The Black Mountains starts with a demon, which completely dominates the first scene. Chup, broken in body but still strong in mind, kowtows miserably before it. It forces its loathsome appearance into Chup’s mind, for no reason, it seems, except to demonstrate its power. The demon could destroy Chup with barely an effort, and it would punish his mockery harshly—even at the risk of angering the even darker masters who sent it on its errand. It is simply evil incarnate.

The opening of the book is extremely well written. However, it is a little disappointing that Saberhagen reuses the macropsia effect. Reading the volumes back to back, the repetition is quite noticeable. It is consistent as a description of the sensory effects of a magic-laden environment. However, the imagery is less evocative the second time around.

This scene, with the first appearance of a true demon, marks a change in the character of the books. From this point onward, the demons of the East will dominate the story more and more. While there will be a couple more of Loford’s scene-stealing elementals, it’s the demons (along with the Old World technology) that will drive the plot. This volume will focus more on the question of how to fight demons, while Changeling Earth addresses their nature and significance in the cosmogony of this far future fantasy world.

I wonder whether Saberhagen had this shift in mind when he was writing The Broken Lands. It seems a little odd that an element of this world that will turn out to be so fundamental should be entirely absent from the first third of the trilogy. On the other hand, the absence does give the story a sense of verisimilitude that carefully honed narratives often lack. In the real world, important happenings are not always foreshadowed well in advance. I have praised Saberhagen before for defying narrative conventions and dropping characters from the story once they were no longer relevant to the main thrust of the plot. What I’m talking about here is the same thing, done in reverse. Demons do not appear in the story at all, until their role in the plot becomes crucial.

After the demon leaves, the action shifts to this book’s other main character, the hero Rolf. Rolf is still looking for his adopted sister, and he receives his first substantive clue as to her whereabouts in a vision that is facilitated by Loford’s brother—the even mightier wizard who goes by the pseudonym “Gray.” This is the first time in the trilogy that it’s mentioned explicitly that a wizard needs to be careful about using his real name. (This notion was hinted at in the first book, however. It’s not clear whether “Zarf” and “Elslood” were personal names or aliases. Loford appears to go by “The Big One” professionally, and the leader of the Free Folk was simply called “The Old One”; Ekuman’s wizards never managed to pry out his real name, and if the Free Folk leaders knew it, it was never revealed.) The notion of magic users needing to safeguard their true names is a pretty common fantasy trope. In Earthsea, knowing the true name of a foe is the one sure way to master an enemy wizard, or devil, or dragon; only a wizard’s most trusted confidants could ever know his true name. In Andre Norton’s Witch World, nobody could ever be permitted to know the names of the witches. (I admit, however, I’m not sure what consequences this has for the story. It turns out that you may never actually have the stomach to finish the book you started reading on the morning you went in for minor surgery.)

The most memorable part of the vision that Gray shows Rolf is the depiction of the six kidnappers’ present conditions. The black riders reappear, mounted as they were at the time of the raid on Rolf’s farmstead, but the are now shown, each according to his current status. For most of them, that means dead—and in varying degrees of decomposition. The skeletal riders, some still impaled by the weapons that slew them, make for a powerful image. The image also feels very natural as an element of a prophetic dream; it is eerie and dwells on the dirty boundary between the living and unliving worlds, just as dreams and visions appear to wander along similar astral boundaries. The leader of the six—Tarlenot, we later learn his name is—is still alive, and the odd message about him: “He will be slain, and he will live,” can hardly be anything except foreshadowing of preternatural events to come.

Tarlenot’s name seems to be an allusion to the British officer Banstre Tarleton, whom I hadn’t known anything about during my previous readings of The Black Mountains. Tarleton was known for his cruelty and brutality during the American Revolution, until his humiliating pounding at the Battle of the Cowpens. Tarleton was also a vocal supporter of the slave trade, but that may have had mostly to do with the economic interests of his hometown of Liverpool. Whether Saberhagen was aware of this specific aspect of Tarleton’s character is unknown. However, it seems pretty unlikely, given the author’s known habit of making allusions to historical military figures, that the similarity in names between Tarleton and Tarlenot could be a coincidence. I may have more to say about this connection as the book proceeds.

While the first chapter is very impressive, the second is less thrilling. Rolf seems rather foolish and gullible, taking the former satrap into the desert—just the two of them. Even if he could not have anticipated how Chup’s legs had been healed, Rolf might have been more wary of a ruse. On the other hand, Rolf only consulted Chup because an eldritch power instructed him to. Gray identified that power as a wielder of lightning, and Rolf may have recognized that meant Ardneh—his personal deity, whose avatar he had already been. Perhaps the whole escape was a part of Ardneh’s grand plan. Ardneh is a far-seeing protective entity; its sense organs may be as numerous and widely spaced as the radar stations for a North American missile defense shield. Whatever its true capabilities, Ardneh can certainly see ends that are hidden from ordinary humans.

