“To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are—whether a thing with legs and arms, or a brain in the hull of a great fish—that is a strange awakening. But after awhile, uncurling in the darkness, I began to uncover myself, and I was a woman.”
So begins Tanith Lee’s 1975 novel The Birthgrave, her first. I stumbled upon it some years ago, yellowing long out of print in a bargain bin.
I usually try to avoid revisiting authors too much on All Tomorrows, and regular readers will remember that I sang Lee’s praises for The Silver Metal Lover. But lately this column has been tracing the lesser known paths of fantasy and epic. No discussion of epic during sci-fi-fanta-whatever’s Deviant Age would be complete without delving into The Birthgrave.
It is a Sword and Sorcery epic, thunderously bloody and sensual in a way that would make Robert E. Howard pant. Yet it is also a deeper story of character and identity: a feminist work of a piece with the questions sweeping through its time.
For Lee’s (at first) nameless heroine awakes with nothing but questions, as the eruption of a volcano shakes her from a seemingly endless sleep with memories of hidden power, tragedy and a bottomless sense of guilt.
Driven to find answers, she runs into Übermensch types who try to turn her into the women featured on the covers of your average Sword and Sorcery tale— slave, figurehead goddess, concubine — clinging open-mouthed to the leg of some buffed-up conqueror.
But this is not their story: it is hers. As she survives (or buries) them all, as Lee sucks the reader into the elusive quest for power over one’s own life, she makes sure you’ll never see a dread sorceress the same way again.
I felt no panic as fate-which-was-the-white-horse drove me in among an enemy. I was glad, I was exultant, for here was complete forgetfulness. I raised the sword in both my hands, and I was no longer the faceless woman in her trap of earth. I was the first rider, the archer, the charioteer, the warrior. I was Darak, I was Vazkor, I was Death. Their faces, helmed, masked, empty, sprayed up and away from me like the scattered petal-heads of flowers, and the enormous white beast between my thighs danced on their dying. The sky was red from the cannon blasts. I heard the great balls fly like iron birds above my skull, and knew myself safe. In that whirlwind of hatred and joy I found the beauty of pain, the triumphant cacophony of horror which is music. A great, tidal hymn, the last coitus with darkness, of which the final note is a vast, piercing orgasmic scream of agony.
In 1975, Sword and Sorcery was experiencing something of renaissance. Hungry for an alternative to Tolkien-esque high fantasy, the pulp tales of Howard and others had been dusted off, assembled and pushed forward. The Conan comic series debuted in 1970 to wild success, and it was hardly alone.
There was plenty of good stuff here. Fritz Leiber (who coined the genre’s name in the early ’60s), saw his excellent Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories get some much-needed love, including a Samuel R. Delany-penned crossover in Wonder Woman (it had Catwoman and a blind kung-fu master too – the ’70s were a different time). Joanna Russ and Andre Norton also did some good work in the genre. For that matter, Howard’s original pulps were often darker and smarter than many of their adaptations would suggest.
But there was also quite a bit of dreck. At its worst, Sword and Sorcery is prone to misogyny, dumb power fantasies and pointless mayhem. All too often, these provided a nasty knee-jerk reaction (see Gor) to the changes of the time.
In those years Tanith Lee, by her own recent description was “a great misfit, unhappy in my heart, and I knew I wanted to write,” devouring Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories and crafting some of her own.
The Birthgrave was her first published novel, outside of some children’s books. Marion Zimmer Bradley, sent “a long novel by an unknown Englishwoman,” as she describes it in the introduction, found herself sucked into its pages. No stranger to the prejudices and constraints of genre fantasy, she exulted that “maybe this is the book we’ve been waiting for… a big delightful feast of excitement and adventure.”
Reading it, it’s easy to see why. Like the best Sword and Sorcery, the lurid struggles are personal: the woman, later dubbed Uastis, among a variety of titles and epithets, tries her best to make her way in the barbarous world into which she’s thrust.
That world has all the best tropes of the genre glitteringly intact. There are decadent imperial civilizations, savage tribes, conquerors and little-understood but devastating magic. Lee’s descriptive powers are on full display (“Between the dark pillars, very tall, crowned with the carvings of flames and phoenixes picked out in gold. The light was full and harshly bright now.”), as is her ear for a perfect barb (“And I shall cease wanting life?” “Yes, when you can no longer order it”). The Birthgrave has the best marks of a first novel: the sense of a world’s worth of painstakingly wrought stories that have been waiting to be set loose for a long, long time.
Uastis is albino and very not human, that much is clear. So her face is masked, whether in reverence or disgust. Slowly, she learns about her ancestry in the beautifully cruel Lost Race, long ago destroyed by calamity. She is literally seething in her own flesh (a common theme of Lee’s), tormented by the voice of the Soulless One, Karrakaz, a dark god that speaks to her in the many bleak moments.
This combination of gothic dark fantasy and pulp-style adventure proves intoxicating. It was innovative for Lee to turn the focus of the story not just on a woman — for there had been strong female adventurers in the genre before — but on one who, by the end, is well on her way to becoming the sort of secret-clad sorceress that usually plays the villain’s part. Lee would explore that further still in the superb sequels Vazkor, son of Vazkor and Quest for the White Witch, showing us that there might be more to the standard barbarian sword-swinger than we thought.
Yet what pushes The Birthgrave to the level of genius is not just its storytelling, feminism or role reversal: it’s that Lee harnesses the usual drive of a Sword and Sorcery hero to an even larger theme. No longer fighting for simple conquest, anyone who has ever felt discomfort, ridicule and untapped potential (and that’s all of us, I’d venture) is mirrored in Uastis’ struggle to live her life on her terms, without apology.
Through the years, this, over plenty of tomes of philosophy or advice, is one of the books I come back to in hard times. That’s surprised me, but it fits.
The Birthgrave launched Lee’s career, but has gone out of print and the trilogy uncollected, perhaps still ahead of its time. While it’s not perfect — there’s some deus ex machina revelations at the end that don’t work as well as they should — there was nothing like it before, and little since.
Question: What are some sci-fi/fantasy genre roles that remain sacred cows: and still don’t get reversed, explored or exploded as much as they should?