Rolf and The Free Folk

February 3, 2013

The second and third chapters of The Broken Lands bring in the trilogy’s main character and his faction. Rolf’s first scenes are rather conventional. The call to adventure slaps him around hard; almost everything he cares about is wiped out by the villains, yet one thing—his younger sister—appears to survive the episode, giving him something to search and fight for.

The action moves to the Free Folk camps for exposition, which is functional but not especially memorable. The one episode in the swamp that I did find extremely effective was the flight from the soldiers—and, in particular, Loford’s magic. The spell that identifies the direction of the attackers’ approach—slopping up water until it drips to the side, pointing out the way—was simple yet totally unexpected. It’s very earthy magic, with the wizard literally getting his hands down into the muck time after time. (I may actually have been subconsciously remembering this scene when I wrote about another magician squeezing hot ashes through his knarled fingers as part of a crude divination.) It’s not clear whether what comes next—the summoning of a swamp elemental—is an outgrowth of the divination spell or entirely independent. I personally like the idea of it being the former, as if Loford needed to get in tune with the marshy terrain with a weaker spell first, before he could summon up the sloughing mass of angry mud that drives the soldiers back.

In The Broken Lands, the elementals are the more prominent mystical creatures. In later volumes, the focus shifts to demons, a number of which are central to the plot arc. However, the elementals tend to be one-offs, since they are tied to their terrain (and I love the idea for elementals for all sorts of different terrain types; sadly, the books never feature a seafaring journey that might feature a coral reef elemental) and short-lived. In fact, it’s not really clear whether the elementals are created by wizards or are preexisting beings that are summoned up and forced into corporeal form. However, they are not pliant beasts that can simply be commanded; they are not fashioned tools but forces of nature that can harm anyone in their vicinity. I like this, thematically, but Saberhagen could probably have done ever more with it; the scene with the swamp elemental might have worked even better if Loford hadn’t had so straightforward a time dismissing the thing.

In chapters 2 and 3, the reader is also introduced the winged allies/minions of both sides in the conflict. We meet the flying reptiles first, as marauders—symbols of what the empire Ekuman represents has done to the countryside. (At this point in the story, I do always find myself wondering what the previous system of governance in The Broken Lands had been, before the arrival of Ekuman’s army.) The reptiles are evil, but their evil is primitive, animalistic—not part of any organized campaign, but an atavism.

(I wish I could use the word “atavism” as effectively as William Gibson did in Neuromancer, describing the Tessier-Ashpool family-corporation.)

I have found that I don’t really have a fixed image in my imagination of how the leather-wing reptiles should appear. Sometimes I envision something like a pterodactyl; sometimes it’s more like a bearded dragon with sheets of skin stretched between its legs. On the other hand, according the regrettable cover of the omnibus edition I’m reading from, the Free Folk’s avian allies are some kind of giant owls. Honestly, I just can’t see this. Yes, they have large eyes, they hoot, and they sleep during the day. However, the idea of a giant owl just doesn’t jibe with Saberhagen’s description of the way they sleep, heads tucked under wings. Of course, owls have always been popular icons of goodness and wisdom in fantasy, and I’m sure Harry Potter has only made them more appealing to the younger fans that awful cover was obviously designed to attract.

I noticed that the human villains of chapter 2 provide a sort of counterpoint to what we saw in chapter 1. The evil of the titular empire is on display again, but in a very different way. The story opened with satrap and his elite wizards. (An appearance by a lesser torturer is described only in hindsight, focusing on his rapid supernaturally-mediated death.) In chapter 2, the number of villains on the scene is unchanged, and they form a similar hierarchy—with a commander and two coequal subordinates. Their villainy is not so different; Ekuman’s pettiness was explicitly on display in his initial appearance. Whether the three soldiers that Rolf and Mewick meet on the road are the same ones who killed Rolf’s parents (and apparently raped his mother) feels oddly irrelevant to what subsequently happens. Although it’s explicitly pointed out that the youngest of the black-garbed soldiers could very well have a teenage sister back home in the East, it’s pretty hard to feel any sympathy for him or any of his companions.

The soldiers go down in a very abrupt blaze of violence, and Mewick turns out to be pretty impressive with a hatchet (a skill which will no doubt serve him well over the course of this volume). The contrast between Mewick as he is first depicted—a naive-seeming pedlar, afraid that they should been seen carrying even a technically legal weapon—and the axe-swinging killing machine he shortly proves himself to be, is quite striking. The suddenness of the combat makes this contrast particular effective. I don’t usually like sharp, unannounced bursts of violence in novels; however, this episode works pretty well, probably because the passage focused my attention less on the details of the fighting and much more on the revelation that Mewick is not at all what he seems.

In fact, when I first read The Broken Lands, I remember being rather disappointed that Mewick wasn’t going to be the primary hero. Rolf has a certain appealing simplicity, and he makes a pretty relatable protagonist. However, he’s not a very flashy hero. Within the story, I think this is supposed to be one of the things that works to his advantage. The evil powers that control the empire never do realize that what Rolf is doing is often far more important than any troop movements or demonic sendings. We will have to see how effectively this works over the course of the books.

Take it, Wilhelm:


6 Responses to “Rolf and The Free Folk”

  1. I actually got the impression that Loford had a much harder time dealing with the mud elemental than Rolf seems to interpret — in other words, it may have looked easy to dismiss from Rolf’s very unworldly perspective, but there was probably a great deal more to it than that. Consider how strongly Loford was urging them to get the boat moving…

    I’m still finding Saberhagen’s writing style to be fairly heavy-handed, despite instances such as that. That’s a personal problem, though.

    • Buzz Says:

      I did get the impression that Loford needed to make a real effort to dismiss the elemental. However, he was, in the end, completely successful. I just thought it might have been more dramatic if a last muddy appendage had managed a final slap at the canoe’s stern before collapsing back to become just another wave disturbing the fetid water. Or perhaps what happened serves as an illustration of Loford’s great skill—summoning up enough strength the drive back the attackers, but no more. I am reminded of the famous admonition from Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: “[D]oe not call up Any that you can not put downe” (depicted visually here).

      The creative dogma that reigned at my high school called for writing in a style of “show, not tell.” While there is merit to the idea that the reader should be able to put together what is happening from descriptions of scenery and events, this is not the only way to write. I think my own writing is generally done along the suggested lines; when I want to insert a summative statement about what is going on, I feel most comfortable making it part of the internal dialogue of a character. Yet many better writers than I have no qualms about simply informing the reader about the nature and importance of key events. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing was certainly like this, much of the time; if something was supposed to be symbolic, he might come straight out and state as much in the text (and yet still my American Literature teacher could sometimes miss the reference).

      Saberhagen uses a mixture of description and forthright statements about what is happening. When he’s discussing magic (or advanced alien technology), sometimes he provides intricately crafted descriptions of what the characters see. Other times, he simple states what the results are, with minimal description of the actual phenomena. The magical interrogation at the beginning of the book was accorded very little detail (and as I pointed out, a more detailed passage about what was not part of the interrogation was redacted from the omnibus edition). The effectiveness of the evil wizard’s spells is simply laid before the reader. There is no description of their effects on the Old One, only the subsidiary effects on the senses of Ekuman sitting nearby. Yet as I noted, this pretty effective. Direct explication can leave a reader to envision the scene for themself. Other times, the technique may be less effective. In Berserker Fury, Saberhagen tries to explain the Midway battle tactics rather than letting them play out before the reader. I think he recognized that this didn’t make for a very compelling final battle, and that may be why he spread out the fighting asynchronously over a large portion of the book (although that probably only made the book worse).

      • Damn–so many points already covered. Yes, Rolf’s teenaged hero is a bit like Taran of Caer Dalben in his palimpsest-ness,only less so, and yes, The Big One (the magician) does indeed seem to struggle a bit to put back down the swamp elemental, but this scene , had it included more ‘showing’ of the danger and uncontrollability of that creature (whatever it is), it would indeed have been stronger.

