What is language other than words on a page, letters conspiring to be meaning for us to decode. It can be formal and factual, or poetic and evocative. In the hands of the right author, it can be a rapier weapon of wit or cross-examination, or a defensive shield of lies and obfuscation. In short, words can dance to the tune of whoever is paying the piper.
From these idle thoughts, we make the intellectual leap to The Bards of the Bone Plain by Patricia A McKillip. Let’s dispense with formality. Through all these reviews, we know each other well enough by now to be straightforward with each other and cut to the chase. This is an old-school fantasy. Old school, you say with a faintly puzzled look, not intending a question, but testing the sense of the words on your tongue. When I was younger, people used to write books like this all the time. Now younger authors are seduced by the blandishments and cheque books of the publishers, and churn out feeble urban fantasy in which women battle against magical and elemental forces in the dark crevices of our city streets.
The Bards of the Bone Plain also describes a battle with magical and elemental forces, but it has more profound intentions. In a way, it’s about the soul of a nation. You and I might take the idea of a nation state as an abstraction. Yes, we might play with metaphors and clever pieces of imagery but, when the dust had settled, we would see only facts about the geography and the people who live there. But for McKillip, a nation is found in its culture and behind the denotational meaning of words, there’s a deeper connotational magic. All you need to communicate with a nation is the ability to see through the scratches we might make on stone and, later, paper, being prepared to let the words speak to us of life and death, of treasure and terror. But, above all, there’s the need to give sustenance to the people in times of need. This is not just food, although a cauldron that might be a cornucopia would always come in useful. This is also about poetry as a food for the intellect and the soul. We need meaning to inspire us, to give us the strength to go on with the drab business of living.
So the question naturally arises as to who should have the right to mediate between the nation and its people. This is not merely about power, you understand. Many people may have power, but not understand how to wield it wisely. This is about how leaders should go about selecting just the right person to set the tone of the discourse for all that may access it.
Musicians have the power to move us emotionally. Drums may encourage us to tap our feet to a martial beat. A harp may pluck at our hearts with lyrical melody. But the rare combination comes when a voice matches the instrument in quality and skill. For then new shades of meaning may entwine the melodic line as the words of the ballad live in the hearts of those who hear the bard play. Such virtuosity is rare and, sometimes, the only way to decide who has the right to sing the nation’s songs is to hold a competition. Who knows what magic we might hear when the best have the chance to play.
Not entirely changing the subject, there are many who argue that history repeats itself in great cycles as civilisations rise and fall. You only have to think of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and others whose ideas on metahistory have alternately frustrated and amused historians with their various attempts to find “real” cyclical patterns. McKillip is also interested in cycles where older, darker ideas may surface from time to time and threaten the status quo. In some respects, this is always a good thing. Societies can grow stagnant and need a revitalising stimulus to wake them up and send them dancing into the future. Except this brings us back to the more black-and-white issue of who has the better right to provide that stimulus. Someone with the power of a Hitler can rouse a nation from its torpor and send it on its way to war. Such destructive impulses are not desirable yet, if they arise through a manipulation of the discourse in a democracy and the ideas gain power through the ballot box, who is to say the nation has found the wrong voice singing the wrong tune.
Here McKillip plays the game of showing us a “modern” and an “older” world facing the same challenge. Obviously, it’s in the interests of the modern world to learn what happened in the earlier cycle, but history is a slippery set of interpretations pretending to be facts. When your primary historical sources are the verses and poetry of the bards, how reliable can the historical record be? Oral traditions, even when written down, are notorious for speaking truth in both what is said and in what is not said. Listening to the silences between the lines is the most difficult of arts to learn.
All in all, The Bards of the Bone Plain is a wonderful piece of writing, managing to combine mastery of some sophisticated ideas from semiotics with the language of casual poetry written down as prose. It’s everything you would expect from Patricia McKillip. She shows consummate mastery of the form we call fantasy, telling a tale of universal significance to those of us who can decode its meaning for today. Perhaps it’s about love. Or does the spirit of the land somehow need to renew itself, reminding itself that individuals move on in the material quality of their lives but, when grouped together, essentially stay the same as people. Or perhaps the message is that time eventually heals all wounds. I think it’s for every reader to make up his or her mind. Whatever you decide, the process of arriving at the end of this delightful book is like drinking a rich, full-bodied wine, full of subtle flavours and heady fermentation. The Mayo Clinic and other medical authority voices on human health declare red wine in moderation is good for the heart. So lay in several bottles of McKillip and live a longer, more healthy life.
As a final thought, the jacket artwork for this book produced by Kinuko Y Craft is rather fine. Take a moment to browse through the gallery of recent work and you will see some beautifully fey work.