What happens when you revisit the woefully misremembered fantasy and science fiction of your youth? Joe Howley (Latin teacher) and Johannah King-Slutzky (historical researcher) ask adults to re-read their genre favorites from childhood. For the sixth installment in our series, we talked to bona fide adult Everdeen Mason, an audience editor at The Washington Post, about Robin McKinley’s high fantasy novel The Hero and the Crown. We spoke with Everdeen via Gchat about hating horse stuff (but loving one particular Horse Prince), the best way to boast about invulnerability to fire, and which pairings we ship instead of the book’s dopey male lead. (The following conversation has been gently massaged for clarity.)
JOHANNAH: Hi! I think we’re all here now.
JOE: Thanks for doing this!
EVERDEEN: No problem, thank you for having me. I hope you enjoyed the book.
JOHANNAH: We did, very much so.
EVERDEEN: Had either of you read it before?
JOE: No, we hadn’t. As I told Johannah earlier, I wish I had.
JOHANNAH: Which is a great introduction to our first question. Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances of your first reading this book and how you’ve grown with it over time?
EVERDEEN: My father gave me the book as a gift. When I was young, my dad would buy me these really nice hardcover classics as gifts, and I always felt really regal about it, like it was a tome and I was going to become so much smarter. I loved this book immediately. I’ve always been a big fantasy reader, but this was one of the first books I’d read that had such a relatable heroine.
JOHANNAH: How old were you approximately?
EVERDEEN: 11 or 12, I think. It was right before middle school and when I read it that first time, I loved it because it had all of the elements I loved: dragons, and romance, and adventure; but with subsequent rereadings the language really got to me, and then even older, the narrative structure.
JOE: How often would you say you reread it?
EVERDEEN: Shoot. When I was younger, probably once a year. Now not quite that much, but I’m a weirdo; I’m the kind of person where if I need inspiration, I’ll grab a book I love off the shelf and read a random chapter.
JOHANNAH: So you reread the book in parts.
EVERDEEN: Currently, yes.
JOHANNAH: Were there particular parts you felt/feel especially drawn to?
EVERDEEN: Hm — her initial meeting with Talat, the horse. When she starts to figure out the kenet [fireproof potion]. And of course her fight with Maur. Oh, and the final scenes with Luthe.
JOHANNAH: Yes! those were my favorite parts too. (Joe is saying: Aha! she liked Luthe! That was a subject of much debate with us.)
EVERDEEN: Oh no! are you on Team Tor??
JOHANNAH: NO I hate Tor. I am on Team Celibacy apparently.
EVERDEEN: That’s really interesting, because on this rereading I actually thought, why does she have to hook up with people? But when I was younger, I found it really valuable that she was so responsible and level-headed about her romantic decisions. That never happens in books about young women anymore. You never get the sense that it overwhelms her at all.
JOE: I really appreciated the degree of autonomy and choice she exercises and how her status as heroine/princess is not at all diminished by her not being a virgin when she gets with the prince.
JOHANNAH: Yeah Joe was really struck by the de-emphasis of virginity in a way that I was not. I’m curious if that was something you noticed when you were reading it when you were younger. I don’t think I would have noticed that was unusual for the genre.
EVERDEEN: No, I didn’t. It made a lot of sense to me. Like you have sex when you’re ready and you’re in love. When I was a teen was when that was most impactful to me.
JOHANNAH: When she and Luthe have sex I was caught off guard because it seemed so little a part of her life before.
EVERDEEN: That scene with sexuality never mattered to me. It could have been the same without it. It didn’t matter to me until I was much older and I could impose my own views of sexuality on it.
JOE: I think it probably struck me because I now know, in retrospect, that I read a lot of tacitly chauvinist male-oriented genre books as a teenager.
EVERDEEN: What actually stood out to me was that she wasn’t lovelorn. So many fantasy books with young women have so much romantic angst. And that’s fun, sometimes, if I’m in the mood for that.
JOHANNAH: Yeah that’s all Tor’s deal in this book and he sucks.
EVERDEEN: But even as a girl I appreciated this character who was like, I need a purpose, I have to define myself by this purpose I made myself, I think I’m just gonna spend four years preparing to slay dragons.
JOHANNAH: That was one of the things that made the section where she’s developing the kenet so great. It was so purpose-driven and methodical which is one of the things I like about fantasy books.
JOE: She’s kind of… a nerd? A nerd hero? But then she kills dragons so maybe that makes her a jock. Hmm.
