Patricia A. McKillip’s poignant THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD is intimate, gorgeous, quiet and deep
The praise for Patricia A. McKillip’s World Fantasy Award-winner THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD keeps rolling in. The new edition is now available in paperback and for the first time as an ebook.
Photo: Stephen Gold/Wikimedia Commons
At TOR.COM, Molly Templeton revisits the classic novel.
I tend to remember how a book felt, which is about as nebulous as things get. There’s usually one lingering image in my very visual-reader brain, as well. Jo Clayton’s Serroi books feel defiant, a small green girl in a looming landscape. Melanie Rawn’s dragon books are regal, but there’s one image of a picnic that I can never shake, and another of a valley.
Patricia A. McKillip’s THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD, on the other hand, is a mountain home, a dragon, solitude, and defensiveness. Rereading the book, which Tachyon Publications just reissued, was a singular experience: marrying those feelings with what actually happens in the book, which both is and is not what I remember.
THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD was first published in 1974, and won the inaugural World Fantasy Award the following year. Elegantly written, perfectly paced, it’s a slim volume that nevertheless shares bone structure with much of epic fantasy: an unlikely child, growing up out of the way, turns out to have the power to reshape the world of men.
McKillip took that structure, pared away all the fat, and turned her gaze inward. Sybel, with her wizard blood, grows up on a mountain with a magical bestiary for companionship: the dragon Gyld, the boar Cyrin, the Black Swan, the Cat Moriah, Gules Lyon, and Ter, the falcon. Each is a creature out of myth, held at Sybel’s stone home by the power of her father’s will—and then by Sybel’s. When her father dies, young Sybel remains alone, reading books, sending her mind out in search of one more beast: the great white bird, the Liralen, which remains elusive.
Though the new cover illustration makes Sybel look an awful lot like Daenerys Targaryen, she is a heroine the likes of which I’ve rarely encountered: self-contained, self-sustaining, content in her solitude, greeting adulthood on her own terms. Still, pieces of McKillip’s world resonate with other stories you might know: the forest of Mirkon suggests Tolkien’s Mirkwood; the dark Thing Sybel finds lurking about her house, which scares men half to death, reminds me of the thing called up by the wizard Ged in Le Guin’s Earthsea books.
Like Le Guin, McKillip gives her protagonist power, pride, and a thirst to know things. Sybel knows what she wants, and it has nothing to do with the power struggles of men. She wants the Liralen, and to stay at her home, learning, absorbing, collecting books and creatures. When an insecure king pulls her out of her home and threatens to take away her will, she thinks only of revenge, to the detriment of all her relationships.
You know the feeling you get when a beloved book is going to be adapted, and you want to protect it, to keep it within the frame of your own vision, your idea of what it looks like? I feel that way about Sybel, even as I love the story McKillip spins out for her. It’s a neat trick: letting the reader want one thing for a character while simultaneously convincing her that this life, the one in the story, is the right one.
FORGOTTEN BEASTS is a coming-of-age story that’s firmly about engaging with the world—about accepting that it’s incredibly difficult to truly hold yourself apart from it. It’s a story about compromise and freedom, and one that takes some difficult, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking turns on its way to a tempered but happy ending. What each character does with the freedom that’s granted to them moves me to tears, every time. Everything epic, the battles and ruling, happens in the background, while in the frame of McKillip’s regard, Sybel comes to understand change, and love, and trying to be the person you want to be while letting others be their own people as well. Intimate, gorgeous, quiet and deep, THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD remains as resonant as ever, even if—especially if—it made me feel entirely differently about it this time around.
Margaret Kingsbury at BOOK RIOT declares the fantasy as the best book she read in September.
Badass lady wizard alert! I’ve come to McKillip only recently, and I’m cherishing the experience. Her prose is like poetry; her plots subtle; her characters heartbreaking. When I first began reading ELD, I thought I recognized the story. A young boy comes to live with his wizard aunt to hide from his father the king. Oh, and wizard aunt has a dragon, a riddling boar, a giant falcon. But the plot took an unexpected turn. As the story progressed, I realised McKillip had something far more poignant and beautiful in mind. And it really is a beautiful novel. I cannot recommend it highly enough for fantasy fans. If you haven’t read her before, come join me in cherishing her novels bit by bit. And if you have read her before, I bet ELD is one you reread often.
WRITING.COM praises the novel.
The characters are simple straight forward people anyone might like to meet. The reader might not be able to put the story down. There are kings, warriors, intrigue, people falling in love, beasts doing beastly things galore, wizardry happening to people, and words that paint pictures in your mind throughout the story.
I recommend this story to anyone who wants to take a couple days vacation in a different land and stay on your couch while you do it.
THE WORCH MEMORIAL PUBLIC LIBRARY in Versailles, OH names THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD as a Pick-of-the-Month.
For more info about THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover by Thomas Canty