The Paladin

Asking an avid reader to name their favorite book is a bit like expecting a parent to choose a favorite child. But if I were absolutely forced to choose only one, I wouldn’t hesitate for long before deciding on The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. And I’d still be cheating a little because technically, it’s three books. Whatever; I read it as the omnibus three-in-one edition, and it’s really all one story, and there’s no way I’m whittling my choice down any further than that. So. Get ready for a long, rambling love-fest. I make no apologies.

When I was in college, I already knew that fantasy was my preferred genre, but I wasn’t as well-read in that genre as I felt I ought to be. I’d read plenty of children’s/YA fantasy, which, as I’ve ranted on before, is just as valid as any adult version of the genre. And I’d finally gotten around to reading the genre-defining Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I would sometimes wander through the fantasy section of bookstore (usually shelved together with sci-fi and labeled as the same genre, but that’s yet another separate rant), examining the massive books that were part of one or another Epic Fantasy Series, and I would wonder how to begin. Which was worth investing my time in? I’ve always been a whole-hearted reader. I dive into a story and rarely come up for air until the end. I just didn’t have the emotional energy to do that for every series. Or the reading time, for that matter, since I was enrolled in several literature classes every semester.

My husband gave me the opening I needed. Of course he wasn’t my husband then; he was a guy I had a crush on. He had spoken very highly of a class he was taking, a survey of the modern epic fantasy novel, taught by a law school librarian of all people. The reading requirements were the first books of several different series, so you could get a taste of various authors. Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Stephen R. Donaldson, and of course Tolkien. He recommended that I try it out the next semester, so I did. Partly because, heh, I wanted him to like me, but also because I figured this would be a great way to sample some of those massive novels and figure out what I liked, all while earning college credit. It was successful in both regards. (It wasn’t the only reason he decided he liked me, but it helped.) And I went on to read more of the books by the authors I liked, while skipping the ones that hadn’t interested me.

One problem, though – all the authors were men. All the protagonists were men. Some of them wrote decent female characters; others not so much. But never a female protagonist. They were following in Tolkien’s footsteps in more ways than one. And while I love Lord of the Rings and realize that Tolkien was very much a man of his time and don’t condemn him too harshly for it, I  don’t see why authors can’t branch out more broadly from his original model of Men Do Almost Everything That Matters.

A excellent answer to that concern is Paksenarrion. Again I have my husband to thank for introducing me to this book. By this point we were married, and we had done plenty of mutual recommending of our favorite books, movies and music. He thought I might like The Deed of Paksenarrion, and I finally decided to crack open the rather intimidating volume when our son was born – nothing like nursing a baby all day long to make you search for ample reading material. I confess at first I wasn’t too deeply engaged in it. The first book, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, contains a lot of descriptions of the non-fantastic, regular details of a medieval-esque mercenary company; marching, doing chores in the barracks, training and marching some more. Even when they actually started the fighting, it was still a bit of a slog for me, except for the few tantalizing bits that hinted of some greater destiny for Paksenarrion other than serving as an ordinary mercenary. It was also great to see a fully-formed female protagonist, with lots of other compelling female side-characters. It kept me reading enough to get to the next book.

And I was rarely bored during Divided Allegiance.This is where the flavor shifts from details of military life to something more like Dungeons and Dragons, complete with quests into underground lairs where each door opens to reveal another threat guarding a treasure. As I understand, fantasy role-playing was actually part of Elizabeth Moon’s inspiration. But not in a lazy or sloppy way, as if she just kind of transcribed a D&D experience into a novel. She breathes new life into it, with plenty of backstory for each quest, strong characterizations both of Paks and other lesser players, and world-building that is much more than a clone of Middle Earth. And all through each adventure those hints of Paks’s greater destiny become stronger and stronger. Eventually even Paks herself, stubborn as she is, can’t ignore those hints anymore, and she goes to seek training in one of the holy orders.

