The Dear Hunter (no, not the Deer Hunter) has a set of five concept albums telling a sweeping, dramatic story of an ill-fated man. Please, please take my word for it that you should listen to these albums, particularly if you love verbosity, masterful orchestral music combined with incredible rock, and great epics.
The first song in Act I: The Lake and the River is “Battesimo del Fuoco,” a prophecy of the tragic story that you are about to hear (if you listen to all the albums). It’s short; it’s a cappella, soft and sad. The vocals are killer; there are so many moving parts that are created using purely the human voice. I listen to it on repeat because the song gives a certain kind of melancholy-bittersweet-inspirational-passionate feeling that I can’t always find in music. It’s unique.
There is also a remix, which is not a capella but totally will give you chills.
Now, if you’ll allow me to merge two pieces of art together.
Whenever I listen to “Battesimo del Fuoco,” I always associate the lyrics/mood/sound with the birth of the main character of this book I love and read at least twice a year.
David Clement-Davies has written several novels about historically relevant, anthropomorphic animals. Of the books I’ve read (The Sight which is about wolves, as well as The Telling Pool) this novel, about red deer in early medieval Scotland, holds a special place. The others were ultimately forgettable slogs, which is a shame.
I first read Fire Bringer when I was backpacking in Arizona the summer after sophomore year of high school (2007). You might wonder how I found time to read several hundred pages and where I even found this book–let’s just say that I was perched on a rock in a pretty wide stream in Sedona during some of my last days in Arizona, my friends and I were discussing books we liked, and I’d just come into my Lord of the Rings obsession (which continued well into the following school year) and was looking for something good to read.
If you’ve read my other book reviews (which are relatively few in comparison to how many books I’ve actually read), my definition of “good” literature may not be your definition of good literature. I might love a YA novel, or a postmodern literary masterpiece that is extremely difficult to read. What I find lovable about a book is typically how it moves me, not just how it’s written. The books I dislike, however, usually have a lot to do with their construction and execution.
So, Fire Bringer had a lame title irrelevant to the essential plot of the story. I wish Clement-Davies had called it The Great Prophecy or Rannoch or something like that. It wasn’t written in postmodern style or had a troupe of nine companions seeking to destroy something evil…oh wait. There might have been something like that, if you discount the fact that the companions were female animals and their children.
Here is why I loved Fire Bringer despite its obvious appeal as a children’s book. Despite it’s not as stylistic and masterful as InfJest.
~ * Spoilers Ahead * ~
While I was hanging out on that stone in Sedona, my friend Catherine lent me her copy of Fire Bringer. I was stunned–who would think to bring a heavy novel out on a backpacking trip? But I accepted it and once I started reading, I was instantly brought into a darker world. The first chapter is long, dramatic, horrific–remniscent of the massacre of Macduff’s family in Macbeth. The dark world of Macbeth and Hamlet is rewritten here. Think foggy vales–dark woods–mountains covered in mist, darkness all the time in soggy Scotland. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
Historically, Fire Bringer takes place in early medieval southern Scotland. At this point, David Clement-Davies says, “It is 200 years after the 4 tribes of Caledonia–the Scots, the Picts, the Britons and the Angles came together to from the Kingdom of Scotia.” It is 1000 years after Emperor Hadrian built his wall keeping the Scottish away from Roman civilization. And we know that the deer stumble across a Roman Fort that has been abandoned for some time, ever since the Romans withdrew from the Northlands of the empire to protect its sanctity deeper in, which puts us around the year 1100. This would not be important except that it is, because the deer will come into contact with humans. To add to the human problems, King Haakon and his Norsemen are about to invade and begin a series of battles with the Scottish tribes.
There’s politics in the animal world. There’s politics in the animal world! There is also the animals’ own language: The deer refer to themselves as Herla, specially blessed by the wood God, Herne. All other animals are the lesser Lera. This becomes important later. The deer believe in a series of tales called the Lore, which tell moralistic stories about a deer named Starbuck–a kind of mythical hero remniscent of those in Native American tales, who interacts with the natural world and whose stories help the superstitious deer understand where they got their antlers, why they have to rut every year, why wolves mainly eat smaller Lera, etc. These stories are passed down via oral tradition. And, despite their reputation as flight animals, the deer begin, under the wrong leadership, to believe they are superior to all Lera and should be masters of their land, using human reason and force to break the laws of nature.
