I suppose it might just be me, but in a post-Harry Potter world, it can be easy to forget that there was good YA fantasy literature before J.K. Rowling worked her magic. There wasn’t much of it, and you had to kind of know where it was to find it, but it did exist. One such book is Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Recently re-released, this delightful book is a fantastic read that is neither a rip-off of Tolkien (the problem with many mid-to-late 2oth century fantasy works) nor a twenty-volume series that must be read in sequence in order to be understood. Instead, it is a short, stand-alone novel that deserves to be a classic in the genre.
It also deserves to be a classic in feminist literature. I mean, it might be already–I’m no expert in the classics of feminist literature. But if it isn’t counted as one, it should be. [Spoilers from here on out] Sybel is a witch who lives in isolation on her mountain in the Kingdom of Eld. She only leaves her home to steal new books from wizards in order to help her continue to gather magical and forgotten beasts around her. But when a rebel faction shows up seeking sanctuary for the heir of the King of Eld, she is drawn into the politics and great events of her time. Will she be able to protect her adoptive child and her beasts without losing her innocence by becoming a murderer? She has lived peacefully with her animals on the mountain her whole life, will coming down into the world of men change her into someone new?
Again, this is a fascinating book to read as a feminist text. Like Dreamsnake (reviewed here), McKillip asks interesting questions without sacrificing the plot or the integrity of the characters. It is a feminist book that refuses to shove its feminism in our face. And as such I think it’s an especially useful book for Christians to grapple with. Evangelicals can be too quick to dismiss feminism as “something the other side cares about,” and as a result we can be lax when it comes to reflection on what it means to be a woman in the first place, and how a woman can live in the the world without losing the core of her femininty. The Forgotten Beast of Eld’s subdued approach gives us a chance to dip into the story without jumping to conclusions first. In fact, this kind of literature in general can be an especially useful place to reflect on this problem. How can an author write a hero that is a woman in the ways that matter? If, for example, the story is written as if it were a man as a hero with a woman merely standing in his place (think action movies like the Lara Croft films), then does it even matter if a woman is the hero? If the two genders are simply interchangeable then is there anything unique to being a woman at all?
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a great example of a book that wrestles with these questions in a way that is sympathetic, interesting, and (best of all) just a great read. Highly recommended.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO