If you’ve noticed, despite this being a generalized book blog, I’m inclined to concentrate on the ideas and topics that I automatically gravitate towards, namely stories of women and men who break apart from their narratives and become archetypically important on a more humanistic level. And, queenship narratives of many different kinds often dominate these preferences. In my Shakespeare class, we’re beginning our study of the history tetralogies and focusing on the poisonous nature of kingship and the masculinity that intrinsically ties into it. But in the history plays, queens often exist solely as wombs to ensure the path of succession basically, with the exception of Margaret of Anjou. The importance of queenship narratives is the explicit portrayal of the highest power a woman can wield while still facing the full brunt of her gender and place as a woman in society. The difference between a queen and a Woman King is that a Woman King blurs the lines of gender, in that she is seen as a woman taking on the mantle of a man, her father, her brother, her son, and rules without a man. In a sense, in order to maintain her power, she must be seen as a man; but a queen is stuffed into the body of a woman whether she likes it or not, and must negotiate the terms of her power within that constraint.
I have a great deal of appreciation for real life queens obviously, Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn, Theodora, Cleopatra, Nefrititi, and honestly any of the women who were the power behind the kings of new and old, even if they were not acknowledged in the history books. But my top 5 fictional queens are, in no particular order, Cersei Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire, Medea from the play by Euripides, Helen of Troy (she was queen of Sparta first don’t forget), Blair Waldorf a la Queen B, and Irene, the Queen of Attolia from Megan Whalen Turner’s series about the thief, Euginides and the queen whom he falls in love with. In simple terms, the fact these women are permitted to be so morally ambiguous by their narrative and yet are ultimately sympathetic is extremely important to me. In a sense, it feels more real, for these women to be contradictory and complicated than for them to fall into the archetypes that have long defined women in media and in the world, mother, maiden, whore, crone.
Irene is the Queen which I’m reintroducing myself to right now because I’m rereading the Queen of Attolia since I haven’t read it in full since late middle school I think. God, Irene Attolia is an enigma because her first action in the book is to have Euginides’ hand chopped off and yet, she’s the female protagonist of the novel, and I’d go as far to call her the heroine. My clothing theme was her today, in a modern incarnation obviously because I’m not really a proponent of brocade in early fall sunshine but the theme was simple: pretty in the harmless looking way but with a sort of forced deadness on the inside in order to maintain control of her throne. My favorite quote about Attolia is “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.” It epitomized my whole fascination with queenship narratives; what is the sacrifice a woman must make in order to wield power when the men around her would prefer she was the weakling she pretended to be? And at what point, does the forced hardness become part of a woman’s character and is this hardness even inherently a negative quality?
In a way Attolia’s mask is analogous to Cersei Lannister’s mantra in A Feast for Crows, “a woman may weep but not a Queen.” The elevation of a woman to a queen means that she gives up certain privileges, most prominently that of any human weakness because any fallibility can be used against her, dethroning her and resulting in the death of herself and her loved ones. The crux of the appeal to queenship narratives is that they’re first and foremost survival tales in the way kingship narratives often are not. The stories of kings seem to concern how they fell despite being set up to rule, with their human flaws bringing them down, making them mortal. But on the other hand, queenship narratives concern women who try so hard to be more than human, and whose personas and identities are so carefully constructed and arranged but can shatter in a minute because they’re also so fragile.
It’s a valid question that they all ask at some point; when does my suppression of sentiment become a part of me such that I’m incapable of feeling love? The problem though is that they can’t stop feeling love because they’re first and foremost human beings; Blair Waldorf says you’ve got to be cold to be queen but she loves and loves and loves so much it almost destroys her and it’s also what brings her more happiness than being the cold unfeeling queen ever did. Attolia loves Euginides for bringing out the girl she was inside the woman she is, and in a way, he frees her from the walls she’s been forced to put up for herself to protect her throne. Cersei Lannister is a bad person but she’s not a bad woman, and she’s a symbol of the tragedy of womanhood, the most powerful woman in the country who’s still available to be raped and abused by the man she was sold to as a teenager, and that’s the life of the queen. She must hold down the set roles of mother and daughter and wife, unable to abandon her gender and wield power as a man, but is forced to do so through their often downright incompetent sons and brothers and husbands.
And most of all, the stories of queens are told by men, which colors their perception in both history and fiction so it remains to us to parse through the metatextual implications of the recorders and find the truth. Who are they, how did they live, how can we learn from them and relate to them, what parts of all women bleed the blood of queens? It’s fascinating to me, and it’s not something that appeals to everybody, but as far as feminine ambition and yearning for validation goes, queenship narratives are some of the richest and most diverse out there, and I don’t know, the deeply human core in women that are borderline craving of transhumanism is just beautiful to me.