Continuing this week’s theme of travelling entertainers
Born to Exile (The Tales of Alaric the Minstrel, volume 1)
By Phyllis Eisenstein
Phyllis Eisenstein’s award-winning 1978 Born to Exile takes us to a secondary world not unlike Medieval Europe, at least as perceived from the US. It’s a world with all the dangers and prejudices of old Europe minus (as far I can tell) anything like the Church. It is a region divided into pocket feudalisms, without any grand unifying authority. Although someone is working on that last detail.…
It’s also a world with magic or at least something that will do until genuine magic comes along. Alaric the Minstrel has a fine voice but he also has a special talent, a talent so very special that if any of the people listening to him sing had the faintest inkling he had such an odd talent, they would build a special commemorative bonfire with Alaric as the centerpiece.
Alaric can teleport across any distance as long as he knows the destination well enough to visualize it. He has been able to do this since he was a newborn. He appeared in a village far from the land of his birth, with the hand of the unfortunate midwife still holding onto him. Luckily for Alaric, childless Mira took him in. Less luckily for Alaric, Mira died when Alaric was still a child and her husband immediately ejected the foundling. Adventures ensued.
Although this was marketed as a novel — the Great Elwooding having tainted the once-rich market for SF collections and anthologies — it’s what we in the trade call a “fix-up,” no more a true novel than was Foundation. In fact, it’s so clearly a collection in novel’s clothing that it won the 1979 Balrog for best collection/anthology, and came in 13th place in the 1979 Locus Best Single Author Collection.
Born to Exile • (1971) • novelette
Fifteen-year-old minstrel Alaric makes his way to the unsubtly named Castle Royale in hopes that he will find a long ‑term position there. His talent and training as a minstrel are top-notch; it should help that his late mentor Dall was known and liked at Castle Royale. Limited prosperity and security appear to be his so long as he does not attract the attention of Medron, a court magician talented at exposing witches where no witches exist.
Alas for Alaric, an ill-fated romance with the King’s daughter Solinde leads to a narrow escape in mid-assignation. His unusual escape method hands the court magician Medron just the evidence the old mountebank needs to remove Alaric as a potential rival for the King’s attention and largesse. Unlike Medron’s previous victims, Alaric truly does possess uncanny talents.…
Of course, there was never any chance that Alaric would be burned alive, because he always has the option of teleporting away. He is reluctant to do so, because he does love Solinde and doesn’t want to lose her forever by exposing his true nature. (Not that he knows for sure what he is; he only knows what he can do.) He spends this story playing for time and hoping that some solution short of flight will present itself.
I like to think that Castle Royale was named by the King who built it, who had been of considerably lower social status until he strong-armed his way to power. The name has a certain nouveau royal ring to it.
The King is surprisingly OK with Alaric seducing his daughter , in the sense that he is very unhappy about it but doesn’t have Alaric immediately executed. Perhaps there’s a taboo against killing minstrels. If I were a minstrel, I would certainly include in my repertoire a song or two about how a royal once killed a minstrel and then endless sorrow befell his kingdom.
Inn of the Black Swan • (1972) • novelette
Life has not gone swimmingly for Alaric since he left Castle Royale. While still pining for Solinde, he chose a route through a great forest long on trees and very short on paying customers. Where he finds an inn. Why innkeeper Trif saw fit to establish his Inn of the Black Swan in such a desolate area isn’t clear, but at least the inn offers a roof and warm food in exchange for Alaric’s songs.
Trif has a lucrative if ethically gray business model. Alaric’s place in the scheme seems to be somewhere between “bait” and “upcoming occupant of the unmarked graveyard in the meadow,” depending on how long it takes Alaric to work out what Trif is up to and how Alaric reacts to that.
Years of childhood exposure to old myths, various American murder ballads, and whatever you call Scottish songs about how unfair it is to be hanged just because you murdered and robbed everyone within a fifty-mile radius … ah, where was I … years of folk music exposure have left me extremely suspicious of fictional inns located in the middle of nowhere, out where nobody can hear the screams of travellers. Decades of role-playing games (I feel “Trowbridge Inn”  deserves special mention here) have only confirmed my paranoia in this matter. As a minstrel, Alaric would be quite familiar with his world’s version of the Procrustes legends. Indeed, it’s clear early on that he is not inclined to let his guard down around amiable Trif.
The Witch and the Well • (1973) • novelette
Having taken his leave of Trif’s remarkable hospitality, Alaric and his new companion Mizella, late of the Inn herself, arrive in a small village populated by salt of the Earth types, wholesome folk who never saw a calamity they could not blame on the nearest helpless patsy. It’s the kind of village worth visiting just so you can leave it, the sort of village whose well is inexplicably screaming.
