Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword was published in 1982. It’s a story about Imperialism; Fantasy Britain, known as Home, has conquered most of an area that I sort of think is Fantasy Iraq, and is staring across their border at the kingdom of Damar, which is more or less roughly Fantasy Iran (although it is a lot smaller and not notably Muslim). Damar is facing a threat of invasion from The North, which is an otherwise unnamed nation-like entity that I think of as Fantasy Afghanistan.
Our perspective on this complex and probably important geopolitical situation comes from 19-year-old Angharad Crewe. She has relocated from Home to Fort General Mundy, on the Damarian border following the deaths of both of her parents, because her brother, who is some kind of subaltern, is stationed there. Life and society at this military outpost on the border is basically just like you would think it would be if you’ve read all of Kipling’s poetry, not just “If,” The White Man’s Burden,” and maybe “Gunga Din.” That’s a lot of reading, and you don’t feel like doing that? Totally okay—now you know why I’m not reading Fellowship of the Ring. For those of you who think a Martini is just a beverage and don’t know what happened to the last of the Light Brigade, let me assure you that Kipling’s view of the British Empire was a celebration of all its problematic glory, with a couple of soap operas thrown in for good measure. Which is to say, The Blue Sword has plenty to offer readers who aren’t in it for the horses.
But it’s also a love story told in three horses.
Angharad, who usually goes by Harry, is a tall and awkward girl, and she finds she has fallen in love with the Damarian desert, which she mostly looks at from a bit of a distance, as she hasn’t actually been in Damar, which is not part of Home’s massive Empire. She feels unsettled and bored. Her discontent takes the form of a horse she refers to as the Fourposter Pony. And let me say a few words on his behalf. The world needs Fourposter Ponies—horses who know their job and do it, in a stolid and dependable sort of way. He’s a good boy. The world needs lots of horses like him, but Harry doesn’t. When Corlath, the King of Damar first lays eyes on Harry standing next to the Fourposter Pony, he instantly recognizes a girl in serious need of an upgrade.
Corlath has visited the Fort to request military assistance in dealing with an impending military threat from The North, and has received only the assurance that military assistance from Home is not significantly different from conquest. He’s prepared to leave the Homelanders to their own devices and hope the Northerners make them regret it when his kelar rises within him. The kelar is an uneasy burden, and it compels him to return to the Residency at the Fort a few nights later to abduct Harry and carry her away to the Hills. On the plus side, it allows him to walk through walls while he does it.
At this point, I know you’re wondering if this is a weird sex thing. You’re not alone; Corlath’s men, the elite cadre known as the Riders, are wondering too. When a man’s eyes turn yellow and he announces he needs to kidnap the tall blond who was standing next to the fat pony, well, you make certain assumptions. Corlath himself reflects on the convention among his people, that a woman who has been kidnapped is considered to be ravished of her honor, even if she has not actually been ravished. It makes him question the guidance of his kelar. Robin McKinley has written some weird sex things in her time. Harry and Corlath are not having sex at this point, so however weird that may eventually be, it’s a bit of a distraction from what’s up with Corlath’s horse.
The Homelanders are in awe of Damarian horses, which are incredibly beautiful, exquisitely trained, and not for sale. The King’s Riders ride the highest quality horses, and Corlath’s is the best one. Isfahel, “Fireheart” in the Homelander tongue, is a blood bay stallion. McKinley offers a lot of description, which explains very clearly that he looks exactly like my Breyer model of Sham from King of the Wind.
Harry acquits herself well while being kidnapped, and in any case she can’t ride on someone’s saddlebow all the way to wherever they’re going. In addition to his eighteen riders, Corlath is traveling with staff—an apparently sizable complement of servants, grooms, packhorses, and hunting animals. As she moves northward with Corlath and his camp, Harry rides Rolinin, whose name is Darian for Red Wind. Rolinin is a lot more elegant than the Four-Poster Pony, but he is more-or-less the Darian equivalent. Corlath explains that Rolinin’s job is to teach Harry how the people of the Hills ride. And that’s a pretty big deal, because the answer is “without a bridle or stirrups.” This requires excellent balance, a lot of strength, and enormous trust in an extremely sensitive, intelligent, and well-trained horse. It takes Harry some time. This is a metaphor for Harry’s adaptation to Damarian culture.
It’s clear that she is Damarian in some ways—she has visions of Lady Aerin Dragon-Killer, the heroine who once bore Gonturon, the Blue Sword, during which she speaks in the Damarian Old Tongue, a language she does not know. The first vision wasn’t accidental. The Riders drink the Water of Sight and share visions, apparently on a semi-regular basis. Corlath included Harry in the ritual partly to figure out why his kelar drove him to steal her away and partly to demonstrate the respect with which he intends to treat her. After Harry has a second vision of Aerin, Corlath rides away from the camp for a few days, detailing one of his Riders, Mathin, to give her language lessons. Corlath returns with Horse #3—Tsornin.
Seriously, people. This horse. Tsornin, whose name means “Sungold” in Homelander, is a tall chestnut stallion. It’s not real clear how the People of the Hills stand on the matter of gelding. ANYWAY, he’s gorgeous and amazing, and Harry loves him instantly (because she is a rational person). Tsornin is a war-horse. Damar is at war. Harry is about to become a warrior. Corlath starts calling her Harimad-sol and sends her into the hills with Mathin to prepare for the laprun trials.
That’s a warrior thing. Apparently. It’s in six weeks. Mathin’s six-week warrior training intensive involves a lot of riding, much of it done while swinging a sword. Tsornin’s ability to handle this program (which is so intense Mathin has to drug Harry’s food to keep her alert) suggests that he was well-conditioned before Harry got him. He came from Mathin’s family’s breeding program, descended from a famously loyal mare, and was trained by Mathin’s daughter. Along with her training in mounted swordwork, Mathin teaches Harry to sew and how to adapt her saddle so that its straps hold her sword where it will come easily to her hand. Damarian saddles look like padded skins. In addition to the assortment of straps for carrying gear, the saddle offers knee and thigh rolls for support, but it’s constructed to interfere as little as possible in the contact between horse and rider. Which you sort of have to do if all of your communication with the horse is through your seat and legs.
After weeks of training, Harimad-sol reaches the laprun trials, which she wins. Corlath makes her a rider, and gives her Aerin’s sword to carry. The rest of the important parts revolve around Tsornin being a bold and loyal partner, with a mild tendency to paw the ground when he gets nervous. Harry’s kelar accounts for some of what they accomplish, but she would be the first to give credit to her horse.
Top image from the first edition cover of The Blue Sword; art by David McCall Johnston
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.