The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

John Rateliff discusses the relatively recent fantasy classic, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld:

Not every “classic” of fantasy was written a century ago. Books as good as any ever published by the late great masters of the genre — Dunsany, Eddison, Morris, Cabell, et al. — were also being written in the 1960s (The Face in the Frost, A Wizard of Earthsea), the 1970s (Watership Down), the 1980s (The Bridge of Birds) and even the 1990s (The Golden Compass), many of them by authors still alive today. All are remarkable not just for their exceptional excellence but because they break new ground rather than follow current trends (masterpieces always defy conventional wisdom), although ironically some of them have themselves become much imitated in turn.

One book that stands alone is The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, as it has no obvious precursor nor inspires a subgenre or “school” of followers; there is nothing else quite like it, even among McKillip’s other writings. Whereas some fantasy classics dazzle the reader by the twists and turns of their plot or enthrall them with a seductively appealing subcreated world, McKillip’s stands out by the sheer beauty of the writing. Some say that modern fantasy is today’s equivalent of the pulp novel of the 1920s and 1930s, and readers who have become accustomed to the adequate prose of a generic trilogy manipulating standard characters through a conventional plot, where the villain dies in the next-to-last chapter with the final few pages for happily-ever-after, may have their breath taken away by McKillip’s evocative, lapidary style:

“The giant Grof was hit in one eye by a stone,
and that eye turned inward so that it looked into his mind,
and he died of what he saw there.”

Through her style and imagery, McKillip harkens back both to fairy tales and Celtic legend, particularly those tales recorded in the Welsh Mabinogion, which includes stories both grim and with a sense of wonder, as if the reader is only being told fragments of much longer tales now forgotten. The sense of untold stories haunts this book: echoes of other tales that are mentioned only in passing. Indeed, one such fragment, a single sentence in length, was later expanded by McKillip into an entire trilogy (The Riddle-Master of Hed/Heir of Sea and Fire/Harpist in the Wind). Even at the time of the book, the various tales alluded to have been forgotten by all but a few of the characters, and the Beasts themselves have slipped into legends remembered only by seers and loremasters and that most folk disbelieve. These elusive allusions give McKillip’s world a sense of depth — a very Tolkienesque feeling that it has existed long before the story began. Events have a context, even if it’s not one familiar to the reader, and the world feels more solid and realistic than a backdrop conjured up just for the current story. And it follows, inescapably, that within that world our tale’s heroine and hero will one day be remembered only as a similar cryptic little fragment of a tale, with all their experiences boiled down into a gnomic sentence or two left behind to serve as warning or inspiration to others.

For the story is, above all else, about the characters: Sybel the White Lady and Coren, prince of Sirle. In the best saga manner the book opens with a brief genealogy telling how three generations of wizards (Heald, Myk, and Ogam) led at last to a sixteen-year-old girl with ivory hair living alone in a white house atop Eld Mountain. Unlike LeGuin, McKillip does not distinguish between wizardry and “woman’s magic”: Sybel is a “wizard woman,” the last and most powerful of her line, with all the gathered power of her predecessors at her disposal, wishing nothing but to continue her magic researches in splendid isolation from the outside world. But into her demesne comes a disruptive force: Coren, the seventh son of a seventh son, who brings her infant cousin Tamlorn (Tam) for her to raise, there being nowhere else where the tiny royal heir would be safe. She reluctantly agrees and thus becomes entrapped in a web of conflicting loyalties, for Tam is the only son of a powerful king, Drede, who is at war with Coren and his brothers. Eventually Coren returns — ostensibly to retrieve Tam to use as a pawn in their ongoing rivalries but actually because he has fallen in love with the remote and beautiful sorceress and seeks to persuade her into leaving her mountain to live with him in the world below. King Drede also learns of his son’s whereabouts and arrives to claim him and court his guardian. Sybel tries to stand above it all and refuses to take one side or the other or share in their feuds and hatred. However, she finds that once she has started to love other people she cannot return to her previous isolation. There is also the fact that, once they have become aware of her, the forces in the outside world cannot afford to ignore her but struggle to win her to their side by means both fair and foul.

“Once he could speak,” Coren said.
“Once they all could. They have been wild, away from men so long
that they have forgotten how, except for Cyrin, just as men
— most men — have forgotten their names.”

