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.
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.