But it’s not as simple as that. I’ve heard that Elizabeth Moon was dissatisfied with the typical portrayal of paladins in role-playing, and she set out to tell the story of a paladin in its entirety. One thing this means for Paks’s tale is a heartfelt exploration of religion. It’s set in a fantastic world with myriad gods and saints, but it’s still an excellent metaphor for the real world, more than any other fantasy worldbuilding I’ve encountered. For one, there is the story of Paks’s conversion. She resists joining the Order of Gird in spite of being drawn toward it ever since she first joined those mercenaries. They are fighters who are sworn to protect the helpless, and she approves of that creed. But something is holding her back. After a long conversation with the Training Master, she realizes she resents Gird for not saving his followers. She’s had friends who were devoted to Gird and died painful deaths – why couldn’t he save them? The Training Master’s answer is heartrending:

Paksenarrion, you might as well ask why it snows in winter. I did not make the world, or men, or elves, or the sounds the harp makes when you pluck the strings. All I know is that the High Lord expects all his creatures to choose good over evil; he has given us heroes to show the way, and Gird is one of those…as followers of Gird, we try to act as he did. Sometimes we receive additional aid. Why it comes one time and not another…I cannot say. Nor can you. Nor will you ever know, Paksenarrion, until you pass beyond death to the High Lord’s table, if that happens…And I think that you blame Gird because you are still blaming yourself for these deaths. Is that not so?

One of the great mysteries of life: why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn’t God protect His followers from pain? And there’s no easy, pat answer to that mystery, but rather a call to action.

And so you are rejecting Gird because he has not acted as you would…You are not rejecting his principles, it seems, but the fact that they aren’t carried out?…Then it seems, Paksenarrion, that you ought to be willing to try to carry them out…If the rest of us are doing so badly.

People can disappoint us. They can be downright evil. We can’t always prevent that, or understand why God doesn’t just fix it for us. But we can choose to do some good in the world, to be part of a solution to the problem.

So Paks begins her training. Then something unbelievably awful happens, something with devastating consequences. And the book ends with her wandering through the bitter cold of winter, alone, afraid and despairing. Let me tell you, I immediately turned to Oath of Gold, the third book, in a frenzy of horror and concern (and let’s face it, annoyance with the author for such a cruel cliffhanger). The story went into places I never would have expected. Where and how Paks finds healing is unconventional and beautiful. There is an exploration of the true nature of courage and of compassion. And there is this perfect, lovely quote:

I used to wonder how the paladins of Gird could be considered protectors of the helpless when they had never been helpless. Rather like asking the hawk to feel empathy for the grouse, or the wolf for the sheep. Even if a tamed wolf makes a good sheepdog, he will never understand how the sheep feel. You, Paksenarrion, you are most fortunate. For having been, as you thought, a coward, and helpless to fight – you know what that is like. You know what bitterness that feeling breeds – you know in your own heart what kind of evil it brings. And so you are most fit to fight it where it occurs.

At the crux of it, Paks becomes a better paladin because of her suffering. That isn’t to say that the story glorifies or romanticizes suffering; it’s quite painful to read the sections when she is at her lowest points, and those who torment her are rightly condemned as evil. But it’s important that while she is weak and fearful, she is judged and derided. Because then she knows, she knows so very well in the very core of her being, no matter how powerful she ultimately becomes, she knows what it means to feel miserably humiliated for being weak. So she will never take part in that humiliation. She will understand the pain of those who suffer far better than one who has never suffered much.

I can’t express even a fraction of what this book came to mean for me. After my first read, I appreciated it as a beautiful, well-plotted story. I saw more of the value of the details of military life in the first book, how it lent a taste of realism to the world, fantastic as it was. (The author has a lot of practical knowledge, both military and otherwise, that informs her worldbuilding. They actually dig trenches in this world, and reference the need to relieve oneself! And clothing must be cleaned or mended; mercenaries need carts of supplies for themselves and their animals! Horses aren’t like motorcycles that whinny; they need to be fed and rested and cared for!) I recognized more of the hints and foreshadowings I had missed the first time around. I saw how the little things at the beginning, the discipline and the adherence to duty and the cheerful friendliness and a strong moral sense, were traits developing within Paks in preparation for something more.