This was profound–unheard of to me. I had never heard of Watership Down either, but this book draws its plot, I suppose, from the same theme. The first chapter opens with a male deer, Brechin, who is an “outrider” in the herd, or a kind of elite protector returning to his mate, Eloin, at the end of another long day. The females in the herd at this point are all giving birth or already have. Brechin passes the Old One, Blindweed, storyteller of the herd, telling about the a famous prophecy to the children. The prophecy states that a deer born with a white oak leaf on his forehead will become a changeling and have the ability to communicate with all animals in their language. He will even seek the help of man, break ancient powers and awaken the powers of the deer god, Herne. He’ll overthrow the evil powers that have corrupted the deer’s traditions and set them free, etc.
If you think the little deer that is about to be born to Eloin is the subject of said prophecy, you’re right.
The herd is led by males who fight for supremacy during Anlach (the rutting/mating season). The current leader of the herd, Drail, is followed closely by a hornless second-in-command, Sgorr, who, the reader finds out, is manipulating Drail into keeping power for himself. Drail arranges a meeting with the outriders that evening, which Brechin defies in order to spend some more time with Eloin as she begins to go into labor. During the meeting, under Sgorr’s advice, Drail abolishes anlach and thus, any challenge to his control. What Sgorr does not like, however, is that though Drail is experienced and strong, he still believes in the old religion of Herne and fears the prophecy. Sgorr is a reasonable deer. He is empirical and believes the deer should turn on their old superstitions in favor of common sense.
The very structured, peaceful order of the deer is transformed dramatically in the next moments. Drail also decrees that the outriders be dissolved, instating a militaristic squadron of young male deer with sharpened antlers. Naturally, there is a massacre. The Draila (Drail’s personal bodyguards and soldiers) turn on the outriders.
Reading this part, I bawled my eyes out. It’s drawn out. The characters you met only 20 or so pages earlier during a peaceful sunset are being slaughtered and trying to save one another as nobly as possible. The final moments of the chapter show Brechin on a lone hill, surrounded by stags before he bellows and is brought down.
Eloin is left alone to give birth to her baby–a male deer with a white oak leaf on his forehead. She knows that Drail will be coming to murder infants next; the hinds (female deer) in the herd have already begun to realize what is happening. Since Drail is attracted to Eloin, he decides he will claim her as his mate and remove her from the rest of the hinds. Before Drail can reach her, however, Eloin quickly switches her fawn with the stillborn of another hind, Bracken. Drail takes the bait and tells Eloin she must stay with him. Of course because Brechin, her soul mate, was murdered by Drail, she refuses to show any affection toward the elderly leader, yet still chooses to leave with him in order to protect her child and friends.
The fawn with the oak leaf on his forehead grows older and is named Rannoch. Things in the herd are normal for a time. Drail and Sgorr rule the herd with their army of Draila, a secret police, random searches, and other dictatorial measures. The youngest deer face indoctrination into schools where they are called the Drailing.
Rannoch’s white leaf, which has been covered with mud since birth to protect him, washes off one day and naturally, some scouts notice and rush to tell Drail, who is immediately superstitious. Rannoch and some of his friends are forced to flee with their mothers. They travel into the highlands of Scotland, constantly pursued and threatened by Drail.
The book follows Rannoch’s journey, taken with his adoptive mother, a few other hinds, and their fawns, as they struggle to escape the evils that have overtaken their herd, in the hopes of someday restoring the deer to peace. As Rannoch grows older, he begins to understand why he is special and what powers he has — or may not have. The little fawns that run away with him — Willow and Pippa, Bankfoot and Thistle — become wonderful characters. Along with Rannoch, we watch them grow up.
Fire Bringer tells the entire story of Rannoch’s life. Before I give any more away, I’ll stop here.
(If you decide you want to try the Dear Hunter, you can listen in order: Acts I-V, or, take lead singer Casey Crescenzo’s advice and listen to Act IV, then I-III, then Act V).