One of the interesting things about going back to the beginning of any tradition is seeing how things might have gone. Seeing, that is, possibilities unexplored and roads not taken. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of what, in retrospect, is an earlier stage of evolution. Sometimes there’s a sense of a missed chance. And then sometimes you can see why things went the way they did.
I’ve written here before about my fascination with underexplored elements in 80s fantasy. In this context I have an elastic definition for ‘80s,’ beginning in 1977 — arguably when the modern mass-market fantasy genre was born, with the publication of Brooks’s Sword of Shannara and Donaldson’s Illearth War — and ending whenever seems rhetorically convenient (I go back and forth, and any ideas in comments about when 80s fantasy ended will be read with interest). Particularly earlier on, there’s an odd mix in these years of idiosyncratic, individual tales alongside a developing commercial genre; in all, a lot of stories trying out techniques and approaches, a lot of writers finding out what works and what doesn’t. We remember, on the whole and more or less, the stuff that works. But sometimes it’s interesting to see the stuff that misfires and see other possibilities for the genre.
Steven Bauer’s Satyrday is mentioned in Clute and Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy, where they call it a satire. I will say up front that I didn’t get that sense from the book and have no idea what it’s supposed to be satirising. It’s a book that mixes animal fable, Greek myth, and the then-emerging fantasy staple of a young boy coming to adulthood by engaging in a quest to defeat a dark lord. A great owl has captured the moon and holds it captive as part of a plot to gain ultimate power. But not far away, a satyr named Matthew has brought up a human boy named Derin, and at the urging of a raven named Deirdre they set out to free the moon and thwart the owl’s schemes. The adventure’s less than compelling, but there are nice passages and if the book doesn’t entirely come together, there’s still an engaging weirdness to the ingredients.
The prose is fine, simple and direct in a way that we expect now to find in YA fiction, but it’s oddly uninterested in the main narrative flow — Bauer was a poet, and the book’s epigraph comes from Wallace Stevens, so the focus is on the natural world and nature-imagery. In this one can perhaps see an unconventional nod to Tolkien; but the romanticism here is of a different sort. There’s an interest in nature as nature, as not-human. In some ways that’s perhaps the most interesting theme of the book, a latent misanthropy. It also means that the most remarkable prose passages tends to be sheer description in which nothing ‘happens.’ Here’s the beginning of a sequence that comes as Matthew and Derin leave the lands they knew, and Derin sees unfamiliar vegetation (“[H]is eyes were cleansed. … The world began to emerge from the fog which shrouded everyday life.”):
They passed through the edges of a marsh. Its tall thin reeds, bleached as weathered wood, were speckled and streaked with black. Cattails, brown and spindly, poked through the reeds. The dried empty cases of milkwood jutted in clusters from the ends of their thin stems. And there were other, stranger plants that Matthew knew — chokecherry, bullbriar, and sheep laurel. The air was filled with the rustle of their passing, a scratchy rasp like sand on rock, broken only by the ooze of displaced water which filled the little pockets their feet made. Derin bent and put his finger in the water. It was warm and silty and tasted faintly sweet, of mud and peat. The ground before him held two distinct holes, like half-moons, from Matthew’s hooves.
Two similar descriptive paragraphs follow, then another describing Derin’s reaction to the forest. As above, metaphor and simile are avoided (and note that the two similes above are “like sand on rock” and “like half-moons,” further natural images). So that’s over a page with minimal plot development, yet it’s a passge that feels key to the book. The seeing of the land is important. The quest is significant only insofar as it teaches one about the land — unites one with the land, perhaps. There is a turning-away from the human, even though many of the animals we meet act like humans.
The prevalence of animal characters, along with the odd mixed group of questers, makes the book feel (during its best parts) a little like Walter Wangerin’s Book of the Dun Cow, and then also (during its slacker passages) something like Niel Hancock’s Circle of Light series. In fact, the real irony of the book is the fact that the Circle of Light-esque quest, which gives the story its ostensible focus, is actually much weaker than the passages in the owl’s court and around the captive moon — which, with their focus on the politics of the various animals, is much more reminiscent of The Book of the Dun Cow. But reminiscences aside, these scenes are also stronger in their own right: there’s more of a sense of character and the story’s much less predictable. Conversely, the success of the quest feels inevitable. The adventurers face little conflict beyond the natural world — overcoming a flooding river and a high mountain are key points, as opposed to encounters with the owl’s forces.
