Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Importance of Unexceptionalism (Protector of the Small)

A while back I wrote about Alanna the Lionness from the Song of the Lionness quartet by Tamora Pierce. I talked about how Alanna was an interesting character not only because she became the first female knight in hundreds of years in her fictional home country of Tortall, but also because she is so darned magical, and, well, exceptional. She’s an intentional feminist figure, a woman breaking down the barriers of sex, and she’s very very good at it.

But here’s the thing: I have never really felt like an Alanna, personally. I don’t feel like I’m that one person in a million who will prove the haters wrong once and for all. I’m not magical or extra-super-duper special. Or, maybe I am, but it’s a quieter kind of special.

This is a common problem in narratives about women who overcome great obstacles to break down gender boundaries. Or really in any narrative about an exceptional person who battles prejudice to prove the haters wrong. The point always comes when you have to think, “Well, yeah. But what about everyone else who isn’t an exception?”

That’s where Pierce’s followup quartet, Protector of the Small comes in. The story follows Keladry of Mindelan, the first female knight in Tortall after Alanna tricks her way through. She’s the first girl to openly go into page training and seek her knighthood, and she’s kind of blissfully ordinary. I mean, not completely, because that would be boring, but in comparison to Alanna? She’s a veritable pigeon of normalcy.

Kel starts out the series as the person we all felt like at age ten. Awkward in her own body, frustrated that her older siblings keep playing jokes on her or telling her she’s too little. She’s spent the past six years in the Yamani Islands (basically Japan) with her parents who are ambassadors there, and as a result she has a foreign perspective on the world. She doesn’t fit in. But she does know one thing: she wants to be a knight. Why? Because when she’s a knight she can do the thing she wants most to do in the world. She can protect the helpless.

I know that’s actually kind of a strange thing for a ten year old to want, but it fits really well with her character. Kel is stubborn, but endlessly compassionate. She really and truly cares about those around her, which is both a good thing, because it makes her a great person, and a bad thing, because it gets her in trouble.

The first book in the series, First Test, follows Kel as she arrives at the castle for her training to begin. Because she’s the first girl to openly attempt page training (Alanna was disguised as a boy until after she got her knighthood), Kel faces a lot of discrimination.  A lot. Even the training master, Lord Wyldon, objects to having a girl there. Actually, Lord Wyldon especially objects.

Wyldon demands that Kel undergo a probation year, something unheard of. If she survives the year with no mistakes, and proves that she can keep up with the boys and make a proper page, then she will be allowed to stay. And since Lord Wyldon will be the one to judge her fitness, it doesn’t seem at all set that she will, in fact, be allowed to keep on. Naturally everyone objects, especially Alanna, who had hoped to be able to mentor Kel, but the King uphold’s Wyldon’s decision. Because the old guard will have so much trouble accepting Kel, they might as well prove her fitness early on, so that no one can object.

And so it begins. Kel comes in with an axe over her head to prove her worthiness, and she does. But she doesn’t do it through extraordinary acts of courage or incredible skills. She does it because she’s a hard worker and doesn’t complain. Because when one of the boys tries to play a trick on her and gives her a lead weighted weapon, she decides that she might as well keep it so that she can build her upper body strength. Because when Wyldon condemns her for fighting in the halls, she continues on her quest to rid the castle of bullying and other forms of injustice.

At the end of the year, it’s no surprise to anyone except for Lord Wyldon and Kel herself that he allows her to stay. She’s earned it, by being true to herself and working very, very hard. She saw the flaws she had – like lacking upper body strength and being trained in a different sort of archery – and sought to overcome them. In short, Kel wins over Lord Wyldon precisely because while she’s good, she’s unexceptional. There is no extenuating circumstance to explain her succees. She’s just tyring hard.

The second book, Page, then follows Kel as she continues on this path through her next three years of page training. She keeps on fighting bullies, hires a maid with a past of sexual abuse and teaches her to fight while economically supporting her business ventures, and collects a ragtag group of sparrows, dogs, and fellow pages who will support her. At the end of the four years, when Kel is about to take her final test to complete her page training, a rival in the court (who hates her) kidnaps her maid. Kel doesn’t hesitate at all in going off to rescue Lalasa, the maid, even though she knows that to do so is to forfeit her years of training and possibly have to take them over again.

That singular action is pretty much what drives her through graduation from page training, as no one can argue that Kel is unsuited to be a knight after that. Her self-sacrifice even wins over Lord Wyldon at last, which is impressive, and makes her known to a couple of benefactors, such as Lord Raoul, head of the King’s Own.

Raoul decides to take Kel as his squire, in the creatively titled third book, Squire. In this one, we see Kel grow up over the four years of her squire training, and blossom under Raoul’s mentorship. He trains her for command, refuses to accept that she is any less of a knight-in-training than anyone else, and eventually gives her a post of command in the King’s Own when they ride off into war. Oh, and he encourages her to enter tournaments, where she does quite well, thus giving the people an example of what a lady knight can be.

But mostly, through all of this, the story shows us Kel working hard. Her compassionate heart gets her into as much trouble as it does grace, and the third book sees her trying to learn how and when to be compassionate, and how to champion the small without killing herself. It’s an important lesson for all of us to learn, but it’s doubly endearing because Kel learns it so begrudgingly. She genuinely likes helping people. And that’s kind of the best image she could have.

In the final book, Lady Knight, Kel has finally become a knight, only the second woman to do so in hundreds of years. She’s finally gotten to meet Alanna, and have Alanna tell her that she could think of no better successor (which is awesome), and she’s been given her own shield and commission. Unfortunately, Kel finds that her new role in the kingdom is not on the front lines of the battlefield, but rather as the commander of a refugee camp, caring for those whose homes were destroyed by the war.

While Kel longs to see battle and have a hand in the fight, she finds herself arguing about barracks placements, placating townsfolk, and running patrols. She hates it. But. She can’t help loving the people, even when they annoy her, and feeling responsible for them. So when the enemy attacks, using black magic killing machines to kidnap her people, Kel forsakes her hard-won knighthood, deserts her post, leads a rag-tag crew of renegades deep into enemy country, and brings them back. She also kind of turns the tide of the war and nearly gets executed. It’s the little things.

When the series ends, Kel is famed and noted as The Protector of the Small. Her glory has spread throughout the land. The King has pardoned her, and praised her. Even Lord Wyldon gives her a rousing praise for her actions. And then, Kel goes home. To her command. At the refugee camp.

She doesn’t ride out into the sunset to complete even greater feats of daring and strength. She doesn’t take command of the army or serve as the King’s personal knight. She doesn’t even really get a reward. She just goes home, back to her people, the ones she saved, and keeps doing her thing.

That, more than anything, is why Kel is an important character. Because we can’t all be Alanna, the special wonderful amazing one who blows everyone away and becomes the King’s Champion because she brought home the famed Dominion Jewel and also is perfect (aside from that nasty temper). Alanna is the exception. Kel? Kel is the rule.

Kel succeeds because she tries. And not because she “believes in herself” in some silly Disney movie sense. She works very, very hard to achieve her goals. She doesn’t kid herself that it will be easy. And when she faces setbacks, she just decides to work harder.

Kel is the one who proves that girls have just as much right to be knights as boys, because she does it the same way the boys do. And, she does it without giving up her femininity. She wears dresses, has a boyfriend (in book three), and goes through an awkward and embarrassing puberty. Kel is normal, and that’s what makes her great.

So, remember Kel. Whenever you feel like your obstacles are insurmountable, or that the world demands something more of you than you can give. I’m not saying it’s easy. Kel certainly would never say that. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

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