JOHANNAH: She’s more of a jock in my mind. Normally I hate using this comparison, but it kept coming to mind when reading this book, I felt very strongly that she was a Gryffindor.
EVERDEEN: Oh she’s totally a Gryffindor. And Galanna is a Slytherin. Oh! Galanna really bothered me this time around and she never had before.
EVERDEEN: I get really bored when authors use attractiveness and vanity as markers of character. I’m just tired of the whole trope where to be a good strong woman you have to not be pretty, or not try to be pretty. You can feel vaguely sad about the fact you’re not pretty but you can’t do anything about it or else you’re vain and then you won’t have enough virtue to slay dragons or have powers or whatever the thing is.
JOHANNAH: We are on 100% the same page, I ranted to Joe about this for a bit in our pre-chat meeting. I think this trope has gone out of favor in the last 10 years maybe. It felt soooo dated– I liked Galanna!
EVERDEEN: Yeah me too! I wanted more of her.
JOE: I definitely felt bad for Galanna.
JOHANNAH: Number one, Aerin burns her eyelashes off in her sleep so Galanna has cause to be angry. Those are your EYES. They are sensitive! And she kills dragons by stabbing them in the eye so she KNOWS eyes are important…. Relatedly, loved Perlith. He was petty in a really fun way. To use another fantasy comparison– they’re the Lannisters.
EVERDEEN: I would read a whole book about Galanna and Perlith just being dicks.
JOE: For most of the first half Galanna was the big evil nemesis, and the royal court was the entire universe. That felt authentically #teen. And if this were a Game Of Thrones-style book, this would have all been foreshadowing that Perlith would be King and would be a total fascist. But no: he’s just a dick.
JOHANNAH: So Everdeen, I would like to know your character rankings. Who are your favorites and who do you dislike?
EVERDEEN: Hm. Aerin, Talat, Luthe, Teka the nursemaid (I know she doesn’t do much but she has a great attitude)–
JOE: This is wild to me, I didn’t even think of Talat as a character.
EVERDEEN: WHAT. Talat has his own journey to redemption.
JOE: I really struggled for a while with all the horse stuff.
EVERDEEN: I know, I don’t even like horses in real life. I just like THIS horse.
JOHANNAH: Talat is my MVP so I don’t get it.
JOE: I’m just, you know, a former teen boy.
JOHANNAH: But we *all* hate horse stuff. Hate horses. Hate reading about horses.
JOE: Guys, horses are cool.
JOHANNAH: Talat transcends horses.
EVERDEEN: Yeah he’s actually just a person. He’s the prince of horses.
JOE: Talat has something that few others have: a real psychological journey that can’t be explained away by some magic crap. He’s hurt deeply and then nurtured and loved, and regains his confidence and achieves greatness.
EVERDEEN: Also the scene where Aerin needs Talat to take her wounded father off the battlefield and he won’t go. A THOUSAND TEARS.
JOHANNAH: That was so emotional. Okay, so, keep going with character rankings though. Aerin, Talat, Luthe, Teka…
EVERDEEN: Galanna, Arlbeth, Perlith, those magical cats and dogs. Fucking Tor.
JOE: Those magical cats and dogs are top of my list, no question. I guess everyone hates Tor?
EVERDEEN: I don’t hate Tor. He’s really dopey but very responsible.
JOHANNAH: He’s so emo. I imagine him with a big black forelock that falls into his eyes.
EVERDEEN: Tor is actually a horse, Talat is the real king.
JOE: Tor is a horse, this is extremely correct.
JOHANNAH: IF ONLY. Talat would be a great king.
JOE: I saw Tor as a young Channing Tatum, hunky and earnest but not that complicated. Tor felt to me like a stand-in for boring vanilla fantasy male hero types.
EVERDEEN: He’s the prototype for Peeta Mellark [in The Hunger Games], he’s just there to love you when you have time. I actually don’t hate Tor, I’m just alarmed by how dense he is. He’s like 12 years older than Aerin and is like, “What is this feeling? my heart is beating and I’m feeling possessive. I must brood.”
JOHANNAH: This is a good segue to our next question, which is: why is the kingdom falling apart? Has it been mismanaged or is it just because the crown is gone? How responsible are the leaders as people?
EVERDEEN: It’s implied it’s because the crown can’t keep demon mischief away. But really I imagine it’s because everyone is locked in the castle fretting.
JOHANNAH: Are they too xenophobic and self-ensconced?
