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I just finished devouring the latest novel by one of my favorite authors, Robin McKinley (Beauty, Sunshine, The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, Chalice, Dragonhaven, etc.). She writes primarily in the “fantasy” and “young adult” genres and this novel, Pegasus, is no exception to her marvelous track record.
I enjoy McKinley’s novels on several levels – so much so that there are a few I go back to repeatedly and re-read (specifically Sunshine and The Blue Sword). She creates different worlds in which we are immersed, with galleries of important characters. I never want her books to come to an end, ejecting me back into my own world, and I find myself having flashbacks to certain moments and events and wondering what is behind the curtain of reality in this world. (If those aren’t signs of a good novel, I don’t know what is.)
Her stories are not just adventures filled with mythical creatures, magic and battles (usually involving swords), they are psychological novels with emotional voyages of discovery.
It occurred to me as I was reading Pegasus that there is a common theme that runs through my favorite McKinley tales: Her heroes often find themselves thrown into situations with a Mysterious Other that is either misunderstood or demonized by the hero’s culture. The hero, through the unfolding of a relationship with a particular individual, begins to realize that there is more to the Others than originally believed and that at least some of the Conventional Wisdom about those Others is either incomplete, dead wrong, or simply cannot be applied to all individuals. Through curiosity and being willing to set aside natural revulsion to (or fear of) what is different, the hero begins to see the Other in a new light (and often ends up being changed in the process). Of course, this is done at the risk of being ostracized by the hero’s own culture.
McKinley’s heroes are repeatedly confronted by individual Others who do not match the portraits that have been painted of them as a group, and the hero comes to the question, “If this is not true about them, then what else is different than I’ve been told? What IS true?” And they are faced with a choice between retreating into comfortable myths and exploring for themselves.
At the same time, the heroes often find that there are Bad Guys among their own kind, further blurring the previously simple structures of right and wrong, safe and dangerous.
It takes courage for McKinley’s characters to follow their curiosity. Even though they are thrust into situations they did not choose, they do face choices throughout their stories, and it is their struggles with those choices that really are the stories.
We are not faced with dragons, vampires, Beasts, or flying horses, or even desert nomads with magical powers. But we do face the same choices every day: Am I willing to question the Conventional Wisdom about those who are different from me? Am I willing to question the stories I make up myself? Am I willing to acknowledge but not blindly accept the danger signals from my lizard brain? Am I willing to rock the safe and secure boat of unquestioned “knowledge?”
Our dragons, vampires and pegasi are all human. But they are of different colors, cultures, and economic strata. They are the younger – or older – co-workers and family members who just look at the world differently. They are those departments down the hall that make it difficult to get our work done.
It takes courage to connect with the Other, to be curious and step out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. This is the edge of chaos, where things change, where our worldviews change, where we change.
McKinley’s heroes may not acquire riches as a result of their choices, but they do discover richness beyond their wildest dreams.
As can we all.
Who are the dragons, vampires and Beasts you have faced – or face? How does curiosity help? Please leave a comment (and give me something to read while I wait for Pegasus II).