At the beginning of Robin McKinley’s 1982 young adult fantasy novel The Blue Sword, Harry Crewes has been living in a colonial desert outpost after the death of her parents. The Homeland, where Harry is from, is a thinly disguised Victorian England. The lone Homeland city of Istan shares uneasily a border with Damar, a mysterious, magical Afghanistan concealed in the mountains.
War is brewing between Damar and the North, and when King Corlath of Damar comes to negotiate with the Homelanders, his magic—the kelar—demands that he kidnap the young woman to aid his people.
Harry, it turns out, has plenty of kelar in her blood, too. As a result, she has visions of legendary Damarian queen Aerin, she learns the language at a prodigious rate, and she adapts quickly to bridleless horsemanship and battle training. After a brutal six weeks of swashbuckler boot camp, she wins the laprun trials (the Damarian cavalry Olympics), becomes one of the king’s elite Riders, and rides out to war against the demonic Northern army.
But Harry clashes with Corlath on a major point: she wants to warn the Homelanders—or as the Damarians call them, the Outlanders—about the Northern army and to ask them to defend a narrow gap in the mountains through which the Northerners could overrun Harry’s old home and ambush Corlath’s army. Corlath has exhausted his diplomacy with the pseudo-Victorians. “Let them take the Outlander city,” he says of the Northerners. “[I]t will keep them amused.”
Despite the fact that Harry loves Damar—and is falling for Corlath—she cares about the Outlander station: her brother still lives there, she has friends there. It was her world not long ago. She defies the king and risks betraying Damar—and Corlath—in order to go and warn her old countrymen and to guard the pass herself.
The Blue Sword won a Newbery Honor and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. It was followed by The Hero and the Crown—a prequel, which tells the story of Lady Aerin. While I was re-reading the novel, I told my husband rather helplessly, “I love this book. I loved it when I was a teenager. I love it now.”
That does not mean it’s without problems:
- Harry is a white savior. The Damarians are dark haired and dark skinned, and Harry is a towering blonde. Yes, it’s revealed eventually that she has a quarter Damarian blood, so maybe Emma Stone can play her in the movie.
- It can be seen as colonial apologia. The authorities and military stationed at Istan seem to love the desert and respect the people. The colonizers are excised of brutality; they are bumbling and well-intentioned.
Then, there is also the fact that Corlath kidnaps Harry—or rather, his kelar forces him to do it. The abduction of women is a charged act—sexually and politically—and the characters know it. But the way McKinley rewrites kidnapping is interesting. First of all, Corlath feels pretty terrible about it:
She was smiling a little in her sleep, but it was a sad smile, and it made him unhappy… He knew only too well that by stealing her from her people he had done a thing to be ashamed of, even if he had no alternative.
McKinley takes pains to make sure that Corlath’s intention isn’t rape. Indeed, out of Corlath’s sympathy for her grows respect, and love.
On Harry’s end, instead of the abduction being an instrument of a sexual awakening that leaves her in thrall to love, she is bestowed with power. Corlath gives her swords, a horse—a means to leave. Her magic asserts itself. She has the kind of freedom she didn’t enjoy while trying to be a lady at the colonial outpost—and more. An early signal of her autonomy is her clarity and humor about the situation:
Corlath didn’t look at her the way a man looks at a woman he plans to share his bed… He looked at her rather as a man looks at a problem that he would very much prefer to do without. She supposed it was a distinction of a sort to be a harassment to a king.
Throughout the episode, Harry retains her ability to think. The book is full of these dry asides—the characters are aware that the situation is epic, but their reactions are not grandiose. They’re very funny and human, and I found that—still find it—appealing.
The Blue Sword combines feminist power and magic—and that is and was seductive. But the book’s flipping of one script does not make it perfect on all other issues—although the seductiveness remains in place.
Another thing I loved about the book when I was younger was the idea of a foreigner coming into another culture and, despite many struggles, thriving in it.
She was a figure in some story other than her own—an embroidered shape in a Hill tapestry, a representation of something that did not exist in her Homeland.
Harry feels that she has no history in the place she is living—but it is making history out of her. At another point, Harry tells the Oracle, Luthe:
Oh, I know—one never sees ahead of behind. But I see even less. It is like being blindfolded when everyone else in the room is not. No one can see outside the room—but everyone else can see the room. I would like to take my blindfold off.
In a way, the book captures the helplessness and the vitality of adolescence—the feeling of being perched on the cusp of something huge, but of not knowing what that will be. But more important to me when I first read it, it explicitly talks about being caught between two cultures. And it interweaves this all with mystical powers and Fate, leading young me to wonder if maybe there was a point to all of this terrible uncertainty. Maybe this alienation, this uncertainty, was exactly what would make me powerful.
As I said, it’s very seductive.
The Blue Sword informs who I am. I can see its fingerprints all over me. Here is where I learned what “bohemian” meant and that swords and sorcery could be interspersed with wit. Here is where I learned to mine a book for offpage sex. Here is where I learned about bridges.
Luthe, the mage whom Corlath consults before battle, tells Harry:
Friends you will have need of, for in you two worlds meet. There is no one on both sides with you, so you must learn to take your own counsel…It is not an enviable position, being a bridge, especially a bridge with visions.
I bought in wholeheartedly to the idea of being the bridge—even though it meant I bought into the idea that I would always be struggling. No—it meant I would always see myself as struggling and that that struggle was for a noble and perhaps magical cause.
But the truth is that I was never in a foreign land. I have always lived here in North America. And it isn’t always struggle. The idea of being this bridge has lost its luster. I think of my daughter who is biracial—a classic born of two worlds child—and I think that she should not have to follow that template unless she wants it. She was born here, too, and the dominant narrative of her life doesn’t have to be one of never feeling quite at home.
It is okay to feel out of place or foreign. But it doesn’t have to be the only way she can see herself in books.
I love The Blue Sword. It is a part of who I am. But I can also give my daughter other books and dreams and characters to follow and identify with—characters who are not necessarily white, people who inhabit their worlds fully. When she’s older, I can give her Zen Cho’s Sorceror to the Crown, or Saladin Ahmed’s stories. If she likes The Blue Sword, great—we’ll have plenty to talk about.
But my daughter doesn’t have to see herself as a bridge in order to reconcile her place. Because the thing about bridges is that people walk all over them to get to other, more fantastical lands.