JOE: They don’t know about the existence of an ultra-powerful evil wizard because their xenophobia about northerners/mages has made them completely ignorant of magic.
JOHANNAH: I agree. But it feels a bit sloppy to me that if xenophobia is why they have a weak connection to magic, which in turn is why their empire is falling apart, that that has no bearing on Aerin’s effectiveness as a hero. As in, I think it would have worked better if Aerin had warned her people about something and they didn’t believe her because she’s different. There are never any political repercussions to her (real or imagined) sense of being dismissed.
JOE: In fact, when she returns a hero and becomes queen, they literally forget they ever hated or feared her.
EVERDEEN: Agreed. A lot of the political stuff seems tacked on. It’s a coming of age novel with the trappings of high fantasy.
JOHANNAH: How would you say she comes of age? How does she change over the course of the book?
EVERDEEN: She’s waiting in the wings for people to define her, in the beginning. She wants to hear about her mother and she wants acknowledgment from her father. Then slowly, systematically, she decides to go and get something to do.
JOHANNAH: She definitely gains confidence over the course of the book, but so much of that is because Luthe gives her things — puts her in the silver lake so she becomes immortal, gives her a sick sword…
EVERDEEN: But I think her coming of age is before that.
JOHANNAH: What’s the critical moment then?
EVERDEEN: It’s when she goes and leaves the town to test her kenet without telling anyone and walks into a bonfire.
JOHANNAH: But that happens at the very beginning of the book. If that’s the moment she changes psychologically, why do we need the rest of the book?
JOE: It’s a process. It starts with small independent risks and learning lessons on her own from them but then she has to go and reconcile with her ancestry to achieve self-knowledge.
EVERDEEN: You could also argue that the big moment is taking down Maur’s skull. For some reason, facing the evil wizard wasn’t that important to me.
JOHANNAH: Me neither. Agsded was the Big Bad but those are never that exciting. Maur was way scarier. I am afraid of Maur.
JOE: The wizard is just a checkbox on the to-do list. Maur is the real deal.
JOHANNAH: Agsded is the dark side of Aerin’s lineage, which is a great idea in theory, but we never get a good picture of what her mother is like and how her magic blood could turn Aerin evil, which would have made the threat of her uncle (who shares her face) more menacing.
EVERDEEN: But she was so scared of being “of the north” that there’s some catharsis in her facing Agsded and taking him down.
JOHANNAH: I understand her northern lineage makes townsfolk dislike her. But does she ever worry that she’s secretly a bad apple because she has this blood?
EVERDEEN: I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s proving that you belong some place on your own merits when clearly you have something aiding you, and coming to terms with that.
JOHANNAH: What do you mean? Aerin wants to believe she would succeed without her magic/northern blood?
EVERDEEN: This is a reeeeeallly roundabout way to make it about me, but for example, I used to feel that pressure a lot when I was kid at the private school I went to — or with certain jobs, that people would think I got there because of affirmative action — and so because of that I never joined things like the National Association of Black Journalists. I was really paranoid about getting help, or using the resources people were giving me, and it wasn’t until I was older that I could get over it and accept the duality that I can be legitimate but also benefit from some system. It doesn’t mean I didn’t earn it.
JOE: That makes a lot of sense for me looking at the second half of the book. Aerin knows she’s a witch but doesn’t do anything witchy — in the first half, she tries to become like a knight instead. Then in the second half she’s like, oh yeah, also I can be a witch and that’s great.
JOHANNAH: Oh, I never thought about that. It never occurred to me that her interest in violence (or chivalry or whatever) was a way of distancing herself from her mother.
I want to circle back to something you mentioned earlier on. Are there any parts of the book that stick out to you when you’re trying to shore up your resolve in your life as a creative person?
EVERDEEN: Her failing at her kenet recipe — when she cries over these charred bits of wood and she almost dies killing that first dragon because she didn’t think things through. We don’t encourage single minded devotion to a skill anymore.
JOE: I really appreciated that her end goal was not, like, sharing her kenet on Twitter, it was going and killing f’ing dragons.
JOHANNAH: I am always impressed with characters in fiction who are good at not boasting.
EVERDEEN: If I made kenet I would be such a dick about it.
JOHANNAH: Yeah, same. I would jump into a ball of fire during dinner.
JOE: I have a follow-up question about this. Clearly a large part of this book is about a particularly female side of adolescence. But is there a gender aspect to Aerin’s hard work on a personal skill/project for no fame/reward?
