does some romantic teasing and speaks cryptically. But that’s the only other one that comes to mind. I really liked Tia Dalma though now you mention her, she was also a great character!

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      • Thank you very much, I absolutely love the Third Eye 🙂

        There’s also Sephrenia from David Eddings’ Elenium series: she usually doesn’t speak in riddles, but she’s both wise and beautiful, and serves as a love interest for one of the characters.

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