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Lately I’ve been enjoying Philip Pullman’s new translation/distillation of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, one tale before bed for fifty nights running. In his introduction he pointed out a property of fairy tales so obvious I hadn’t really contemplated it before: their great speed. As Pullman says, A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more. The best tales are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t; in Rudyard Kipling’s image, fires that blaze brightly because all the ashes have been raked out.

Today’s story is told in the style of a fairy tale, divided into thirty sections, that the introduction warns is a regrettably inconclusive tale, without any assured ending. It begins with Madoc, a lowly poet and harper who attends the High King. One May evening he is met by a white-limbed woman who claims to have come all the way from behind the moon.

And then that woman did a queer thing, for she laid to her young breasts her hands, and from the flesh of her body she took out her red heart, and upon her heartstrings she made a music.

It was a strange and troubling music she made there in the twilight, and after that slender mistlike woman had ended her music-making, and had vanished as a white wave falters and is gone, then Madoc could not recall the theme or even one cadence of her music-making, nor could he put the skirling of it out of his mind. Moreover, there was upon him a loneliness and a hungering for what he could not name.

And so Madoc begins a quest to find the path that leads to behind the moon and hear the haunting music again. His adventures at this point are picaresuqe, told with the speed of a fairy tale. In one of the thirty sections he stops an army from waging a senseless war by singing of the distress war causes upon mothers. (In an early section a wizard gave him a quill made from one of the black feathers from Lucifer, the Father of All Lies, which made his poetry mesmerisingly eloquent. It still didn’t quench his desire for the skirling music.) In others he meets and entrances queens (including one titled ‘Maya of the Fair Breasts’) but feels he cannot linger.

While this is all well and good, I’m going to spoil more of the plot than I usually do because some of the later stuff is so unexpected. It is at the halfway point that Madoc finds Ettarre, the woman from behind the moon, and realizes that it was more than just her song he had been entranced by. But she is already a prisoner of Sargatanet, and has been so for 592 years. And there is no way to free her, because it is written in the book of the three Norns that she must stay a prisoner for 725 years. The Norns have written down all of history that will ever happen; no man or god may go against them.

So what does Madoc do? He took out the quill pen which had fallen from the wing of the Father of All Lies, he stooped, and with his pen Madoc inserted after the digit seven a decimal point.

This unmakes several centuries of history. All the lives lived in that time no longer exist, to be spun out of the new progression of history. Still, it means Ettarre is no longer a prisoner, and Madoc (who remains with his memories intact) is free to marry her. On their wedding night he asks her to sing the skirling song he’s sought for so long, she cannot, for it’s something she won’t compose for another few hundred years. Madoc finds he doesn’t care so much anymore.

And there’s still almost a third of the story left to go.

As you can see, it’s bursting with Madoc’s deeds throughout the world, giving it the feel of a long meandering epic. The ending even plays with deconstructing the usual happy ending. It’s also generally light-hearted, with the Norns particularly hilarious as the creators of the world now a little embarrassed by their juvenile efforts. “For myself, I grant it was a mistake to put any literary people in the book. Still, it is a mistake to which most beginners are prone; and that story, you must remember, was one of our first efforts. All inexperienced girls must necessarily write balderdash. So we put poets in that book, and death, and love, and common-sense, and I can hardly remember what other incredibilities.”

The Music from Behind the Moon by James Branch Cabell

Availability: print

Word count: 12,000

First published: The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome, chapbook, 1926

Where to find it: The Fantastic Imagination: An Anthology of High Fantasy, edited by Robert H. Boyer & Kenneth J. Zahorski

Domnei / The Music from Behind the Moon: Two Comedies of Woman-Worship, collection, 1979, Del Rey / Ballantine

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