"Sybel, there must be a silence deeper than the silence of Eld between those stars; shall we go listen to it?"
"The giant Grof was hit in one eye by a stone, and that eye turned inward so that it looked into his mind, and he died of what he saw there."
'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' is a gorgeously told tale of love and the human cost of war and revenge. It has a love of riddles, inventive magical beasts, and a well-drawn cast of believable characters with a strong, engaging female protagonist. However what truly elevates the book is Patricia A. McKillip's poetic language. Her command of striking imagery and finely balanced phrases places 'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' in another category altogether from the faux-archaisms employed by Lord Dunsany and his imitators, a high Fantasy that almost qualifies as a prose poem.
'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' takes a stock character that is usually a villain in most high Fantasy stories, the ice-queen wizard alone in her mountain fortress with only her enchanted animals for company, and turns her into a sympathetic, believable protagonist. Sybel is the descendant of a line of wizards with the ability to summon magical animals: the falcon, Ter, Gules Lyon, the Cat Moriah, the Dragon Gyld, the Black Swan of Terleth, and the Boar Cyrin, who answers all riddles save one. Her attempts to summon the White Bird Liralen are complicated when Coren of Sirle turns up at her gates, asking her to care for the baby Tamlorn, the son of King Drede. As Tamlorn becomes poised to fall between the rebel forces of Sirle and Drede's armies, Sybel finds herself drawn away from her hideout on the mountain of Eld and into the world of people, of which she wants no part.
What follows is the story of the isolated, lonely Sybel learning to interact with people, as she becomes a mother figure for Tamlorn and negotiates the affections of Coren and Drede. This could be a standard, if wonderfully told, romance plot, if not for the nuance and depth. McKillip is fully aware of the depth and complexity of love, but also of the negative end of the spectrum of human emotions, how fear, hatred and jealousy can consume people. 'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' works so well partially because of how well grounded it is in real emotional depth.
This is demonstrated in the book's treatment both of its villains, and of its protagonist as she makes more and more questionable decisions. There is no question that Drede's plan to have Sybel magically brainwashed so that she will love him and not attack him is monstrous, but Drede is not portrayed as a monster. He is shown to be a person who, because of the rumours about his wife's betrayal of him and his unsteady grip on power due to the forces of Sirle, is utterly hounded by fear, to the extent that he makes decisions that he knows are horrific. Even the wizard Mithran, who he hires to do the job, is revealed to be a bitter, lonely old man who has let his own lust for power consume his life. None of this excuses either characters' actions, but because we can understand where their motivations come from, and because we can believe that these people could end up like that, it makes the whole situation much more believable.
Drede's plan is portrayed as the horrendous violation it is, and whilst neither Drede nor Mithran succeed, the event still clearly traumatises Sybel, and the book realistically explores the fallout from this. Sybel marries Coren so that she can move to Sirle and plot with his brothers, the Lords of Sirle, and her magical animals, to get her revenge on Drede. However, she soon becomes so obsessed with utterly destroying Drede that she stops thinking about what will happen to Coren, whom she has grown to truly love, and Tamlorn, who is now living with his father Drede and clearly loves and admires him. This is made worse by the fact that, in her desire to protect both of them, and to keep her revenge for herself, she refuses to tell either of them what happened. The book never condones Drede nor suggests that he doesn't fully deserve his comeuppance, but it does portray how Sybel's entirely understandable desire for revenge starts to consume her and cut her off from the people she loves.
The book becomes increasingly morally complex as it goes along, exploring how good people can be driven to do bad things through entirely understandable motivations. This is illustrated by Cyrin's riddle about the giant Grof - the idea that we sometimes hide our own true motivations from ourselves, and to truly look into them can be painful. This is also symbolised by the Blammor, the ugly and frightening aspect of the Liralen that manifests to Sybel, Coren and Mithran as a cloud of smoke with ice for eyes that reflects back your own worst fears. Mirthan is too corrupted to survive his experience with the Blammor, but both Sybel and Coren have to face their own worst impulses before they can happily be with each other. As Coren says to Sybel,
"What do you think love is - a thing to startle from the heart like a bird at every shout or blow? You can fly from me, high as you choose into your darkness, but you will see me always beneath you, no matter how far away, with my face turned to you. My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it, or let it wither and die."
The complexity of the book's view of love, as something that ties the couple together but that can also be twisted and subverted into something damaging and ugly, is refreshing. In the end it is not just their love that pulls Coren and Sybel back from the brink, but knowledge, wisdom and self-awareness. Both Coren and Sybel, having looked into themselves, can see something of Drede in themselves, a man who let his feelings for his wife be twisted into something unpleasant and destructive by his fear and jealousy. Coren and Sybel first have to reject their own destructive, violent impulses, before they can return to each other purified, as symblised by the Liralen shedding the aspect of the Blammor to take its true form.