Som’s Hoard and Be As I Am

April 14, 2013

Chup’s adventures in and under Som’s citadel occupy chapters 5 and 6 or The Black Mountains. Since the story picks up immediately after Chup’s discovery that his rival Tarlenot lives again, Charmian needs to provide some exposition, which is further supplemented by Chup’s conversations with the men of Som’s guard. We learn just a bit about the functioning of the valkyries, which bear wounded and dead men back up the mountain to be healed by Lord Draffut. The guardsmen need to wear the Old World collars if they are to be picked up by the valkyries, but Draffut apparently owes no particular loyalty to Som. Indeed, Som or some predecessor as viceroy first came here to be near to Draffut, who gave out the collars and the valkyries’ succor without regard to East or West. This naturally makes a reader wonder why such apparently altruistic largesse is wasted on the Empire’s forces. In fact, the ability of the guardsmen to regenerate rapidly from injury or death may be a greater advantage in their defense of Som’s citadel than the fortress’s position high atop the cliffs. Even if such regeneration is imperfect (and a few pages later, Chup encounters a pair of men who were apparently not healed as completely as Tarlenot), Draffut’s aid is incredibly valuable to the powers of the East.

Charmian has a plan, which appears to be to pass ownership of the love charm to the High Lord Som. This doesn’t sound like an especially promising strategy—a minor (if nonetheless unaccountably powerful) magical charm versus a man who has command over one of the mightiest demons of the East. Oh course, the charm still works perfectly well on Chup, and it’s a bit creepy the way Charmian, who obviously has no regard whatsoever for her husband, grudgingly permits him to “have his way” with her. It’s actually noticeable that these books always stop a little short of overt sex. Nudity, “having his way,” and even implied rape are there, but nothing quite explicit. (In the third book, there is actually an explicit reason why some of the characters don’t have sex, although even there, I don’t think it’s every discussed explicitly as a prohibition on “sex.”)

Charmian’s plan entails Chup sneaking the charm into Som’s extremely well-guarded treasury. The three types of guardians Chup must face follow a rather traditional fantasy progression. First there are human guards, who can be bribed or fought as needed (and it turns out that both bribery and combat are required in this instance). Then there is an dangerous animal—a giant, poisonous, creepy-crawly thing, like the spider in Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant,” which I pointed out features a similar progression of hazards for would-be thieves to face. Finally, there are the truly eldritch guardians—seven quite minor ones in this case, which are not that challenging to deal with, since Chup knows the passwords. If an evil lord’s abundant hoard weren’t guarded by multiple layerings of minions in this way, that would actually be a subversion of the conventions of the fantasy genre. However, there’s still plenty of freedom, even within the genre conventions, to make things creative. Saberhagen himself actually returns to a similar scenario in The Second Book of Swords—which features a total of seven wards protecting the great treasure of the Blue Temple. That’s an very interesting story—my favorite of the several Swords books that I read—but it has some serious shortcomings as well.

The real standout in this episode from The Black Mountains was, for me, the giant centipede. I don’t like centipedes in real life. Their knobbly bodies and thick jointed legs give me the creeps. It doesn’t help that I know they’re predators, and poisonous in varying degrees. (Millipedes, on the other hand, I generally find rather cute. They are slow moving, smooth, and herbivorous. Once, at a children’s museum, I let a millipede almost two feet long walk down my arm, because my daughter wanted me to.) In fantasy, giant centipedes are conventional if not particularly commonly occurring monsters. Honestly however, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a giant centipede in fiction that I found particularly affecting—except this one. (Giant centipedes are also pretty common monsters in Dungeons & Dragons, and although I know my player characters have faced off against them numerous times, I never found them very compelling in the gaming context either.) I think the issue is that my discomfort with centipedes is a very sensory phenomenon; what bothers me is how they look and how I imagine they would feel against my skin. Chup’s adventure with the captive centipede doesn’t really start to move me until he has to wrestle with the monster, gripping its poison-barbed tail and carrying its long body, covered in countless scritching legs, across his shoulders. The idea of doing that is too viscerally discomfiting to be ignored.

Unlike the centipede, the demons in this chapter are rather minor barriers (at least to one who knows the daily incantations). Asleep (and apparently fully corporeal), they are a lot less threatening than the demon from the first chapter—although the reader is informed that, were they awake, they would be much nastier than the mindless centipede. In effect, Chup’s interaction with the demons is mostly a chance for him to rescue the little furry creature one of them had been tormenting. This serves to remind the reader that Chup is not a sadist, unlike the demons or their master Som. This is the very trait of Chup’s that Som sets out to remedy in the next chapter.

