By Katherine Kurtz
Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series is probably the single “open-ended” series of fiction that I have read most consistently across most of my life. A fairly good number of such series have come and gone from my must-read list (see below); there are a few that I have taken up in the last couple of decades that currently enjoy that status (The Dresden Files, Honor Harrington, The Nathan Heller Cases). But there is only one that I can think of now that I have read virtually all my life, certainly from late-adolescence/early-adulthood. And it is perhaps the most profoundly influential series in shaping my character and personality, who I am today. There was, however, a long dearth in publication of new installments, eight years between when the last appeared in 2006 and the recent publication of the latest late last year, which led to it drifting out of my consciousness. Nevertheless, recent conversation with friends brought it to mind and a quick Internet search revealed the recent publication of the most recent book, which I ordered. But the wait for The King’s Deryni to arrive (some things I’m just not going to read in ebook) also inspired me to revisit the very beginning of the series – sort of.
|The cover of my first copy|
I first discovered the quasi-medieval, magical world of Gwynedd and the Eleven Kingdoms with its uneasy coexistence between humanity and the persecuted minority race of magical beings called Deryni in mid 1978, I believe, when I would have been sixteen – I no longer have my original paperbacks which would doubtless have the date I got them, so I’m just guessing here. I know that it was sometime soon after my late-1977 discovery of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth opened up a whole new world of fantasy fiction where my previous reading had mainly been, in succession, young-teen series such as The Hardy Boys and, yes, Nancy Drew, as well as Tom Swift, Jr.; anything Star Trek related; pulp fiction such as Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian and Tarzan and John Carter of Mars as well as the English translations of the German science-fiction pulp Perry Rhodan; harder science fiction such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov; and so forth – with comic books throughout, of course. Certainly there was much else, but those are the main enthusiasms that I remember across the 1970s. Then, as mentioned, I discovered The Lord of the Rings and was suddenly haunting the book stores for anything similar, of which there seemed a growing torrent about this time, and I eventually came across Deryni Rising in, as it turns out from cover shots I can find on the Internet now, its second paperback edition, which boldly proclaimed it to be “Volume I – The Chronicles of the Deryni.” I grabbed it – I seem to remember it being during the summer – and in fairly quick succession over that fall of my senior year in high school I acquired volumes two and three, Deryni Checkmate and High Deryni, as well as what at the time I knew only as a standalone prequel novel, Camber of Culdi (published 1976) – just in time to be astonished and delighted to find a brand-new hard-cover sequel to that, entitled Saint Camber, just in time to ask for (and receive) it for Christmas. And then, over the next few years, I read and reread them all, at least three times each, maybe more. More novels eventually came, of course, and I read those as well, but by the early-mid 1980s my obsession with the Deryni had waned slightly, if only to the point I was no longer rereading the earlier novels every year or so. Consequently it has been thirty or more years since I visited the beginning of what would become a vast tapestry of sixteen novels and a number of short stories (one collection by Kurtz herself as well as one collection of fans’ stories edited by Kurtz – one of those fan-contributors being an acquaintance of mine in graduate school at LSU).
|Weren't these 1970s covers|
Despite the waning of my obsession, however, I have always retained a love for the series, and a consciousness of how deeply the books affected me. Here is a short quotation from my Apologia linked as a separate page above, the explanation of “Why I Am Catholic,” first written in 1986 (as “Why I Am Becoming Catholic”):
Another such influence was the novels of The Deryni Cycle by Katherine Kurtz, which are set in a medieval world with a medieval church that is clearly Catholic. I cannot say that I learned much about Catholic theology through these stories, but in them Kurtz very beautifully conveys the splendor and ceremony of Catholicism.
Along with the subtly but deeply Catholic Middle-earth of J. R. R. Tolkien, I credit Kurtz’s Deryni novels with helping to inspire in a young nominally Baptist/agnostic wannabe an attraction toward what I would within a few years recognize as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church founded by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Which I’m sure Kurtz herself would find astonishing, because she regards the Church portrayed in the novels as being basically high-church Anglican! Nonetheless, the world she is portraying is clearly medieval and the medieval Christian church was clearly Catholic.
Secondly, the quasi-medieval ambience of the novels – which I did come to recognize, of course, as based more in the idealized Arthurian chivalric world of the Society for Creative Anachronism than in history! – combined with other influences (primarily my senior French class trip to France [LINK]) to guide me toward becoming a historian specializing in the Middle Ages.
Yes, in my faith and my profession, Kurtz’s Deryni novels proved deeply influential. Moreover, of course, related to both of the above, it was the plenteous Latin contained in the rituals described in these books (both ecclesiastical and magical) that first attracted me to and led me to take up my studies of the beauty of that great language.
