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The Writing of Dennis L. McKiernan:
From The Silver Call to Dragondoom

Roc Books, 528 and 544 pages

The Silver Call
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.

Dennis L. McKiernan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Once Upon A Winter's Night
SF Site Review: Hel's Crucible Duology
Dennis L. McKiernan Tribute Site
Dennis L. McKiernan Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

It's inevitable that the work of Dennis L. McKiernan is going to be compared with that of J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, we may as well state (as McKiernan does, in his Introduction to the reissue of The Silver Call) that the Tolkien influence is obvious, especially in that earlier work, and get past it. Lambasting McKiernan for his analogues to hobbits (Warrows) his Dwarves and Elves and Rucks (if they aren't Orcs, they may as well be) is so easy it's kind of pointlessly boring.

Is McKiernan wrong?

Here's Tolkien himself, in a letter to Milton Waldman, probably written about 1951 but never sent:

"Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story... The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama."1
He finishes with "Absurd." But I don't believe that is aimed at those other hands and minds, it's rueful self-mockery of his grandiose vision, which at that time was in the midst of being punctured by the barbs of criticism, both the stingers of the nitpickers and the acid-bearing torpedoes of those, like Edmund Wilson, who refused to see any worth whatsoever in any part of his vision.

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom maintains that literary works are based upon a misreading of those that preceded them. In the case of Tolkien's influence, I would maintain that 'misreading' (Bloom goes far enough to call it 'misprision') is incorrect; that the writer brings to Tolkien his own individual perceptual spectrum, and brings back out something that he can then reshape and use. Writers have been doing that with the rich heritage of myth for millennia. The danger, of course, is that the background material might profoundly overwhelm the new author's vision in the perception of the reader who is aware of it. Back in 1977, many Tolkien lovers such as myself found Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara to be a mawkishly cartoonish retelling of The Lord of the Rings, its being reset as a post-holocaust tale notwithstanding. Young readers at that time who were not aware of The Lord of the Rings found the book to be exciting and engaging some of these even went on to try Tolkien, to find it tedious, slow, and not enough interesting women. In other words, there was no matter of influence: the work stood on its own, and found an audience.

The influence of the The Lord of the Rings has shown up in a surprisingly disparate number of novels since its original appearance in the 50s. There's not just The Sword of Shannara, but Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea contains some very strong echoes, as well as Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Barbara Hambly's horror-fantasy The Darwath Trilogy does as well. All these writers seemed to need to work the Tolkien influence out through their own vision, which then took off in highly individualistic directions; in each case many readers felt that the balance of Tolkien's material was met and matched by the vision that these new writers brought to it.

There are those who maintain that McKiernan's work adheres too closely to Tolkien's mythopoesis, but I don't think that's necessarily a detriment. In the Introduction to The Silver Call, McKiernan tells the story of the origin of this work (meant to be a two part story, separated into two novels for its first appearance in print). He was lying flat on his back in traction after a serious car accident. To keep his sanity he wrote this story, drawing not only on Tolkien's mythological creation but on Cherokee tales of wee folk, and on some of the mythological sources that Tolkien drew on. His world Mithgar is meant as a tribute, or homage, to Tolkien.

The Silver Call is his earliest writing. The two stories concern a pair of Warrows, Peregrine Fairhill and Cotton Buckleburr, whose chief characteristics are their small stature and their gem-like eyes. They are visited in their Boskydells village by a pair of Dwarves and a man, Lord Kian, who turns out to be a crown prince in disguise. That much is certainly familiar, of course. Perry lives in an underground warren called The Root, but living with him as housekeeper and cook is a comely young damman (a female Warrow) named Holly, who will keep the home fires burning for Perry. Perry is also a scholar, and well versed in the history of Mithgar.

The three seekers are on a quest for information: they need to consult The Raven Book, an exact account of a journey made ages ago by a Warrow named Tuckerby Underbank. It is precisely here that McKiernan's own vision starts showing its own direction: key to Perry and Cotton being drawn from their warm and cozy village into adventure is not just the fact that they both have memorized The Brega Path, an exact description of how to get into the ancient mountain fortress of the Dwarves, Kraggen-Cor, but a silver horn has come into their possession, carved round with Dwarves riding horses, that must be taken as well. There are prophesies and doomsayings galore about all these matters, and must be heeded even if not understood.

