Canadian Corner: William Pasnak
Happy Canada Day! This July, I highlight underrated Canadian fantasy novels for kids, especially those from decades past that still stand the test of time. Today, we start with a duology from the 1980s by William Pasnak.
Currently based in Vancouver, Pasnak was born in Edmonton in 1949, and has also lived in Japan and Banff. He authored a Degrassi novel and published several books with Canadian publisher Lorimer, however it is his pair of middle grade fantasy novels, In the City of the King (1984) and Under the Eagle’s Claw (1988), that captured my heart—and two R. Ross Annett Awards, the annual children’s literature prize given by the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. I discovered these novels a few years ago on the shelves of Mandolin Books and Coffee Co. in Edmonton and they still resonate with me several re-reads later.
The novels follow the adventures of two traveling performers in the fictional land of Estria: Elena, a twelve year-old girl, and Ariel, who is in his forties. Their friendship is central to the story and although Ariel serves as a mentor to Elena, their relationship features relatively equal footing and strong mutual respect despite the age gap. In the City of the King charts their arrival in the city of Rakhbad where they must free the king from the shadowy sorcery of villainous priests. In the sequel, Under the Eagle’s Claw, they travel to the city of Ver to prevent other dark and selfish forces from tainting a powerful healing ritual.
The novels are tender and thoughtful, while also full of mystery, intrigue, and secret societies. They are fast-paced without relying on jarring, in-your-face action. Fans of Narnia will be at home in Pasnak’s evocative prose, but his novels do not bear the biases of race, sex, and religion that have brought criticism on Narnia. In the City of the King and Under the Eagle’s Claw feature a competent young heroine, a world that respectfully blends European, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences, and whereas Narnia skews toward the dogmatic, these novels are far more subtle and esoteric.
It is this esoteric element that I especially enjoy in Pasnak’s books, particularly in his portrayal of magic as a shifting, under-the-surface power—a magic of feelings and intuitions rather than cinematic superpowers. The latter, it seems to me, characterizes much of the magic in children’s fantasy today. I would classify that sort of magic as ‘scientific’ magic, that is, magic regulated by highly specific rules.
Christopher Paolini’s novel Eragon (2002) provides a good example of scientific fantasy. In Paolini’s stories, magic is the manipulation of energy, activated through the thinking and speaking of an ancient language. In keeping with the laws of conservation of energy, its use drains energy from the magician, though it can be stored in battery-like gemstones. As Eragon’s mentor, Brom, explains: “Magic takes just as much energy as if you used your arms and back […] If the magic had used more energy than was in your body, it would have killed you” (page 141).
It can be a genuine pleasure learning the rules, structures, and nuances of magic alongside the character in novels like Eragon, but I have personally always found myself more drawn to subtler, intuitive magic. Magic must not be illogical in a story; it must occur for a reason and cannot show up willy-nilly to solve plot holes or provide quick fixes to a character’s problems. However, over-regulating and systematizing magic can render it too foregrounded, too conscious. If magic represents the unperceived causes behind perceived effects, then by its very nature, it should operate in a hidden, subliminal fashion. The seat of magic, like myth, dream, and symbolism, is the unconscious.
This inner magic is the sort we find in William Pasnak’s novels, as Ariel explains to Elena regarding the ‘magical’ Brotherhood he is a part of:
“The Brothers don’t do anything but live their lives and look within themselves for whatever truth they can find there. And in each person, that truth takes a different form. Some work miracles, and some are gentle, honest men” (In the City of the King, page 18-19).
Or, in the sequel:
“Magic is a word often used by those who draw a line between the outer and inner worlds. But the more I learn, the less I am able to do that” (Under the Eagle’s Claw, page 19).
This intuitive magic is reminiscent of the “Force” as portrayed in the original Star Wars films. Indeed, there is a Yoda-like wisdom to many of Pasnak’s passages:
“But remember, Elena, these men have no power without your fear. That is where their strength begins. And if the pure flame burning here,” he said, touching over her heart, “remains unshaken, their ‘magic’ as they think it has no power” (In the City of the King, page 56).
The spells characters work in Pasnak’s novels typically involve very subtle actions—the seemingly accidental spilling of a jug or the failure of wood to catch fire—but these are just the small, perceptible surface effects of much deeper currents of energy and feeling the characters contend with.
In the only thorough review of the books on Goodreads, the reviewer states, “Although difficult to put my finger on, there is a certain emotional maturity about Pasnak’s works that make them both more interesting and more rewarding that a plot summary would suggest.” I couldn’t agree more. That maturity stems not only from a strong emotional connection between the two main characters, but also from the depth of the magic portrayed—not depth in the sense of a detailed and complex system—but rather, depth of feeling, emotion, and intuition, where the outer world melds with a far-reaching and rich inner world.
NEXT CANADIAN CORNER… The Canadian parliament: a place of history, debate, and… a secret portal into a magical world? I examine J. Fitzgerald McCurdy’s The Serpent’s Egg.