As one of Patricia McKillip’s earlier works, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld provides an interesting comparison to her first publication Riddle-Master, a dense trilogy that made the most of her trademark poetic-prose. On the other hand, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a relatively slim volume with a clear concise style and a straightforward story. Since then, McKillip has managed to successfully merge the aspects of both works in her later works, but The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is by no means an example of a new writer still trying to find her voice. Far from it: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld has a fascinating premise, intriguing character interactions and a rewarding conclusion.
Sybel is the solitary wizard of Eld Mountain, living in a great white house with a menagerie of magical animals that she and her forefathers have called from all the corners of the world. She is perfectly content with her spells and her creatures, until one day a man named Coren brings a baby to her gate. The child’s parentage is in dispute: is his father the King of Eldwold or a Prince of Sirle? These two countries are at war with one another, and only one fact is clear: that the baby’s mother Rianna was kin to Sybel. So it is to her that Coren of Sirle has brought the infant for safety.
Years pass, and Sybel finds herself in a precarious position. Tamlorn is on the verge of becoming a young man, eager to learn about his father King Drede. Coren, who also happens to be brother of the man that Rianna betrayed Drede for, has fallen in love with her. Two entire countries seem poised on the edge of further war, and the decisions that Sybel makes could either precipitate or halt such events.
She herself wants to remain a neutral party, for aligning herself with one or the other means setting herself against either her child or her lover. But the rulers of both countries are eager to use her in their machinations, and when one takes steps to ensure her loyalty against her will, a seed of hate is bred in her that threatens to overthrow her capacity for love.
It is this internal conflict that provides the impetus for the story as a whole, and builds up an interesting conflict between love and hate, and the power that these emotions hold over an individual. Everything that Sybel holds dear is endangered by her insatiable need for vengeance, and though she can recognize this for herself, she cannot bring herself to give up her hatred of the man who was prepared to take away her free-will by magical means. McKillip finds an innovative way to address the seemingly inevitable tragedy of the story, by introducing a creature early on that embodies fear itself, challenging Sybel to relinquish both hate and love in order to retain her sense of self.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a rewarding read; quick, entertaining and thought-provoking while it lasts. It’s not amazingly profound by any means, for if you look closely, the plot holes and characterization flaws become more apparent. There could have been a little more development in several of the somewhat two-dimensional characters, such as the icy, emotionless Sybel and Coren’s seemingly out-of-nowhere love for her. A little more depth would have made their intertwining stories more poignant.
Fans of McKillip’s later books may miss her usual lucid, dream-like prose, which is largely missing here. Its absence means that the dialogue often feels a little stilted, with character awkwardly postulating their thoughts and feelings to one another in a way that just doesn’t feel natural. And yet no book by McKillip could ever be bad — she’s just too good at what she does. The themes and situations of the story are built up and carried out, the characters are sympathetic and interesting despite their slight two-dimensionality, and as always, the story is packed full of sparkling ideas that would sustain any other author over the course of several books. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld may not be McKillip’s best novels, but it is certainly one of her most readable and entertaining.
Every word of Rebecca’s comprehensive review is perfectly true: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a supremely entertaining book, blending classic Arthurian elements with Patricia A. McKillip’s unique voice and perspective. Along with the foundling babe of questionable parentage, there’s a powerful wizard separated from the world of men, kingdoms and holdings constantly at war, and enormous creatures out of legend (including a massive boar, a possible nod to Twrch Trwyth). Sybel isn’t the only magic-practitioner in the tale, and I really enjoyed her conversations with Maelga, an eminently practical and wise witch who steals produce from other people’s gardens rather than the other way round.
Sybel and her menagerie of “forgotten beasts” are fascinating with regard to the ways in which they interact with one another individually and as a whole; the tension between Sybel and the creatures who are her simultaneously her companions and her captives is palpable, especially because each beast has its own mind and personality, and its own ways of flaunting or ignoring her commands. I much preferred the beasts to the men she encounters, as the men generally fall into the expected mold of “short-sighted and warlike, obsessed with personal glory.” This story is primarily about Sybel, and her development and growth are powerful, but too many other characters feel like they’re playing parts specifically to facilitate that development.
The two exceptions to this rule are Coren and Tamlorn, and while Tamlorn is a thoroughly sympathetic young man, caught between childhood and manhood and thoroughly unsure of himself, Coren is an odd fit. He’s an interesting foil against Sybel, but his sudden glimpses of mystical knowledge are a little too out-of-the-blue, and his obsessive infatuation with Sybel is without satisfactory foundation — is he bewitched, is he trying to manipulate her into fulfilling his desires, or is he merely mad? I appreciate that McKillip was going for a Wise Fool character, but this needed more explanation to be truly successful, and for the later arguments and mistreatments between Sybel and Coren to have real weight.
The prose of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is generally lovely, if occasionally over-laden with descriptive adjectives or similes, and it’s easy to see why this short novel won the 1975 World Fantasy Award and is a perennial favorite for many fantasy readers. For a novel published so early in an author’s life, it’s remarkably well-written, and it’s no wonder McKillip has enjoyed such a long and well-respected career. Recommended for YA and adult fans of Arthurian myths, fine poetry, and high fantasy.