JOHANNAH: I don’t think so. I never felt like Aerin is succumbing to social pressure not to boast. It’s just her character to do things until they’re really impressive and THEN show off. Keep in mind she still wants to show the courtesans a dragon’s head.
EVERDEEN: I don’t think it’s gendered either. She wants recognition, like we all do, but she has an understanding that she has to toil away.
JOHANNAH: I don’t even think Aerin NEEDS to be a girl. Is that crazy?
EVERDEEN: No. The book would have been almost the same if she were a guy. We would have to hear less about hair or darning socks or whatever. And she’s forced to wear ankle ribbons. What would they do instead if it were a guy?
JOHANNAH: Make him get frosted tips.
EVERDEEN: I guess it would be less impactful because if Aerin were a man he would be doing exactly what everyone expected by learning sword play and dragon hunting.
JOHANNAH: Oh yeah. Duh!
JOE: I’m not sure anything I’ve read with an adolescent male protagonist was effective at dealing with adolescence. Those books must be out there, please let us know in the comments.
JOHANNAH: Joe, I’m telling you, Merlin books are the best books in the world for dealing with adolescence.
EVERDEEN: It would be interesting to have something where a character does question tropes of masculinity. Like I don’t want to fight, I want to become a fashion designer.
JOHANNAH: Merlin books. Everyone read books about Merlin immediately.
JOE: Sounds like someone’s in the pocket of Big Merlin.
JOHANNAH: I would love that. Big Merlin? Hello? I will endorse you publicly, email me.
JOE: I came away from this book wishing I’d read it as a preteen, feeling like maybe it would have made me less clueless.
EVERDEEN: I would like to think that I am a better person from having read this book as a kid.
JOHANNAH: Can you tell us more about how your reading of this has changed over time?
EVERDEEN: When I was young it was just a great adventure story. As I got older I found myself reading it and searching for answers in it, which is how I came away with a lot of the stuff about perseverance. I also found myself drawn more to the relationships between people. Robin McKinley is good at writing little intimacies between people (and horses). I enjoyed that more when I got older.
JOHANNAH: Do you think you always interpreted Aerin’s differentness through the lens of race or is that something you became more conscious of as you got older?
EVERDEEN: No, I didn’t interpret it as race at all. But I also think it’s because, and this is super embarrassing, I just thought everyone was white, because that’s what fantasy books are.
JOHANNAH: I mentioned race because you had said earlier that you saw Aerin’s not belonging as having to do with your experience in private school and needing to prove you got there on your own merit.
EVERDEEN: Yes, when I was older, but in my case my difference was race and the ripple effect of that. In Aerin’s case it wasn’t. It was her own ability to use magic. Perhaps you could call that a racial difference in the world of Damar.
JOE: It flirts with being one. It’s an Other status that has visual markers for sure.
EVERDEEN: Yeah, you know what, that’s my own thing where I always conflate race with color. I suppose a different race could look exactly the same and just be magical. Interestingly I latched onto that as a kid and didn’t even think about it as a race thing.
JOE: This is definitely one of those things that fantasy has always had the option of dealing with. Tolkien didn’t make the elf/man thing in any way track to human race issues, but he was also an old white 20th century dude.
JOHANNAH: I want to clarify I was never suggesting this book exclusively be read as a parable of race. Just that one’s race might color the experience of feeling left out the way Aerin does.
JOE: That’s another strength of the book, that could keep coming back to it and getting more of it. Can I nerd out on this for a sec?
EVERDEEN: Go, go!
JOE: In modern education we almost never read the same books over and over, we read different books in elementary, middle, high school, etc. Maybe you reread one or two of them in college, but from what we know of the ancient Greeks and Romans, they would read Homer over and over again. As their education got more sophisticated they still returned to the same core texts. Ancient teachers even talk about how when you are a young student you are reading Homer and seeing how the language works, or how the poetry is effective, and then you are more sophisticated and you can begin to draw moral lessons from it, and reflect on its philosophical content. And I think that’s an experience we don’t really have today, unless we maybe go to church and read the same scripture from childhood to adulthood.
EVERDEEN: I love that you say this, because I’m a serial rereader of books. Some of my friends think it’s so weird.
But oh! One question for you guys: Reading this book this time around, I felt myself being annoyed about the physical description of Aerin because my brain is full with lots of other teen books where they’re like, “This person is physically unattractive in this world because she is tall and has milky skin, and flowing hair and piercing eyes,” so like, they are basically a model.
