[English] Tanith Lee: The Birthgrave

An actually quite modern book…

…which has a lot to do with religion, gender and perhaps a little bit with Game of Thrones. And it transgresses – in a not always fortunate way – the borders of the genre.

But first some information:

Trigger-Advarsel: The book describes physical as well as psychical violence, sexual abuse (including beasts), suicidal thoughts, lethal births and a mother who gives up her child as she cannot develop emotions for it. Even though I try to spoiler not more than necessary, the review may trigger negative emotions.

My text editions: As my English-speaking readers won’t be interested in the German edition and the funny experiences I had with it, I’ll turn immediately to my English one: I used the e-book edition by the SF Gateway which edits classic works of Fantasy and Science Fiction in their line “Gateway Essentials”. I think the e-book edition very fine (just look at the cover above); however, there was a bundle of a certain mistake: in front of capital letters a comma has often been changed (changed itself?) into a period; which is a bit confusing at first and hems you in the reading. That doesn’t concern my being a fan of the SF Gateway’s work it does for keeping these classics accessible though they have run a little out of fashion. In doing so, it also makes reading fun quite affordable: I only paid 2,99 € for the e-book.

The plot

In the heart of a volcano the nameless protagonist awakens, from whose perspective the whole of the novel is being told. She does not know who she is, where she comes from; only that she is woman she becomes aware of as early as in the dark, while she is seeking an exit. Even before she finds it, she meets a being calling itself Karrakaz, the Soulless One, the manifestation of the evil that sprung from her lost race. She is the last of this race: with light hair, light skin, exceedingly beautiful except of her face, which Karrakaz shows her to be ugly and terrifying. She will hide it throughout the book. She is immortal – at least the weapons of humans cannot kill her – and cursed by the words of Karrakaz: evil will reach her and she will find no happiness in the world. Only easy death the being promises her as a last rescue.

From this starting point, the plot evolves itself. Its principle is that of a quest, with the slight difference that it remains unclear, what the protagonist is actually looking for: An awkward desire draws her towards green jade (confusingly enough), she longs for knowledge about her people, her origins, her true self. For that last question, many possible answers are “offered” (or forced on) her: She is worshipped as goddess, honored as warrior, oppressed – being a woman – in different patriarchal communities, in part violently, in part in a more subtle way, through psychical influencing. Regarding this, the novel can be read as an allegory of life, of a woman’s life in particular: The story of the protagonist lies open, like an unwritten book, before us and hardly any plot twist is predictable, as already Karrakaz’ appearance in the beginning seemed a little abrupt.

It is often thought of as sign of quality, when a plot twist is at once totally surprising AND seems utterly logical at second glance: It must be simply like this. In “The Birthgrave” only the first part is the case. Again and again the reader is thrown out of the (anticipated) story line, partly because the protagonist acts without any particular motivation and sometimes even muddleheadedly, partly because the laws of the story’s world are constantly enhanced or even revised (I won’t say more than that the genre lines between Fantasy and Science Fiction are crossed as well). On the one hand, this makes the novel be a firework for the senses, on the other hand it causes a certain lack of consistency (both in the plot and in the worldbuilding). You could think of that as a very special kind of artistry; I was a little annoyed about that and the impression occurred to me that the author took the possibilities and impossibilities of her world a little too easy.

The same was my impression about the end. It really is a little bit freaky (read yourself!) in its solving all the conflicts and tying together all the loose ties of the story at once. The protagonist finds her past and her true self and learns to accept it – in itself something beautiful, but how this happens (by means of a technical invention totally unexpectable from this kind of world) is, in my opinion at least, too abrupt and implausible and seems, after all the confusing turns of the plot, almost too smooth. At one shot the protagonist, first a huge mystery, becomes a transparent personality, analyzed to the bottom by a rather pale figure named Rarm, who is the blueprint of a psychoanalyst (only where is the couch?). Does that really answer to the complexity of life and of her life in particular? The only mystery she holds back from us is her future, which is left open at the end of the book. Looking toward this uncertain future, the book ends in a quiet and thoughtful scene, which, after all, I liked very much. Thus I laid the book aside with an ambivalent feeling, but knowing that it has made my mind richer in some other aspects. What these aspects are, I’d like to show you:

