Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fantastic Storyteller: Patricia A. McKillip

If you have never read anything by Patricia McKillip, starting with The Forgotten Beasts of Eld would offer you a wonderful introduction. The book won the World Fantasy Award in 1975. The heroine is Sybel, a woman of power, based on her skill with magic. She keeps at her side such fabulous creatures as the Liralen, the Lyon Gules, and Ter the Falcon. Living remotely on a mountain, she does not seek to meddle in the affairs of others, but a child brought to her door (Tam) by Coren of Sirle changes the dynamics of her existence. Eventually, she is ensnared by her love for Tam and the power struggle between Coren and the great king, Drede. Ultimately she calls to her side a dark creature, one that is part nightmare. The story unfolds from there. As one of McKillip's early works, her style here is very simple and her sentences short and clear, unlike more recent works like The Book of Atrix Wolf or the award-winning Ombria in Shadow. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a wonderful example of high fantasy.

I read this book for the first time when I was in my early 'twenties and still very open to tales of enchantment. It was very powerful for me at that point in my life because it articulated for me the idea, the observation, that women may exercise power from a different set of priorities than those used by men. (That may not strike you as a new idea but back in the women's movement of the '70's, it required greater emphasis.) What surprised me as I re-read Beasts in the mindset of a distracted, middle-aged adult was how rapidly I was caught again by McKillip's spell-binding story. It was the tone of the story, her language. An example would be something like this extract:

He nodded, the smile tugging deeper at his mouth. "The seventh son of Lord Steth of Sirle, my grandfather, had seven sons and I am his youngest. Perhaps that is why I hear things the trees tell as they whisper at moonrise, or the growing corn tells, or the birds at twilight. I have good ears. I heard the silence of your white walls even in the noisy halls at Sirle."

The people of Sybel's world do not quite sound like the people I encounter in this world. As Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in her 1976 essay, From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, successful fantasy requires a recognition in written dialogue and tone that the world of Faery is distinct from this world. High fantasy -- that form of fiction that draws us from this world into the world of Faery -- is not easy to create. The real thing touches the numinous imagination, at the deepest part of the human spirit and soul. It is wonderful that McKillip consistently manages to convey that strangeness of Faery while still creating characters with whom we feel kinship. Like LeGuin, McKillip holds that to know the name of a living creature yields power over that creature.

If you are looking for something to read as part of Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge, keep this title in the back of your mind. It's sold nowadays as Young Adult Lit, but like the very best fantasy, it is appropriate for adults as well.