The Authentic Voice of Wizardry

Sometimes I need a little reminder of why I read fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

“He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now…”

(…from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.)

“Thou read the book, my pretty Vivien!
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks — thou read the book!
And every margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm…”

(…from “Merlin and Vivien” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.)

Tales of Zothique, cover by Jason C Eckhardt and Homer D Eckhardt

“Now, in all ways that were feasible, we interrogated the shadow, speaking through our own lips and the lips of mummies and statues. But there was no determinable answer; and calling certain of the devils and phantoms that were our familiars, we made question through the mouths of these, but without result. And all the while, our magic mirrors were void of any reflection of a presence that might have cast the shadow; and they that had been our spokesmen could detect nothing in the room. And there was no spell, it seemed, that had power upon the visitant. So Avyctes became troubled; and drawing on the floor with blood and ashes the ellipse of Oumor, wherein no demon nor spirit may intrude, he retired to its center. But still within the ellipse, like a flowing taint of liquid corruption, the shadow followed his shadow; and the space between the two was no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen…”

(…from “The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith. Read it here.)

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, cover by Michael Heslop

“The window ahead of them flew open, outwards, scattering all the snow. A faint luminous path like a broad ribbon lay ahead, stretching into the snow-flecked air; looking down, Will could see through it, see the snow-mounded outlines of roofs and fences and trees below. Yet the path was substantial too. In one stride Merriman had reached it through the window and was sweeping away at great speed with an eerie gliding movement, vanishing into the night. Will leapt after him, and the strange path swept him too off through the night, with no feeling either of speed or cold. The night around him was black and thick; nothing was to be seen except the glimmer of the Old Ones’ airy way. And then all at once they were in some bubble of Time, hovering, tilted on the wind…”

(…from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.)

“I have been in wastelands beneath the moon’s eye, in rich lords’ courts with the sound of pipe and heartbeat of drum… I have been in high mountains, in hot, small witches’ huts watching their mad eyes and fire-burned faces; I have spoken with the owl and the snow-white falcon and the black crow; I have spoken to the fools that dwell by thousands in crowded cities, men and women; I have spoken to cool-voiced queens…”

(…from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip.)

In the Land of Time, cover by Sidney Sime

“But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and their beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men. Slowly and painfully, harassed with agues and chills, the King rallied his aged army that tottered down the slope…”

(…from “In the Land of Time” by Lord Dunsany. Read it here.)

Stepping from the Shadows by Patricia McKillip

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls Stepping from the Shadows (published 1982) ‘an interesting naturalistic novel about the making of a fantasy writer’, which immediately piqued my interest. It is, then, a Bildungsroman — a novel about the formation of an individual. And, though it’s not a fantasy novel (certainly not in the sense that McKillip’s earlier books, like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy), it’s very much about imagination, and not just idle daydreamery: its young narrator has a strong imaginative life, one that threatens, at times, to unbalance her.

Stepping From The ShadowsThe book starts with an interesting narrative approach that won me over immediately. The first person narrator (a young girl, seven years old in the first chapter) is constantly accompanied by ‘Frances’, a dreamy soul apt to be lost in stories, reveries and idle distractions, often at the most inconvenient times, like when Sister Thomas Augustine is asking her a question in class. It’s obvious Frances and the narrating ‘I’ are the same person, but one is the inner self, the dreamer, the storyteller, while the other, the narrating ‘I’, is the one who has to deal with the moment-by-moment realities of life. Frances is annoying but rewarding. It’s she who decides the cacti they pass on the way to primary school in this small America town are in fact the fingers of Hell-Giants, poking out of the ground; it’s she who provides the magic, imagination, and deeper meaning in the narrator’s life.

Each chapter is a leap forward in age. In chapter two, Frances-and-I are in Germany, and in chapter three they’re in England, following her military father’s various postings. The England chapter is my favourite, a wonderfully evoked autumn and winter in which Frances’s sensitive nature blooms into at first poetry, then full-blown imaginative vision, as a stag she sees transforms into something both magical and startlingly real, a man with antlers:

‘I wanted to cry or yell at Frances for waking something like that out of the past around us, putting it into my mind. Now that you’ve got him, I wanted to shout, what am I going to do with him? Most of all, I wanted to run. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him. After a while, I stopped wanting to run.’

As in Alan Garner and Susan Cooper’s books, the stag-horned man represents something deep and true coming from the primal realms of the imagination — but also something troubling and potentially dangerous. Here, it represents the true awakening of Frances’s creative life. Having seen it, she’s compelled to follow this striking vision (in the secret, private stories she writes) to try and solve this ‘unsolvable problem in quest of an answer’. The narrator, though, struggles with the sheer peculiarity of her suddenly over-alive inner life:

“God damn it!” I yelled at Frances. “Nobody else has a Stagman — why should I have one? I’m trying to lead a normal, ordinary, mediocre existence!”

But, impossible as it is to live with this constant, impossible companion, it’s worse trying to live without the vital inner link he represents:

‘…the Stagman was part of my own shadow, or my dreams, to be endlessly pursued, endlessly challenging, forcing the best of strength, creativity, passion from me.’