And then there are the Beasts: legendary creatures of immense power who have been summoned by Sybel, her father, or her grandfather through knowledge of their True Name. Just as with Tolkien’s ents and LeGuin’s wizards, to know the Name of a thing is to gain power over it. There are seven Forgotten Beasts in all (“forgotten” because they have already passed into legend in Sybel’s time): Gyld the dragon (ancient, sleepy, and unbelievably powerful; a true Ancient Wyrm), Ter the falcon (fierce, loyal, and impulsive), the Gules Lyon (golden, sleek, and wise), the Cat Moriah (a huge black cat, sort of an uber-familiar), the Black Swan (the most remote of the group), Cyrin the boar (a figure straight out of Welsh mythology, independent-minded and loving to pose riddles that convey some pungent message to his listener), and the Blammor. Sybel herself summons the Blammor in the course of the story while trying to summon a legendary bird known as the Liralen. But whereas the elusive Liralen is rumored to be a great white bird of pure beauty (rather like Sybel herself), the Blammor is a dark, shadowy thing that kills by frightening its victims to death: It forces them to see the evil within themselves, a process few survive. McKillip’s description of the Blammor may owe something to the Bortion in Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows (1960) but it was more probably inspired by the Todal in James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks (1957), an amorphous creature that “punish[es] evildoers for having done less evil than they should.” Each of the Forgotten Beasts has its own agenda and may subtly attempt to manipulate their Mistress to achieve it but all are also genuinely fond of Sybel, who called them back from their various remote fastnesses into contact with humans again. Their power is glimpsed from time to time in the course of the story, but not until the climax of the book is the true breathtaking extent of what they can do revealed.

There is a cave in the mountains where his bones will never be found.
No. I called you because I was angry, but I am not angry now.

Despite the pain and machinations that ensue, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is at heart a love story: Sybel finds in Coren the one person who shares her interests and understands her way of looking at the world. Legends that she learned from her father or researched in ancient tomes he knows through his dreams, instinctively recognizing the various Beasts that serve her. In the end he loves her enough that he even abandons his hatred of Drede for her sake, patiently waiting until her love for him grows to match his for her.

Entwined with this love story, however, is a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to live apart from the world. Growing up among the Beasts, who never lie, Sybel is disconcertingly honest, both with Coren and Drede. She simply does not know how she appears to others or how they will react to what she says. Eventually this leads to disaster: Not all the powers struggling to win her to their side are as patient as Coren, and once one of them understands just how powerful she is, he feels compelled to capture her at any cost. The brief scene of her captivity McKillip succeeds in making truly disturbing, for her captor intends to alter her memories to make her willingly accept the new future he has in mind for her as his wife and partner, a rape of the mind that would leave her unaware she had ever felt or thought otherwise. This section is fascinating in part because what McKillip and her heroine condemn with horror is performed over and over with casual unconcern by the “heroes” of other stories, such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and of course the Men in Black movies. Our memories are who we are, McKillip seems to be saying; destroying or altering them is an evil beyond murder or physical torture.

Certainly Sybel emerges from the experience shaken to the core; one of the most remarkable things about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is that the heroine of the first half of the book is the villain of the second half. Her implacable search to avenge herself while trying not to harm any of the people she loves makes for a fascinating display of the corrosive power of hate, as she descends deeper and deeper into a self-destructive quest for revenge, all the while fooling herself that once she has destroyed her hapless victim she can return to being the person she was before and resume her normal life. Eventually she is forced to confront the truth of what she has become; like the giant Grof, her “eye” turns inward and she sees into the heart of her own self-created darkness:

“Did you nurse revenge from a tiny, moon-pale seedling in the night places of your heart, watch it grow and flower and bear dark fruit that hung ripe — ripe for the plucking?
It becomes a great, twisted thing of dark leaves and thick, winding vines that chokes
and withers whatever good things grow in your heart; it feeds on all the hatred
your heart can bear.”

Few authors would dare take their most appealing characters on such a grim journey, and fewer still could pull it off. McKillip’s book works because all her characters are well-motivated; even her worst villains act for what are, from their point of view, excellent reasons. What’s more, McKillip pulls off the difficult task of making the reader understand that, in his or her own mind, the character is not a villain at all but merely doing what he or she thinks necessary to achieve some desirable goal. One of the prerequisites for doing evil, she seems to be saying, is to lose the ability to see your deeds as they are. But even one who has walked far down that road can still turn back and find redemption.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Your Game

Any number of elements from this book could be adapted into an ongoing D&D campaign. Sybel’s favorite hobby is teleporting into wizard’s libraries and extracting volumes she needs for her research, meaning that she could be encountered in passing almost anywhere. A group of heroes might be called upon to rescue a powerful character who has suffered the fate Sybel narrowly avoids, of having his or her mind altered; the victim will of course resist any attempts to save him or her. The conflict between Drede and the princes of Sirle also could serve as a long-standing conflict player characters could stumble upon where there is a good deal of right and wrong on both sides. Player characters seeking information might find their way to Sybel’s white house above the Eldwood (her name being obviously derived from “sibyl” or oracle) but would be well advised to bring her some hint or clue useful in her quest for the Liralen in payment for having disturbed her. And of course the Beasts themselves could appear almost anywhere, each supremely powerful, confident, and dangerous: dealing with any one of them, either negotiation or combat, would be an epic encounter. In one of the tales in The Mabinogion, “Culhwch & Olwen,” King Arthur’s entire court was decimated fighting a boar very like Cyrin, who in the end they drove into the sea instead of defeating.

