"Girls Who Do Things": The Protagonists of Robin McKinley's Fantasy Fiction
Lynn Moss Sanders
Fantasy fiction is especially popular among young adolescents, both male and female, perhaps because it allows some escape from the problems of modern adolescence. If the escapist nature of fantasy fiction is appealing to young people, that quality of fantasy fiction also makes it a good vehicle for exploring contemporary social issues, including stereotypical gender roles, a subject skillfully explored by fantasy writer Robin McKinley. Although certainly it is important for young adults to read realistic fiction that shows a balanced view of gender roles, fantasy fiction can serve a useful function in allowing young readers, particularly young female readers, to imagine themselves performing feats of physical strength, something that is not required of most young people in our society, unless they are talented athletes. In fantasy fiction, physical strength and bravery are often equated, and these books allow readers to imaginatively conquer their own more realistic dragons.
In her novels of fairy tale/fantasy fiction for young readers, Robin McKinley not only emphasizes the values found in most fantasy fiction, courage and honor, she also makes an important contribution to balancing gender roles in young adult fiction and portraying female characters who are both physically strong and smart and courageous. McKinley says that she writes stories about "Girls Who Do Things" (Horn Book, p. 399). After spending her childhood as a "navy brat," and consequently having books as her only steady friends, Robin McKinley began her writing career with the publication of Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (1978) and The Door in the Hedge (1981), a collection of short stories. The Blue Sword, published in 1982, was a Newbery Honor Book, and The Hero and the Crown (1984) received the Newbery Medal in 1985. In 1988 McKinley published The Outlaws of Sherwood, and her most recent fantasy novel is Deerskin (1993).
McKinley also points out that one reason she wrote the Damarian adventures is because she "wished desperately for books like Hero" when she was a child, books that didn't require her "to be untrue to my gender if I wished to fantasize about having my sort of adventures, not about wearing long, trailing dresses and casting languorous looks into pools with rose petals floating in them as the setting sun glimmers through my translucent white fingers and I think about my lover who is off somewhere having interesting adventures" (Horn Book, pp. 403-404).
McKinley's first novel, Beauty, does not describe a heroine who fights battles and rules kingdoms, but the main character has important traits that the author develops further in the Damarian novels. The premise of McKinley's retelling of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale is that this Beauty, whose given name is Honour, is not really beautiful: she is a gawky adolescent. Beauty deals with her insecurity about her looks in the time-honored manner of many adolescent girls: she concentrates on books and horses. She tells us, "My intellectual abilities gave me a release" (p. 6); and she dreams of becoming a true scholar and reads the Greek poets to her horse, Greatheart.
Beauty agrees to live with the Beast in order to save her father's life, but it is her love for books that first helps her achieve the sympathy for the Beast that is necessary to break the spell. She and the Beast read to each other and discover a common bond in the intellect, the first step towards their eventual love. It is interesting to note that in the recent Walt Disney animated film version of "Beauty and the Beast," Belle is also known for her fondness for books, a trait which puzzles her provincial neighbors. Again, the Beast begins to win Belle's heart when he gives her his library. In this case, Robin McKinley may have helped to influence a generation of young girls into believing that one can be both beautiful, good-hearted, and intellectual.
McKinley also portrays Beauty as a fairy tale heroine with a sense of humor. Much of the humor is self-deprecating, focusing on her lack of physical beauty, but humor is also her weapon in helping her to face her destiny. This quality of McKinley's writing separates her from many fantasy writers whose tone is often too serious to be palatable to mature readers. Adolescents frequently take themselves too seriously; it is refreshing to read books for young people where a sense of humor is just as important as sword-wielding skills.
The light tone continues in McKinley's three Damarian fantasies. Although The Blue Sword clearly centers on a female protagonist, it is not until page three that we learn her name -- Harry (nickname for Angharad) -- and have a hint that this is a different sort of fantasy heroine. McKinley explains that she deliberately chose a name for her heroine that was "either androgynous to begin with or that could be shortened to something confusing" because "It's all part of my feeling that the gender wars are so bitter because the areas of rightness and propriety for each side are too absolutely defined; anything that muddies the line that society has drawn in the dirt and dared us to step over, is to the good, in fiction or in life" (Something About the Author, p. 137).
