Monday, March 8, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Seven Geases

If I had to pick a single story by Clark Ashton Smith that exemplified all the traits his detractors attribute to him, a good candidate would be 1934's "The Seven Geases" (in the same issue of Weird Tales in which C.L. Moore's "The Black God's Kiss" also appears). This short story of the ancient land of Hyperborea is filled with difficult to pronounce names, a menagerie of elder gods and lost races, a detached, yet humorous authorial voice, and no discernible plot. And yet, "The Seven Geases" is probably one of the more widely read and remembered CAS tales. Why should this be?

Part of it, I think, is that the very things many criticize in this tale are what make it so memorable. Its protagonist, Ralibar Vooz, is "high magistrate of Commoriom and third cousin to King Homquat," who goes forth to hunt subhuman creatures called Voormis
with six-and-twenty of his most valorous retainers in quest of such game as was afforded by the black Eiglophian Mountains. Leaving to lesser sportsmen the great sloths and vampire-bats of the intermediate jungle, as well as the small but noxious dinosuaria, Ralibar Vooz and his followers had pushed rapidly ahead and had covered the distance between the Hyperborean capital and their objective in a day's march.
While on his hunting expedition, he inadvertently interrupts "a most promising and important evocation" being cast by a sorcerer known as Ezdagor, who rebukes him as a "lumbering, bawling idiot." The haughty nobleman, of course, will tolerate no such imprecations.
"How now, varlet!" said Ralibar Vooz, astonished and angered by this greeting, of which he understood little save that his presence was unwelcome by the old man. "Who are you that speak so churlishly to a magistrate of Commoriom and a cousin to King Homquat? I advise you to curb such insolence; for, if so I wish, it lies within my power to serve you even as I serve the Voormis. Though methinks," he added, "your pelt is far too filthy and verminous to merit room amid my trophies of the chase."

"Know that I am the sorcerer Ezdagor," proclaimed the ancient, his voice echoing amid 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 oafish trespass, I shall put upon you a most dire and calamitous and bitter geas."
And with those words, Ralibar Vooz is compelled against his will to journey into the depths beneath Mt. Voormithadreth, in the company of Ezdagor's bird familiar, Raphtontis, as a blood-offering to the Old One, Tsathoggua, in punishment for his actions against the sorcerer. But when Ralibar Vooz at last reaches the lair of Tsathoggua, after much trial, the Old Ones says,
"Thanks are due to Ezdagor for this offering. But, since I have fed lately on a well-blooded sacrifice, my hunger is appeased for the present, and I require not the offering. However, it may well be that the others of the Old Ones are athirst and famished. And, since you came here with a geas upon you, it is not fitting that you should go hence without another. So I place you under this geas, to betake yourself downward through the caverns till you reach, after long descent, that bottomless gulf over which the spider-god Atlach-Nacha weaves his eternal webs.
As one might guess from the short story's title, Atlach-Nacha has no use for Ralibar Vooz either and in turns places yet another geas on him, sending him to Haon-Dor, who likewise has no use for him ...

"The Seven Geases" comes across a tragicomic travelog of the non-human horrors and wonders that exist beneath the Eoglophian Mountains, in which humanity, as represented by Ralibar Vooz, is merely an afterthought, a mere distraction rather than the prime mover of all that transpires. In this respect, there's a clear affinity with H.P. Lovecraft's otherworldly creations, who likewise take little notice of Man. Of course, Smith's treatment of these entities is quite different, seeming at once more and less intelligible than HPL's presentation. For example, Smith's creations employ the same cultured, if often circuitous, language as the Rabelaisian human beings that populate Hyperborea in great quantities, even if their motivations are every bit as alien as those in Lovecraft.

For gamers, "The Seven Geases" is filled with creatures and gods to inspire and delight. It's little wonder that so many of the entries in Call of Cthulhu's bestiary are drawn from this story. Indeed, it was in that venerable RPG that I first came across references to "The Seven Geases" and sought it out. I assumed that any story that included so many different -- and bizarre -- beings had to be well worth my time to read. And so it is. At the same time, it's an easy story to dislike, especially given that its ending is "the written equivalent of a rim-shot punctuating a stand-up comedian’s bad joke."

And yet I'd argue that this is a serious work rather than a (purely) comedic one; its humor is of a black sort and intended to highlight the insignificance of humanity in the cosmic scheme rather than to mitigate it. In this respect, "The Seven Geases" is one of the more genuinely "Lovecraftian" stories Smith ever wrote, even if it doesn't seem so on one's first read-through. It's certainly not one Lovecraft himself could ever have written, given the whimsy that punctuates its black humor and eldritch horrors. Perhaps for that very reason it's one of Smith's best efforts and an excellent exemplar of his own unique approach to the cosmicism for which Lovecraft is better known.

Oh yes: it's pronounced, roughly, "gesh" -- easily one of the most often mispronounced words among lovers of fantasy.

35 comments:

  1. I think the next most mispronounced word is likely "melee".

    ReplyDelete
  2. I enjoyed Jeff Talanian's nod to this tale in Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow, that's, uh, quite a cover.

