The fabulous writer and person Judith Tarr has been facilitating a read of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels, first published in 1970s. Tarr also wrote this great post on her discovery of Kurtz’s work, and its impact on opening up her own writing directions.
Tarr just happened to choose the writer who had more influence on me, as a reader, than any other.
Kurtz boosted my writing as well in a couple remarkable ways—I’ll get to that in a little bit—but her stories did more for me as a young person growing up odd in a decidedly conformist environment, as an innately curious person being educated mostly by people who judged first the appropriateness of my questions.
When I was fourteen, my family moved from the high-crime sprawl of southern California to what was then a bit of a backwater tourist town inland of Santa Barbara. These days the town of Solvang and the surrounding valley bustles with an outlet mall, bunches of wineries (thanks to Sideways and the Firestones), lots of spas, and a massive casino. But three decades ago, it was cattle and horses and a couple struggling wineries (thanks to the Firestones) surrounding a Danish-themed town of fake windmills and aebleskivers. We high school students worked the shops and restaurants—most of us wearing quaint Danish costumes—and our sad running joke was how exciting it might be to one day have a Taco Bell to go with our little McDonald’s in the neighboring town.
I could go on and on about the experience of moving from a high school of five thousand students to one of 700, and how my parents’ intention to keep me safe from teenage drinking and drugging by making that move backfired wildly. But the bottom line is I went from a tight group of friends who Got It—we used to roleplay quests and escapes at Disneyland and in city parks, and perform musical theater numbers in random parking lots and shopping malls—to a stifling social group of girls who would have deemed me beyond crazy for such things. My closest male friends did sword fighting and such out in the woods, and I learned a few bits of play, but it was mostly No Girls Allowed. I was so insecure at that age and time, I played along in order to get along.
And so it was, at fourteen and lonely while pretending everything was just dandy with the whole drinking beer and kissing boys thing, I walked into a little place called The Book Loft.
To that point, my SFF reading had been limited more to whatever works my father had around interspersed with military books and films. I’d read Sword of Shannara, and I’d tinkered on the edges of D&D, but my practiced interests in fantasy were more along the lines of costuming, Shakespeare, and learning about historical daily life. Since I didn’t know anyone who shared my interests, I did my roleplaying and cosplaying (a word that didn’t exist at the time!) in my bedroom, alone, in secret. I assumed I was just a little daft, but not so daft I didn’t know I ought to hide it.
When it came to actually reading, horror was my first choice for fiction. I’ve often blamed my pre-and early-teen reading of numerous King and Bachman stories for what others consider brutal violence in my own work. After reading Rage and Cujo, I considered my own choices somewhat tame, alas.
But my overreaching reading interests? Anything supernatural, whether it was classified as fiction or non-fiction. Witchcraft and ghosts and legendary evils. Folklore with bloody endings. Divine interventions, druids, crystal skulls, aliens among us, werewolves, ESP, and Bigfoot.
I loved all things fantasy, but at the time had little idea it existed as a genre in adult fiction. Really, I knew one other person who’d read Sword of Shannara, and she was my age, and by the time I moved from southern California, we hadn’t really been in touch for a couple years anyway.
So into The Book Loft of Solvang I wandered one afternoon after school, thinking to check out the horror section. As you might imagine, a bookstore in such a small community—even one subject to the surges of tourism—had a rather small selection. I ended up crouched in front of some shelves that my memory places in the store’s back corner, scanning paperback spines. I pulled out Deryni Rising.
Hook, line, sinker.
I read every one of her books I could get my hands on at the time. (Cue back-in-my-day tales of waiting weeks and weeks for an ordered book to arrive.) I checked constantly for new ones. (Cue back-in-my-day tales of never knowing exactly when the next of a series was due, and having no way to look it up.) I read the Deryni books, and also her co-authored Templar and Adept novels. My favorite Kurtz work, above all others, remains Lammas Night.
And over the decade and a half I read and re-read her novels, my perspectives changed. But it took re-reading some of her work, more than twenty-five years after discovery, to realize her impact on my worldview.
Kurtz gave me a framework through which I could see religion and the esoteric are cohesive elements, rather than mutual and threatening enemies. I didn’t need to see mysteries as threats to either science or religion. It was all right to not only acknowledge mysteries existed, but to be awed by both their existence and our inability to decipher them. It was even all right to be joyful in the face of mystery!
This was particularly important to me at age fourteen, sixteen, nineteen, twenty. I’d been raised in the Episcopal Church, in a congregation led by a remarkable man filled with love, compassion, and an incredible tolerance—no, incredible respect—for us young people who came to him with challenging questions of faith, of applying teachings, and of reconciling a loving god with world events. But the church in our new region was led more… judgmentally. More… divisively. More like… like the power-politics-driven bishops in Kurtz’s novels. There were no burnings at the stake, of course, but the undercurrents of intolerance were the same.
I came to understand, at an empathetic level, Kurtz’s recurring refrain of, “Humans fear what they do not understand.” I almost called that a theme, but to do so creates a negative half-story of her work, methinks. The true theme Kurtz comes back to again and again, story after story, character after character, is the emotional and spiritual power of fearful people choosing to risk life and soul in order to understand one another.
Internalizing that philosophy has led me to seek understanding of those who believe things so very different from my own beliefs, even if those beliefs violate my deepest moral beliefs. Even if those beliefs violate what I consider the most basic boundaries of human behavior. Personally, I fail often to be a glowing demonstration of this principle. But I try, and Kurtz is in large part the reason.
(Because this is The Internets, I’ll make clear there is a distinction between understanding the motivations behind belief and actions, and condoning them. Understanding does not nullify judgment.)
I mentioned my favorite novel of hers is Lammas Night. More than any other, that one gave me in-depth perspectives of what drives honor and sacrifice, especially when the one striving for goodness is not perfect. When one is afraid. When one doubts. When honor is a choice set upon a shifting foundation we’d like to think was built by those beyond reproach, but might really be constructed of our own assumptions. And it’s about choosing sacrifice even if it might seem futile. Choosing service in the face of threats. Choosing honor despite the cost.
Everything surrounding us is presented as a reduction to This or That. Right or Wrong. Left or Right. Real or Fake. Worthwhile or Worthless.
But honor is the Also that fills the spaces in between. It’s the ideal we wish we could reach even as we tell ourselves it’s impossible. Kurtz taught me it isn’t impossible, but we will indeed pay a price for it.
Lastly, Kurtz gave me the concept of religious evolution as a natural path rather than an ungodly act. She was the first person to articulate the perspective that the fundamental difference between the Old Testament and the New might be less about God’s changing assessment of humanity and more about humanity’s changing comprehension of God.
That shared notion didn’t come from one of her books, though. It came from an actual, in-person conversation at a convention, where she kindly spent a couple hours talking and listening to my young writer-self even though I was so nervous, my hands and voice shook almost the entire time. And she’d agreed to spend that time with me because she remembered we’d exchanged letters four to five years before. She even—believe it or not—read an early, early version of my first completed novel that I, with her permission, shipped all the way to Ireland twenty-odd years before it became Sword and Chant. Her response is tucked away somewhere in my papers—a kindly worded assessment that boiled down to, “Highly derivative, but shows some promise.”
And I had to look up “derivative.” :)
So yes, Kurtz’s work opened new pathways for writers in general, and women writers in particular. Yes, she shifted the ground upon which we build fantasy, historical fantasy, and religious magic today. And yes, she was my doorway into fantasy reading (which, awesomely enough, included finding Tarr’s work!).
But I don’t today cherish her work primarily because of any of that. Instead, I will always hold most dear the changes she made in me.