Monday, July 16, 2012

Joint Musings: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Forgotten Beasts of Eld
Ana from things mean a lot and I read Patricia McKillip's World Fantasy Award winner The Forgotten Beasts of Eld together some time ago.  And thank goodness I had a reading partner for this one because it was a surprisingly complex and subtle novel.  Completely different in tone from the previous McKillip I've read (and loved), Alphabet of Thorn, The Forgotten Beasts of Love is about power and the effect it can have on both the wielders of it and the victims of it.

Sybel is descended from gods, and she lives happily without any human contact for a very long time.  Her only companions are the animals that she has sought out and brought under her power.  Her goal is to find the liralen, an elusive and beautiful bird that continues to evade her.  But one night, her solitude is interrupted by Coren, a man who comes to her with a baby boy and begs her to raise the boy and keep him safe.  After a long hesitation, Sybel agrees, and this decision changes everything because the boy is not just any boy, but the heir to a kingdom.  As Sybel tries to balance her allegiance to two enemy camps, she struggles to keep her own independence and stay true to the person she wants to be.

Below is the second half of the conversation Ana and I had about this book.  Check out the first half on her blog.  It's pretty long and it's a spoiler minefield, so be warned if you plan to read this book (though we warn you below in bold letters when you are getting to the spoilers, so don't worry yet)!  But we noticed that there isn't a lot of discussion of this book on the interwebs, and it's one that really begs for detailed discussion, so we thought we'd put our thoughts down on a lot of details, for posterity.  (And when I say "our" thoughts, I mostly mean Ana's.  As you will see, she was not nearly as flummoxed by the book as I was and made the book so much clearer to me!)  Enjoy!

Ana:  Yes, it's the emphasis on looks that is the problem. I do like the fact that the story doesn't equate a woman being beautiful with being shallow and uninteresting, because I've had enough of that. But as per usual it's all about variety of representation, so I'm also all for non traditionally beautiful heroines doing awesome things. I pretty much want every type of story possible about every kind of woman imaginable. Lastly, yes: you put it perfectly when you said that Sybel's struggle was very much internal and related to trust. I really liked the way McKillip joined the dots between this kind of internal struggle and the desire for political dominance. When Sybel is being held by the sorcerer Drede sent after her, she says:
"You--cannot ever be certain of those you love--that they will not hurt you, even loving you. But to make me certain to love you, will be to take away any love I might give you freely. That white bird's name is Sybel. If you kill it, I will die and a ghost will look out of my eyes. Trust me. Let me live, and trust me."
I really liked this bit, and the more I think about it, the more I wonder how much Drede's desire to have absolute control in personal relationship ties in with the political struggles between him and the Lords of Sirle. It's almost like the political aspect is an extension of the same kind of desire for control -- and that's visible in several different characters, including Sybel herself.

Aarti:  I also liked that, when left to their own devices, the animals had a much more humane manner of treating the populace than any of the leaders - Rok, Drede or Sybel - did. It reinforced to me that Sybel had treated them unfairly and unkindly, though she did love them. Though it seems ambiguous to me if the men are still alive or if they are just off on a wild goose chase somewhere... 

Ana:  Yes, it was ambiguous what happened to the men in the end. And you're right about the animals - it's like Sybel believed that they needed to be controlled, that they'd be dangerous without her guidance, but in the end that said far more about her own lack of trust than about their nature.

Aarti:  Oh, I never thought of it that way! I never thought of it as Sybel thinking the animals needed to be controlled. I thought of it as Sybel wanting to know that she could be in control. I thought it was an ego boost for her- otherwise, why would she go after the Liralen, a bird that doesn’t seem to do harm to anyone? I like your interpretation, though- makes Sybel into a much more complex person! And I realize we haven’t even discussed the very ambiguous ending yet! 

Ana:  Yes, so much to say about the ending! Though an explicit discussion will inevitably lead to spoilers.
If you haven't read the novel yet and don't want to be spoiled, please be careful from this point onwards.

Aarti:  First of all, Blammor/Liralen - Whaaa? How can the blammor be the liralen? I don’t understand this at all. Is it some symbolic way of showing that fear and happiness are two sides of the same coin? And does this imply that the liralen means more to Sybel than all the people in her life because it was only when seeing the liralen dead that she changed her course? Towards the end, when she was calling the Liralen (and why was she calling the liralen when she didn’t want to control the animals any more, anyway?) and then Coren came, I thought that maybe Coren was the liralen or that he symbolized her quest for happiness.

