Nancy Springer,
The White Hart
(Pocket Books, 1979)
The Silver Sun
(Pocket Books, 1980)

Nancy Springer's The White Hart and The Silver Sun are the first two volumes in a loose series that relates the history of Isle, a land of deep forest and petty barons for whom, in the days of The White Hart, raids and brush-fire wars are a way of life.

The story opens with the rescue of Ellid, daughter of Pryce Dacaerin, from captivity by a strange youth, dark of hair and eye, pale of skin, a slight young man of amazing strength and strange habits. He is Bevan, son of Byve, the last High King of Isle, and the goddess Cedonwy of the Moon; he has come to claim his inheritance and wrest Isle from the dark dominion of Pel Blagden, the hooded god. He is joined in his quest by Cuin son of Clarric, Ellid's cousin and her father's heir -- although men rule, inheritance is figured through the female line. Cuin loves Ellid, but in spite of his jealousy, for Ellid and Bevan are quite obviously smitten, he becomes Bevan's truest friend.

The Silver Sun, based on Springer's earlier novel, The Book of Suns (Pocket Books, 1977), relates the story of Hal, a prince in hiding, and his blood-brother Alan. It is many years after the events of The White Hart: most of Isle is ruled by the Sacred Kings who came from the east seven generations before with their new religion, the worship of the Fatherking and Sacred Son, a religion of suffering and death that has, through force of arms, supplanted the worship of the Mothers and the old gods of the Forest. Drawn to one another, Hal and Alan begin their quest to bring down the Sacred Kings and restore the Very King, descended of Bevan, to the rule of Isle.

These are young-adult novels cast in the mold of heroic fantasy of the first generation after Tolkien, and, quite frankly, it would be hard to overstate his obvious influence. The stories are idealistically romantic and adhere strongly to the "high heroic" mode that is so central to The Lord of the Rings. Cast in the form of the traditional quest story, they are tales of high deeds and deep tragedy, noble heroes and black villains. Elves and other denizens of realms outside those of men abound, and are very important: Cuin is descended from the royal line of Lyrdion, whose last king and his sons and warriors have become the great firedrakes who guard Lyrdion's treasures; Bevan himself is the son of a goddess, while Hal and Alan both have elvish blood. Interwoven with this are elements of paganism and the broad social movements of the 1970s -- reverence for the land and the creatures who inhabit it, the strong role of women in society, easy access to the world of the Other.

A key factor in each story is the strong bond between men, the kind of intensity of relationship found in Tolkien, composed of loyalty, trust, deep affection and a strong element of altruism, juxtaposed to the high ideal of romantic love, love at first sight, a fated thing of honor, courtly gestures, and barely controlled yearning, as each young hero meets the lady of his dreams.

These are good books. The stories are strong, the writing is fluent and engaging, pacing is excellent and characters are admirable -- or heinous, depending on their role. They do, however, illustrate the role of historical context in appreciating genre fiction; although they are substantial enough for readers of any age, by today's adult fantasy standards they are outlines. Back in the early 1980s, when I first encountered Springer, these novels fit well within the norm: adventure stories, fluently and concisely told. The age of the megabook was in the future. In 2004, it is apparent that each story has the potential to be much larger than it is -- one wishes for more development, especially of character, more detailed descriptions, a more complex interweaving of plotlines.

This is not to imply that these books are disappointing -- they are, with all their bittersweet resolutions, very satisfying. And, when one considers the marked flaws of some contemporary fantasy, much of which is grossly overwritten, one is grateful for Springer's brevity. Any disappointment comes from the fact that the potential to bear that extra weight is obviously there, and more development, one feels, would have provided Springer a richer opportunity to develop some of her themes more fully. As it is, we have hints enough to tease -- and perhaps enough to lead us to think about it on our own.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 28 August 2004

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