Knife of Fire

May 5, 2013

We have reached the climax of the second book—and what may be Chup’s greatest moment of glory. I noticed that there is an interesting parallel and contrast between the titles of the last two chapter of The Black Mountains: “Lake of Life” and “Knife of Fire.” However, I can’t say whether Saberhagen did this intentionally or not.

In this chapter, all three of the lords of the Black Mountains—of life, of death, and of evil—are on the field of battle. The reader gets one really good look at Som’s power over death. A missile fired at him reverses course and kills the man who fired it instead. I would actually have liked to see more of Som, but most of the focus is on the Lord of Beasts and the Lord of Demons.

Draffut and Zapranoth must have had a strange relationship prior to the events of this chapter. They hate each other—Zapranoth because he hates everything, Draffut because of his intense, unthinking devotion to helping humans and, more generally, all animals. They must simply have avoided interacting. Draffut seldom left the Lake of Life, and so Zapranoth steered clear of that place. Yet Draffut must, at some level, have understood the paradox of his own nature—that he was aiding the allies of the East’s demons, which he hated more than anything in existence. When he’s offered a chance to give pure service to humankind by wrestling the tormenting Demon Lord, he is ecstatic. So he and Zapranoth battle, and in the end, both of them are gone. The Demon Lord is destroyed, and the Beast Lord flees to where he will not have to witness any more suffering that he is powerless to alleviate.

The reader is left to wonder how Draffut feels about killing Som the Dead. Does the viceroy still count as a human in Draffut’s mind? Or is he merely a monstrosity of sorcery like Zapranoth? After all, he does not even leave a corpse when he goes. It’s notable that Som’s death is much, much briefer than his demonic subordinate’s; by this point in the series, the demons are taking over as the primary antagonists. It’s also one of the clearest examples of a collision between the powers of technology and magic. Moreover, the way Som’s undeath is terminated by the Lake’s waters is reminiscent of the earlier death of Ekuman. There’s no prophecy this time, but Som’s very nature suggests the challenge of finding something that is capable of destroying him, by avoiding the defenses he has against direct attack.

That something is the water from the Lake of Life, which is described even more fully in this chapter than the previous one. In chapter 10, Draffut mentioned that the healing machines had come to life under the influence of the Lake. When the Beast Lord steps out of the mountain, his wet feet bring even the stone he touches into a semi-animate state. In my imagination, that scene is rendered in something like Claymation, with the rock oozing and flowing like protoplasm when Draffut steps on it.

When Draffut grapples with Zapranoth, the Demon Lord has taken on a humanoid form, although it’s not quite clear to me why. I suppose there are things that a demon can do in a corporeal shape that would not be possible as a dark cloud, although I don’t know just what. As a thunderhead, Zapranoth was able to swallow up men and djinn, in much the same way that the demon’s human form evidently gobbles up Draffut. I suppose the humanoid form may have been needed to deal with the more concentrated dangers of Chup and Draffut. Also, the change made explicit Zapranoth’s ability to assume a corporeal shape of the demon’s own choosing.

The most important thing that Zapranoth does while he and the Beast Lord are dueling is cracking the mountain and puncturing the Lake of Life. He evidently does this out of pure malice. There is no tactical reason to destroy the Lake (and some excellent reasons not to). Zapranoth only does it to spite Draffut

Draffut holds Zapranoth back long enough for Chup to reach Lisa. I am actually impressed with Saberhagen’s ability to have this girl “hidden in plain sight.” Even though I’ve read the book numerous times before, the servant girl Lisa never really stood out. She is a minor background character, although the description of her appearance and the fact that she’s serving Tarlenot’s mistress seem like obvious clues in retrospect. I’m not quite sure how Saberhagen manages so effectively to make her ignorable, even when I already know how the story is going to end, and I would be interested in others’ opinions on this point: Is she as easy to overlook for other readers? And why?

To get Zapranoth’s life in his hands, Chup needs to shave all the hair off Lisa’s head. I really like the description of how her facial features change, as if a heavy weight of evil had been lifted off her. Then the former satrap has to burn the locks, while speaking the right kind of incantation. This is the only part of this entire novel where Ardneh has clearly intervened, and he manifests himself through Chup, not his most favored servant Rolf. Before Ardneh comes to his aid, Chup invokes the powers of the West, as Rolf did in the cave of the Elephant. However, he does not call Ardneh by name, and he seems to be unfamiliar with that name when he later utters it (alongside another sobriquet appropriate for Indra). I wonder again whether there are different chants that would have achieved the same purpose. The specific invocation of Ardneh suggests that there may be; after all, what if the aspiring demon slayer were not allied with Ardneh? However (although it hasn’t been revealed at this point), Ardneh does have a very special relationship with demons, and I don’t think there is any other equivalent deity that could be called upon in his place.

