26 October 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: The Hero and the Crown (1984)

Trade paperback, 246 pages
Published 2002 (originally 1984)
Previously read July 2010
Acquired November 2016

Reread February 2017
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

I have loved The Hero and the Crown since I first read it in junior high, and I was excited to teach it, but I recognize that it is an odd book. Aerin embraces her magical destiny and falls in love with the immortal Luthe-- but puts that love to sleep so "that she might love her country and her husband" (246). One of my students was excited at what she saw as the embrace of polyamory, but I don't think that's quite what's happening here. In addition, you get the really surreal stuff when Aerin goes to confront her evil uncle Agsded. This is the part of the book that's stuck with me the most since childhood. The tower Aerin climbs to confront Agsded is nearly infinite: "She had been climbing forever; she would be climbing forever. She would be a new god: the God That Climbs" (182). Then, when Aerin defeats Agsded, she falls almost as long and ends up in a strange place. What had been a tower in a wasteland is now rubble in the middle of a jungle. She sees people there, and is then jerked back to where she had been, the desolate plateau from which the tower had risen, and Luthe explains to her that she had traveled "a few hundred years" into the future until he pulled her back (200). Aerin then returns to her native land of Damar and defeats the remnants of the evil that threatens it before marrying Tor, the new king.

What's going on here? I have a friend who strongly reacts against Aerin's double marriage, and some of my students definitely considered the whole tower battle and journey into the future extremely weird. I think that looking at The Hero and the Crown's place in both the fantasy genre and the young adult genre helps provide an answer to this.

In her excellent monograph Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), Farah Mendlesohn divides the fantasy genre up into a number of different approaches, based on the relative positions of the reader, the protagonist, and the fantastic. In the portal-quest fantasy, the protagonist "leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place" (1): The Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone are all prototypical examples of the form. The immersive fantasy, however, "presents the fantastic without comment as the norm for both the protagonist and for the reader: we sit on the protagonist's shoulder and [...] we are not provided with an explanatory narrative" (xx), for "the point of view characters of an immersive fantasy must take for granted the fantastic elements with which they are surrounded" (xxi). Then there's the intrusion fantasy, where the fantastic breaks into a "normal" world (xxii). (Mendlesohn also has the liminal fantasy and the "irregulars," but those are less relevant to my purposes here.)

On first glance we might see The Hero and the Crown as an immersive fantasy: it takes place in a magical land, different from our own, from the beginning. However, as you dig into both it and Mendlesohn, you start to realize that's it's not so simple. (Genre never is, except when it gets, well, generic.) The novels bears traces of the intrusion fantasy as well. The threat to Damar is an external one; the dragons that Aerin battles throughout the novel might be in Damar, but they are not from it. They are magical creatures from beyond. Furthermore, the book is extremely reminiscent of the portal-quest fantasy, and we should note when using the term that though portal-quest fantasies depart from a real world, they do not have to depart from our real world. One of Mendlesohn's prototypical portal-quest fantasies is, after all, The Lord of the Rings, which starts itself in a magical land, the Shire, but she argues that Tolkien makes the Shire real so that it can frame an adventure into a fantastic land, that of the rest of Middle Earth (2, 31).

Something similar is happening in The Hero and the Crown.  It incorporates many of the typical features of the portal-quest fantasy: quests (well, duh); an alliance of perspective between reader and protagonist, both of whom are naïve; portals that transition between places and times; exploration of an unknown land; a thinned land that requires restoration by the story's end; a connection between the king and the well-being of the land (when the right monarch is in place, the land itself is also right); and the existence of a moral universe (good and evil are objective qualities). The reason Aerin's journey to Luthe's land (where she also experiences some temporal dislocation) and Agsded's tower are so surreal is that McKinley has to mark them as fantasy worlds within the context of what seems to us a fantasy world. Aerin is used to the magics of Damar; she is not used to the magics of these other worlds that she has passed to.

Okay, but so what? Something we should always keep in mind when discussing genre, is that genres have not just features (characteristics) but projects (things they do). Mendlesohn mentions that "the classic portal tale is much more common in children's fantasy than in that ostensibly written for the adult market" (1) and she also says that portals "mark[ ] the transition between this world and another; from our time to another time; from youth to adulthood" (1, emphasis mine). So why is this the case? I think it's because of portal-quest fantasy's commitment to a moral universe: Mendlesohn says that "a quest is a process, in which the object sought may or may not be a mere token of rewards. The real reward is moral growth and/or admission into the kingdom, or redemption" (4). Young adult literature is often about teaching readers moral lessons, for better or for worse, and so the form of portal-quest fantasy is well-suited to it. The reader and the protagonist are positioned together, and so when the protagonist accomplishes moral growth, so too does the reader. Aerin accomplishes a lot of moral growth in The Hero and the Crown: she learns how to take responsibility for herself, learns how to channel her anger appropriately, learns how to set a long-term goal for herself and work toward it, learns how to coexist with those who dislike or resent her, learns how to bridge the gap between aristocracy and commoners, learns to like education and reading, learns how handle romantic and sexual feelings, and probably learns other things I'm forgetting.

So I think there's a couple things going on with the weird doubling effect at the end of the novel. Partially, there's a recognition that childhood remains when you pass into adulthood. Aerin may have crossed the portal from reality to fantasy, from childhood to adulthood, but childhood never goes away, you always carry both worlds within you, and so does Aerin.

Additionally, Aerin has to move from her immortal life back to her mortal one in order to implement the moral lessons she's learned-- because if the protagonist does not implement them, how can the reader? We're explicitly told that "it was her love for Luthe that made her recognize her love for Tor" (207). If fantasy worlds exists to teach the reader how to behave in the real world, we have that literalized in The Hero and the Crown, hence both worlds must persist. But unlike in Narnia or (to bring up another portal-quest fantasy) Susan Cooper's The Silver on the Tree, Aerin does not need to give up her fantasy life. In what surely is a fantasy (in the imagining-you-have-obtained-an-unobtainable-thing sense) she can have both lives.

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