Sylvia Kelso—In Gratitude for Fantasists
”Barren crags and ancient forests, winds scented with honey, wolf, wildflowers, swift water so pure it tasted like the wind, deep snow lying tranquilly beneath moonlight, summer light cascading down stone under sky so bright it held no color. These he put into his making… Shapes he had taken in his long life mingled together as swiftly as his body remembered them: the white owl in winter, the golden hawk, ferret and weasel and mink, stone, wind, the tree smelling of sun-soaked pitch, water thundering over stone, endlessly falling, the stag that drank the water … He remembered faces he had loved, of friend and lover, teacher and ruler, their eyes speaking his name, Atrix Wolfe, beginning to smile.” (The Book of Atrix Wolfe,Ch. 23. p. 238)
The great shape-shifting mage Atrix Wolfe created a death-dealing spell whose ravages occupy most of the book. Here he finally creates a counter-spell, ranging through all the aspects of his life. It’s also a passage that typifies why Patricia McKillip, for me, is a gratitude among fantasists.
I like many fantasy writers, but few achieve permanent lighthouse status. A handful of small but telling oeuvres, Sheri S. Tepper’s Gameworld books. Ellen Kushner, E. R. Edison. Samuel Delany. Joanna Russ. Tolkien, of course. Unlike Tolkien, McKillip’s work never radically altered my outlook or my writing style, but even now, I wish it could.
McKillip, however, has been around a while. Her fantasy novels run almost uninterrupted from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld in 1974, up to The Bards of Bone Plain in 2010. Eld won the World Fantasy Award, but nothing since has missed a nomination or finalist position in some award, if not a win. From the passage above you can begin to see why.
First and foremost, McKillip is the only fantasy writer I know who operates usually at the rare level of language Tolkien himself only achieved every so often, as when, describing Cerin Amroth, he used the commonest words – “ gold, white, blue, green, tree, grass, flower” and yet drew with them “shapes that seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived” [that moment] “and ancient as if they had endured forever” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II Ch VI.) But in Atrix Wolfe here alone we have: “wind scented with honey, wolf, wildflowers,” “summer light cascading down stone”, “the tree smelling of sun-soaked pitch.” This passage is a major aria, so to speak, a cornucopia of life-images, but such examples appear everywhere. Simple words, often repeated, particularly words like “bone, wind, light.” Used mostly unadorned, but magnificently resonant.
The language may be “simple.” The narratives are not. They deal with magic, and many shift between worlds, or between faerie and “earth” of some sort, or between then and now. Joanna Russ once wrote, “Harlequins say it over and over. I only say it once.” McKillip often doesn’t even say it once. The reader has to sit up and work, as we used to say about cutting-out horses, to figure how we got from There to Here and where Here might be, and if Here is a dream or not. The novels following Atrix Wolfe are particularly good at these “twitches.” In Winter Rose, the shifts from wood to farm, from past to present, and between the enchanted hero Corbet Lynn’s doubled –sometimes tripled – realities are as fast and can be as bewildering for the reader as they are for the characters. Was that a dream? Or an event? Or symbolism? After 12 years and more than 12 readings for the similarly “shifty” The Tower at Stony Wood, I am just now firmly figuring out what happened where and when and to whom.
This quality of enacting rather than just talking about interaction with other realities doubtless explains why McKillip doesn’t often appear on the popular awards lists like the Hugo. For McKillip, you are better to be one of those who, to borrow Huck Finn’s review of Pilgrims’ Progress, like their statements interesting but tough.
There are other felicities peculiar to McKillip. Her characters are memorable and ever-differentiated, and they have charisma, yes, but Can Do Characters is only just up the writing pyramid from Can Spell and Can Tell a Story. As might be expected, McKillip can also do beautiful settings and thunderous events, but she is one of the rare fantasists who draws music deeply into her work. Often music is integrated with magic, as in the Riddlemaster trilogy that ended with Harpist in the Wind. There, though, music leans rather towards hand-waving: Morgon strikes smashing notes from the harp, or he “plays the winds” or other such nebulous events. Later, music becomes more immediate. Here are musicians talking in the kitchen in Atrix Wolfe.
“’Fanfares,’ they said, ‘first and second, and third, the one Lefeber wrote, and then, … with the second wine, the Silvan fanfare, which you always take too fast, and there is a rest between the second cadence –‘” (Ch. 7, p 84.) Magic has happened here, these musicians will sound for a king’s feast. But this is also the nitty gritty of playlists and squabbles over timing you find among real musicians anywhere.