Once the characters do get out into the waste, the reader learns some interesting things. These include the precise identity of Tarlenot and the details of Chup’s last odd encounter with the him. While Rolf might think little of Chup’s story, it’s hard for the reader to dismiss the tale he tells; it is too obviously foreshadowing of events to come. Moreover, having seen the demon in the first chapter—which can clearly take a humanoid shape when it wants to materialize fully—we are naturally left wondering about the great dark figure from Chup’s dream. Was it really a dream, or was Chup awake to witness the coming of some powerful spirit? More likely, it was probably somewhere in between—the visitation real, but strictly on another plane accessible only during sleep.

We also learn that Chup’s time as a paralyzed beggar has evidently done much to humanize him. While Chup was never as vile a character as Ekuman (or probably the other satraps), his attitude toward life seems to have progressed quite a bit since the end of The Broken Lands. He still has his lust for power, but he chooses not to kill Rolf, even though doing so would probably make his escape easier. Part of the reason Chup spares Rolf seems to be that he respects him—for Rolf is the young man who rode the Elephant; but Chup would never have refrained from killing—much less decided to conceal and protect—a dangerous foe before.

The next two chapters will continue Chup’s story, and Rolf’s. We will take them up next week.

Places of Power

March 27, 2013

An idea that comes up in a lot of fantasy writing is that some places are imbued with tremendous magical power. I really like the idea of certain places being filled with supernatural energies. This might be for some intrinsic reason; perhaps the location is close to a nexus of magical currents and the surging energies swell out of their ley conduits to fill the air with… something. Or the place may have been inhabited by generations of spirits or magi; now the greatest of the inhabitants may be long departed, but a residue of their wonder-working remains.

I think the first kind of place appeals to me more, and on a deeper level. I prefer to think of great magic as something profound and ineffable, not to be tied to any particular works. However, this expectation actually makes this kind of magical setting rather hard to portray effectively. When authors write about the magic that suffuses a place, it usually seems to be disconnected from the place itself. I mean, I envision the magical effects as simply residing there; they are artifacts or enchantments, located in a particular space, rather than the space itself being magical.

So there aren’t a lot of fantastic places like this whose descriptions really speak to me. The most effective example I can remember of a place of this type appears in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Illearth War. Generally, Donaldson is not very effective at making his mystical places seem mystical unto themselves. The cavern at the Heart of Thunder and the thronehall of Foul’s Creche are supposed to be a-pulse with eldritch energies, but they really just seem to be places where great powers happen to have chosen to take up residence. However, in The Illearth War, several of the characters encounter Damelon’s Door—a narrow opening between a stalactite and the wall of a cave. The right magic is required to pass through; if it is not invoked, then the caverns beyond will become an strange and maddening maze. Intruders may wander forever through among the underground lakes and columned grottoes beyond, without ever reaching their goal. This seemed to me like magic that was really of the place (rather than in it). But this may have worked mostly because the characters do possess the correct formula to enter, so the reader never actually sees what the passages beyond would be like to an uninvited interloper.

For some reason, when it comes to magical places, I tend to feel like my imagination could conjure up so much more than most stories actually deliver. For example, I was rather disappointed by the Chambers of Fire (Sammath Naur) in The Return of the King. There’s just a door (which is always being watched by the lidless eye from the heights of the Dark Tower) and, beyond that, The Cracks of Doom. Based on my early exposure to adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, I had expected that Frodo and Samwise would need to climb all the way to the crater of Mount Doom and descend through the cone into the bowels of the volcano. Moreover, from the illustrations I’d seen, I thought that Barad-dûr was actually located inside the mountain, under the overhang of the upper slopes, so that the ring-bearers would need to sneak past the citadel of the dark lord before finding their way to a maze of lava tunnels, twisting and dividing, which would eventually lead to the heat of the burning Crack. That would have been a truly amazing mountain.

I suppose my inclination to expect (and want) a descent directly from the crater was influence by Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, which I read at a very young age. The hot, smoking craters of high volcanoes have had an eerie appeal to me ever since I followed Axel, Otto, and Hans down into the pipes of that Icelandic mountain. In fact, I used a volcanic crater as the location of a secret entrance in my own writing—although with what I hope was an original twist.

