Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, a young adult fantasy novel from the early 1980s, always stood out in my memory as a formative read from childhood. Unfortunately I couldn’t really say what the book was about! Over the years, everything about it had faded.
The Blue Sword, which McKinley wrote earlier but is set later in the same fantasy realm, does have a scene that I remembered: it’s a sex scene, the first that I could recall reading as a kid. At least I thought it was in The Blue Sword...
Now that I’ve reread the two books, I was shocked to discover that the racy stuff actually took place in The Hero and the Crown!
With that kind of a mental switcheroo, it just confirms that it really was years ago that I read the books. I probably bought the The Hero and the Crown in grade 5 or 6, not long after I had discovered Lord of the Rings—yup, that’s a few decades ago!
(As a digression: does anyone else remember school book fairs? I never had much money as a kid, but I did save up to buy lots of Gordon Korman books. Not many others survived from those years, but I still have Korman, McKinley, and a much-worn copy of The Hobbit.)
I have only one other memory of McKinley’s book—and now I’m starting to doubt whether it’s true. I recall looking at the cover (which depicts a giant black dragon blasting a human with fire) with some of my friends and saying, “As if this tiny person can win against this giant dragon!” If I wasn’t already a smart-ass critic in grade school, at least that’s what I’d like to think I was—it could very well be that my brain has filled in this anecdote...
With such a complete lack of recall, what was it like to revisit this book? That was another surprise—huge sections were instantly familiar.
While I didn’t remember any specific scenes before I started reading, entire scenes, down to bits of phrasing, came back to me wholesale. This book made a big impression on me - not in the sense that I could recall the plot points, since that was not the case. But rather that it formed so much of my reading consciousness, the way that I developed as a reader. I would go so far as to say that re-reading this book was a direct pipeline back to my childhood mind.
The Hero and the Crown is the story of Aerin, a princess who doesn’t fit in with her family and wants her own purpose in life. To prove herself, she goes up against a dragon, as promised by the cover. I remember being fascinated by her attempts to create a fire-proof ointment. She confidently tests it on a bonfire; then she discovers that dragon-fire, not surprisingly, is much worse.
I haven’t given away all that much about the book, since Aerin defeats the black dragon Maur by the halfway point. Much is yet to come.
The Blue Sword takes place generations later, when most magic is gone. Harry doesn’t fit in with her family either, and has to prove her own worth. The writing quality is high, but it’s not as polished as the later book and the story feels less smooth as well.
The Hero and the Crown won the Newberry Medal, and some of the material here made me ponder what it’s like to write for a younger audience. If we can call it a responsibility, McKinley handles it with great assurance. I didn’t understand everything she wrote about, back in the old days, but I never felt condescended to. In other words, this is a book that stands up to re-reading.
Growing up is not an easy thing to write about (as the lesser quality of McKinley’s own The Blue Sword shows). Rites of passage are always about learning your own strengths, the limitations of those in authority (usually parents), and maybe a few hints of sexual maturity. Aerin becomes a sexual adult with the least of fuss—it’s so matter-of-fact that the impact is magnified. Looking back, I became very curious to see if The Hero and the Crown would be banworthy, like perennial target Judy Blume or others, but not so. Other fantasies get banned—like chaste Harry Potter—so I’m still a little mystified. This is a happy oversight for young nerds, who wouldn’t be caught dead reading Judy Blume (well, I did anyways, but it never stuck with me in the same way).