The Gift (2002) is the first book of what was initially conceived of as the Treesong Trilogy, but grew into the Pellinor Quartet; it just goes to show how stories can take on a life of their own. This quartet fits squarely into the fantasy genre, and reading The Gift (called The Naming in the USA) reminded me of just how much fantasy writing draws on common themes and even plot devices. In this review I’m going to mention some of these and may reveal rather more of the story than I usually do; if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now.
As a young girl, Maerad is sold into slavery with her mother, who has since died. She sees no hope of escape. But one day a stranger, Cadvan, perceives that she has the same sort of magic power he has, though she doesn’t know it. He is a Bard, one of a number of people who have ‘the Gift’, which gives them certain powers, the most important of which is ‘the Speech’. ‘It is the source of our Knowing and much of our might,’ Cadvan explains. He decides he must take Maerad to Norloch, the most powerful School of the Bards, and the book covers the difficulties and adventures they have getting there.
A number of themes in this book are found in other fantasy literature. Two other stories in which a young person finds they have magic powers immediately come to mind – the Earthsea Quartet, which I reviewed earlier, and the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter shares with Maerad a degree of maltreatment before their powers are discovered, though living under the stairs might not be in the same league as slavery. Still, both are a version of the Cinderella story. Magic power is innate, but young wizards have to learn to use it. The older wizards – or Mages or Bards -Ged in Earthsea, Cadvan in the Pellinor stories and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter stories – have all at some point flirted with the Dark, and have to live with the consequences. The younger generation must learn responsibility too; these are all coming of age stories.
In the best fantasy tradition, Croggon has created an imaginary world with its own landscape and people, language and history. Cadvan serves the Light, but must contend with the forces of Darkness. At some time in the past, an evil Bard, known as the Nameless, conquered the earth, and imposed the Great Silence. He was subsequently overthrown, but now evil is creeping back, and Cadvan believes that the Nameless has returned. Some Bards have been corrupted; to those who can see, they look skeletal.
Sound familiar? There are certainly similarities to Voldermort and the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, and echoes of the Force and the Dark Side in Star Wars. The return of a previously defeated Dark Lord with a group of evil and powerful acolytes also strongly recalls Sauron and the nine Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings. In fact it was of Tolkien that I was constantly reminded when reading The Gift. In addition to these general themes, there are some quite specific plot similarities. Cadvan and Maerad pass through a deserted underground city and find themselves in a hidden woodland realm, ruled over by a queen with magical powers. She has kept her people secret and safe, but now sees the coming of the two Bards as a sign that her land cannot hope to remain so if the Nameless prevails. This is very similar to the position of Galadriel, whose power has previously kept her woodland realm of Lorien secret and safe, and for whom the advent of the Ring means doom. There is also a calculating and ambitious Bard who betrays the trust of other Bards; he thinks he can beat the Nameless at his own game, just as the wizard Saruman does in The Lord of the Rings, and with the same result.
But over and above these similarities, some of the language is deeply reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Just a couple of examples. Galadriel says to Frodo: ‘Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footsteps of Doom?’ The Queen says to Cadvan and Maerad: ‘It may be that the doom we all fear will overtake us, no matter how we struggle against it.’ At their parting, Galadriel gives Frodo a star glass: ‘It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.’ At their parting, the Queen says to Cadvan and Maerad: ‘And Light blooms the brighter in the darkest places.’ Gandalf says of Saruman: ‘He will not serve, only command. He lives now in terror of the shadow of Mordor, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm. Unhappy fool! It will devour him.’ And the Bard Nerlec says of the ruthless Enkir: ‘But in his arrogance he has forgotten the might of the Dark, and it has eaten him up, even as he thought he directed its ways. Cunning fool!’
Some of these similarities are probably inherent in the fantasy genre. Most fantasy stories are a quest involving a battle between good and evil. Many involve young people coming to terms with magic power, either their own, or that inherent in some object, like Frodo’s ring. The language of these stories is often stately and a little archaic – such words or phrases as ‘doom’, or ‘fell’ (as in horrid) or ‘it is written’ come naturally. But I think in this case Croggon is consciously paying homage to Tolkien, who is, after all, the master. The story as it unfolds in the other books of the quartet doesn’t follow the story of The Lord of the Rings; Croggon creates a fantasy world that is fully her own. Read them and see what you think.
You can read more about this Australian writer and her other three Pellinor books here.