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.


6 Responses to “I Am Ardneh”

  1. Nice dissection of the chapter, as usual.

    I thought it was quite bizarre that a screaming harem girl would be such a disruption to the proceedings, and/or cast Ekuman’s household in a poor light. If I’m a visiting satrap, and a concubine starts shrieking during a gladiatorial match, I’d be sneering at the silly bitch, not at my host. (Until my host went off to have a Very Serious Meeting to discuss the screaming girl, in which case I’d be sneering at him for taking it so seriously.)

  2. I agree with Ocelot–a true minor evil governor ought to be able to put aside a concubine acting up without much trouble, and a few smiles exchanged with other warlords or captains.

    I agree that the thing with Zarf’s familiar-homunculus transformation is…just weird. Another uneven bit in this first of the trilogy.

    “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”

    One of the things Saberhagen sometimes stinted on in his early books was description. In his later work, he kept the pace usefully brisk, but gave one a better sense of place and space. Just something some you can’t take for granted in a writer, evidently. Overall, this scene, other than the dramatic entry of Ardneh–about which ambiguity you seem to be quite correct, and which works for the novel–I think this section is representative of the unnevenness of this part of the trilogy, and the difficulty there would be in making it the opening chapter of an otherwise highly effective film trilogy (again, provided only enough money to do the third film–and that might not even be so much; CG is ever cheaper, and Orcus is, I think, the primary obstacle)

    • Buzz Says:

      I think the scene in the Presence Chamber would be much easier to render on film thin in writing. There’s a dearth of description of what’s going on (something that I think Saberhagen continued to have intermittent problems with throughout his career), but the scene could be told fairly simply in a visual medium. As Rolf tries to escape the smoke, we see the satrap emerge from the black billows; he takes down the fire extinguisher and blankets the room in foam.

  3. Just to clarify, I view the trouble over Sarah, the concubine, as a bit strange because Ekuman and his type have been deliberately developed as callous, evil patriarchal rulers, in machiavellan terms, interested in being feared and seen as canny, but not worrying much about being loved, in fact or in perception.

    • Buzz Says:

      The issue for Ekuman is that there is a conspiracy at his court that he does not understand. Even if it is harmless to him personally in this case, it indicates incomplete control over his henchmen and so makes him look weak in front of the other satraps.

      What doesn’t make sense to me is that Sarah’s wailing should really be revealing in any way. She’s a slave girl, probably present against her will, who could very well know one of the gladiators (who are known to be from a local levy). So why should her screeching signal something untoward?

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