In 1990 I won the approval of the Graduate School of Stephen F. Austin State University to research the works of Jack Vance in an effort to augment the paucity of material concerning this author and his fine prose. I was elated to give a re-reading and analysis to my favorite writer's works. Much of this study is devoted to a defense of fantasy as a valid literary genre. To narrow my topic, I focus upon Vance's use of magic as a literary device, adding vibrancy and wonder to his proven abilities in narration, dialogue and world construction.
I would like to thank Dr. Leonard Cheever for his scholarly advice and patience, and would ask the reading public to take up Jack Vance and enjoy.
The 1956 publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was the most significant causative factor in a revolution of interest in fantasy literature by the reading public. Ballantine Books' widely distributed paperback edition spawned a Middle-earth craze that swept college campuses. The decades following the appearance of Tolkien's influential work witnessed a flurry of critical volumes in the fantasy field, the effect of which was to grant it recognition as a distinct literary genre. Critics were thus modifying their attitudes and approaches to a body of work which, as Kathryn Hume explains in Literature and Mimesis, traditionally had been dismissed as "subliterature" (3). This caustic categorization clearly implied that fantasy was not a worthy subdivision of literature but an unimportant and insignificant second cousin to realistic fiction. However, this imputed inferiority has not deterred the American reading public--a readership who, according to David Hartwell in "Dollars and Dragons," created a market for fantasy "that accounts for nearly 10 percent of all fiction sales in the United States" (1). Clearly, fantasy is a medium that readers are happy to accommodate with a brisk market.
Realism, as a literary mode, is a rather recent concept in fiction, given life primarily by the English novelists of the 18th Century. The existing literature of fantasy, however, extends back considerably further--perhaps to the clay tablets from which "Gilgamesh" was translated. Elements of fantasy literature are found in the works of some of Western civilization's most important and influential writers--Homer, Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Robert Scholes, in his influential book Structural Fabulation, defends the imaginative flights of fancy found in science fiction and fantasy by attacking the time-worn fallacy that literature must be realistic or, in Aristotelian terms, mimetic. Scholes condemns the so-called realism of the popular bestsellers. Of this literature and its audience he states:
it pays a high price for its readership, and they pay a price for their pleasure, for they are led to believe in a "reality" which is irrelevant to our actual situations in many respects. And precisely because they believe in this reality, they are dangerously uninformed as citizens and human beings who must face real problems. (22)
Tzvetan Todorov, a French structuralist critic, offers a unique but ultimately unsatisfactory method of defining fantasy in his treatise, The Fantastic. Todorov limits his analysis of fantasy to a sampling of Nineteenth Century works and bases his theories on the readers' reactions to these texts. Certainly The Turn of the Screw and The Portrait of Dorian Gray fit Todorov's definition, but the reader of fantasy knows that the genre denotes and includes more than these examples suggest. Fantastic literature, in Todorov's view, is comprised of those works which cause the reader to "hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described" (33). Theorists Michael Collins, Eric Rabkin and Kathryn Hume all suggest that this definition, based on the reader's "hesitation," is much too narrow. After all, no such hesitation occurs when marvels are encountered in Lord of the Rings because Tolkien instills in his work a believability which most readers accept. Robert Scholes in, "Boiling Roses: Thoughts on Science Fantasy," states that Todorov is unintentionally misguiding his readers and that his thoughts focus more on the "uncanny" than the fantastic (9).
Todorov's views do serve an unintentional purpose in fantasy criticism; his definition is cited by Scholes, Rabkin, and Hume as an explanation of what fantasy is not. If Todorov's thoughts can be regarded as too "exclusive," Rabkin's views, in the same light, can be viewed as too "inclusive." In The Fantastic in Literature, Rabkin includes detective stories, ghost stories and pornography in his consideration of fantasy. Although Rabkin implies that these subgenres do contain fantastic elements, they do not fit within the traditional parameters of fantasy literature.
Tolkien's 1939 article "On Fairy Stories" focuses upon the traditional elements commonly associated with fantasy literature--ogres and elves, castles, magicians and, of course, fairies--all the stuff dreams are made of. He states that the realm of "Faerie" (his general term for the fantasy world) is one of "imagined wonder" (18). Tolkien's article seems, however, more a defense of fantasy as an art form than a formal attempt to define it.
C.M. Manlove in Modern Fantasy offers one of the clearest definitions of fantasy. "Fantasy," he states, "is a fiction evoking wonder, containing a substantial and irreducible element of the supernatural with which the mortal characters of the story and the readers become on at least partly familiar terms" (1). Kathryn Hume's definition, offered in Fantasy and Mimesis, is also very concise. She states, simply enough, that "Fantasy is any departure from consensus reality" (21).
Although critics differ in their definitions of fantasy, they generally agree that the fantastic is not the realm of ordinary affairs; it is a "Secondary World." The fantasy writer is, in effect, a world creator. He must establish a consistent framework in which his story operates--fantastic yet believable. This subcreation must be complete, with its own laws to which the author must adhere strictly.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous advice to readers suggests that a "suspension of disbelief" is necessary for a full appreciation of literature. Tolkien, however, shifts responsibility to the writer, holding him accountable for the creation of "literary belief" ("On Faerie Stories" 36). Tolkien emphasizes that a fantasist's primary responsibility lies in creating a plausible background for his works:
What really happens is that the storymaker provides a successful sub-creation. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, he relates what is "true": it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the abortive Secondary World from outside. (36-37)
The magical events found in fantasy works must be explainable, and, within the framework of the Secondary World, plausible.
As Diana Waggoner relates in The Hills of Faraway, the fantasist is also responsible for a convincing storyline.
A Fairy Godmother cannot merely appear: she must be established, accounted for, and given a motivation, for she is not a prop, but a character. She cannot just pop out of the woodwork when the protagonist is in difficulties. (24)
Waggoner's comments imply the need for a well developed universe in which the established laws are strictly adhered to while, at the same time, the author avoids stretching the limits of his audience's credibility.
Edmund Little adapts Tolkien's thoughts to introduce, in The Fantasts, the concept of a "Tertiary World" (10). This subrealm, with a reality apart from the author's previously established Secondary World, is the true Wonderland. The "Narnia" stories of C.S. Lewis offer an example of the creation of such a Tertiary World. Magic, in limited scope, exists in the Earthly world of Peter and Lucy, thus making it a Secondary World. But when Lucy stumbles through a magic wardrobe and enters the enchanted land of Narnia, she has entered a Tertiary World, with a new set of rules controlling that reality.
Before geographic boundaries became finite, "Fantasts" (Edward Little's preferred term for fantasy writers) could situate their works in remote corners of the world. H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasized about the dark, African interior, following the examples of More and Swift who created strange and fantastic lands in which Hythloday and Gulliver roam. Verisimilitude now discourages the use of such exotic Earthly locales, but fantasts commonly employ another setting for their Secondary Worlds--past or future times. Readers are, perhaps, more easily convinced that magic and supernatural events were capable of existing in the past or will exist in the future. In both temporal settings, fantasts commonly situate their works in archaic, medieval backgrounds, replete with the standard equipment of fantasy--castles and swords, dragons and magicians. Critics Timmerman, Rabkin, and Tolkien define two major divisions of fantasy, High and Low. Low fantasies are fabulated in a Primary World setting, where magical events rarely occur. Examples of the Low Fantasy style include Graham's The Wind in the Willows and Adams' Watership Down. Although these works involve animals which can speak and reason, they rarely contain magical situations or supernatural events. The High Fantasy style, however, is typified by the presence of such situations and events. Also, High Fantasies typically include supernatural creatures such as elves, dragons, witches and hobbits. Tolkien's "Trilogy," E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, and the fantasies of Jack Vance are examples of the High Fantasy style whose readers, according to Hartwell's article in the New York Times Book Review, have rendered this genre "healthy and growing in America" (41).
Fantasy serves the same basic purpose as any literary genre: it functions to entertain and to educate, albeit through a more imaginative medium. Thematic principles such as bravery, compassion, justice, and mercy are conveyed through the words and worlds of fantasy literature. Eric Rabkin comments upon the importance of the storytelling function in The Fantastic in Literature. He explains that the cruelty in fairy tales indeed can be beneficial to children because "they can see danger handled safely and symbolically and thus, their own fears can be mastered" (57). Yet fantasy need not be, in the words of David Hartwell, "either frivolous or inherently juvenile" (1). In Worlds Within, Sheila Egoff states that another valuable purpose of fantasy "is to cast new light on some aspect of reality so that these perceptions of reality can be adapted to everyday situations" (240).
Many fantasy writers base their works on an allegorical struggle between Good and Evil. Certainly this is the case with Tolkien, a writer who carefully avoided the didactic excesses of his colleague C. S. Lewis. Many fantasts do model their works on Tolkien's successful trilogy, producing what may be loosely considered "clones" of his epic style and theme. In fact, David Hartwell suggests that the fantasy publishing houses eagerly seek out authors writing trilogies (42).
Fantasy literature receives its harshest criticism from those readers and critics who hastily dismiss it as "escapist." All creative literature, however, allows an "escape" from the daily world into fictive realms. Tolkien addresses (in "On Fairy Stories") those critics who would exclude fantasy from the literary canon on the basis of this escapism:
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? (55-56)
Kathryn Hume, in Fantasy and Mimesis, suggests that escapist literature meets opposition from critical circles because it "needs no explication and provides no opportunity for sophisticated analysis" (59). She also suggests that "escapism" has received short shrift as a form of literature because it implies, "to believers in the work ethic . . . an evasion of obligation" (59).
The reputation of fantasy literature also has suffered from its close association with science fiction pulp magazines, despite the efforts of talented and influential men such as Hugo Gernsbach, John Campbell and Damon Knight, publishers of such lurid sounding pulps as Weird Tales and Worlds Beyond. These magazines offered the only mass market for science fiction and fantasy until the advent of the inexpensive paperback. Many fine writers published in the magazine format, but the disrepute of the whole industry obscured recognition and appreciation of these talented individuals. Robert Silverberg explains in his introduction to Jack Vance's Eyes of the Overworld that, prior to 1950, the major publishing houses printed very few paperback or science fiction titles, leaving the pulp market as the most available outlet for fantasy or science fiction readers and writers.
Perhaps the biggest objection to a complete and formal acceptance of fantasy literature is suggested by Ms. Hume when she states that, perhaps, it "doesn't push us to think" (60). A ready argument against this criticism is simply that fantasy literature cannot be charged fairly with failure to achieve an objective which it never professed to attain. Pushing readers to think is not, nor will it ever be, the prime objective of fantasy literature; its purpose, like that of all good literature, is to entertain us and enrich our lives. Fantasy does cause many readers to consider alternative patterns of thought, but the process is gentle.
Good fantasies endeavor to provide diversion along with instructive themes. The reader of fantasy is not told about bravery, honesty, or integrity; he is shown. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam exhibit courage and a dedicated desire to complete a dangerous mission despite their natural inclinations to remain safe at home by the fireside. The quest for justice and the refusal to submit to tyranny are recurrent themes which are found throughout Vance's fantasy works, as exemplified in his novels Rhialto the Marvellous and The Dying Earth. Ursula K. LeGuin prefers to examine interpersonal relationships and the theme of responsibility in fantasies such as The Earth-Sea Trilogy. In these works, the reader is shown a system of moral values at work. Although the framework of fantasy regularly provides a background of enchantment and illusion, its protagonists are all-too-human beings who must face and conquer real fears and resolve real conflicts.
Fantasy literature provides its armchair adventurer vicarious thrills through its use of character and theme. Dragon-slaying and damsel rescuing can symbolize the many conflicts and obstacles which 20th Century men and women must face daily. Fantasy can provide a symbolic resolution of the problems which life invariably imposes upon us all and thus operates as a cathartic.
