Tailchaser’s Song, Tad Williams. 1985.
Before we begin, beware of spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read the book, stop right now and pick up a copy.
Six Core Questions
1. What is the genre?
The External Genre is an Action – Adventure – Monster story.
The Internal Genre is Worldview – Maturation.
The external value at stake is life and death. Choosing Hushpad as a future mate represents the ongoing cycle of life. Cats that are taken into the Mound of Vastnir die beneath the ground, never to see the light of day again. Pretty straightforward.
The internal value at stake is Tailchaser’s understanding of truth and lies about himself. This is a much subtler theme in the story, but is best exemplified by Tailchaser’s experiences at the court of Queen Mirmirsor Sunback in Firsthome. The Queen’s consort Sresla Dewtreader seems to espouse the benefits of domestication. This confuses Tailchaser. Dependence on humans is a conflict in opposition to his love of freedom and independence, a lifestyle that he has always accepted as the true way of cats.
Core emotion is excitement. We journey with Tailchaser through his world on his quest to find Hushpad, experiencing the culture of cats through him.
The internal core emotion is satisfaction, which Tailchaser gains after accepting the truth of himself and his place in the world.
The key event/scene of the external story is the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain. This occurs during the climax, when Tailchaser battles Scratchnail in his final attempt to escape Vastnir.
The key event of the internal story is when the protagonist chooses to accept the truth or not. We see this in the Ending Payoff, Act 3, when Tailchaser’s experiences on the island with Hushpad demonstrate what is really most valuable to him in his life.
The external global value progression is: Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Damnation.
The internal value progression is: Negatives Masked as Positives to Naivete and Disillusionment to Cognitive Dissonance to Sophistication and Wisdom
2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for the Global genre?
Obligatory Scenes for the Action Story:
An inciting attack by the villain.
This happens when Tailchaser discovers that Hushpad is missing. He doesn’t know what happened or who is responsible for her disappearance, but he finds out that other cats have gone missing as well.
Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action.
Tailchaser wanders around the usual haunts without learning anything new then is asked by an older cat to go to the Nose-meet (cat council) to tell about the disappearance.
Forced to leave the ordinary world, Hero lashes out.
Surprised to be asked to the Nose-meet, Tailchaser ends up disappointed that the cats decide not to seek the missing, but instead to take news of the disappearances to the court at Firsthome, a quest for which he is not chosen. After the meeting breaks up, he vows to the moon that he will find Hushpad or die trying.
I struggled a bit to find the pieces of the story that fulfill this obligatory scene, but ultimately I think the author chose a soft entry into the Extraordinary World. One interpretation of the scene would be to consider his belief in the council’s wisdom to be the Ordinary World. When the Council fails to meet his expectations, Tailchaser lashes out by vowing to seek Hushpad himself. The next morning, he has second thoughts and only reluctantly embarks upon his quest when he is almost shamed into it by the admiring kitten Pouncequick.
This obligatory scene can also be thought of as the Hero Refuses the Call.
Discovering and understanding the villain’s object of desire.
This comes much later in the story, after Tailchaser has left Firsthome and is taken prisoner in the Mound of Vastnir. There he finds out that Hearteater enslaves the cats he has captured to dig tunnels beneath the world in order to bring terror to the cats and creatures that live on the surface. This desire is given deeper meaning by the recounting of the legend of the Firstborn at the book’s open.
The hero’s initial strategy against the villain fails.
Following a series of encounters in the wilderness with allies and enemies, Tailchaser decides that he ought to go to Firsthome after all, as he has no idea even where to search for Hushpad. But when he arrives there, he soon realizes that the cats of Firsthome are ill-equipped and unwilling to do anything against the mysterious disappearances. Tailchaser is joined by another companion, the fela (female cat) Roofshadow, whose family was taken by powerful evil creatures with red claws. The three leave Firsthome together to try to find their loved ones.
The All is Lost Moment, when the Hero realizes they must change their approach to salvage some kind of victory.
This happens when Tailchaser fails to rescues Pouncequick and Roofshadow. They are taken back into the Mound while Tailchase manages to eludes the Clawguard. Badly wounded, he seeks shelter and is cared for by squirrels in repayment for his rescue of the squirrel Mistress Whir, during an early scene in Act 2, the Middle Build. He sends word of Vastnir via raven to Prince Fencewalker then steels himself to re-enter the Mound, knowing he will probably die, but choosing to sacrifice himself in the hope of finding his friends.
The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain.
(The central event of the Action Story, what the reader is waiting for. The Hero’s gift is expressed in this moment.)
Even though he’s a wanted cat and known by the star marking on his forehead, when Tailchaser is brought before the bloated form of Hearteater (twice), he’s dismissed as unimportant. These encounters with the evil force behind the story’s conflict do not fulfill the requirements of this obligatory scene. The hero’s gift is truly expressed when he goes back into Vastnir to rescue a companion who has fallen behind. Once Firefoot reveals himself, Tailchaser must fight to the death with Scratchnail, the Clawguard with whom he has tangled before.
