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