Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech. 1985.
...one day in the third week of January on a plane flight from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Boston; from Boston I was to go on to New York City, where Greenwillow [Books] was waiting to pour champagne over me and shout "huzzah" and make me sign hundreds of copies of The Hero and the Crown. I was looking forward to it, I thought.
The plane was late; the wind was blowing, hard, in the wrong direction. I was reading Tolkienís Letters and paying as little attention as possible; the whole purpose of public transportation is that the weather becomes someone elseís responsibility. When my flight was finally called, you couldnít see out the windows for the flying snow. Now the terminal at Bar Harbor is about the size of your average living room, and you have to walk outdoors to get to your plane, which will be an eight-to-twelve seater with so little head room that you must crouch down almost double and scuttle along the aisle. If, as I invariably am, you are carrying a knapsack bulging with books and papers, you have very nearly to crawl on your hands and knees.
It was hard to see the plane and harder still to climb its stairs without being blown away. The plane shuddered where it stood as we four passengers strapped ourselves in. The pilot told us casually that it might be a little rough; the propellers spun, and we wobbled off down the runway. Wobbled or veered or staggered. We rambled so badly that we rambled right to the end of the tarmac and turned around and had another go. We did get off the ground this second time with a violent heave such as I am more accustomed to on horseback, facing off a five-foot wall; but youíre expecting it then, and you also know you get to come down again very soon, just over on the other side.
Iíve travelled on small planes before. Iíve flown, for example, in a two-seater one of them the pilotís: an open-cockpit biplane, with my suitcase on my lap, looking down at the cars on the road beneath us making better time than we were. But this last January was probably the worst flight of my life, thus far anyway, and I would be more than happy to let it remain so. About ten minutes of being knocked all over our bit of sky, losing the ground completely in the driving snow, and then having a gap open up just long enough to see that we were now over water with whitecaps from an angry-looking Atlantic just beneath our wings, the spume reaching up like sea serpents to grab for the planeís undercarriage about ten minutes of this and I was groping frantically for pencil and paper. It was too rough to read; human eyes couldnít focus, and I had to do something before I simply went off into hysterics and it occurred to me that I had the opening here for my Newbery acceptance speech. With a yellow legal pad jammed between my knees and my knapsack, trying to keep my eyes averted from the chaos just beyond the small, round window with its thick, distorting plastic pane, I wrote, my pencil flinging itself across the page with every lurch: This is typical. This is just the way my life goes.
It is, too. Some years ago my epitaph occurred to me: "There must have been an easier way." The year that Beauty, my first book, came out was probably the most harrowing of my life; this last year at least runs it a close second, and I have thought upon occasion that it has indeed overtaken it. I donít know that fate likes me exactly, but she sure has a good time with me. Shortly before I was due to turn in The Blue Sword to Greenwillow, a horse fell on me and broke my hand, thus bringing the book to a brutal halt for about six weeks first while the bones healed so I could type again, and second while I got over having the fantods because, having had to stop working on it at such a crucial point, I was convinced Iíd never be able to finish it. About a month before I was to turn in The Hero and the Crown, I fell on myself and broke my ankle. This was actually very good for the book because there was for nine weeks very little I could do but type, but I do now suffer from an interesting new paranoia and am planning to withdraw into a padded room with my typewriter when the next book gets close to its end.
But my life has gone on in heaves and crashes for much longer than I have been bright enough to be looking for patterns. I didnít realize, and a good thing too, that the pattern of an absent-minded, jump-first-and-think-later childhood was going to have quite so far-reaching an effect on all aspects of my later life. I was a military child, and my mother and I followed my naval officer father all over the world. When youíre a child, where your parents are is "home": Itís not till later that you begin to think about what else home means; and one of the things it seems always to have meant to me is "somewhere else". The nearest I came to being able to hold or define that somewhere else was in books, in rereading my favorites and finding new ones when some character or situation spoke directly about that slowly revealed place. I was a very bookish child, as will surprise no one; people think that the line on several of my book jackets about how I keep track of my life by what books I was reading at a given time is just a humorous way of emphasizing that Iíve always been bookish. Not so; itís simple fact. One of the most dramatic examples of this occurred just after I turned eleven. I was in bed one morning reading The Hobbit for the first time and finding it much inferior to The Lord of the Rings when my mother came into my room. She was carrying our portable radio and, I think, a hairbrush, and said "Theyíve shot the president." It was 1963; we were living in Tokyo.
So, two things about the way I grew up: I read a lot and moved around a lot, and the outside world and the inside world blurred somewhere. I played the same sort of wild-horse games I was always big on anything that involved whinnying and jumping over things on the rocky shores of Lake Ontario and under palm trees in Japan; I reread Oz and Andrew Lang in California and Rhode Island.