Jack Vance's writings exhibit a total awareness of the world's joys and sorrows. His numerous science fiction and fantasy accomplishments address human conflicts, strife, and moral contests with a universal call for social improvement. Joanna Russ, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, extends this list in her review of the Vance novel Emphyrio. She adds that "Mr. Vance knows about childhood, grief, love, social structure, idealism and loss" (41). The remainder of this chapter will sketch the highlights of his literary career, commenting upon the major works, their themes, and Vance's prose style.
Readers curious for personal snippets about Vance will peruse the dust jackets and back covers of his books to no avail. As he states in the preface to The Best of Jack Vance:
I am firmly convinced that the writer who publicizes himself distracts his readers from what should be his single concern: his work. For this reason, after a few early vacillations, I refuse to disseminate photographs, self analysis, biographical data, critiques and confessions; not from innate reserve, but to focus attention where I think it belongs. (vii)
Scanty biographical data about Vance can be found, although he releases none of it himself. John Holbrook Vance was born in San Francisco, California, in 1916, although 1920 also has been given as the year of his birth. He studied engineering, physics, and journalism at the University of California (Berkeley) and was engaged in these pursuits when World War II erupted. Shortly after this country's involvement, Jack Vance joined the Merchant Marine and twice served on ships which were damaged by torpedo attacks. Despite these misfortunes, Vance has retained a love for the sea and lists blue-water sailing as one of his many hobbies. Vance's other interests include playing the four-string banjo, fine dining, and an appreciation of good wine. Extensive world travel is another of Vance's pursuits--a pastime he combines with his love of sailing. Vance makes good professional use of these interests and avocations; his books contain references to elaborate feasts, accomplished musicianship and nautical journeys.
During Vance's tour of duty with the Merchant Marine, he found the time and the opportunity to begin his writing career. Much of the material eventually released in The Dying Earth was written at sea. Vance's first published story, "The World Thinker," was issued in 1945 by Thrilling Wonder Stories. This story was soon followed by the publication of the Magnus Ridolph Tales: short detective pieces featuring an elderly, fastidious gentleman with an ingenious talent for solving unusual cases, often employing morally questionable methods.
The Dying Earth, a volume of inter-connected short stories, was released in 1950. This book, according to Malcolm Edwards in "Jack Vance," exhibited a maturity in style and content which "for the first time made effective use of the talents at which his earliest work had only hinted" (544). The Dying Earth showcases the stylistic elements that characterize his subsequent writing--powerful descriptive passages, curiously inventive nomenclature, swift-paced dialogue and a fondness for baroque, dignified grammar and syntax.
The Dying Earth marked the beginning of a long, successful career which has included the publication of fifty-six novels and story collections. Although primarily a writer of science fiction, Vance also produced the fantasy which this thesis will examine and several well-received mystery novels. Although his talents are largely overlooked by critics, he has received formal recognition from his peers. He is a two-time winner of the Hugo Award (generally recognized as the most prestigious award in the science fiction field), receiving it in 1964 for The Dragon Masters and again in 1967 for The Last Castle, which also won a Nebula Award. In 1961 the Edgar Allan Poe Award was granted to Vance for his mystery-thriller, The Man in the Cage.
Critics and fans generally concur that To Live Forever (1956), The Blue World (1966), and Emphyrio (1969) plus the exotic novelette "The Moon Moth" (1960) constitute Vance's very finest works. His latest project, purporting to be only the first in a new series, is a lengthy science fiction novel entitled Araminta Station (1988).
Many of Vance's later novels are related works published in series format. Among these are the Tschai: Planet of Adventure series, the five volume Demon Prince novels, The Durdane Trilogy and the Alastor series.
Much of the critical comment regarding Vance focuses upon his powerful and distinctive writing style. Richard Tiedman has produced the lengthiest commentary on Vance's prose technique in "Jack Vance: Science Fiction Stylist"--one of many fine articles compiled in Tim Underwood's and Chuck Miller's collection, Jack Vance. Tiedman correctly suggests that Vance's prose is so distinctly recognizable that "anyone who has read one or two books by Vance would have no difficulty in assigning selected passages to their correct author" (181). Vance uses a rich and precise vocabulary (which must certainly tax the comprehension of the typical adolescent science fiction fan,) but his inclusion of arcane expressions and obscure words is never obstructive or distracting. In this vein, Tiedman comments that
such exotic words do not seem to intrude even though in a more haphazard context they would tend to obfuscate the flow of narration. Given the breadth and spaciousness of Vance's settings, the choice of a more circumspect `language' would hardly do justice to the products of his imagination. Besides, how much more elegant to be `subaqueated' rather than drowned. (182)
Representative expositions of Vance's descriptive power are found on almost any page of his work. Vance's writing facility had already reached full flower by 1950 as seen in his description of Mazirian's garden from The Dying Earth:
Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet. Such was Mazirian's garden--three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations. Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal--copper, silver, blue tantalum, bronze, green iridium. Here blooms like bubbles tugged gently upwards from glazed green leaves, there a shrub bore a thousand pipe-shaped blossoms, each whistling softly to make music of the ancient Earth, of the ruby-red sunlight, water seeping through black soil, the languid winds. In this waning hour of Earth's life no man could count himself familiar with the glens, the glades, the dells and deeps, the secluded clearings, the ruined pavilions the sun-dappled pleasaunces, the gullies and heights, the various brooks, freshets, ponds, the meadows, thickets, brakes and rocky outcrops. (56)
As Peter Close mentions in "Fantasms, Magics and Unfamiliar Sciences": "This is pure Vance dazzlement, one of the most identifiable passages in all his work. Every element of his style may be seen here--the overpowering visual imagery; the flood of exotic inventions; the mannered, elegant, incantatory phrasing; the absence of redundant conjunctions; the rich vocabulary, the deep empathy for landscape and weather; the unerring sense of mood and atmosphere" (56).
The description of Mazirian's garden typifies the poetic depictions found throughout Vance's work. His command of grammar, syntax and vocabulary lends a baroque, dignified manner to his writing that Richard Tiedman finds similar to the prose style of John Ruskin (193).
Many fantasy writers attempt to lend a medieval tone to their style by inverting the syntax of modifiers and nouns. Instead of the "Golden Hall" or the "comely maiden," readers are subjected to a tiresome litany of such inversions as the "Hall Golden" and the "maiden comely." These contrivances (blandly called "archaisms" by Ursula K. LeGuin in "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie") are the mainstay of weaker writers; Vance never bores his readers with such banalities. Instead, he avoids this common pitfall through a thoughtful and precise approach to narration.
Jack Vance imparts to his dialogue a craftsmanship of equal care. His characters speak in exact, controlled verbal exchanges; the repartee is precise and formal. Lyonesse offers an example of this conversational style in a scene in which Shimrod approaches an ogre in the process of beating an unfortunate, trussed-up creature:
Shimrod sauntered forward. `Why must you beat poor Grofinet?' `Why does one do anything?' growled the troll. `From a sense of purpose! For the sake of a job well done!' `That is a good response, but it leaves many questions unanswered,' said Shimrod. `Possibly so, but no matter. Be off with you. I wish to thrash this bastard hybrid of two bad dreams.' `It is all a mistake!' bawled Grofinet. It must be resolved before damage is done! Lower me to the ground, where we can talk calmly, without prejudice.'
The troll struck out with his cudgel. `Silence!' (154)
As this brief conversation displays, even Vance's ogres and his other subhuman creatures express themselves with the dignity and eloquence of refined gentlefolk. Malcolm Edwards identifies in Vance's writing an important characteristic: "formal, courteous dialogue--even between antagonists--brimming with aphorisms and apothegms" (544). These terms describe the often short, terse sentences which most of Vance's characters employ in their speech. An example of these brief utterances is illustrated in the conversation excerpted above, and other examples can be found throughout Vance's work. The ironic tone and the polite, unemotional speech tempered by reason, render Vance's dialogue enjoyable. Vance's thoughts concerning the art of narration seem to be reflected in a colorful passage from his Marune: Alastor 933:
Conversation! Supple sentences, with first and second meanings and overtones beyond, outrageous challenges with cleverly planned slip-points, rebuttals of elegant brevity; deceptions and guiles, patient explanations of the obvious, fleeting allusions to the unthinkable. As a preliminary, the conversationalist must gauge the mood, the intelligence and the verbal facility of the company. To this end, a few words of pedantic exposition often prove invaluable. (123)
A favorite motif which crops up in many of Vance's works involves a verbal battle between victimized travellers and their unsympathetic hosts. The characteristic elements of Vance's distinctive use of dialogue are present in the following exchange between the wayfaring Aillas and his unsympathetic host in The Green Pearl: `Hear how the storm yells, like a giant in pain!' And again with russet eyes fixed knowingly upon Aillas: `Pity the poor traveller who must brave such ferocities! In conditions like this the word "avarice" loiters sickly by the wayside while the concept "gratitude" marches forward in triumph, like Paloemon's conquering army!' Aillas responded: `When storms rage, then is when folk become aware of their common humanity, and like you and Threlka, they willingly extend hospitality to those unfortunate enough to be at disadvantage, just as you, in your hour of inconvenience, will hope for the same! In these cases, the thought of payment is cause for embarrassment, and the host cries out: `What do you take me for? A jackal?' It is heartwarming to meet such folk out here on the moors! `Exactly so!' cried Cwyd. `Out here on the high moors where conditions are hard, "sharing" is the watchword, and each gives of what he has without stint. I open my larder wide and light my best and most cheerful blaze; you are of the same disposition with your superfluity of silver coins; thus we honor each other!' `Precisely to the point!' declared Aillas. `I will reckon up my little store of coins and whatever I find to be superfluous you shall have! We are in accord; let us say no more on the subject.' (244)
This conversation, with its witty repartee and its reliance upon innuendo, demonstrates many of the subtleties that Vance imparts to his work. However, Vance's detractors find occasional shortcomings in his plots and a lack of instructive themes in his work. But Vance is read and re-read for the elegance of his style, and not for a simple wish to indulge in an escapist fantasy. The themes that Vance develops may never be considered the strongest attribute of his literature. He develops much of his thematic material around the quest; these adventure-based tales most often involve a man with a mission who must overcome great obstacles, both hidden and overt. In the "Durdane" novels, Emphyrio, and The Blue World, the protagonists rebel against stagnant societies and institute broad social changes. A revenge theme emerges in the "Demon Prince" novels, while The Dying Earth novels portray man's conflict with a harsh nature and struggle with his fellow man.
As Vance related to Johan Thielemans who interviewed him in the Netherlands, "I can say I write science-fiction, but the science which I use would be anthropology, and sociology and psychology" (481). Indeed, in the majority of his work, Vance concentrates on social issues, and imparts less attention to the scientific details of his stories. His favorite subjects are strange cultures, bizarre alien behavior, and scathing satires of exotic religious practices. Mike Dickinson in "Romance and Hardening Arteries," refers to Vance's "innate capacity to shoot sitting plaster ducks" (25). But, if Vance did not perform this task so admirably and colorfully, if his track record were not as impressive as it is, the debunking of religions might quickly grow tiresome to some readers. In Star King for example, Vance establishes the foolish demi-God Godogma, a Janus-faced deity who symbolically carries a flower and a flail. Vance's cynical treatment of man and religion becomes most acidic in "The Pilgrims," a chapter from Eyes of the Overworld, wherein the wily protagonist takes unmerciful advantage of the religious zeal of a group of traveling worshippers.
Although Tiedman has observed echoes of Ruskin's style in Vance's prose, Vance told Peter Close in "An Interview with Jack Vance" that he does not recognize direct influences on his writing from the authors he admires. Olaf Stapledon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Cabell, and Robert E. Howard are among the many acclaimed writers whom Vance considers "exemplars" in the science fiction/fantasy field, but whose influence on his writing style, themes and plotting he considers negligible (36).
