The Canon of Devastation and Delight. We all have one. Those books that are not just favorites (and sometimes aren’t favorites at all) but also change something about us. We’re not the same person we were when we started them.
I’m writing an ongoing column here, with a post dedicated to each of the books in my own Canon. This is about more than just “here’s a list of my favorite books”, though that would be valuable in and of itself. However, I am trying to go a bit deeper, to understand why a story has stuck with me, why it made me uncomfortable, why it effected my own work and my view on the world, why it changed me.
I’d love to hear if you have any of the same books in your own canon, or what other ones made your list. You can read about the concept, and my list of books, in the first post of the series.
I chose to start the in depth exploration of my personal canon with Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown because it is hands down my favorite book of all time. I read it annually and always find something new in it, some detail I missed, some new perspective.
The description on the back cover does a decent job hinting at the basic concept of the book:
“Aerin could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it.
It was the story of her mother, the witchwoman who enspelled the king into marrying her, to get an heir that would rule Damar; and it was told that she turned her face to the wall and died of despair when she found she had borne a daughter instead of a son.
Aerin was that daughter.
But there was more of the story yet to be told; Aerin’s destiny was greater than even she had dreamed–for she was to be the true hero who would wield the power of the Blue Sword…”
It was a good enough description to get me to pick the book up at the mall bookstore in 1987 and never look back. The wonderful thing about that cover copy is that it leaves out the dragons (spoiler-not-spoiler alert: yes, the huge dragon on the cover shows up), Aerin’s amazing horse, and the people in her life, from her nursemaid Teka to the mysterious Luthe. There is so much more to the book than what the cover reveals, despite its short length.
Aerin doesn’t need to be reminded that she’s an outcast, though she is often reminded anyway. She rails against her status and her lack of power, but not in any measured way. Aerin flails and that’s part of what makes her so memorable. She messes up, a lot, in ways that put her in danger that no one can really rescue her from, not even the men that hold power over her.
She’s amazing and strong and willful, but in a similar way to Merida from Brave (what is it about redheads?) in that she isn’t entirely sure what she wants, though she knows pretty clearly what she does not want.
The book effected me deeply on its first reading. At the time, I was eleven and just getting into fantasy books. Many of the titles I had access to at the time (Tolkien and Lewis would not come until much later) were usually populated by children my age or younger or by strong young men. I had grown up on princesses who, for all their inner strength, still needed rescuing.
Aerin was a revelation. I wanted to be her, I still do. I wanted to see Damar and ride Talat and wield that aforementioned Blue Sword. It was thrilling to me to see someone only a bit older than myself taking on the world in her own imperfect way.
No amount of fortitude would have made Aerin special to me, though, if it had not been for the writing and imagination of Robin McKinley. Did I mention this book won the Newberry? It deserves it. The book is taut, holding an epic trilogy’s worth of story in a single, 227 page volume, at least in my copy. McKinley’s brevity, without compromising character, description, or story, has had a huge influence on my own writing as well as my expectations for everything I read.
As I was writing this, I was thinking about what really makes this book different, what is it about the story that does something unique, or at least rare. I began thinking about the structure of it, how one event flows to the next. I realized pretty quickly that it is most definitely not the Hero’s Journey, like so many epics. And then I remembered there is an alternate structure, one I was made aware of only last year: the Heroine’s Journey. It’s structure is something like this:
The feminine journey is a journey in which the hero gathers the courage to face death and endure the transformation toward being reborn as a complete being in charge of her own life.
Her journey starts by questioning authority, then gaining the courage to stand up for herself, and finally embodying the willingness to go it alone and face her own symbolic death.
Contrast this to the Masculine Journey, in which the hero rejects inner exploration in favor of external exploration. “His journey ends with questioning authority and his role in society, and by finding his authentic self.”
The Heroine’s Journey is also notable as the heroine usually starts out with much and has to lose everything (family, security, love. See: East of the Sun, West of the Moon) before regaining it again, where the hero generally starts with nothing (see Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie) and steadily makes gains through the end.
At the end of the day, I believe it is this structure, this underlying architecture of the Heroine’s Journey, that struck such a deep, resonating chord with me as a child. I had never seen it’s like. It was complex and did not follow the formula of what a story was supposed to act like. The wonderful thing about uncovering this now, is that it has not taken a single bit of the magic away from the story for me. In fact, it makes it even more powerful in some ways. I can appreciate it on a whole different level this way, and understand how deeply it has effected me.
So, here I have unearthed some of the deep magic of what makes this book tick for me, what makes it such a foundational volume, what makes it part of my Canon of Devastation and Delight. Like so many books on this particular pile, there are layers I have yet to uncover and I look forward to doing just that for many years to come.
I also hope it has made you think about your own Canon and the books that have changed you, too.
Next up will be “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle. See you then, and until then, I hope you read something both delightful and devastating.