Lessons in Rereading: Tamora Pierce’s ‘Song of the Lioness’

Welcome to Lessons in Rereading, where I’ll return to a childhood classic every month or so and put it to the ultimate test of rereading. If you missed the first installment, check out last month’s lesson on The Phantom Tollbooth and see what I learned from a quick trip down memory lane with Milo and the gang. As always, we’ll be asking ourselves if the works of literature that shaped our early years have anything to offer for a twentysomething on the go. Can we learn something new as we look back on those adolescent page-turners? Do we ever really outgrow the books of our childhood?

Let’s turn to the pages of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book of the quartet Song of the Lioness.

As a soon-to-be-middle-schooler, I stumbled across Tamora Pierce for the first time while skimming the spines at my local Barnes & Noble. I had just broken into the double digits, and had never really delved into the murky waters of young adult fiction. I cut my literary teeth on a steady diet of the classics, and had only just begun to show a nascent interest in fantasy. This was the early 2000s, though, so my desire for the fantastical was sated by marathon rereadings of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in anticipation of the first of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations. (Realizing that his The Fellowship of the Ring came out over a decade ago just induced an immediate quarter-life crisis, yikes.)

I knew nothing of Tamora Pierce, but there was just something intriguing about the slim volume, all brightly colored and emblazoned with curiously elaborate script. Immersed in the western literary canon from a young age, I had begun to grow bored by continually reading about the exploits of daring young men and the women who love them. Little did I know that this boredom was actually the foundation of a lifelong commitment to feminist critique and action, but for the moment, I was just knew I was tired of reading the same story.

Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet introduced readers to the universe of Tortall, a fantastical realm akin to European country in the Middle Ages. It is a place where good fights evil, where knights ride stallions and royalty reigns. It is also a place of magic, but not the ethereal drama of today’s vampiric turn. The magic of Pierce’s books is deeply rooted in the physical, in the earthly. In Tortall, magic is a skill like any other – some people have it, and others don’t, and if you do possess it, it’s your duty to wield it for good. Above all else, Tortall is a universe bounded by good and evil, by right and wrong.

It is also a universe that – as in our own present moment, and in the whole of history up to this moment – limits the possibilities for women. And so, Pierce’s protagonist – a young, willful noble girl named Alanna – faces a future preordained by societal custom. Unlike her twin brother Thom, who has the option training as a knight or learning sorcery at the convent, Alanna is destined to learn the art of courtly manners and feminine pursuits. That is, until she takes her destiny into her own hands, and convinces her brother to take her place at the convent. In disguise, Alanna will arrive at court as Alan, a new page, ready to be trained for the test of knighthood, and Thom will head to the convent to study sorcery.

The Song of the Lioness quartet tracks Alanna’s quest for knighthood, which is replete with obstacles to overcome, enemies to thwart, and the friends to cherish. I was a quick convert to Pierce’s fandom. I remember tearing through all four books of the Song of the Lioness series, then devouring Pierce’s other works with similar fervor. Pierce’s books invert the expected paradigm of the male hero, creating strong female protagonists that appeal to readers regardless of gender, or age. Pierce’s books have withstood the grind of passing time – when I found Alanna: The First Adventure in the early 2000s, I was shocked to learn that the book had been penned in 1983. I’m still surprised at how vital, how relevant Pierce’s books feel to the twenty-first century reader.

As I reread Alanna: The First Adventure, I realized just how great of a debt I owe to this book, this character, and this author. As a young reader, the daring audacity of Alanna’s assumption of a male identity, her disguise as Alan, was striking. But it has only been in rereading that I have seen the quiet revolution of this decision.

Pierce never characterizes Alanna’s decision to disguise her true identity in a sensational tone, nor does she minimize its emotional impact on Alanna and on those who are aware of her secret. It is clear, in Pierce’s narrative and in Alanna’s own thoughts, that she belongs in this male-dominated world. She works hard, harder than the boys – an important lesson for every young girl to learn, that to be taken seriously, you will have to work harder and longer than your male counterparts. For young girls (and boys!) struggling to be themselves, who feel pushed to the margins of society, who feel that they cannot be who they are expected to be, Alanna is a true hero. For me, and for those like me, who knew that they were growing up different, Alanna was kin.

I reread Alanna: The First Adventure in the midst of a national debate over reproductive rights. My own home state was caught in the crossfire as dramatically restrictive legislation on abortion service providers was forced through the state legislature, hidden within a motorcycle safety bill. Access to birth control is a fact of life in Alanna: The First Adventure. When Alanna’s first period shocks her into seeking guidance from a former priestess, the woman offers some advice: “Do you know what happens when you lie with a man? Well, a woman enjoys it too, and one time is enough for you to get with child. I’ll give you a charm against your getting pregnant, then. If you change your mind, you can throw it away.” And that’s that.

Tamora Pierce taught me my most important lesson in feminism, long before that word had reached my ears: that I get to decide what my life looks like, that my path is my choice.

As an eleven-year-old reading Alanna: The First Adventure for the first time, I thought little of this passage. As a twenty-one-year-old, I am nostalgic for a time when this seemed like a normal chain of events, and I’m grateful to Pierce for teaching me my first lesson on reproductive rights. That’s the true magic of Pierce’s writing. She offers an antidote to a world where the wrongs of misogyny and patriarchal politics have become the norm.

When you grow up with a stable of male protagonists, embittered by a belief that adventures are had by boys and celebrated by girls, reading the Song of the Lioness quartet is a shock to the system. Years later, it’s still somewhat unsettling to immerse myself in Alanna’s world, because the pain of confronting patriarchal power still stings. That’s why we need characters like Alanna, and writers like Pierce – they’re salve to the wound. If it’s been a while since you reread this novel, grab it off the shelf. If you’ve never read Tamora Pierce’s books, give Alanna: The First Adventure a try. And if there are young ones in your life, pick up an extra copy.

What was your favorite book as a child? Is there anything you’re itching to reread? Got a book I should add to my syllabus? Let me know in the comments, or tweet us @LitDarling!

View Comments (4)
  • Thanks for the great article, Kate! I also read the Song of the Lioness series for the first time just before middle school (but in the late ‘90s). Reading your article reminded me just how important Tamora Pierce’s books were to me when I was growing up. I credit her books with not only planting a seed that would grow into a mature feminist consciousness by the time I was in college, but also with giving me the confidence to transgress my expected gender role. In my adolescence, I was frequently harassed for not comporting to the tenets of masculinity. I was emotionally sensitive, largely uninterested in masculine sports (fencing did not help), and drawn to stereotypically feminine pursuits (sewing, crochet) and neutral pursuits (opera, poetry). My gender expression was sufficiently non-normative that it surprised a few people when I started showing a romantic interest in girls rather than boys. I learned from Tamora Pierce that not only is there no essential connection between sex and gender expression or even between gender expression and sexuality. I lacked the vocabulary to describe these lessons until I became a women’s studies minor in college, but I took them to heart just the same.

    • Thanks for reading, Alec! Your experience resonates a lot with my own, and with the stories my friends have recounted about their own early love for Tamora Pierce’s writing. Just another reminder of how important it is to read, and read well, when you’re younger – you’re learning important lessons that’ll serve you well throughout your life, even if the vocabulary isn’t there, just yet, to articulate exactly why it’s so important.

  • Oh my god. THESE were my favorite books growing up. I still re-read them every year. Thank you for putting this out there- these books are incredible and everyone should read them.

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