The characters

The protagonist is, throughout the whole of the book, an incredibly deep and manifold character. So manifold that neither the reader nor the protagonist herself can ever be sure that they have understood her. In the course of the plot she is forced into different patterns of acting and structures. She plays the roles of the wise healer, the powerful, but misused goddess, the submissive concubine, the humiliated slave. These patterns are constantly broken by glimpses of her awakening power, which, however, she cannot control properly and fails to use right then, when, as a reader, you want to shout at her to use it. Nevertheless, I feel that Tanith Lee managed to turn her into a very credible character. She acquires terrible character traits: She despises humans as dirt, as her ancestors had done. She can kill them without remorse and, after a while, judges them only by the use they are to her. Just as deep is, however, her contempt (though sometimes covered by hybris) for herself, her ugliness and the evil that, according to Karrakaz, lives in her people and thus in herself. Despite all these destructive traits, she conserves an awkwardly primordial, and thus also destructive, ability to love. It seems like her love could embrace even the monster in a human being; towards other humans she can remain completely cold. This may sound highly inconsistent, but can almost always be explained by the incredible sorrows and triumphs she is confronted with – also utterly contradictory experiences.

None of the side characters remains focused on through the whole of the novel. The structure of the novel almost always arranges a kind of attachment figure for the protagonist. To this figure she is almost always connected in love or hatred or both, but always in a certain dependence from him (I say him as this figure is most often a man). These characters as well are described as magnificently ambivalent, often as disgusting and fascinating at once. There is Darak, cheeky and dominant, yet enthusiastic as a small child. There is Asren, young, beautiful, educated and very sensitive, but cold and somehow impassive. There is Vazkor, cold and cruel, but in his agitation pervious to understanding. Only Rarm, the last (and most important?) man who helps her to understand herself remains far too pale for my taste, as if in the end the author had run a bit out of her creative steam.

Neither did I understand the awkward indicated relationship evolving between the two, at an emotionally very difficult time. I cannot imagine how the protagonist can still have room for such a feeling, when she is more than busy coping with all the things she has to digest. But all in all, the characters make the great strength and the great charm of the novel.

The language

Stop, there was something else which is at least as intense as the character description: the wonderfully poetical, fresh, absorbing language of Tanith Lee. It’s surely best to give an example:

„I left them behind me very soon. The firelight melted away, and the raucous singing that had started up. Only the wind now, thilling through stone, sushing through the dust. Darkening landscape, the whiteness a darker whiteness, picked out in starlight.” (p. 79)

Some crucial questions…

Despite the ending’s not quite satisfying me, I was deeply fascinated by the way certain different topics were treated – in a very sensitive and reflecting way, I think.

a) What about religion?

In a medieval-like world, religion naturally has a high priority. The protagonist is shown as object – being worshipped as goddess – as well as subject of religion. In both cases, the (self-) destructive tendencies religion can have are shown: exercise and abuse of power, tabooing certain things (in this case e.g. the protagonist’s face or the exercise of her powers), interpreting illness as punishment for sins, and self-depreciation. However, the fascination of religious practices and attitudes are described as well; the atmosphere of the sacred pervades the pages, transported by the language.

I feel that this is an often-used technique in the book: Highlighting the fascination of thing, so that the reader can feel the its lure, and at the same time showing the pains and sorrows the thing brings with it. In the case of religion this clearly happens, but the other perspective is shown as well: e.g. one of the (many) tribes the protagonist lives with is portrayed with a very soft, mild religiosity which goes hand in hand with an astonishing altruism even against the strange and alien and with a wondrous sensitivity for people and for the world itself. By the way, this tribe is a black one.

b) Rape Fiction?