JOHANNAH: Yes that definitely annoyed me. And she is clumsy and shy. I am not a huge fan of Aerin. I don’t hate her, but elements of her bother me.
EVERDEEN: As an adult I can see she’s flawed, but I can’t separate her now from how much I loved her at age 12.
JOHANNAH: Yeah, that was something I wondered about when reading this book because this book reminded me of one of my own favorites from that age, the Taran/Black Cauldron series.
JOE: Whoa, yeah.
JOHANNAH: I haven’t reread those in a while but I used to. I stopped because I had a bad reaction; it was heart wrenching for me. The Black Cauldron is and probably always will be great, but I LOVED the third book in the series, Taran, Wanderer and it didn’t hold up as I got older. I kept wondering if The Hero And The Crown would have been my Taran, Wanderer. I also wanted to compare Eilonwy to Aerin but that might’ve just been the hair and the tower.
EVERDEEN: The comparison is there but their characters are so different. Eilonwy is one of my faves because she specifically doesn’t fall into the ‘shy/quiet/insecure’ thing.
JOHANNAH: That was another series where the two characters loved each other all along, they realized. That trope has always annoyed me. (I like it in movies though. Sound of Music cough cough.)
EVERDEEN: In real life the guy you’ve been friends with the whole time does not turn out to be a babely king. He just stays weird.
JOE: So is Aerin into Tor the whole time?
EVERDEEN: No, I think she realizes she has a responsibility to be queen.
JOHANNAH: I think she got dickmatized by Luthe and that makes her physically and emotionally horny for more.
EVERDEEN: Actually when I was young I used to wonder why she couldn’t just go be a mage queen with Luthe. They make it seem so obvious, like okay, we must part now, and I’m like…why.
JOE: Yeah, there’s Fantasy Reasons why she can’t BE with Luthe, but I thought the idea of like having a practice relationship where you learn what romantic feelings are was a pretty sophisticated move for this kind of story.
JOHANNAH: I assume that in future books she is with Luthe. Can you confirm?
EVERDEEN: No! There’s a book called The Blue Sword that was written first but takes place waaaaay in the future and Luthe is mentioned as being alive but Aerin is a legend.
EVERDEEN: Yeah! I thought she was being pragmatic and being like, oh I’ll just date Tor now, and then he’ll die, and since I’m basically immortal I can hang with Luthe after.
JOE: And “Luthe should hold on to the dragon stone in case we need it” is classic “In the next book we will need it” shit. Anyway I got the sense that for most of the story, she knew Tor was into her, but was just avoiding that whole part of life entirely.
JOHANNAH: She clearly knows Tor is into her and is repressing it, which is a jerk move.
EVERDEEN: I’m still not convinced she loves Tor. That’s one thing that has never made sense to me, from childhood to adulthood. She’s like, “My love for Luthe made me realize my love for Tor,” and I’m like why did it do that. Your love for Luthe should have made you realize Tor is annoying and that you and Luthe could just take over Damar with magic.
JOE: I dunno, I totally bought “Luthe as practice relationship,” that seemed legit to me!
JOHANNAH: Yeah I bought it too. I just didn’t think Tor should be her next object of affection. And I wanted her relationship with Luthe to be sordid. They are tender but also, he’s a thousand. I want them to roleplay or something.
EVERDEEN: She embarks on a dangerous affair with Perlith, scandalizing the nation.
JOHANNAH: Yeah, I ship Aerin/Perlith.
JOE: I ship Talat/tasty meadow grass.
EVERDEEN: Cat queen/dog queen in a forbidden interspecies romance.
JOHANNAH: YES. Oh I did appreciate that the cat is the king and the dog is the queen. Smash gender stereotypes!
EVERDEEN: I assumed they were all girls which I understand makes no sense.
JOHANNAH: No, it says cat king. I was very conscious of this.
Like I said, I have a hard time buying Aerin being with anybody because I never got a sense of her being a romantic or sexual person even though she does both. I don’t know what her interiority is like.
JOE: Like Everdeen said at the top, romance is definitely not her main focus. Her main focus is figuring out who she is and killing dragons.
JOHANNAH: Yeah that’s good. I would have appreciated that as a kid. I hated romance in my fantasy books. Hated.
EVERDEEN: I didn’t hate it but then I started to feel pressure, like am I supposed to be in love? Will it hurt?
JOHANNAH: On that note, do we have any last thoughts?
JOE: Everdeen, thank you for making me read this book!
EVERDEEN: No problem, this was really fun.