“The Hero and the Crown” by Robin McKinley

Available on Amazon and at your local bookstore.
Available on Amazon and at your local bookstore.

It seems that once I read a novel by Robin McKinley, it remains forever imprinted in my mind, floating around in my memories, and tantalizing me at random moments with traces of the story. That is what drove me to re-read Spindle’s End and to discover The Blue Sword. I had forgotten the name of a tale about a girl with vivid red hair who defeated a dragon and mistook The Blue Sword to be the book I sought because of its cool title and obviously the girl would need a sword to defeat the dragon so why not a blue one. I passed over The Hero and the Crown, judging the book by its title and wrongly thinking that the great story I read years ago could not have had such a simple title.

Oh, to be deceived by simplicity.

If I had taken the time to read the blurb on the back cover or even to skim the first few pages, I would have found the book I was searching for. Nevertheless, finding The Blue Sword was a wonderful misdirection that took me on an absorbing read. The Hero and the Crown was just as great but I love The Blue Sword’s story more (though, The Hero and the Crown was a more enjoyable read. I just love the imagery in the story). This is interesting because when I first read The Hero and the Crown back in high school, I could not find another story that I loved more (except for Rowling’s Harry Potter and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series). Now that I’ve read both books almost back-to-back, I can tell why the younger me loves The Hero and the Crown and the older me enjoys The Blue Sword.

The younger me could easily identify with Aerin in The Hero and the Crown. Aerin’s story is one about personal growth, finding one’s place in the world, combating bullies, finding self-confidence, and accepting the parts of yourself that you dislike. It’s about growing up. Obviously such a story would resonate with my high school self since I battled similar issues at the time. I am now 25 and I am still growing. I haven’t yet conquered all of these issues and I don’t know if I will but they do not consume my life as they did when I was a teenager. So although I enjoyed reading Aerin’s story, I love Harry’s more.

Harry’s story – The Blue Sword – the story of Damar is about a nation and how one relates to that nation. It’s about the individual associating herself with something broader, something beyond herself. And isn’t that what we ultimately strive for later in life after identifying who we are and where we tentatively fit in? Don’t we later seek something greater than ourselves to associate with whether through religion, career, patriotism, or family? We all want to be part of a greater unit. Sometimes we identify with more than one, which can be conflicting, as in Harry’s case. But being part of something higher than our mortal existence helps to complete our sense of self.

But back to the story. Quick summary (some spoilers):

The Hero and the Crown (prequel to The Blue Sword) is about a girl called Aerin who is bullied by her older cousins because she is tall, clumsy, and had a witch for a mother. She is the only child of her father, the king, but remains in the shadow despite this because of her lack of confidence. She is an introvert, spending most of her time in the pasture with her father’s old war horse, healing him back to health, or conversing with Tor, the first sola and next in line to be king. He is her best friend and he teaches her the fighting arts. One day, Aerin discovers the recipe for an ointment that will protect a person from fire. She experiments with it until she creates a batch that successfully protects her from flames. To further test it, she decides to take on the pesky little dragons that terrorizes the countryside. Her adventure is successful and her father allows her to be the designated dragon-hunter for the kingdom. Of course, this makes her even more unpopular since being a dragon-hunter is unladylike, especially for the king’s heir.

Fighting dragons is a fantastic thing and the more she does it, the more she develops her confidence and strength. The more her confidence blossoms, the more beautiful she becomes. Of course, she is unaware of her prettiness but her petty cousins are not; especially Tor, who begins to develop strong feelings for her. Danger, however, looms on the horizon. There is talk of an invasion from the North and of one of the king’s constituents being possessed by a demon. Then a messenger appears at the palace asking for help because one of the most feared dragons, Maur, has returned to wreak havoc on Damar. Aerin goes out to meet it.

This full-grown dragon of old was not an easy fight and Aerin hardly won the battle. She nearly died. A good bit of her was burnt and her hair, too, was almost burnt to cinders. With the help of her horse, she was able to survive and signal the king’s rescue party that sought her out. She slowly regained her physical health but battled a deep depression. The king’s party carried the head of the defeated dragon to the castle as a grotesque trophy and apparently it poisoned the city by spreading depression throughout. While battling her mental illness, she is contacted by a sorcerer, Luthe, who tells her to seek him out so he can help her. She does so, leaving behind a note for Tor.

