The Tower at Stony Wood

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Drawing on elements from Arthurian literature and Celtic folklore, Patricia McKillip presents the tale of Cyan Dag, a knight serving Regis Aurum, King of Yves. During the king’s wedding feast, Idra, the mysterious Bard of Skye, tells Cyan that the beautiful new queen is actually a hideous monster. The real Queen Gwynne is imprisoned in a tower in Skye where she views the world through an enchanted mirror. Cyan, bound to protect the king, rides off in search of her. Meanwhile, Thayne, prince of Ysse, also travels to Skye, looking for a treasure-filled tower guarded by a dragon. He intends to use the treasure to wage war against Yves. The two knights’ lives intertwine with Sel’s, a selkie who remembers little of her sea-going life and lives as a human, running a bakery in Skye with her two daughters.

Although McKillip’s story resembles a medieval fairy tale, it has modern overtones. While Cyan Dag is an accomplished warrior, he’s no macho Arthurian knight. Instead, he’s compassionate, caring, and “sees with his heart.” He embodies the ideal “sensitive” man contemporary women find appealing. With the exception of the illusory Gwynne of Skye, the women are hardly cloistered icons of courtly love demurely waiting to be rescued by a knight in shining armor. They are strong, independent, and powerful. Idra and her sister, Sidera, are sorceresses whose schemes influence the political relationship between three countries. Sel, a businesswoman and single mother, is caught in a midlife crisis, which she resolves by merging her selkie and human selves, thereby attaining power through wholeness. And, finally, Melanthos, Sel’s daughter, and Cria Greenwood, Cyan’s mistress, are passionately committed to their lovers, but do not allow their relationships to dampen their independent spirits.

Complex and compelling, McKillip’s plot unravels in some places. However, she eventually picks up the loose threads and ultimately weaves a richly textured tapestry of fantasy and romance.