Guest Post | Elspeth Cooper on Disability in Fantasy

Elspeth Cooper has the luxury of being two incredible things:

1) She is the first person to ever guest post on this blog. (I’m hoping she will be the first of many)

2) She might happen to be the nicest woman on the face of the planet. You see, my review of Songs of the Earth wasn’t glowing, but dearest Elspeth thanked me for it anyway, and then offered to discuss one of the themes in her book that really intrigued me. That theme is disability. I snookered her into doing a guest post, which she agreed to with incredible grace. What a woman. Seriously.

Elsepth Cooper is the nicest woman alive, and I can’t sing her praises enough for agreeing to do this. I hope my dear readers welcome her warmly.

About the author

Elspeth Cooper was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne in the north-east of England. Her parents read her Ivanhoe as a bedtime story, which was, she says, their first mistake. An inspired primary school teacher introduced her to Beowulf, and by age 11 she’d worked her way through every book in the house, including her Dad’s Penguin Classics editions of The Odyssey and The IliadThe Lord of the Rings was pretty much a natural progression, and an epic fantasy adventure fan was born.

Elspeth describes herself as a voracious reader, and cites amongst her influences Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Holdstock and Tad Williams. She currently lives in Northumberland with her husband and cats, in a house full of books.

Songs of the Earth‘ is her first novel, and the first in The Wild Hunt series.

Author’s webpage

Now, onto her post. 


In her review of Songs of the Earth, Sarah picked up on a theme in the book that intrigued her enough to invite me here to discuss it further: most of the principal characters in my debut novel are physically impaired in some way.

This was intentional, but not in the way you might be imagining.

Genre heroes and heroines have a tendency to be clean-limbed and strong. Physical disability rarely gets a look-in, and scars are usually sexy rather than disfiguring, or else they’re lazy-writer-shorthand that a character’s a real badass. Now I didn’t write the book to address this, or even with any kind of disability-awareness agenda in mind. In 1997, when I started writing what eventually became Songs of the Earth, I simply had a story I wanted to tell.

The savage scar on Gair’s hand was a deliberate choice: I wanted him to have an ugly, lasting reminder of his trial at the Motherhouse, and I wanted it to be something that couldn’t always be easily hidden, that through carelessness or inattention could get him into trouble.

Similarly, I gave Ansel, the Preceptor of the Suvaeon Knights, arthritis and a chest complaint. To have risen to that position he needed to be a grizzled veteran, but men of action don’t always age well, so I made him unable to sit, stand or move without pain. This meant he had not just plot-related obstacles to overcome, he also had to contend with the nagging awareness of his own mortality.

Gair’s friend Darin has a chronic illness too: diabetes. It made him especially vulnerable to another character’s manipulation that affected his awareness of the passage of time, when eating regularly was important to his continued health. I rather downplayed the impact of this (you’ve got to make the reader do *some* of the work!) but for me it added a satisfying extra dollop of tragedy to Darin’s arc as a character.

And then there’s Aysha. It made a delicious twist, I thought, to have the hero’s love interest be, not some unattainably perfect virgin princess, but an older woman, and a foul-mouthed, selfish, sensual and crippled one to boot. Of all of the characters, she was the one I identified most closely with. She was me on my best day: confident, independent, and always ready with a snarky comeback of the sort I usually think of only after the argument’s been well and truly lost.

At the time, I didn’t think holistically about what I was doing. I didn’t think any farther afield than each character’s arc, and what felt right for them. Some of the characters just sprang onto the page fully-formed, impairments and all, like Athene from the brow of Zeus. Their genesis happened on an entirely subconscious level, a kind of creative cron job running overnight on the servers in my brain (please forgive the computer analogy – 21 years in IT tends to leave its mark on a girl).

It’s only now, looking back at how the book evolved over the 12 or so years of its gestation, that I can see all this and make sense of it. At the time, it just felt like the right thing to do – I do an awful lot of my writing on feel and gut instinct. I am not a natural planner, and find the idea of writing character summaries on index cards then pinning them to the wall above my desk about as attractive as a root canal.

Anyway, long after these characters were established in early drafts of Songs, and years before I ever dreamed that I might one day find a publisher for it, I became disabled myself: in 2004, I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. I now walk with a cane, and I am unable to stand unsupported for very long. I fatigue easily, which leads to a lot of stumbling and occasional falls.

How strangely prescient of me, then, to have written a novel in which physical impairment is so prevalent, and in which my favourite character resembled a future me more closely than I ever would have imagined. A cosmic joke, perhaps – or a case of life imitating art.

If only I could have predicted the lottery numbers . . .


10 Responses

  • Wow. I had not realized that the book idea came before the MS diagnosis. I was under the mistaken impression that you had been diagnosed BEFORE the book’s gestation…

  • Mazarkis Williams

    I had not picked up on the full extent of that theme while reading the book (I finished yesterday). I was interested by Darin as I had never seen diabetes in a fantasy novel before.

  • Don’t worry about it – it’s not something I’ve ever drawn attention to. Songs was a long time cooking.

  • This is amazing; I’m so happy I found this post. I’m also a fantasy writer with a disability (partial paraplegia, I walk with crutches and use a wheelchair for long distances). During my recovery in rehab I realized I didn’t relate to physically-fit fantasy heroes as easily anymore, and I wanted to see heroes that had to overcome severe physical limitations. So I decided to write some. I’ve written a young adult fantasy where the main character is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair and I’m in the process of finding an agent right now. To see other books and authors that explore this theme is so encouraging. I like to review characters with disabilities over on my blog. I haven’t read Songs of the Earth, but you can bet I will be picking it up the first chance I get.