Ana:  The fear/happiness hypothesis makes sense to me too. But perhaps it's more general than that; perhaps it's meant to imply that things we think of as opposites are in fact connected. Throughout the novel the Liralen seems to stand in for Sybel's magical ambition, for her desire to go further and gain more control and challenge herself more. And as much as her quest for knowledge is beautiful and worthwhile (as symbolised by the Liralen), it also has a dark side (the Blammor). Her quest had consequences for the animals, for starters, and in the end she hurt those she loved. I would hate to think that the novel is simply suggesting that ambition is an ugly, devouring thing, especially for a woman, but perhaps the Liralen/Blammor's dual identity is saying something about our constant need to balance different goals and priorities; about how going too far in one single direction can separate us from things (or people) that also matter to us.

Aarti:  Oh, that’s a wonderful interpretation of the ending. I like that a lot, and you’re right- it’s much nicer than thinking that ambition is just wrong and we can take it too far.


The second thing I wanted to discuss is... happily ever after? I don’t know what to think of the ending. Sybel tells Maelga that she loves Coren and wants to have his babies. She tells Coren that she wants to go home with him and that she wants HIM to take her home so that they can have a life together. But... is that really what she wants? Is this really just subverting all the feminism from before to say “Hey, women don’t deal well with power and instead should just stay home and care for their men”? I can’t imagine that Sybel would be happy in that role, no matter how much she loves Coren, and I was a little shocked that Coren even believed her, especially since he pointed out to her that it’s very easy for her to say such things as “I need you” without actually needing him. I just didn’t get the impression that it was going to be particularly happy down the road they were going. 

Ana:  It's also difficult for me to imagine Sybel being happy in a conventionally domestic life - not because there's anything wrong with finding happiness there, of course, but because that was just not the kind of person she seemed to be. You said above that when she calls the Liralen towards the end Coren comes, and that perhaps this means that this magical bird that represented all her longing, her quest for happiness, has been replaced by the man she's in love with. What is interesting to me is that in the end they both come - not Coren instead of the Liralen, but first Coren and then the Liralen, who finally reveals its true nature to Sybel.

That's interesting to me on a symbolic level, because it can be read as suggesting that Sybel is not about to replace her previous life as a powerful but solitary sorceress with a quiet domestic existence, but rather that she'll try to find a way of life that somehow incorporates aspects of both roles. Maybe loving Coren and having children doesn't have to mean that she'll give up everything else - maybe it means an end to her isolation, but also that the free part of her (which she explicitly links to the Liralen at one point) will carry on, and she'll have other interests, other passions, a part of herself that is uniquely hers. I realise it's quite possible that I'm just projecting a very modern and equal relationship arrangement onto a novel written in the early 70's and set in a Medievalesque fantasy world, but... this reading is possible, and being able to imagine Sybel living a life that requires neither loneliness nor self-abnegation means something to me. It takes a lot of faith and goodwill to read the ending this way, of course, but this is want I want to believe Sybel went on to do. 

Aarti:  Well, I like that interpretation, though it makes McKillip very idealistic :-) I do like the idea that Sybel has many interests and passions that she pursues going forward, but I am not sure what these would be. Even after she left to go back to her mountain, she lived in isolation and didn’t seem to miss or need anyone or anything, almost starving herself. It was only when her son came to visit her that she came back to herself, and then decided that she missed everyone, and then Coren came, and she told him that she wanted to be with him more than anything. It just seemed a bit fake and forced to me, and I didn’t believe that it was what Sybel truly wanted - more that she couldn’t think of what else to do as she didn’t have the animals any more and didn’t want to control other beings. And what else had she spent her life doing? I realize this is a very cynical way of looking at things, but the ending just felt very unsettled to me. 

Ana:  It IS a very idealistic reading, I know! But I don't think you're cynical - as much as I like my reading, I can definitely understand why you'd worry and wonder what exactly Sybel would have in her life other than Coren and their family once she left the animals and her mountain behind. I felt that perhaps the novel was making a wider point about how women shouldn't be required to narrow their lives in one direction or another: ambition shouldn't come at the expense of companionship, and companionship shouldn't require anyone to give up their ambitions. But the practicalities remain to be worked out, which is unfortunately also often the case in real life.

23 comments:

  1. Thanks again for reading the book with me, Aarti! I always enjoy our chats so much. We must do this again in another couple of months.

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    1. Thank YOU, Ana! I got so much more from this book because of you :-) And yes, definitely let's do it again soon!