I mentioned two weeks ago that the depiction of the way demons have to be destroyed through their soul objects is my favorite element from this series of books. The core of this chapter is Chup’s destruction of Zapranoth, and during this process, the reader sees something that was suggested during Gray’s obliterations of Yiggul and Kion but not made explicit. It is clear that, as long as Chup is engaged in the process of destroying the Demon Lord’s life force, the demon cannot harm him. If he looks away—responds to Zapranoth’s increasingly pathetic attempts to bargain—Chup knows that he will be destroyed, but as long as he keeps feeding the hair into the fire and chanting the words Ardneh puts into his mind, he is safe.

What happens to Zapranoth as he is defeated is very different than what happened to the other major demons slain by Gray. Something I really liked about the first demonic death scenes was the way the mangling of the soul objects was mirrored by the breakups of the demons’ shadowy forms. Yiggul breaks into pieces as the leaves are cut from his plant, then the fragments collapse as the leaves and stems are incinerated. Kion becomes a screaming fireball, which grows smaller and smaller as Gray melts the metal bauble holding his essence. In contrast, Zapranoth undergoes a series of transformations. Some of the shape changes are clearly of the Demon Lord’s own design—in particular, when he takes the form of a human female and tries to seduce his destroyer. However, most of the changes seem to be based on the words of Chup’s incantation: “I fetter him with metal,” causes bands to enwrap the mass of grease and ashes that Zapranoth has become; “I force him to vomit what is in his stomach,” frees Draffut and the monster’s other victims from its craw.

I’m not sure the “Death Chant of Zapranoth” (as I called it) is high-quality poetry, but I have a rather fond memory of it. In my seventh-grade Literature I class, a lot of my male classmates did oral book reports about books by Stephen King. They seemed to be trying to make them as gross as possible. Some of the other kids in class got grossed out, but the teacher was evidently immune to that kind of manipulation. I was not reading Stephen King (or anything else from the horror genre at that point in my life), but I decided that I wanted to do a comparably grim oral presentation. When we had to select and read aloud a poem, I chose the words that Chup uses to destroy the Demon Lord of the Black Mountains. I was a little concerned that the poem might not be quite complete; the reader might actually not get to hear all of it, as the action skips around. However, here is the entirety of what I read to my classmates in January 1990:

You will fall by the flame.
The knife of fire is in your head.
Your ears are cut off.
Opening him with this knife of fire.
Separating flesh, piercing hide.
I give him to the flames.
In the name of Ardneh,
In the name of He-Who-Wields-the-Lightning, Breaker of Citadels,
I fetter Zapranoth.
I fetter him with metal.
I make his members
So that he cannot struggle.
I force him to vomit what is in his stomach.
With the knife of fire I cut off feet and hands,
Shut his mouth and his lips,
Blunted his teeth,
Cut his tongue from his throat.
Thus I took away his speech,
Blinded his eyes,
Stopped his ears,
Cut his heart from its place.
I make him as if he had never been!
His name is not any more.
His children are not.
Nor his kindred.
He existeth not, nor his record.
He existeth not, nor his heir.
His egg cannot grow.
Nor is his seed raised.
It is dead.
And his spirit, and his shadow, and his magic.

Next week, with the opening of Changeling Earth, we finally get to meet the emperor.


5 Responses to “Knife of Fire”

  1. Did they retain the chapter titles in the version you have (i.e. ‘The Knife of Fire’? I don’t have mine with me, but I’m pretty sure those were gone in that printing (I wonder about the most recent release…).

    • Buzz Says:

      The omnibus version I have at the moment is the one with regrettable cover (First Tor Books edition, 2003). It has the chapter titles, and the title for the chapter here is “Knife of Fire.” I’m not certain the titles are all the same as in the original, but many/most of them are, and I haven’t noticed any that were different.

  2. …there are a few questions in this post, but for something I instantly ‘shared’ by me on Facebook…it has remarkably going on in it, other than a systematic SPOILERING of the entire plot of the last chapter. …I don’t know what to say.

  3. PS – Lisa doesn’t draw attention to herself because at the point she’s introduced, the reader doesn’t know the relevant plot points. Now put a damn spoiler alert at the top of this post, please. You’re ruining possibly the best science fantasy novel ever written, and there’s not enough else here to justify tha.

    • Buzz Says:

      It’s certainly not known how vitally important to the plot Lisa is going to be when she first makes an appearance. However, the reader is aware of Rolf’s quest to find her. It may be that Rolf’s quest just doesn’t feel that important, and it’s easy for the reader to have pushed it aside in their mind during Chup’s adventures in the mountains.

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