Jan 18 2009 2:33pm

Colonial Fantasy: Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword

Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword is a book I’d have loved when I was eleven, and which I did love when I got to read it at nineteen. It’s the story that has everything for the teenage Jo. It has a female hero who doesn’t need to be rescued and who does everything for herself. She doesn’t know she’s special, but she is, she is! She goes to the farthest corner of the Homeland Empire, whence she is kidnapped and taken into the free magic kingdom of Damar where she finds out how special she is. She is taught how to ride and fight and do both better than everyone else, and then proceeds to save everyone. She gets a special horse and magic sword and a special panther-sized cat, too. Also, she kicks ass.

I’m over-summarizing, of course. I do genuinely love this book, it seduces me even now. Like most of McKinley, it’s a comfort book for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. The thing that makes it better than that wish-fulfillment summary is the very real personality of Harry (“Angharad,” later “Harimad-sol”) Crewe and the solid culture of the two worlds she finds herself caught between. And it’s beautifully written. The details are all perfect, from the orange juice for breakfast on to the details of the tents of the Hillfolk. The texture is rich and absolutely convincing. The magic is wonderfully integrated into the world. If you’re only going to read one ass-kicking-female-hero-saves-the-fantasy-kingdom book in your life, it should be this one.

There’s one central thing that is simultaneously both the most interesting and the most problematic. The novel begins with Harry among the Homelanders in Daria, the colonized unmagical part of Damar. Damar is a fantasy Afghanistan, and Daria is a fantasy version of British India. On the one hand this is an awesome thing to do, daring and exciting—especially in 1982. These are interesting things to be dealing with. “What if something like the British Empire had colonized a fantasy country?” is a really fascinating question. This is definitely part of what gives The Blue Sword its charm, and which makes it quite different from everything else. On the other hand, it raises questions that are no doubt more apparent now than they were in 1982—the questions of cultural appropriation and of appropriate use of people of color. Beyond that there’s an issue raised purely because of being the kind of book it is—the kind of book where the people Need a Hero to Solve Everything and the protagonist is that hero, combined with a setting where the people are dark-skinned and the hero is light-skinned and from a different culture, and really does solve everything. “What these people need is a honky.”

Now, Damar isn’t really Afghanistan, nor Daria India, and the culture of Damar is definitely its own thing (it can also be seen in The Hero and the Crown, written later but set earlier) so there’s no question of McKinley getting anyone’s culture wrong.

But it is a country of brown-skinned people colonized by a country of white-skinned ones, and we see enough about the Homelanders that we really have no question about them being based on British India, or anyway based on the literary imagination of British India. And that raises its own questions about colonization.

We don’t see any of the Darians except as scenery. The colonized are given no voice at all. The Damarians, who we do see up close, in detail and in their own point of view, are pretty much wholly admirable. They definitely don’t want to be conquered. Their king at one point thinks that if the Homelanders conquer them  they won’t be free again in his lifetime. They face a literal demonic menace to the North, and they’d like to ally with the Homelanders, but aren’t prepared to come under their control. They have a complex culture that is seen as different but not just as civilized as the Homelander culture, in many ways superior to it. The Damarians are terrific, apart from needing Harry to get them organized.

The real problem is that we do see quite a lot of the white Homelander conquerers of Daria. I think I could forgive McKinley Harry, because (to be fair) it is the kind of book it is, and she does it so well. As for the Damarians needing her to set everything right, well, that could happen to the best of us. Besides, Harry is part-Damarian, though she doesn’t know it until later. What I can’t swallow are the other Homelanders. They’re not just privileged white colonizers, they’re privileged white colonizers who actually love the country they have colonized and mean entirely well for it. They are at worst a little constricted and patronizing, and nobody, not even the Damarians, seems to think there’s the slightest problem with them having colonized the rest of Daria. Colonel Jack Dedman goes with Harry to make a last ditch stand in the pass, risking his career because he loves the place so much. He’s such a cliche, and a cliche from nineteenth century British writing about India. He could have ridden straight out of George Manville Fenn—Kipling would have made him more nuanced.

Nevertheless, I remain very fond of this book.

Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
You see so little of the Darians that, until this post, I honestly couldn't have told you whether there *were* any. I had this vague idea that the Homelanders conquered pretty much empty space until they got to Damar. Which, upon looking at the opening chapter again, is so obviously not the case that I'm rather ashamed of my reading comprehension.

Otherwise, yes, charming book, with training neep that keeps it from floating away on a haze of Mary Sue, and yet all kinds of problematic.
Becca Hollingsworth
2. bibliobeque
Have you read General Winston's Daughter, by Sharon Shinn? It reminded me strongly of The Blue Sword (which I also love), in tone if nothing else; but Shinn has clearly thought about some of the points you raise here about colonialism.
Mary Frances
3. Mary Frances
I agree, it's problematic--but I think I realized even the first time I read it that we were in Kipling territory, here. Isn't The Blue Sword the one dedicated to "Danny and Peachy," from "The Man Who Would Be King"? Not sure whether or not I'd have recognized that reference when I was 12--but by that age I had read Kim, which has some of the same sorts of problems (given the different eras of composition). I think. Maybe I'd better go do some rereading . . . thanks for the reminder of a book I have enjoyed in the past!
Mary Frances
4. Rasselas
Also, she kicks ass.

Isn't that sort of required of female genre protagonists by international treaty now, except when the "badass" or "ass-kicking" sub-clauses apply?
Mary Frances
5. Rachel Manija Brown
I adore the book too, but you're dead-on about the problematic elements.

A side note that I find interesting is that McKinley wrote the novel (I read in an interview with her) because she'd read so many books about heroic white people and evil "natives," and she wanted to write one where the "natives" were the good guys.

But while she avoided the "evil native" stereotype, she did provide an excellent example of "colonizer saves the colonized" and also painted the faux!British Raj in such kindly colors that when I read the book while I was a kid in India, I utterly failed to recognize the parallels with the British Raj - so much so that when someone mentioned them to me, I thought they were crazy.

My reasoning was that Damar did not resemble India in geography or culture, and that the Homelanders were too nice to be the Raj, which I thought of in terms of atrocities like the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre. So I figured it was intended to be a pure fantasy with no resemblance to real history at all.
Felicity Shoulders
6. Felicity
I love this book too, and it's definitely a comfort book for me as well. While as an older reader (or a reader more aware of the facts of Britain's colonial past than her younger counterpart) I've had the occasional twinge rereading it, I had one fewer twinge than you.

When I read it, I understood Damar and Daria to be the same. My understanding was that 'Daria' was the Homelanders' name for Damar, and that the culture of the free folk of the hills was pretty much the pre-colonization culture of the folks in the plains. I'm not sure where I got this idea, but off the top of my head, I'd say there's some discussion about how the Homelanders think they rule the whole thing (called Daria), but certain parts (aka the Hills, still called by the original name of Damar) have actually never been conquered. Also, I feel like there's something when the Homelander girls (Beth and the other one) are telling Harry about the markets, and what the city-dwellers versus the hill-dwellers craft for sale. So while the "Darians" still don't get much attention, I didn't think of it as a whole separate culture being ignored. Perhaps I'd better reread with some post-it flags at my elbow.
Matthew Brown
7. morven
Felicity @ 6:

That was pretty much my understanding as well, but it's been many years and I no longer own the book.
Tex Anne
8. TexAnne
What Felicity said. I've always had the sense that the Darians weren't nearly as tamed as the Homelanders thought they were.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Morven and Felicity: Yes, certainly the language is the same and Daria is the conquered part of Damar. But nobody in Hill-Damar as we see it seems to feel the loss of the lowlands, and the people who have been conquered are given no voice. At the end, the nice colonial administrators visit Hari and Corlath and establish diplomatic relations with the Homeland, but nobody suggests giving the rest of Daria back, never mind giving it self determination.

