- John Gaines
In 1972, Richard Adams’ classic fantasy novel Watership Down was first published. This exciting adventure follows the travels of a group of rabbits seeking a new home after the destruction of their warren. Evocatively written and imaginatively plotted, this novel excelled in portraying the world we humans perceive as mundane as a place filled with danger and mystery, and also excelled in its depiction of the primitive religion and folklore the rabbits created to explain the natural environment. After I finished reading Watership Down a couple of months ago, I searched for a similar fantasy told from the perspective of animals, but finding a novel of its caliber proved difficult. Many of the other animal-centered fantasy stories I found were either too deliberately whimsical or too childish to live up to Adams’ novel. Eventually I found David Clement-Davies’ Fire Bringer and decided to give it a try based on the recommendation by Adams on the back cover. Filled with adventure, suspense, and gripping depictions of the natural world, this novel lived up to my lofty expectations.
As Watership Down was told from the perspective of rabbits, Fire Bringer is told from the perspective of deer. Like Watership Down, the plot of Fire Bringer is deceptively simple in its synopsis. The novel tells the story of a fawn named Rannoch, born with a white leaf-shaped birthmark, who must save the deer (and ultimately, the entire forest) from a tyrannical ruler of his herd. He becomes an outcast and must journey across the wilderness of medieval Scotland with the help of both his loyal companions and various acquaintances in order to fulfill his destiny and find a way to vanquish his enemy.
What marks Fire Bringer as a unique and fascinating companion piece to Watership Down is its historical setting and incorporation of ancient Celtic symbolism into the story. Unlike Watership Down, which explored the contemporary world from an alternate perspective, Fire Bringer takes place in a time when humanity had not yet stripped the British Isles of much of their pristine forests. It is a world where humans are still scarce, and wildlife still exists in great abundance. Rannoch’s interaction with both the “Herla” (the deer’s word for themselves) and the “Lera” (the deer’s word for other animals) forms the crux of the novel, and each creature--be it deer, other animal, or human--is given a well-written, distinctive characterization.
The novel’s depiction of medieval Scotland is exciting not just for the creatures and natural environment, but for its depiction of human culture as well. This is a world still in transition between the old Celtic beliefs and rituals and modern Christianity, and the diverse influences are reflected in the deer’s belief in Herne, the old Celtic deer god, the Catholic veneration of the saints by a human family that Rannoch encounters, and a disturbing, primitive ritual carried out by “standing stones” long abandoned by man. These elements make Fire Bringer not only a gripping story of an animal’s quest, but a fascinating look into another place and time.
Fire Bringer is not a flawless book. At 500 pages, the book can take quite a while to read, particularly for its target YA audience, and the Christian symbolism of the Rannoch character, although often portrayed artfully and imaginatively, becomes painfully obvious and blatant in one sequence towards the end of the novel. But these are minor flaws in a novel that remains an ambitious and stirring effort and a worthy companion piece to Watership Down. The author also wrote two follow-up novels, The Sight and Fell, set in the same world as Fire Bringer, that are told from the perspective of the wolves rather than the deer. I look forward to reading them.