The Hero’s Sacrifice is rewarded.
Firefoot gives Tailchaser the knowledge to complete his original quest, whch was outwardly to find Hushpad. Once he finds Hushpad, Tailchaser’s real reward is his acceptance and celebration of who he is at heart, a cat who owes to no allegiance to humans.
Conventions of the Action Genre
Hero, Victim, Villain
Hero-Tailchaser; Victim-at first Hushpad, but through much of the story, Pouncequick assumes that role; Villain-Hearteater, who acts primarily through his minions.
The hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim.
Tailchaser’s object of desire is to find Hushpad and save her from whatever has taken her away. Through much of the story, he assumes a protective role over the kitten Pouncequick and saves him from Heartpad’s minions.
The power divide between the hero and the villain is large; the villain is far more powerful.
The main antagonist is Grizraz Hearteater, one of the Firstborn children of the cat deities Meerclar Allmother and Harar Goldeneye, the moon and the sun. He’s responsible for raising the Mound and ordering the kidnapping of cats. He desires to take over the surface world.
Hearteater is a legendary, if not godlike, creature about whom foundation stories are told among the cats. His power is vast. He has lived for unknowable years and has fed off the lives of thousands of victims.
Speech in Praise of the Villain
Hearteater delivers his own speech in praise of himself during Chapter 28 during the climactic release of the mutated dog-monster.
3. What is the POV?
The book is written in 3rd person limited. Tailchaser is the main POV character, although some scenes are written from his companions’ points of view when Tailchaser is not present.
4. What are the objects of desire?
Tailchaser’s external need is physiological. The object of desire for the global external story is finding Hushpad because she is a potential mate.
His internal need is self-actualization. He’s a young cat, still unsure of himself and his place in the world.
5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?
The controlling idea or theme is: Life is preserved when the protagonist overpowers or outwits his or her antagonist. Tailchaser’s quest to find and rescue Hushpad puts him in conflict with Hearteater. He can never directly defeat the evil Firstborn, but his unique talents and the consequences of choices he’s made based on his moral character throughout the story provide the instrument of Hearteater’s downfall.
6. What is the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, the Ending Payoff?
Tailchaser leads a pleasant life as a young feral cat until his family and a potential love interest mysteriously vanish. He vows to find Hushpad or die trying.
Accompanied by young Pouncequick, aided by surprising allies and hindered by unknown enemies, Tailchaser makes his way to Queendom of cat, Firsthome. There he learns of widespread disappearances but realizes he’ll get no help from the court. He meets a third companion, Roofshadow, and the three of them set out to discover the source of unrest in the lands. They enter the mound of Vastnir to eventually discover and destroy the evils plans of Hearteater.
Hearteater defeated, Tailchaser continues alone on his quest to find Hushpad. When he does, he realizes that life with her is not what he wanted after all. He decides to return to his companions and live a free life without humans.
I enjoyed this story. It’s lighthearted and fun, a classic adventure/quest tale. And Cats! The author does a great job creating feline culture, complete with legends and language that give it depth beyond the basic storyline. It’s suitable for a kids’ read, but complex enough for an adult to appreciate. I’ve always enjoyed stories with sentient animals, and this belongs near the top of that category.
Subsequent readings and analysis do reveal some rough spots, although in my opinion these don’t detract from the overall story or its readability. There are no fatal flaws, and its imperfections are minor. What writer doesn’t look back at their work and see where it can be improved? It’s a challenge all writers face: to declare a work complete, put it out in the world, and move ahead.
I’m looking forward to reading Williams’ later work. He’s an established and respected writer in the fantasy field, and I fully expect that his ensuing novels will reflect his growth as a writer.
George RR Martin says that Game of Thrones was inspired by Williams’ work in the fantasy genre.
“The Dragonbone Chair and the rest of his famous ‘I four-book trilogy [were some] of the things that inspired me to write my own seven-book trilogy,” said Martin in 2011. “Fantasy got a bad rep for being formulaic and ritual. And I read The Dragonbone Chair and said, ‘My God, they can do something with this form, and it’s Tad doing it.’ It’s one of my favourite fantasy series.”From The Guardian, Jan. 17, 2017
As a Story Grid Editor, the first question I ask of any story, in any form, is: Does it work? For Tailchaser’s Song, that answer is a firm yes. It adheres to genre expectations and follows a plot form that pulls the reader through from inciting incident to resolution.
Of course Tad Williams didn’t write this novel with Story Grid in mind; it didn’t even exist at the time. But his story-telling skills certainly reflect the structure and characteristics that Story Grid advocates as elements of a successful story.
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Next up: Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman, with one of the greatest antiheroes of all time.