Harry's parents have died and she has gone to live in Daria or Damar, a colony of her Homeland where her brother is stationed in the army. She is a young woman with many of the problems common to McKinley's adolescent heroines. She had a tomboy childhood so she prefers horseback riding to embroidery; she has no particular beauty which could win her the husband she needs to make her independent in this society reminiscent of the British Empire in India. Harry's wish for adventure is realized when she is kidnapped by King Corlath of the Free Hillfolk, the original inhabitants of Damar. Harry has heard stories that the Damarians possess magical powers; and she soon learns that, in some mysterious way, she too possesses the gift of power and prophecy called kelar. In fact her gifts are equalled only by those of the King himself. On her first day in Corlath's camp, she drinks the Water of Sight and has a vision of a man fighting in battle on a chestnut horse with a blue sword. Corlath and his knights, or Riders, know that this vision explains Harry's destiny, but she comes from a society where roles for women are more limited and does not understand until later that she was the warrior in her vision.
In fact, Harry has been adopted by the greatest hero of Damar, Aerin the Dragon-Killer, the original wielder of the blue sword, a woman's sword named "Gonturun." Aerin comes to Harry in visions, and Harry is destined to repeat at least some of Aerin's heroics. She wins the Laprun trials, tests of horsemanship and swordsmanship, and becomes a Damalur-sol, a Lady Hero. Eventually she leads a combined army of Homelanders and Damarians to defeat the Northern enemies of Damar, with a bit of magical help from both Aerin and Corlath.
In The Blue Sword McKinley has obviously made a conscious effort to avoid gender stereotypes and provide her readers with an active and positive female role model. But it is in The Hero and the Crown that she tells the tale of the origins of this equal society. Aerin, the hero of The Hero and the Crown (1984), like Harry, is another awkward adolescent from an earlier Damar. Aerin is further hampered by her heritage because, although she is the King's only child and thus a first sol, her mother was a Northerner, thought by many to have been a witch, and therefore not Queen, only Honored Wife. In her search for something useful to do, Aerin stumbles on an old recipe for an ointment that protects against dragonfire, and she eventually earns hero status, if not the love of her people, by killing the Black Dragon. She is mortally wounded by the dragon, however, and leaves her home in search of a man who speaks in her dreams and says he can cure her.
This man is Luthe, a great mage or magician, who tells Aerin of her heretofore unrecognized kelar, her past, and her destiny. Luthe tells her about her mother and admits that perhaps her mother did die in despair, because "She had courage enough, but little imagination" (p. 136) and was burdened by a weight that she thought only a son might lift; but Luthe tells Aerin, "It is a weight any of her blood and courage may lift" (p. 137). Luthe teaches Aerin so that she may fulfill her destiny, to meet and defeat Agsded, her mother's brother, a great wizard and the enemy of Damar. Luthe tells Aerin that "only one of his blood may defeat him. It is true your mother wanted a son; she believed that as only one of his blood might defeat him, so only one of his own sex might, for to such she ascribed her own failure. She felt that it was because she was a woman that she could not kill her own brother" (p. 152).
But Aerin does defeat Agsded through her courage and cunning, and at least partly as a result of her physical skill. It is also important to note that McKinley spends a portion of each of these books describing the physical training of both Harry and Aerin. Neither woman is a natural athlete, but both become exceptionally skilled at fighting with swords on horseback, largely through their sweat and determination.
The Hero and the Crown is a well-written and exciting fantasy tale; it is also a love story. McKinley includes an unusual moral twist in the story by providing Aerin with two lovers -- one is her mortal husband Tor, who makes her queen of Damar; the other is the magician Luthe, who waits patiently for her to live with him after Tor's death, since they are both immortal. Without going beyond the bounds of appropriate adolescent material, McKinley is also quite open about Aerin and Luthe's sexual relationship, which exists before, and presumably after, Aerin's marriage to Tor.
