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Once Upon A Winter's Night
Dennis L. McKiernan
Roc Books, 496 pages

Once Upon A Winter's Night
Dennis L. McKiernan
Dennis L. McKiernan was born in 1932 in Moberly, Missouri. He lived there until age eighteen when he joined the U.S. Air Force, serving four years during the Korean War. He received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Missouri in 1958 and, similarly, an M.S. from Duke University in 1964. Employed at a R&D laboratory, he lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio. He began writing novels in 1977 while recuperating from a car accident. His novels include the trilogy of The Iron Tower, the duology of The Silver Call, and Dragondoom.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

As its title announces, Once Upon A Winter's Night is a visit by Dennis L. McKiernan to the realm of folklore, in this case a retelling and extensive and imaginative expansion upon the well-known Norwegian folk tale, "East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon." As the author suggests in his forward, most of the folklore that has come down to us has often been extensively revised in translation and collection by popularizers such as Grimm, Andersen or the author's beloved Lang, rewritten to conform to the "political correctness" of the period and society in which they were published. Darker elements, hints of social criticism, have often been expurgated or refashioned into more acceptable mores or parables, at times the original context lost. As often as not, the unedited world presented in many of these folk tales was capricious and cruel, a reflection in part of the very real world in which the tales originated, with suggestions of a darker human psyche. Until relatively recently, this aspect of folklore and what has come to be called "faery" has remained largely obscured by socially palatable revisions and a long tradition of romanticizing. This tale, in particular, has been retold by many, including C.S. Lewis's "Till We Have Faces," and Lang's version, first through the original translation of Mrs. Alfred Hunt, later in the Viking edition that of the more popular and biased George Webbe Dasent. Most retellings bear only in broad outline a relationship to the source material found in Asbjornsen and Moe's "White Bear King Valemon," likely the basis for "East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon," and if not, certainly a mirror reflection, if different in tone and resolution.

In his forward, McKiernan bases his expansion of the above story upon a "thesis" that, in undergoing the revisions of Lang and others, the tales of folklore became abbreviated, that "surely the original stories were much longer, with many more wondrous encounters than the later, altered versions would have them be." This is debatable; one of the universal characteristics of folklore being the economy of means in their telling, arguably reflecting the intended audience and an oral tradition within that context. The eventyr, as they were called in Norway, imply stories told at night before the hearthside. As Iversen notes in his introduction to Asbjornsen and Moe's collection of Norwegian Folk Tales, the eventyr were rooted in the Middle Ages and centred around remote, rural farmsteads where the telling was passed down from generation to generation of illiterate farmers. Nor does the author's appeal to their being a part of a bardic tradition inherently provide an argument for a tale spanning the equivalence of several hundred pages, as folklore is readily distinguishable from that of bardic tradition, with its closer association with the "courtly" and heroic sagas and eddas, their greater length of composition an extension of their more "noble" audience and purpose.

Nonetheless, McKiernan seems more comfortable in using this argument as a pretext for launching his newest fantasy, a reasoning I would argue for allowing the author more latitude to indulge in a decidedly poetic framework for his story. Archaisms of language abound here, as both preposition and prefix appear, or alternately disappear, with an abundance not commonly seen since the days of poesy; archaic and obsolete usages of speech such as drear, mayhap, ween, 'twas, naught, elsewhen, eld, yester, and surround as a noun liberally leavened (it's contagious) throughout the novel. On other occasions, McKiernan is not averse to making up words, such as dusking, to suit his poetic purposes, and great attention is paid throughout to structuring his sentences 'round (a favourite choice of adverb) assonance and alliteration.

While there are certain to be readers who will find this stylistic approach contrived and annoying, I must admit that, within the context of the format of his story, for the most part the author is successful, displaying a certain mastery in his ability to imitate older poetic forms of composition, and creating an obvious and intended musical cadence to his sentence structure -- except when he allows himself to get "o'ercarried" away, such as "back trail some two days and a dawning ago," "tiers of farmland carven in the slopes below," "the beringing Goblins," or "his rudden scales with black running through." And I would suggest that it is the author's choice of presenting his narrative as an ostensible retelling of folklore or fairytale that grants him modern-day license, within certain limits, to indulge is this style of writing. Absent the context of fairytale, this often flowery, some would say florid, approach to writing would appear indefensible as an artifice, whereas within the juxtaposition of folklore an argument can be made, regardless of whether correct or logical, of maintaining a stylistic tradition.

Those of you who have read "East o' the Moon, West o' the Sun" as a child, or even "White Bear King Valemon," will find that the basic outline of McKiernan's story follows that of the original folk tale, opening with a beautiful, pure and innocent maiden who agrees to a proposal presented by an enchanted bear to marry a mysterious, "faery" prince in order to rescue her family from poverty. The maiden falls in love with the prince, but due to an undisclosed curse, can only see her love at night, and even then he must wear a mask, his true appearance kept from her. As soon happens in such tales, the heroine succumbs to the bad advice of an avaricious mother, and surreptitiously gains a view of the prince's face as he sleeps, inadvertently waking him and bringing on the sentence of the curse. The rest of the tales revolves around the heroine's efforts to, within a limited time imposed, redeem her actions and regain her now vanished prince.

McKiernan uses this premise to launch a long and involved quest, in part following the outline of the original story, but significantly expanding upon it, both in scope and particulars. While he does use his heroine's trials and tribulations to briefly and imaginatively explore our ideas of time and relativity (though in a way sure to rouse any chaos theorist), touching also upon the similar relativity of history and playing with the notion of reality being bound by who is doing the telling -- in this case, not unexpectedly, the bard or a writer -- this is essentially another quest story, one in a long number by McKiernan, dominated after the first 140 or so pages by travel and brief episodes and meetings that successively lead the heroine towards her goal. Though long a convention of fantasy, I personally have grown weary of it, primarily because the normal episodic approach results in the narrative never lingering long enough at any location or with any one character for the reader to form any true attachment, emotional or otherwise. Instead the tale rolls along from town to village to hall, a fantastic travelogue, characters introduced and quickly disappearing once they've served their purpose, the narrative kept skimming at the surface of the plot. Initially entertaining perhaps, with its kaleidoscopic array of wonders and often larger-than-life and enchanted characters, nonetheless in the long run becoming dull through repetition, nor especially rich or multi-dimensional to begin with.

I will admit that I find this outing by McKiernan more imaginative and skillfully written than some of his earlier work, and those who enjoy fairy tales and folklore will likely be delighted, as the author has in large part captured the tone and landscape of the originals. Additionally, this could have been appealing for the young adult market, but the author's handling of the sexual relationship between his main characters is too explicit to make this likely, and, I suspect, too maudlin in places to be convincing for some of the more mature audience (the heroine does a lot of blushing). The author, at times, strays into a repetition of devices, such as thoughts and memories that linger just outside the reach of the heroine's comprehension, unintentionally at times calling her intelligence into question. And, as is so common in this type of venue, the ending is anti-climactic, a contrived and celebratory gathering of all the story's participants.

Nor do all the bad guys meet their just desserts, the conclusion to this novel -- at least as it exists in uncorrected proof -- a rather bald and open-ended set-up for another quest to come. As any succeeding book will of necessity be a departure from the folk tale this was based upon, it will wait to be seen whether McKiernan's poetic approach will carry into another novel, one that by leaving behind the original folklore of the first story, will abandon the premise for its tale and instead mark a return to the venue of more conventional fantasy.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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