I found it highly re-readable. And each time I saw more of value. I’ve said before that one of the strengths of speculative fiction is how flexible it is, how it can be seen as a metaphor for almost anything you want. Well, this might not make sense to anyone else, but Paks’s journey carried a powerfully familiar resonance for me as we discovered our son was autistic. As she realizes her dream has been stolen from her:

I always dreamed of being a warrior…Silly, childish dreams at first, of being the hero in old songs, with silver sword…My dreams grew…I dreamed of fighting as Gird fought – for right, for the protection of the helpless…And then you honored me, sheepfarmer’s daughter, poor commoner and ex-mercenary, beyond all dreams I’d dared. You, my lady, offered me the chance to become a paladin. A paladin! Do you – can you – have any idea what a paladin means to a child on a sheep farm at the far edge of the kingdom? It is a tale of wonder, all stars and dreams. A – a fantasy too good to be true…And you said ‘Come, be one of them. That is your destiny’…Now you say…I have opened a passage for great evil. But to chance all I can do, to chance losing all I’ve learned, all I am…and to think how long I must live if it goes badly…Could such a one as I be a – a potter, or a weaver? Oh, better to kill me, my lady, and quickly.

I had dreams of what motherhood would be like. And in my selfish moments, I felt that dream had been stolen from me. It has been a long, painful process for me to recognize that the path of my life was going in a different direction than the one I had planned. To spend all my energy mourning what could have been was keeping me from doing the good I should have been doing. I’m far from reaching a conclusion; it’s a process I’m still very much in the middle of. But I find inspiration in Paks’s story. She realizes it’s not really about her. It’s about the people she can help and serve. And maybe going through hard things helps to serve them better. It’s not about me and my assumptions of what motherhood would be like; it’s about my son and his happiness and well-being, and maybe there are other people I can understand better because I’ve been through something like what they’re going through.

Time and time again, when I’m feeling low, I have picked up the book and turned to section where Paks finds healing. It never fails to comfort me. Does this all seem absurd? This story of a paladin fighting orcs and finding magic swords; this tale of fantasy, is the one that I relate to more than any other. I doubt I’ve conveyed more than a part of what it means for me. I recognize the irony that Elizabeth Moon (whose son is also autistic, as it happens) wrote another novel that’s actually about autism, The Speed of Dark. Yet much as I appreciated that book, The Deed of Paksenarrion is one that that helped me on the deepest level when I was first dealing with my son’s diagnosis. I’ve worn through two separate copies of the omnibus. I’ve read the companion novels set in Paks’s world. And I always find what I’m looking for: hope, compassion and comfort.

This is why I read fantasy. This is why I write fantasy.

Emma, Jane and Me

I was introduced to one of my favorite authors in a rather roundabout way, mostly thanks to Amy Heckerling. When I saw the movie Clueless as a teenager, it absolutely blew my mind to learn it was a modern adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. My mother and older sister were familiar with Emma and had smiled through the whole movie as they recognized the creative ways the original story had played out. All I knew was that Jane Austen was one of those old, old writers whose enormous books had, presumably, lots of long conversations between prim and proper characters and very little excitement. But knowing now that one of her books had inspired this wacky, very funny movie – well, I had to take a look at the original source.

So I read Emma. And loved it. It was very funny, a sort of dry, understated humor that poked fun at social conventions and the typical foibles of men and women. In spite of being set in a very narrow world, rather far from my own experience, the observations on human nature struck me as far more universal. It helped, I suppose, that I’d seen a modern version of it first. I was already inclined to like Emma in spite of her many flaws, to hope she would learn her lesson and become a better person, more deserving of Knightley, able to acknowledge her manipulations and mistakes. I giggled at the portrayals of quirky characters like the gentle hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, the chatterbox Miss Bates (entire pages filled with her rambling monologues! and she’s so sweetly unaware of it!) and the fawning Mr. Elton and the horribly perfect partner he eventually finds in Augusta Hawkins/Elton.