Above all, Jack Vance is artistic, and he approaches his craft with artistry in mind. In Space Opera, Vance says of artists, "they understand the creative process, the sublimation of fact to symbol and the use of symbol to suggest emotion" (72). He creates moving portraits of men and societies on a grand, if not "cosmic," level. Those reviewers (specifically Dickinson and Rawlins) who remain unsatisfied with Vance's writing because they do not find great symbolic or idealistic values in it may, in their analyses, be overly critical. Vance's fiction is not didactic nor should it be; it is popular literature meant primarily to entertain.
A Reader's Guide to Science Fiction praises the work of Vance but, at the same time, also mentions that
he remains apart from the main body of science fiction. This is due in part to a unique (in the field) writing style. It is fanciful, deliberately archaic, decorated with ruffles and flourishes and personal leitmotifs. (180)
Despite the generally-agreed-on-quality of Vance's work, as witnessed through the many critical articles which glibly state that Vance is a major voice in his field, Malcolm Edwards agrees that Vance's fiction remains, "a narrow and specialized one" (548). Edwards adds that "his work is too specialized in its scope and appeal ever to be in the mainstream of science fiction, but it does serve to enrich the genre" (548).
Poul Anderson, a famous science fiction and fantasy novelist and close friend of Vance, states in Jack Vance that:
Although he has always been popular with readers, he has, in a sense, been incredibly neglected--at least by most critics--one good reason for my low opinion of most critics. It is pleasant to see that he now appears to be finally getting `discovered.' (224)
Vance holds a similar opinion of critics as he related to Charles Platt in a candid interview in 1983:
Critics are intellectuals. It's their role. They work with ideas, words, thoughts. Their tool is a pencil or a typewriter. I won't go into a long discursion on esthetics, but a critic--I won't say he's necessarily a deviant, or a criminal, or a disgusting person; he can be very nice, pet his cat, treat his wife nicely. Who knows? But still, to admit that's what you do for a living! It's like saying `I give sex shows down at the Burlesque for a living.' Something you'd have to blush to admit. (163)
Vance's work is even more popular in Europe than it is in the United States, having been translated into all of the major European languages. Vance enjoys brisk sales in Europe--sales figures that he wishes were duplicated at home. Reprintings of several of his earlier classic works were released in 1989 and 1990 and even more are expected soon.
Although Vance is a highly regarded fantasy writer, no systematic study of Vance's fantasy literature has yet emerged. This thesis will help correct this oversight by examining a significant theme which pervades much of his fantasy writing--an intelligent and imaginative use of magic and magical situations. The fantasy novels and short stories will be analyzed to observe the manner, scope, and literary function of Vance's use of magic. Although his writing appeals to many readers for many different reasons, the author's capable handling of magic and magical situations invests his works with a vitality, with humor, and with a high degree of interest. Magic is not just one of Vance's literary tools; it imparts much of the specialness to his fantasy. The following chapters will examine the magical aspects of Vance's fantasy works in three temporal settings--past, present and future. Chapter II will consider The Lyonesse trilogy--related volumes of adventure, romance and enchantment set in the remote past in the imaginary Elder Isles. Chapter III will concentrate on two short stories, "Green Magic" and "The Miracle Workers," set within contemporary and near-future frameworks. The fourth and longest chapter will focus upon the interrelated books of "The Dying Earth Saga," where magic exerts powerful influences and controls the lives of the men and women in Earth's final days. These books include The Dying Earth, Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous.
Chapter V will compare the various magical elements of Vance's fantasy writings in an effort to explain, as fully as possible, Vance's use of magic in three areas: magic and background setting, magic and humor, and magic and wonder. I will also comment upon contemporary trends in fantasy, highlighting Vance's steady role in a genre that continues to grow in popularity and sales.
The Lyonesse Trilogy appears late in Jack Vance's career and represents in several ways a significant departure from his earlier writings. Although Vance has been writing fantasy since the 1940's, Lyonesse radically differs from "The Dying Earth" stories in terms of setting, plot and purpose. Lyonesse fits comfortably into the "heroic" subgenre of Diana Waggoner's system of fantasy categorization, following the tradition established by William Morris and Lord Dunsany (36). Vance employs the standard trappings of heroic-adventure fantasy, foremost of which are a medieval romantic background and a liberal sprinkling of magic (35).
While working on Lyonesse in 1982, Vance related to Charles Platt observations about his current project:
A very long medieval fantasy. It's not sword and sorcery, although there are wizards and swords. This is quite different. It's romance. Trying to do something to sell to the general public, a broader audience. These particular situations and characters, I think, will have a wider appeal than some of the other stuff I've written. (165)
Vance thus readily acknowledges that Lyonesse differs markedly from his earlier work, the key concepts from the above excerpt being "romance," "sell," and "broader audience." Lyonesse and its sequels include a plethora of romantic, sentimental proclivities. However, all three novels maintain the essential elements of his entertaining writing style and serve as noteworthy examples of Vance's ability to craft his work toward a new readership.
In addition to these changes in focus and audience, the plot structure of Lyonesse also represents a departure from the dominant method employed in Vance's earlier science fiction and other fantasy works. Jack Rawlins' article, "Linear Man: Jack Vance and the Value of Plot in Science Fiction," notes Vance's preference for "linear," one-dimensional plotting (358). Rawlins correctly identifies an "unconnectedness," a lack of "cause and effect sequences," and an inclination toward picaresque, episodic structures in much of Vance's work (358). Lyonesse, however, advances several simultaneous plotlines among which the novel shifts back and forth.
The setting of Lyonesse fulfills Tolkien's primary requirement for successful fantasy--a plausible Secondary World. As Lin Carter and Diana Waggoner argue, "heroic fantasy is the mainstream of fantasy" (Hills of Faraway 36). They contend that the setting of heroic fantasy traditionally has become established with conventions that readers fully accept and expect.
Lyonesse is set in the Elder Isles--an ancient island kingdom south of Britain, mentioned in the Arthurian legends by Mallory and Tennyson. The novel is based on two conventions necessary for heroic fantasy--magic and magical creatures. This chapter will focus upon Vance's handling of magic through the two novels and will dispense with those plot elements which do not relate to this theme.
The Elder Isle magicians possess abilities codified into secret, carefully guarded spells. Magical amulets, runes and rings exist and are highly regarded by their owners. Magic is a practical art that can be acquired through dint of rigorous study, but few wizards willingly share their secrets. Vance never explains where or how magic originated in the Elder Isles, but since the inclusion of magic has become conventional in heroic fantasy, its presence in this work is not intrusive. Magical prowess is a desired commodity in the Elder Isles, and wizards lead reclusive, solitary lives, a practice which promotes the development of their arcane knowledge and special abilities.
Casmir, the ambitious King of Lyonesse, is one of the ten rulers of the small nations which comprise the Elder Isles. These nations, formerly united under the symbolic throne of Evandig, now bicker and feud for hegemony. Casmir desires to reinstate a form of central control over these nations and strives for any assistance, magical or militaristic, to further his designs.
Lyonesse is a long, complex book and events unfold slowly. The first forty pages of the novel detail Casmir's insensitive treatment of his daughter, Suldrun, and contain few references to magic. Not until Suldrun visits her father's secret storeroom does the reader perceive that Lyonesse is in fact, a true magical fantasy and not ordinary romantic fiction. As she approaches the threshold of this magical lair, a sweet voice entreats her entry. This voice issues from the twin heads of a tiny, disfigured homunculus, cruelly imprisoned in a jug from which its heads emerge. As she approaches, a second voice warns her to keep safe distance--the homunculus bites! The second speaker is Persilian, an enchanted mirror which exhibits imaginative magical qualities. Persilian, cantankerous and unpredictable, unlike the mirror in "Snow White," reveals to Suldrun the visage of a handsome prince. This scene is significant because it results in Suldrun's becoming so enchanted by the handsome face that she eventually rejects the suitors solicited by her father in his efforts to effect an opportune alliance of royal houses. These refusals result in a steady deterioration of the father-daughter friendship as he becomes increasingly vexed over Suldrun's lack of cooperation in furthering his territorial ambitions.
Casmir employs a vast network of informants to keep him fully aware of all activities within his realm and in adjacent kingdoms. This surveillance includes a careful watch on the magicians within his borders. When information concerning Shimrod, a magician new to the kingdom, reaches the King, Shimrod is called to Lyonesse Town. Shimrod, like so many of Vance's protagonists, presents a modest appearance, an easy-going manner and is inclined to frank, candid statements. Shimrod presents the "Everyman" appearance that Hartwell finds so endemic to the modern fantasy format (41). Casmir hopes to enlist the magician's abilities, but in a short time Casmir sadly realizes that the magician is unwilling to aid his schemes. Shimrod's stated reason for refusal is "Murgen's Great Edict"--an effective ban on all magical practices in political affairs. This unexpected answer disconcerts the ever-plotting King who, in dismissing the magician, contemptuously tosses forth a small purse. Shimrod then, with casual ease, performs the book's first act of legerdemain:
Shimrod turned out the purse. Five golden crowns rolled forth. They became five golden butterflies which fluttered into the air and circled the parlor. The five became ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred. All at once they dropped to a cluster upon the table, where they became a hundred gold coins. Shimrod took five of the coins, returned them to the purse, which he placed in his pouch. `I thank your majesty.' He bowed and departed the chamber. (66)
Casmir, only through great effort, maintains an appearance of royal dignity, but controlling his frustration is a difficult task. He fully realizes the many benefits he could derive from the services of such an accomplished magician--a full exchequer, his enemy's weapons transformed to dust, or a palace created through a simple spell--the possibilities are endless. The king, however, cannot pressure a magician into compliance since a simple gesture or a softly spoken spell could conceivably transmute the royal person to a lower life form. Casmir is too single-minded to consider another important fact: any magician willing to cooperate with the king would become, in short time, the defacto ruler, thus reducing the King to the status of a figurehead. Ironically, Murgen's edict hereby safeguards the King's autonomy by banning magicians from the political arena. Casmir apparently does not consider this hidden benefit because he approaches the wizard Tamurello, the witch Desmei, and the novice magician Carfhiliot with similar requests for magical intervention. In each case he is refused, because what reward or inducement could Casmir possibly offer to a magician? Money? Power? The concept is inherently ridiculous because the only commodity these magicians desire is increased magical ability--and this Casmir cannot supply.
King Casmir does not comprehend the full extent of his rather vulnerable position; he does understand, however, that the magicians he approaches do not care to challenge Murgen's authority. The example of Twitten suffices: Twitten, who sought to defy Murgen, paid a dire penalty for his disobedience of the wizard's edict. Murgen transformed the rebellious magician into the iron post which thereafter marked Twitten's Corner.
Casmir greatly desires to learn the art of magic but can find no magician willing to instruct him. Like the stage "magicians" of the 20th Century, they are secretive about their knowledge. The magicians of the Elder Isles are suspicious: they rarely associate with their peers and do not encourage newcomers.
Murgen and Shimrod share a unique and noteworthy relationship. At one time Murgen required a subordinate to aid him in his work but was unwilling to entrust his secret lore to one of his rivals. Instead, he produced a "scion"--a replica of himself which he subsequently named Shimrod. Eventually, Shimrod developed a separate personality but continued to serve his creator loyally. Thus, Murgen's secrets were safe with this artificially created extension of himself.
Vance has a singular talent for creating magical cantraps or charms which can produce either wondrous or dire effects, yet he manages to infuse these spells with humorous touches. The hexes in "The Dying Earth Saga" most notably combine these elements of humor and malevolence, and examples such as the "Spell of Total Enlightenment" in Lyonesse reveal this duality. Explained in the novel is the episode of two bickering magicians and the awful consequences which occur when this incantation is applied:
Widdefut suddenly knew everything that might be known: the history of each atom of the universe, the development of eight kinds of time, the possible phase of each succeeding instant; all the flavors, sounds, sights, smells of the world as well as precepts relative to nine other unusual senses. Widdefut became palsied and paralyzed and could not so much as feel himself. He stood trembling in confusion until he desiccated to a wisp and blew away on the wind. (112)
This spell, with the obvious pun on "enlightenment," evinces creative imagination at work, and the Lyonesse trilogy is strengthened by the inclusion of such magical, yet humorous, examples.