    ReplyDelete
  4. That's just how Margaret Brundage (the illustrator) rolled. Check out the cover featuring Howard's "Black Colossus" for an even racier version of this composition.

    Word verification: "inkin" (bizarrely appropriate)

    ReplyDelete
  5. I just read this story last week and I wondered if Rob Kuntz's "Robilar" was derived from "Ralibar" -- didn't EGG suggest the name to him and we know he loved puns.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I had never known Jack Vance was influenced by anyone until I started reading C.A. Smith. That story, especially, must have had a huge impact on Vance. I don't feel it lessens his work any...it's just interesting to have been a Vance fan for so long, yet not know about Smith.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've never read this story as anything other a sort of joke between CAS and HPL, a sort of fairy tale set in their shared world but now I'll have to go back and reread it to see how it stands otherwise.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Terry Prachett has "geas" heard/confused as "geese" in "A Hat Full of Sky". But of course he could also be wrong, or purposly so as it was done through two character conserving.
    It wasn't in my "Shorter Oxford" which is what I normally use to confirm this stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Where did you get the "Gesh" pronunciation from?

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think the next most mispronounced word is likely "melee".

    Indubitably.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I just read this story last week and I wondered if Rob Kuntz's "Robilar" was derived from "Ralibar" -- didn't EGG suggest the name to him and we know he loved puns.

    As I've come to understand it, Gygax wasn't a fan of Smith and hadn't even read much (any?) of his stuff until Rob Kuntz suggested he do so. Given that, there may well be a connection between the two names, but, if so, it comes wholly from Kuntz, not via EGG.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I had never known Jack Vance was influenced by anyone until I started reading C.A. Smith. That story, especially, must have had a huge impact on Vance. I don't feel it lessens his work any...it's just interesting to have been a Vance fan for so long, yet not know about Smith.

    It's interesting, because, while I agree that Vance seems to have a lot of affinity with Smith, especially stylistically, I distinctly recall reading Vance's denial that he'd read any CAS until well after he'd started writing.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Terry Prachett has "geas" heard/confused as "geese" in "A Hat Full of Sky". But of course he could also be wrong, or purposly so as it was done through two character conserving.

    He does and lots of gamers of my acquaintance pronounce just that way because of it.

    ReplyDelete
  14. 'Eiglophian' is one of these little miracles of invented language -- it wraps around the associations of blackness and stone so perfectly that it's as though it always was there, waiting to be invented just for that purpose.

    Love this story. What a treat for the readers of WT when that issue appeared.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Where did you get the "Gesh" pronunciation from?

    Gaelic, of the Irish variety, I believe. Most of the sources I've seen in recent years have used that pronunciation and a fellow I knew in grad school who was studying medieval Gaelic assured me that it -- or, rather, something very close to it, because I can't pronounce Gaelic worth a damn -- was the "proper" pronunciation. If I'm mistaken on this score, I'd love to know it.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Except that the "sh" sound on the end of "geas" isn't the same "sh" sound that exists in English. It's actually midway between the "s" and "sh" phonemes, articulated with the tongue underneath (rather than behind) the alveolar ridge -- as in Irish names (Sean, Seamus) or in certain Chinese words (wuxia, xiaolin). Fact of the matter is, even when you say "gesh", you're probably pronouncing it wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  17. A classic story, complete with the alpine catoblepas.

    I enjoy re-reading this one every so often. To me the story has an almost Dunsanian quality to it, sort of like The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller.

    Lin Carter, some years later, virtually re-wrote this and it read like a bad train wreck.

    Leave the good stuff to the masters.

    ReplyDelete
  18. "Melee" was a problem for us back in 1980, but "charisma" was even worse. We were talking about "CHAH-risma" for almost a year before we were corrected. :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. Except that the "sh" sound on the end of "geas" isn't the same "sh" sound that exists in English. It's actually midway between the "s" and "sh" phonemes, articulated with the tongue underneath (rather than behind) the alveolar ridge -- as in Irish names (Sean, Seamus)

    I don't know about anyone else, but, when I say those names, I pronounce them with an "sh" sound at the beginning.

    Fact of the matter is, even when you say "gesh", you're probably pronouncing it wrong.

    Never claimed otherwise, but "gesh," wrong as it undoubtedly is, seems closer to the truth than do most of the alternatives gamers use (or Pratchett's "geese").

    ReplyDelete
  20. I understand and appreciate the uses of a prescriptivist approach to the language arts. But I feel that I must note that if a large percentage of gamers 'mispronounce' arcane terms such as geas and melee then at some point popular opinion may trump the pedant's style guide. The most stalwart gish must bow to a million geese, in my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Thanks for your post on Seven Geases. I have thought about this story a lot, and I agree with your assessment. I don't read and reread CAS for balanced plot lines in a modern narrative style. CAS was primarily a poet and visual artist, therefore I succeed when I consider his stories as surreal and beautiful paintings. His literary detractors miss the point, I think.

