Jul 16, 2012

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld tells the story of Sybel, a sorceress who lives alone on a mountain - her only company are the mythical animals that her father, a powerful sorcerer, once summoned. Sybel’s life changes radically when a man by the name of Coren brings her a child to care for. Sybel’s greater involvement in the world of humans causes her to reexamine her own life and relationship with power, and it challenges her to make some difficult choices.

I’m very glad to have read McKillip’s intricate and beautifully written fantasy classic at last, and I’m especially glad to have read it with my friend Aarti: our discussion (as the very best bookish discussions often do) allowed me to get far more out of the book than I would have otherwise. The following conversation veered towards personal and political power, both because these are crucial themes to the book and because they’re themes that interest us. You can read the first half here and the second over at Aarti’s blog.

Ana: Before we start discussing the themes of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, I thought I’d start by asking you what you thought of the writing and the voice of the story. The novel has a very old-time feel to it; McKillip’s narrative voice is the kind that lulls me along, and it put me in mind of others grandmothers of the genre such as Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee or Ursula Le Guin. How did you get along with it?

Aarti: Yes, I read that in so many of the reviews I scanned before and while reading the book - that it was written in a very lyrical, almost bardic voice. I also enjoyed this, though I am not sure why. I don’t think it lulled me, exactly, as it did you. I liked the quieter tempo in some ways, but sometimes I also wasn’t sure exactly what the plot was. It reminded me of Among Others which is written in a very different voice but has that same “something wicked this way comes” feel of creeping danger that you can’t quite see. Once I got used to that, I settled in much better. I realized that this was not an epic fantasy in the sense of having a lot of action - it was very allegorical, particularly in relation to power structures. There was Sybel’s mental power over the animals, Sybel’s power as a beautiful woman over men, Sybel’s power as a magician over other people; the power of love to make people do things they normally would not, the power of anger to do the same, etc. What was your reaction to the way McKillip experimented with this theme throughout the novel?

Ana: I think you really got to the heart of the novel when you mentioned that it works almost allegorically when it comes to power structures. Most of the events in the story can be read as commentary on humanity’s wish to dominate others. I vaguely remember reading a review many years ago that gave me the impression that the story was going to be about a reclusive sorceress, Sybel, who was dragged into power struggles and political machinations once she entered the world of humans. But what McKillip does is actually more complex and interesting than that. Sybel is not exactly “corrupted” by her contact with Drede and Coren and the other Lords of Sirle; it’s more than her own experiences among them make her realise that she had been using power herself all along – her magical power over the Beasts of Eld curtailed their freedom, for example, but she never thought to let them go or give them a choice. I think the title The Forgotten Beasts of Eld makes a lot of sense if we read it with this in mind.

Aarti: Yes, exactly! Sybel herself was obsessed with power and the ability to dominate the animals/spirits as her search for the Liralen proved. She let that search really drain her, too, as she would not eat or sleep but would just go out of her mind in trying to find it everywhere. It was only when she realized that someone else could so easily manipulate her that she felt her vulnerability. And her reaction to that knowledge, as we found out, was pretty horrifying. It was interesting that she so despised someone else having the power to corrupt her and use her for his own purposes, and yet didn’t see that she had the same power over others.

Ana: I loved how McKillip highlighted that Sybel herself was complicit in oppressive power structures, because the truth is that the large majority of human beings are, in some way or another – even if they’re also its victims. And I also really loved that the way she structured the novel avoided any essentialist claims about naturally “pure” women and “corrupt” men. Even though men have more power in the real world, I find essentialist claims about how women are less prone to controlling others and would never abuse power if it were given to them really unhelpful.

Aarti: I agree with you to some extent, but I was quite frustrated that Coren and Drede fell in love with Sybel mostly because she was beautiful. There was also the fact that she is able to control animals and is raising a very important young man who has the potential of changing the entire power structure of a nation. But it seemed like the men were drawn to her initially because of her beauty, and whenever they saw her, made reference to her looks.

I told you before that I wanted to compare this book with Tender Morsels because both books address the idea of women who have had a horrible experience and the ways in which they react to them. In Tender Morsels, the main character uses the force of her pain and terror to live in a made-up world where she and her daughters are safe from everyone, only to find that she cannot stay there forever. In The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Sybel reacts with pure fury and instead of hiding within herself, she joins the world at large and starts manipulating everyone around her to her own ends, not caring about the consequences to anyone but herself. What did you think when Sybel started becoming more and more of an extremist? What did you think of the way she used Coren?

Ana: I thought Sybel made some pretty terrible choices, but it was interesting to me that McKillip was not afraid to blur the line between heroine and villain. To me, Sybel remained a sympathetic character until the end of the novel, even though I was sometimes uncomfortable with what she did. But this was the kind of uncomfortable reading experience that I actually appreciate, because I’m interested in stories that explore how people can become radicalised. Sybel’s manipulation was a response to the helplessness she experienced at Drede and the sorcerer’s hands, and while I don’t think that this can be used to explain it away, I do think it humanises it. Being on the receiving end of oppression and dominance doesn’t necessarily lead people to become extremists, of course; we could even say that ideally it might make someone become more sympathetic to others in similar circumstances. But things are often messy and complicated, and sometimes people respond with a kind of fury that leads them to lash out at everyone around them, much like Sybel did, and this is understandable. By the end of the novel she’s a more compassionate person than she was at the beginning, but the path that leads her there is not straightforward at all.