In the Elder Isles where magic truly "works," it is no wonder that everyone desires magical abilities. Merchants deal in spurious amulets which sell at a brisk rate. Such an amulet is offered to the witch Desmei by a crooked vendor who does not recognize his customer. In this case, the bogus device is a feather which magically changes color in the presence of falsehood. The merchant offers, as evidence of his trustworthiness, the fact that the feather remains unchanged during his description of its power. Desmei, however, magically alters the feather, declaring the merchant a cheat. Nonplussed, the merchant calmly asserts, "Does not the feather perform exactly as I have claimed?" (115). Vance's works are peopled by many such scoundrels, but he ensures that equity eventually prevails.
The Elder Isle magicians are so possessive of their secrets that the novice finds few opportunities to further his craft. Such is the case with the malevolent wizard Faud Carfhiliot. He thirsts to enhance his magical ability but finds little assistance from his cohorts. Eventually he decides to rob another, more experienced wizard: in this case, the unwitting Shimrod. In order to carry out the theft, Carfhiliot arranges a distraction to lure Shimrod away from his home. The beautiful but sinister Melancthe aids Carfhiliot and induces Shimrod to venture into "Irerly" on a dangerous quest from which, they hope, Shimrod never will return. Irerly is a strange Tertiary World wherein many dangers beset the unwary visitor. Through a crafty application of magic which is supplied by Murgen, Shimrod eventually does win free of Irerly and returns to the Elder Isles, only to find that his magical devices and books have been stolen. Shimrod's abilities are now greatly reduced because much of his strength and power is derived from these artifacts. Shimrod's resultant search for his magical properties becomes a major subplot of Lyonesse. On his journeys, he travels incognito as the mountebank Dr. Fidelius, "Healer of Sore Knees." Shimrod adopts this disguise because his only clue to the identity of the thieves is that one of them suffers from such an affliction.
Shimrod eventually befriends Glyneth and Dhrun--two children who have themselves encountered many fantastic adventures. Among their experiences are two Grimm-like escapades in which they are threatened by the ogre Arbogast and the witch Melissa. These substories comprise two of the most memorable episodes of the novel and greatly add to the magical atmosphere.
As Diana Waggoner asserts, the difference between heroic fantasy and simple adventure fantasy is a strong, heroic, morally conscious main character (34). Adventure fantasy without such a hero is, in her opinion, just "escapist trash" (36). Midway through the novel, the storyline shifts from the self-serving Casmir to the heroic endeavors of his chief political rival, Aillas. Vance develops Aillas, the young king, into an admirable foil of the increasingly unsympathetic King of Lyonesse.
The instructive themes of Lyonesse--honesty, bravery and justice--all surface in Aillas' search for his son and his successful escape from invading Scandinavian conquerors. Unlike the many fantasies which have been produced since Tolkien, Lyonesse does not involve an epic struggle. Good and evil certainly exist in the Elder Isles, but these concepts do not emerge as the important symbols that so thoroughly dominate much of contemporary fantasy. The magic in Lyonesse cannot be categorized as "white" or "black"; it serves both purposes and is applied to both beneficent and malevolent uses.
Magic helps create the Secondary World atmosphere of awe and wonder, vital to reader interest. In addition to establishing a fantastic background, the magical situations offer pleasant distractions from the occasionally heavy-handed main story line of Casmir's unrelenting ambition. The magical subplots provide light-hearted narrative elements which lend the novel a much needed balance.
Throughout Lyonesse, Vance carefully avoids a common flaw which ruins many well-intentioned fantasies--direct resolution of conflict through magical agency. C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia serves as a prime example of this over-used and uncreative approach to fantasy. Throughout Lewis' books, the conflicts developed are inevitably resolved at the last moment through magical or supernatural means. Although Vance makes free use of the deus ex machina in his science fiction works, in Lyonesse magical resolution does not substitute for thoughtful plotting.
The Green Pearl is not so much a sequel to Lyonesse as an extension. The story line inherited from the first book resumes immediately in the second. Lyonesse ends with the villainous Faud Carfhiliot hanged from an enormously high gibbet; his body is then burned on a pyre, surrounded by an exuberant crowd. Unseen by the joyous spectators, a thread of pale green smoke arises from the flames, coalesces into a green-colored node and is carried away on the winds. This "pearl" is the evil essence of Carfhiliot, and it eventually is blown to the ocean where it drops into the deep, to be swallowed by an unsuspecting fish.
The Green Pearl begins with an episodic chronology of the events which follow the recovery of the pearl by the unlucky fisherman, Sarles. As if "by magic," two changes occur in Sarles. His fishing luck dramatically improves, but his personality deteriorates. This green pearl is lovely to behold but deadly to grasp--a "monkey's paw" which initially brings to its possessor brief providence, followed by misfortune and violent death. Sir Tristano, a travelling emissary of King Aillas, deduces the nature of this "node of depravity," and through fateful circumstance, the pearl becomes "attached" to him and he cannot shake it off. Tristano, however, cautiously avoids direct contact with the pearl, handling it only within the fork of a split twig, thus safeguarding himself from its dire effects. Several humorous scenes relate Tristano's attempts to free himself from the odious gem, but only when it is taken from him by force is he freed of its deadly influence.
So opens The Green Pearl, Vance's second installment in "The Elder Isle Chronicles." This novel exhibits the same high caliber of storytelling which characterizes its predecessor, although The Green Pearl contains fewer magical occurrences. Casmir's ambitious attempts to unite the Elder Isle Kingdoms continue to meet with failure, and Aillas now turns to the task. Aillas's efforts embroil him in royal intrigues, fierce battles and, eventually, a hazardous journey through enemy territory. Aillas proves to be a wise, judicious ruler who succeeds through diplomacy where Casmir fails through use of threat and intimidation.
Casmir concentrates on a new set of concerns. Persilian's last communication with Casmir is a prophecy that his grandson, not Casmir himself, will unite the kingdoms under Evandig--a disturbing omen for the King. But Casmir's grandchild is the Princess Madouc, or so he believes. The King acquires the services of the wizard Vishbane who sets out to discover the facts about this apparent mystery.
In the process of investigation, Vishbane is aided by magic and advice cheerlessly supplied by Tamurello. Vishbane's tasks include a dangerous visit to Thripsee Shee, a fairy encampment deep in the Tantravelles Forest. The fairies of the Elder Isles are a malicious, spiteful race whose greatest delight comes from the pranks they inflict on unwary humans. Winning information from them is no easy proposition, but a fantastic conjuration (supplied by Tamurello) provides a distraction which enables the wizard to gain, in part, the knowledge Casmir seeks.
The missing information supplied by these fairies concerns Dhrun, who is Aillas' son. Little does Casmir realize that his rival, Aillas, is the father of Casmir's grandson. Vishbane again aids Casmir in his efforts to uncover the last piece of the mystery.
Vishbane, a humorous, eccentric wizard, comes into the possession of Twitten's Almanac, a magical tome which explains the procedures for inter-dimensional travel to parallel worlds coexistent with Earth. Vishbane eventually lures Dhrun's friend Glyneth to Tanjecterly, a fantastic Tertiary World, and in this alien environment attempts to wrest from her the information Casmir seeks. Aillas and Shimrod are concerned regarding the safety of interworld passage to Tanjecterly, and finally they call upon Murgen, who aids in their rescue of Glyneth from this strange world.
The events on Tanjecterly comprise the most fantastic sequences of The Green Pearl. Murgen wisely forbids Shimrod or Aillas to undertake the hazardous journey to Tanjecterly; instead, he creates an artificial being comprised of Aillas' personal attributes (love and devotion to duty) fused into an alien entity which possesses superhuman stamina.
The Green Pearl concludes with a frenzied series of magical events: Glyneth is successfully rescued from Tanjecterly, Vishbane and Tamurello are believed to have been killed in a dispute over the green pearl, and Murgen assumes safekeeping of the evil stone. Book II of this trilogy thus ends on the same magical note with which it began. The green pearl, buried and forgotten since the opening chapter of the novel becomes, here in the conclusion, the novel's focus.
The bulk of The Green Pearl contains few fantastic references. Determining authorial intention is at best speculative, but it would appear that Vance includes the magical trappings of fantasy merely as a framing device around which to produce (and sell) a mainstream novel concerned primarily with Casmir's struggle to gain hegemony over the Elder Isles.
Vance is not unique among fantasy/science fiction writers for this style-changing device. Robert Heinlein, for example, in the latter part of his career produced mainstream novels which paid only lip service to the science fiction elements which had made his earlier career so successful. These efforts were met with adverse criticism. One such critic, Richard Tiedman in "Jack Vance: Science Fiction Stylist," digressed from his main theme to castigate Heinlein, stating that Heinlein
tried his hand at a sort of literary hybrid--the science fiction--mainstream novel. In attempting a continuous parallelism between the two, Heinlein fails to combine the virtues of either and dilutes the possibilities of both in a middle course that finds all that is worst in each! (217)
With "The Elder Isle Chronicles," Vance, however, capably synthesizes fantasy and traditional "mainstream" styles through a thoughtful inclusion of magical situations that color the narrative without dominating it.
Vance altogether avoids a common pitfall which plagues many fantasts--a tendency which spoiled the majority of C. S. Lewis' science fiction and fantasy works--a heavy-handed attempt to employ the narrative for didactic purposes. Katherine Hume points out how overly didactic content can ruin an author's best literary intentions through her reference to Lewis' The Last Battle. Regarding this work, she states that in "the final Narnia story, a girl character loses her entire family at one blow--parents, brothers, sisters, cousin, godparents--for the sin of being overly interested in lipstick and stockings" (34). Although this example from Lewis forms an outrageous picture of misdirected intentions, Vance seems well aware of the perils of making excessive statements and assiduously avoids blatant moralization in the course of his fiction. His novels do contain instructive themes--bravery, ethical conduct, and uncompromising justice--but these concepts find their best expression in the short run; they emerge in individual scenes as short lessons rather than as broad themes.
Madouc, the third and final volume of the Elder Isle Chronicles, has recently (May 1990) been released and in this work Vance successfully concludes his most ambitious fantasy project. Casmir and Aillas renew their struggle for dominion of the Elder Isles, Murgen grapples with the problems posed by Desmei and the green pearl, and Madouc, the adopted granddaughter of Casmir, searches for her true heritage. These problems are satisfactorily resolved in Madouc, which relies upon the same blend of magic, humor, and wonder.
Madouc is a defiant youngster who employs a sophisticated brand of logic to sway events to her pleasing. During the course of her travails with Casmir and a staff of insensitive guardians, Madouc learns two magical spells which she employs quite liberally, as she says, "to protect myself against tyrants" (122). Unfortunately, Madouc is too young and too whimsical to distinguish properly between "tyranny" and parental concern. Her liberal use of these spells quickly disrupts the tranquil life in the castle, resulting in Madouc's painful education that magical spells should be used only in time of great need.
As anticipated, Casmir's schemes prove both fruitless and costly. The resolution of the Elder Isles Chronicles finds Aillas firmly entrenched as a kind and benevolent ruler who promises happiness for Madouc and her father who, it is revealed on the final page, is the kind-hearted magician Shimrod.
In producing these rather "mainstream" novels, Vance employs magic and magical situations as an incidental but remarkably effective literary tool, whereas his other fantasy works more thoroughly rely on magic and magical situations. In the Elder Isles Chronicles the fantasy elements serve as a framing device, adding a mystical tone to a storyline based on action, intrigue, and human interest.
Jack Vance devoted the first seven years of his literary career to producing short stories. This time was well spent, for in producing The Dying Earth stories and the Magnus Ridolph tales, he developed the attributes which characterize his best work--a unique power of setting, description, and expressive dialogue. Vance admitted to Peter Close in a 1977 interview that "it takes me just as long to plot a short story as a novel" (41).