    I deeply love Seven Geases for its raw atmosphere, style, and creativity. The underground society of scientist lizard men makes me giddy with joy. ALso, the whole subterranean setting of Seven Geases makes it a fine model for a feeling to strive for in D&D.

    Between the flavor of weirdness and the baroque verbiage, the Vance / CAS similarities are huge and I am skeptical of Vance's claims he hadn't read CAS before the 1950s.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Well, EGG did suggest the anme but it came from one of his stories.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robilar#cite_note-1

    Comment first, fact check later, I always say :)

    ReplyDelete
  23. Mike,

    There you go. We can both be right. From a certain point of view :)

    A happy ending for all.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Well, the dashboard dictionary on my iBook agrees that it's pronounced "gesh", so it's official as far as I'm concerned. Lord knows that's the most research I'm willing to do on the subject.

    ReplyDelete
  25. It all gets worse once you start associating with people who write dictionaries.

    I knew a cheeky professor who once cited a dictionary in a scholarly argument to shut down her opponent. Turns out she wrote that entry. =)

    ReplyDelete
  26. In this respect, there's a clear affinity with H.P. Lovecraft's otherworldly creations, who likewise take little notice of Man.

    One highpoint of the story is the reptilian sorcerer's refusal of Ralibar as a specimen of humanity because, in the form of a Voormi, he already had one.

    Noted REH scholar Don Herron had an essay titled "The Double Shadow: The Influence of Clark Ashton Smith", in Underwood and Miller's JACK VANCE (Writers of the 21st Century Series) published in 1980. He notes the influence this particular story had on The Eyes of the Overworld.

    I personally prefer Vance's take on the "scoundrel punished by irate sorceror" tale because CAS' version ends too abruptly to be entirely satisfactory.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Geas is an Irish word and as such can be pronounced in a myriad of ways, and an expert will be able to tell you which part of Ireland you (or your teacher) are from based on it. I think the vowels vary east-west and the consonants north-south (might be the other way around), so you can get a pretty fine accuracy.

    Our Irish Studies teacher pronounced it "gay-ass", and we were young enough that this did not produce a flicker of amusement.

    ReplyDelete
  28. The more important thing is that here we have the concept of the geas binding as a _positive command_ that made you Go Places and Do Things, whereas the geasa of women, smiths, and Druids was a _negative command_ which meant death to transgress.

    You were perfectly fine if you never ate rabbit, etc., although you would probably run into a situation where you were forced to eat rabbit out of politeness and then die horribly.

    Now, if the story had been a humorous tale of how the guy tried to avoid his various geases, and how they all came down upon him at once so that he died in seven horrible ways at once or something, that would be a lot more Irish.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Oh, but it wasn't a kryptonite thing. Breaking the geas activated an evil fate to come upon you, but you weren't going to choke on the rabbit or anything.

    Anyway... I'm glad to know that there is a Great Literary Source for the gaming version of geasa. It always bothered me that the different meaning seemed to come out of left field.

    ReplyDelete
  30. The snakemen are awesome in this story.

    IMO the funniest CAS stories are The Door to Saturn (for obvious reasons) and The Beast of Prophecy (for inserting himself). The ending of Enchantress of Sylaire is priceless too.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I dug the story up on the net after this posting and enjoyed it. It's interesting to think of all the weird fantasy tropes being invoked that were brand new at the time of writing. I also agree with some posters here that the ending was rather perfunctory, which is a sad waste of such a good setup of worse and worse chtonic horrors "regifting" the poor bastard to each other.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Two notes:

    1. Where do the Voormis live? At the Voormis' address. Now lisp the answer and you get "Voormithadreth".

    2. CAS gives us here a sort of inverted Mount Olympus, since the "gods" of Mount Voormithadreth lives beneath rather than on top of the mountain.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Suburbanbanshee: It's not so simple, actually. When Cú Chulainn eats dog in violation of one of his geasa (he does so in order not to violate another of them), he immediately loses all of his strength on his left side. So, geasa can be poison.

    Geasa can also be warnings, the result of prophetic utterings of future doom.

    Further, geasa can be compulsions, as several characters in the Táin grab hold of heroes by the ears and lay a geas on them to do something-or-another. The whole issue is very complicated, not least because all of the stories we have were written at a time when those beliefs were, at best, on the wane. There's a useful, and scholarly, article on the subject called "Geis, prophecy, omen, and oath" (pdf) in Celtica Vol. 23, if anyone is interested in following up on the concept in more detail.

    ReplyDelete
  34. One of the reasons I love modern occultists is that they are working very hard to create intricate art. A lot of their work crosses over with gamers' interests, and this story is one of the places where I've seen some interesting discussion. The best occultist interpretation, in my opinion, is the one in this article, which combines Western Ceremonialist Cabala with Smith's work to make a beautiful interpretation of the story as one of failed initiation (not surprising, since Vooz was not exactly the enlightened sort).

    ReplyDelete
  35. On consulting the Irish department in the college, the general consensus would appear to be that "geas" is pronounced "gee-yass" or thereabouts.

    But your mileage may vary.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.