Even when Frances seems to have understood the Stagman creatively (it passes almost unmentioned, but in the later chapters, she has written about him, and got published, giving her the money she needs to drop out and find herself) he changes, as all such tricksy figures do: suddenly, he takes on a new aspect, representing Frances’s sexuality, as she starts seeing the Stagman all around, in the young men she’s both attracted to and terrified of.

Demian by Hermann HesseStepping from the Shadows is set mostly in the 1960s. While Frances is at school, President Kennedy is assassinated (she also overhears a conversation two fellow pupils are having: ‘What’s a hobbit?’, one says). Later, at high school, she’s involved in various political demonstrations. The novel reminded me of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, another Bildungsroman about a divided protagonist on a creative quest, and both books, I have to say, have slightly disappointing endings. But the thing is, how can you end the story of someone’s quest for what is, in essence, a beginning — both McKillip’s Frances and Hesse’s Demian are in search of themselves so they can start on their proper lives. Their ‘happily ever after’ is an inner event, a moment of certainty, of commitment, a moment of finding oneself, a moment when things begin. In a film, you’d end with them walking off down a road towards some hopeful future, and the camera would lift up, leaving them to find new adventures; neither McKillip nor Hesse find the literary equivalent of that lifting camera, so both peter out a bit (though in different ways). But it’s the journey to reach that point that counts, not the actual moment of ending, so that’s what these books should be judged upon.

A poetic book about the formative years of a sensitive, imaginative soul, Stepping from the Shadows is more engaging than The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, whose main character I found a bit aloof. Frances, here — or her narrator-I self — is so much more directly engaged in the very difficult task of being and becoming a whole human being (as Eld’s super-cool, powerful Sybel wasn’t) that the novel feels, moment by moment, so much more alive.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip

Ballantine edition from 1974, cover by Gervasio Gallardo

Ballantine edition from 1974, cover by Gervasio Gallardo

Beautiful, detached and magically powerful, the young woman Sybel lives atop Eld Mountain, “alone with [a] beautiful white house, a vast library of heavy, iron-bound books, a collection of animals beyond all dreaming, and the power to hold them.” The world outside her small domain may be wracked with conflict, but Sybel is only interested in adding one more fabulous creature to her already fabulous collection (which includes a boar that can answer riddles, and a gold-hungry dragon). She tries to call the Liralen, “a great white bird with wings that glided like snowy pennants unfurled in the wind, a bird that had carried the only Queen of Eldwold on its back in days long before.” And the closest she comes to engagement with the wider world is sneaking out to steal the occasional book of lore from some unsuspecting wizard.

Into this ivory tower fantasy, the real world must come. Coren, a young nobleman of the house of Sirle, which was recently defeated by the Eldwold King Drede, arrives bearing Drede’s baby son — Sybel’s nephew by a sister she never knew. Sybel agrees to look after the child, and comes to love young Tamlorn, though otherwise preserves her aloofness from the affairs of a world that would make young Tam into a political pawn. When he grows old enough to want to see his father, though, Sybel uses her magic to call King Drede, and lets Tam go to live with him.

Rodney Matthews cover (Avon books, 1975)

Rodney Matthews cover (Avon books, 1975)

Up to this point, the book, like Sybel herself, has felt somewhat removed and cool. (Though the fantasy setting is brought alive by sparks of storyishness — it’s a land haunted by wizards, artefacts, hidden caves, ancient battle-sites and ghosts, which we learn about from fragments of stories and riddles.) Both Drede and Coren beg Sybel to use her magic to further their ends, but her power and indifference seem capable of sustaining her in her inviolability. Then suddenly, halfway through the book, things change. She has been feeling a vague tugging at her attention for some time, and realises with horror that she is the victim of the same sort of calling-magic she used for collecting her fabulous animals. In one incredibly dramatic chapter, not only her aloofness and neutrality, but her very ability to be herself, to retain her individuality, is so utterly threatened, it is now she who has to beg:

“There is part of me, like a white-winged falcon, free, proud, wild, a soaring thing that goes its own way seeking the bright stars and the sun. If you kill that bird, I will be earthbound, bound in the patterns of men, with no words of my own, no actions of my own. I will take that bird for you, cage it. Only let it live.”

This chapter hits hard, and absolutely repays the rather aesthete-like wish-fulfilling daydream of Sybel’s existence prior to that. The threat is intense but brief, and after it, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld turns into an intriguing study of the effects of power on its wielder, a moral fable about corruptibility and the near impossibility of anyone who has power preventing themselves from harming even those they love, as soon as they start to use it. For, as much as it allows you to avoid your fears, power also invites you to pander to your wounds, to play up to them rather than heal them. And even a successful revenge affects not just the revenger, but all who are close to them.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld won the first World Fantasy Award, in 1975. It has a lyrical prose style, a slightly distant, fabled quality, which, whilst evoking the strangeness of a magical land wrought with riddles and fragments of story, can tend to make the characters seem distant. Here, McKillip seems to have a stronger grasp of the psychology of her characters than an ability to evoke their emotions, and I found I believed in Sybel’s desire for revenge far more than I did her love of Coren and Tam. But that chapter 6, at the mid-point, is wonderfully powerful, a near-Shakespearean clash of characters strong in both magic and feeling, each one eloquent in expressing their terrors and desires in a single, superheated encounter.