The Pole Star of Phyllis Eisenstein

Phyllis Eisenstein, who passed away a few years ago, was the author of half a dozen well-regarded fantasy novels and numerous stories. I have read two of her books: Born to Exile, published in 1978 and comprising linked stories published earlier in the 1970s, and its 1989 sequel, In the Red Lord’s Reach. Both chronicle the adventures of a young minstrel named Alaric who possesses the ability to teleport himself. Alaric must keep this ability a secret for, in the medievalesque world he lives in, magic is viewed with suspicion, and “witches”—those suspected of practicing it—are persecuted and killed.

I don’t know for sure that Eisenstein was Jewish but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that Eisenstein, born Phyllis Leah Kleinstein in Chicago and the author of a book about a reviled outsider minority titled Born to Exile, is one of the tribe. I will, though, also note that the “common genre trope of a specially gifted but also distrusted, feared, and/or persecuted minority” is helpfully delineated by the great SFF scholar John Clute in both his Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as a “Pariah Elite.” The trope, named by critic Roz Kaveney, is hardly a straightforward, let alone automatic allegory for Jewishness in genre fiction.

Yet overlap sometimes occurs. In the case of Eisenstein’s two Alaric books, they are not fables of Jewishness, but they are certainly organized around questions of identity, belonging, outsiderness, and exile. In the first book, Alaric must hide his identity, and worries there might be some way that people can tell he is a “witch.” “Was there really some unmistakable visual clue to a witch’s identity,” he wonders, “the color of an eye or the tilt of a nose or the thickness of a brow—that would be apparent to a knowledgeable observer?” (Funny, you don’t look Jew-witch.)

The mistrust and hostility toward “witches” he hears from those around him make him lament the human tendency to seek scapegoats. A companion, unaware of his gift, tells him:

 “I remember a witch who was drowned in Majinak; she caused the lord’s horse to throw him—broke his neck.”


 “The lord’s son thought not.”

“It would seem that some people always wish to blame their misfortune on someone rather than on chance or perhaps their own stupidity,” Alaric reflects ruefully. He tries to convince his friends that there is no real witchcraft that they ought to fear, that they “will be happier knowing the world is empty of dark powers beyond the control of man.”

Alaric learns from a rare fellow teleporter that the evident mutation that allows them to teleport was first manifest “ten generations ago” in an aristocratic ancestor: “Desiring to cultivate it in his heirs, he married his cousin, arranged cousin marriages for his children, and so on, till we are all cousins now. And we all have that same power.” Interestingly, this linkage of magical travel with family bloodlines, arranged marriages, and the accrual of wealth is also used by another fantasy writer, Charles Stross, in his “Merchant Princes” series, with similar if even more noticeably ambivalent Jewish resonances.

Eisenstein’s later novel, In the Red Lord’s Reach, finds Alaric in the arctic north where he finally seems to find a home with a nomadic, tent-dwelling people of herders who worship the six-pointed Pole Star. He is both adopted as a son by the tribal chief, who wants him to be chief after him, and more demandingly claimed by the tribe’s female shaman, who reveals to him the electro-magnetic nature of this world’s magic and wants him to be the tribe’s shaman after her.

Again, Eisenstein’s world is is imaginatively realized on its own unique terms, with occasional Jewish resonances rather than obvious allegories. Wandering, exile, and homelands are repeated themes. The tribe’s myth has them originally residing in “a warm and green place” before they decided to leave their paradise and, “wanderers in their hearts,” seek “another home.” During their journey in the wilderness, “the Pole Star had looked upon them . . . and finding them worthy, he claimed them for his own,” and brought them to “a land where magic grew in every meadow,” though “foolishly, they destroyed that magic” so that now only rare individuals possess it.

Here, too, though, I would not push the possible Jewish (biblical? Zionist?) connections too far. After all, the tribe’s annual ritual of the winter solstice is a mass self-laceration rather like the Shiite Ashurah festival, not menorah-lighting or frying potato pancakes.

Still, one notices the repeated emphasis on that six-pointed star (it is even diagrammed in the book) and its claims on Alaric. “Don’t deny your nature, Alaric,” the shaman tells him, when he is debating whether or not he should remain with the tribe and continue learning its traditions. “The Pole Star has made you what you are, and brought you here for this.”

After much wrestling with questions of identity and belonging, Alaric finally decides to continue his wanderings. He takes leave of his adopted father, the tribal chief.

“You’re very stubborn, minstrel,” he whispered. “It’s a northern trait, gift of the Pole Star. Perhaps it means the Pole Star will look after you, even in the south. You are one of us, after all. You always will be.”

Alaric felt the sadness deepen inside him. “No,” he said softly. “I never was. But thank you for thinking it, father.”

Eisenstein was a friend of George R. R. Martin, who credits her with the decision to include dragons in his “Game of Thrones” books. I am curious to read more by Eisenstein and see if the push and pull of the Pole Star is felt elsewhere in her fantasy oeuvre.

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