I was similarly disappointed by the Castle Called Mist in Fritz Leiber’s “Adept’s Gambit.” (This was one of the very first stories Leiber wrote about the fantasy alter egos that he and his friend Harry Fischer had created, so it takes places in a fantasy version of the Hellenistic Near East. Leiber, when he was very young, was becoming involved in H. P. Lovecraft’s circle of writer friends, and there are also some unusual Lovecraftian touches to the story. A bit of Googling reveals that there may actually be an even older, longer manuscript of the story with yet more explicit references to the Cthulhu mythos. I’m not certain whether this would be an improvement, but I would certainly be interested to read it.) The castle is supposed to be partially alive and constructed with portals to other dimensions, some quite inhospitable. Unfortunately, while the story is one of Leiber’s best, in my opinion, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser don’t really stick around the place long enough to see much of the interesting magic at work. They take care of their critical business and get on their way. Certainly, that’s a logical thing for them to do, under such perilous circumstances, but I feel like Leiber could have made them spend a little more time up among the mists before they finished all the bad guys off.

On the whole, I think descriptions of magical places of the second type—places that are magical themselves because they have been the sites of many past enchantments—usually work more effectively. The thing is, this kind of magical place seems less majestic—tawdry almost. The magic in the air is just the dross from the creation of earlier wonders. So when I decided to write about such a magical place, I decided to embrace this vision of decadence, and I came up with this:

“The princes and emperors pored over many ancient tomes from their conquered lands. From these books, they learned powerful magics. They forged pacts with elder elementals and summoned cacodemons to do their bidding. The very air about the hidden palace—in the emperors’ laboratories and alchemical storehouses—became infused with magic. Vapors from subtle potions wafted along the hallways. Spilled reagents—substances of great potency—imbued the flagstones themselves with weak enchantments. Even the light became a source of eldritch power. One ancient emperor, a most clever artificer, fashioned an amazing lamp, which burned in his inner sanctum. He caught a tiny demon—an immortal fiend with dull red skin and pink, membranous wings. The emperor eviscerated the devil and bound it to his lamp with enchanted iron bands clamped tightly around the creature’s liver. The bands squeezed an inflammable oil from the organ. The demon writhed in agony as dark, viscous drops fell from the gaping wound in its breast, pooling within a glass hemisphere in which floated a tattered wick. By the eerie light of this demon oil lamp, the masters of Shaz prepared their most potent sorceries.”

I should also say the demon oil lamp owes a specific debt to “that evil, four-horned lamp which he feeds with cobras’ oil” from “The Master of Crabs.” Anyway, I hope you like it.

The Morning Twilight

March 24, 2013

This is the last post about The Broken Lands. The castle gates swing wide. Charmian escapes with the Prisoner’s Stone, and Ekuman also gets out of the fortress, then tries one last time to make himself master of the Elephant.

The chapter opens with the satrap’s surviving wizard. Elslood has time to read the writing on the Prisoner’s Stone before its magic blows the portals of the keep open. The message written on the gray egg-shaped rock is stylistically reminiscent of Ardneh’s threat from the beginning of the book (which was really Indra’s oath, giving all the ways that he would be unable to hurt his enemy). So just as there was an echo of Ardneh’s power when the Thunderstone was used against Ekuman’s fastness, there is another here, when the second stone from the Oasis is also used to pierce the keep.

Although Elslood ends the book as a most pathetic failure—his scheming and his magic both coming to nothing—he does manage to create one more enduring problem for the Free Folk. He gets Charmian out of the castle. First the reader gets another glimpse of her pathetic wickedness (which seems only to be greater in degree than that of the other satraps’ wives and female relations); then she flees in terror, taking a powerful magical artifact with her and leaving Elslood to face her father alone.

If readers had been wondering since chapter 1 why the wizards were so afraid of Ekuman, now they get to find out. It was clear from the beginning of the story that a powerful wizard could kill an ordinary man without too much difficulty; the Old One used telekinesis to bury a knife in a torturer’s throat. Yet Zarf and Elslood were quite terrified of their satrap, because he had been given special powers by the lords of the East in the Black Mountains—Zapranoth and Som the Dead. This is a relatively satisfying explanation for what made Ekuman such a terrible master, but it leaves me wondering how the mundane satrap had been granted the enchantment he uses to punish Elslood for treachery. However, the workings of magic in Saberhagen’s books are rarely explained sufficiently for the reader to do more than puzzle at occurrences such as this.

The croaking and bounding thing that Elslood becomes, tiny and web-footed, is rather reminiscent of Zarf’s toad-like familiar. I’m not certain how definite this association is supposed to seem. Certainly, the thing that was once Elslood is more than a mere amphibian; it remembers that it was once a man, even if its brain and mind are so shrunken that it can no longer recall what is was like to be a man—what it was like to walk upright, to speak, and even to weave magic. However, there are also some fairly significant differences between Zarf’s toad and Elslood’s ultimate form. The familiar is gleefully sadistic, whereas Elslood’s new shape is one of punishment—made all the more poignant by Elslood’s lingering memories of human existence. Zarf’s toad also changes back into something else when it dies, but that reversion leaves it looking even more vile and unnatural than the thing was in life.