Music provides the vehicle of magic in Song for the Basilisk and Bards of Bone Plain too, but these books include some of McKillip’s more wicked invented instruments. The small, red-mouthed bone pipe Caladrius finds in the wild and with which he eventually destroys the Basilisk, is both eerie and imposing. But the music magister Giulia plays with a tavern group, using the “farmer’s instrument” the picochet. “’It has a square hollow body, a very long neck, and a single string. You play it like a viol, between your knees, with a bow’.” (Basilisk, 43.) When her bass-pipe player hands Giulia hers, he says “’Don’t break the windows with it’”(31.)
A similarly anarchic bagpipe appears briefly in Bards, and full length in the short story “A Matter of Music,” with the “lovely reedy cothone that looked like a cow’s bag with eight teats” and which its owner plays “only when she was asked.” The cothone and the picochet tie together McKillip’s knowledge and love of music and the will-o-the-wisp humor that flits through her work. Like Tolkien, she has a comic element as rarely seen as it is to be prized. It can even be black, as during the duel amid the treasure in the dragon’s tower in The Tower at Stony Wood: “He caught a boot in the throat, that knocked him into a clatter of plate and some astonishing gold armor, filched, apparently while occupied, from a coronation ceremony”(Stony, Ch. 18.)
And then, a consummation not always to be found in notable fantasy writers, there are McKillip’s gender politics. Writing when second-wave feminism had already shown women writers how to change the masculinist narrative configurations of older fantasy, McKillip has no trouble making her women wizards, power-centers, decision-makers for the narrative, as well as heroines, victims and all the usual female roles. Even in Eld, wizardry is the woman’s power. Nyx in The Sorceress and the Cygnet is only one in the succession of such wizards, elemental powers, and even goddesses.
The Tower at Stony Wood is perhaps my favourite McKillip novel, having the most perfect version of all these characteristics: the language, simple yet achingly numinous. The magic, erratic, unexpected, fierce but also whimsical. The “women’s work” – weaving, sewing, embroidery – that composes the novel’s motifs, and the stunning reprise on “The Lady of Shalott,” no longer a passive victim in her mirror-cell. Most of all the fine balance between kings and knights and women of power, from the triple goddesses who oversee the action to the woman whose magic compels peace between kingdoms: Sel, who as she says in the Gloinmere palace gate, is also “’the baker from Stony Wood’” (Stony,Ch. 26, 269.)
Which raises my final cause for gratitude. Most high fantasy focuses on the nobility. But in her best novels, McKillip doesn’t just turn a farmer-prince into a world-ruler; she can take a baker, and in Atrix Wolfe, an apparently mute scullery drudge, and transform them too into figures of magic and power. Best of all, she does it for women as well as men.
Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” appears in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012.
Deborah J. Ross—Marjorie Torrey & Marjorie Fischer
In this season of appreciation, I’m aware of how many writers – some household names, others obscure – have gone before me and influenced not only my work but my life. The list of the legendary will surely illicit, “Oh yes, I loved that person’s work.” I love hearing stories of how the right book at the right time had lasting transformative effects.
I want especially to acknowledge two writers whose names I almost never see mentioned, yet who inspired me. Interestingly, they were both named Marjorie. They wrote two of my very most favorite children’s stories. Long before I could read for myself, my mother read them to me, night after night. For those of us fortunate enough to have memories of being read to as small children, those books retain a luminously magical aura. Sometimes, alas, they don’t stand up well to being re-read as adults. I have no doubt that some of those I treasured would disappoint me greatly. I find these two books as delightful today as they was 60 years ago.
Artie and the Princess, by Marjorie Torrey, Howell Soskin,1945. Marjorie Torrey was a writer and illustrator in the ’40s and ’50s, with 2 Caldecott awards and several successful mysteries under the pen name Torrey Chanslor. She was born in 1899 and seems to have dropped out of the literary scene some time in the ’50s.
I don’t believe my parents actually bought this book. It had a Christmas gift sticker on the flyleaf, now so peeled off as to be illegible, and an inscription from some folks we didn’t know. The binding’s all but disintegrated and many of the illustrations have been adorned with my own crayon scribbles. but the paper, thick and soft, has worn well.
Artie is a little dragon who lives with his parents in a forest. There’s something missing from his life, “little playmates his own age,” as his Mamma puts it. In search of friends, he wanders far off and comes to a beautiful mountain top.
“Hello,” said a soft voice. And from the tall grass, quite near him, rose a little creature with blue eyes and pink cheeks and yellow pig-tails. She had on a red dress and a gold crown. She was exactly as tall as Artie himself (though not the same shape) and the prettiest thing he had ever seen in his life. So of course he knew hat she was.
“Hello, Princess!” he said.
The Princess rubbed her eyes. Artie guessed that she had been asleep. He was sure of it when she said:
“You’re really true, aren’t you? You’re not a dream — you can speak!”