"Green Magic" and "The Miracle Workers" remain superlative examples of Vance's short fiction. These stories express the author's thoughtful treatment of man and magic: the first in a contemporary American setting, and the second in a science fictional future. This chapter will examine how both stories synthesize storyline and magical theme.
The "Lyonesse" trilogy depends on magic for the purposes of setting and tone. In "Green Magic" and "The Miracle Workers," however, Vance fully develops two hauntingly strange visions of humankind's timeless fascination with magic. "Green Magic" examines man's thirst for knowledge. "The Miracle Workers," however, examines the other side of the coin, wherein a society which has neglected the advances in learning it desperately needs survives an alien threat through the application of science and a new attitude towards the magic upon which they had been overdependent. These contrasting stories offer splendid examples of Jack Vance's capable handling of magical themes.
Howard Fair, the protagonist of "Green Magic," begins his adventurous pursuit of mysterious, unknown lores after discovering a cryptic workbook owned by his uncle McIntyre. Among the notes, Fair discovers clues that there exists a virtually unknown branch of magic of which only his uncle was aware. Fair is already an accomplished magician, but references to "the green cycles" intrigue him so much that he begins a search effecting great changes in his placid life.
Vance introduces elements of suspense early in the story when Fair discovers that his uncle's supposed demise coincided with an "infinite reward" which the uncle had expected to receive from his efforts to unlock the green magic secrets. As Howard muses: "Was the infinite reward so miraculous, so exquisite that the mind failed under its possession? If such were the case, the reward was hardly a reward" (38).
Through great magical effort, Fair manages to produce a "sprite" from the Green Realm who agrees to answer Fair's questions about this unknown branch of magic. Howard learns that green magic can "manipulate the physical extensions of Earth--the various aspects of space, time, mass" (36). The answer to Fair's next question is that green magic can indeed be learned through demanding study, but Fair can expect no help from the sprite because, as he states: "since I bear you no particular animosity, I'll do nothing of the sort" (37). Apparently, Fair's uncle did learn the principles of green magic, but "He found no pleasure in his learning" (37). Fair is also told that, "You would do well to profit by his experience and modify your ambitions" (37).
This advice only reinforces Fair's desire to acquire this new lore. Employing a strange mixture of advanced scientific techniques and the necromantic arts, Fair constructs a golem which he sends, equipped with a television camera/transmitter into the green realm. From the signals Fair receives, he sees that the golem travels through strangely beautiful "fantastic vistas." Fair experiments with further devices, causing unintentional havoc in this magical environment. As one sprite relates to another:
A meaning came fluttering up from below: `A disturbance among the spiral towers! A caterpillar of glass and metal has come clanking; it has thrust electric eyes in the Portinone and broken open the Egg of Innocence. Howard Fair is the fault.' (40)
Fair's vicarious explorations of the green realm prompt the two sprites to visit him in a further attempt to discourage his curiosity. Their suggestion that Fair cease his activities causes Fair to ask quite simply, "Where is the harm in learning?" (41). When further questioned about his intentions to acquire this new lore, Fair puts forth the objectives he wishes to fulfill:
I want many things. Extended life--mobility in time--comprehensive memory--augmented perception, with vision across the whole spectrum. I want physical charm and magnetism, the semblance of youth, muscular endurance . . . Then there are qualities more or less speculative such as-- (41)
At this point, Fair is stopped and is told that these requests will be granted if he discontinues his ambitions. Howard Fair cannot agree to this proposal because these conferments do not satisfy his ultimate objective: the expansion of his magical knowledge and skill.
Reluctantly, the sprites agree to teach Fair the secrets of green magic, but this lengthy task requires 700 years of devoted study in the green realm. Upon completion, Fair ascertains that this monumental effort has yielded some measure of success, but the results become inherently dissatisfying. Human nature limits the extent to which men can absorb and apply "green" abilities. Fair's best efforts cannot match the graceful efforts of either sprite, and eventually Fair decides to leave the green realm and return to Earth, "where each of his acts would not shout aloud of vulgarity and crassness" (44).
Amazed, Fair finds on his return home that only two hours have elapsed during his extended sojourn in the green realm. He also notices a troublesome uneasiness with his once familiar surroundings. His "augmented perceptions" now reveal the shabbiness of his former existence, the "pathetic infantilisms" of his cherished notebooks and the revolting nature of the food he must now consume.
Howard Fair's new knowledge is a dubious attainment, for where he once saw beauty and order, he now sees "slipshod disorder, primitive filth" (45). To escape the malaise which now surrounds him, he retreats to a sanctuary in the Andes, but this endeavor proves ultimately unsuccessful; he cannot escape from the uneasiness which grips his soul. Finally he decides that if, indeed, Gerald McIntyre learned green magic, he too could be alive and might be able to counsel Fair about existing comfortably amid the squalor he now perceives.
Howard Fair eventually finds his Uncle McIntyre in remote Utah, where he has also removed himself from the untidy contact with humanity and amuses himself by playing magical pranks on the occasional car or truck that passes by. He does have a panacea to offer his nephew--a process which effectively can remove the source of Fair's insecurity. The elder magician has perfected a technique which can nullify and remove the knowledge and experience of green magic, thus returning Fair to his unenlightened but happier state. Over the years, McIntyre has been tempted several times to resort to this drastic recourse, but he, like his nephew, cannot bear the thought of returning to his previous, ignorant state, though it ensures a happier existence. There seems to be an allusion to the Tempest here. Both Howard Fair and Prospero must decide whether to retain their mantles of magic or to depart from their islands and rejoin humanity.
"Green Magic" develops a vividly imaginative Tertiary World. Vance's brief descriptions of the green realm with its "dreaming towers" and "fields of moth-wing mosaics" provide surrealistic visions which fulfill Tolkien's requirement that fantasy should produce "awe and wonder."
"Green Magic" is a premier example of Vance's story-telling expertise and ranks with his finest work. The parallels with the Faust legend are unmistakable. Both Faustus and Howard Fair seek knowledge and power far beyond human limitations and, in doing so, pay terrible prices. Faustus, in exchange for twenty-four years of magical benefits, forfeits the remainder of his life and his immortal soul to Lucifer. Howard Fair loses a precious gift as well--his humanity. With his enhanced perception and immortality, he now exists outside the realm of his fellow men as an unhappy observer of the world around him. Faustus ignores repeated warnings from the Good Angel to cease his unholy experiment, while Fair is also twice warned by the green realm sprites to desist from further inquiry into green magic. The tragedy which befalls these "overreachers" results from the hubris they exhibit in their yearnings to rise above the human condition.
The travails of Howard Fair so exactly follow the Faust pattern that Vance might have consciously modeled "Green Magic" upon this classic tale. Faust and Fair embody the human desire for knowledge and power, but both learn that such desires entail enormous personal sacrifice. Douglas Cole in Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe employs the term poena damni (punishment of loss) to describe the fate of Dr. Faustus. The concept is equally applicable to Howard Fair, a man who gains powerful new skills but loses his basic humanity.
"Green Magic" also displays one of Vance's favorite literary techniques--the dazzling inclusion of fantastic objects and symbols that have strange, unknown referents. For example, what is the "Egg of Innocence?" How, and for what purpose, do the "nerve skeins extrude and waft Meanings?" Vance teasingly introduces these strange concepts into his narrative but leaves their explanation up to the readers' imaginations. A truly distinctive feature of this story is Vance's description of the process Howard Fair undertakes to learn green magic. Fantasts invariably tell their audience that magic is acquired through "hard study." In "Green Magic" Vance describes this fantastic exercise with a heavy reliance upon unknown referents such as "parallels, attenuation, diminishments and extensions" (43). Vance portrays the process of learning green magic with the inclusion of just enough detail to render the process plausible.
"The Miracle Workers" develops, as Richard Tiedman observes, "a complex of themes," similar to Vance's award-winning novellas, "The Dragon Masters" and "The Last Castle" (271). In each of these stories, an isolated human colony is besieged by an indigenous alien race which threatens their existence. Although "The Miracle Workers" did not win the Hugo Award as did these others, it is a fine tale nonetheless. Tiedman comments that "the theme, structure and delivery are in equal harmony" (186). "The Miracle Workers" is Vance"s best example of a science-fantasy. By Diana Waggoner's definition, this classification includes those stories in which "technological and supernatural miracles blend" and where "science provides a plausible background for a story relying on supernatural powers" (19).
John Campbell, the famous editor and proponent of "hard" science fiction would approve of "The Miracle Workers" even though the story relies heavily on the supernatural occurrences he usually judged anti-realistic. Campbell is best known for his dedication to the "Golden Age" science fiction tales of the 1930's and 40's whose themes foresaw the future advances in science and technology. Although "The Miracle Workers" does serve this Golden-Age purpose of glorifying science, it further employs properties which were popular in the pulp stories from this age--fantasy and magic, along with humor and irony.
The setting of "The Miracle Workers" is purely science-fictional; the planet Pangborn has been colonized for 1,400 years, but all contact with the outside has been lost, stranding the surviving men and women with aging equipment and few resources. During this period of isolation, the colonists have developed fascinating magical abilities, but their emphasis on magical attainments has diverted their attention from their scientific knowledge and skills, which have steadily declined. Ironically, empiricism and the scientific method are now considered true miracles, whereas voodoo-hexing and demon possession have become common practice among Pangborn's magicians, the Jinxmen.
The colonists of Pangborn may have forgotten the science of their ancestors, but they have retained their militaristic tendencies. At the onset of "The Miracle Workers," Lord Faide prepares to attack the castle of his rival, Lord Ballant. Faide's magicians, his "Jinxmen," use representative likenesses of the Ballant warriors to inflict magical, voodoo-like discomforts upon their adversaries.
The Jinxmen comprise a unique social class. Admittance to their ranks involves a period of apprenticeship during which time novices serve the needs of the established magicians. The apprentice Sam Salazar is an anomaly among the Jinxmen. He alone exhibits a curiosity about the "miracles" of the ancients, and he alone demonstrates scientific, rational tendencies. Lord Faide and his Jinxmen realize, shortly after their success at Ballant Keep, that the indigenous inhabitants of Pangborn, the First Folk, represent an even greater threat than do their human enemies. Unlike the colonists whose scientific lore has atrophied, the First Folk, over the years, have established an intensive program aimed at devising methods to defeat the men whom they consider hostile invaders.
The Jinxmen control formidable powers against men, but their abilities do not affect the First Folk. After the colonists suffer several major defeats from the smaller and weaker natives, Sam Salazar discovers a scientific solution to the threat imposed by the First Folk, thus ending the story on an optimistic note. The colonists now recognize that the benefits which science represents are more useful than the restricted solutions that magic yields.
The magic that Pangborn's Jinxmen have developed could be defined as a variety of "black" magic. The Jinxmen employ their craft for destructive purposes: to control their adversaries through pain. Vance shows in "The Miracle Workers" that an over-dependence on superstitious, non-rational concepts such as the Jinxmen's magic provides only a temporary solution to the problems at hand and ignores the true source of difficulties. The dubious benefits of magic are contrasted to the stability that science provides. Throughout "The Miracle Workers," science is equated with the marvelous wonders of the "ancients." Magic and superstition, however, have replaced science on Pangborn and, in doing so, have created a false sense of security which results in the colonists' near downfall. Thus, "The Miracle Workers" should be considered a story of warning. Magic and superstition are not viable alternatives for the scientific process which has thus far provided a reliable foundation for progress and stability.
The magical events in "The Miracle Workers" are enriched with humor and fantastic occurrences. Vance avoids outright didacticism by contrasting the limited magic of the colonists with the scientific successes of both the First Folk and apprentice Salazar. Instead, Vance effectively indicates that the alternatives which men should pursue are based on principle and reason, not superstition or unfounded speculation.