Once Elslood is dispensed with, the focus of the action shifts to the last remaining major antagonist—Ekuman himself. The satrap, who avoided serious injury during the lightning strike and has kept himself safe in the upper reaches of the castle since then, recognizes that if he could capture the Elephant, he still might emerge from the bloody battle as a victor. He has preparations for many contingencies. These included the charm he used against Elslood, and they also include the secret escape route that he uses to reach the driverless tank.

Rolf, the beast’s previous master, rushes after the satrap, trying to put another piece of Old World technology to use. Rolf’s natural familiarity with advanced devices shows through again. The final action sequence, with Rolf holding onto the gun barrels atop the nuclear tank and spraying fire extinguisher foam around the turret, while Ekuman tries to shake him off, is pretty exciting. It feels like the kind of worthy one-on-one encounter that would form the climax of a Mission: Impossible-style action film

If you remember the threat Ardneh made in the opening chapter, the form of Ekuman’s death may be no surprise. Ekuman, like the demon Namuci, is smothered with foam at sunrise. Of course, the sea foam of Vedic legend is much less dangerous stuff than the material from the fire extinguisher in the castle. Saberhagen sets up the mode of the satrap’s death quite well; many of the previous facts about the ancient technology lead into what happens. The reader knows that the Elephant has an excellent system for maintaining air circulation, continually drawing in fresh air to breathe. It has also been revealed that the oxygen masks inside the passenger compartment are unusable. Rolf has marveled several times at the ring of cameras located around the rim of the Elephant’s turret, and he’s seen a fire extinguisher in action, producing something that might be thick enough to block the tank’s eyesight. So he has a natural reason to retrieve the device and start spraying the Elephant with it. Fortunately, the foam lasts long enough for him to figure out how he can use the material—neither wet nor dry, bow nor blade nor fist—to lethal effect.

After that, things are pretty much over. None of the books in this series has much winding down action after the climax. In this case, the end of the battle is barely even described. We’re left with two pages of the Free Folk’s exhausted celebration and then their return to work. The Elephant, its rider long since suffocated, sputters and dies after spending the morning submerged in the river. To me, it always feels like a tremendous waste for them to leave the tank there. This was a military engine of incredible power, which the Free Folk could have put to effective use again, if they could only drag it up out of the water. Of course, the absence of other industrial machines is what makes the Elephant such a remarkably powerful artifact, and it is this same absence that makes the vehicle impossible to retrieve.

Next week, we will be reading the first two chapters of The Black Mountains, which may be the best of the three books in this trilogy. There were a number of sequel hooks involving Charmian—her escape with the Stone of Freedom and Rolf’s acquisition of her enchanted hair—in the last chapter of The Broken Lands. They seem a bit awkwardly inserted into the story, actually (especially the bit with Rolf and the yellow locks), but they will help Saberhagen pick up the narrative again in the second volume with a minimum of interruption.

Second in Command

March 20, 2013

What is it like to be a dark lord’s right-hand villain? Two powerful evil entities working together is not a terribly stable arrangement. If one villain dominates over the other, the lesser will probably be resentful and covetous of supreme power.

In some fiction, the conflict between evil master and evil minion is never really addressed. It may simply not come up in the course of the events that are being related to the audience. And it is not inconceivable that some villains may simply be content with a secure position as number two. However, most of them are presumably biding their time; knowing the weakness of their positions, they are waiting for precisely the right moment to strike.

The relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor in Star Wars is especially interesting, I think. (My discussion here will focus only on the original trilogy; I think the subsequent movies and other media do not meet the same standard, and their treatments of Vader’s character are particularly poor.) In terms of skill with the force, it’s not clear what difference there is between the two Sith (although they clearly have technical or stylistic differences; Vader and the Emperor can both kill at a distance, but they do it in different ways—just as Luke and Vader block blaster shots differently, and Luke and Obi-wan deal differently with guards when they are sneaking into an enemy stronghold). Certainly, the Emperor has constructed a better conventional power base, and he is firmly in control—most of the time. When Darth Vader reveals his true identity to Luke in the bowels of Cloud City, Vader wants them to band together to destroy the Emperor and then rule together. After Luke escapes, Vader is left in an awkward position; it’s difficult to believe that the wily Emperor did not infer what kind of offer Vader had made to his son. For most of The Return of the Jedi, this knowledge is there in the background of the Emperor-Vader relationship; each man probably fully understands what the other knows. The conflict finally emerges in the final lightsaber duel. The Emperor would probably prefer that only one of the Skywalkers survive, so they cannot collude against him. The knowledge of this keeps Vader fighting with all his strength, and when Luke bests his father, the Emperor makes the subtext explicit: “Now, fulfill your destiny, and take your father’s place at my side!”