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  2. I love reading your discussion. I want to have sit down at some cafe with you guys. :)

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    1. That would be so lovely! We should do it :-)

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  3. So glad you guys read this. And talked about it! I had a lot of trouble with this one, too, particularly the ending, but reading what Ana suggests (idealistic or no) I have to agree with her -- it's the 70's when this book is written, and women are wondering why there has to be a dichotomy -- why can't one have a family and still be oneself, why does love and marriage to a man have to subsume all her other interests? Can't both her work and her family be important to one's happiness? So it might be idealistic, but I also feel that McKillip leaves it an open question as to whether practically having both is a possibility.

    Thanks for helping me see lots of pieces of this book in new ways!

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    1. You're right - maybe in the 70s all of that was totally possible! I'm glad you read it, too, and remember the ending.

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  4. Dude, I am a FAN of that cover.

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    1. It's the lighting, isn't it? Great :-)

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  5. Great talk :)
    But I just do not know about this much, so much going on, layers and thoughts

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    1. Yeah, it's pretty deep. Far too deep for me in many ways!

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  6. You two are amazing at dissemination, and I loved the way you took apart all the various aspects of this book, particularly the ending. I think great books can be read in many ways, and reading your discussion lets me see that both of you were reading the same material, but taking very different messages from it. I think we read from our own point of view, yes, but that doesn't necessarily make Aarti a cynic, and Ana a dreamer. I think we all take in the material we are reading and re-frame it from a place where we understand it. This was an excellent and very erudite discussion. I loved it!

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    1. That's so true, Heather! Your comment was even more erudite than our discussion, I think.

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  7. It's been so long since I've read this. I need to get back into McKillip. Thanks for the reminder, and fun to read your joint musings!

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    1. Yeah, she's a great writer! I look forward to reading more by her.

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  8. I had never heard of this book before...
    I liked the format of this post, how you really analysed the book between you. I enjoyed reading it :)

    And I'm impressed that you are halfway through A Suitable Boy already and glad that you are enjoying it so far. I'm sure our posts will tally up at some point in the future, it would be great to have you as part of the read-along.

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    1. Aw, I'm glad you enjoyed the joint read - I was a little worried that the length would turn people off ;-)

      Yes, I am really enjoying Seth's book. It's very good! I hope you guys all enjoy it, too.

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  9. Why am I always such a sucker for that golden light?

    The cover alone makes me want to read it.

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    1. Hey, there's nothing wrong with judging a book by its cover!

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  10. This was the first book by Patricia McKillip that I read back in the 1980's, and so one of the earliest fantasy books I read. I think I was 19 or 20, so alot of the symbolism would have escaped me, such as reading in the power vs relationship that you two have picked up on. From what I can remember of the book, I thought it was beautiful, and I saw Sybel as someone who was very lonely and protecting herself from getting hurt by controlling the ones around her (who she thought she was protecting). It was only after love (Coren) comes into her life, and she understands that she wasn't really living - that all that power and control meant nothing if she wasn't loving, too. To me it was a very powerful statement about balancing love and ambition, and I never thought she was leaving her ambition behind when she left the mountain, I thought of it as her going to something equally powerful, which was a relationship and love and daring to get hurt. I think she would always be aware of control and the cost it takes to take away freedom, and so she would expect freedom in her relationship, as well as be able to give it.

    However, your wonderful textual readings of the book have made me think that perhaps almost 30 years ago means I have to go back and revisit it! And you two did a fantastic job discussing this book.

    Only now too, do I see the link of Sybil and Sybel - now I really have to read it, to see if there is anything of the seeress about her magic. Very illuminating.

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  11. I read this over ten years ago (and loved it) and I think you two have convinced me that I need to reread it!

    As for the ending... Well, it's been to long for me to have any strong opinion of my own, but just because she may be going for the "having it all" option doesn't mean life will be easy. I agree that Sybel does not quite seem like the domestic type - even if she keeps outside interests, adjusting to that will be difficult and their life together isn't going to be easy.

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  12. I am so glad you and Ana read this together and had such an interesting discussion about it. It has been a long time since I read it and now feel I need to read it again.

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  13. I read the first part of this conversation and commented there ... it was great reading this second part too. Such an intelligent discourse. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  14. This sounds like one that definitely lends itself to a discussion to get all of the layers of meaning and nuances. Ana is definitely one that always seems to get all of the parts she is reading. This was a great joint effort by the two of you!

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