Sir Elsa of Tortall, Knight of the Realm

Do you ever have that moment where you look in the mirror, and you really see yourself? Not just the outfit that you wear, or the makeup you just did, or the new haircut that you got—but the person who you’ve become while you weren’t paying attention? While you were too busy working on your career, your marriage, your life?

I did recently.

When I was 7 or 8 years old I found a book series, The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce. In it, there was a girl who pretended to be a boy, so that she could pursue her dream of becoming a knight. In it, there was a woman who had a Gift from the Goddess, and who learned how to respect it. In it, there was a person who had a familiar who taught her when not to be stupid.

I found a kingdom filled with people who comforted me in the days before my father’s death.

Yes. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Sir Alanna of Trebond, Lioness Rampant, Champion of the Realm.

I wanted to be her because she was strong. Because she knew how to deal with her perceived weaknesses. Because she had a familiar. Because she rode horses. Because she was a knight of the realm.

I wanted to be Sir Alanna of Trebond because she handled the trauma of the world around her well, because she had friends and companions who would help her to solve those problems with grace and dignity.

Because I wanted to be the kind of woman who rode a horse, who carried a Lioness Rampant on her shield, who could be trusted with the safety of the small.

I wanted to grow up to be a knight.

It’s funny how things work out.

To me, in the genre sense, a knight does these things:

They slay dragons.
They are brave for those who cannot be.
They take up impossible challenges.
They protect those who ask for it.

When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t just see my new side shave, or the jumpsuit I’d acquired. I didn’t just see the physical attributes.

I saw my guide dog, standing in front of me because he has become my shadow. I saw the fact that I stood a few inches taller, that I was embodying space differently than I have in a long time.

I saw a knight. I saw Alanna.

Not in the actually knighted kind of way, of course.

But one of the greatest powers of fiction is that it can help people see who they want to be. These stories show us people doing things we can’t—usually because the things they do are attaches to impossible settings.

There are no dragons in the world today, for example. But there are Congressmen who refuse to represent their constituents. There are presidents who we protest. There are white supremacists to whom we cannot give quarter.

Sir Alanna wasn’t just a role model for me as a child, she is who I have tried to become. I stand up when I need to. I listen to those who need help. I try my hardest to be brave, even in the darkest timeline.
Hell, I even ride horses.

The only thing that was missing, really, was Faithful the cat.

Until March of 2019.

Now, I have a Faithful.

His name isn’t Faithful, of course, and he can’t talk. But he does stop me from doing stupid things. He’s even all black.

Okay so if you haven’t read the Song of the Lioness Quartet, let me explain real fast.

Faithful is a cat. A magical cat. An all-black cat with violet eyes whose job is to protect Alanna. And he does. He saves her life. He remarks upon potential bad decision-making. He balances her when her temper flares, and he carries his own kind of magic.

Let me tell you about my Faithful. He’s named Spacedog.

Spacedog is the dog of my heart. And he’s a guide dog.

Now the big difference between Spacedog and Faithful is that Spacedog wasn’t assigned to me by the Great Mother Goddess, dropped down from a constellation of a dog.

Instead he was born with the specific purpose of helping a blind person like me. Spacedog stops me from getting hit by cars, he helps me zoom through busy midtown streets in New York City, and he makes sure I notice when there’s an unknown staircase or a curb.

He keeps me safe. Much like Faithful, he keeps me alive.

And much like Faithful and Alanna’s relationship, I have to make the big decisions like when to cross the road or when he deserves a cookie. I have to be responsible for his safety, because when I protect him, he protects me.

My transformation to a YA heroine was complete. Not just any YA heroine though. I’m not a Katniss Everdeen or a Beka Cooper, I’m not a revolutionary archer or a spy with a bloodhound. I have a partnership with an animal that relies on trust and empathy, and I believe that behaving like how I think a Champion of the Realm would is better than employing other methods.

It’s so important for us to write stories about women who are strong, who are bold, who create spaces for us to fill as we age. More importantly, it’s important to let those heroines live.