When it comes to gender roles and how they are portrayed in the novel, this tactic worked so well that I was nearly mad while reading. The protagonist – though she obviously lacks any socialization of this kind – seems to have internalized as fast as she learns the languages of humans, the code of patriarchy valid in this harsh world as well. When first meeting Darak – who behaves arrogantly, dominantly, violently – she of course is overwhelmed by his “masculinity”.

„…and my sex stirred in me, and woman stirred in me.“ (p. 22).

His dominant behavior indeed provokes her resistance, but in the end makes her commit herself even faster to him. That he rapes her seems to her to be no more than a normal episode of their living together. To make it clear: especially in the first parts the book seems to “advocate”, what for a long time (and even now?) has imprinted itself deeply in the behavior of women: To not only endure humiliating practices, but absurdly feeling well with them – as they give them a place in the world, a belonging, a protector. This is exactly the case with the protagonist, who would be powerful enough to rise above all these things. And I thought to myself: This is rape fiction. (The debate about this is hot right now, and thank God for that!) And I don’t mind whether the book is from the 70s or not, all historical understanding taken for granted: That needn’t be. Not like this.

And yet: The protagonist knows almost from the very beginning, in a certain way, about these mechanisms (without being able to escape them). Just read passages like this:

„I had no free will left, he had stolen it, yet I had given it, too. It was so terrible to be in his power, doubly terrible because it delighted me.”

And thinking of the protagonist’s solitude, I can at least empathize with her, and understand why she has these feelings, though they are not good (and it becomes quite clear that they aren’t). And the most important thing is in my opinion, that in the end she manages to endure her solitude in order to maintain her freedom. Even if a man and a technical invention have to explain her soul to her first.

By the way, the portrayal and then fighting against these mechanisms doesn’t mean that Darak, the man she is most dependent on, is portrayed as a monster or anything of this kind. On the contrary: It becomes very clear that his attitudes are simply the attitudes of his world. He is cruel and dominant – and in his position, he has to be if he wants to survive. Despite everything, he is open for the protagonist and for her strangeness he wants to discover, and he respects her in his own way (not a fine way though).

And though my review grows longer and longer, I cannot hold back: In this respect, the two remind me incredibly of another, and much more famous “couple” of fantasy literature: Daenerys Targaryen and Kal Drogo. Do you remember how the protagonist is described? And now I’ll ad that Darak has long, black, flowing hair. In his barbarism and child-like energy he fits for me so exactly on Kal Drogo, that I had to google his name, because in my head his name was just Darak. So now, I’m thinking all the time whether this was by chance or if I have just detected a literary model of George R.R. Martins. Should anyone of you happen to be a literature scholar, maybe you’d like to write a paper on that? 😉

c) Depth psychology

I have already mentioned that the book ends with an elaborate psychoanalysis of the protagonist, which grants her inner freedom at last. (And I am annoyed by the fact that it happens too suddenly, through a technical invention and a pale male figure.) And psychoanalysis it is literally: The theories by Sigmund Freud are portrayed here quite exactly. Projections of inner states to the outside, splitting off and depreciating parts of one’s own personality, healing through reintegration of these parts… all this has happened to the protagonist during her life, says the pale Rarm and a technical invention. And these are interesting thoughts! It is a gift of Fantasy (a gift I love) to make visible the invisible which binds us, influences us and causes pain, and to give it a form helping us to recognize it and (maybe) to cope with it. Here Fantasy can do better, I think, than Reality.

Thus I do like this psychological dimension of the book and I believe it has a special analytical power her – only I had wished for another way of making these things visible. Maybe a little less Show, and a little more Tell. In other words, not a Deus ex Machina named Rarm alias Sigmund Freud, who by his technical superiority knows everything and understands everything, but a growing of understanding, step by step, and naturally.

Now what do I think?

Despite the one huge weakness in the end I have not regretted for a second to have read the book. Though it has some age, the story is different and thus refreshing and does in no way follow the standard plots people often complain about in fantasy literature. The story leaves us rich with impressions and all the small and big observations about the human being and the world and goes new, untrodden paths – that this was not always done fortunately I can easily forgive for many other benefits. I will definitely not have read Tanith Lee for the last time.

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