by John Harris
Please read all entries in this section before you make up your mind!
paperbound with fourteen black ink illustrations by author
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First the bad news...
Children's author Joan Lowery Nixon declined to endorse this book, saying that it has no apparent connection to contemporary issues in the lives of young people and would therefore bore or puzzle them. We think that such criticism is well worth sharing with you. Admittedly, kids who are immersed in a culture of divorce, condoms, drive-by shootings, and hallucinogens may not relate to some #!%&! yarn about Never-Never Land. Fair enough And then there are those who like the "Never-Never Land genre"... some of them are disappointed that Defenders is heavier on characterization and moralism than on breath-taking fantasy: cf. the next review.
"This book belongs somewhere in that large gray area of Pretty Good or Worth Reading. The story may be a little on the basic side, and is perhaps best for someone who is new to medieval fantasy stories." Dead Trees Review... umm, if we might respond: obviously, this reviewer shares some of Joan Lowery Nixon's reservations, though for different reasons. She saw the book as failing to slip neatly into the "children's fiction" niche, whereas DTR has placed the book beside two sci-fi thrillers about something "in a huge vault on Mars" and "a DNA treasure house". Let's just say that Defenders is decidedly not for people who enjoy rigidly "genre" fiction. Notice that one of these people has said anything about the extraordinarily poetic style (click on "excerpt"); so, if you like your stories injected like some kind of fix, avoid this one.
And then there's Kelly Hampton, English major, creative writer, graduate student, and journalist. "The primary words that come to mind when I seek adjectives to describe Defenders of the Five Realms are charming, poetic and sad. It is fairy-talish in its simplicity of style, but many of the insights into human nature and little bits of wisdom are complex, making it ideal for children and adults alike. For those who like graphic battle scenes, weird Dungeons and Dragons-type monsters, and witches or elf maidens who look like they belong on the cover of a romance novel, this book may be a let-down; for those who value imagination and more concerned with plot, characters, and a story that rings true, this book offers something. Speaking as a person who's addicted to Middle Earth and Narnia, I do think most fantasy readers will like Defenders because, let's face it, we're growing bored with Tolkien (the admitted master) rehashed and rehashed badly, at that. This book offers something different that I think many would appreciate."
"Defenders of the Five Realms is a story of growing up beneath its delightful surface of dizzying deeds and tactical tricks. Several of the characters become so many-sided that they verge on the Shakespearean: a hotspur obsessed with conquest, a father whose worship of his daughter turns to vengeful spite, a naïve young man who knows the value neither of his talents to the world nor of the world’s promises to him—all are here, and more. An air of tragedy briefly descends over the heart of the story, as well, before it finishes once again in frolicking hijinks: Queen Eedib, a faint copy of Virgil’s Camilla, reminds us of our mortality and of life’s fragility. All in all, the range of emotions and experiences covered in this rambling, rip-roaring recitation of ruin and rescue written in the style of an Irish heroic narrative is stunning. So many good lessons about life have seldom been veiled in such energetic fantasy!" Dr. Peter Singleton, editor, Arcturus Press
Defenders of the Five Realms
But he has not reckoned upon the highlanders' knowledge of the land. Especially one young rover --Ronan--taunts the dragon crews to leave their ships and pursue him through the glens. Here he leads them a merry chase, reiving them in the mists and wearing them out on the slopes. King Olgar is so frustrated that he vows special vengeance upon the lad; while the captive King Garig of the West whose release Ronan has won is so delighted that he awards the lad his daughter, the Princess Finsha. Neither king has wisely presumed upon the sympathies of those in his sway, as it turns out. Olgar's son Alred grows so vexed with his father's furious out- bursts and treacherous deceptions that he sides with the enemy --with the lovely Amazon Eedib, to be exact, whose life he vainly attempts to save from a snare. For her part, Finsha has privately pledged her troth elsewhere. She and her lover evade Ronan's advances and finally attempt to cause his death. When their plot comes to light, Ronan retreats to the Glens to brood, while Garig sells Finsha and her lover into slavery.
At this point, the energies of both sides have been drained by losses and by dissension within the ranks. Olgar's men dig in, and a long winter seems in store for all. Yet Ronan, tutored by the ancient Cob, triumphs over his wounded pride and returns to seek the freedom of those who wronged him. In a finale which pits him personally against Olgar, his durable spirit prevails over the other's physical might, and the pair who once plotted to slay him are freed from their chains.