Part of what makes it possible for me to embody the archetype of Alanna is that at the end of the story, her life goes on. She ages. She marries. She has children and a career as a Champion.

Alanna gets to live.

And so do I.

It is important to me that I am not just a knight. Maybe that’s what drives my ethical compass and the choices I make about my activism—but I have friendships, relationships. Part of that I learned from Alanna. She wasn’t just a knight. She was a daughter, a wife, a friend. She learned how to control her anger. She learned how to defeat the bullies—to deal with people she didn’t like. Being a knight isn’t just about knighting at things and others, because that doesn’t make a whole person. A knight has to be a person, so that they are entrusted with the jobs they need to do.

Alanna became an adult.

There were times, when I was growing up, where becoming an adult seemed impossible.

I grew up in the middle of a plague. My community was dying around me. There’s something terrifying about knowing that you are small, and that the bigger people around you can’t even stop the dragon that is eating your people.

In the second book of the Song of the Lioness Quartet, Alanna has to endure The Chamber of the Ordeal. It is the final step before becoming a Knight of Tortall. In the Chamber you face the things you fear. The Chamber asks you to make flexible and moral choices.

The Chamber is a test.

I think I read and re-read the sections where Alanna faced the Chamber dozens of times, because it gave me the ability to think about the AIDS pandemic as something more than just the horrible thing that was destroying my community.

This was the test of my fears, which I could overcome if I just made myself flexible, if I became resilient. If I trusted in the community around myself, and my inner strength.

I maybe didn’t know that when I was eight years old, but I surely know it now.

I survived my own Ordeal. It wasn’t a mystical chamber, but it was invisible. It was a test.

And I survived.

Like Alanna, I wanted to survive. I wanted to make it. I wanted to do more than just endure, though.

I wanted to live.

And I wanted to fight too. I wanted to fight the people who told us that my dad wasn’t allowed to love the people he loved. I wanted to fight the people who said that I couldn’t do things because I was blind.

And now I do that for others.

Because Alanna showed me that it wasn’t enough to just fight for myself. It wasn’t enough to just learn how to use a sword, but I had to learn how to use the sword in service to the realm.

My pen is my sword. When I dip it in ink, the goal is to tell stories. Sometimes it’s by writing nonfiction like this. Sometimes it’s by writing fiction that includes disabled people, queer characters, and more. Sometimes it is with an editorial eye, teaching people how to hone their opinions until they too can sharply execute a cut and thrust with an essay.

My realm is queer and disabled representation. In my Tortall, I seek to stop toxic representation from harming others. I hope to lift up other people’s words. I try to make sure other people’s stories and visions are shared, too. In my realm no one is ever accused of writing a “Mary Sue” because they write a character with the same marginalization as their own.

My service is to those who like me, are not seen as “enough” by society.
In my story Faithful becomes a guide dog named Spacedog. We zoom through midtown Manhattan. We meet astronauts and participate in panels on service dogs. The dog by my side goes everywhere with me. He wags his tail as we walk through life, and when a bus gets too close—he pulls me backwards, saving me from a fate of being squished.

Alanna’s horse Lightning becomes a horse named Jenny, who hates boys. But when she’s with me, she trots along the trail, takes commands with ease, and headbutts me when I give her bits of hay. I can hold her reins and keep her in place when she wants to rush the boys. While she stamps at the ground and neighs, I keep us steady.

And I become Sir Elsa of Tortall. Knight of the Realm.

Bat Rampant.


Elsa Sjunneson

Elsa Sjunneson is a Deafblind author and editor living in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and nonfiction writing has been praised as “eloquence and activism in lockstep” and has been published in dozens of venues around the world. She has been a Hugo Award finalist seven times, and has won Hugo, Aurora, and BFA awards for her editorial work. When she isn’t writing, Sjunneson works to dismantle structural ableism and rebuild community support for disabled people everywhere. Her work includes her debut memoir Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, her Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla novel Sword of the White Horse, and her episode for Radiolab “The Helen Keller Exorcism.”

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