I’ve actually had in mind to go back and reread the original trilogy for a decade or so, ever since I found the present edition of the first novel, “Revised and with a New Introduction by the Author,” during the summer of 2005, which was followed by the second and third in the next couple of years. But, as I said, it was recent conversation that inspired me to actually pick it up. The context of that conversation is itself telling with regard to the influences these novels had on me. It was in the setting of the Monday-night Catholic Bible Study that I lead, specifically discussing the nature of magic and the paranormal and their distinction from sorcery and necromancy. The question was brought up by the Simon Magus episode in the Acts of the Apostles, and besides the Harry Potter novels, my mind went immediately to these books. Harry Potter has, of course, been famously controversial in religious circles, but the distinction seems pretty clear there. J. K. Rowling’s wizards and witches are never described as sorcerers or necromancers – although the Dark Arts stray into the latter areas; Kurtz’s terminology is a bit looser, but for the most part the magic wielded by the Deryni can be boiled down to ritualized parapsychology. Both their magicks are mechanistic toools rather than consorting with demonic powers. (As an aside, when reading the Harry Potter series I kept drawing parallels between Rowling’s wizards and Kurtz’s Deryni, and were I inclined to spend time writing such fan-fiction I would try to come up with a “history” bridging the nine centuries between the worlds of King Kelson’s Gwynedd [dated as ca. 1100] and Harry Potter’s Britain [the 1990s], reconciling what differences there are both in the magical systems and geographies. Although I’ve not worked the differences out – and won’t – for me the worlds are indeed the same…. I would just place Hogwarts in the far north in Old Kheldour, the Eleven Kingdoms' analogue to Scotland....)
I knew revisiting Deryni Rising would make for an interesting read. I was actually most interested in discovering how well it holds up – and whether my own opinion of the book had changed. Now, what I’m about to say is going to sound incongruous given my expressed love and appreciation for the series. Nevertheless, I remember that even 35 or more years ago when I initially read the first four novels I quickly formed the opinion that Deryni Rising is just not that good a novel in and of itself. Sure, there are plenty of flashes of the great writer that Kurtz would become, but there are also some downright embarrassingly badly written passages that evoke more the feel of fan-fiction than polished professional prose. In her introduction to the revised edition, Kurtz acknowledges that it is very much a first novel. She focuses, however, more on how the world she was just then introducing would evolve over the next thirty-odd years than on her own maturation as a writer. As to that latter, I’m going to leave off slamming her for it – every author has to start somewhere, and just as I early formed a dismissive opinion of Deryni Rising I would regard Deryni Checkmate and High Deryni as both very much superior (an assessment which I'm curious whether it holds up as I continue my current rereading into those revised editions). I am just very glad I did not all those years ago stop with Deryni Rising and not continue into those subsequent volumes! I moreover regret that to this day the most natural entry point to the series for new readers is indeed this novel, in my opinion the weakest by far of the lot.
As to what Kurtz focuses on in the introduction, the developing world of the Deryni and the Eleven Kingdoms, and the choices that she had to make in this revision, her paragraph on p. xiii bears quoting in full:
Many things have evolved in the course of thirty years, of course, as my vision of the Deryni universe has continued to expand. Insofar as it is possible to bring these earliest books more into line with the later series, I have done so, though I have tried not to tamper with the essentials of books that have stood the test of time. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I have corrected obvious typos, of which there were only a few, and made minor adjustments to the language, but I have resisted the temptation to excise or seriously rewrite parts that are not consistent with the Deryni canon as it later developed. Thus, Stenrect crawlers and some of the mythical beasts that Kelson must face down in the final duel at the end of the book remain, as do the rhymed incantations between Kelson and Charissa, although you’ll see those features nowhere else in the series. (Caradots do make a brief return engagement in the second book, Deryni Checkmate, but that seems to have been their swan-song.)
|The SFBC omnibus|
As to the “minor” editorial changes, I didn’t perceive any, but then it has been thirty-plus years and I was not about to painstakingly compare this printing to that in my old, treasured, Science Fiction Book Club omnibus edition of the three novels. On the other hand, it was with great disappointment that I read the latter part of that paragraph and thus found that the very parts of this book that I came to detest most – the “Stenrect crawlers” and the frankly ridiculous rhymed incantations – remain. In the broader scope of the series, both features stand out in how fundamentally they do not fit. However much it might constitute heresy for other fans, in my opinion (for what little it is worth) Kurtz would have done better not to have resisted the temptation. Both (again, in my opinion) impart a juvenile feel that I would rather forget ever existed.
On the other hand, as Kurtz does say, why mess with success? From its 1970 appearance, Deryni Rising did remain in near-constant publication, with numerous editions, and ultimately warrant this 35-years-later hardcover revision. It often ranks very high in polls of “best” or “favorite” fantasy novels. It was the beginning of a fantasy cycle that would blossom into a richly imagined, complex world that has entranced readers for decades. And the fact is that, for all my denigration of this book's individual quality above, it did hook me and countless others, into the world of the Deryni. At this remove, I have no memory of even hesitating to proceed into the next volume all those years ago – which I am going to do again now, because whatever I said above I did enjoy rereading this novel now and being reintroduced to a world and characters that I have loved for most of my life.
Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!