On Patricia A. McKillip's novel Kingfisher

In the midst of the ongoing war & injustice we see in the news, let's talk art.

This week, I finished a recent novel by one of my favorite authors and spent some time unpacking it on Twitter. Kingfisher, by Patricia A. McKillip, pub. 2016. This novel is of a piece with trends in her novels which I see as dating back to 1994, with her short novel Something Rich and Strange.  

Something Rich and Strange, had been unavailable for some time, but has re-releasedin last year's collection of short fiction by McKillip called Dreams of Distant Shores. Strange is a haunting novella, providing timely warning via the world of the fey, of the oncoming global green-house gases and pollution disaster that is even now striking our oceans.

For those unfamiliar with Patrica A. McKillip, she's one of our contemporary fantasy greats. She is perhaps not as known as some, for reasons that relate to what make Kingfisher an important piece of literature.

This period, from 1994 to today (many of which have covers by the incomparable Kinuko Y. Kraft), of McKillip's work often centers on known fairy tales, and her re-spinning of well-known tales. For example, her novel Winter Rose is a revisioning of the traditional Scottish ballad, Tam Lin. In the Forests of Serre takes the Slavic tale of the Firebird as it's source. The Tower at Stony Wood is a re-telling of Lordy Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott, which in turn derives from Arthurian myth. With her re-interpretation, and re-inhabitation of these characters new lights on the legends and myths are shown. Tam Lin in her hands becomes a multiple-generation tale of alienation & abuse. But it is placed side-by-side with a loving family gripped by grief and loss. It takes sacrifice and love to be able to break each family out of these cycles. 

The stories are personal, with towering magic, and conflicts that may threaten nations, but they always wrap back around to human hearts.They begin and end with human lives. Plain, real human lives. The characters are people from royal ranks but also from kitchen crews. Each is given dignity, narrative space and an emotional world. 

The stories approach and deal with fallout of war, and lives of warriors, without becoming about the war or glorifying the killing. They deal with the heart of these changes and the ways that vengeance and pain curl back upon society.

For example, in The Book of Atrix Wolf, a mage weighs into a kingdom's battle. He calls on power of which intersects with that of an ancient fey. This act ends up cursing the land and magic, wounding the mage and trapping him and others seeking to learn the ways of magic in the ancient pain of this fatal mistake. 

These themes call to mind the pain of war in Fantasy pillar works, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Both lived thru both world wars. Their works echo the London Blitz, the industrialization & mechanization of their country during their eras. Also the terrors of invasion of one's land, the grief of dealing with the losses of war and upheavel of society it causes. Tolkien does so more directly. The themes are available and obvious in his work, as are his biases and racial intolerance.

But in adaptations of both, what gets mirrored strongest is glory of battle. The worst example of this, to me, was the first Hobbit film which direct ends up contradicting the main moral thrust of the book, that war and warriors have much to learn from people of peace like Bilbo. It is a real shame that the "Scouring of the Shire" section of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy has been ellided in adaptations. The devastation that is visited on the peaceful Hobbiton brings home the continuing costs of war. In adaptations of Narnia in US films, most likely prompted by the success of the Lord of the Ring films, the narrative gains a focus on the derring-do of battle, side-stepping the losses and the fears that are more evident in the full series as written.

So, let us turn back to McKillip's works: how would one co-opt her into glorifying warfare? The answer I see is that you cannot. Her tales resist those readings. She doesn't give space, focus or attention to war as war for war's sake. 

McKillip includes warfare as part of the tragedy of human experience. Spotlighting the outcomes, the griefs, the pains & damage left behind. These notes are presented within texts whose tone is not focused on grimmness. Reflecting lives that are undergirded likely with privilege, the ability to pursue life without daily trauma, humiliation and oppression. They works are characterized by the rhythm of daily life that we all aspire to, the full richness of living. Aspects of life like learning, falling in love, relating, cooking. But in a commonplace way even when of mythic proportions. Things that people do might be running a store, gardening, being a court mage, being a musician, scholar, queen, knight. The iconic nature of fantasy literature professions divorces them from the humans inhabiting them. McKillip marries them with simple life. 

Which brings me back to Kingfisher. It's her rendition of a Grail Myth, but is far more than that (apologies to Arthur). The cycle(s) of Arthurian legend revolve around the arts of war, the rise of loyalties, lieges and kingdoms. They are tragic to the core. In Kingfisher, McKillip removes the remoteness, embraces the core wound, and provides a path to healing, recovery, reparations and love. 

It's a challenging ask. The book has a couple dozen of characters, a far higher count than I am used to from her. They are well delineated and bounded, but I did have to take time to read back to make sure I recalled each sorceress, cook, knight et al. I definitely find myself wishing for more about these characters, wondering if she's seeing this as opportunity for other quests, loves, mysteries and stories or novels. I would 100% be part of the fan lobby for a novel about Dame Scotia Malory and her mysterious ancestory Tavis Malory. 

Another way she brings the narrative closer to contemporary audiences may be slightly controversial: placing the ancient side-by-side with contemporary. There are knights with cell phones. Magic & fish-fry Fridays co-exist. It's a mix that works for me, though I had to sit with it for a bit to feel it out. I like the way it reduces the distance between a current reader's lives & past myth. 

But the payoff, what I see as the heart of the book... Well, she got me. It took me by surprise, so I'll leave it at that, but I hope it is as sweet for you if your read the book.

A main accomplisment of Kingfisher is to within the tale de-constructe the nature, purpose and effects of quests. She acknowledges the unbalance of militarization that begets the questing knights in Arthur. An army, once created and honed, takes a toll on its master and home as well as enemies. Whether eating them out of house and home, or looking for ways to use those skills of violence that may imperil friends as well as foes. There is a reason why thru most of history and pre-history standing armies were not a thing. Farmers, gatherers and caretakers are always needed. Warriors and rescuers are needed when war is imminent. When that is persistent, all suffer.

And quests place the importance of the goal upon the questors, not those they seek among, whose lives they unbalance, destroy, steal from. In contrast, the great knights in Kingfisher observe harm, take action, mitigate, even heal. They take part in the great quest, but also pursue their own mysteries and respect the boundaries of those they meet, and ancient powers who have no protectors.

There is a moment of bloodshed in the book. It may sound odd to frame it that way given that it is about knights. But otherwise this kind of incident is very naturally placed out of scope of the story. It is so infrequent in her books that when it happened here it shocked, reminding me how blandly common harm and killing are in so much other media I consume. The wound is not mortal, and is proportionate to the moment. And the violence is motivated by self- and other-defense, out of desparation to free one and many from the grip of pain and vengeance wrought by one of great power. Liberation.

And, even more, healing was offered and found for all.

I think what I love about these stories from Patricia A. McKillip is that she is asking questions we don't often hear...

  • Will we, can we, if offered a chance, free ourselves from the wheel of violence?
  • What do our myths mean? Do we accept the assumptions of theft, appropriation and hierarchy of the supposed great they supply?
  • Can we resonate with the humanity of our heroes? Can we see the plain details of life in our myths?
  • Can we listen to our world, and those around us and hear and understand their pain and damage? Can we take it as our own and act for change?

So many thanks to Patricia A. McKillip for offering these spaces for our imaginations to inhabit.