Messages and Fight for the Oasis

March 3, 2013

The first chapter we’re covering this week, “Messages,” is not especially exciting. There’s a lot of discussion among the Free Folk in the swamp, which is not really that memorable. The geography is still too vague in my mind for the rebels’ logistical concerns to feel especially pressing. (However, this may say more about me as a reader than Saberhagen as a writer. I am notoriously bad at visualizing maps based on verbal descriptions. This often makes battle scenes in literature—at least, ones where tactics and position are particularly important—rather frustrating for me and hard to follow. ‘Tis just one manifestation of my rather poor spatial skills.) The key fact that comes out of the discussion is the Free Folk’s plan to fight two battles—first to take the Oasis of the Two Stones (and thus pick up a significant amount of additional manpower and materiel) and second for the Elephant. Then the action moves back to Rolf and his gladiatorial training at the castle.

It is interesting the possessiveness Rolf shows about the Elephant. Even his obsession with getting revenge against Chup wanes in importance when compared with the prospect of riding the tank again. He also knows that he needs to get word to Thomas and Loford about what happened when he woke the Elephant in the cave. His method of sending a message to the Silent Folk is rather clever, although it seems a bit far-fetched. I suppose that, with luck and practice, one could spread out a sheet of fabric on an overhanging roof. Odder, however was the notion that Rolf could write a clear enough message to be read by a bird flying over at significant altitude and then be able to rub it into illegibility—all without, apparently, the charcoal bleeding through to the other side of the fabric. Yet Rolf’s scheme is clearly within the realm of possibility, so this is a very minor quibble. (I also imagine that it would be rather icky wearing the shirt again, with the writing side toward the body, after all this is done; however, I’m sure this is among the least of Rolf’s concerns at this point in the story.)

At the end of chapter 9, the bird leaves a reply message for Rolf, which is initially as bewildering for the reader as it must be for the prisoner. It’s not hard to figure out that the Free Folk mean to get the Stone of Freedom into Rolf’s hands, but what this has to do with three kerplunks falling on the top of his cell is not at all clear.

However, this question is answered at the end of the very next chapter. “Fight for the Oasis” certainly has a lot more action than the previous chapter. We get a brief picture of the layout of the human habitations in the Oasis, then the fighting commences in short order.

The battle is fairly well described—its bloodiness made amply clear. Saberhagen adds some touches that help the reader see how a force of poorly equipped irregulars could defeat a larger garrison. There’s an image of soldier only half clothed, still arming himself as he’s struck down. It’s clear how Thomas takes advantage of surprise—keeping forces bottled up indoors where they cannot utilize their numerical advantage—and his own great strength in the melee. And the Free Folk are able to finish off their enemies with the magic of the Thunderstone, which is turning out to be very, very useful.

The vituperativeness of the birds in their attacks on the leather-wings was striking. The conflict between the two species is rather odd; these are sentient races (or perhaps semi-sentient, in the case of the reptiles, but quite intelligent nonetheless) that are genocidal enemies. I understand the birds’ grievance against the reptiles that hunted the Silent People and stole their eggs; yet I find myself wondering how benevolent these avians really are. It is a gruesome scene when Strijeef emerges from the roosts, covered in purple blood and with bits of leathery shell stuck to his huge talons. Of course, the Silent People have demonstrated a empathy and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good—something we’ve never seen from the reptiles. These are not necessarily wise, perfectly moral owls; they have hates just as vicious and violent as humans.

Now that the war is truly on, we will go back to covering a single chapter each week. So let’s hear it for the gladiators!


2 Responses to “Messages and Fight for the Oasis”

  1. I thought the “humanization” of the owls was a nice touch; often fantasy works treat animal familiars as one-dimensional, with little motivation or background. But instead of just treating the cute feathery owls as accessories, they’re allies with strong motivations of their own. (I also liked Strijeef’s praise of Rolf for “flying” over the walls when he escaped, since it used language from a bird’s world-view.)

    • Buzz Says:

      The Silent People are not your stereotypical fantasy owls, who are old, wise, and benevolent. If they have a failing, it’s that they spend too much time mulling things over, and not enough on action. They tend to act like (and sometimes even dress like) friendly nineteenth-century English schoolmasters.

      The Silent People are quite different. Their ways of thinking are different from humans’, and they can be quite vicious at times. Strijeef seems to have a rather dark streak of humor, although it’s not extensively explored. (Do human jokes translate for the birds—or vice versa—I wonder?) I would have liked to see more about these fascinating birds at the series went on. Unfortunately, however, I think this battle is actually the apex of their involvement in the plot. The birds are completely absent from The Black Mountains, for example; Saberhagen literally sends them south for the winter. He finds similarly naturalistic reasons to curtail the role played by the reptiles as well. He may have made a good judgement, not wanting overuse these elements, which were so crucial in the first book. He may also have recognized their potential to disturb the story; as critics of Tolkien have rightly pointed out, the existence of giant, intelligent, avian allies should have profound effects on warfare in a pseudo-medieval setting.

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