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.
The 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.
Stepping 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.