I’ve always found the archetypal figure of the bard fascinating in folklore as well as in fantasy novels. There is Mercedes Lackey’s Eric Banyon, the star of the Bedlam’s Bard series of urban fantasy novels; Taliesin, perhaps the most iconic of all bards in Celtic mythology; and Listener, hero of Hans Bemman’s stunning fairytale fantasy The Stone and the Flute, which sits somewhere on the grey borderland between fantasy and mythology. Two of my best-loved characters from a couple of my favourite fantasy series are bards: the not-so-simple gleeman Thom Merillin from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and the sometimes pragmatic but always loveable harper Flewder Flam from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. In real world history virtually every culture has their own wandering musicians and storytellers – Renaissance troubadours, minstrels from the Middle Ages, Norse skalds, Anglo-Saxon scops, Greek rhapsodes, Indian udgatars, Middle Eastern ashiks, French Galliards and a dozen others. The part they play in the old tales is absolutely crucial for, without bards and their ilk there would be no tales to pass down, especially in the ancient days when reading and writing skills were scarce or non-existent, and it was the oral tradition which kept history, myth and legend alive. Perhaps the most memorable bard in fantasy that I’ve ever come across, however, is Phyllis Eisenstein’s Alaric, who for me remains iconic from reading the classic novels Born to Exile and In the Red Lord’s Reach many years ago.
Although it seems hard to believe now, Born to Exile was originally published in full in 1978 by longtime US specialty press Arkham House in a first edition trade hardcover of 4,148 copies. Before this, portions of the novel were first serialised as long ago as 1971 in individual shorter works through The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This little book (it’s barely 200 pages long in paperback) went on to win the World Fantasy Award and attract a cult following. It has barely aged at all in over thirty years, however, and remains thought-provoking, lyrical and totally unlike anything else in the field of fantasy. The first book in this all-too-short series ostensibly tells the story of Alaric, a wandering minstrel with a dark secret – he possesses witch-like powers of teleportation that will almost certainly mean his death if he is ever discovered. The fantasy world in which we follow Alaric on his adventures is strange but familiar – a Dark Ages that never was, when the superstitions of villagers were all too often based on frightening realities. In Born to Exile the infant Alaric is found by foster parents abandoned on a hillside, newborn and naked, with a bloody, severed hand clutching his ankles. Older and with those powers on full display, he suddenly finds himself rejected by his foster family and branded a witch-child. Alaric then wanders the world as a solitary wayfarer, with a knapsack, a few clothes and a lute his only possessions. Eisenstein cleverly uses this device to explore her protagonist’s search for acceptance and a place to fit in, which is just about as universal a theme as you’ll ever come across.
As we follow Alaric on this journey, he encounters the craggy towers and shining spires of a distant castle, like some gleaming vision in one of his songs. Within, Alaric is accepted as court minstrel but becomes embroiled in palace intrigue that involves Medron, the court magician, and the King’s daughter, Princess Solinde. Subsequently, he journeys to the sinister Inn of the Black Swan and then to a superstition-ensorcelled village. In the sequel, In the Red Lord’s Reach (published about twenty years after the magazine appearance of the very first short story), Alaric’s adventures continue in the grim, frozen north, among tribes of nomadic hunters beset by fearsome supernatural foes. All the while, Alaric struggles with his innate powers, which have proved to be as much of a curse as a gift, and all too often he finds solace only in the music of his lute. I really can’t recommend Eisenstein’s novel highly enough, especially since I don’t know another book in any genre that packs so much warmth, humour, romance, invention and inspiration into such a relatively small package. As a book that has been with me for most of my life, it’s always comforting to go back to Born to Exile, which reminds me of a time when fantasy novels could be clever and thought-provoking as well as fantastical. Alaric is a well fleshed out, fully rounded character, with plenty of flaws as well as heroic qualities, and for this reason he and his story feel very real and absorbing. In him the traditions of the bards of old have a worthy modern successor – I firmly hope that other fantasy authors follow in Eisenstein’s footsteps some day. As for Eisenstein herself, unfortunately she never wrote another Alaric novel after In the Red Lord’s Reach but you never know, maybe she’s just taking her time over the final part of the trilogy… after all, another twenty years have now passed!