As soon as he disposes of the the hair charm, passing its ownership to Som, Chup is freed from the enchantment that had bound him to Charmian. It’s interesting to contrast his earlier befuddled behavior, from when he was completely dominated by the lust for his wife, with his newfound clarity. Saberhagen follows Chup’s thought processes as the former satrap tries to get an accurate assessment of what he’s gotten himself entangled in. There is a rapid a string of realizations, as Chup’s renewed rationality rapidly raises and addresses all the unsavory questions that ought to have occurred to him earlier—culminating in the revelations that Charmian has sent him to the vault to die and that the disfigured guards are to be accomplices in his murder. What follows is his impressive job grappling with the arthropod.

After Chup’s escape, he finally gets to meet Som. Charmian has met him before, but not for a personal audience. Som evidently has the same kind of sadistic streak as Ekuman, and he hits the former princess in one of the few areas where she is truly vulnerable, threatening to take away her youthful appearance.

By the time Chup gets back to the villa (after dropping in on Charmian’s audience), it’s swarming with Som’s secret police. With black uniforms and skull insignia, they are obviously supposed to be reminiscent of the organs of Nazi Germany—the black-garbed Geheime Staatspolizei and the Schutzstaffel, with their totenkopf emblem. Unlike the Third Reich however, the police state governed by Som and his emperor appears to have a substantial number of female operatives, including in supervisory positions. Along with the most murderous aspects of their ideology, the Nazis also favored ultraconservative social policies, and there were essentially no women at all in their hierarchy. Som’s secret police are more egalitarian, apparently—like the Cheka.

Chup intervenes to save Charmian’s mistreated servants from a full grilling by the viceroy’s security apparatus. The secret police appear only briefly in this story, but they seem rather businesslike to me. In contrast, it soon turns out that Som’s sadism is actually a job requirement. In order to win Som’s lasting favor, Chup needs to do something “small and mean,” as he puts it. While this might come naturally to a man like Ekuman, it is rather contrary to Chup’s nature. He’s the kind of warrior who wants to look an enemy in the face and engage them in a fair fight. I noticed that the Chamberlain seems quite taken aback by Chup’s behavior when the two of them are poking around the demon pit—first because Chup doesn’t realize that he is being prepared for his pledging ceremony, and then when Chup wants to confirm his orders with Lord Som. To be honest though, it seems pretty foolish of Chup for him to question the viceroy’s orders in a matter of this magnitude, and Som’s forgiving response to Chup’s insolence was rather surprising.

Chup’s visit to Som’s personal chamber, below the main audience hall, is an excellent bit of horror writing. Previously, during Charmian’s audience, the narration included whiffs of his gangrenous smell and mention of the fact that, when viewed from the corner of the eye, the viceroy appears to be a bare skeleton. (Saberhagen does adroitly give a concrete reason why Charmian is looking at him from a steep angle; she is demurely lowering her eyes as she bows before the lord.) These are nice effects, but rather conventional ones. On the other hand, the strange candle that casts darkness instead of light, set at the focus of a polygonal arc of mirrors, is much more original. (The odd light and the cold of the room, in spite of the torches, reminds me atmospherically of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure more than anything else. The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun was one of a couple early adventures that were designed with particular horror elements.) I also realized that in an odd way, the dark candle really does illuminate Som’s face, for it shows him as he truly is—not human. This encounter would make a wonderful scene in a film adaptation of these books.

Offered the command of the citadel’s thousand collared guardsmen, Chup accepts his assignment. We’ll see how his pledging ceremony works out next week—although first we must spend some time back with the forces of the West in chapter 7 (which includes perhaps my favorite encounter of the whole three-book epic).


7 Responses to “Som’s Hoard and Be As I Am”

  1. I strongly agree, re: the cinematic potential of this book, especially that of certain scenes with Som, as well as Zapranoth and Draffut–this is a brief novel which could be brought to the screen in full measure, the whole, tightly and originally plotted book rendered in beautfully.