Aarti: That’s true, she is a more compassionate person, and I like that she didn’t become that way just because Coren loved her and melted her heart. Coren melted his own heart when he fell in love with Sybel, giving up his thirst and need for power and vengeance. But Sybel had to come to that on her own, and I didn’t get the sense that her feelings for Coren had much to do with it. Much more, it was about her own personal journey of understanding, and I loved that about the story.

Ana: I also wanted to say that I understand your frustration with the romance. Ultimately there’s much more to Sybel than her looks, but it’s always nice to find heroines who defy convention in that regard also.

Aarti: I don’t mean to say that I wish Sybel was ugly. I just wish that her beauty wasn’t the only thing that men ever mentioned about her. She was a very strong wizard, she tamed dragons and lions and boars, she raised a very kind young man, she was intelligent and a very good nurse. They never talked about any of that, though. It was Sybel herself who understood that they kept talking about her beauty, but that was only one aspect of what drew them to her- they really loved her power, and even as they loved her, they wanted to use her to their own purposes.

Please click over to Aarti’s blog to read the second half of our discussion.

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  1. I really enjoy reading discussions like this. As for the book, it sounds like it is beautifully written.

  2. Thanks for reading this with me, Ana! Such a rich discussion - I'm so glad I had such a great reading buddy for it!

  3. I left my big comment on Aarti's post, but I'm so glad you guys read this and liked it and even more glad that you talked about it... I think if I read this one again I'll get a lot more out of it the second time, now.

  4. What a discussion! I don't know if I've ever delved as deep into the themes and characters of a book, even with my book club. Your commentary is inspiring and interesting - and I'm so glad you loved (and found so much to discuss in) The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

  5. Very interesting discussion of oppressors versus the oppressed. I think this book would probably be too smart for me, but I am eager to read it now and come back and read both your perceptions, and Aarti's and see if I come to the same conclusion about the main character and her motives. I also agree with Aarti that it is pretty frustrating to have so many female character who are admired for their beauty and not their strength. Very perceptive and deep thoughts in this joint review. I am so thankful to have read it.

  6. I love discussions like this. Based on this review and discussion, I think this is a novel I would love. Science fiction/fantasy that also explores complex issues in the "real world" -- such as societal power structures -- really appeal to me. I also love what Aarti said about the lyrical, almost bardic voice.

  7. Ana,I've left most of my thoughts over on Arti's blog, so I thought I'd let you know that. I really enjoyed what you and she discussed about this book, and it's got me to thinking I need to read it again. Very interesting discussion, and I enjoyed how you and her played off one another to find a way into deeper discussion about the symbols and meaning.

  8. I can't even begin to tell you how much I loved your discussion. Seriously, wow. But I have to admit that it also left me feeling more clueless than ever. I haven't read this, but I'm fairly certain that I would never have gotten so much out of it as you two did.

  9. I hadn't even HEARD of this McKillip!! But I love the fantasy masterworks series..you introduced it to me with Jonathan Carroll's Voices of our Shadow which I still haven't read yet actually :p Onto the wishlist this one goes!

  10. I enjoyed your discussion. I'm excited to see by the cover that there is a Fantasy Masterworks series. I've been reading the SF Masterworks books and enjoying them. But I kept thinking, there should be a Fantasy Masterworks series also...

  11. I am so glad you read this with Aarti and had such an interesting discussion about it. Now I feel I need to read it again!

  12. This was one of my favourite books when I was younger, certainly one of Patricia's best. Everyone talks about how beautifully lyrical her style is, but seldom do they delve into the intelligence within the books. So it ws wonderful to read this post and to see articulated some powerful thoughts on Eld which, reading as a young adult, I never really appreciated. I have to go back now and read the book again (for probably the 20th time!) and think about it in the light you have offered.

  13. Trisha: Yes, it really is. Thanks for reading our musings!

    Aarti: Aww, likewise! Already looking forward to our next read.

    kiirstin: I'm pretty sure I'd get more out of it on a second read as well. It's just that kind of book.

    Cecelia: Thank you so much!

    Zibilee: I really don't think it would be too smart for you at all, but the old-fashioned fantasy sensibility is certainly not for everyone. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you ever get around to picking it up. And thank you!

    Stephanie: Yes, exactly - that kind of book is pretty much my favourite.

    Susan: I read your comment at Aarti's and really appreciated your point about daring to get hurt. That's such a great point.

    Debi: Pah :P I think this is the kind of book that begs to be discussed. We'd probably have felt pretty lost on our own as well.

    Chris: I want pretty much all of that series (even though their gender balance, or lack thereof, is pretty disappointing :\)

    C.B. James: Yes, it does exist! I want to collect them all.

    Gavin: I hope you blog about it if you do!

    Sarah: Thank you so much for the kind words! Enjoy your reread.

  14. I just read Aarti's post and now this one! I love the joint effort between the two of you!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.