Originally conceived as a children's tale, Defenders features a style rich in jingles, redundant runs, alliterations, and all the lively trappings of oral narrative. More than that, it presents complex characters whose struggles dramatize such moral polarities as honor vs. false loyalty, forgiveness vs. vindictiveness, and self- sacrifice vs. self-absorption. Adults and sophisticated adolescent readers who enjoy fantasy will probably fall in love with this book.
THE THREE GLEN-FEATS OF RONAN
It was midday when they found him there, though Mantus or Kelter or Eedib would never have known midday from dawn or dusk. To them, the Glens had no day or night, but only thicker or thinner mists. Ronan knew the time of day, however, and he knew a steep, severe, and risky way to have them out of the Glens by sunset, in a place where they could truly see the setting sun. The foothills stretched before them then like clownish green dwarves doing squats and somersaults, now that they had left the fearful frowning mountains that were glowering still behind them. And the sun’s last rays poured upon them now like a stream spilling its drink at the feet of thirsty, parching men.
"How lovely is the sun!" cried Mantus. "How soft and warm is the sun!" cried Kelter. "How noble is the sunset when men have done a hard day’s work," cried Eedib with a sigh. "Yet how much work we have still to do!"
Then the three of them suddenly turned to look at Ronan, whom they had never seen in straight shafts of sunlight. They were struck by the steady keenness of his stare from steady staring into mists, and also by the fairness of his skin from living under the veil of mists, and also by the curliness of his hair which kept the mists from soaking him over. When they were done looking, they started to question him more closely; for they had never heard a word from him except that he was Ronan and, yes, that he would lead them down again. So they sought to question him more closely.
"You said that you would bring us to where we left our army," said King Mantus. "Now where do we go from here?"
"Wherever you wish," said Ronan. "For this is where you left your army."
"In truth, it looks like the foothills which we left behind," said King Kelter, "but many places are like other places here. How can you be sure that this is the place?"
"Did I not hear marching from the Peak of Peaks," said Ronan, "where all glens are facing and where each glen has its separate direction?"
"But that was many miles away from here," said Queen Eedib. "How could you hear marching from the high place where we found you?"
"By listening much," said Ronan, "and by speaking not at all."
"But what has become of our army, then?" said Mantus with little patience.
Ronan spread his arms. "Ask the winds where the drizzle has drifted."
"But where are the dragon men who were so hot upon their heels before?" said Kelter with less patience. "Only give us your guess, since we have no other guide."
"My guess is that each man has been true to his nature," said Ronan. "The leaping men of Kelter have gone high, the running men of Eedib have gone far, and the strong men of Mantus have dug themselves into the ground. As for the dragon men, they have done their task and will soon come down the glen below. For your three body guards have melted with the dew."
"Perhaps you have heard all these movements of men from your little Perch of Perches," said Eedib, out of patience. "But I tell you, the three of us made good plans before, and ordered our three body guards to keep close together."
"As for your making of plans," said Ronan, "I admit that I never heard a word."
Finally, the three kings were so angry with what seemed simple, shallow answers, and so angry that their three body guards seemed scattered in spite of the slow retreat which they had ordered, and so angry at the work and pain and labor wasted to bring a young fool from the Glens, that they stomped off and stormed away toward three separate horizons. And if they did, it was none of their three ways that kept company with Ronan any longer. For though his words were true, the bad news in them all was bitter to hear again and again.
So Ronan crossed his staff upon his shoulders, and hung his hands over the two ends of his staff, and turned in his tracks, and started to step and stride back up the ridges to the Peak of Peaks. But the setting sun had burned a bit of mist out of the glen below, and the westerly wind of evening had blown the veils of vapor farther east; and now the young lad was not so hard to see going up the ridge as he had been coming down. So, too, it was easier now to see into the glen from his rising ridge, for the road that leads away also leads back. On the one side and the other, then—from the top and from the bottom—Ronan and the regiments of dragon men set eyes upon each other at the very same instant.
On their side, from the bottom of the glen, the dragon men raised a mighty shout of challenge. On his side, from the top of the ridge, young Ronan dropped a little laugh of banter. And then from his height, Ronan kicked a clod of dirt loose that crumbled and tumbled down the slope, with many a lump of turf and clump of earth, till finally a great gray glob of grit was clobbering the dragon men far below. And then from their depth, the dragon men strung their bows that sprang and twanged in a volley and flurry of furious feathery arrows, till finally a stiff straight stubble of stakes was sprouting all around Ronan far above. But not an arrow of them ever hit him, nor even an arrow’s feather ever so much as twicked him.