In some cases, the discrepancy in power between the dark lord and his chief minion is vast enough that the servant has almost no chance of unseating the master. Consider Sauron and his lieutenant, the Lord of the Nazgul. The Lord of Minas Morgul was once a human sorcerer, who was given a ring of power by Sauron. Sauron himself is a semi-divine being who fashioned the One Ring, which is incomparably mightier than any of the Rings of Men. While, at the time of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is no longer in possession of his own ring, the power disparity between the two villains is still vast. The Nazgul wouldn’t stand a chance if they revolted directly against the dark lord. And the only way the heroes have to cut Sauron down to size is to unmake the One Ring itself; if the Nazgul rose up and attempted this, it would be the end of their own power as well.

Stability can be achieved in other ways as well. If a fictional dark lord’s abilities are curtailed in some significant way, they may rely on their second in command for a wide variety of duties. While Douglas Hill‘s Last Legionary young adult novels are hardly high-concept epic literature, they do produce an excellent science fiction version of the dark lord archetype. (For comparison, the Emperor in Star Wars is really just a prototypical fantasy wizard, in spite of the outer space setting.) The title character in Galactic Warlord remains unseen for the first three books, but agents of increasing power do appear, including the Warlord’s chief henchman, The One. The One is a frightening science fiction character—thoroughly vicious and megalomaniacal. However, he lacks the astonishing mental abilities of the bio-computer-enabled gestalt being that he ultimately serves. Yet because the Warlord cannot easily move from his fortified citadel, all high-level operations and negotiations are run through The One, and so the latter seems to be content in his position. Indeed, it would be easy for The One to kill the Warlord physically, but he does not. Doing that would not win him an empire; it would all collapse, because the mind of the Warlord is tied into the everyday workings of the whole system that it rules.

Another way of avoiding excessive fighting among the villains is if the dark lord’s minions do not really have free will. This can work in fantasy if the minions are alchemical creations of bound spirits. In science fiction, they may be robots. This is the approach taken in After World’s End by Jack Williamson (which also features one of the most strikingly original aliens I’ve ever come across). The evil mastermind who threatens the galaxy is the super-intelligent robot Malgarth, who is served by innumerable lesser machines. Malgarth is smart enough, however, not to give his creations the free will that he enjoys. This prevents them from ever rebelling, but they immediately switch sides once their master is destroyed.

However, sometimes conflict is unavoidable. Some minions are bound to revolt, and sometimes even a much weaker underling can overthrow a lord of evil. In such a scenario, the original dark lord frequently ends up chained in some special magical or technological dungeon. It might not be possible to kill the dark lord outright, or the new ruler might be holding onto their predecessor’s power as an ultimate weapon. Frequently (for reasons that probably have more to do with drama than logic), the caged lord will eventually break free—either slaying the usurper, or giving the good guys two separate enemies to face. (Either way, it’s bad news.)

Intramural conflict among a story’s villains can be a very effective device. It adds verisimilitude to what may be otherwise unrealistic-feeling settings, and in traditional, hero-centered fiction, seeing villains at each other’s throats can help to enhance the sense of solidarity with the heroic characters that a work engenders.

To Ride the Elephant

March 17, 2013

We have reaches the penultimate chapter of The Broken Lands, and the climactic battle is underway. A lot happens here, and there isn’t really much of a break between this chapter and the final one; Saberhagen could easily have merged them into a single long section.

The chapter starts in the castle, and the first happening of note is Rolf’s escape. Strijeef drops him the Stone of Freedom, which opens the way for him out of the castle. At first, the Stone seems to work through a succession of plausible coincidences. One guard can’t get a grip; another leaves an exit door ajar. The writing here is pretty effective, although what follows is a bit less so. Everyone—Rolf, his pursuers, the author Saberhagen, and the reader—quickly accept as a given that the Stone’s enchantment will allow Rolf to effect whatever mode of escape he attempts. Saberhagen later tries to chart a middle path with his description of Rolf’s bouncing leap from the top of a springy cask—navigating between uncomprehending description of the situation’s oddities and plain statements about the Stone’s effectiveness. The whole passage works, but the frankness of description of the magic involved is perhaps less than ideal.

Once outside the walls, Rolf navigates back to the cave of his Elephant. To Rolf, since he first mounted it, the beast is always “Elephant,” not “the Elephant.” The anarthrous form is a more intimate way of addressing an animal. It implies a relationship, like that Rolf may have had with the draft animals on the family farm. It’s not the affectionate connection between human and pet (I only address my house pets as “cat” or “dog” when I’m annoyed with them), but it might be appropriate for an Indo-Aryan lord and his war elephant.

