In Tanith Lee’s first novel, The Dragon Hoard, a prance of princes sit trapped at a magical feast. A mad wizard declares they must tell a story. When the story stops, they’ll plunge to their deaths. The hero rushes into an absurd Once-Upon-A-Time about a princess named Soppy… till he stutters. Writers block! What now? Cleverly, he passes the story to the next prince. Who adds an enchanted elephant, then hands the narrative to the next prince, who tangles the plot with twins, then the elephant comes rushing through, Princess Soppy on his back…
The Dragon Hoard was fairy-tale riffing to make kids giggle, grownups smile. The first of 90+ novels, hundreds of short-stories by Lee. Some for smiles; others for shivers. Some for dark dreams, others for bright amaze. Her dragon-hoard of tales spark every reaction words can send down the spine, across the cortex or below the belt. Masterfully composed pieces in every key of the fantasy voice. I say it plain: no other writer hits every note across the fantasy musical-scale from comic to epic, horror to erotic, lyrical to classical, and yet keeps the level of quality achieved only by the genre specialists.
Let’s use that mad feast of tales as model for Ms. Lee’s books. Pass on to the next prince! Lee’s second novel: The Birthgrave. Just the title evokes eerie recognition. A child-woman awakes in a tomb; flees as it collapses. She has no memory of who or what she is, only the heart-breaking conviction she is a lost thing, cursed in soul and face. Veiled, she wanders a world exactly like herself; cruel, mysterious, and haunted by the spirit of a vanished race, a forgotten face.
Birthgrave was inspired by dreams Lee had as a teen. We’ve all had those dreams; taunting us with ineffable meanings. And when we described them at the breakfast table, glazing all eyes, we learned the meaning of ‘ineffable’. Narrated, dreams are weird and dull. The ability to turn the dross of sleep into first-class fantasy is talent equal to spinning straw to gold. Birthgrave is Lee’s most discussed work. As with the worlds of Tolkien, Le Guin, and Norton, it gives the eerie shiver that we know this dream, have walked those ruins. We too have stood before a mirror hearing the whisper of a voice that hates us, daring us to give in to the dark power we hold back…
Fantasy is so often about seeking the power within. God-authors temper their creations with trials of fire, loss and despair. They level up the hero’s stats to reach the strength-points needed to cast a fireball or patronus. But the heroine of Birthgrave is not seeking power; but her soul. Few writers send their creations on that quest. Perhaps it’s too banal a task. We could all go look for our souls, no magic required. But what for? We’d rather throw fireballs.
A soul-quest such as Birthgrave is not about toppling a throne, re-joining crystal shards or reaching the Magic Disposal Bin of Doom. In truth, it’s the most perilous path in fantasy. Dante and Silverlock must seek self-wisdom traversing Hell, leaving hope at the door. Ged must chase his own cursed shadow to the world’s end. Fiver must find the rabbit-soul past the mist of human corruption. But that soul-quest path is the connecting highway through all Lee’s stories, even her comic tales of prancing princes. Whether her hero is an emo teen or laughing demon-lord, a steam-punk necromancer or charming sex-bot, an eight-legged mad-cat or a mad ghost unaware of its own death… they all seek self-revelation. Somewhere in dreams Lee found a secret, and made it key to her writing: the deepest fantasy is not about spell-tech. It is about identity. Lee says it once plain: The soul is magic.
Bah; over-much philosophy. Pass to the next prince! Who tells a YA tale of a neglected teen feuding with her career-focused mage-mom. Till a mysterious black unicorn interrupts dinner, the girls chasing after it. A sly series; beautiful and whimsical; and yet it keeps bumping accidentally-on-purpose against what it means to be broken, to be lost, to be someone with no place in the world.
Next Prince! Who rushes out a sci-fi tale of the neon city Four-Bee, where you die however you wish, designing your next body in recovery. Wings are in this week, horns are out. Behold a world of dream people living Mardi Gras lives. Of course one lone girl Doesn’t. Fit. In. Or is it only her? Perhaps no one belongs. Perhaps a hero is the person who first declares it: No One Belongs. In that we see Lee’s YA formula, repeated in Wolf Tower, in Silver Metal Lover. Not girls overcoming shy stutters to get the guy, kill the dragon and reach the apex social position. We see women seeking their own definitions. It’s the Soul Quest brought to YA adolescent country. A Lee hero/heroine is questing for a name, a face, a self-awareness that teases in dream, and eludes in social structure. Remember the dread secret: The soul is magic. Even in a tech society like Four-Bee, ruled by kindly robots who only want the best for all.
Next prince! who tangles heroes with villains. He tells of Night’s Master, Azhrarn, Prince of Demons. Azhrarn needeth not sunglasses to be cool. He is immortal, beautiful and entirely bad. And yet… Lee is clever. Azhrarn’s no shy girl; doesn’t give a flip for his place in existence. He’s happy being the archetype of wickedness. What could make such a character stop and look within? Same challenge Milton faced with Satan. And note: Lee achieves something more than a devil posturing.
But we’ve reached Milton turf. The Feast of Prancing Princes has become too light a metaphor. It is music that best models the works of Tanith Lee. After all, her parents were professional dancers. So farewell, sweet princes… shift to a lone woman sitting thoughtful at a piano. “Electric Forest” is a sci-fi tale that takes a deeply broken character: Magdala. A mysterious doctor transfers her consciousness into a beautiful android… with a catch. Magdala must keep the hideous cadaver of her old self forever close-by. What becomes the reality behind her beautiful face, and the face of her savior, and the face of her foe? Soul quests again, playing on Christian themes. The ending leaves us wondering, while Magdala piano-weaves tunes of death and resurrection, original sin, sacrifice and redemption. Variations Lee repeats in her gothic vampire sci-fi novel Sabella. Sabella is about…
Sex and God!
