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 this cover 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, whole 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).
The Hero and the Crown was probably not the first sex scene I ever read, since my brothers were into Louis L’Amour and I always tried to sneak a peek. Lots of adultery and people getting their heads blown clean off with shotguns. Do you have any formative moments like this, misremembered or otherwise? Email James or leave a comment below.
I remember school book fairs, too. It seems like the one’s at my school had more than their share of kitten posters. The purchase that most stuck with me was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I also remember that Scholastic Press, which sponsered our book fairs, had, on their advertising, an illustration of the Headless Horseman on a rearing mount, mid punkin-head throw. That picture scared the hell out of me.
Not so long ago I went back and re-read a bunch of young-adult books that I had kept since my childhood – most notably Wrinkle In Time series by Madeleine L’Engle, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and The Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander (also a Newbery Award Winner.)
I also had the strange experience of not remembering the plot of most of these books, but finding almost all the dialogue and scenes to be very familiar. Also, as an older reader, I was much more aware of the religious themes in C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle’s books (more so in her later volumes) and of the Celtic mythology underlying Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy setting.
Most disconcerting, however, is how much I didn’t find in those books. In my memory, those books were rich with vivid worlds as detailed and as fabulous as Tolkien’s. I remember these stories being populated by fully three dimensional characters, each one of which had a depth and backstory hinted at but never fully revealed. In my memory, those stories were filmed in Cinescope and Technicolor.
Of course, I realize now that I brought a lot of my own enthusiasm and imagination to these stories. The author needed only to say something like “he had a craggy face that showed the wear of many years in every line” and I had already imagined a long, difficult and heroic history for that character. The author need only mention a “richly ornamented crown” and I would mentally picture settings of sparkling gems, and felt and filigree (not knowing what filigree was, but having seen other objects adorned in that manner.) It was somewhat surprising to me how sparse the writing was in these stories. Yet the story was still there, and I could still fill in all the spaces that had been so lightly sketched by the authors.
I wonder now if I could still read a story like I did when I was 10 years old, adding color and depth to the author’s canvas, full of wonder and endless imaginative energy. Is that something I’ve lost? Did it get replaced with something better? Maybe more discernment? Or just more cynicism?
McKinley’s books are in pretty spectacular in general. I think you’re kinda little harsh on BLUE SWORD; it’s a different type of book, with a different aim. Then again, that may just be my childhood self rebelling against any criticism of a book I adored.
At one school book fair I picked up Jean Webster’s DEAR ENEMY. It’s a sequel of sorts to DEAR DADDY LONG-LEGS, and as a kid, I loved it. Read it at least a dozen times. So imagine my horror when I re-read it last year, and found it saturated with eugenics – eugenics as a GOOD thing! Agh! On the other hand, that goes to show that the things kids read in books aren’t likely to scar for life.
I had a similar experience with a Robert E, Howard book that I loved as a kid, ‘Almuric’. It is out of print so I had to scour the web to find a copy but I just had to as one detail – how the hero gets to the planet of primal critters – had escaped my memory. When I finally reread the book, I found that much of what I remembered loving about it wasn’t in the book, but was just a conglomerate memory I’d embroidered over the years. Worse, when I reached that passage explaining how the hero got from Earth to the titular planet Almuric… it said nothing. Howard actually has the narrator throw out some b.s. line like “of my method of transporting Esau Cairn to the other world I will say nothing.” Yep, some things are best left mis-remembered.
Wow, great comments! Seems like I’m not the only who has revisited childhood lately 🙂
Weed: Now that you mention it, I do remember some scary book covers at school fairs. Never saw the pumpkin head, but that one sounds like a lot of fun 🙂
Mr. Dave: I think you had a bit of a different experience than I did, in terms of revisiting old favourites. I’m definitely finding elements I didn’t understand, or things that strike me differently now. But overall my big favourites from childhood have been holding up well for me.
Chris: Ha! I love your point about not scarring children for life. I’m always glad that I’ve forgotten the loads of mediocre stuff I read when I was younger… now I’m also glad that I’ve forgotten the traumatic stuff!
As for The Blue Sword, it might have to do with the reading order for me – I read The Hero and the Crown first, both when I was younger and now when I came back to the books. The two books do seem to have varying aims and tones – maybe I should have read them less as a duo and more as separate projects.
John: That does sound like quite an infuriating thing to come across after all that build-up. It’s still interesting to me how much of the whole reading process relies on the individual’s contribution as they’re reading.
Hey! I have been trying to figure out the name of this book for YEARS. I had almost the exact same experience that you are describing here, and i see its almost been a year since your post, but i hope you get this comment all the same because the coincidence is incredible. i actually came upon this site in one of my many fruitless attmepts at googling random phrases to figure out the name and/or author of this thing. somehow i could never get the phrasing right (the winning combo was “fireproof ointment dragon book”, btw!).. i always figured it would find me at some point, but never in such a neat way. i’m not a huge fan of fantasy fiction, but it was on a summer reading list when i was a kid and i was forced to give it a try.
i put it off until last, but it ended up being my favorite.
something about this book really stayed with me, even though i’ve long lost the copy i had in grade school. it just seemed so natural and realistic. i hope it still reads as well now that i’m 20 years older! anyway, thanks for helping me figure this one out.
Andy, that’s really funny. I stumbled across this post looking for the book’s name as well. My keywords were “Fireproof Ointment Dragon” Funny how close they are.