In "Green Magic," Howard Fair learns that magical proficiency can yield mixed blessings. The men of Pangborn also learn an equally valuable lesson--mystical abilities serve as poor substitutes for the rational, scientific method. In both of these stories, Vance furnishes these fantasies with an inventory of magical ideas that not only entertains but, more importantly, advances ideas which intimate universal truths.
The six interconnected stories in Vance's first book, The Dying Earth, are set 20 million years in the future, in a twilight atmosphere in which the sun is now a giant red disk that flickers in the sky and threatens to plunge the eroded lands of Earth into perpetual darkness. Few stars remain in this darkening sky which has long since lost its moon. The men and women of this distant era have abandoned science and technology and have regressed to a simpler existence of bucolic ease.
Magic abounds in many forms--spells, elixirs and amulets--and, to a large extent, has replaced the scientific skills and trappings of that advanced age. Although this future Earth appears pleasantly bountiful, dire creatures roam the great forests and the ruined cities.
This background, which The Dying Earth shares with the two Cugel novels and Rhialto The Marvellous, is not unique to fantasy literature, but the imaginative details that Vance imparts provide a moody, almost surreal atmosphere. Don Herron cites in "The Double Shadow" an undeniable similarity between the setting of The Dying Earth and the widely read "Zothique" tales of Clark Ashton Smith (89). Vance related to Charles Platt that he did read and admire Smith's writings but did not see himself imitating Smith's work (163). Recent fantasy writers, most notably Philip Jose Farmer in Dark is the Sun (1974), have employed analogous backgrounds. The literary element which elevates Vance's works above those of other writers who have fantasized about future Earth is his thoughtful and colorful use of magic. As Marshall Tymn states in his brief appraisal of The Dying Earth, "it is this emphasis on things magical and exotic that makes The Dying Earth so unique and memorable" (168). Keeping Tymn's comment firmly in mind, I will examine these "things magical" in The Dying Earth, in the two subsequent "Cugel the Clever" books, and in Vance's thaumaturgical tour de force, Rhialto the Marvellous.
Although Marshall Tymn concludes in his essay that "Vance stands alone in the world of fantasy literature" (169), he also agrees with Peter Close that "The Dying Earth is usually classified as science fantasy, although few of the stories have much to do with science, machinery or technology" (168). Although this term may seem self-contradictory, Russell Letson not only concurs about the appropriateness of the label "science fantasy," but also he explains it in his essay, "The Dying Earth":
In this case, that troublesome term indicates not only the idea that magic is subject to laws or that it is an alternative to science as a means of controlling the world (though both notions are present), but also the portrayal of magic as the historical successor to the physical sciences. (665)
Unlike either the sporadic mystical dabblings the Elder Isle magicians practice or Howard Fair's talents in "Green Magic," the wizards of The Dying Earth employ a system of magic that has been refined over the aeons. As Vance states in the preface to Rhialto, "Magic is a practical science, or, more properly, a craft, since emphasis is placed primarily upon utility, rather than basic understanding" (11). Along with a general decline of science and technology in this future era, the magical skills of The Dying Earth wizards are also only a reminder of a previous, more complex understanding of the "Grand Art."
As Vance relates in "Mazirian the Magician," the second tale of The Dying Earth, the magical arts reached their zenith during the era of the arch-magician Phandaal, who personally set down many of the incantations which remain during this last period of Earth's long history. Upon Phandaal's death
The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others. (30)
In this brief excerpt, Mazirian exhibits the zeal for knowledge that so typically characterizes the wizards and mages throughout Vance's fantasy works. The opening story in The Dying Earth introduces Turjan of Miir, a wizard whose thirst for the secret of the "master matrix" carries him far from Earth to the unknown, beautiful realm of Embelyon. Turjan has only a partial mastery of the magical arts; he has conquered death, completely encompassed Phandaal's lore, but now desires the God-like ability to create human life in his laboratory. For this endeavor he needs the "master matrix" which will enable him to bring forth intelligent life from his vats. Turjan evokes "The Call of the Violent Cloud," a travelling spell which will carry him forth to Embelyon where he hopes to procure the final piece of information he needs.
The concept of altruism is unknown to the majority of Vance's characters. For the knowledge which Turjan seeks, he must perform a return service, in this case, the theft of an amulet from Prince Kandive the Golden. In the course of this robbery, a pyrotechnic display of magical spells and defenses erupts between the determined Turjan and the startled Prince. Turjan successfully wins his prize and gains the secret he desires. He immediately applies his new-found powers to create T'sain, a beautiful woman with whom he eventually returns to Earth.
Turjan learns many magical secrets from Pandalume, his new-found mentor, especially the forgotten mystery of mathematics. Mathematics gives substance to the existence of magic--a rationale which, in part, allows a semi-scientific explanation of those lores we call "magical":
`Within this instrument,' said Pandalume, `resides the Universe. Passive in itself and not of sorcery, it elucidates every problem, each phase of existence, all the secrets of time and space. Your spells and runes are built upon its power and codified according to a great underlying mosaic of magic. The design of this mosaic we cannot surmise; our knowledge is didactic, empirical, arbitrary. Phandaal glimpsed the pattern and so was able to formulate many of the spells which bear his name. I have endeavored through the ages to break the clouded glass, but so far my research has failed. He who discovers the pattern will know all sorcery and be a man powerful beyond all comprehension.'(18)
John W. Campbell would have enjoyed this passage. Since so much of the science fiction of the 1930's and 40's was produced under his tutelage and was firmly rooted in cause and effect relationships, he would have appreciated Vance's effort to explain the apparent miracles in his imaginative fantasy. Few fantasts put forth as satisfying an explication of the wondrous events which occur in the pages of their works. Vance, whenever possible, roots his tales within a framework which attempts to lend credibility and quasi-scientific explanation to the narrative.
The second chapter of the book, "Mazirian the Magician," contains an abundance of magical spells, runes, incantations and amulets. Peter Close in "Fantasms, Magics and Unfamiliar Sciences" notices similarities of plot and theme in each of the six sections of the book. He states, for instance, that
Everyone in the book is looking for something: Mazirian pursues a mysterious woman, Turjan seeks the secret of artificial humanity, Tsars looks for love and beauty, Liane the Wayfarer tries to find Chum the Unavoidable (ironically enough!), Ulan Dohr seeks the lost city of Ampridatvir and Guyal of Sfere is curious about everything. (59)
In "Mazirian," Close notices two noteworthy characteristics: a story "enthralling in its furnishings and background" but offset by "improbabilities [which] come thick and fast" (60). By "furnishings," Close is referring to the surfeit of magical situations which fill the fifteen pages of this story and by "background," Close is alluding to such colorful passages as the depiction of Mazirian's garden (quoted in the first chapter supra). Peter Close maintains that both "Turjan" and "Mazirian" succeed "through style alone" (60). As the ever critical Jack Rawlins states, "the poorness of the plots is not Vance's failure, but rather his message to us that plot is not what matters" (361). In the case of these first two stories, what matters are the magical setting and the thoughtful attention to detail.
In "T'sais," the third tale, Vance subjects a beautiful woman to the myriad dangers which await those unwary souls who inhabit the Dying Earth. Because T'sais is both ignorant of the wickedness of men and unaware of the dangers of Earth, Vance sends her forth with some obligatory pieces of magical equipage, in this case, a living sword and a mystical rune which reflects hostile magic. Perhaps the strongest virtue of this story lies in the contrasting characters of T'sais, who is totally innocent of the ways of this Dying Earth, and Liane the Wayfarer, who epitomizes the proud cruelty and sinfulness of mankind. Even though Close maintains that "T'sais" is technically the weakest section of the book, this story makes one point very clear: magic is necessary for survival in this beautiful but deadly world.
The most prevalent theme in the whole of Vance's literature is one of justice and retribution, and in "Liane the Wayfarer," Vance handles this subject expertly. The heartless title character had been revealed in the preceding story as the type of villian whom Vance thoroughly enjoys destroying. Driven by lust and greed, Liane loses his eyesight in a horrific manner. In the abrupt ending of this story, Liane receives a harsh justice from a BEM (Bug-Eyed-Monster) after he over-relies on a magic ring whose properties he scarcely understands. Vance's point is clear: magic is a complex and valuable skill but remains a poor substitute for thoughtful precaution.
Vance includes in this short piece a vivid scene at a roadside inn where several accomplished wizards have stopped for the night. These sorcerers amuse each other with a wild assortment of parlor tricks and magical contrivances to the delight of their observers. Peter Close, a particularly astute critic of fantasy literature, finds the plot of "Liane" to be "straightforward"; he also comments that "the tour de force of displayed magic at the inn" truly strengthens the story (61).
In the final two stories of The Dying Earth, Vance moves to a larger canvas. Instead of using plots of individual conflicts, he chooses to write about societies involved in flux and change. These last parts of the novel lean more toward a classical science-fiction pattern with stories, as Letson observes, characterized by "their use of miracles wrought by superscience as well as magic" (667). The previous four stories easily might have been situated in the 14th century; however, the automated cities and all-powerful computers of these final tales leave no doubt that Vance's book is indeed set in a far-distant future.
Magic plays a small but significant role in "Ulan Dhor Ends a Dream," the fifth chapter of The Dying Earth. The citizenry of isolated Ampridatvir is factioned into two camps--the Grey and the Green. These groups coexist under an unusual bewitchment--neither group can see a person who wears the garb of the opposing camp. Ulan Dhor's dangerous mission to this lost city entails recovering the two lost tablets of Rogol Domedonfors, each held sacred by the opposing factions. Pandemonium erupts when both tablets are discovered and reunited, resulting in dissolution of the bewitchment, the effect of which is to allow both groups to see their former adversaries. Ulan Dhor has produced some confusion but also has disrupted the stasis that gripped these people for so long and, in doing so, returns free will to a populace which for 5,000 years has led a meaningless existence. Letson observes that
This pattern appears often enough in Vance's work to be considered a signature: the hero finds a people, enslaved, exploited, or trapped in a delusion or a pathological ideology, and frees them of it that they might live on their own terms. (668)
Among the numerous Vance works which share this plot structure are The Blue World, Emphyrio and the "Durdane Trilogy."
"Guyal of Sfere" completes the book and is both the longest and the most critically acclaimed section. As in "Ulan Dhor Ends a Dream," elements of science fiction and fantasy are fused to create a unique blend of these literary forms. The magical adjuncts of this story serve, essentially, as colorful accoutrements to a science fictional plot. This union of traditional fantasy and science fiction is brought to life by the inclusion of beguiling witches, enchanted pathways and, finally, a demonic entity which has demanded a gruesome tribute from the neighboring villages. Vance features humor, irony and suspense in this story which ends optimistically with mankind once again in control of its own fate. Guyal leaves the men and women of the Dying Earth unfettered, and the few stars that remain in the night sky serve as beacons of hope.
For an author's first book, The Dying Earth represents a remarkable achievement. James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock include The Dying Earth in their tribute Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, a thorough consideration of the finest exemplars of this genre. Although plotting problems exist in some sections, they are compensated for by the ornate prose style and beautifully wrought description of Earth's last days. As Robert Silverberg states:
This is not science fiction. It is a continuation of the work of Scheherazade by other hands, a Thousand Nights and a Night romance of never-never land. To Vance, the dying Earth is only a metaphor for decline, loss, decay, and, paradoxical as it may sound, also a return to a lost golden age, a simple and clean time of sparse population and unspoiled streams, of wizards and emperors, of absolute values and the clash of right and wrong. (122)
After a very productive period of some sixteen years, Vance returned to the world of the Dying Earth with contributions to Fantasy and Science Fiction involving a roguish new character, Cugel the Clever. In 1966 these stories were collected in Eyes of the Overworld and, as Silverberg states, "the new book was not so much a sequel to The Dying Earth as a companion" (124). Although the stories were originally published separately, they form a unified whole.
