There are a number of ways to anchor a tale: to a character, to a particular location, to a timeframe. Most novelists I read choose the first, fewer the second, and even fewer, the third. This is not representative of trends in general; as I said, most novelists I read do this.
In the fantasy genre, which overlaps so much with the more hazily defined myth and fairytale realm, it is easier, I think, to tether your story to a person, or a being of some kind. So much of your world, especially if its high fantasy, is foreign to your readers already. Usually, writers give them a crutch to hold onto as they enter this world, and that comes in the form of an easily sympathetic character like Harry Potter, or Lucy Pevensie. Even Martin goes with this technique, preferring to reel readers in with morally relatable characters like the Stark family first, before launching on them the Lannisters and the Greyjoys.
Two books I read recently depart from this use of character as anchor, instead going with the third option: timeframe. They use the central tenet of a season in order to frame a tale, and define the things that happen with it. The flow of time, or what we humans perceive as time (Arrival, anyone?), and the need to maintain that flow, ensure it is without disruption, is what forms the central tenet of these novels: Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child and Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong.
The Snow Child is set in Alaska, in the 1920s. It uses a tale familiar from many cultures around the world. A childless couple, Mabel and Jack, arrive in Alaska, ready to start a new life. What they desire, perhaps more than anything, is a child, but tragedy has taken this chance from them time and again. One snowy evening, Mabel and her husband build a child out of snow, and afterwards, strange things start happening, beginning with a little child, Fiona, arriving in their backyard.
The child becomes part of their lives, living with them in the winter months, disappearing in the spring and summer. Mabel’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep her within the house clash with Fiona’s desire to return outside to the world she knows, the landscape she loves. Jack and Mabel find happiness in being with her, but for Fiona, they are one small part of her experience, of a world that also includes the Alaskan mountains, and wolverines, and deep, pine forests.
The book drags a bit, the characters becoming dull and a trifle predictable halfway through. Perhaps the problem is that Ivey has picked a fairytale that is, all said and done, a short one, one whose ending cannot be anything other than melancholic. We know that for all Mabel’s attempts, Fiona will leave, whether it is through the door and up into the mountains, like a ‘normal’ human, or fading away into the snow covered landscape, like her magical counterparts in the tales.
Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but I enjoyed Beagle’s Summerlong much better. This novel, or novella, I suppose, since it is almost unfairly short, is set in a lingering summer on Gardner Island, near Seattle. Abe and Joanna, a late middle aged couple, find their lives turned upside down when they meet Lioness Lazos, a beautiful, mysterious young woman, who waitresses at a restaurant they have been frequenting for years. Lioness seems to be on the run from someone, and eager to help her, Abe and Joanna step in, Abe even offering her shelter in his home. In return, Lioness brings with her small acts of kindness, that take the form of magic—plants unfurling from the soil in moments, beached orcas being guided back joyfully into the sea, balmy weather that shields the island from its usual, wintery tempests. It doesn’t take long for Abe and Joanna, or readers, for that matter, to figure out who she is: Persephone, of the Greek myths. And with that realization comes another: Hades must be on his way to find her.
Beagle’s prose is beautiful. Seriously, this was one of those few books where I found myself putting it aside, hoping to lengthen the experience and savour it for a little longer. His evocation of the gods and their role in this world, in keeping things running smoothly, is perhaps more poetically done than even that master of modern deities, Gaiman. Witness, for instance, Abe’s defense, to Joanna, of why Lioness must return to the dark realm she so abhors:
‘Because if she isn’t coming and going with the seasons, everything’s out of balance, everything…The world needs winter, the world needs volcanoes, the world needs floods, storms, bloody hurricans, because you cannot have Primavera without nasty.Demeter has to grieve for Persephone when she’s away in the Underworld, and Demeter has to rejoice when she returns…’
Beagle’s depiction of Hades, too, is similarly nuanced. Not the cartoonish villain of so many other books, Hades here is a melancholic, thoughtful god, a refined individual who knows his role, and while he might lament it, must carry on with his job, as one of the few of the pantheon who still ‘matter.’ Beagle’s Hades weeps for the wrongs he’s done to Persephone, the long charade they must play, and the forces even larger than him that have made him what he is. ‘There were three brothers,’ he tells Joanna with a bitter smile, ‘and the youngest was given a realm that nobody wanted.’
Summerlong is a rare and beautiful book, melding larger questions of death and life and humanity into the relatively short burst of 200 pages. It is a book that’s meant to be savoured, to be thought about, somewhat like Gaiman’s American Gods, the book that comes closest in terms of theme. But Summerlong, like its title promises, has a completely different mood from the latter. Where Gaiman’s Norse gods are champions of iron and blood, the Greek deities here, and the people they are entangled with, literally and physically, are mellow, evoking images of sunny seas and pale yellow wines, bursting berries and nodding heads of wheat. But despite this, a truth is never far from Beagle’s, or the reader’s ken: lying at the base of all this beauty, and nourishing it, bis the dark loam of the soil, where the dead things go.