Bibliobeque: I haven't read that Shinn, but I like Shinn generally so I'll look out for it.
Mary Frances
10. dwndrgn
I've never had a problem with this sort of thing. These people are characters in a fictional story and I never relate them to real world issues. In fact, I generally don't pay attention to the physical descriptions of the characters as it doesn't make any difference as to how I perceive it in my mind. Normally, I'll read something and have no idea it is based on such and such land or such and such people unless someone points it out to me. In my mind they belong to the world the author created and should have no relation to my real world at all or I would lose the enjoyment of the fantasy. After all, I read these kinds of books because I want the author to transport me outside of my own reality, on a fantastical journey.
Mary Frances
11. vcmw
It did seem to me that Jack and his friends were a tiny (minute) group and that the rest of the Homelanders didn't share their good will or what have you.

I always liked to think that by the time of the epilogue bits all the Homelanders who didn't think like Jack (i.e. 90% of them or more) had quietly been shipped home. Or returned home in disquiet at all that magic stuff uncouthly floating around.

And I thought that for the majority of the characters who were Homelanders it wasn't that they really meant well for Damar (after all, they're not building up its resources or respecting its indigenous people or anything) it's that they told themselves that they meant well for Damar and chose to believe it. Which was certainly an attitude of some people in colonial power, and more likely to be the case for the administrators on a political level than the economic ones (who we don't see - there's no East India Company equivalent in the story).
Charles Dunkley
12. cedunkley
I read this book for the first time a few months back. I enjoyed the book but was surprised by how I've become so used to the tight 3rd person POV narrative that dominates today's fantasy.

It took me a little bit to get used to McKinley's casual POV switches in the middle of the page but I soon settled down and emjoyed the book.

I noticed the British Empire feel to the colonials but didn't really read much into it. I was focused more on the writing aspects than on such things.

I wonder if this book were submitted today would the author be told by either Agent or Editor to tighten up the POV or would it be accepted as is?

Or would the possible perception of the white outsider being the savior raise issues?

Does the discovery that the character has the "native" blood in her as well, negate this perception?

I'll have to read this again to pay attention to this aspect of the story to see how I feel about it.

I think, it being a fantasy, I tend to not pay attention too much to possible racial aspects unless they are central to the story.
Liza .
13. aedifica
I never thought the Darians or Damarians were necessarily darker-skinned than Harry and the Homelanders (sounds like a band name) aside from being tanned from so much sun exposure. Aerin had red hair, after all, and that's typically a Caucasian trait. So while there may be an issue there (absence of racial diversity where logically there would be some) I am not seeing the same issue you are.

Do you plan to write about The Hero and the Crown? I'd enjoy reading what you had to say about that as well.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Aedifica: The Damarians are constantly described as being dark, and specifically contrasted with Harry's tan. And in The Hero and the Crown which I have on the desk, Aerin thinks that as a red haired white skinned person she stands out in a country of cinnamon skinned brunettes. I don't think there's any question of McKinley's intention to make the Damarians generally dark skinned.

Posts on H&tC, Deerskin and maybe more McKinley coming up.
Liza .
15. aedifica
That does sound familiar now that you mention it. All this discussion (everywhere I look, it seems, which is a good thing) of unintentional racism and white privilege is making me realize I have been overlooking a lot of that stuff.

I'll look forward to your other McKinley posts!
Mary Frances
16. Mary Frances
Okay. I have now reread The Blue Sword, for the first time in over 20 years. It's still a good book (just so we get that clear). I am also now completely aware of the accuracy of the title of this post: this book is "colonial fantasy," in several senses. Here are some fairly random thoughts, in reaction:

First, yes, Daria isn't India and Damar isn't Afghanistan. Jo, you said that Homeland was "based on the literary imagination of British India"--good description. It is. But that means, among other things, that it, too, is a highly idealized view of the British Empire, and of the colonial experience in general. As Rachel says @ 5, these people are too darned nice to be based on their historical counterparts. It's history with all the rough, nasty bits cut away.

If colonial rule were really as well-intentioned and basically benevolent (instead of hiding all the selfishness and greed behind "the laborer is worthy of his hire," to quote one of Conrad's nastier cracks about colonial rule) as colonial powers claimed they were, it would look like the Homelanders. This is a fairy-tale, fantasy empire, as well as a fairy-tale, fantasy free kingdom of the hills . . . and it is worth stressing, I think, that the fantasy is on both sides. Think of all the people who can't stand Damar, or Daria--the opposite numbers of the ones like Jack Dedham, who have somehow dedicated themselves to the place without having been born there. Those people just--leave, as soon as they can. They don't do any harm, they aren't given the opportunity to do harm. They Don't Belong, but it's their problem, not Daria's . . . that is fantasy, way, way too good to be true (even though I had absolutely no difficulty in accepting it as believable while I read).

