In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a lyrical early novel by Patricia McKillip
Sybel, a teenage girl living all alone among the mountains, spends her days caring for a menagerie of mythical creatures, including a cat, a falcon, and a boar, until a man named Coren arrives with a baby he entrusts to her for safe-keeping. Sybel is reluctant to take the baby under her protection, but this isn’t just any baby boy: he’s the heir to the kingdom. Just over a decade later, Coren returns to claim the child, who has now grown into a young boy named Tamlorn. But Sybel has developed a bond with the boy, and initially refuses to give him up; she is eventually persuaded to do so. She meets the wizard Mithran who has been paid by the king, Drede, to destroy Sybel’s will, but Mithran wants Sybel for himself.
This is a brief summary of the beginning of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (FANTASY MASTERWORKS), which is the latest novel in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series to be reviewed on this blog. I say ‘novel’ but in some ways, it makes more sense to view The Forgotten Beasts of Eld less as a ‘novel’ than as a grown-up fairy tale: an extended folk story in which ambiguity triumphs over certainty, and the various tropes of the children’s fairy story are either challenged or gently questioned: the heir to the kingdom, the witch with magical powers, the very idea of the happy-ever-after ending. When Virginia Woolf was at work on her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, she wrote that she needed a new word for what she was writing, for ‘novel’ didn’t adequately describe it. ‘Elegy’ was her suggestion. And that word actually makes quite a bit of sense in relation to The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, too.
Another thing which marks out The Forgotten Beasts of Old from much fantasy fiction is McKillip’s focus on the domestic life of Sybel. There are battles and wars and daring journeys, but these occur off-stage, as it were, and we learn about them only when the male characters return to visit Sybel. I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that McKillip is writing a feminist revisionist work of fantasy literature, which focuses on the everyday domestic aspects of life in a fantasy world rather than the dramatic and momentous events such as battles. For one, a more direct way of challenging such restrictive gender roles for women in fantasy would be to write about female warriors or leaders rather than those who raise children and lead a quiet life at home. But it is worth pointing out how many of the elements we conventionally associate with the genre – the prince who will become king, or the great battle that concludes the narrative – are present only as glimpses in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, things we learn about, as Sybel herself does, from the side-lines. The title, too, is quietly significant, side-lining the human characters, even Sybel herself, in favour of the menagerie of animals she befriends and cares for.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is not my favourite book in the Fantasy Masterworks series. Greater things were to come in McKillip’s own career, and I found this novel difficult to keep myself absorbed in. It’s a little too far removed from the action and adventure associated with high fantasy, and the writing style – which is often praised by fans of the book – isn’t quite beguiling or sophisticated enough to be sufficient in and of itself. You have to be Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, or at least someone with a similarly radical new way of writing, to sustain a 200-page novel without a plot. And between writing The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and writing her superior, and much larger-scale, trilogy The Riddle Master’s Game – which is up there with The Lord of the Rings in its brilliant mastery of the three-part fantasy structure – Patricia McKillip learned much about her craft.
But despite a few signs that this is the early work of a writer yet to achieve full maturity and mastery of her metier, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (FANTASY MASTERWORKS) is nevertheless well-written and it is just short enough to sustain its lightness of touch when it comes to plot. Viewed as a bewitching fairy tale for grown-ups, with a lyrical beauty and a wistfulness which mark it as elegiac rather than heroic, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a book every serious fantasy fan should read.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.