Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974)

Author: Patricia A. McKillip

Title: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Format: paperback

Pages: 200

Series:

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.

Score: 7/10

23 thoughts on “Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974)

  1. I remember being quite moved by this book. I gave it an 8.5/10. But I don’t remember much of the content. I think I do understand what you mean with the writing being emotionally a bit flat. Thinking back on two McKillip books that I recently read, Omnia in Shadow and The Changeling Sea, I remember that they were both like beautiful fairy tales and I liked them a lot, but there were also some odd archetypes in there and some sudden choices by the characters or sudden knowledge by the characters. These things worked in a fairy tale mode, but didn’t really made me feel closely connected to the characters.

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    1. I had this same experience with a second of McKillip’s books – I read Winter Rose before and I was similarly impressed by the writing skill and equally nonplussed with the characters and the emotional flatness of the whole. The fairy tale vibe with the deus ex machina and sudden knowledge doesn’t help either, you’re right! It’s beautifully written, though, no doubt about it!

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        1. Hehe, I chose long ago to not be shamed by the books waiting for me 😉 They’ll be there after I’m gone, too, so I choose the attitude that it’s these books that should be grateful to me that I am spending my precious limited time to read them 😀

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  2. Quite an intriguing review! I have McKillip listed as one of my “need to read” authors, since I read so many enthusiastic reviews from fellow bloggers, but your comments about emotional flatness in the characters make me pause because I am above all what one might call an emotional reader: I need to feel a connection with the characters and to empathize with their emotions for the story to succeed, and your… warning about this author makes me wary of her handling of this aspect of her stories…
    Thank you so much for sharing!!! 🙂

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    1. It might be just me, though, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, Maddalena! 🤣 But I’m like you in that I need to feel that emotional connectedness, even if not to the characters themselves, then to the story and some psychological/emotional verity. This element was missing for me here, and the other McKillip’s book I read had the same exact problem, so I detect a pattern there 😉 but maybe there are other of her novels that are different.

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  3. This is quite interesting. For me, the beauty and emotion were in the language written down on paper and the characters were just another part of the story. I suspect a lot of people feel more like you though and that is one reason why she never broke out big.

    The thing is, she was a steady machine pumping out the books every couple of years and she kept up her quality throughout. I can’t imagine her books didn’t sell well either, but for some reason, you ask most people under 30 today who she was and despite having written her last novel in ’16, they’ll have no idea.

    With this, I am guessing you’re done with McKillip since you know how you react to her writing?

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    1. You put it very well: “the beauty and emotion were in the language written down on paper and the characters were just another part of the story.” I think that is part of the “fairytale” feeling her storytelling has to it. The only book I’ve read by her so far has been Ombria in Shadow and I remember being strongly moved.

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      1. If that’s how Ombria affected you, I suspect most of her other works will (hopefully) do the same.
        I happen to be a HUGE fan of McKillips as her stuff resonates with me on a level that it doesn’t for Ola. So I’m not exactly unbiased here 🙂

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    2. Actually. I’m going to give her books another go, I have an omnibus already waiting. The fact that I am not awestruck by her novels doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them – they are worth reading even just for the beauty of the prose.

      But they are not life-changing for me, if you know what I mean. They are interesting, and skillfully written, but I’ve read way more impactful books which resonate much deeper.

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  4. I loved this when I read this but now I can’t remember why! I have to reread it with your comments in mind. I know what you mean overall with McKillip though, she also leaves me cold often. But this one and Winter Rose I enjoyed more for some reason.

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    1. If these two made a bigger emotional impact on you than the rest of her books, Lory, then I’m lost! 🤣 In all seriousness, though, I appreciate the beauty of the language in her books, but the content just doesn’t resonate with me. It’s like with the Fabergé eggs – beautiful, rich and intricately detailed, the results of sublime skill, but that’s about it – they leave me completely cold!

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      1. Probably the content struck a chord for some reason at the time … no idea if it still would! I don’t know if I’ll ever take the time to reread and find out. Sometimes I do that and end up wondering what on earth my former self saw in a book.

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        1. Yep, I know what you mean! We are all mood readers to an extent, like it or not, and our tastes change with time, too. I’m currently reading McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre and I’m actually enjoying it a bit more because of its more overtly fairytale stylistics.

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  5. I got this relatively high on my TBR and am glad that there’s some good stuff to take home with this reading experience, especially when it comes to style. As for the emotional dissonance, thank you for pointing it out. It’ll definitely help me gauge my expectations when I’ll dive into it. Great thoughts, Ola! 🙂

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