An endearing new fantasy epic
Arriving on American shores this month, escorted by ecstatic reviews, is Fire Bringer, an epic animal fantasy in the tradition of Watership Down. This first novel by 36-year-old travel writer David Clement-Davies was published in England last year as a children's book, but here in the U.S. it will be treated more as a crossover title.
This 500-page saga of the lives and society of the Herla, as the red deer call themselves, ranges from private domestic moments to heroic battles, from rival herd-leaders' secret machinations to ancient prophecies of a deer with a blaze on his forehead shaped like an oak leaf. (Many readers will immediately think of Harry Potter's lightning-shaped scar, which likewise marks him for future heroism.) No matter how far we think we have come from the superstitious artists who painted animals on cave walls, we are still moved by heroic tales of our fellow creatures. Is it because we intuit deep down that they and we are closer than we think? Whatever the rational explanation for this affinity, David Clement-Davies has tapped into its exotic power.
We reached the author at his home (and office) in London. Clement-Davies is already hard at work on his next book -- about wolves -- but he well remembers the amount of work that went into Fire Bringer. "Overall it took about three years to write, on and off. I had the idea quite a long time before, actually. I was sort of wondering what to do, especially after leaving university. I wanted to write, but I wasn't sure how to set about that. Eventually I went on and became a travel journalist." Today he climbs mountains, scuba dives, sky dives, and writes up his adventures for various periodicals.
Not surprisingly, many of Clement-Davies's own favorite books as a child -- and, for that matter, as an adult -- were animal fantasies. "Watership Down is a favorite book," he says, acknowledging the most frequent comparison with his own first novel. "Going further back, the sort of greats like The Jungle Book. And there are other books which are more demanding -- The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Wind in the Willows."
Therefore, he says, "I had a sense of the type of book I'd like to write." However, he knew he didn't want to follow too closely in the footsteps of Richard Adams. "Before I got into the book, I thought about deer. They appealed for their mystery and -- I don't know how to say this -- they're rather more exciting animals than rabbits." Deer seem more mystical, more historical -- and of course the stags, unlike male rabbits, are heavily armed, which offers dramatic possibilities in a story fraught with rivalry and deception.
Clement-Davies did a great deal of research into the lives of red deer. "Reading about deer is fascinating. You have this unique thing, which is the antler cycle, which makes them for me somehow stranger. While writing the fantasy, I was wrestling back and forth -- wanting to make these creatures realistic, too."
Paradoxically, the details of the deer's natural history -- birth, growth, death -- somehow "humanize" the creatures. We empathize with them because they go through the same cycles of life that we do, and because they respond to these cycles in the same ways we do -- with fear, joy, dread, excitement.
Clement-Davies didn't want to set his fantasy in a Never-Never Land of animals without a human presence. "I wanted to set people together with animals and see what I could do with that. And that gives me the basic tension." The presence of marauding humans -- one of the chief predators always lurking on the outskirts of deer society -- affects every scene. For example, most of the deer accept the humans' Hunt as an inevitable part of life in the Park, and even encourage each other to sacrifice themselves for the good of the herd. Naturally, any deer who imagines a life outside the Park faces cries of heresy and revolution.
Clement-Davies pauses to think over the issues intertwined with his story. "I knew when I set out -- you obviously have lots of ideas swirling around in your head, but you don't quite know where they'll take you -- I knew I wanted to write about people, and about human issues. Actually very big themes such as fascism." The emotional roots of fascism, and the way in which individuals manipulate the society around them toward their own sad goals, is one of the ongoing themes.
Clement-Davies credits his agent, Gina Pollinger (who was also Roald Dahl's agent), with giving him "the holy touch" and telling him, "You're a writer." Clement-Davies remembers, "That sent a little shiver down my spine. When you begin to talk of yourself as a 'writer,' it gives you a kind of new authority. You don't feel such a sham anymore, going into a pub and saying, 'I'm a writer.'"
If Fire Bringer proves as popular in the U.S. as it did in England, Clement-Davies won't have time to wonder if he's a writer. Too many people will be reading his books.
Michael Sims's next book will be a natural and cultural history of the human body for Viking.
Author photo by Tim Booth.