Birth of the Firebringer

Author: Meredith Ann Pierce
Copyright Date: 1985

Birth of the Firebringer is an old favorite of mine, ever since I first bought it at a middle school book fair. It's a coming of age story about Jan, young prince of the unicorns, and what the coming of the Firebringer means to him. I've read it over and over again over the years and what spawned this most recent reading was 1) I was laid up sick in bed so there was little else in the way of entertainment (I couldn't sit up so huddling in front of the TV was out of the question) and 2) I had recently dicovered that the second and third books of the Firebringer trilogy were back in print and ordered them off Amazon.com. (Needless to say, look for Flame Baits on those soon.)

The world of Birth of the Firebringer consists of a world without humans. Indeed, the primary citizens of the known world are unicorns, red dragons, gryphons, wyverns, and pans (who alone of the five species cannot speak any recognizeable words), and even within the different species, there are different tribes. For instance, among the unicorns, there are the Free People and the unicorns of the Vale. "Unicorn" is actually the term the Vale-dwellers call themselves. The Free People never refer to themselves as unicorns and all the other species have their own names for them. Jan's story deals with the unicorns of the Vale, but promises that his future (as in after the book) lies much beyond that.

Jan is perhaps a character that few people would have trouble relating to. He's an impulsive, headstrong adolescent, but despite that, wants little more than for his father to be proud of him. Considering his father is prince of the unicorns, that's quite understandable. There's also a slight--other--problem. His father, Korr, is the color of night, the first black prince of the unicorn. While unusual, Jan has grown up hearing the tale of the Firebringer, a prophesized hero of his people who will be as black as the well of a weasel's eye, a great warrior, and a seer of dreams. Four hundred years ago, the wyverns betrayed the unicorns' offer of succor and drove them from the unicorns' ancestral home in the Hallow Hills. Since then the unicorns have taken refuge in the Vale and built up their numbers awaiting the day they can return. According to legend, the Firebringer will someday be born among the unicorns and drive the invading wyverns from the Hallow Hills with fire, a mysterious thing the unicorns know nothing about. (I guess they don't have forest fires in the Vale.) Obviously, the thought of one's already powerful father as being the Firebringer of legend (Korr's name means "thunder" in their language) is enough to wilt the self-esteem of any adolescent struggling with his own worth.

I like this story because of the depths of the legends and language presented in what is surprisingly short young adult novel. It can easily be read in a single afternoon (if you're fast) and the story feels no lack for its length. The book largely follows Jan's pigrimage to the Hallow Hills, a journey each unicorn makes before being declared a full-fledged adult. It's a journey of about half a month, done at the start of spring so that the unicorns might drink from the Mirror of the Moon (a mystic pool of water) and leave the Hills before the wyverns fully wake from their winter slumber. During his journey, the reader, through Jan's eyes, learns about the myths of Jan's people, some of which are real and some which might be old mares' tales, and also about the beliefs and ambitions of the other peoples of the world. Jan himself grows until what was once bravado becomes true bravery, to the point where all that matters to him is that he protects the band of initiates with whom he traveled, even if it costs him his life and no songs are ever sung of his valor. The fact he makes that choice even when he believes himself to be forsaken by his goddess, is a true testament to his character.

I suppose it's no wonder then that once Jan returns home, much older and wiser than when he left a mere month before, his winter coat sheds and where he was once mud-brown in color, he is now black as night with a silver crescent on his brow and a white star on his heel; the marks of the Firebringer earned from his battle with the queen of the wyverns. But, still surprised and humbled at discovering that he is the hero of legend, Jan declines to tell his friends of his impending destiny until "tomorrow" (after the story ends).

The ending is actually quite satisfactory given that the story is about the birth of the Firebringer, and not how the Firebringer freed the Hallow Hills. For a long time I thought this was all there was and I was quite happy with it. It never occurred to me that there might be future installments and I didn't discover the existence of books 2 and 3 (Dark Moon and The Son of Summer Stars) until I had entered college, by which time they were out of print.

Most of this story flows very well, but if I had any complaints, I would say that it would have to be in Jah-lila. Jah-lila serves as a very important writer's tool in that she's the only character who knows everything, and a heck of a lot more than she tells us. Part of the reason is that she's the unidentified narrator (though as she promises when she starts the story, you will know that she's the one telling the tale by the end), but beyond that, she's a mystery even among unicorns and that creates unusual complications. Jah-lila comes from outside the known world, beyond the Sea of Summer Stars, and originally was not a unicorn. Though the book does not outright say it, Jah-lila was essentially a horse that somehow escaped human captivity and wound up in this land where a young Korr found her and eventually lead her to the Mirror of the Moon so that she might drink its waters and become a unicorn. Because she wasn't born a unicorn, she has several notable differences: her hooves are round instead of cloven, her tail is long and full like a mane instead of tassles, and she has no beard.

Oddly enough though, Jah-lila's mate is Teki, who is the most tradition-minded of all the Vale unicorns we know. He teaches the lays, tells young unicorns of the horrible fates of those who break their laws, and in general would seem to be the last unicorn who would be a suitable partner for someone who at one point had not been a unicorn at all. I don't know how much Teki knows of Jah-lila's past (and it would be strange to think that he'd never ask), but considering that Korr leading Jah-lila to drink from the Mirror of the Moon is tantamount to sacrilage I don't think Teki would have had anything to do with her if he knew. Jah-lila doesn't stay in the Vale though, so even if Teki noticed her obvious differences from most unicorns, few others do. Jan doesn't until almost the end of the story, and until his pilgrimage he mentions only seeing her once when he was a child. Since Jah-lila runs all over the known world she's more educated that most of the unicorns (as narrator she's actually telling the story to the Free People, the plainsdwelling unicorns who don't really know much about their near cousins), but I find it surprising that she has gone from what was probably a simple horse (I've never see a horse yet that could drive away stormclouds) to the unicorns' most powerful magicker. Jah-lila knows how to steal away dreams, coax away the deadliest of storms, and a host of other things. Being an outsider to begin with probably gave her an interest in seeing things outside of the point of view of Korr's culture, but the fact she has become so involved in the whole of her adopted world is somewhat odd. She was an outsider to begin with, but she has so much more knowledge than the average native. Why is she the only one who has it?

Given what little I know of Dark Moon, having Jah-lila come from outside the known world might have been a necessary springboard for the next installment, but we'll have to see when I get there. At the time, when I was younger, I thought it was just cool in general to have Jan's world somehow tie in with out own. Now I'm not so sure, but I'll give the author the benefit of a doubt.