        I don’t find Saberhagen’s prose crude, but I find the real gold in his books are the content, not the style (though his prose does become somewhat more fluid over time, I think, as his storytelling in general becomes more polished in some respects–though some might accuse it of, during the same period, losing its originality, so there is that.).

        The scene with Mewick oddly reminds me of the opening action scene in David Eddings’ sincere but slightly more lowbrow ‘Belgariad,’ in which we’re suddenly shown what a more brutal world the protagonists must deal with when, in a tone-shift from a very slow initial volume (which included some violence in a climactic viking siege battle, but was otherwise rather clean), a group of folk: viking, diplomat/acrobat/thief/, blacksmith, etc, are suddenly whipping out knives and gratuitously spilling the steaming guts of Murgo (this is the name of an ethnic foe in that series) ambushers all over some highway in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps it’s indulgent of me to mention this scene, but there are some parallels to the development of the young hero’s surrounding protagonists, there, in their sudden and highly effective use of quick brutality to solve a problem brought upon them, concerning which there’s really no other way out… (as I recall, Mewick’s hand/hatchet is similarly forced by Rolf’s imprudence).

        Regarding the owls, there is some minimal support for their use in the later Books of Swords, in which the ‘good guys’ explicitly use large owls as their aerial cavalry; however, I’ve always felt it’s clear these are distinct from the birds of The Broken Lands. The owls of the worlds later books cannot talk, for one thing, or at least nothing like to the same extent as the feathered folk.

        • Buzz Says:

          I agree that Saberhagen’s writing style does not usually sparkle, but that his creativity (at least in the earlier part of his career) was really remarkable. The most memorable elements from his writing are almost always directly related to the happenings being described (like Loford’s divination). Unfortunately as the author’s ideas got less original, there ceased to be any really positively memorable elements. (The most memorable thing about his novel Berserker Kill was that a huge mystery was introduced in the prologue of the 490-some page volume; then no progress toward figuring out what’s really going on is made between the first five pages and the last seven.)

          I don’t recall any owls in the first three Books of Swords (nor in the tidbits I read from the later Swords novels). I think I would recall them if they’d been there. Was this another example of his repurposing his older ideas to fill out new books?

          It’s funny that you should mention Eddings and the slowness with which the action builds his his initial five-book epic. I was contemplating the other day how an author with only one modestly successful novel managed to get a contract to write a pentology. This seems particularly odd, because I’ve heard from multiple readers (not having done more than peruse a few pages of his books myself) that there really doesn’t seem to be enough material in the first series to fill five whole volumes. I’ve heard the pacing described as “plodding,” especially at the beginning—until (I suppose) the ambush that you mention, or until they have to “drag the grolem’s steaming body out of the cesspool” as somebody put it. (Contrast this with the flash of violence already at the end of chapter 2 in The Broken Lands, which marks a key turning point in the tone of Rolf’s story.) I would have expected that an author who’s pitching a five-volume epic would need to have a pretty clear outline of what was supposed to happen—and why five whole books were needed—before they could get a project like that approved.

  2. Diapadion Says:

    Not just at your high school, but everywhere is the “show not tell” dogma spouted. In rather the same way that writers are told to avoid adverbs; I believe that once you “understand what you want to accomplish” then you also will know when and how to use adverbs, spit out exposition, etc.

    Also, I too really enjoyed Mewick from the outset. I don’t recall much of how I felt about Rolf in the beginning, except that he wasn’t much of a character and more of a simulacrum for the reader being thrown into the midst of a conflict that s/he has nothing to do with.

    • Buzz Says:

      I found myself thinking that Rolf is a actually a lot like Taran of Caer Dalben. Rolf is certainly described more fully. He’s not the blank slate that Taran is, but then, few heroes are. Yet he seems vague enough (with personality traits so far that seem to be mostly stereotypes of teen-aged-ness) for the reader to project some of their own personality onto him.

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