Thursday, April 19, 2012

here be dragons

(Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my most rambling blog post yet. Enjoy.)

In many (possibly most) of the books I read when I was small, the heroines were perfect. Beautiful, brave, self-confident. If they had a flaw, it was something like being too sassy, too outgoing, too inclined to rush ahead. Elizabeth Bennett, for example.

When I read Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, it blew my mind. Not necessarily because I felt that I'd been shown a different type of heroine - Aerin may go off and fight dragons, but I'd already read Lloyd Alexander's books involving women who do battle, knew about Eowyn, and in my own mind had re-written Jim Hawkins as a girl long ago. Plus if you have an ageless wizard and a prince competing for your heroine's sexual favors, then I, the plainest child west of the Mississippi, am not going to fully identify with her. What blew my mind was Maur.  

If you don't know the story: Princess Aerin kills Maur, the "last of the great dragons", and while she is recovering from the battle someone brings Maur's skull back and mounts it in the great hall of the castle. When she enters the hall upon her recovery, the skull talks to her. It taunts her, in some of the creepiest passages I've ever read, calling her "witchwoman's daughter" and pointing out that everyone fears her now, because what girl could have defeated a dragon if she did not have some terrifying power? There's a definite sense that the skull is telling her she has more in common with the dragons she fights than with the people around her. At the end of the book, Aerin rejects the enormously powerful "bloodstone" from Maur's body, marries the prince, and is accepted by her people.

And I, eleven years old, was like, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, LADY?

Previous events in my life had anticipated this reaction. I am told that as a very wee one I was taken to see "Sleeping Beauty", and when Maleficent turned into the dragon my older brother and the other little boy there flung themselves into their mothers' laps in terror; my mother looked over to see if I was scared, and I was bouncing in my seat with pure delight. (I still love that scene, and am still outraged that we're expected to believe the comic-relief bumbling fairies have the magic necessary to defeat a GIANT BAD-ASS DRAGON. Please.) 

In The Hero and the Crown, the choice for Aerin is supposed to be between the two men (which was also a no-brainer for me, given that one is pale and humorless and the other taught her how to use a sword); listening to Maur and accepting herself as a "witchwoman's daughter" is not an option. Aerin, being the heroine, can do everything - defeat the dragon, get the guy, blossom from gangly awkwardness into beauty - but she can't be allowed to have power if it makes people dislike her. That would be imperfect.

My bĂȘte noire, from the earliest I can remember, has been imperfection. I know I'm not alone in this; I ended up at a tiny liberal arts college, after all, where I'm sure most of my classmates beat themselves up for not toilet-training earlier than they did. In second grade, writing a little story for class, I remember blanking on how to spell a simple word and completely panicking as a result. Total, frozen, maybe I should ask to use the bathroom and crawl out the window and join the circus because after turning in a story with a possible misspelling I CAN NEVER RETURN TO THIS CLASSROOM panic, and it was only the conviction that I would also disappoint the authority figures at the circus which had me returning to school the next day.

Heroines who could do everything should have been inspirational, but they discouraged me to the point of exhaustion. The ones who could fight could never just fight: they were also beautiful, brave, desired. Robin McKinley can characterize her heroines as awkwardly gangly all she wants, but they're still gifted with magical powers and have men willing to die for them (and it's worth noting no one's ever awkwardly plump). Lloyd Alexander's freakishly brilliant Vesper Holly and the defiant, competent women in the Westmark series are also described as breathtakingly beautiful. Even Kate from The Perilous Gard, which remains one of my favorite books in the entire world, returns from her sojourn with the fairies having gained an improved figure - there's the obligatory scene in which all her old dresses are too loose around the waist and too tight around the chest - and everyone talks about how different she looks (I forgive that, though, because she saves the hero by being able to think on her feet and by making fun of pretentious rituals). To be worthy of love you have to be perfect.

I don't recall anyone insisting a dragon has to be perfect. An imperfect, comically hapless dragon could probably still set things on fire (and would doubtless impress the circus authority figures). The idea of living in a nice quiet cave and being able to set pushy people who wouldn't leave me alone on fire was really, really appealing to me when I was ten years old (who am I kidding? it was appealing the last time I hid from the cable salespeople).

(Required reading if you haven't already: Jane Yolen's fairy tale Dove Isabeau, in which a princess is turned into a dragon and then eats all the heroes who come to rescue her. I didn't discover it until later in life, but damn.)

I wasn't really an angry child with tendencies towards pyromania, despite how I may be coming across here. I just faced the dilemma of adoring fiction without being able to find anyone enough like myself in it (and I'm a white woman who has always been sure of her heterosexuality - I can't imagine the frustration and disconnect girls of other ethnicities or sexual preferences face in their reading). And instead of being able to just lose myself in the story, or temporarily imagine myself as that perfect girl, I compared myself to fictional characters and became more and more obsessed with my own imperfections as a result. I didn't feel that way when I was reading about Maur, when I was reading about Smaug*. I could never picture myself being able to waltz or sword-fight or learn six languages or marry a prince, but identifying with an inhuman character absolved me of all the normal human imperfections I couldn't forgive.

It's like a toddler pretending to be a dinosaur, I know. A very basic desire to be more powerful than you are, to be a big stompy thing that doesn't apologize for taking up space. The goal, of course, should be for a young girl to know that it's okay to be flawed and imperfect and human, and be powerful and unapologetic anyway. I am not quite there even now, but I think I'm getting closer to stripping away the scales.

Though I'm not going to stop wishing that any interaction beginning with, "Can I talk to you about Fios?" could end with plumes of nostril fire. FOOOOM.

*I still think Smaug got treated shabbily as hell, and anyone going to the upcoming movie with me should know that I will probably cry when he dies.  


  1. JD was asking me recently if there were any female fictional characters I strongly associated with as a child. The two that really spoke to me were Anne Shirley and Meg Murry (unfortunately, neither provides an especially compelling name for our new cat, which is why he was asking). It occurs to me now that both Anne and Meg were described as awkward and/or not conventionally attractive. On the other hand, both turn out to be beautiful when they grow up and marry their teenage crushes, so maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part as an awkward kid reading those books. (Thankfully, I didn't marry any of my teenage crushes.)

    (And I also loved Smaug. It breaks my heart that my book loving nephew has emphatically declared that he is not interested in reading that book.)

  2. (I bet that nephew will see the light.)

    This speaks to a more general problem I've noted with fiction and me, which is that as an adult (hee) operating the in the real world (ha) I've had a tendency to think in novelistic tropes, as if I can discern people by one or two telling quirks I observe in them, or even that my quick twitch of a smile will be noticed by the one person in the room who is a main character of the story I am another main character of...I know, gads. One "problem" with people is that they are not the trope that we make of them in our narrative, which isn't anything so neat as a story anyway. C.S. Lewis discusses this in A Grief Observed, to shattering effect. It still seems both glaringly obvious and very sneaky to me, and of course it's not just a problem with fiction--non-fiction has its own pitfalls. I wish I'd had any idea what historiography was when that ass Bench (Bensch?) was trying to teach it to 18-year-olds.