Another central fact about my childhood was that I was clumsy. Perhaps I would have seemed less clumsy although I doubt it in a house with more than one child in it; but as it was, even when I wasnít in disgrace for breaking something irreplaceable irreplaceable because it had been bought several postings ago, somewhere half the world away I was covered with the bruises resulting from constant battle with intransigent door frames and pieces of furniture.
Iím still clumsy; Iím still bookish; I still travel a lot. I also still have trouble with the real and the unreal, and with door frames and pieces of furniture. Iím merely moody and restless and awkward on a different scale. I can admit to one small breakthrough very recently, however. Most of my adult life Iíve had the nagging fear that at any moment my life is going to settle down and become boring even though if that meant I could stop breaking bones, there might be something to it. I think perhaps that fear left forever, winging into the howling wind around our tiny plane on its way to Boston last January, and I wish luck to whatever star-crossed mortal it lands on next.
Iíve always told myself stories, and as I got old enough to write them down, I wrote them down. My stories happen to me; I bump into them, like pieces of furniture; and they are clear and plain to me like pieces of furniture; and they were clearer and plainer to me now than when I was a child, for which I am grateful. It seems to me that getting older then is a good thing and not a bad one. The main circumstance of getting older that Iím aware of as Damarís historian is that the connection between the dangerously exhilarating ether where Story is and my fingers around a pencil or on a typewriter keyboard is more directly made. The necessary egotism of a child, or at least of the child I was, could not ever be set aside; and now, years later, and thousands of words later, of practise words and practice stories, the flicker of Story on those cave walls I more easily read because I myself throw fewer distracting shadows.
I am not saying this here and now on this very special occasion so that you can murmur to yourselves that I take my own part too little or that Iím protesting too much. Iím trying largely because the focus on me as the author of the Newbery book this year unnerves me rather extremely to tell you how I view my own authorship and my existence as an author. I wrote bad stories before I wrote good ones I still have a drawer in one of my filing cabinets labelled "Juvenalia." Or, to be exact, it is labelled with a series of upper-case-of-top-row-of-typewriter symbols what back in the days before one was allowed to swear in print was used for swear words. But I know what it means. It means garbage. This drawer contains such jewels as the novel I wrote when I was eighteen, and the half-finished epic poem about some enchanted rocks that I worked on, off and on, through junior high and high school, with the aid of a well-thumbed rhyming dictionary. I donít know when the line was crossed from drivel to stuff that other people might want to read. I donít know when the shaft of Story streaming in through that crack in my skull grew bright enough for me to see it with my dim eyes; I donít know when I got comfortable enough with the English language to be able to translate Story into the only words I know. I donít know.
I had started working on the Damarian cycle when, terrified by how much of it there seemed to be, I set it aside to write Beauty. The first publisher I sent Beauty to took it. The line had been crossed.
One of the first questions after what do I eat for breakfast and what color is my typewriter that I had seriously to consider as an author speaking to a reader came about at my first public-speaking gig, at my old prep school, Gould Academy, where I had been invited back as a graduate who seemed to be doing something interesting with her life. A sophomore boy, having been compelled to read Beauty, said grimly, "Theyíre always talking to us about themes and symbols. Do you put that stuff in?" The answer is no. I donít put much of anything in consciously, except commas, and my copy-editor takes a lot of those out again. The stories are there; I am only sorry, every time, that I canít do a better job by them. I, like many of the people, young and old, who write me letters, would far rather simply have been born Arlbethís daughter; I am a historian only because I wasnít given that choice.
But perhaps you can believe that I say conscientiously that I donít know when the line was crossed; and a central reason why I donít know is that my obsessions havenít changed. Those of you who have heard me speak before have been wondering when I was going to get around to talking about Girls Who Do Things; itís about the only thing I do talk about, and it has begun to amuse me that queries about my availability as a speaker refer more and more often to the likelihood of my talking about strong female roles in literature. The subject of Girls Who Do Things has the added benefit that itís one of the few things I feel strongly enough about to be willing (or able) to stand up in front of a lot of people to talk about.
I canít remember a time when the stories I told myself werenít about shy, bumbling girls who turned out to be heroes. They were usually misfits, often orphans, and invariably misunderstood by those around them. Everyone, I think, goes through a period when they first get a glimmering of adulthood and independence from such awful parental rules as brushing oneís teeth and doing oneís homework, of secretly believing that one is really a princess, a cradle changeling something invincibly splendid that there is something in the genes that will reveal itself in some irrevocable way, sooner or later preferably sooner since thereís that math test only next week.
