In Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novel, The Farthest Shore, Arren, Prince of Enlad, is sent by his father to Roke to seek the advice of the Archmage Ged about troubling events happening in Enlad, and about rumors from elsewhere that have been circulating. Ged asks Arren to describe the problem, and in the conversation that follows Arren mentions old wives’ tales, and this exchange ensues:
“What do the old wives say?” [asked Ged].
“That all the fortunes witches read in smoke and water pools tell of ill, and that their love-potions go amiss. But these are people without true wizardry.”
“Fortune-telling and love-potions are not of much account, but old women are worth listening to.”
As a fan of both Avengers and the writings of Ursula Le Guin, my understandings of and appreciation for Steed’s character and Ged’s have long been entwined: I see a lot of commonalities between them. One important facet is their willingness to listen to women and, specifically in this instance, their acknowledgement of the value of old women, women who by virtue of their age are pushed even farther out of the public eye and public discourse and whose importance is even further diminished than that of younger women in a sexist, patriarchal culture.
Steed and Ged each live in such a culture, but both of these men refuse to dismiss what older women have to say. They find the knowledge and wisdom of older women to be worth hearing, worth considering, and worth following.
In Avengers, we see this particularly in the Season 1 episode “Tunnel of Fear,” in Steed’s interactions with Ma Black. Ma Black is a member of a rinkydink carnival in Southend and mother of Harry Black, the prison escapee who Steed and Dr Keel are trying to help. Ma Black has more than age and gender to tell against her in Steed’s culture: like all carnies, she lives on the margins of society by virtue of her work, and although she evidently makes enough to live on, she is of relatively low class, and likely mostly uneducated. But within the culture of the carnival itself, she is well respected as a community elder, and is treated as a mother figure by many of the other carnival workers.
Steed likewise respects Ma Black. When Steed is knocked out by Maxie, he accepts her ministrations, and teases her gently. Then when he has to go phone One-Ten, he invites Ma Black to come along. He listens carefully to what Ma Black has to say about the case and about her son, and he even coos over Harry’s baby pictures. When she invites him to have a drink with her after the case is done, he cheerfully accepts.
Ma Black shows Steed Harry’s baby pictures, and Steed’s all, “D’awww!”
She invites Steed out drinking; Steed cheerfully accepts
Steed acknowledges and respects Ma Black’s status as an elder within the carnival. He sees in her a woman who is loyal and honest and loving, and who wants justice for her son. Steed likes Ma Black, he appreciates her, he respects her, and he shows this in the way he interacts with her and treats her. All of these things he does in a genuine way, and his respect for her pays off: it turns out that Ma Black has important information that is one of the lynchpins to the case, and because Steed treats her well and earns her trust, she gives him that information willingly.
Although the feminist tilt to Avengers gets rather more press starting with the advent of Cathy Gale in Season 2, the seeds of it are already planted in Season 1 in the character of John Steed. Part of that is the way that Steed is written (and this is true whether the writers consciously intended it or not), but part of that also is the way Patrick Macnee himself decided to play the character. Indeed, when one of the producers gave Macnee a copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale to use as inspiration for Steed’s character, Macnee read the book and then instantly rejected playing Steed in any way like Bond, largely because of his disgust over the way Bond treated women.
This conscious choice about the treatment of female characters comes to the fore in so very many places throughout the series, including in Steed’s interactions with Ma Black in “Tunnel of Fear.” Macnee could have played at least some of those interactions dismissively, for example having Steed brusquely brush off her attempts to patch him up after his fight with Maxie, or by having a flat reaction at best or rolling his eyes behind her back at worst when she takes out her photo album. But Macnee didn’t do that. He plays those interactions with an undercurrent of honest delight in this old woman who loves her son.
Macnee respected women, and that respect informed the way he played Steed. And in “Tunnel of Fear,” Steed shows us that respect, and that he knows well that old women are worth listening to.