McKillip’s RiddleMaster series, while far inferior to The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, does contain the best treatment of doppelgangers in modern fantasy, although McKillip makes the mistake of making her villains (the doppelgangers) far more sympathetic than the “heroes” fighting them.

The Well at the World’s End

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Tolkien scholar John Rateliff wrote a number of pieces on the Classics of Fantasy for the publishing arm of Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Dungeons & Dragons and its associated novels. Those essays have disappeared from the WotC site, but the Wayback Machine has come to the rescue. Here Rateliff describes one of the proto-fantasy works that inspired Tolkien, William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End:

The Well at the World’s End by William Morris (1896)

If modern fantasy as we know it today derives largely from the work of J. R. R. Tolkien (whose The Lord of the Rings stands in relation to fantasy much as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories do to mysteries), then Tolkien, in creating the genre, built upon the work of many precursors. None was more important to him than William Morris (1834-1896), the man who provided the basic blueprint for the epic fantasy novel in such works as The Wood Beyond the World (1894), The House of the Wolfings (1889), The Roots of the Mountains (1890), or his masterpiece The Well at the World’s End (1896).

Morris not only served as Tolkien’s personal role-model as a writer but is also responsible for fantasy’s characteristic medievalism and the emphasis on what Tolkien called the subcreated world: a self-consistent fantasy setting resembling our own world but distinct from it. Before Morris, fantasy settings generally resembled the arbitrary dreamscapes of Carroll’s Wonderland and MacDonald’s fairy tales; Morris shifted the balance to a pseudo-medieval world that was realistic in the main but independent of real-world history and included fantastic elements such as the elusive presence of magical creatures.

Ironically, Morris did not intend to help create a new genre but was seeking to revive a very old one: He was attempting to recreate the medieval romance — those sprawling quest-stories of knights and ladies, heroes and dastards, friends, enemies, and lovers, marvels and simple pleasures and above all adventures. The most familiar examples of such tales to modern readers are the many stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but these were merely the most well-known among a vast multitude of now-forgotten tales. Morris deliberately sat down to write new stories in the same vein and even something of the same style, right down to deliberately archaic word choice. But just as the creators of opera thought they were recreating classical Greek drama a la Aeschylus and wound up giving birth to a new art form instead, so too did Morris’s new medieval tales belong to a new genre: the fantasy novel.

Morris the Fantasist

Despite a major revival in the 1970s in the wake of Tolkien’s phenomenal popularity, when publishers such as Ballantine, Dover, and Newcastle scrambled to reprint old works by fantasy pioneers, Morris is little read today and most of his work is available only from small-press publishers specializing in obscure fantasy. Partly this might be because his best works are his longest, and long fantasies fell out of vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, only returning to favor in the 1990s. Then, too, Morris offers up a distinctive style that takes getting used to: The first few chapters of one of his works feel stiff and unnatural until the reader adjusts to his idiosyncrasies (primarily a love for archaic words). But the initial difficulty is worth it, because the rewards of reading Morris are great.

Not only was Morris a trailblazer, but he was also a major talent whose particular niche has never been bettered; no one can conjure up the sense of being inside a medieval romance like Morris, with all its cruelty, beauty, and wonder. It was this quality that Lin Carter meant when he referred to the “fresh, scrubbed morning world” of Morris’s works, bright-colored like a stained glass window or tapestry. Morris is also evocative; C. S. Lewis argued that it would be difficult to write a book worthy of a name as good as “The Well at the World’s End” but judged that Morris had succeeded well enough to be worth reading and re-reading over and over again, adding that “No mountains in literature are as far away as distant mountains in Morris.” While the names of his characters are deliberately plain (Ralph, Roger, Walter, Hugh), being those in common use in the era he is trying to recreate, his place-names create a sense of a real world but not our own: Upmeads, Higham-on-the-Way, the thorp of Bourton Abbas, Hampton under Scaur, Utterbol, and so on. Some names, such as the Dry Tree or the Well itself, gain force from being repeated over and over as the hero hears of them in passing and tries to find out more about them and where to find them.