Well, then I just had to read all the Jane Austen I could get my hands on. I think it was Sense and Sensibility next, rapidly followed by Pride and Prejudice. We had a copy of the two of them in a single volume. I still remember the illustrations; Fanny Dashwood entering Norland to take it over from the other Dashwoods, Willoughby carrying an injured Marianne, a snooty Caroline Bingley talking to Lizzy, Lizzy arriving at the portrait of Mr. Darcy at Pemberley. I was a little impatient back then about finding out how the stories resolved, so I peeked at the endings. So surprised that Lizzy and Darcy ended up together! And Marianne and Colonel Brandon? Wasn’t he the old guy? Luckily, it didn’t ruin the stories. Finding out how it happened was still intriguing.

This was the mid-nineties, when for whatever reason Austen-mania was at a high. Lots of movie adaptations. I saw every one I could. The best had to be the five-hour Pride and Prejudice, because they hardly had to cut anything. I’d like five-hour adaptations for every one of my favorite books, please. Of course the original books were always better. There was Persuasion, with the swooniest letter ever from Captain Wentworth, and the wickedly satirical Northhanger Abbey. I read Mansfield Park last and found it, admittedly, less entertaining, but I very much appreciated the idea that Fanny owed Henry Crawford nothing; that just because he thought she would keep him good, she had no obligation to accept his offers. On the contrary, she deserves someone far better than a person who believes he’s incapable of being good without her.

All of Austen’s novels have interesting moral observations, though usually not preachy or dourly didactic. People sometimes turn up their noses at Austen, minimizing her as writing romance, “girly stuff.” First of all, this stigma against romance is unfair and frankly sexist, which I’ve ranted about before. There’s nothing wrong with a story about people falling in love. But it’s not even a valid complaint. There is so much more to her work than basic boy-meets-girl storylines. She was undeniably a feminist in the sense of someone who critiqued the nature of gender relations, as when Lizzy Bennet refuses to accept the role of “delicate female” that Mr. Collins tries to force on her. He convinces himself that her refusal to marry him is simply, in modern terms, playing hard to get, but for Lizzy there is nothing admirable in such behavior or in such a demeaning perception of women. And then there is the wonderful conversation between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, as they debate whether men or women suffer more for love. She points out that he cannot use literary portrayals as evidence, because they were all mostly written by men!

Jane wasn’t a total revolutionary. Her stories implicitly enforce the class structures of Regency England, such as how it would have been egregious for an illegitimate child like Harriet Smith to marry anyone of class like Mr. Elton or Mr. Knightley. The marriages at the end of the books tend to keep with the status quo, class-wise. But there’s no reason to condemn Austen too heavily for that. She was a woman of her time and of her class. And within those parameters, she was an extraordinary women, a pioneer who paved the way for many, many other female authors. As for me personally, I owe a lot of my current appreciation of “old-fashioned” literature, my knowledge of Regency England and 18th-19th century customs, and my liking for compelling, varied female characters, to Jane Austen.

A Tale of Two Writers

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when I hated the very idea of analyzing literature. I thought it sucked all the joy out of reading, a cold analytical dissection that disregarded pure emotional enjoyment. This was probably encouraged, unintentionally, by the sort of books they had us reading in junior high. There’s always a difficulty in providing appropriate reading assignments for advanced readers, since the sort of material that matches their reading level usually doesn’t match their maturity level at all. Our seventh grade advanced reading class was given the rather appallingly pretentious title of “Literary Seminar” and much of the material was of a similar flavor; stories and novels that ruminate on Deep Themes like the futility of human existence. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of quality, thought-provoking literature that I’d probably enjoy reading now. (Not to mention it was a battle for my parents to even get me into that class, since my IQ score wasn’t quite high enough for entry into the gifted program in elementary school, and they usually only allowed gifted students to take honors classes. I certainly would have been far more miserable, bored out of my mind, in the mid-level reading track.)

But I was 12. I didn’t want to ruminate on the futility of human existence. When I read of bleak dystopian futures in Fahrenheit 451 and “Harrison Bergeron,” I just got annoyed and angry and wanted to throw the books across the room. I wasn’t ready for them. Being expected to read and understand books intended for grown-ups, at that age, soured my attitude toward the whole idea of high-brow literature.