In a sense, that may be a sign of the way in which fantasy writers were still figuring out the genre conventions. There is a sense, I think, in which much popular fiction has to educate its audience about its basic presumptions before it can really cut loose. It took decades after the super-hero was invented before the super-villain was created (by some definitions, not until Doctor Doom in 1961’s Fantastic Four #4). So perhaps the inevitable conflict with the dark lord wasn’t that inevitable thirty-plus years ago. The practical result is that what looks like the main conflict of the book turns into a kind of extended sub-plot.
Which wouldn’t be so bad, but the relevance to the rest of the story feels attenuated. Somebody’s got to save the day. It happens to be these guys. Why these guys? Well, they happen to be around. At the very end we find out where Derin comes from, and how his ancestry ties into previous schemes of the owl, but while it makes for a fittingly bleak end to the book, it also feels like something detached from the rest of the plot. We never really do find out where Matthew came from, a single mythic creature in an otherwise natural world (specifically, a creature of Greek myth, with a Hebraic name, in a forest seemingly out of the northeastern United States). Which is a problem as Matthew does give the book its title.
In fact, what we would now call ‘worldbuilding’ seems inconsistent. The book takes place over the course of a week, divided into seven sections, one for each day and concluding with ‘satyrday’ — but I couldn’t help wondering where the names of the days came from, and what the pun signified. There isn’t much of a society depicted in the book, so the naming conventions seem random, and it’s odd when the omniscient narrator mentions things like yo-yos and haberdashers in passing.
(As an aside, it’s funny how the mind works. At one point the book follows the sun, who goes off through the sky looking for her sister, the moon. Which is fine. The sun searched around other suns and ‘lights’ which in the distant past had taught the moon how to wax and wane. Still fine. Then the sun decided to return home, at the speed of light. And I thought: how could the sun be looking around other suns, if she was only travelling at the speed of light? And how does she get back to the earth from another sun light-years away? There’s no way she could travel astronomical distances at that speed. Which is where I caught myself and wondered why it was at that point that I was having a problem. But the answer is the phrase “speed of light;” the introduction of that phrase shifted the register from mythic to scientific, just enough to throw me out of the story.)
At any rate, these things aren’t crippling, which is interesting; perhaps M. John Harrison’s distaste for worldbuilding has something to it. Certainly the sense of the natural world that Bauer creates is primal enough that it centres the fiction. The animal-fable elements are convincingly mythopoeic. Accordingly, his most interesting character is Dierdre the raven. Bauer never quite reaches Wangerin’s complexity and sureness of character and moral vision, but he does create some tense scenes as the owl raves to his court of inhuman attendants as Dierdre watches — and, towards the end, does approach a sense of the tragic.
But the climax can’t help but be underwhelming. Matthew and Derin can’t carry the story. They’re too vestigial as characters to work narratively. Their motivation is underplayed, their development’s underplayed, and their story just never becomes interesting enough to sustain the book. The most interesting thing about their journey is simply the motif of the journey itself — that moment I quoted from above, later played out several times over in different ways, in which Derin sees new things in a new land. That evocation of discovery, of travel, of seeing the new, is nice; but it’s beside the point narratively, as it’s not related to the defeat of the owl, and there’s no sense of conflict or drama inherent in the sense of discovery. Add to that the fact one of the questers displays enough varied magical abilities as to seem a virtual deus ex machina, and the book comes to feel like a rote performance.
Which is too bad. In its more interesting moments, Satyrday does feel like it’s struggling to make sense of new storytelling terrain. You can see that Bauer was working with new techniques, I think, and writing in a genre whose conventions hadn’t been fully developed. It’s probably fair to say that the book becomes more interesting the more it strays from the basic structures then common in the fantasy genre. At this late date, it’s still not entirely without interest, but remains something of a curiosity: a reminder of both the benefits and the dangers of writing in the early days of a genre, before techniques had been refined, before storytelling structures had been established, before conventions had ossified into clichés, but also before the best uses of those conventions were clear.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.