My mother read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me when I was seven years old. The ironic thing is that she hates fantasy (although, she says, she liked fairy tales when she was little). Apparently she was taking me to see a play based on the book, and she wanted me to have read the book first. Now, whenever she complains about my enjoyment of “fake life,” I gleefully point out that she started it all.
She is not amused.
My relationship with the Narnian chronicles was rather stormy, however. In fourth grade I began buying a few of the books for myself—in addition to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I also bought Prince Caspian, The Silver Chair, and The Magician’s Nephew. Soon I decided that The Silver Chair was my favorite, probably because of Jill. She had a stronger personality than most of the other characters, and she wore shorts, wandered around in strange cold places, and got to carry a knife. (I was old enough then to like knives and young enough not to worry about being cut by one.)
About a year later, in a fit of anti-magical conscience, I got rid of all my Narnian books for fear they included witchcraft. Never underestimate the willpower of a worried fifth-grader. (But I still liked The Silver Chair.)
After a few years, my conscience decided that Narnia wasn’t evil after all. When my sister was given a Narnia boxed set, I read and re-read The Silver Chair to my heart’s content. I developed a fondness for Edmund, but Jill remained a favorite.
The surprising thing about that is that I rarely pick female characters as my favorites. A lot of them simply bore me. The boys are the ones who go off on all the adventures. When the girls do have adventures, they usually seem like they’re trying too hard. I don’t want the book to read as if the author decided “Girls should have adventures, too.” Strong female characters are great. Strong female characters invented to prove some feminist point are boring, annoying, or both.
Jill is a strong female character. Better yet, she has nothing to prove. (Well, that she isn’t afraid of heights, but that phase is short-lived.) There are no unrealistic heroics. Jill is not another tired copy of the Elf Warrior Queen Who Knows Karate. Or a Really Cool Ranger Girl Who Can Do All the Things Everyone Else Is Afraid Of. (If you are planning a book about either of those characters, or someone similar, then please. Spare us.)
From Flannery O’Connor: “The person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.”
Unlike some of her truly fantastic female counterparts, Jill is very much a real person, not a character invented to defy stereotypes or to serve as wish gratification. She is strong. She also doesn’t think much about the points of a compass, has trouble remembering important things, and almost kills her friend in an abortive attempt to show how tough she is.
That’s what I call realism.