Fighting dragons and depression: Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown

The Hero and the Crown isn’t a title that leads you to expect anything unusual, but the novel attached to it is very different from a standard fantasy in some interesting ways. It was published in 1985, three years after The Blue Sword. I’d never really noticed that three year gap, as I read it approximately ten minutes after—well, actually I had to wait for the library to open in the morning. I always re-read them together. The thing I did notice is that it’s set several hundred years before The Blue Sword. There are, thank goodness, no Homelanders yet, though the protagonist, Aerin, is “conspicuous as the only pale-skinned redhead in a country of cinnamon-skinned brunettes” (p.124 Orbit edition).

Aerin is an unsatisfactory princess—she isn’t beautiful, she isn’t accomplished, she has a dubious dead mother who was probably a witch, and she managed to give herself a bad case of vertigo by eating a magic plant. By long and positively scientific methodology, she makes a flameproof ointment that lets her be a dragonkiller—which doesn’t help make her popular, because dragons are vermin, and killing them is necessary rather than glamorous. Then everything goes to hell in a series of handbaskets and Aerin saves the day.

McKinley, as always, writes brilliantly. She has immense readability; her prose carries me along. Here, as in The Blue Sword, the details of day to day life are so solid and interesting that they’d make the book worthwhile on their own. Retraining the old battlehorse, making the magic ointment—it’s all wonderful. The characters are great, too. The plot…the plot of this book somehow melts away like mist. I’ve read it exactly as many times as I have The Blue Sword, and if you stopped me on any random day I could summarize the plot of The Blue Sword for you easily. This one, no. I can remember the details, and what happens to the characters emotionally, but not the story. Re-reading it this time and coming towards the end I couldn’t remember how Aerin was going to get out of it.

I’m much more interested in the things that make this different from a standard wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it’s hard to talk about them without spoilers.

The first thing: Aerin spends a remarkable amount of the book ill. First there’s the surka poisoning, which leaves her with blurry vision and a tendency to fall over. Then after she fights the Great Dragon Maur, she has a broken ankle, an arm burned to uselessness, several other minor burns and a severe depression. She spends a good two-thirds of the book barely able to shuffle about. I think this is terrific and a great role model for disabled and/or depressed people, because she is also despite and during all this, just awesome.

I’m particularly impressed with the depression. Depression is a hard thing to write about without being depressing. (It’s like pain and boredom in that respect. Paining, boring or depressing readers is better avoided!) I can hardly think of any effective fictional treatments of it that actually work. There’s Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold, and there’s the computer that runs on draining joy from the world in Barbara Hambly’s Silent Tower/Silicon Mage. Aerin’s depression is caused by the dragon, and is likewise cured by magic, but the magic only gets a chance because she plods on despite dread and despair and the dead dragon’s head telling her it’s all hopeless.

The next unusual thing: Aerin falls in love with two men, spends a little while with the immortal one, sleeping with him as they travel, then marries the mortal one on the understanding that she will (having become immortal herself) go back to the immortal one afterwards. And this in a YA and Newberry Medal winner! It isn’t unique—Tamora Pierce’s Alanna loves two men and has relationships with both of them. But it’s pretty unusual. Beyond that, it isn’t a huge source of angst. It’s quite clear to Aerin how to resolve the problem, by dividing her time. There’s never a question of having to choose.

Then there’s the unusual thing about the plot, beyond the fact that it falls out of my head. Aerin kills Maur, and everybody is pleased, even if they don’t entirely understand that bringing a dragon’s head home is going to cause problems. But then Aerin goes away and is magically healed and has to fight the evil bad guy… and nobody at home really knows or cares about it. They have their own problems. They’re glad to see her back with the Crown, in the nick of time, but her real confrontation and victory isn’t of any significance, or even generally announced.

On the Blue Sword thread, CEDunkley said:

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 enjoyed the book.

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?

So I was thinking about this as I re-read The Hero and the Crown. It seems to me that the early eighties aren’t as long ago as that, and that tight third was normal then, too. I think McKinley likes playing with point of view and often does odd things with it. As her more recent books also have weird POVs, some of them far odder than anything here, I think the answer to the last question is that nobody would ask her to change it. (If it was a first novel, who knows? But her first novel is Beauty, and Beauty is in first person, so it wasn’t a first novel then either.) She also does a lot of playing around with time. The first third of the book covers Aerin’s early life, but it doesn’t do it in order. It begins with the same events it ends with, and goes back and fills in, and does that in a hopping about manner rather than as straightforward flashbacks. She does almost the same in The Blue Sword. Yet I’d never really noticed it. The POV here is more solidly Aerin’s, but with pieces of Tor and Luthe’s, the two love interests, and also Talat’s, the horse.  You’re close to Aerin but always outside, so it isn’t jarring to go into someone else’s head for a moment. The book, both books, are actually a form of omniscient (omni). There’s a narrator in both books, not an intrusive one, but a narrator none the less, and it’s always half-way to being a fairytale omni. What McKinley’s really been doing throughout her whole career is telling fairytales as if they happened to specific real people in real places and with emotional consequences,

The other interesting thing I noticed is how the book begins with Aerin being told the story of her parents—which is exactly how the much darker (and much later) Deerskin begins. Of course it’s a very different story about parents, but I’d forgotten that this was how this began too, and it disconcerted me.

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