Monday, April 18, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Born to Exile

Literary inspirations for D&D's bard class are few and far between, in part because the class is such a strange mish-mash of ideas -- part fighter, part thief, and part druid (magic-user in Doug Schwegman's original Strategic Review article), and possessed some additional unique abilities to boot. While it's clear that the romanticized image of the Celtic bard played a large role in the conception of this class, there are likely other antecedents as well. I don't know that Phyllis Eisenstein's character of Alaric the Minstrel is one of those antecedents, but, even if he isn't, he's an interesting enough creation in his own right that the stories in which he appears are worth tracking down.

Alaric made his debut in the August 1971 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in a short story entitled "Born to Exile." That title is also used for a later episodic novel derived from five previously published Alaric short stories, including the one under discussion in this post. As the story begins, Alaric is fifteen years old and on his way to Castle Royale, where he hopes to find patrons in the king and his son and daughter, who had previously employed his now-deceased master, Dall. Met at the castle's walls by a guard, Alaric identifies himself:
Alaric swept off his peaked black cap and bowed as much as his pack permitted. "My name is Alaric, and by trade I'm a minstrel. Having been advised by many that my songs are worthy, I come to offer them to His Majesty and, in short, to become a hanger-on at court."
The guard grunted. "What weapons do you carry?"
Alaric's slender fingers touched his worn leather belt. "None but a paltry dagger, useful for carving fowl and bread. And the feather in my cap, for tickling my enemies to death."
That short exchange is representative of Alaric's usual manner -- witty and confident, but with a touch of arrogance as well. Having satisfied the guard's inquiries, he is taken to the king's Great Hall but is advised, "Be sparing with your wit, boy. We already have a jester." As he makes his way toward the court, Alaric reflects on his upbringing and the unique talent that sets him apart from others.
The minstrel and his escort passed under the portcullis and entered a large courtyard in which a dozen or so well-muscled, half-naked men were practising various forms of personal combat. Alaric's eyes roamed from swordsmen to wrestlers to boxers, and he was painfully aware of his own slight physique. Battles were not for his untrained hands. His way was to vanish, as he had vanished from beneath his father's whip. 
He was seven that day, the day his mother died and his father revealed the fearful secret: that Alaric had been found on a hillside, a helpless newborn babe clothed only in blood. He was obviously a witch child, for a gory hand, raggedly severed just above the wrist, clutched his ankles in a deathlike grasp. The local peasants were frightened, and some wanted to destroy the infant that was surely a changeling or worse, but barren Mira loved him instantly and took him into her hut. Her husband grumbled sullenly under the lash of Mira's sharp tongue, but he acted the role of father, albeit distastefully, until she died. And then his strong, gnarled fingers reached for the whip. 
Alaric, who had practised his power in secret, flitting impercep­tibly from one tree to another in the nearby wood, backed away in terror. As the leather thong slashed toward him, he pictured a particular tree in his mind, complete to the mushrooms that ringed its trunk and clung to its bark. Suddenly, he stood in its shade and the loamy smell of the forest floor filled his nostrils. He never dared return home.
Alaric can "vanish," which is to say, teleport. He believes this power to have a dark origin but, in truth, is uncertain as to its nature. Regardless, he keeps his talent hidden, for, true or not, abilities such as his are treated as witchcraft and punishable by death. Initially, Alaric had used his talent to aid him in theft, until he was caught by the master minstrel Dall, who offered to train him in a more useful and socially acceptable trade. Alaric accepted his offer but never forgot his thieving skills, which he continues to put to good use as needed (or desired) in his travels.

Alaric quickly wins over the king and his children, in no small part due to the fond memories they have of his former master, and is invited to stay at Castle Royale to begin his service. One of his first duties is to sing for Princess Solinde and Prince Jeris, the former of whom is quite clearly taken with him -- and he with her. It is this relationship between the young minstrel and the princess that, along with Alaric's pressing need to hide the remarkable power he possesses, that forms the basis for the short story's primary plot, as well as propelling Alaric into the stories that follow.

Again, let me reiterate that I make no claim that "Born to Exile" or any of its sequels was an inspiration for the bard character class. Alaric is too idiosyncratic a character to serve as an archetype; his sole magical ability is unique to him so far as he knows and not one possessed by all minstrels. Still, Alaric's manner, his ability to win the affection of those around him through song, his knowledge of the wider world, and, yes, his thieving ways, all suggest that he makes as good a model for the D&D bard as any you can find in 20th century fantasy literature. Alaric is also an attractive and sympathetic character as well -- a bit like Cugel with a conscience. That idea alone ought to make "Born to Exile" sound intriguing and Eisenstein's spare, straightforward style does as much to reward those who take the time to read it.


  1. I'm no D&D scholar, but Keith Taylor's "Bard" series of sword and sorcery novels seem to be the origin of the bard class. His hero, Felimid mac Fal, is a minstrel, swordsman, thief, woodsman, and master of druidic arts. The first Bard novel wasn't published until 1981, but it was a compilation of earlier short stories with the first story published in "Fantastic" in 1975.

  2. There's also Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories, about a man with a silver-stringed guitar battling supernatural menaces in Appalachia.

  3. Surely it's hard to talk about the origin of bards without talking about Taliesin and, to a lesser extent, Fflewddur Fflam from Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain".

  4. PCB, that was where I was going.

    Not long after I began playing D&D I read Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. I remember reading the description of Taliesin, who I think was described as having been many things in his life (perhaps including warrior and thief, I don't remember) and thinking, "Oh, they based the bard Taliesin!"