Luckily, my perspective changed, which ultimately led to my becoming an English major in college as well as deepening my passion to be a writer myself. (Okay, some might argue the use of “luckily” in reference to a degree/career aspiration that has yet to bring in any money, but whatever; I like who I am.)  This change came about thanks to a number of enthusiastic English teachers and a handful of books that captured my interest in spite of the mortal sin of being considered highbrow. 😉 And the first one that sticks in my memory is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

I was already familiar with A Christmas Carol, as it’s fairly impossible to get through a Christmas season without encountering some version of it. It was also one of the readings in seventh grade English that I unabashedly enjoyed. It’s arguably the least intimidating Dickens work; accessible, a blessedly short novella. A Tale of Two Cities was long, with scores of characters and meandering plotlines, and had no ghosts or fantastical journeys to the past and future. But I remember when we were assigned to read it, for some reason I made a conscious decision that I was going to enjoy this book, darn it! That deliberate positive attitude carried me forward quite a ways, but it still wouldn’t have been enough if the book had been a total slog. It wasn’t. By the end, as I sniffled over Sydney Carton’s ultimate sacrifice, I had come to genuinely love the book.

It was definitely the right Dickens novel to start with. Later I read Great Expectations and David Copperfield; entertaining but much more like fictionalized autobiographies, coming-of-age tales without a ton of plot. A Tale of Two Cities is thick with plot, filled with delicious depictions of bloodthirsty revolutionaries, tragic heroes and memorable villains. The prose wasn’t always easy to get through, but I persisted because I really wanted to know what happened next. I recognized that something old and revered could still be fun. And as I learned more about Dickens, I was amused to learn he had written in serial format, often paid by the word. Maybe, given enough time, someone who wrote pulp novels or comic books could be held in just as high regard as Dickens. Maybe Dickens would find it hilarious that his work was being studied as great art in the hallowed halls of academia. Basically, I was starting to see that the line between art that entertains the common masses and highbrow, serious art was totally arbitrary. It was very freeing.

For a while I read Dickens voraciously; Great Expectations and David Copperfield as I mentioned, as well as Oliver Twist and Hard Times and several re-reads of A Tale of Two Cities. I still have a tradition of reading A Christmas Carol every year on the day before Christmas. I confess I haven’t picked up many new-to-me Dickens novels recently. I read Nicholas Nickleby last year and was a bit dismayed to discover my Dickens reading skills had gone quite dull – it took me months to get through it, where I used to tear through a novel in just a few weeks. But I still enjoyed it well enough. I think more than getting me to appreciate Dickens in particular, what A Tale of Two Cities opened for me was the possibility of picking up classic novels voluntarily, outside of any school assignment, and reading them for sheer pleasure. Sure, I mostly read newer books, particularly speculative fiction, but sometimes just for the heck of it I’ll scan the library shelves for a classic I haven’t read yet and take a look at why it’s considered a classic. I don’t always agree with the literary establishment, but it’s worth considering. And then sometimes I write page after page dissecting it. I’ve come a long way since seventh grade.

The Day I Found Prydain

I’ve decided to start a new series of posts here, each one focusing on a book that carries particular meaning for me. I think this will be valuable for me as a writer, since I wouldn’t be a writer at all if I weren’t first an avid reader. I’m currently reaching the climax of my latest work-in-progress, and it feels like I need some kind of extra push to get me through it. Reminding myself of the books that have shaped my tastes and my own writing should provide at least some of that push. (The rest will probably come if I can just have enough days to write at home by myself while the kids are at school, days that have been quite rare during this last over-wintry month.)

I’m going to start with the first book I can remember falling in love with so completely, I read it over and over and eventually attempted to read every book that author had written. I learned to read when I was four and always had a passion for books, but this was my first truly memorable favorite book. The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander. It wasn’t actually the first book I’d read by that author; I’d found The Wizard in the Tree at a school book fair before then, bought it and liked it. But there was something about the first book of The Prydain Chronicles that was really special to me.