Recently, I taught The Hero and the Crown in my senior college-level Women and Literature class. Although most of my students are no longer adolescents, they enjoyed the book and many of them had suggestions about teaching it to young adult readers. Some of their comments, which might easily apply to McKinley's other novels, follow:
* "In having Aerin slay the dragons that threaten her kingdom, McKinley destroys the myth that only male heroes can do battle with dragons, a myth that has been perpetuated since the time of Beowulf and Grendel."
* "I think that McKinley's book, in many ways, could shatter and transcend some of the stereotypes that hold people down even today.... while not flawless in her transcendence of stereotypes, McKinley certainly calls into question prevailing ideas of society."
* "Adolescents have such a looks-oriented mentality. It is hard for them to imagine that anyone else does not feel that looks are the most important thing.... when I read that `the helmet on her head blackened and fell away, and most of her hair vanished' (108), I was terribly upset.... In spite of the fact that she has managed to slay a huge dragon, it is difficult for an adolescent reader to get past the fact that she gave up her beautiful hair to do so.... I think it would be a good idea to spend some time discussing the fact that what few features Aerin has which might be considered beautiful, in the traditional sense of the word, are destroyed by her dragon-killing efforts... In the end Aerin is not strikingly gorgeous, but she is queen, and two men are madly in love with her. Kind of makes beauty seem less important, doesn't it?"
* "This story sticks with the very American idea that personal achievement is superior to inherited status. Aerin doesn't appreciate the position she was born into until she feels she has accomplished something worthy of earning her that place.... She also mentions... the importance of self-confidence in the process of education; that if you feel worthy and deserving and capable, you will be open to learning. This is an important topic to address especially to girls dealing with that crucial crossroads of middle-school where whatever self-confidence they might have had in elementary school is knocked out from under them. I think this book has much to say to those girls who aren't and don't want to be the beautiful Galanna, those girls who float shyly along hoping to remain unnoticed. I also think it has a lot to say to the Galannas of the world, and to all the little boys out there who would benefit just as much from a deeper understanding of the potential that girls/women have. A self-confident, productive, motivated, strong, courageous, heroic women doesn't just do herself or her gender good, but she does the whole world good."
* "McKinley gives her female readers someone to admire and gives her male readers an action figure other than a male, and she shows them two men that love an athletic, strong woman.... Aerin's strength is another attribute that teenage girls need to see a role model have and use."
* "An interesting aspect of the novel is Aerin's sexual maturation.... The most important point that should be stressed to young adults is that Aerin becomes a mature young woman who is confident of herself before she has a sexual relationship.... Another point that should be discussed is her relationship with Luthe. Their relationship goes much deeper than sex alone. They have a strong friendship and a true spiritual bond that teaches them both how to admit their love.... Aerin and Tor's relationship is similar .... This topic might embarrass young adults in a classroom setting, but who else is able to talk to them about the dynamics of a healthy sexual relationship?"
Sexuality becomes the centerpiece of McKinley's most recent Damarian book, Deerskin (1993) which she bases on the Charles Perrault fairy tale "Donkeyskin." In McKinley's version of the tale, the princess Lissla Lissar spends her early life completely overshadowed by her magnificent parents; but, when her mother dies (seemingly because she cannot bear to lose even a bit of her beauty to aging), Lissar's father begins to take an unnatural interest in her. Lissar, like McKinley's other female heroes, has an awkward and lonely adolescence, where her only friend is her fleethound, Ash; but she begins to show her mother's brunette beauty. After her coming-out ball at seventeen, Lissar's father publicly announces that he will marry her. When she locks herself in her room for three days, he eventually breaks in and rapes her three times.
Lissar escapes from her home and is transformed by the Moonwoman into a white-haired yellow-eyed woman that the peasants identify as the Moonwoman herself, a supernatural creature who was raped by a rejected suitor and now serves as the protectress of "young creatures, particularly those who are alone, who are hurt or betrayed, or who wish to make a choice for themselves instead of for those around them" (p. 213). Lissar travels to the palace of King Cofta, becomes one of the trainers for the prince's dogs, and she and the prince become friends.
