Author: Patricia A. McKillip
Title: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
Patricia A. McKillip won the first World Fantasy Award for this novel, third she had ever written. And let’s be frank: her writing skill by that time was already masterful. The prose of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld echoes the mythopoeic style of A Wizard of Earthsea, and McKillip’s novel seems to have been inspired by Le Guin’s masterpiece in more ways than one.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld tell the story of Sybel, the heir to the wizarding family tradition of acquiring power over sentient creatures through the subtle yet ruthless art of name-calling. Sybel doesn’t conjure fireballs or ice towers, and yet is extremely powerful: gaining knowledge gives her total control over others who, bereft of free will, become her slaves. Oh, she’s a benevolent master, but a slave master all the same. She controls fantastical beasts from myth and legend, and while they retain their individuality, they are tightly leashed indeed. Only when she herself becomes an object of such magic does she begin to realize how harmful that control can be. And then she just flips out and embroils several kindoms in an all-out war in her quest for revenge. Hell hath no fury like a woman disrespected and abused.
It’s a slim book, clocking just under 200 pages, and easy to read in one sitting. The language is simple yet subtly poetic, with inner rhythm reminiscent of oral histories. The story itself is also not overly complex, focused on themes of power, freedom and responsibility, of the imminently destructive nature of hatred and fear, and the sharp, hurtful, yet ultimately healing force of love. It was recommended to me by Bookstooge and Bart, and I should have loved it. And yet, in what becomes a theme with McKillip’s books for me, I just liked it. I appreciated the mastery of language, the natural, rhythmical ebb and flow of narrative, the metatextual subtext of the nature of myth and legend. I was gripped by the story enough to read it all one evening, and be satisfied. But I would probably be equally emotionally invested in an entomology book.
It becomes clear to me that there is a deep emotional dissonance between me and McKillip’s books. They seem to me muted, overly descriptive yet flat, and somehow unconvincing in their portrayal of human emotions. McKillip’s characters seem to be on strong sedatives, always: responsive, conscious, loquacious even, able to perfectly describe the emotions they should be feeling, and yet not coming across as actually experiencing them. Sybel the ice queen is a good example of that. I get the why of her behaviour, believe me – even if it’s illogical or deeply harmful, her responses lie within the range of expected reactions, and her downward spiral of hate and rage is totally understandable. And yet I remain completely unmoved by all of it – ironically, in a story about agency and power, the characters all come across as marionnettes in control of the author.
And that’s all right. The range of human emotional responses to stimuli is wide, and no two people will feel exactly the same about something. I would still be impressed by the storytelling skill of McKillip, and appreciative of the subversive yet stereotypical interpretation of beauty as both a power and a liability, even while resenting the application of overused tropes of instant male desire and the unearthly, heartbreaking beauty of our heroine. What I take exception to, however, is the conclusion – in which our protagonist seems to have learned nothing at all: the moment she is redeemed, she is once again using, or abusing, the power she had gained. Of course, the interpretation I offer follows the logic of the worldbuilding, where naming means acquiring power over someone, and not the admittedly heavy symbolism focused on the dualistic human nature, which consists of both darkness and light. As I said, A Wizard of Earthsea and Jungian archetypes seem to have inspired this book quite significantly. But where Ged’s journey is one of self-realization and self-awareness, Sybel by gaining knowledge of herself only gains control over others – again.
It’s a refreshingly feminist book, in the sense that the female characters are no better, and no worse, than male ones. Sybel is one cold MF, lying, manipulative, ruthless, and extremely powerful. She uses everyone, the people who love her, the people who want her, even those who just happen to be around. She’s also somewhat sociopathic, due to her unusual upbringing, and I guess McKillip describes it in such detail to try to make us more forgiving, or at least more understanding, toward her. It would’ve probably work, if the emotional tone of the book weren’t so flat. As much as I admire it, I suspect the mythopoeic style is partly to blame: it’s really not easy to create resonating tale in a simple, evocative language, to know which parts work and which are just chaff, diluting the emotional impact. The myths are a result of centuries and millenia of collective creation and interpretation, and facing a myth we are left with only the essence – which we are free to interpret, within a range of the cultural context. McKillip doesn’t succeed in recreating that experience, at least for me. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a beautifully written novel that nevertheless somehow feels unconvincing and flat. And so, I appreciate the artistry while remaining completely unmoved.