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!

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