An epic saga revisited
As I was driving along the other day,
I found myself behind someone whose car had a personalized license plate that read “STREEL.” This is a place-name (and something more) in a large and dramatic story I haven’t thought about in a long while, and it made me reflect about everything that goes into the writing of an epic fantasy. We have rich examples of this subgenre, both in book and visual form, with Tolkien’s masterpieces on the large screen and Game of Thrones on the small one, as well as recent epic stories such as Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer or N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. But what, exactly, keeps so many mesmerized by this story form?
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, by creating characters who are people with a common nature, regular folk like us; perhaps a bit naïve, retaining a certain innocence of character. The world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness, but it can’t be too obviously fictional; in fact, it needs, despite all of its anomalies, to feel real to the reader. We as readers step into it. We don’t call it up or create it, but we do commit to it, believe it, and go with it.
There must be an essential conflict in fantasy. It can vary in its nature, but it is usually a keen sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and a driving necessity to act to preserve good and defeat evil. That premise leads directly to the quest. It may be a spiritual or religious undertaking, with a protagonist fated to pursue it, so it is a serious undertaking, that includes danger, struggle, willpower, and perseverance. And since a quest is undertaken only when the well being of a society is threatened, the quest is often pursued to restore that society’s original well being. So perhaps a final element of the epic saga is (in some sense) a happy ending?
The author Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down, his classic heroic fantasy featuring a group of rabbits. It was the first book he ever wrote, and although 13 publishers turned him down (“you want to publish a book about a bunch of rabbits, one of which has ESP? really?”), once someone finally said yes, the book has remained continuously in print since 1972. It has won multiple awards, is regularly assigned reading in classrooms across America, and is a wonderfully told, moving story. But Adams also penned another lesser-known heroic tale written in two volumes: Shardik, which he wrote in 1974, and its sequel, Maia, which he didn’t complete until 10 years later, writing two other books (The Plague Dogs and The Girl in a Swing) in between. It is this saga that the powerful word “streel” on the license plate summoned up for me.
The people who live on the river island of Ortelga, a tiny part of the vast Beklan Empire, worship a bear-god named Shardik. The Ortelgans used to rule the empire, but now they inhabit a few insignificant islands on the outskirts. Although Shardik is a mythical creature from ancient history to most, to Kelderek, a simple man known as “Play-with-the-Children,” the immense bear that was driven by a forest fire to shelter on his island is the literal embodiment of the Power of God.
Kelderek labors to heal the bear of its extensive wounds sustained during its escape from the fire, and then convinces the local priests and barons of its divinity. Its appearance at this particular time is taken as (or used as) a portent by both religious and secular powers that it is Ortelga’s destiny to rise to greatness again; and a series of events leads to Kelderek assuming a high rank in the kingdom of Bekla. Building your power base on the whims of a wild beast, however, is bound to have unexpected consequences, as Kelderek finds when Shardik escapes the imprisonment imposed upon him by the power-hungry, and Kelderek must choose whether to cling to his position without the bear, or once again abandon everything to roam the land after Shardik, seeking to know his will.
Following Shardik leads Kelderek from the heights to the depths, and Adams’s story is really a saga of self-discovery and a study of the effects of faith on the behavior of people. This is an extremely simplistic summary of a complex story, containing a wide array of characters and a deep exploration of philosophical issues. It’s also an enthralling read!
The second book, Maia, is actually a prequel of sorts, with events that begin about a dozen years earlier than Kelderek’s story; but my recommendation would still be to read the books in the order they were written (Shardik first, Maia second), so that you will understand the setting and context.
Maia is a beautiful, lighthearted and engaging teen girl whose indiscretions with her stepfather lead her jealous mother to sell her to a passing slave-dealer. The rest of the book is the tale of her experiences as a slave (mostly as a “bed-slave”) that take her to both the most degraded and the most elevated levels of society. Adams uses Maia’s naiveté and provincial outlook to explore the politics, religion and philosophies of his fantasy kingdom, as seen through her eyes and those of her best friend, the concubine and spy Occula.
Although this second book shares only a few characters in common with Shardik, the events also transpire within the kingdom of Bekla, in the middle of similar religious and secular political struggles, and this book expands upon a particular theme—the existence and morality of slavery—that was treated as only a small part of the first book. Again, the themes are sweeping but the characters are specific, beautifully evolved, and memorable, and the language is rich.
By the way, the Streels of Urtah (which provoked this review) are a series of dark, narrow chasms in the middle of a vast plain. The people of Bekla believe that no one goes into them unless they are drawn there by their own evil. Once someone enters the Streels, they are not permitted to leave alive. Well, nobody ever said that epic sagas were supposed to be consistently cheery…