Poetry, Prophecy, and Power in The Bards of Bone Plain & Last Song Before Night
Since J. R. R. Tolkien helped inaugurate (or at least cultivate) “secondary world” fantasy in the mid-twentieth century, the genre has flourished. And while big-budget film fantasy is all the rage, the market for written speculative fiction remains brisk. Poke around into the genre’s recent history for a little bit, and you’re sure to find reference to Patricia A. McKillip. Since the 1970s, she has quietly, steadily been publishing fantasy at the rate of a novel every few years, with periodic collections of her short work also appearing. Less well-known may be Ilana C. Myer, though fans may be familiar with her cultural commentary and analyses of fantasy at The Huffington Post, where she has written for years under her birth name, Ilana Teitelbaum.
McKillip is a revered figure with four decades of experience and Myer is a newcomer, but they’ve both published recent novels that use backdrops of pure fantasy to explore a similar theme: the role of poets in a disenchanted world. In McKillip’s 2010 book The Bards of Bone Plain and Myer’s 2015 debut novel Last Song Before Night, bardic characters in worlds drained of magic must recapture ancient enchantment and resurrect the power of verse—a message that may also ring true in our own “primary world.”Novels by Patricia McKillip and Ilana Myer suggest another role that poetry might yet play in our society: the project of re-enchantment.
Like many of Patricia McKillip’s novels, The Bards of Bone Plain is a standalone, apparently set in a world discrete from (or at least independent of) her previous books’ settings. The chapters juxtapose two time frames. The modern plot occurs in Caerau, a city with a gently Victorian feel, where Phelan Cle, son of poet Jonah Cle, listlessly teaches bardic poetry techniques to half-interested students while researching his own final dissertation on the mythic—perhaps symbolic—realm of Bone Plain. But a contest to appoint the new royal bard brings to light the strange history of Caerau’s past and the founding of the bardic school, a history which is told in interspersed chapters. As always, her prose is florid and fluid, and the story features some nice plot twists and a quintessentially bewildering McKillip-style climax.
The less-practiced Myer uses vivid and image-rich writing as well, and while her inaugural novel is grittier than McKillip’s customarily tranquil plotting, it stops short of the faux-naturalism of, say, A Game of Thrones. Last Song Before Night takes place in Myer’s realm of Eivar, where poets have long held power over the rulers, though that power appears more formal and/or political in the novel’s present day, leaving a world of disenchanted poetry and silent gods. But with suggestions of a new dark magic reemerging, a cast of young characters ranges across the countryside in search of the Path that had carried an ancient singer back to the Otherworld, while they are hunted by the servants of the power-hungry Court Poet.
It’s intriguing that, despite its exotic setting, Myer’s novel explicitly emphasizes the fact that “enchantments” are “gone” or “lost” or “dead” in Eivar. Similarly, McKillip’s Caerau has lost all the magic its poets once had. Both of these books are “pure” secondary world fantasies of the general Tolkienian variety, yet they could never have been written in any age but our own. They mirror our own world insofar as they depict a past that is magical or enchanted and a present that is disenchanted… or secular.
Enchantment is the very terminology used by philosopher Charles Taylor in his magnum opus A Secular Age. Denizens of prior ages, he contends, saw a much richer and more organic interaction between what we would call the natural and supernatural worlds. Our age is secular, not because religious belief has died away (it hasn’t), but because even most believers assume day-to-day life is a closed, rule-abiding system.
We can read the works of Antiquity or the Middle Ages and encounter pre-modern voices whose worldviews presuppose that other worlds regularly interact with our own. We might appreciate (and even agree with) their perspective in principle. However, our default position remains far more mundane and rule-abiding.
Despite Caerau’s revered bardic schools or the monuments and temples erected to Eivar’s deities in its capital Tamryllin, both regions in the books’ present sequences are secular in Taylor’s sense. Yet neither McKillip nor Myer is content with this status.
The more Phelan Cle researches the history of his institution and the curious imagery of Bone Plain, the more he begins to believe not just in the reality of its magic but in that magic’s relevance to his own day—even (quite directly) his own life. In much the same way, Myer’s characters—the bard Darien Aldemoor, his would-be lover Rianna Gelvan, the aspiring poet Kimbralin Amaristoth—must seek out the Path to unlock the repressed energies of past enchantments. And in both books, the heroes are prompted to initiate their quests in part because of external threats, that is, possible villains who are themselves well aware of the power of enchantment.