I was probably eleven years old. We were at a used book sale that a local organization used to hold at the mall every fall, and everyone in my family was wandering the aisles, looking for the sort of treasures you can always find among used books. There was a cover that caught my eye, with medievalish-looking characters, a young man confronted by a terrifying horned-skull figure on horseback. I decided to give it a try.

I always had an affinity for fantasy. My father read The Hobbit to us when we were younger, and my preferred book covers usually had some sort of indicator of an other-worldly setting. The Book of Three did not disappoint my expectations. It had humor, warmth, adventure, magic and thrilling battles. I loved the hero, Taran, a headstrong, inexperienced boy who longs to be great and chafes at being a mere Assistant Pig-Keeper. I loved Gurgi, the well-meaning, simple-minded creature who talks of “crunchings and munchings.” I loved Eilonwy, the wilful girl who never hesitates to say whatever she’s thinking. I was intrigued by the mazes of Spiral Castle and shuddered at the undead Cauldron-Born.

I still chuckle to remember that all through my first read, I mistook the meaning of Hen-Wen’s name and thought she was a chicken, right up until she says “Hwoinch!” in the last line of the book. I paged back through the story and realized how obvious it was. Who did I think Taran was Assistant Pig-Keeper of, for heaven’s sake? No matter. I loved it.

Imagine my delight when someone pointed out that the little “1” in the upper corner of the cover meant this was the first book of a series. As fast as I could (lots of begging to be driven to the bookstore – ah, the days before online book buying!) I got hold of the other four and read them in rapid succession. Watching my beloved characters grow and suffer and learn and finally reach the end of their tale was at once wonderful and heartbreaking. I wasn’t the least surprised that The Black Cauldron and The High King were given Newberry awards (honor and medal, respectively); I only wondered why they hadn’t given the medal to all five books. I became a Lloyd Alexander fanatic. I read everything he’d written that I could get my hands on. I loved every book. Most of them had male protagonists, but the female characters were always vibrant, well-rounded and strong in their own right. And the Vesper Holly books offered a heroine adventurer who, in my opinion, beats out Indiana Jones for sheer awesomeness. Along with reading everything new, I began a yearly tradition of re-reading The Prydain Chronicles every fall.

There’s something important, I think, about being able to say who your favorite writer is, the same as deciding what your favorite of anything is. It becomes a part of your identity, how you see yourself and how you know what you like. I recall being outraged when I read someone criticizing the books for just being a kiddie rip-off of The Lord of the Rings. ( I knew The Hobbit and had a decent familiarity with LOTR, though I only got around to reading the trilogy when I was in college. And, still being an ardent fan of Lloyd Alexander, I feel it’s my duty to assert that he didn’t rip anything off. They share a lot of fantasy elements, sure, as well as drawing on similar mythological tropes. It’s a function of the genre.) I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t constantly reading this incredible writer’s books.

As I went into high school and on into college, I knew that I’d passed the supposed target age for these books. And what I loved about Lloyd Alexander was, it didn’t matter. He used to write for adults, until he realized that writing children’s books was so much more freeing. His books never talk down to children. They respect the reader without being condescending or patronizing. And they’re so honest, acknowledging some really challenging things like death, suffering, selfishness, and the eternal clash of optimism and pessimism.

When I heard that that he had passed away in 2007, I was heartbroken. No new books from him, and worse, I’d never be able to meet him in person and tell him what a difference he’d made in my life. But his influence continues. I can still see how his style and writing aesthetic color the way I write, and I aspire to portray even of a portion of his humanity and warmth and humor in the characters and settings I create. To finish, here’s just a few of my favorite quotations from his books and from the writer himself:

“‘Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men’s hearts whose flame can never be quenched.'” – from The High King

“‘Not everyone who fights on the side of the angels is an angel.'” – from The Beggar Queen

“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”

“Using the device of an imaginary world allows me in some strange way to go to the central issues – it’s one of many ways to express feelings about real people, about real human relationships.”

“My concern is how we learn to be genuine human beings.”

Thank you, Lloyd Alexander.