Love, Sex, War, and Death

The plot of The Well at the World’s End is simplicity itself. Bored with his quiet life, our young hero Ralph of Upmeads[1] leaves home seeking adventure. He soon finds himself upon the quest for the Well at the World’s End, where a single drink from the Well can grant long life, health, and beauty. He acquires lovers, friends, and enemies along the way, finding himself torn between the Lady (who visited the Well generations ago and gained eternal youth) and the Maiden (who seeks the Well on her own quest). It is typical of Morris, a great defender of the rights of women, that two of his three main characters are women, and each are equally capable as the male protagonist: The Lady is something of a sorceress reminiscent of Rider Haggard’s Ayesha (a.k.a. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed)[2] while the no-nonsense Maiden carries a sword and knows how to use it. After the sudden and brutal murder of one of the women by a jilted suitor, a grief-strickened Ralph and the other journey first separately and then together on the Quest. After many adventures, including a harrowing journey across the Thirsty Desert and an encounter with the Dry Tree itself, they reach the Well.

This would be the climax of a typical fantasy novel, but Morris does not stop there; his is a “there and back again” quest, and he devotes the final quarter of the story (Book IV) to describing the couple’s return journey back to Upmeads in the most impressive denouement in fantasy before the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings, a most unmedieval tying up of virtually every loose end raised in the first three-quarters of the novel (Books I-III). The two heroes find that their passage on the journey out has changed the people they came into contact with; tyrants have been overthrown, slaves have rebelled and won their freedom, and deposed villains now threaten Upmeads itself, where Ralph must raise the countryfolk to fight off the invaders. After a rousing final battle comes the satisfying happy ending, even explaining how the story happened to come down to us.

At the World’s End

So what does this century-old attempt to revive an art form that lapsed some five centuries ago offer to us today? Well for one thing, it shows how a lost or dormant genre can be re-created in all its glory by a devotee who grasps its root appeal and then transformed into something that can appeal to his or her contemporaries. It also provides a highly readable, moving story that offers a welcome relief to fantasy fans who are feeling burned out by generic trilogies and who are up to the challenge of something different. Those interested in the major influences on their favorite authors might be surprised to find out just how good some of those “precursors” are compared to their latter-day disciples, and how much the authors writing today owe to authors they’ve never actually read themselves.

Then too, the book contains a number of striking scenes, characters, and motifs that could be transplanted into an ongoing campaign and are worth reading in their own right: the Champions of the Dry Tree, which is a slightly sinister Robin-Hood like band of greenwoods robbers; their mortal foes, the men of the Burg of the Four Friths, who wage constant raids on their neighbors to acquire sex-slaves; the rebellion of the slave-women (the Wheat-Wearers), who take up arms to save themselves when no one else is willing to help them; the Lady, a sexy yet ambiguous figure whose history forms a novella within the work as a whole; the Well whose waters grant youth, beauty, and longevity but not immunity to a violent death; and perhaps above all the chapters describing Ralph and his lover’s grisly journey across the Thirsty Desert, which drives home the point that many undertake the quest but only the fortunate few, the destined heroes, achieve it. [3] The Dry Tree at the heart of the desert is also a striking motif and is encountered many times as a sigil or emblem before revealed to actually exist in physical form.

In the end Ralph and his companion, their Quest achieved and his homeland rescued, settle down to rule over his land. The Adventure over, they live happily ever after to the end of their days, which were extraordinarily long.


[1] This being a medieval story, the hero’s name should be pronounced in the medieval fashion: “Raff” rather than “Raulff.”

[2] The title character of She (1886) by H. Rider Haggard; Ayesha gained immortal youth and beauty by bathing in a magical flame, whereas the Lady of Abundance has extended her life far beyond its natural span with her voluptuous beauty intact by drinking from the Well.

[3] SPOILER: In one of the book’s most striking scenes, the young lovers crossing the desert begin to find the bodies of those who failed in the quest before them — first one or two whom they stop to bury, then a whole line of desiccated corpses marking a grisly path across the wasteland where they laid down to die along the way. The Dry Tree itself, when they finally reach it, is revealed as a vast dead tree rising up out of a pool of water at the heart of a natural amphitheater, every seat filled with the bodies of men and women who fell under the Tree’s allure, questers who sat down to die here with a smile on their faces. Along with the vivid depiction of the Wheat-Wearers’ mistreatment and rebellion and the sudden brutal death of one of the three main characters, the Dry Tree remains in the reader’s memory after the details of the rest of the book have faded.