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Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The by Patricia A. McKillip

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Book Information  
AuthorPatricia A. McKillip
TitleForgotten Beasts of Eld, The
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by Rosemarie Arbur 
(Feb 27, 2006)

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is one of the great single-volume fantasies.

Fantasy affects us with enormous power insofar as it is true: not literally factual but in accord with what Hawthorne (writing about his romances that partake of the fantastic) called the truth of the human heart. The problems brought on Middle Earth by Sauron cannot be made to go away; after the ring is destroyed, things are better than Sauron would have wanted, but the effects of his evil linger. Ged knows and tells us that imbalance in Earthsea was caused by people and has to be fixed by people, not by gods or some platitudinous, easy magic; and there, too, the fix doesn't restore things to a perfect state, as the post-trilogy books make abundantly clear. In Eld, after the war, Sybel is set to mother a family of wizardlings: this isn't a tremendously satisfying ending; it's kind of like the end of Jane Eyre, in which after pain and struggle a strong woman protagonist gets her man --who is crippled by fire and hardly the hero she deserves. But The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is enormously powerful in part because it doesn't wrap everything up with a fairy-tale,-all-is-wonderful ending. It is not summed up by "love will make everything perfect" or "if you truly love them, you'll be just overjoyed at releasing your wondrous beasts in freedom."

I'm not sure how many times one can re-read McKillip's book and still discover things. After quite a few re-readings (not right away because the prose is so good that you don't want to question some of the things it reveals) one has to realize that Sybel's wizardry includes the mastery of coercion. Her mother, whom she dismisses (perhaps) by saying "she died of me," was called to her father without her consent, exactly the way Sybel herself was called and almost raped by Drede's hired wizard (who probably thought he had fallen in love with her). Growing up without her mother, Sybel naturally identifies with her father; she becomes a great wizard and, like him--or is it "like all wizards"?--she accepts her wizardly power without examining its moral basis. So Sybel calls the Liralen, steals other wizards' books, keeps her beasts, and tweaks a little change in Coren's mind. And then she has to learn to live with the consequences.

I read in the newspaper the other day that the Bronx Zoo has concluded its elephants-in-captivity program; after the current elephants' group destabilizes--when two or even one dies--the survivors will go someplace with other elephants and lots of room in which to work out social niceties, and visitors to the zoo will not see elephants anymore. If elephants survive in freedom in Africa, their average lifespans and quality of nutrition still won't equal what those at the Bronx Zoo have had. Nobody, elephants or elephant-friendly people, will find a satisfactorily happily-ever-after ending. This is one reality treated by The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Not as one-on-one simplistic allegory, and not with firm answers to the questions it's made of, but as carefully and fully as a real-world "theme" can be illuminated by any kind of literature. Sybel and Coren's children won't be substitutes for Gules Lyon and Ter Falcon and Gyld and the others (and the children's wizardry likely won't have the awesome power of Sybel's, because they'll be taught about the consequences of such power and its exploitation). That's why (I say, anyway) the children don't belong in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld: their world will be post-Middle-Earth, post-Ged's-release-of-the-Shadow; they probably won't go hunting or fishing, and they may not have even "companion animals" at home. On these moral questions, Thoreau wrote that "he only can force me who obeys a higher law."

By the end of the story, Sybel obeys a higher law. (Don't think it is Coren's, or think that Coren is an all-good guy. He's sensitive, sure, but he'd happily kill Drede, and we first meet him, remember, fresh from a bloody battlefield; moreover, he finds the unreformed Sybel irresistible.) The fantasy is about Sybel's life before she discovers and obeys it. It's powerful in its evocation of the questions I've discussed here, but it's also a wonderful experience of vicariously having those great Beasts in your home and in your heart, of being able, like Sybel, to tell a strong, armed man "if you hurt her [Moriah], I will kill you" --to say those words with such authority that the soldier backs off. (The novel is other wonderful experiences, too. In Tolkien [post-WW2], wizards are male; in McKillip [1970s], this wizard is a woman, and happily the remarkable-for-her-gender aspect has become less notable as 1974 recedes into the past. Cyrin Boar's riddles remain notable: they're hard evidence of the either-you-get-it-or-you-don't nonlinear, nonrational way of understanding things that is as valid as the so-called left-brain way and that, crucially important and not just in the confines of this fantasy, requires skill and learning and discipline and craft, not just dumb belief in it.) That The Forgotten Beasts of Eld gives us the experience of being a great wizard, of using great power, of "owning" great beasts at the same time as it leads us to examine the moral qualities of those great things is one sign of its eminence as fantasy and as literature. The old-women elephants at the Bronx Zoo cannot speak, and so they cannot tell us their understanding of the balances involved in loving zoo animals, postponing the extinction of wild ones, expanding one's emotional resonance beyond one's own species. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld do (and does) speak, as beautifully and magisterially as Cyrin; listening, we are enriched, even as we're unsettled, ... and literally magnified.

Submitted by Anonymous 
(Apr 05, 2004)

I've read this book at least ten times. I'm not sure whether people can still find it, but it's a wonderful read for females age 12-17 or so.

Sybel lives on the mountain all alone, as she has done since she was 16. She is a wizard and commands seven magical animals. One day a man comes bringing a baby (a distant relative) for her to rear. And, thirteen years later, he comes back for the child, and the animals retaliate. Well, of course, the guy (Corin) is in love with the powerful wizard. And a King (a semi-bad guy) is in love with her. And she loves no one, but wants to right an old wrong.

And here's what's cool about the book. Corin is complicated and Sybel is complicated. He mysteriously knows everything. She "learns" something magical. (Come to think of it--and this is a stretch--it's a little like "Gone with the Wind" with a happier ending.)

I guess I could give this a "4" at the age of 29 - but for a teenager this book is a "5."

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