Rolf reaches the cave of the Elephant, with the bird’s help, and mounts his tank a second time. Having figured out the Prisoner’s Stone’s powers, he knows that the huge metal doors will swing wide when his mount reaches them. This makes me wonder whether the Stone would have been able to get the Elephant out of its pen even if Ekuman’s troops hadn’t cleared the most of the debris away from the portals.

Finally now, we get to some breaking of citadels. In the early parts of this book, much of the discussion of Ekuman’s castle focused on the mighty walls. The fortress itself was old—dating to some period between the present day and Rolf’s time in the far, far future. However, it had been abandoned, and the curtain walls were in disrepair. Enslaving the people and forcing them to build new defensive walls is a traditional activity for literary tyrants—dating all the way back to the earliest surviving narrative literature, Book 1 of He Who Looked Into the Abyss, where the king in question was Gilgamesh. Ekuman hews to this same policy, and the metaphorical weight of the walls upon his subjects is emphasized repeatedly. Perhaps the most poignant example is when the reader learns that Rolf’s father was incapacitated by a falling block while toiling on the wall construction.

The Elephant proves to be much mightier than the stone walls. New or old compared to the Empire, they cannot withstand the forces of the true Old World.

The elephant is a fairly natural symbol in this context, for two separate reasons. First, elephants are the largest, strongest animals living on land. They are clear emblems of power and have a history of use in warfare. Second, elephants are quite strange. Their bodies have not just one or two unusual features, but several. The trunk, tusks, and ears are all startling, and it is the queerness of these and other body parts that makes the story of the blind men and the elephant work. (The most famous version of this story is the poem by John Godfrey Saxe. It is a fixture of English-language literature. However, when it appeared in my ninth-grade English textbook, the last stanza was excised, so the poem was missing its moral—a condemnation of religious dogmatism.) The strangeness of Saberhagen’s tank Elephant is not so much greater than that of the real beast for which it was named—at least from the perspective of someone like Rolf or Chup, who has never seen either kind of entity before.

(Tolkien made use of oliphaunts for both of these reasons as well—although with debatable success. What was impressive to Sam Gamgee—who is essentially a pre-industrial English rustic—was not going to be so amazing to readers when Tolkien was writing in the 1940s, and the war elephants of Harad are probably even less impressive to current fans. Peter Jackson evidently recognized this, although his solution of making the beasts taller and much tuskier was not so much of an improvement.)

Unfortunately, the Elephant in The Broken Lands is effectively soundproof (and the Free Folk obviously have no radio transmitter). So the Elephant follows Rolf’s (or more likely Ardneh’s) intuitive decisions. I like Thomas’s observation that, “he who can’t take orders must be the leader, if he fights.” An Elephant that could be deployed around the battlefield in good order would make the army behind it undefeatable. The Elephant does provide the Free Folk a decisive military advantage, but, like a raging beast fed on mulberries, it cannot be controlled. This is a manifestation of a recurring theme throughout this trilogy. The keys to the Free Folk’s military victories are often the actions of individuals—Rolf the arch-technologist, or others—acting outside Thomas’s command structure.

Rolf makes relatively short work of the castle gatehouse, leaving the bailey open to the Free Folk’s army. However, in the process of knocking out one of the towers, Rolf unbalances the Elephant and leaves it covered with debris. The tank has to remain stationary, long enough for Satrap Chup—apparently the only one of the Pacific Northwest satraps who was inclined to come out and find personally—to climb up and pop the hatch open. Chup is as eager to become lord of the Elephant as Ekuman, but he seems to have less understanding of how Old World technology differs from magic than Ekuman does. Chup doesn’t recognize that anyone can drive the Elephant; they just need to know how.

Rolf is finally facing Chup again, but he’s grown in the hours since he took part in the rigged duel. He isn’t going to leap for Chup’s throat in a futile attempt at revenge. Instead, he escapes. The Stone of Freedom drops Rolf through some kind of auxiliary hatch, away from Chup’s threatening blade. Then there’s another slightly silly scene where the Stone’s magic helps him evade the Empire soldiers for a while. Eventually Rolf figures out what the Free Folk’s next tactical step needs to be—using the Stone’s enchantment one final time, to break open the inner gates of the keep.

The final outcome will be decided next week!


March 13, 2013

My recent discussion of the wizard Zarf’s familiar—and its queer transformation upon death—got me thinking more generally about the role of the homunculus in fantasy fiction.

I tend to think of a homunculus as a miniature human figure, possibly distorted, of one of two varieties. There are representative homunculi, which use the humanoid form to display something about human anatomy, physiology, or psychology. The most famous is the sensory homunculus, in which the size of each body part is determined by the volume of neurons allotted to it in the somatosensory cortex of the human cerebrum. The other type of homunculus is much more relevant for fantasy literature; it is a miniature living humanoid. This might mean the tiny human carried in the preformationist vision of a spermatozoan. Or it could be a humanoid familiar, travelling alongside or spying for a wizard.

