Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Tedium of Thaumaturgy

Clark Ashton Smith’s The Maze of the Enchanter (1933) is one of a number of his stories strongly influenced by the work of Lord Dunsany.  It reads a lot like one of the mythopoetic fables in Dunsany’s earlier collections, The Gods of Pegãna (1905) or Time and the Gods (1906), and is filled with nearly unpronounceable place names and obscure terminology.  (A recent collection of Smith’s stories contains helpful footnotes in the back to explain such terms or references as odalisque, Laocoön, gamboge, and Terminus—the Roman god of boundary markers.  An online dictionary is also helpful.)

By reading The Maze of the Enchanter, readers will become familiar with words such as coign, ensorcelled, thaumaturgy, corundum, imbricated, and chancrous, among others.  To be fair, Smith was a poet of considerable skill. So the pleasure of reading this story comes as much from the sound and rhythm of the language he employed as it does from the vivid imagery he creates.  The obscure, archaic terminology also contributes to the exotic feel of the setting and the events that take place there.   In general, an increased vocabulary is a pleasant side effect of reading Smith’s stories.

The Maze of the Enchanter is an interesting hybrid combining elements of poetry, science fiction and horror.  The latter comes in a series of ever changing, visually intense descriptions of bizarre flora and fauna, all suggesting a world permeated by disease, predation, and incarceration.  A queasy organic unity links all of the scenes into a single nightmare.  This passage describes how one of the characters, the doomed Tiglari, approaches the abode of the evil sorcerer Maal Dweb:

…Tiglari had crossed the bottomless swamp of Soorm, wherein no reptile dwelt and no dragon descended—but where the pitch black ooze was alive with continual heavings and writhings.  He had carefully avoided the high causey of white corundum that spanned the fen, and had threaded his way with infinite peril from isle to sedgy isle that shuddered gelatinously beneath him.

Similar text is used to describe the interior of Maal Dweb’s palace as well his inescapable garden maze.  The horror of the magician’s creations radiates out from his halls to permeate the entire world.  Readers may wonder whether the principle characters and activities of the story exist outside of a single mind.  Is this all part of someone’s frightening dream?  And whose?

A few details about the setting suggest the influence of what was then the emerging genre of science fiction.  The Maze of the Enchanter takes place on the planet Xiccarph, lit by three suns during the day, and by four small moons at night.  Its hazardous topography is teeming with ferocious animals and plants.  The evil magician is served by enormous metallic guards “whose arms ended in long crescent blades of tempered steel”, suggestive of evil robots.  But there is no science here, just fantastic, hallucinogenic imagery. 

Tiglari is a simple man of action, a primitive hunter, bent on rescuing his beloved Athlé from Maal Dweb’s evil enchantment.  This would seem to be a trite, hackneyed plot, the subject of numberless fairy tales from around the world.  But in Smith’s hands this trope becomes a much more subtle statement about the nature of love and beauty and evil.  It soon becomes apparent that Tiglari and Athlé are not the first, nor the last people to be tormented in Maal Dweb’s fearful garden maze.  The landscape is essentially an anti-Garden of Eden, the purpose of which is to change the beautiful Athlé into living statuary, and cause Tiglari to revert to a primordial life form.   They are both doomed, and barely struggle against their fate.   

However, in a way, Maal Dweb is also doomed, at least to change.  By far the most interesting character in Smith’s story, he does not appear until near the end.  Though he is an all-powerful miracle worker and magician, (that is, a thaumaturgist), he is running out of ideas and getting bored.  “Is it not well…that I should vary my sorceries in future?” he asks, to the robots who always agree with him.  Also in view here is the theme of decadence, a favorite one of Smith’s.  Events on Xiccarph have been repeating themselves for a long time. 

Throughout The Maze of the Enchanter, the sorcerer is described as enigmatically weary, contemptuous, bemused, and cruel.  That he would consider in the future doing things differently with the mortals he torments in his maze is the only real change that occurs in the story.  The mortals of course remain powerless and fatalistic—either as idolatrous statues or savage beasts.  This seems to express an attitude Smith and many others down through the ages have held—Job comes to mind—that questions the supposed benevolence of a deity and the nature of its creation.  Lord Dunsany strikes exactly the same tone in his wonderful Time and the Gods.

Compare Clark Ashton Smith’s The Maze of the Enchanter with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Cats of Ulthar (1920) or perhaps Robert E. Howard’s The Mirrors of Tazun Thune (1929).  While these other stories have their charm, Smith was probably the most successful of the three in assimilating Lord Dunsany’s style and achieving powerful effects with it.

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