Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Of course he doesn't like you. You are a servant of selfish evil."

In a previous post, Nathan Housley commented on the selfishness of "The Ecology of the Unicorn" protagonists. I don't know about Rutu, but Malathikos is clearly not a poster boy for goodness. I mean, with a name like that, it's a dead giveaway, like naming your character Torquemada, Sidious, Mrs. Malice, or His Evilness.

There is a small but important tradition of storytelling where the protagonist is the worst person around. This may be used to teach that evil doesn't pay or, as is common in more modern "realistic" literature, just because evil is a facet of humanity. Sometimes, on the other hand, because it's fun. If well played (and it takes skill) there is a lot of comedic potential in a story filled with consummate egotist always looking for Number One. Of course, because there can only be one Number One, hilarity ensues when all the characters foolishly try to achieve their usually impossible or overblown goals. This narcissism is the source of amusement, not only for the mischief and damage it causes to others (who may actually deserve whatever happens to them) but  because it's self-destructive and the protagonists are their worst enemies. 

Sometimes, like in the British black comedy Black Adder (mostly seasons two and three,) the main protagonist seems to be the only one intelligent around, something that in an almost Darwinian sense justifies his behavior because everyone else around him is too stupid for his own good, so they might as well be fleeced by the only one around with a hint of self-awareness. Besides, it's also common that almost anyone else is a huge egoist, too; the problem is not alignment, then, but that they used INT as their dumping stat. It seems that we humans get a kick out of seeing a bunch of snakes tearing each other apart.

Following the style of Jack Vance's stories, The Ecology of the Unicorn also has a self-centered (but somewhat charming) egotist as the main protagonist. Now, although some people may mince words and talk about "anti-heroes," the simple truth is that characters like Cugel the Clever (at least in The Eyes of the Overworld) would have been hanged in almost all known jurisdictions. And a few would have allowed the death penalty just for him. He is evil (with a small e, to be fair) clearly self-centered, narcissistic, and a cruel and vindictive man. His ego is as big as his usually underserved soubriquet, "The Clever," which makes his inevitable (but mostly self-imposed) failures even funnier. 

Being a competent wizard who has managed to dodge death's embrace for a long time, Malathikos doesn't seem to be such a fool, but like in many stories with a villainous protagonist, he is his own downfall. His ambition and his inability to accept death -which drive him to seek out the mysterious source of the fae's immortality- end up killing him when the creature he apparently needs (a unicorn,) a beast of unblemished good, sniffs his wicked aura and impales him with its horn, sending him to a well-deserved but inglorious end. However -and unlike Cugel-, being a forward-thinking gentleman, Malathikos had already planned for such eventuality, and his demise triggers a catastrophic event that ultimately earns him immortality of another kind: the destruction of the Great Tree of the fairies by a giant demon who repeatedly screams his name like an infernal loudspeaker. Malathikos had wanted immortality, and something of that kind he got. Better to be known as a sinner than not at all, he probably would have said.

Here I'd like to add that it is nice to see authors who follow that old tradition of making any magic user wicked or, at least, certainly not normal. Before the advent of high fantasy and its derivatives (where being a mage is just like any other profession,) magic was essentially demonic or of questionable origin, and it was also assumed that even if it was used for noble purposes, its wielder could not be a "nice guy" or a normal, well-adjusted individual. After all, the point of magic is an unwillingness to accept the normal laws of reality. If they hadn't sold their souls to an inhuman abomination like the wizards of R. E. Howard, they were the haughty, conceited, hedonistic, and some of them barely sane wizards of Vance's 21st Aeon. I have noticed the treatment of magic and magic-users seem to be a telltale sign that separates those who follow older (and, I believe, better) traditions of fantasy from those who follow modern ones, and Hernstrom is certainly in the first group. 

While in contemporary fantasy magic is usually just pyrotechnics or a tool like any other (i.e. warriors attack with a sword and wizards throw fireballs, but it's essentially the same*,) for the old masters of fantasy magic was part of the character and the plot. It was part of his personality, desires, and ambitions. It allowed him to accomplish things, even immoral things, which would be impossible otherwise. In many cases, it was a necessary condition for the plot to make sense. And if science wonders are (or should be) essential for a science fiction story to make any sense, magic should also be a necessary narrative tool for a sorcery-centered story to make sense. The Ecology of the Unicorn, even if it is a short and humorous tale of overblown egos and foolish magicks, accomplishes that.

* Just different ways to kill something. I guess this could be an undesired consequence of D&D's popularity, where a mage is just that, a class.

1 comment:

  1. Concerning the peculiar psychology of pulpish wizards:

    "Know that I am the sorcerer Ezdagor," proclaimed the ancient, his voice echoing among the rocks with dreadful sonority. "By choice I have lived remote from cities and men; nor have the Voormis of the mountain troubled me in my magical seclusion. I care not if you are the magistrate of all swinedom or a cousin to the king of dogs. In retribution for the charm you have shattered, the business you have undone by this oafish trespass, I shall put upon you a most dire and calamitous and bitter geas."

    From "The seven geases," (1934) by Clark Ashton Smith