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word does not appear to have been updated since the 1899 edition, and it only gives the definition: “A little or diminutive man; a mannikin.” (I would probably only use “mannikin” to denote a small but undistorted human form, but that may be a private distinction in meaning that I’ve acquired.) However, the first two citations (from the seventeenth century) are both indicative of a manufactured creature (e.g. “Parcelsus’s Artificial Homuncle”).

Magical homunculi are frequently created alchemically. I know nothing about the context of this Magic: the Gathering card, except that the homunculus involved is an “artifact creature” and hence the work of a magician, not a natural being. In fact, I’m not actually sure how much history the idea of the constructed homunculus (as a wizard’s familiar, as opposed to an experiment like Victor Frankenstein’s—an attempt to create new life) has in folklore and older fantasy literature. The outline of a homunculus recipe was given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. It called for a special combination of fluids, including a pint of the master’s blood, followed by several spells. The D&D homunculus first appeared in 1975, and I suspect that it must have been strongly influenced by the creature from 1973’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (my personal favorite Ray Harryhausen movie, and certainly the one with the best sound effects). The evil wizard Prince Koura creates and uses a little flying imp, with appearance and abilities very similar to those of the D&D creature. The awakening of the homunculus is one of Tom Baker‘s best scenes in the movie, evoking real sympathy from the audience for his vile diabolist character. And when it is defeated, Koura’s spy reverts back to non-living material.

Other homunculus familiars in fantasy are less explicitly manufactured. The origin of Zarf’s “toad” is unknown, as are the origins of many other humanoid familiars accompanying dark sorcerers. It may be that I only tend to think of things that are unnatural nonesuches or were made in the laboratory as “homunculi.” But really there is no clean distinction between a wizard’s wizened servitor homunculus and a hobgoblin slave. To me, the defining trait of the evil homunculus is its mockery, in miniature, of the human form; it is something that perhaps could have been human but was condemned to stunted slavery instead.

I Am Ardneh

March 10, 2013

The action really picks up this week. The end of this chapter marks the beginning of the lengthy action sequence that occupies the whole rest of The Broken Lands. Rolf heads into the gladiatorial arena, where he quickly dispatches an inferior enemy in a fixed bout. Ekuman recognizes that something untoward is going on when Sarah begins wailing in anguish over the gravely injured Nils, so he summons all involved (including, he astutely concludes, his daughter) to be interrogated. However, the interrogation is interrupted by Ardneh, and so the final battle begins.

There’s something about the book’s presentation of the gladiatorial subplot that confuses me. I’m not sure how Saberhagen was expecting his readers to react to Rolf’s misapprehension that he will be facing the Satrap Chup in the arena. Rolf and Chup first met at the end of a sequence that was written from Chup’s point of view, so the reader had the benefit of having been privy to the satrap’s thoughts for a couple of pages. Rolf obviously does not know what Chup is thinking about as the visiting satrap comes down to the dungeons, but even so, it seems awfully stupid of him to think that Chup is offering a personal rematch. Is the reader supposed to think that such a bout is a real possibility? Or is this supposed to be pure dramatic irony, with the reader cringing every time Rolf’s inner monologue turns to the rematch?

However, even if no reader is expecting Chup himself to drop down into the gladiatorial arena, there are still some mysteries regarding what’s happening in the ring. The first time I read this, I found the events of the actual fight rather bewildering. Why, for example, was the opponent dressed in Chup’s colors? Only in retrospect was it obvious that somebody was manipulating Rolf’s belief that he would be fighting Chup—something Rolf conveniently revealed to the soldier training him in their very first encounter. I had not connected Elslood’s scheming with Princess Charmian to this oddity, nor did I even really remember the character of Nils, who had never actually appeared prior to his ill-fated duel.

Before, we have only heard about Charmian’s viciousness, but here it is on full display. Delight in blood sports is a traditional signifier of evil in literature, and fixing of gladiatorial combat is surely much worse than watching. When done only to spite another woman who has drawn unwanted male glances, it shows such a impressive depth of self-centered depravity. It also shows that Charmian’s evil is pathetically small minded. Her father, whose wickedness is already very clear, does not seem to have any especial interest in the gladiators’ fighting. He, unlike his daughter, is interested mostly in power; he can suppress his hatreds and petty jealousies to make long-term plans and to obey those more powerful than himself. He immediately recognizes his daughter’s hand in the machinations, which shows two things: first, that he is quite intelligent (which is to be expected from one in his position); and second, that Charmian must have a long history of causing these kinds of problems (in fact, the text says as much).