Up to this point in the novel, there is no evidence that McKinley is writing about the mythical Damar, but in Cofta's kingdom, we hear Aerin mentioned, Lissar's golden eyes are noted (a sign of the presence of royal kelar), and the prince's hounds are clearly related to those that fought battles with Aerin. After Lissar discovers that Ossin's sister is engaged to her father, she is finally able to face her past. In a powerful scene, where her kelar is clearly evident, Lissar condemns her father for his actions and is quite painfully transformed back into her brunette self. Ossin, through his gentleness, persuades her to marry him, but McKinley is careful to show the difficulty of overcoming such a past. In the end Lissar promises Ossin to stay "for now.... But I do not know how strong I am, she said. I cannot promise" (p. 308).
Incest and rape are unusual topics for fantasy fiction, but McKinley sensitively portrays the issues involved in this difficult topic. As in her other fantasy books, she depicts a believable female hero, one who is able to overcome the demons of the past through her courage.
In <<A HREF="#outlaws_of_sherwood">i>The Outlaws of Sherwood, her version of the Robin Hood legend, McKinley also reverses many of the typical male/female roles. Her Robin is a reluctant leader of disenchanted Saxons; he is persuaded to head the group by his friend Marion, who, contrary to the usual legend, is the superior archer. It is also Marion, not Robin, who is reckless enough to enter the Sheriff of Nottingham's archery challenge to win the golden arrow, because she believes, as Friar Tuck explains, "Tales are as much the necessary fabric of our lives as our bodies are and legends are worth risking one's life in order to give people something to believe in" (p. 202).
Perhaps the most interesting character in this book is one created by McKinley, Cecily of Norwell, Will Scarlet's little sister, who does not appear in the original Robin Hood stories. Cecil, as she comes to be called, runs away from home to avoid the prospect of marriage to an aging Norman lord, disguises herself as a boy, and proves herself a good enough archer to join Robin's band. She manages to avoid her brother for some time; but, when her gender is finally revealed, she accuses him of deserting her: "you did not think ... It was all very well for you to go around gnashing your teeth and clenching your fists about the Normans, and looking doomed and heroic -- it was not you who had to marry one" (p. 165).In Beauty, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, Deerskin, and The Outlaws of Sherwood Robin McKinley not only avoids the fantasy stereotype of the damsel in distress, she creates a new role for women in fantasy fiction. McKinley's heroes, Beauty, Harry, Aerin, Lissar, Marion, and Cecily provide different positive role models for young women and men. Her characters are winners in the eternal fantasy battle between good and evil, partially through magical help, but largely through their own physical skills as riders and swordfighters, their extraordinary courage and insight, their willingness to defy convention to do what is right, all traditionally the hallmarks of the male fantasy hero. McKinley herself has commented that it bothers her that she receives many letters from people "saying something on the order of, `At last! Girls who do things!'" She continues that it is her hope that "young readers who identify with Harry and Aerin and the others and wish to be like them will also realize that they are. And this should be true ... of boy readers as well as the girls; both sides of our gender-specific event horizon need to be extended" (Horn Book, p. 405). And of course this should be true, because what Beauty, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, Deerskin, and The Outlaws of Sherwood are about is the freedom to choose to be oneself, and to occupy one's life with honorable endeavors.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty. Simon and Schuster, 1978.
______. The Blue Sword. Greenwillow Books, 1982.
______. Deerskin. Ace Books, 1993.
______. The Hero and the Crown. Berkley Books, 1984.
______. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." The Horn Book Magazine July/August 1985: 395-405.
______. The Outlaws of Sherwood. Greenwillow Books, 1988.
______. Something About the Author. Ed. Anne Commine, Vol. 50. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research: 130-140.
Lynn Moss Sanders is Associate Professor of English at Appalachian State University, where she teaches courses in American literature and Women's Studies.
Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Sanders, Lynn Moss. (1996). "Girls who do things": The protagonists of Robin McKinley's fantasy fiction.The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 1, 38-42.