The words jumps out sudden as two fists smashing the piano keys. In the ‘80s Lee was blacklisted by her own publishers. They declined to even read her new proposals. Why? Seemingly, they suffered sudden allergic rash to what had first appealed. The sensual, spiritual originality of tales like Birthgrave made too distinct a detour from The Boy’s Path of Fantasy. Sure, Robert Heinlein could explore the sex-habits of Homo Sapiens; and Phil K. Dick depict his drug-dream heresies. But it was unlady-like for Lee to write adventures where men kissed men, and small ‘g’ gods acted like petulant sociopaths. Lee declined to write as a woman writing as a man, inserting narrative grunts and grins. In her story-voice sounds a deep and profound female note. She is less interested in besting a foe, than in understanding a hero. More determined to examine the gut motives of a villain than in narrating his evisceration. For Lee, sex is not a hero’s smirking reward for rescuing the princess. It’s something that people do to be alive, and it touches on the spirit sure as life. Part of the soul quest.
Why blacklist a popular writer for playing an original tune? Probably the last gasp of fantasy-tradition preferring writers like Andre Norton and James Tiptree hide behind pen-names implying prostates. Readers wrote asking if Lee had died. But the blockade moved her to try different genres. Gothic was in, Ann Rice style. Dark tales of weird families, strange rituals, wedding beds shrouded by cob-web lace and doom… We get The Book of the Damned; erotic horror examining identity across death, across gender. But note: these tales are still soul-quests. Doomed souls, whose only redemption is the quest itself.
Horror tales are less about people, than people’s fears. A complete symphony of the human condition requires the instruments of laughter, sex, death, gods, devils, joy, family and adventure. For which we listen to Lee twine melodies in Cyrion. Ha; at last a character as confident in his skin as Azhrarn! Cyrion is a swordsman-adventurer; a master of disguise, a master of himself. Wonderfully kind, and yet everyone keeps remarking on his devilish smile. Why? Because in stories only devils grin so happy. Paladins should grimace with tooth-ache and soul-ache.
But if Cyrion knows himself, can he follow a soul quest? Yes, of a sort. Not to find himself, but to show others their own faces, whether they wish or no. Cyrion is a sly, laughing mirror, revealing what truly moved the villain past all his sniffling excuses. He tells the heroine what she wants beyond all her fears… Let’s take a Cyrion tale where he is waylaid by ghosts who demand he judge a murder trial. Someone in an ancient family has murdered the woman that obsessed them all. Cyrion must listen to each testimony, determine the truth, else he dies… And Cyrion is delighted. He listens with wonderful patience, with a grin that disconcerts the ghosts. And a trial’s end he explains not just the crimes of each witness. No, he explains their souls.
Enough of ghosts. Let’s hit a prim schoolgirl on the head. Whap! Now she remembers she’s a Pirate Queen, runs off to gather her crew, terrorize the oceans. Take that head-whap as our third, last model for Lee’s stories. Kafka declares a book should hit one in the head. And really, what fantasy reader would not risk concussion to find they were a pirate, a prince, a wizard? In Dark Castle, White Horse, Lee has a falling acorn knock an old man into being a young knight. I’ll take that.
Granted, not only blows to the head will bonk one into self-awareness. It can be a blow to the heart. In The Silver Metal Lover, Lee depicts Jane, designed by her mom to be a good child, who falls for a robot designed to be, well, screwed. The whap to head and heart (and first love IS a blow to both) moves Jane to find the true shape of her own body, the real color of her hair, the true sound of her own voice. A sweet story of first love and true identity. Lee strikes the same heart-beats in Sung in Shadow, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. And again in 'Wolf Tower'. Fantasy-tales of people hit by dream-blows that send them stumbling down the soul-path, finding who they are.
Which leads to a last question: did Tanith Lee herself receive such blows? Seemingly, she lived quiet as a hobbit who never strayed off the paths of a Shire map. British, poor-but-educated origin; worked as waitress and librarian till she made a name as writer. Married at 45. A quiet woman who wrote quick and fantastical as an entire feast-table of mad princes. Who composed story-melodies that lured souls into dreams, jumping listeners awake at the crescendo.
Bah; let’s keep the third image. Tanith Lee whapped readers’ heads, hearts and souls with the fantasy-mallet of adventure and beauty. A brutal metaphor; but lesser image would be Lèse-majesté to a queen of 20th century fantasy.
- The Dragon Hoard (1971)
- The Birthgrave (1975)
- Black Unicorn (1991)
- Don't Bite the Sun (1976)
- Night's Master (1978)
- Electric Forest (1979)
- The Silver Metal Lover (1981)
- Cyrion (1982)
- Piratica: Being a Daring Tale of a Singular Girl's Adventures Upon the High Seas (2004)
Raymond St. Elmo wandered into a degree in Spanish Literature, which gave no job, just a love of Magic Realism. Moving on to a degree in programming gave him a job and an interest in virtual reality and artificial intelligence, which led him back into the world of magic realism. Author of several books (all first-person literary fictions, possibly comic). He lives in Texas.