Then Ronan slung his staff into the gaping gorge below, so that the dragon men were stumbling and scrambling and clattering to have their shields above their heads; and while they were doing that, he bound his sheepskins fast and firm around him—his shepherd’s coat and kilt and cloak—and made ready to perform his pin-cushion feat. He grabbed fat handfuls of grass and bracken to make more padding around his bones and body; and then it was time for huge holds of gorse and thornbush, with a wild rose here and there, and a bluebell or two. By now, it was a walking mass of points and pricks and pins he was, and sticks and twigs and sticky limbs, as well. Nor was it a walking mass that he was for very long, since the next thing was to roll down the slope in his thick, prickly, limber padding. And if it was thick padding at the top of the mountain, it was thicker than thick at the bottom; for there was not a blade or briar or bramble in the pin cushion’s path that was not ripped up or rooted out by the ball to mark the path where it had passed.
So this was what the dragon men saw, when they lowered the shields from their faces. The biggest part of them could not move for amazement at the smashing, swelling, puffed-out ball of fluff; and the few who could master their surprise could not move anywhere for the dazed, dumbfounded crowd around them. Into the ranks and rows and regiments pounced the bounding head-pounding far-resounding ball. Then up the other side of the gorge it grappled, this time with horned helmets in its grip here and there, and many a spear thrust harmlessly in or sticking out in splinters. Then Ronan steered his craft farther up the glen: then down it careered on the remains of other regiments, though they were in their ranks and rows no longer. Then up the first ridge it rumbled again, and a little farther up the glen. Then down into the gully for one more sweep, to pinch a few more haunches and tickle a few more cheeks.
Now Queen Eedib had been quick before to stomp off in impatience. Yet she had not stomped and stormed very far before being ruled by wisdom again. She had turned back, then, to find the young lad who could save their realms if anyone could (or so King Cob had said); and she was just at the rim of the rising ridge when the pin-cushion began its game of rolling.
"A thousand thanks to Cob!" she shouted out, and laughed aloud. "But who ever would have thought that this lad would lay the dragon men low?"
When Ronan had finished his round of bowling, and shaken the last leaf out of his clothing, he made for another mountainside where the evening drizzle was drifting in. The dragon men were bruised and battered and scratched below, and some of them were long in getting up off their backs, or busy getting long thorns out of their backsides. But most of them were only the fiercer for their drubbing and dunking in the dust, and they were after Ronan without a word from king or captain. Indeed, King Olgar and Prince Alred were nowhere in the Glens on that day of days, for they had returned to the ships before the others as soon as the three kings’ army was scattered.
Ronan was walking slowly, and the invaders were scrambling swiftly, growling at him and plowing over brush with angry sweeps of their swords—wishing, it seemed, that he were a clump of brush, and thinking that they would soon cut him down to firewood. Yet the drizzle was upon them all before Ronan was under the reach of any sword. And as it passed, no man could see the man beside him, or his feet beneath him, or a further foothold on the stony mountainside. All of them paused cautiously, and waited for the gauzy curtain to draw. When it did, there was one half of them without a sword to sweep and swish and switch the bushes with. And when the dim drizzle had lifted a little higher, there was Ronan on another mountainside, throwing that half of their brilliant blades into so deep a chasm that no clang or clatter was ever heard.
Now the motion of winds on their way through the Glens was like so many houseflies on their way through a kitchen. If the evening breeze was westerly when it started into the bottom glen, it might come out the same glen from the east before the evening was into night at all. Such were the little tricks and pranks and quirks that the many cliffs and fissures worked, bouncing each breeze like a ball in a bottle. That is why the mists were so treacherous, as well, for they were like the dragging silk skirts of the breezes. And that is why Ronan was so full of tricks and slips and shiftiness—for now there was a new mist drifting from the other mountainside. And as it lifted, a new weight of blades he lifted with it, and the second half of the dragon men saw their hands again to find them without a sword. When the slippery drizzle had slithered a little higher, there was Ronan on the first mountain’s crag, and there was the second lot of sleek steel edges being tossed to silent loss somewhere beyond the mountain’s edge.
A third mist came from west by northwest, as though a grandsire mountain had pulled a puff from his pipe, or else were heaving his fleecy gray beard to shake the tiny armies from its tangle. But if the mist were a gray beard lifting, there was much beard-pulling that happened in its lift. On left and right throughout the rounded wisps and whiskers, the dragon men shouted and howled and pouted. When the fog was gone the third time, there they were rubbing their sore chins, and above was Ronan with whistles and waves to them.