    IN my last fan letter a few years ago to Saberhagen, I asked how far any of his books had gotten in film development, and he told me that a few of them (I believe he may have mentioned some of his earlier stuff like ‘Berserker,’ or at least the Johann Carsson saga therefrom ) had been optioned, which, hay, is at least free money, but that things had never progressed beyond that. In my mind this is a minor tragedy–fantasy and audiences have lost ought for years on not seeing Chup’s and Charmian’s bones turn to jelly as they shut their eyes against the black-armored demon warrior stomping out of his underground citadel, paying them no more attention than bugs…or his dark, cloudy presence on the battle field a few minutes later, driving two armies mad by his presence–not to mention the fully black-armored giant doing battle with the virtuous beastlord at the books’ climax…if these things aren’t cinematic, then I’m sure I don’t know what is. And, yes, Som could be done to amazing effect with a talented director–hiding in the shadows and gradually growing more skeletal the less he appears in light, and the grimmer his orders become, save, when, Lo, he shift in his seat, and was very man-like once again! Som, Zapranoth, Chup, Draffut, Strike off my head–this book is filled with fantasy and science-fantasy gold–it’s epic, innovative, visually fantasti and imaginative, and tightly plotted–and here is where we’re finally starting to get to the best parts, I think.

    I agree with you that the centipede scene is well done, though I think you give slightly short shrift to the inner ward in Som’s sanctum, and the character development (of both Chup and demons [who, as you noted, are a bit new to first time reader] ) we get when Chup removes the wounded rodent from the torturing blade of a frozen demon.

    Looking forward to more of Chup, Rolf, Grey, Charmian’s schemes and the turns they take, as well as the three lords of the mountains: death (Som), life (Draffut), and Zapranoth (evil incarnate).

    **For what it’s worth, to address a thought expressed in an easier post, I do think it’s a flaw that starting in this second book, Saberhagen tends to lose track of his characters when they no longer have an immediate use. One could argue this is realistic, but it’s unsatisfying to those of us who read for story. My girflriend wrote him a letter asking about this (specifically in reference to ‘Empire of the East’) around 2007 or 2008, and he responded that he was a young writer, back then, and hadn’t learned to neatly wrap up a story as effectively as he made sure to do now–which seemed to me tacit acknowledgment that he agreed her criticim had been a problem to some extent; he certainly maintains greater continuity of character in his last books.

    PS – if one were to do a screenplay for ‘The Black Mountains,’ assuming it to be a standalone piece (I view its chances of success and its importance in being filmed as being both substantially greater than in its predecessor, simply because ‘The Broken Lands’ is not nearly so impressive a story–and after several decades of ‘Mad Max’ style apocalypes crap, it’s rather less original-feeling, too. Can ‘The Black Mountains’ be effectively told from the beginning, with only a few flashbacks to fill in the gaps?

    • Buzz Says:

      I agree with you that this book has elements that would make a very good film (although I have never been as enamored as you with the descriptions of Zapranoth and his various forms). However, there are also some significant problems from Hollywood’s perspective. I largely believe that these could be overcome, but in the hidebound atmosphere of the movie biz, I can’t see any Empire of the East films getting into serious development.

      Structurally, I think it’s a big problem that the best book is the second one. This leaves the producers with several options. They can omit the first book entirely; they can try to fit the first two books into a single film; or they can commit to a trilogy without any direct evidence that the first film will be a success. The third one is, in my opinion, the best option by far. However, it’s hard to get a trilogy green-lit from the get-go, unless the filmmakers have been hugely successful in the past and/or they are adapting extremely popular source material that comes with a preexisting fan base.

      Neither of the other options is likely to work that well. There’s too much of the story in The Black Mountains that depends crucially for its emotional resonance on what happened in The Broken Lands. Chup and Charmian would not work as well if they were just introduced into the story without adequate introduction. Chup has a long character arc, and Charmian’s is even longer, and I don’t believe that Chup’s actions in The Black Mountains would mean much if the viewer hadn’t already gotten to know him as a relatable villain. His opening scene as a cripple (which is crucial, because it’s one of his bookending encounters with the Lake of Life) wouldn’t matter much if he hadn’t proven himself as a mighty warrior previously. The love charm that drives several chapters of plot would also come completely out of left field without a long look at Elslood’s character from earlier in the trilogy. Rolf is probably more doable as a character without his full introduction—at least for the purposes of The Black Mountains. However, if you want to make a film of Changeling Earth, the character of Rolf the arch-technologist is going to be hard to justify without his first adventure included on the screen.