“Why of course I can speak. Of course I’m real!” said Artie.
Then he remembered all the strange things that had happened to him, and he thought, Perhaps I am dreaming!
He grabbed the tip of his tail and pinched it, hard.
“Ouch!” he said.
“See?” he said to the Princess. “Now you pinch me, and you’ll be sure.” He held out his paw.
The Princess took it, but she didn’t pinch it. She just nodded and smiled.
“Yes, you’re real,” she said. “And I like you. My name is Princess Ann. but I’m called Pandy. What is your name, little Dragon?”
Artie said, “My name is Artemus Peter Edward Adelbert Jehosophat Dragon. But I’m called Artie.”
“Well,” said Princess Pandy, “let’s play, shall we?”
Looking back, thinking about the tense, lonely child I was, Artie and Pandy were exactly the friends I longed for. I drank in every moment of their play. Of course, all does not run smoothly for our friends. The problems (a rude, vengeful cousin Prince Otto and his equally arrogant father) are countered with gentle strength as Artie (and later his parents), who remember how to fly and to breathe fire in defense of those they love. As an adult, I can throw around terms like empowerment, but for a child, a friend who was not only playful but protective struck all the right emotional notes. Artie may have had the physical might, but it was Pandy’s unerring sense of fairness and generosity that taught him how to use his strength wisely.
Red Feather by Marjorie Fischer, with illustrations by Davine; Modern Age Books, 1937. My favorite childhood books all came from someone else. This one had my brother’s name on the inside cover. He was 11 years older than I, my half-brother, and lived with his mother rather than with my family, so I suspect there is an interesting story in how I happened to come by the book, but not one I ever knew. I must have been older than I was when I got Artie and the Princess, for I made no attempt to colorize the illustrations. The book would be considered a “chapter book,” 151 pages long, with lots of pictures but lots of text, too, with lovely spoken rhythms for reading aloud.
Red Feather is a changeling story. The usual scenario is that the fairies exchange one of their own babies for a human child, only in this case, the swap is interrupted. The resemblance is so close that when they return, they can’t tell which is which. It makes a difference because the fairy child is nobly-born and the human child is destined to be the scullery maid for the Fairy Queen. In this world, only mortals are any good at housework. We follow the one the fairies take back, and like most children, she feels that she doesn’t belong, she can’t do anything right, she longs to be somewhere else. It’s a variation of the “prince-in-hiding” Harry Potter “special-child” theme.
“When my mother finds out that the scullery maid she has planned so long to get may be a fairy instead of a mortal, she will punish all of us,” said the little lad.
“That is so,” said Michael. “she has spent days over ancient books of magic, and she has found that no fairy ever dusted as well as a mortal.”
“I was with her when she planned the changeling,” said another fairy. “‘How difficult it is to get good servants,’ she said to me, and then she made this plan.”
“She must never know,” said Michael. “we must all vow never to breathe to a fairy soul that we could not tell one baby from the other.”
“And now take one of them and let us be gone.”
“Aye, take one of them.”
Amanda had stepped back near the fireplace, and now the honest warmth of the wood fire seemed to spread deep inside her.
“I will not have my child a scullery maid,” she said, and a real tear ran down her beautiful face.
Re-reading the story, I think of a time when categories of books were not so rigid. The story begins like a fairy tale, “Once upon a time,” and in slow stages becomes a love story, a coming-of-age story, a story about longing and isolation, a journey of self discovery and personal power, all with a gentle understanding of each character. I went through a period of not being able to read it without wincing at the way “fairy” has changed — certainly, a beautiful young man with long, flowing hair dressed in tights who admits he is a fairy means something quite different today than it did in 1937, and I myself had to grow up enough to be easy with sexual connotations so I could read the book entirely in its own terms.
An interesting historical perspective comes from the Publisher’s Note: “The two major barriers that have stood between writer and reader have been the high cost of new books and their narrow channels of distribution. MODERN AGE BOOKS have overcome these obstacles. By the use of modern, high-speed presses manufacturing costs have been drastically reduced… and by using magazine distribution channels, new books, for the first time, have been made easily available to everyone.”
Wherever you are, Marjorie Torrey and Marjorie Fischer, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Deborah Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with JAYDIUM and NORTHLIGHT, and short stories in ASIMOV’S, F & SF, REALMS OF FANTASY and STAR WARS: TALES FROM JABBA’S PALACE. Now under her birth name, Ross, she is continuing the” Darkover” series of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as original work, including the fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD. She is a member of Book View Cafe. She has lived in France, worked for a cardiologist, studied Hebrew, yoga and kung fu, and is active in the local Jewish and Quaker communities.