  • Very interesting! I’m just compiling a small website (well, most likely just a single page) about what I call “cripfic” – a genre name I coined for my own novels, mostly a list of links to books, short stories, publishers, magazines etc related to the subject (my own novels are sadly only in Finnish for the time being). I can post a link here when the page is online. I’m hoping to have it finished in a month, but it might get delayed.

    I’ve been positively surprised by the amount of disabled characters found by genre fiction – but also somewhat dismayed by how many disabled fantasy characters apparently get cured by magical artifacts etc.

    • Cripfic, I like it! And I have a problem with disabled characters being cured, too. I’m not sure if I’ve worked through my own issues on that theme yet, but Avatar really bugged me.

  • Interesting stuff. It made me realise that my writing is full of disabled characters, something I’d not actually noticed or thought about before. Wolfsangel has Saitada, the mute and disfigured slave girl and the hero of my novel Fenrir has a muscle wasting disease and is quadriplegic.
    I agree with you about writing from the gut – these choices just felt right to me, as something that almost felt like the key to their characters. Paradoxically I think I chose to create them both like that because I wanted tough characters, which they both are – mentally as hard as nails.
    Fantasy does have its share of interesting disabled characters. Moorcock of course has a lot of characters who might be considered disabled – Elric and Corum chief among them, one an anaemic, the other has a hand missing. And of course there’s Bran in Game of Thrones. There’s also the memorable girl in Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu – and Ged himself could be said to be in some way disabled.
    Sorry to hear about your MS Elspeth and hope to see you soon. Are you going to Fantasy Con?

  • Hi Mark,

    “Highly unlikely” on the FantasyCon front – Brighton’s just too far for me: a day there and a day back, by train, which is hugely fatiguing. Next year, though, for World Fantasy, I may make an exception!

    I have a mute character too, and a disfigured young woman in the second/third books (Kendra and Maija will be pleased to know neither is magically “cured”). Again, neither was consciously planned to be that way, they just evolved.

  • I’ve been enjoying Sarah’s Special Needs in Strange Worlds feature and have only just realised I never read this, the original starting point.

    Reading the comments reminded me of an interaction I had with author Janny Wurts that I’d like to share.

    One of my Goodreads groups was reading her “To Ride Hell’s Chasm” and the book just didn’t work for me, although I couldn’t figure out why. It had everything I should enjoy, but it wasn’t working for me at all. Janny joined our Goodreads group for the discussion and I posted this. I said that I couldn’t take the main character who just keeps on going and going and going after so much is thrown at him; he’s beaten, he’s exhasted etc etc etc, but he never stops.

    She responded, very nicely, and explained the kind of training that allowed that sort of endurance and perseverance.

    I thanked her for that and explained that I have ME/CFS so reading it all had just made me tired, even though I understood and appreciated her reply.

    She then said words to the effect of “Oh, I definitely see why that wouldn’t work for you then.” She didn’t try to tell me there was something wrong with me for not “getting it”, but appreciated that my experience made the book fail to work for me.

    I hadn’t even realised that it was my own health that had affected how I read the book. It had taken the author to see that, respond to it and, most importantly, respect it. A very classy lady and now one of my favourite authors. That book might not have worked for me, but her others do.

    I don’t even know if this anecdote is relevant to anything, but I was reminded of it while reading the comments. Okay, I’m going back to the rest of the posts on this topic now.

  • Jonathon Side

    Last weekend I was talking with my girlfriend about what I perceive as the difficulties in writing a fantasy with a protagonist who is severely disabled. I say ‘perceive’ because I am not disabled myself, so my writing and musings cannot be informed by first-hand experience.

    And now, through the magic of Twitter, I find this blog, this event. Is it serendipity or just mere coincidence?

    If it hasn’t already been mentioned in another topic, I would like to recommend ‘The Broken Kingdoms’ by N K Jemisin. It’s actually the second in her Inheritance trilogy, so you may want to read ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ first. I recommend Jemisin without reservation in any case, but Broken Kingdoms may be of particular interest as the viewpoint character, Oree Shoth, is blind. Completely, utterly blind. She can ‘see’ magic, enchanted things, gods, but beyond that… darkness. And no, her ability to ‘see’ magic is not a cure or workaround, but part of her nature, and for more than that you really need to read the book. 🙂

    And she is presented as more than capable of looking after herself. She’s not a fighter, or a great wizard. She is smart, resilient, persistent, loving, caring, vulnerable and tough… human, in other words. Real. Her blindness is handled, I feel (and please feel free to disagree), with respect and sensitivity.

    The author also took pains to think about what it must be like for a blind person to NOT be blind. As I mentioned, Oree can see magic, and there are a couple of times when the world is illuminated for her… at which point she has to deal with things like interpreting depth perception and distance, which she never encountered before. She even briefly marvels over the appearance of her hands, thinking they’d look different… And none of this is played for laughs.

    And yet, for all that, it’s not preachy or condescending, or smug with ‘look what I learned’.

    It is the story of Oree Shoth, who happens to be blind.

    And a bloody good story it is, too.

    (Aaaaaaand I’m a touch disappointed I HAD to enter the proper number in for the humanity-check. I wanted to enter ’42’.)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.