      Actually, The Black Mountains could almost stand on its own, if it were very heavily modified. There’s very little of Ardneh in it (so some metaphysics could be avoided), and the film could begin with the fall of Ekuman’s castle and Chup’s maiming—no mention of The Elephant necessarily required, although some other aspects of the story (like the love charm) would need to be worked in. However, there is still a very big difficulty. In the first two novels of the trilogy, the reader is expected to accept what is obviously a far-future post-apocalyptic world, where magic works and so do some advanced technological relics. From what I’ve seen of Hollywood, nobody is going to make a film with a setting like this and no explanation of how the world got to be so weird. The critics would jump all over movie with an unexplained setting like that, and they would be right that a lot of viewers probably would be confused. Unfortunately, this is going to be a problem pretty much however you choose to make the films, since there’s no information (beyond the barest intimations, like Draffut’s words about the last great war) about how the world was changed until halfway through the last volume. I suppose that they could show the change at the beginning of each film, but it would have to be carefully done. If too much is given away about the circumstances of the change, it could ruin a lot of the excitement of the last film (which should not be called Ardneh’s World, by the way).

  2. From my observation, Hollywood cares very little about what makes sense, and even less if that genre is, or includes, ‘fantasy,’ which most producers appear to believe is a word roughly equivalent to ‘nonsense.’ So, no, I don’t see any reason why a post-apocalyptic world with some medieval elements would be in any way off limits. ….Of course, I did spend some time on that set a few months ago that mixed the biblical story of Noah with stone giants who were fallen angels, and armies bearing corrugated steel shields and weapons leftover from the previous, hi-tech age…but I guess that was totally different. Flying lizards are not the same as angels, after all, and biblical mixed with post-apocalyptic is less of a stretch than medieval mixed with post-apocalyp…hmmmm…..

    …The issue with ‘Changeling Earth’ being difficult to film without the first part of the story is also unlikely to be a problem. If ‘The Black Mountains’ can be shot and distributed successfully, then there will be plenty of time and money to make both the relevant prequel and the sequel, thus solving any such problem. That said, in your post above I rather think you have have struck on one of the best ways to do the middle book first: start with the excitement of the battle at Ekuman’s castle from ‘The Broken Lands,’ and introduce the characters, even of Chup and his slap of Charmian and his high-handed, but more or less honorable attitude toward life, before skipping ahead to the ‘Tall, Broken Man’ section of The Black Mountains. Anything else necessary can be filled in with flashbacks. It sounds pretty promising, structurally, as an avenue of approach. If I had to choose, right now, how to start this trilogy, commercially, I’d go with this

    • Diapadion Says:

      Hmm, yes, using small parts of the Broken Lands as a starting point for the Black Mountains seems like it has a great deal of potential. Makes a lot of sense to me.

      On the note of “magical post-apocalypse cinema” being shat on by the critics, well, the critics who invariably hate fantasy are liable to hate the film the Black Mountains would be, regardless of whether the magical setting is explained. Also, come on, (Ralph Bakshi’s) Wizards!!

      • ‘Wizards’! Yes–that’s true, it was a very similar magical post-apoc premise! And, yeah, I guess there’s no effort whatsoever to explain that…which in that one I actually think is a weakness…I think with a live-action film there will be higher standards, but some of the explanation is evident in the world as we see it in the Saberhagen books, and if it’s necessary, I believe ‘legends’ of the old world can be added to hint to the viewer what’s going on. No big deal. But, yeah, ‘Wizards’…

        I actually think this format would work for doing ‘The Black Mountains’–as Brett points out, the only thing we’re missing is an explanation of the charm, but I say we add a scenes with the dying Elslood, and Rolf taking it from him despite its emotional hold on him…that’d be a good start to giving us a hold on that part of the story.

        If I get time, maybe I’ll try this script next…I’ve always wanted to make these films…so cinematic

      • Buzz Says:

        Wizards has a certain charm to it, but it’s not that great a film. It has a cult following, but it’s not so well-liked by most critics. The randomness of the post-apocalyptic setting is one of the interrelated problems that they tend to cite.

        I also think Bakshi should have kept the original title, “War Wizards,” which was supposedly changed to avoid confusion with Star Wars, which was being bankrolled by the same people at the same time (and also featured Mark Hamill).

    • Buzz Says:

      I also realized that without the more extended introduction of Ardneh from the first book, the ending of the The Black Mountains (and the way Chup receives the words to the knife of fire) can’t really work they way it does in the book. There are some ways around this, I suppose, but none of them seems ideal. One could put more of Ardneh’s introduction into the earlier parts of The Black Mountains film, but then Rolf’s development as Ardneh’s perfect human ally gets short-changed. Maybe a better possibility would be to omit the incantations from the demon-slayings entirely.

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