THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD
Patricia McKillip’s classic fantasy “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” explores these ideas in depth, with beauty, wisdom, and extraordinary artistry. It’s a quest story – where the quest comes to the quester; a love story; a novel of the acquisition and use of power, of intrigue and old enemies plotting against each other. Above all else, it’s a tale of how wonderful, and how dangerous, it can be to get your heart’s desire.
The story proceeds in straight linear fashion, beginning, like Genesis, with a kind of geneaology. “The wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once, in the king’s city of Mondor, and she bore a son with one green eye and one black eye. Heald, who had two eyes black as the black marshes of Fyrbolg, came and went like a wind out of the woman’s life, but the child Myk stayed in Mondor until he was fifteen. Big-shouldered and strong, he was apprenticed to a smith, and men who came to have their carts mended or horses shod were inclined to curse his slowness and his sullenness, until something would stir in him, sluggish as a marsh beast waking beneath murk. Then he would turn his head and look at them out of his black eye, and they would fall silent, shift away from him.”
Myk goes to Eld Mountain and he begins a collection of wondrous, legendary animals. There is the Black Swan of Tirlith “that had carried the third daughter of King Merroc … away from the stone tower where she was held captive”, the white-tusked boar Cyrin, who “knew the answers to all riddles save one”, and the green-winged Gyld, a dragon with a fortune in jewels, some of which Myk uses to build a house of white stone deep in the forest of Eld Mountain. He also brings in a fountain girl of poor family, who “bore Myk a son with two black eyes who learned to stand silent as a dead tree while Myk called. … When Myk went out of himself forever, sitting silent in the moonlight, his son Ogam continued the collection.”
Ogam calls the great Lyon Gules, and the huge black cat Moriah, stolen from a wizard’s hearth. “The blue-eyed falcon Ter, who had torn to pieces the seven murderers of the wizard Aer shot like a thunderbolt out of the blue sky onto Ogam’s shoulder. After a brief, furious struggle, blue eyes staring into black, the hot grip of talons loosened; the Falcon gave his name and yielded to Ogam’s great power.” Ogam also calls the oldest daughter of the Lord Horst of Hilt, who bore him one child and died. “The child, unaccountably, was a girl. Ogam recovered from his surprise eventually and named her Sybel.”
All this happens in the first few pages of this book, which is actually the story of Sybel, a beautiful, innocent, powerful girl who inherits the house of white stone, with its great dome of crystal, where she could set “beneath the colors of the night world and call in peace.” Not long after her father’s death, the sixtten-year-old Sybel first learns of a great white bird with trailing wings, “a bird that had carried the only Queen of Eldwold on its back in days before”: the Liralen. Her heart set on acquiring this beautiful bird, Sybel begins to call it, and this is the real beginning of the story, for it is on that night that Coren, seventh son of the Lord of Sirle, first comes to her isolated mountain home. He brings her an infant boy, Tamlorn, son of Sybel’s aunt who was married to King Drede of Eldwold and who died in childbirth. Coren believes that Tam is actually the son of his brother Norrel, who has just been killed on the battlefield, and has brought the baby to Sybel in hopes she will protect him from Drede’s jealous rage.
At first reluctant, Sybel soon comes to love Tam, and also to reach out to other people, most notably Maelga, a witchwoman living on the mountain who becomes her very good friend. Throughout Tam’s childhood, Sybel continues to search for knowledge of the Liralen, often stealing books from other wizards od Eldwold and beyond, and Coren of Sirle several times comes to her gate. She learns that Tamlorn really is King Drede’s son – his mother and Coren’s brother tried many times to be alone together, but never succeeded – and finally, when the boy is fifteen, Sybel calls Drede to the mountain and surrenders her charge, because of Tamlorn’s desperate need to know and love, and be loved by, his father.
By this, Sybel is drawn inexorably into the politics of the world, into a power struggle between the king who is terrified of growing old and dying alone, and Coren and his remaining brothers, only somewhat humbled by their earlier defeat at Drede’s hands and eager for revenge. Her relationship with Coren grows, through his repeated visits to the mountain, always claiming that he has come only because she has called him. Drede desires her, afraid of the power that she used to call him to the mountain, but seeing in her his lost Rianna, her aunt whom she resembles so much, and he eventually turns to sorcery to win her. And through all this there are the beasts, characters in their own right, with personality and magic all their own, and also Sybel’s quest for the Liralen.
For as long she has been seeking the Liralen, though, there has been another being, a figure in the shadows, watching her. This is the Blammor, the “fear men die of”, spoken of as Rommalb so as not to call him. The Blammor tests Coren and comes to Sybel’s aid when she is captured by Drede’s sorcerer. That incident leads Sybel to leave her mountain, to marry Coren and go with him to Sirle, partly because she really does love him, and partly because she now wants revenge against Drede, and plans to use Coren’s brothers to get that revenge. Her animals go with her, all of them knowing what Drede did to her and waiting for the chance to help her with her vengeance. Then, just as her plans are coming together, Sybel comes face to face with what she has become, what she has done to Coren, and what she is planning on doing with her fabulous beasts, all the in quest for vengeance. She tries to run, but in the end, the Blammor shows her that sometimes the only way to gain your heart’s desire is to seemingly give it away, and to face, and conquer, your darkest self.
Sybel is an incredibly compelling character, and Coren an exceptional match for her. The animals are brilliant creations, particularly the wise boar Cyrin with his riddles, like this one: “The giant Grof was hit in one eye by a stone and the eye turned inward so that it looked into his mind, and he died of what he saw there,” possibly the best statement of what this book is about. The arrival of Gyld the Dragon at Sirle, with Coren and Sybel on his back, is one of the cleverest scenes I’ve ever read. Coren’s older brother asks him, “What in the name of the Above and the Below are we going to do with it?”. to which Coren cheerfully replies, “We can store it in the wine cellar.”
Throughout the book, there are fascinating references to the folklore of Eldwold, little stories within the larger story, showing McKillip’s depth of imagination and her skill in building worlds. She is considered one of the greatest living fantasy authors, and this book is, in my opinion, the finest proof of that placement. “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” is my absolute favorite single fantasy novel. I’ve read it countless times, since I first discovered it in 1978, and I’ve enjoyed it fully every time. I cannot recommend it highly enough, even for those who normally don’t read much fantasy. In fact, it was only the second or third adult fantasy novel I ever read, and it certainly whetted my appetite for more. Now, I hope it will do the same for some of you. Let me know if it does.
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