It’s very easy to come up with a plot if your protagonist is the only sane person in a world of idiots and god-botherers, but that’s not actually what Eisenstein does here. Firstly, Alaric’s education is, for the most part, limited to songs; he’s not entirely certain he isn’t the changeling (or worse) he would be called if people knew what he could do. Secondly, Alaric’s not the only decent person around and not the only person willing to take risks to help someone who is clearly being victimized.
Mizella isn’t quite the love interest of the week other authors might have made her. Alaric doesn’t love her and she doesn’t love him; however, she does appreciate the rescue from servitude at the inn. Moreover, LIotWs tend to be ditched as soon as their episode is over; Mizella accompanies Alaric for some time before their stories diverge.
The Lords of All Power • (1974) • novelette
By an incredible coincidence, the elderly midwife Alaric whom Mizella and the children of the village have saved from the local headman turns out to be the very midwife who delivered Alaric years ago. Somewhat to Alaric’s relief, he isn’t related to some nasty cabal of Dark One-worshipping baby-eaters. He is kin to the lords of Garlenon, which is a large, prosperous, and expanding kingdom. Should he contact them? He has no idea how his lost family will react to his appearance; even if the family Garlenon greets him with open arms, Alaric will have to say goodbye to his companions of the road. What to do?
Running into his old midwife: coincidence or destiny? The answer will depend on genre. We need to know if this is an SF universe in fantasy drag or an actual fantasy. Fantasy has gods and fates and whatnot pushing the characters in the right direction but SF leans more towards chance. Well, unless those f*ing Arisians are lurking in the bushes and actually, they do like their breeding experiments.…
The answer is clearly not “this secondary world is roughly the size of Prince Edward Island and given enough time everyone runs into everyone else.” We know from the rest of the book/stories that the more Alaric learns about the world, the smaller the bit he personally knows will seem. We get hints that suggest that the land mass he inhabits is comparable to Eurasia in extent.
The Castle Under the Hill • (?) • novelette
Having spent his whole life hiding his ability to teleport, Alaric suddenly finds himself surrounded by people with the same talent, people who have spent years avidly honing their teleportation skills. It’s a difficult transition, going from a travelling freak to the least important member of a powerful and respected family.
Alaric’s life is a long series of gradual and unpleasant revelations and this story doesn’t break the pattern. It’s no coincidence that the family Garlenon all look very similar, all can teleport, and together form the ruling family of a large empire feared by its neighbors … an empire that somehow keeps managing to add to its territory without having much in the way of a standing army. The Garlenons’ way of life is very successful. It’s not clear if it’s one that has a place in it for someone as tainted by ethics and mercy as Alaric.…
This may be original to this collection.
“Give us tribute or we will fucking gut you and your kids in your sleep” is, of course, a perfectly legitimate method of administration. I wonder if one of Eisenstein’s inspirations was the medieval Nizari Ismailis of Alamut. If so, that raises the question of whether her secondary world has its own analog of the Mongols.
I can’t help but suspect that the Garlenons’ kleptocracy would be even more prosperous if the Garlenons imported a legion or two of the tea-drinking bureaucrats I assume must exist in this world’s Asia, but of course there’s no way for House Garlenon to know that such talent is available.
What an unreliable thing is memory. I would have sworn that this was my first exposure to her work. And yet … I have a small but complete set of her books. On examining my copy of the Dell mass market paperback, I see that I must have read her works earlier, and forgotten. Dell didn’t publish this book until April 1980, while Shadows of Earth was published a good seven months earlier. I bought both books new so I must have purchased Shadows of Earth first.
Despite the witch-burnings, the general fear and superstition, and references to the Dark One, this seems to be a curiously organized, religion-free world. It has the feel of Old Europe without any of the major institutions that shaped that world (Papacy, Holy Roman Empire, the heritage of Rome). If they have analogues in this world, I overlooked them.
Although Born to Exile was marketed as fantasy, there’s absolutely nothing in the story that requires it to be fantasy, particularly by the standards of the time. Sure, teleportation, but this could just be a psionics on a low tech world story like The Witling. If Eisenstein had been a much worse writer and John W. Campbell not quite so dead when she began getting published, she could have sold these stories to Campbell’s Analog. However, because she is a solid author and because Campbell had already gone pining for the fjords, she was published in Ferman’s The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I think the main reason Born to Exile was marketed as fantasy is that it was set in an Old World knock-off.
Born to Exile was followed by In the Red Lord’s Reach in 1989. They are, as far as I know, long out of print. Despite that, The Tales of Alaric the Minstrel is an on-going series. The most recent Alaric story can be found in Martin and Dozois’ Rogues.
1: Not actually who seduced whom, BTW. I don’t know what the SOP for minstrels is when they get summoned to the bed chamber of the horny until-then virginal teenaged daughter of the King but I bet “tread very carefully” is in there somewhere.
2: It’s an inn in Harn. A terrible, terrible inn in Harn.