The Eyes of the Overworld follows a picaresque plot. The picaro-protagonist in each chapter invariably comes to a new village or town and stays long enough to work his mischief before he is chased out by the injured townspeople. Rawlings identifies the picaresque plot as Vance's preferred plotting method, commenting that "the protagonist is given the task of getting from a geographical starting place across hostile or unknown territory to a safe house" (357).
Unlike The Dying Earth, which critics often label as "science fantasy," Eyes of the Overworld is an undiluted fantasy effort, combining elements (from Waggoner's system of fantasy classification) of adventure fantasy and comic fantasy. Vance's successful use of comedy in an adventure fantasy motif has been noticed by Tiedman, who observes:
Vance has not been given his due as a humorist; indeed, he seems to be one of the funniest writers alive, in or out of the genre, and The Eyes of the Overworld is his comic novel par excellence. (221)
The humorous intent of both Cugel collections is undeniable. Moreover, these books firmly rely on magic and magical situations for story development. At the onset of Eyes, Cugel has erected a small booth at Azenomei Fair in which he hopes to do business selling false and rudely fashioned magical amulets. After several days of poor sales, Cugel contrives a plan to steal from the mansion of the wizard, Iucounu, its magical objects. Caught in this act by the enraged wizard, Cugel is left with a Hobson's choice: suffer the Spell of Forlorn Encystment (in which the victim is deposited into a small stone cell forty miles below the soil) or perform a dangerous task for the angered magician. Cugel chooses the latter, and Iucounu describes his duty--he must recover a violet lens which, when fitted over the eye, allows a glimpse of the Overworld, the realm of demons. To keep Cugel's mind on his duty, the magician attaches an alien life form, Firx, to Cugel's liver. Deviations from his assigned task cause Firx to clamp down most painfully upon the unfortunate Cugel's tender viscera. Thus, Firx acts as a Freudian superego, monitoring Cugel's behavior at all times.
Iucounu then transports Cugel hundreds of miles north to the rude village of Smolod, whose inhabitants enjoy the magic lenses that Iucounu desires. These cusps seemingly transform the shabby squalor of Smolod into "the quintessence of human hope, visionary longing and beatific dream" (19). The dour-faced men and slatternly-gross women of Smolod appear, to those wearing the cusps, to be fine princes and courtly ladies, while the filthy hovels wherein they repose appear as elegant mansions. The transformation that occurs when one dons these magical cusps brings to mind the Platonic philosophy of perception concerning the dichotomy between appearance and the ideal state. Which is real?
Through devious tactics and humorous intrigues, Cugel eventually does win such a lens, and immediately the dismal squalor around him is transformed into splendid graciousness. When the now beautiful women of Smolod begin to favor Cugel with their attentions, he cannot steel himself sufficiently to endure their touch, knowing, in his mind's eye, their true appearances. As in the end of each chapter of both Cugel books, the protagonist takes to his heels, pursued by a horde of angry villagers.
In each of the subsequent chapters, Cugel involves himself in a series of mischievous adventures wherein magic plays a significant role. In "Cil," Cugel encounters a lonely figure sifting sand along a forlorn strand of beach, searching for a lost bracelet which confers great magical powers on its owner. This despondent searcher has labored thus all his life as did three generations of his forebears. During their conversation Cugel kicks idly in the sand and uncovers a half-buried metallic object, the very amulet which has eluded four generations of the House of Slaye. A hilarious conversation over disputed ownership ensues, but Cugel walks away with the prize. His subsequent misuse of this bracelet nearly costs him his life, but Cugel is not one to learn a lesson from past mistakes.
The remaining chapters of Eyes detail Cugel's return to Almery with his pestilent companion, Firx. The revenge Cugel seeks upon Iucounu provides as much motivation as the irksome beast which so diligently urges him onward.
In the fifth (and most humorous) chapter, Cugel takes outrageous advantage of a diverse group of religious pilgrims to expedite his trip home. Hilarious discourses of differing religious credos and bizarre devotions enliven this chapter as Cugel exploits the fervor of his travelling companions by manipulating signs and omens along the way, thus facilitating his return south by the strength of their added numbers. From the original party of forty-six which sets out, only Cugel reaches the shores of Almery.
In the final chapter, Cugel confronts his nemesis and attempts to employ on Iucounu the same spell which formerly sent Cugel to Shinglestone Beach. Not only does his attempt fail through a mispronunciation of the incantation, but also Cugel himself is forthwith transported to the northern wastes from which he had recently returned. Vance's message is clear--magic, when improperly understood, is dangerous and can produce dire effects. Magic is a vocation for professionals, and dilettantes risk fatal consequences. Cugel's misguided confidence in the Grand Art nets him another long trip across the inhospitable wastelands back to his original starting place.
The third volume of the "Dying Earth" Chronicles, Cugel's Saga, written seventeen years after Eyes of the Overworld, demonstrates an even greater mastery of plot, dialogue, and situation. The picaresque events follow the same pattern as in Eyes; however, Cugel is no longer stimulated by a parasitic entity but is motivated through sheer and simple revenge. Cugel's Saga also exhibits the fullest development of Vance's talent for creating and describing humorous characters and situations.
Cugel's new series of adventures in this northern land begins at a lonely outpost where he has been impressed into dismal servitude. He and two other unfortunate wayfarers are forced to plunge into a freezing, slimy marsh pit to recover archeological artifacts of a magical being who long ago toppled into this chasm. During the pale light of day, Cugel labors under this undeserving indenture and, in his spare time, is allowed to tend and embellish a grave site plotted for his expected demise. Coincidentally, these artifacts for which Cugel dives are coveted by the hated Iucounu, and when Cugel uncovers a potently magical relic of this entity, his thoughts turn to new plans for a final revenge. After arranging an ingenious escape, Cugel sets forth to enact a desperate plot against his old nemesis.
The magical atmosphere of this first chapter is compounded by amusing and comical scenes wherein Cugel attempts to combat sorcery through bravado and cunning alone. The subsequent humor of the second chapter, "The Inn of Blue Lights," is equally vivacious, burlesquely distinguished by its coarse subject matter. As in all of Vance's Dying Earth tales, magical situations predicate the motivations of the stories themselves. The antics of Cugel during his reluctant journeys are made possible because of Vance's infusion of magical theme and comedic purpose.
The climax of these stories results in Cugel the Clever's eventual opportunity to turn the tables on Iucounu after a hilarious cat-and-mouse struggle involving a complex magic that Cugel barely comprehends and Iucounu over-confidently misuses.
Critics seem not to have discovered this third volume of The Dying Earth, but Richard Tiedman, who has so expressively suggested that Vance is, perhaps, one of the "funniest" authors, would appreciate the amusements found in Cugel's Saga. The novel abounds with humor, wonders, and fascinations, all of which are enhanced effectively through the magical themes and setting.
Vance's latest addition to the Dying Earth collection, Rhialto the Marvellous, represents another finely wrought synthesis of situational humor and magical splendor. The book contains three related stories prefaced by an introduction to the realm of The Dying Earth and the essential magical elements of that fictional future.
Rhialto is one of a cabal of resplendent wizards whose unsteady relationship is characterized by petty bickering and squabbling. Vance's craft makes their magic believable and enjoyable, even if the circumstances of the plot sometime seem contrived. Tom Easton, a critic in Analog Science Fiction-Science Fact (March 1985), assesses Rhialto as follows:
we don't read Vance for plots of clockwork inevitability or even events that fit together in reasonable fashion. We seek extravagance of conceit and language, antic exaggerations of human character traits (largely the venal) and bumptious visions of time and history, and we get them all. (147)
Although these characteristics exist throughout the Dying Earth Saga, Rhialto the Marvellous presents the ultimate demonstration of Vance's skills and shows that forty years of experience have truly elevated his prose style to a masterful level.
In Rhialto the Marvellous, Vance superbly introduces magic into his narrative without digressing from his true purpose, telling fine stories which highlight and exaggerate the human condition at both its zenith and nadir.
"The Merthe," the first of these tales, presents a cosmic love story between an archetypal, god-like man and an archetype of femininity. The magician Ildefonse draws a comparison between the yin-yang relationship of these combative lovers and an ancient, now arid ocean:
`Calanctus likens a woman to the Ciaeic Ocean which absorbs the full thrust of the Antipodal Current as it sweeps around Cape Spang, but only while the weather holds fair. If the wind shift but a trifle, this apparently placid ocean hurls an abrupt flood ten or even twenty feet high back around the cape, engulfing all before it. When stasis is restored and the pressure relieved, the Ciaeic is as before, placidly accepting the current. Do you concur with this interpretation of the female geist?' `Not on all counts,' said Rhialto. `At times Calanctus borders on the hyperbolic.' (34-35)
This passage echos Vance's sophisticated and humorous diction, and this wry tone is a signature of his work.
In "Fader's Waft," Rhialto, hoodwinked out of his magical devices, undertakes a convoluted trip through time in an effort to regain his possessions. To facilitate this undertaking, he must rely upon the capricious, double-dealing Sandestins, an alien race subverted by men to perform much of the magic which humans cannot directly perform. The trials Rhialto must endure at the hands of his erstwhile companions and with faithless Sandestins are immense. From the standpoint of both magical situation and comedic encounter, this story ranks among Vance's finest.
The final chapter of Rhialto reunites the Dying Earth wizards on a fantastic journey to the edge of the universe. The inclusion of space travel would seem to indicate that "Morreion" (this story) will be, instead of fantasy, a science-fantasy. Anti-scientific, magically inventive methods propel this strange group through the stars, however. The stated reason for this unique adventure is touted as an attempt to rescue one of their fellow magicians, but these wizards, as always, have only self-serving motivations. The allure of the magical IOUN stones provides the impetus for this unlikely group to hazard the dangers they face on their journey. Although this story involves space flights and alien monstrosities, the real focus never drifts from an examination of human values. "Morreion" exhibits Vance's wild imagination to its fullest; he has created a powerful story about the complexities of human nature.
Underwood Miller Publishing Company has handsomely dignified "Morreion" in a fully illustrated folio-sized reprinting of the story. Fantasy readers will appreciate this hardcover tribute to Vance with its lavish watercolor illustrations and its attractive printing.
The themes of each of the three Rhialto the Marvellous tales are, consecutively, a cosmic search for love, the search for justice and equity, and an examination of the damaging effects of greed and indifference. Each of these tales comprises the quintessential human experiences which Vance defines so capably in this "carpe diem" atmosphere of an Earth which will soon lose its sun and vitality. Those few wizards of this lost Age--they who control the secrets of both space and time--differ in abilities and personalities, but not from the basic natures of the men and women of our world.
Although sorcery and spell-casting contribute much to the focus of Vance's fantasy, the magical situations never completely dominate the pages of the Dying Earth books. These are books about human beings--some of whom are endowed with special knowledge, and some others who become unwilling victims in a future age where danger lurks among haunted ruins and dark forests.
In the Dying Earth series, Vance sets the stage for an odd display of human behaviors, both ignoble and just. Magic allows these stories a full expression of human characteristics and motivations. Fantasts, like all writers of literature, endeavor to produce works which are both entertaining and enriching. Vance achieves both of these tasks through his use of magic and magical situations.
In the preceding chapters, the fantasy writings of Jack Vance--set in the past, hypothetical present and advanced future--have been examined with regard to the impact that magic and magical situations lend to the works. In this final chapter, Vance's use of magic will be reexamined and classified in three specific categories: magic and setting, magic and humor, and magical wonder.