It’s commonplace, particularly in the fantasy genre, to equate writers and poets with mages and sorcerers. The fictional magic-wielder simply externalizes the power that the author can only do in shadowy or symbolic form. Surely most writers wish they could bring true life to their characters or settings. The limitations on the creative process represent what Tolkien calls the difference between creation (which only God can achieve ex nihilo) and sub-creation (which must make use of preexisting materials).
The biblical writers were certainly adept at this. I had a seminary professor who contended that Scripture’s apocalyptic genre was itself a variant of Tolkienian secondary world fantasy. Like Middle Earth, these fantastic visions were at once enchanted and practical, designed to bring us “there and back again,” that is, into a different world so that we could return to our own with a different viewpoint. Moreover, much of the Bible was written in poetic form, which was probably the most natural use of the concrete and imagistic Hebrew language. Of course, Wisdom literature like the Psalms or Proverbs were poetry, but—lest we forget—so is the bulk of biblical prophecy. In other words, in the Bible, prophets were poets, and poets were prophets.
Biblical prophets, of course, often prophesied in the familiar sense—they told the future. But they also spoke truth to those in power. These truths, like the prophecies, might be heeded or ignored, but they were the result of an ecstatic inspiration, and they demonstrate that at least at some point in history, poets really did have cultural standing. As late as the nineteenth century, the much less pious Percy Bysshe Shelley could famously assert, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Such an opinion would be a tougher sell today. We could, of course, note that classic poetry was often musical in nature, and musicians still retain some cultural cachet. One could maintain that artists like recent Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan or Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda fulfill that role. However, unlike in Shelley’s England (or ancient Israel), many modern Americans might be unable to name a single contemporary poet, even if there are many skilled practitioners currently living. One such poet, Dana Gioia, wrote a significant piece in The Atlantic twenty-five years ago titled “Can Poetry Matter?” In it, Gioia castigated the contemporary poetry scene for its insularity, nepotism, and air of self-congratulation. Poets write to other poets, teaching poetry students to become poets like themselves, and they are the only ones reading their poetry.
Gioia, himself a Roman Catholic, has worked tirelessly in the intervening years to change this tendency. He holds among his degrees a master of business administration from Stanford, which gives him a practical turn many others in his field lack and which no doubt helped him in his successful career as George W. Bush’s Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite Gioia’s work, however, poets are hardly “unacknowledged legislators” today. To be sure, many write about political and social themes and protest society’s injustices. And perhaps the initiatives of individuals like Gioia will gain them a wider voice.
But in their novels, McKillip and Myer suggest another role that poetry might yet play in our society: the project of re-enchantment. Both of their novels feature young bardic poets who must restore the magic and enchantment from previous epochs to the present day. In both cases, the poet heroes, while unassuming, enter roles that give them voices in the political process, thus mirroring the biblical office of prophet. Yet like so many figures in the Bible, they are worth listening to, at least in part, because of the power and the beauty of their language.
At the close of A Secular Age, Taylor himself identifies poetry (and the arts more broadly) as a means of transforming and re-enchanting language and culture. He particularly focuses on the Victorian Catholic priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as an example, one that many poetry lovers (Christian or otherwise) would happily join in praising.
We are a long way from the days when a work of poetry could top the bestseller lists. And in our pragmatic, technocratic, disenchanted secular age, products as slow and useless as poems might seem irrelevant. But these novels by McKillip and Myer suggest a project that certainly should appeal to Christians, who claim as sacred a book that is inspired and often explicitly poetic. Whether as a prophetic answer to power politics or a re-enchantment through the power of beautiful words, poetry matters, and those who take the Bible seriously should be leading the call for its renewal.
Image via Kinuko Y. Craft
Fascinating article, and I suspect Ms. Teitelbaum was both flattered to be paired with Ms. McKillip so favorably and surprised to have that happen here.
May I point out that in your third paragraph you probably meant to write “…set in a world discrete from…”?
Now that I’ve been made aware of this website, I’ll be back regularly.
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