Evangeline Walton, remembered
by David Lenander
I did not know Evangeline Walton Ensley personally. But like many in The Mythopoeic Society, I loved her books, particularly The Song of Rhianon, which received the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. At Mythcon XII, in 1981, I did have the opportunity to meet Ms. Walton. I quote from my account of that conference in Last Homely Hearth #9 (1984):
. . . . Before long, I spotted Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB) approaching, in the company of an exotically costumed lady, and a red-bearded man in a kilt. I remember this last person as a big, hearty man, like some warrior out of Celtic or Norse myth. He may actually be shorter than I remember him (at my size nearly everyone looks tall), but he is so full of energy that he tends to dominate almost any social setting by sheer force of personality. I know that some of you Rivendellers will scoff, and say that “no-one with MZB’s personality will ever be overshadowed.” And you will be right, but you may understand more what I’m telling you when I reveal that this fellow proved to be Paul Edwin Zimmer (PEZ), Marion’s brother.
At first I hardly noticed their companion, who seemed almost in shadow throughout the weekend, even when MZB and PEZ weren’t around, as if she were half in some other world, or perpetually enrobed in some Celtic twilight against both Earthly light and darkness–and indeed, this may have been only the result of the fact that she was apparently not feeling too well, having recently suffered some illness. Yet, there seemed a certain tranquil depth centered in her, as in some shadowed pool, from which stars would occasionally gleam, whenever Evangeline Walton would–almost unexpectedly–say something. PEZ must have addressed her by name several times before I finally caught on that this lady, now sitting on the steps practically right next to me, was the author of Island of the Mighty, The Children of Llyr and other books–quite possibly the greatest living fantasy writer. I was suddenly thrilled. So much so, that I forgot to be shy, and sidled over to her to tell her that I loved her books. I asked her about the Theseus novel that Lin Carter had written about in the introduction to one of her books years earlier, wondering when it was to be finished. Incredibly, she told me, Ballantine/Del Rey had rejected the book, because it didn’t contain enough magic to suit their formula. Ms. Walton observed that, after all, the Greek myths were rather short on magic, at least compared with the Welsh tales that had inspired her earlier books. The gods perform miracles quite regularly, but mortals are largely unmagical, except for a few unpleasant characters like Medea. Fortunately, she expected that Pocket books would be publishing her book as a historical romance, or something. [It did later appear as The Sword is Forged from Timescape and Pocket books]. I asked her about her inspiration in attempting the writing of a sequence of novels based on Welsh legend. She identified James Stephens, the early 20th century Irish writer as her model. She had been impressed with what he had done with Irish materials, and decided to attempt a similar enterprise based on Welsh tales. I believe she cited books entitled Deirdre and In the Land of Youth.
. . . . [Later, at an author reading,] I was hoping that Evangeline Walton would read from her in-progress Theseus novel. Instead, she read a chapter from The Song of Rhiannon, which surprised me by being quite funny. Humor is not a quality that I remember that beautiful, magical book for, but partly because of the expression with which Evangeline read, I realized that her sense of humor is present throughout her writing.
The panel on Faerie, featuring Elizabeth Marie Pope, Evangeline Walton, Patricia McKillip and moderator-panelist PEZ was outstanding. . . . E.M. Pope started off by reiterating her thesis that Faerie is “the attic of the mind,” and commented that we have no idea how uncertain the folk mind really is. Patricia McKillip thought that it was more like the “basement of the mind” but everyone seemed to agree that Faerie is a state of mind. Evangeline Walton quoted Matthew Arnold in saying that something (reading fantasy?) is like studying ancient stones of a forgotten civilization for meaning. She also referred to A E ‘s and James Stephens’s influences on fantasy. She went on to tell how she somehow began imagining that some automobile was after her at some point, which led to a discussion of the terrifying aspect of Faerie. Patricia McKillip said that we “invent things that terrify us, both in fantasy and SF” which led to a discussion of how fantasy may succede or fail in terrifying (or otherwise moving) the reader. Evangeline said of some writer (S. Harker?) that his/her Black Magician was terrifying until he came on stage. E.M. Pope commented that Dante is more successful than Milton because the latter made the mistake of trying to portray God, and falling far too short of the effort. Patricia agreed that she had often had trouble trying to keep her characters rounded, rather than flat. They tended to become abstractions. She cautioned that the writer must believe her own story. Evangeline agreed, saying however, that “truth is like a diamond, having many facets.” A story must be real to the reader in concrete detail, though, sharp and hard like the diamond. When writing is going well for a writer, then she is in luck, “It’s a good straight flow–like singing.” (LHH #9, 1984)
I hope that the Birds of Rhiannon are singing with Evangeline Walton, somewhere in paradise. We will miss her voice. We will remain thankful that we can still remember it in rereading her books, like The Song of Rhiannon, The Children of Llyr, and Prince of Annwyn.