As a kid, I read and reread The Harper Hall Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, especially Dragonsong and Dragonsinger (for some reason, I read them whenever I had the flu). I loved following Menolly’s adventures, first as she discovered the fire-lizards, and then at the Harper Hall. Looking back, I recognize that there was more thematically going on than I was aware of, but what resonated with me as an adolescent boy was Menolly’s struggle to be accepted for who she was: first, in the fishing village she came from, and then at the Harper Hall. There was something affirming in watching her exceed the expectations of the people around her, overcome challenges, and come into her own. What I was reacting to was a specific version of the outsider narrative that I think of as “the triumph of the new kid,” one that has a special place in speculative fiction, in novels ranging from Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, to the Harry Potter books, to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and many, many more.
The New Kid
The new kid arrives at the school, or the castle, or the town, without a friend. She might (or might not) have had some special skills that helped get her there, but now she has to adapt to new circumstances. Her peers don’t like her, or are threatened by her; she’s adrift in a new world, with unfamiliar rules that she may violate without even meaning to.
Maybe her mere existence challenges the status quo. Maybe she has a new, possibly threatening perspective, or her presence (or actions) highlight an injustice. Regardless, the new kid provides a unique perspective through which to examine the society in which she finds herself.
In the Harper Hall books, Menolly is an outsider that some see as having no right to be studying music. Like Menolly, Yeine Darr in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is seen as being lesser than those around her. Both have to navigate environments whose rules are foreign to them. Additionally, Yeine and Menolly serve as lenses through which to view not just personal but societal injustice: in Menolly’s case, the role of women and her mistreatment by her family, in Yeine’s, the slavery of the gods and the cruelty of the Arameri. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry deals with an unfamiliar environment and its unpredictable, high stakes rules, and is subject to the jealousy that comes with a status he has yet to earn.
Acceptance, and Triumph
The new kid has something special about him: secret knowledge, or a magical power. Something about his unusual background gives him an edge that even he doesn’t see, at first – and certainly nobody else does. Still, there are those who will reach out to him before his uniqueness manifests: friends who care about him before he has any authority.
In time, the new kid will prove himself in unexpected ways. He won’t just learn the new environment: he’ll master it. In the end, what makes him special doesn’t just allow him to succeed, it allows him to surpass those around him and attain a special status.
In the Harper Hall books, Menolly makes friends like Piemer and Audiva. Overcoming the machinations of her enemies, she proves herself through skill and kindness. Though Yeine struggles with her position in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, she also forges alliances; ultimately what makes her special is made manifest and she, too, transcends her environment. In the Harry Potter books – where everyone is a wizard – Harry excels not through magic, but through friendship, bravery, and sacrifice, the latter two of which establish him not as not just a successful wizard, but as a hero.
Is Fitting in Enough?
Everyone has at one time or another felt like an outsider: everyone has experienced a first day at school or on the job, or been at a gathering where they have to work their way into a group of strangers. For many readers of speculative fiction, though, the outsider narrative – and the paradigm of the new kid, especially, is uniquely significant.
Many fantasy and science fiction fans come to the genre because of the escapism it offers. Many of us, more than most, have felt as if we didn’t belong. A narrative that features a protagonist who starts as an outsider, gains respect and friendship, and ultimately triumphs is powerful and affirming to people who have struggled to be accepted. It speaks to the idea that the outsider who at best goes unnoticed – and at worst is targeted – has something to offer, and will ultimately prove exceptional.
There’s often more to the triumph of the new kid, though, than just being part of the group: in Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, Menolly is extraordinarily gifted, and in impressing the fire-lizards, does something no one else has done. Yeine, ultimately, turns out to be much more than she appears, and in the end, Harry Potter saves the wizarding world. Beyond escapism and acceptance, the story of the new kid in speculative fiction is the story of the relationship between an outsider reader and an outsider protagonist, and often includes a kernel of wish fulfillment – a hope that the new kid will do more than just fit in: that she will ultimately transcend the environment that threatened to reject her.
The appeal of the triumph of the new kid might be mistrust of the peer group, leading to a belief that being accepted is not enough, ego reasserting itself in the face of rejection, a straightforward manifestation of the heroic journey, or a human need to be seen as unique and special. The triumph of the new kid is enabled in speculative fiction by the presence of magic or technology that makes it easy to create an outsider protagonist with special powers. Finally, the popularity of this narrative is due in no small part to a community with a higher than average percentage of outsiders, many of whom have a new kid buried deep inside of them, struggling to fit in.
Do you have a favorite “triumph of the new kid” narrative? Sometimes the charge of “wish fulfillment” has been leveled against science fiction and fantasy – is the triumph of the new kid an example, or would it be more accurate to say that the narrative is simply a blending of the outsider narrative with a heroic journey?