That said, McKinley does do the best she can, writing the book she was writing, to remind us that this is a fairy tale, not history. It's a useful thing to remember that the ideals of a "benevolent Empire" can be seductive, I suspect . . . but I think maybe I can see now why she never wrote a sequel, why she ended the book with an improbable treaty and a "happily-ever-after." When I first read the book, I was sure there would be a sequel, maybe in later generations--that Thurra would dig himself out from under his mountain of rocks and start to cause trouble again, because evil always comes back . . . but what would the dark northern magic look like, a hundred years down the road? Where did that dark northern magic come from in the first place? (We know less about the Bad Guys than we do about Daria.) And I'm not sure I could figure out what Damar and Daria--and the Homeland Empire--would do, facing that evil in a post-colonial world. Though if McKinley ever decides to write that book, I will buy it. Twice.

Anyway. It's still a really good book.
Mary Frances
17. HelenS
One thing you haven't mentioned at all is the whole sheik-of-Araby takeoff. I mean, Harry really is literally swept off her feet, abducted, falls in love with her captor ... but it's supposed to be okay because he's Really Not Like That and he's a Really Nice Guy. I can't help feeling that McKinley's trying too hard to have it both ways.
Mary Frances
18. Mary Frances
bibliobeque @ 2: After reading your description of it here, I went and read Shinn's General Winston's Daughter. I like Shinn, but I'd somehow managed to miss this one . . . and wow. Just--wow. The differences from The Blue Sword struck me more strongly than the similarities, actually (see especially the protagonist's self-image) but you are absolutely dead-on about Shinn's exploration of colonialism.

Thanks for mentioning it.
Mary Frances
19. katzenschlafs
Just to be belligerent, because I'm a fawning fan of Robin McKinley...

Your comments about Jack Dedham's flat character could be applied to literally every character in the novel, except Harry herself. Other commenters have noted the NICEness of the Homelanders - probably thinking mostly of Sir Charles - and this is really a side-effect of this flat secondary characcter problem. Sir Charles is too absorbed in his rulebooks and teacups and cigars to be good or evil or anything in between. In short, most of the characters aren't well-developed enough to have morality.

As for the racial concern, I think there's one redeeming element here that no one has mentioned. Harry can become a Damarian hero only by becoming the Other. This happens a little bit physically, and its marked by the Damarian heritage she discovers late in the novel, but it happens tremendously at the cultural level. Her "own" langauge and customs become more foreign to her than the Damarians'. She is empowered to rescue the Other by becoming the Other - and she can only do so on the power of kelar, which is altogether foreign to her Homelander side.

I agree that McKinley's depiction of colonial rule is whitewashed, and she leaves a lot of room for concern. But there are also the seeds of a more enlightened approach to the imperial content. And many of the downfalls can be chalked up to underdevelopment of the novel as a whole - this is her second book!

Oh, and I should mention that Harry had to be an outsider because every Robin McKinley heroine has to be an outsider. Not because heroes have to be outsiders, but because McKinley only seems to be interested in characters who are constantly uncomfortable in their skin and their surroundings. It's one of the things that makes her novels so perfect for adolescents who are trying to get a handle on life. The message is "Yup, you feel totally out of place everywhere, but give it time and you will be the hero of an awesome story and maybe even figure out where you belong."
Mary Frances
20. Tarot
I feel I'm practicing necromancy by posting this, yet also feel compelled to point out that Harry isn't completely a "honky." Her grandmother was Damarian. That's why she's able to do everything she does (language, fighting & riding skill absorption) — because she's finally arrived where she belongs, and now her kelar is a help, rather than a hinderance. She's a "throwback."

In retrospect, I'm glad that McKinley didn't portray magic as solving everything. There are consequences, no matter the means of addressing issues.

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