I think I must have held on to that secret belief a little more strongly than most of my peers. It wasnít that I wanted not to belong to my parents; it was that I, as I grew up, so obviously didnít belong anywhere recognizable in the world I had soon to attempt to make mine. Girls were supposed to grow out of being tomboys; they were supposed to stop identifying with the Count of Monte Cristo and start identifying with Haydee; stop wishing to have adventures like Harry Feversham, but be willing to stay home like Ethne and hear of them; stop feeling that Beau Geste really had the better of it than Isobel, who was already a poor relation and then must resign herself to being a poor relation in a household disgraced by the much admired Beau.
But I didnít. I was too clumsy to imagine myself being idealized effectively, even if the young man in question is marching through the sands of the Sahara; to temperamentally cross-grained to see myself an angel of mercy long enough to find my long-lost lover in a soldiersí hospital somewhere; and not nearly pretty enough to sway Edmond Dantes from brooding endlessly over Mercedes.
When I was a child, there didnít seem to be too many alternatives. Iím glad for my stubbornness and awkwardness now and for the fact that my family moved around so much, which also protected me a little from peer pressure. Itís hard to feel much pressure from people you donít know, even if they are your own age and are supposed to be where you make your friends. But being a self-proclaimed obstinate misfit meant I could hold on to my growing obsession with girls who do things. I was never seduced by proms and parties because I was unsuited for them; I didnít discover boys because they didnít discover me, and because their standards of discovery seemed to be too odd to be aspired to.
Not, it must be admitted, that I tried to make myself accessible. Boys, I had decided, were the enemy. They were the ones who got to have adventures while we got to well, not have adventures. Poor Mercedes: what was she to do? Her lover imprisoned and herself without prospects I have long though the Count is harder on her so-called betrayal than she deserves, just as the nubile Haydee deserves no credit for having had the luck to be sheltered all her short life.
The juvenilia hiding in that blighted drawer features girls who do things. It features pretty much nothing else.
Those of you who have heard me talk about Sword have heard me talk about its roots in Kipling and Haggard and PC Wren and, for that matter, in EM Hullís The Sheik, though I suppose I should blush to admit it. I read The Sheik when I was old enough to know better, and around it crystallized several of my hitherto less conscious thoughts about heroines: most specifically, that the purpose of heroinely spirit is that heroes should have a more challenging experience taming them. I couldnít buy that any more than I could help rebelling, many years before, at the idea that poor Caddie Woodlawn was more responsible than her brothers for giving their city-slicker cousin a bad time of it. Damar specifically became Damar around my presently thirty-odd viewings of John Hustonís The Man Who Would Be King to give you an idea of the depth of that narrow obsession, by the way, I bought the cassette of the movie almost a year before I could afford to buy the video machine to play it. The Man Who Would Be King is a wonderful story of heroism and derring-do; itís also the story of a friendship which surpasses everything, including the loss of sanity and life certainly surpassing any love of women. There are no women in the movie; thereís a female plot device to bring on the final catastrophe. I couldnít help being fascinated by the grand wastefulness of Danny and Peacheyís nonsensical idealism and loyalty any more than I could help fooling around with the idea that thereís no real reason a woman couldnít be motivated by idealism and loyalty as well, perhaps even as grand and as improbable.
But Sword as Sword was a late addition even as the name of Damar was to a series of stories already rattling around in my brain and shouting for space and attention. Perhaps the first real flicker of the tale that would become Damar and even more particularly the kernel of what would become the story of Aerin is from my many passionate rereadings of The Lord of the Rings in junior high. Tolkien has received much criticism for his inability to portray women or perhaps better to say his unwillingness to deal with women at all, except as tersely and tangentially as possible, and with teeth visibly clenched. When I was first reading LOTR, it never occurred to me to protest beyond a mild wistfulness that there were no girls in it. Even in the makeup of the Fellowship of the Ring, the Nine Walkers, so carefully chosen to represent the races of Elves, Dwarves, and Men and one Wizard, who is also called "he" no thought is given to, uh, female persons of each persuasion, creed, or national origin. Thatís just the way the best books usually are.
But wait. In the middle of all this unmitigated male bonding thereís a surprising and highly uncharacteristic scene in The Return of the King, at the beginning of the chapter titled "The Battle of Pelennor Fields." For those of you who havenít committed all of The Lord of the Rings to memory, or perhaps havenít even reread it in the last six months or so, this scene takes place before the gates of Gondor, where the forces of Mordor have besieged it. The Riders of Rohan have swept down and engaged the enemy in battle, and the defenders are briefly hopeful, but the Nazgul, the Black Riders, Sauronís deadliest servants, return, and neither horse nor man can stand against the terror of their coming. The Rohan king, Theoden, falls beneath his maddened horse, and his Riders are scattered. Or all his Riders but one: Dernhelm, the mysterious, solitary young man who befriended the hobbit Merry, remains at Theodenís side, even when the Lord of the Nazgul threatens him. The rest of this scene is in Tolkienís own words:
[Dernhelmís] sword rang as it was drawn. "Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may."
"Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!"
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. "But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomundís daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him."
The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merryís fear. He opened his eyes and the blackness was lifted from them. There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgul Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemyís eyes.
Well. There you have it. Itís not that I am tall and light-skinned myself that has made my subconscious carry around all these years a picture of a tall, pale woman carrying a sword and defying something undefiable; although the large clumsiness of Harry and Aerin is certainly an addition by this author. Eowyn was beautiful and gracious and graceful but never mind. Tolkien really didnít know much about women; but I will always be grateful for the hard, pure light this one scene shed on my own girls-saving-the-universe fantasies.
But The Lord of the Rings was published thirty years ago. Iím glad that so many people respond to my lady heroes, my damalur-sol, as good characters to have around; but it bothers me very much that people also still seem to think that they are surprising characters doing surprising things. It bothers me the number of letters I get saying something on the order of, "At last! Girls who do things!"
I know that my stories are not the only ones on bookshelves today that feature female heroes someday, indeed, I want to write a long, graphic essay or teach an arduous course on Real Heroines in Victorian Literature but there are still far too few. There are still far too many stories in which the female lead is paid only lip service to her potential usefulness; who proves she is worth the heroís time by being "spirited," as if she were a horse to be broken to saddle, which is, in fact, a dismayingly frequent metaphor; or who is lucky enough to have the traditional, accredited female virtues of sympathy and patience and gets along just fine by being patient and sympathetic with the right people.
Not all girls are patient and sympathetic any more than all boys are going to join the French Foreign Legion when things get sticky at home. I wished desperately for books like Hero when I was young: books that didnít require me to be untrue to my gender if I wished to fantasize about having my sort of adventures, not about wearing long, trailing dresses and casting languorous looks into pools with rose petals floating in them as the setting sun glimmers through my translucent white fingers and I think about my lover who is off somewhere having interesting adventures.
Book mail is always pleasant to receive (just so long as the letter-writers tell me in detail how much they like my stories), but the best is from thoughtful readers who speak to me as to another thoughtful reader. Several of my favorite letters have remarked that it is to be hoped that part of the point of stories like Sword and Hero and Beauty too is that young readers who identify with Harry and Aerin and the others and wish to be like them also realize that they are. And this should be true (and at least occasionally is, as my book mail also tells me) of boy readers as well as the girls: both sides of our gender-specific even horizon need to be extended.
Unfortunately, very few of us are kidnapped by kings for the magic in our blood, but even if weíre large and clumsy and a dead loss at the usual social systems, we can still grow up to do things and do some of those things by conscious choice.
Iím terribly grateful that the stories that are given to me to write are read and enjoyed by so many people, even if the pinnacle of that gratitude and that enjoyment has required me to give a speech to two thousand people and ruined my digestion. Iím equally grateful to have Susan Hirschman and the other admirable people at Greenwillow to prop me up when I need it, which is often, but please donít ask them to confirm this because I embarrass easily. Iím grateful to The Lord of the Rings for giving me not only Eowyn, but almost single-handedly starting the new popularity of fantasy that has given my books an easier entrée into the market where readers who might like them can find them. Iím even grateful to EM Hull and the Baroness Orczy and various others who gave me wonderful stories that so urgently needed to be done over, correctly this time. I hope some of my doings-over may inspire more girls, both young and grown-up, to do more things they want to do and havenít been quite sure they dared; and more boys not to think it odd that they should want to do them.
You see, itís finally occurred to me that Iím myself a girl who does things. Scribes are, historically, respectable, but not very interesting. It was a letter from a librarian friend in California who pointed out to me that this gap in my thinking was bad for my own cause; and the ker-chunk in my head as her words finally fell into place occurred during that plane flight youíve already heard about, probably at about the same time that my fear of boredom detached itself and left looking for a less cynical host. The stories may simply happen to me, but I have chosen to accept the responsibility to write them down as best I can.
And so, finally, thank you all, and especially the members of this yearís Newbery Committee, for your extraordinary support of that decision and responsibility. Thank you for helping me stay at the typewriter by insisting that the shadows on the wall of Platoís cave that it is given me to see are worth seeing. Thank you for the strength that your enthusiasm for my work gives me to put into more stories. Thank you very much.