Luthe heals her and tells her about her past, present, and possible future. Aerin learns that she is a descendant of the North (through her mother). Also, she has an evil uncle who is the source of the demonic army that threatens Damar. He wants to kill Aerin because of a prophecy. With an army of animals, Aerin faces him, faces the part of herself that she tries not to acknowledge.

To heal Aerin, Luthe made her immortal. During their time together, they fell in love. Aerin loves Tor as well so after defeating her uncle and spending time with Luthe, she returns to Tor and her country to live a mortal life but plans to return to Luthe to spend the rest of her immortal ones with him.

My reaction:

Many thoughts bubbled up in my head when I was done reading and I scribbled furiously in my Book Lover’s Journal, trying to get them all down. First and foremost, McKinley’s style. I LOVE the way she writes. She is so descriptive but not boringly so and she doesn’t overburden you with the details either. As always, she opens the story with the element essential to it. This time, it is the lore of Aerin’s mother. It is the mystery of her mother that drives Aerin in the story. By not knowing who her mother is and only having stories and myths of her to go on, Aerin develops a shoddy idea of herself. One that is not entirely real just as who her mother is is not entirely real to her at first. I like that it is the lore of her mother that propels her because the history of members of our family, especially our parents, does greatly affect how we identify ourselves.

This is almost how I imagined Maur. In my mind he was a tad thicker.
This is almost how I imagined Maur. In my mind, he was a tad thicker.

Another thing that I love is how McKinley uses Aerin’s hair. It is brilliantly red. It helps the reader to discover aspects of Aerin that may not be readily apparent. It signals the passage of time because Aerin’s hair has never been cut and it grows ever longer down her back. It is also her source of pride and her connection to her mother (no one else in Damar has red hair). It helps Aerin to identify herself. Even its colors are significant. Before Aerin experiences real pain and suffering, her hair was a brilliant, flaming orange, like the tongues of a merry fire. I guess that symbolizes her inexperience and youth. It was lustrous, curly, and boundless. However, after her battle with the evil dragon Maur, her hair changed. The dragon’s fire burnt it almost to her chin, roasted to “the darker color of flaring embers,” and also straightened it. Maur gave her a more mature look. One that signifies an individual who has experienced pain and was aged by it. These changes to her hair damaged Aerin’s self-esteem. Now that her source of pride is taken, what does she have to hold on to? I think the new hair-do made it easier for the depression to settle in.

Of course, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword have various things in common. The one that appeals to me the most is that it is a girl that kicks ass and saves the day. Awesome! But another thing also appealed to me and that is the consistent theme of duality. In The Blue Sword, Harry was caught between two nations: Homeland and Damar. She is a product of both and at first found it hard to identify with either until she accepted that she is both a member and outsider of both. A similar thing occurs in The Hero and the Crown. Aerin is somewhat ostracized in Damar, mostly by her cousins, and it’s easy for them to do so because of her striking features—pale skin and red hair. She is not like the Damarians, who are of a darker hue. Aerin has such features because of her Northern blood. However, though of the North, she is reared in peaceful Damar and is thus a product of both nations. In the story’s final battle, she has to confront the Northern side of herself, represented by her uncle reflecting her image back to her. By accepting all facets of her identity, or at least acknowledging them, she is made stronger. This duality is further emphasized by her loves. There is Tor, who represents Damar and mortality; and there is Luther, who represents the North and immortality. I wondered, while reading, if her love for Luthe naturally blossomed or if it began, at first, because they both sought a semblance of similarity in a foreign land where they are both outsiders. Either way, I more so enjoyed her love shared with Luthe. It’s more passionate.

Last thing I liked but which at first irked me is that no one in Damar knows what Aerin did to secure their safety (well, except Tor). Her battle with her uncle is a personal one and thus not publicized even though it directly affects Damar’s fate. At first, I was upset with this but then I reasoned to myself that many times our small (or large), personal battles affects how the world turns. Everything has an effect. Sometimes those small battles escalate into mighty wars between and within nations. So as Aerin fought for herself, she also fought for the preservation of her nation.

The Blue Sword (book 2) ->


3 thoughts on ““The Hero and the Crown” by Robin McKinley

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