J. R. R. Tolkien addresses the importance of creating a fantastic, yet plausible, background setting for "Faerie"--his preferred term for fantasy-work backdrops. In "On Fairy Stories," he offers this thought about fantastic detail such as different-colored suns or talking beasts:
To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode. (46)
Vance creates his distinctive "narrative art" through a refined selection of vivid hues and tones and with, as Tiedman notes, "the incorporation of extraordinary amounts of small detail woven into a rich and translucently colorful fabric" (192). Vance's mastery of colorful setting was apparent by 1950 as we can observe in this passage from "Turjan of Miir," when the magician visits the magical, Tertiary World of Embelyon:
So as Turjan watched, there swept over him beams of claret, topaz rich violet, radiant green. He now perceived that the colors of the flowers and the trees were but fleeting functions of the sky, for now the flowers were of salmon tint, and the trees a dreaming purple. The flowers deepened to copper, then with a suffusion of crimson, warmed through maroon to scarlet, and the trees had become sea-blue. (DE 10)
The inhabitants of this Dying Earth present an equally colorful tableaux, as Turjan, magically transported to Kaiin, witnesses:
The streets surged with the wine-flushed populace, costumed in a multitude of bizarre modes. Here was a warrior of Valderan's Green Legion, here another of ancient times wearing one of the old helmets. In a little cleared space a garlanded courtesan of the Kauchique littoral danced the Dance of Fourteen silken Movements to the music of flutes. In the shadow of a balcony a girl barbarian of East Almery embraced a man blackened and in leather harness as a Deodand of the forest. They were gay, these people of waning Earth, feverishly merry, for infinite night was close at hand, when the red sun should finally flicker and go black. (DE 14)
The Tertiary World described in "Green Magic" is equally fantastic: the green realm is a wonderland of "fragile moth-wing mosaics, pillars of carved milk and dreaming towers" (40-41). Although these realms are described in terms that few of us create even in our most imaginative dreams, they come as easily enjoyed, magical interludes to the reader willing to "suspend disbelief." As stated in Chapter II, these excursions into magical realms offer a much needed departure from the often wearisome storyline of the Elder Isle novels.
The magical settings of Vance's fantasies empower his fiction with vitality, as does his incorporation of a menagerie of strange, frightful creatures into his worlds. Deodands, whose name derives from, as Peter Close tells us in "Fantasms, Magics and Unfamiliar Sciences," an old English legal term meaning "instrument of death," stalk the unwary traveller in The Dying Earth novels as do pelgranes, grues, and erbs (an acronym for Edgar Rice Burrows). Even the 14th century Elder Isles were inhabited by dread shapes: witches, ogres, capricious wefkins and malicious fairies. The baleful creatures of Vance's fantasies share in common the refined speech that is so recognizable in his dialogues. The deodand who surprises Mazirian deep in the forest exhibits this style.
"Ah, Mazirian, you roam the woods far from home," the black thing's soft voice rose from the glade. "I come seeking, Deodand. Answer my questions and I will undertake to feed you much flesh." The Deodand's eyes flinted, flirting over Mazirian's body. "You may in any event, Mazirian. Are you with powerful spells today?" (DE 32)
Such exchanges couched in subtle understatement occur between most of Vance's protagonists. These dignified conversations lend the exotic creatures of these tales a distinctive presence and allure. Vance, Leiber, and Ballard are among a select few fantasy writers who effectively infuse humor into their work.
Ursula K. LeGuin's engaging essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" comments upon Vance's humorous prose.
And while we are on the subject of humor, Jack Vance must be mentioned, though his humor is so quiet you can miss it if you blink. Indeed the whole tone of his writing is so modest that sometimes I wonder whether, like Leiber and Zelazny, he fails to realize how very good a writer he is. If so, it is probably a result of the patronizing attitude American culture affects towards works of pure imagination. Vance, however, never compromises with the patronizing and ignorant. He never lets his creation down in order to make a joke, and he never shows a tin ear for tone. The conversation of his characters is aloof and restrained, very like his own narrative prose: an unusual kind of English, but clear, graceful, and precisely suited to Vance's extraordinary imagination. It is an achieved style. (92)
Piers Anthony's "Xanth" series also attempts to combine fantasy and humor, but his novels fail to be either funny or wondrous, primarily due to the author's strained effort to maximize both means to a narrative end. Leiber's "Grey Mouser" series comes closer, perhaps, to the goal of a successful blend of magic and humor, but his characters seem wooden and lifeless. Vance has mastered this literary synthesis as seen in both Cugel the Clever books and Rhialto.
The two Cugel books represent Vance's most successful effort to combine elements of magic and comedy while ensuring that each effectively adds to the narrative. Cugel's attempted theft of Iucounu's magical devices begins Eyes of the Overworld, and a series of picaresque misadventures, both magical and humorous, plague the roguish hero's attempt to return to Almery. Cugel, of course, has nothing to blame for his troubles but his own greed and lust. He, like most of Vance's fantasy protagonists, seeks magic at any cost other than diligent study. Anyone displaying to Cugel an amulet, rune or elixir can expect to be drugged, cozened, or gambled out of his device. Vance, however, is too humanitarian to allow a footpad like Cugel to profit through others' misfortune, and at the end of each chapter he is invariably chased, penniless, from each town by the injured villagers.
Vance's latest Dying Earth book, Cugel's Saga (1983), reflects forty years of narrative refinement. Although the humor plays a vitally important role, in Chapter VII, "The Bagful of Dreams," the chapter wholly depends upon Vance's magic. At Duke Orbal's Grand Exposition of Marvels, Cugel plans a bizarre exhibit, but he faces stiff competition, he believes, from Bazzard, another competitor:
The spectators moved on to the second pavilion where Bazzard presently appeared, his face woebegone. `Your Grace and noble citizens of Cuirnif: My "Unlikely Musicians" were fish from the Cantic Sea and I felt sure of the prize when I brought them here to Cuirnif. However, during the night a leak drained the tank dry. The fish are dead and their music is lost forever! I still wish to remain in contention for the prize; hence I will simulate the songs of my former troope. Please adjudicate the music on this basis.' (293)
Vance does not need to suggest to the astute reader just how the tank developed this mysterious leak; the villain is of course Cugel who is just then being characterized by Xallop's "Compendium," the following exhibit in the magical competition. This remarkable book is a rather irritable font of knowledge that occasionally answers questions that are put to it. When Duke Orbal asks the Compendium one final query, Cugel's nature is revealed to all."Who among the folk now presiding in Cuirnif presents the greatest threat to the welfare of my realm?"
"I am a repository of information, not an oracle," stated the book. "However, I will remark that among those present stands a fox-faced vagabond with a crafty expression, whose habits would bring a blush to the Queen Noxon herself. His name---."
Cugel left forward and pointed across the plaza. "The robber! There he goes now! Summon the constables! Sound the gong!" While everyone turned to look, Cugel slammed shut the book and dug his knuckles into the cover. The book grunted in annoyance. (295)
Xallop's "Compendium" could not have been more correct, but what kind of device is this marvel, a truly magical book or some type of super-advanced computer memory unit? "Compendium" may well be some relic of an advanced scientific culture instead of a magical apparatus. Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum, as Asimov suggested in his monthly forum of science fiction and fantasy, that "any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic" can be applied here. (4) Accepting this premise, "Compendium" or any of the amulets, such as Cugel's "projector of blue flame" in "The Pilgrims," may be technological devices rather than true instruments of magic.
Vance manages the difficult task of instilling humor into the generally somber atmosphere of the Elder Isles Chronicles. The magically humorous scene wherein the dim-witted Grofinet attempts to learn magic, the antics of the Wizard Vishbane, and the whimsical encounters among the Fairies of Thripsee Shee add to the mystique of Lyonesse, The Green Pearl and Madouc. As noted above, Vance suggested that he sought to produce something for a "larger audience," but in a later interview with Johan Thielemans, Vance may have reconsidered this approach, stating that "[if] you try to appeal to the popular taste, you lose everything that is good. This is almost a basic law of being alive" (485). Perhaps, in retrospect, Vance had misgivings (none financial) about his attempt to adjust his writing to mainstream appeal. These non-characteristic books contain much less humor and magic than do his other fantasies and, it is generally agreed, are inferior to his more traditional efforts, notably The Dying Earth.
Two years following the publication of Lyonesse, Vance produced the work which may be his most humorous and most magical, Rhialto the Marvellous. This novel also includes Vance's most abundant use of magic as a controlling plot device. The wizards of Rhialto's coterie control vast amounts of magical ability but conduct themselves as petty, quarrelsome children. In a sense, they prove Lord Acton correct--absolute power does tend to corrupt absolutely.
The true essence of Vance's stature as a memorable fantasy writer can be credited to his use of magic to inspire wonder and marvels. The very nomenclature of his vast array of magical spells can raise an appreciative smile. These incantations include:
The Excellent Prismatic Spray
The Green and Purple Postponement of Joy
The Spell of Forlorn Encystment
The Charm of Untiring Nourishment
Clambard's Rein of Long Nerves
Lugwiler's Dismal Itch
The Spell of the Macroid Toe
The last of these spells causes the victim's big toe to swell to the size of a large boulder, entrapping and thus immobilizing the unfortunate person affected. A complete list of Vance's spells is very long. The effort required for the Dying Earth wizards to control four or even three of these is immense. Once uttered, these charms are entirely forgotten until diligent effort allows them to be reabsorbed into the magician's mind. This fact serves Vance as an effective plot device because an all powerful, untiring magician effectively could avoid all conflicts and thus impede the storyline's development.
In Rhialto Vance presents a prologue which explains the manner in which magic functions in his fantasy works:
A spell in essence corresponds to a code, or set of instructions, inserted into the sensorium of an entity which is able and not unwilling to alter the environment in accordance with the message conveyed by the spell. These entities are not necessarily `intelligent,' nor even `sentient,' and their conduct, from the tyro's point of view, is unpredictable, capricious and even dangerous. The most pliable and cooperative of these creatures range from the lowly and frail elementals, through the sandestins. (12)
The more powerful magicians gain their strengths and abilities from their talent to control sandestins or magical thralls, but Vance's point is clearly drawn: Men don't actually perform magic--they coerce magical phenomena from beings who do have intrinsic magical proficiencies.
The mere act of giving voice to these spells, these "codes of instructions," can be a dangerous action as even the witch-goddess Merthe in Rhialto painfully discovers: She screamed and from her throat erupted a great spell--an explosion of power too strong for the tissues of her body, so that blood spurted from her mouth and nose. (42)
If we couple Vance's "fact" that other magical creatures complete the magic that men compel them to, along with the previous hypothesis that magical devices such as the "Compendium" are, instead, technological wonders, we have a model which lends credibility to the magic found in "The Dying Earth Saga." With this model in mind, the amulets, the magic rings, and the runes may be either technological marvels or devices which utilize some method of controlling the "entities" that Vance mentions. This model realizes the goal of most serious science fiction writers: to lend a rational explanation to the arguments of their narratives. Few fantasts take the effort to offer explanations of the magic found in their works. They expect their readers to freely accept the use of magic in their works, and they also expect these same readers to continue buying their books.
With the fantasy bookshelves crowded with, as Hartwell describes them, "slavish imitations of Tolkien," it is indeed refreshing to find titles by Vance which present fantasy material in formats which involve new creative inroads (40). The rash outpouring of these Tolkien clones by such commercially successful authors as Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson and David Eddings (all on Tolkien's publishing label, Ballantine) has glutted the market to the point where a reader might eventually feel compelled to scream aloud Hartwell's thought that "Hey, I've read this book. In fact, I've read it about fourteen times" (41).
There is little doubt that the fields of science fiction and fantasy are evolving. Thoughtful writers are concerning themselves more with their craft and their audiences. Space operas, faster-than-light ships and time travel are being replaced by a new concern for scientific realism. Science fiction now competes with "science-faction," a label applied to scientifically-based fictions such as William Gibson's Neuromancer. Gibson's works deal with an unpleasantly near future in which resources are scarce and giant corporations wield the essential powers that control men's lives. These writings represent a plausible vision of life in the next century and present to the reader an interesting transitional area blending elements of realistic fiction and science fiction/fantasy.
Fortunately, there are also writers like Jack Vance who offer a literary escape from the problems that humankind may encounter soon. His fantasies lend the reader a welcome alternative to the apocalyptic visions of the future that many well intentioned writers produce but not all readers want. The skillful and effective employment of magic in Vance's fantasies ensures the reading public the wonder that great fantasy delivers.
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