But central to them all is that silver horn. Dwarves on horseback! Everyone knows Dwarves don't ride. This mystery is lightly referred to at first, but after the Warrows set out, to serve as guides to the Dwarves who are determined to retake their ancient homeland from the foul creatures now infesting it, the silver horn's importance slowly becomes clear.

The rest of the story is straight-forward battle quest fare. Lots and lots of battles, with thousands of cruel-talking, ugly critters getting hewn in droves by the heroes. Yet there is a terrible cost; those who live through that adventure are not unscathed. Heroes die, and there is some sorrowful examination of the realities of war. In between there are glimpses of humor. Cotton exhibits Samwise Gamgee's practical approach to life, Perry is more poetic and less mystical than Frodo becomes, but both are good-hearted, courageous, and devoted friends. When at last the silver horn comes to be blown by the proper person to use it, McKiernan evokes the numinous in his description of its effect.

The writing is awkward in places, sentences taking far too long for their effect, some tried-and-true purple prose from 19th century tales employed ("We must set forth at once to array the Host against the foul Spawn."), and the battles do go on for a very long time -- all of them -- but there is enough good character development, especially of the Dwarves to keep the reader engaged. McKiernan's Dwarves are his strength in both books; they are interesting in The Silver Call, and fascinatingly complex in Dragondoom.

This later work is actually set earlier in the history of Mithgar. McKiernan has written several books in between The Silver Call and Dragondoom, and the improvement in structure, characterization, and prose shows. What could easily have been presented as a linear tale is in fact broken into segments that begin in present time, with Thork, a Dwarf, and a young Vanadurin woman Rider named Elyn inadvertently meeting and having to fight against a common foe who is trying to kill them both. The reader is thus pitched headlong into the story: arrows are flying, the two are in danger, but that doesn't stop them from looking at one another in eye-narrowed, hissing hatred and distrust.

The two reluctantly are forced into a very temporary truce; while they push forward to escape their unseen enemies, we move back in time to the year before. We learn that Elgo, Elyn's twin, already brave and experienced however young, had set out to get Dracongield, or dragon treasure, though many have died in the attempt. The story moves steadily forward with Thork and Elyn having to extend their truce, without either telling the other whither they quest.

Back and forth through time McKiernan weaves, not just showing Elgo's quest to kill the evil dragon Sleeth and take its treasure, but to the childhood of Elgo and Elyn, showing how their father (and their aunt, who is one of the best characters in the book) had to come to accept Elyn as a Rider and not just as a well-trained daughter to marry off advantageously.

The treasure, once won, brings more grief than victory, though the Vanadurin don't make the connection; they don't have time, as a contingent of Dwarves appears and demands that they relinquish the Dwarvish part of that treasure. Dwarves have very long memories, and they want back that which the evil Sleeth had taken from their ancestors -- amid horrible carnage -- ages ago. The Vanadurin retort on them with a variation of "Winners keepers, losers weepers" -- which sparks off a single killing that swiftly turns into major battle.

Meanwhile, back to Elyn and Thork, whose enmity the reader now understands; it makes their growing friendship the more poignant, and when they become allies at last, despite the avalanche of bad blood between their peoples, the reader cheers. For they are not just allies -- they become personal friends. In fact...

Well, read it yourself. It's a bittersweet tale, unpredictable, written in the large bardic style that evokes some of the better fantasists of the 19th Century. I discovered that reading it aloud, trying for a bardic cadence, benefited the tale in a way that stories written in a more invisible modern style would not. The contrast between the two tales with respect to influence is quite startling. The reader familiar with The Lord of the Rings has to make a kind of leap of faith when reading The Silver Call, consciously separating off the sometimes close resemblances between the two, particularly in the places where memory of The Fellowship of the Ring began to overwhelm the story in hand. But, by Dragondoom, McKiernan has brought Mithgar wholly into its own; the influences are there, but informing the whole with added richness. Again, McKiernan is especially good with Dwarves, and Thork is the best character in an interesting, absorbing cast.

Concerning Tolkienian influence, and how it is reflected in the work of writers today, let me close with some remarks by Tolkien, again from the letters, this one to his son Christopher, in 1944:

"...I coined the word eucatastrophe: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives -- if the story has literary 'truth' on the second plane... that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made." [p.100. Letters]

1 The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 1981

Copyright © 2002 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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