Now King Kelter had been quick before to stomp off in impatience. And he had stomped and stormed his way a fair to middling distance, but later was ruled by worries and wishes to find his body guard again. He had started climbing then to find where they had scattered up the mountains; and he was just at the crown of the nearest slope when he saw Ronan’s fog-feat and game of changing breezes.
"Ten thousand thanks to Cob!" he shouted out, and slapped his knee in laughter. "Who ever would have thought that the lad would beard all the dragon men?"
His mood was a far cry from the dragon men’s, though, whose beards had been plucked after chasing Ronan from below. Those of the sore chins and wounded pride, indeed, were now more anxious to catch the lad than ever; but the pin cushion had carried all their spears away, and now Ronan’s cloudy clutches had carried off their swords. So some of the men on the mountainside—those whose anger and wrath and ire were hottest—continued to clamber up crack and cranny with nothing but their fists to shake in menace. Meanwhile, other men were jumping back into the valley, hoping to have new spears and bows and arrows in time to teach the lad a distant lesson; while others came running up with a full stock of weapons who had been soundly pounded by the pin cushion’s rounds. In this way, then, the dragon men were strung out up and down the glen, like a string of beads whose string has snapped.
If the invaders were beads without a string, then Ronan was stitching them onto a new one. For now was the time for Ronan’s flood-feat. First he climbed to the crest of the crag where he had followed the final fog. When he was there on the very top of things, he shouldered a stack of stones and sods and boulders, so that it tumbled over into a rivulet below. Then he sat upon the far edge of the crest, and wedged his legs into a crevice of the ledge, and shoved with both his feet and all his might. Down came the bit where the crag was split, like chips and splinters and chiselings of a block of kindling. Enough they were to choke the throat of yet another gorge below, so that its water could no longer run that way. A third time he littered another gully where the rain would daily drain, kicking down rubble and shambles and gravel. So there was the crest shrinking smaller and smaller, and there were the streams rising higher and higher, and there were the invaders climbing closer and closer.
Now the land of the Glens was full of water, though you would never know to see it from a distance. But the mist and drizzle and dew and showers were ever leaving water on the crowns and crags, where nothing stood by to hold the water, unless a stone can be made into a sponge. So the water would run down through cleft and cleavage, and trickle and drip into rills and rivulets, which would then gouge gorges and gullies with their slithering. But if they did, it was a thousand slides and chutes and routes and channels that any drop of water might take down any mountain; and a long day’s flowing and a broad land’s crossing, it was, before any stream had interlaced its way with other streams. At last, the rapid vast expansive rivers of the West were made from the drips and trickles of the Glens. Yet only an eye that knew the Glens could see the oceans of water in them.
So it was with Ronan’s eye, as he clogged and cluttered the rivulets. For he had blocked them in such a way, at such a place, and at such a twist or turn, that all their separate waters spilled over into one. As a sinewy rope is woven from slender strands, so did the slender rivulets make a flood from Ronan’s spinning wheel. Down the slope the new river splashed and splattered, juggling stones as a jester juggles balls, hissing over the underbrush and heather like boiling water for scouring kitchen platters. Some of the dragon men had just enough time to turn their backs and raise a cry before they were grabbed by the seat and collar and hustled and bustled and rustled down the valley.
Meanwhile, Ronan was choking more channels, plugging more passes, and gagging more gaps. If the flood was enough to sweep the mountain clean before, now it was scouring the whole glen’s floor. A single great river came tidying house with a vengeance from above, scrubbing on shields with spears for scrub brushes, shaking the insects out of its rug with men for insects and mountainsides for rugs, strewing the wash to dry on the hedge with regiments for laundry and foothills for hedges. Because it is the truth that when the flood had drained away, the dragon men lay damp and scattered far below in their old camp, snorting and sputtering and shivering and shuddering, without a dry towel among them.
Now King Mantus had been quick before to stomp off in impatience. He had stomped and stormed a little way before he was ruled by hopelessness, and in the grip of hopelessness he had ranged and wandered very far indeed. He was thinking that it would be good to become a wanderer and sleep in caves, eat the beans and berries along the road, and pass his life pondering the hopelessness of life. He was not far from disappearing into the Glens, when the rumbling thunder of mountain lungs called him to turn his head; and then he saw the flood-feat of Ronan, during a rift in the mist.
"A hundred thousand thanks to Cob!" he shouted out. "Who ever would have thought that the lad could bring a flood from stones?" And he slapped his knees while laughing with such power that they sank into the ground up to his waist, so that he was an hour climbing out again and getting the earth from between his toes.