The text gives Ekuman’s first thought as he looks down at his daughter, amidst this disturbance: “So.” This is naturally reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s use of the same one-word sentence to begin his translation of Beowulf. I actually think that serves better here, in The Broken Lands. Of course, that is in part because it is very challenging to tease out what the mood of terse Anglo-Saxon verse is supposed to be. There appears to be scholarly disagreement about exactly what the opening, “Hwaet!” (cognate to “what”) is supposed to connote.

So. When Ekuman calls everyone involved up to interrogate them, magic begins to flow thickly. Elslood, arriving late to the conference, uses spellcraft to attempt to cover up his and Charmian’s involvement in the scheme. The wizard sets the frightened old soldier who trained Rolf to fits, and he plants a terrifying image of his staring eyes in Rolf’s mind, trying to freeze the hero’s tongue with fright. Had that not worked, he might have worked the same enchantment on Rolf as on the old soldier, but other magics intervene, and he never gets a chance. The Thunderstone arrives and with it a storm. Zarf takes the magical artifact to investigate it, and then, amidst all the swirling mystical essences, Rolf is completely possessed by Ardneh. Rolf names his god, and then the fortress is smote with the lightning that “rends fortifications as the rushing passage of time consumes cheap cloth,” as the Old One put it.

One thing that Saberhagen does well, in both The Broken Lands and The Black Mountains, is to leave the reader wondering a bit what occurrences are really coincidental and what are influenced by the guiding hand of Ardneh. Is all this supposed to have happened by chance? Perhaps Rolf’s possession by Ardneh was really made possible by the confluence of powerful magics in the Presence Chamber. Or was the mysterious Ardneh behind it all? The latter seems to be implied, since Rolf’s pronouncement serves no purpose in the story, except to inform Ekuman that it is the power of Ardneh who has assaulted the fortress. (Tolkien similarly stated that any happy coincidences in The Lord of the Rings could be taken as examples of beneficent divine intervention, although this is never alluded to in the text. The closest it comes is probably when Elrond points out how fortuitous it is that so many potential allies have all arrived in Rivendell around the same time.)

Zarf dies hideously in the lightning blast, and his familiar reverts to its true form—a bearded homunculus, apparently. Unnatural babe-like things are commonplace familiars for evil wizards. Kasreyn of the Gyre had one, which kept him alive beyond his natural span of years. Of course, toads are also commonplace animal companions for warlocks and witches—standard enough that they were included, along with owls and cats, as suitable pets at Hogwarts. It’s been clear since chapter 1 that Zarf’s toad is no ordinary amphibian, but I had envisioned it a sort of enhanced animal, not an evil goblin morphed into animal shape. The creature’s transformation after death was surprising and rather creepy.

The arrival of the lightning is rather confusing, which I imagine is suppose to display Rolf’s sense of disorientation. He has, after all, just emerged from a gladiatorial match, been enchanted, and channeled a god-like entity. However, I think this ends up detracting a bit from the scene. As Rolf is crawling around on the floor, I try to get a feel for how much fire and smoke and rubble there are supposed to be in the Presence Chamber; but I really can’t get a clear idea. So when Ekuman, uninjured, begins spraying the open flames with the fire extinguisher foam, I don’t think this has the effect it’s supposed to. If there’s really so much fire that the whole room needs to be buried in fire suppressant, and so much smoke that Rolf sees fit to stay crawling on the floor, how does Rolf get a perfectly clear view of the satrap cooling putting out the conflagration?

The presence of lingering bit of ball lightning makes the whole scene even more confusing. The first time I read this book, the only other time I’d even heard of ball lightning was in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and I had thought that Verne’s magnetized white fireball was a pure fantasy—like the notion of the Earth having a non-molten interior. In fact, so little is known about the actual nature of ball lightning that Verne’s descriptions are probably about as good as anything that could be produced by a hard science fiction writer today. In real life, the phenomenon is extremely rare; it’s one of those things I would like to see before I die, but which I probably will not get to. I have witnessed laboratory experiments (based on the tiny corner of the physics and meteorology literature that has tried to grapple with the problem of electrical fireballs) that attempted to replicate ball lightning. These kinds of experiments have never really been successful. It’s possible to create an brilliant while ball of ionized air, with a resemblance to natural ball lightning. However, these are really just unusually diffuse sparks between electrodes. They lack the key feature that makes real ball lightning so amazing—autonomous movement. Saberhagen’s residual fireball zips up the chimney to escape the Presence Chamber. Accounts of real fireballs describe even stranger things—following along chains and bouncing off clouds. The laboratory-created versions disperse as soon as they lift off from the spark gaps that created them.

After all this passes, the Presence Chamber is left full of smoke and rubble and thick chemical foam. A winged messenger announces that the battle for the Elephant has begun, and two more chapters will pass before the fighting is resolved.