Loving and hating

Mount Hood reflected in Mirror Lake, Oregon

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia McKillip,
Introduction by Pat Cadigan (2015).
Fantasy Masterworks,
Gollancz 2014 (1974).

For a novel written in her early twenties, Patricia McKillip’s award-winning fantasy is extraordinarily nuanced, with well-developed characters to the fore and the magical aspects only playing a supportive role. For this is a story of primal human emotions, of love and hate, of self-knowledge and fear, where even the ‘forgotten beasts’ of the title have human feelings. And individual wants and needs decide outcomes that affect many, whether for good or bad, in a world created from memories and echoes of ancient myths, legends and lore.

Sybel is the descendant of a line of wizards, from Heald through Myk and Ogam. Her particular skill is ‘calling’, drawing beasts and humans to her and subtly bending their will to hers. This is a dangerous power to wield, and one that demands great responsibility; when we see her, either aged 16 or 28, it is a talent the ethics of with she still has to wrestle with.

In her mountain fastness within Eldwold, with her beasts around her, she can pretty much please herself, calling for another legendary beast and studying her library of magical books. But when the outside world comes calling in the form of a young warrior bearing a child, she has to balance her own desires with the reasonable and unreasonable demands of politics and power.

McKillip sketches in a world composed of geographical aspects of her own state of Oregon and legends culled from Northern European traditions, particularly from the Celtic world. I fancy that in snow-capped Eld Mountain we may imagine Oregon’s distinctive Mount Hood (which the author may been able to see from her native Salem over a hundred miles distant), and the rivers, lakes, forests and plains may have resembled the landscapes of her state. Here she sets creatures cousins to those of Irish or Welsh or Arthurian lore: the Boar Cyrin, the Falcon Ter, the Dragon Gyld, the Lyon Gules, the Cat Moria, the Black Swan of Tirlith and the White Brid Liralen. They will have their parts to play.

But our focus is largely on the humans: the warring families of Sirle and Eldwold, and their neighbours. Maelga the witch comes closest to what Sybel needs as a maternal figure, Coren of Sirle it is who first brings trouble to Sybel in the form of the infant Tamlorn, child of Drede, King of Eldwold, and thereafter, try as she may, Sybel’s life is entangled with the affairs of strangers and she is forced to decide on loyalties.

McKillip’s story is woven with skill and craft, and once we get past the extended prologue it’s impossible not to get involved with Sybel’s ups and downs, her relationships with Coren — the seventh son of a seventh son — young Tamlorn as he grows to be a young adult, and King Drede,  a man with major issues. Between these main characters we witness love unconditionally given despite provocation, a desire to forge a familial relationship, a path towards self-knowledge being sought desperately, and the obsession that could lead to coercive control or to fear.

Inklings of what may be in store are provided by the riddles uttered by the beasts, particularly the gnomic sayings offered by the Boar, such as this:

“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.”

One of the most powerful emotions that will drive the action is hate, most effectively expressed by Sybel:

“How did you hate? Did you nurse revenge from a tiny, moon-pale seedling in the night places in 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 –“

Chapter 11

Compared to an earlier statement of Sybel’s — “I know nothing of hating, and only a little of loving” — this is quite a volte-face, and a consequence of her experience of the outside world. In the meantime there are also dark things afoot in Eldwold which will take all Sybel’s wit and power to contend against. Can all this lead to a conclusion that is simultaneously satisfying and psychologically credible?

Above all these dramas towers the cold, pale triangle of Eld Mountain, a basis for all that transpires and for which Mount Hood may have been the inspiration. Three years earlier Mount Hood had also provided a pivot for the events in The Lathe of Heaven by another Oregon-based author, Ursula Le Guin. Whatever occurs on or around this visually striking peak it remains impassive, an implacable presence and witness during all the loving and hating, the living and the dying.

McKillip’s writing is both certain and convincing while containing what Maria Sachiko Cecire has elsewhere identified as “the genre’s profound capacity to convey important affective experiences like enchantment, pleasure, and joy.” Intriguingly there is a passing reference to a certain Riddle-Master, an allusion perhaps to the trilogy of the same name that was yet to come.

12 thoughts on “Loving and hating

  1. I really liked this as well. I had no idea McKillip was this young when she wrote it, though — it does read like an author‘s *early* book, but not necessarily like one by an author in her twenties.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She was born the same year as me so by my reckoning (assuming it was conceived and written in at least the year before publication) she would have been at most 25, an age when I was still trying to fathom what life was really about while teaching reluctant secondary school students. I like this enough to hang onto my copy for a future reread, if that’s an indication of how I rate it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this book when I was 14 or 15 and I’d largely forgotten it, except that Grof, with his eye turned inward, brought it back. I realize now that affected my picture of Odin, among others!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes the Grof and Odin link I’m sure is there, Jeanne, but also the Irish hero Cuchulain, whose “one eye receded into his head, and the other stood out huge and red on his cheek.” (And perhaps even the Irish god Balor, with just one eye which could kill if ever it opened.) Anyway, I think my experience of it as a teenager would be rather different from now, so I’m pleased I came across it this side of middle age…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I hadn’t come across McKillip before but this certainly sounds an interesting title. Sybel’s incapability to hate undergoing a change reminds me a little of something I’d read in a different context about ‘evil’ having such an impact on people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The issue of coercive control is at least becoming a topic of open discussion now, Mallika, even as examples of such demeaning abuse daily come to light; back in the 70s it was talked about rather less, if at all, though we all know it went on.

      It’s hard not to hate not just the control itself but also the controller, especially one who seems not just unable but unwilling to remedy their abusive behaviour. McKillip treats this aspect of hate with subtlety and sensitivity even as Sybel struggles with its corrosive effect on herself. It’s, I think, a profound novel masquerading as ‘just’ a fantasy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The article I read touched on bullying and also violence as being such. It was by a psychologist I think but analysing corrosiveness in the context of politics and nations as also at the individual level. It is rather frightening to think that the kind of behaviour one detests could possibly rub off on one.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The better half’s doctorate was on adolescents, appearance and bullying, but we were still stymied when faced with domestic abuse in the family. It’s invidious but also often insidious.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. piotrek

    Another McKillip novel I should read, thank you 🙂 I enjoyed her trilogy a lot, as well as a few stand-alone novels, short stories – not as much. I adore her style, the atmosphere she creates…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think then you’d enjoy this too if you like her style and atmospheric writing. I’m trying not to hang on to too many novels I’ve now read but this for me is definitely worth a reread so it’ll remain on my shelves a bit longer!

      Liked by 1 person

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