Monday, April 12, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Enchantress of Sylaire

Robert E. Howard died in 1936 and H.P. Lovecraft followed him a year later. By some reports, Clark Ashton Smith was deeply -- and adversely -- affected by the deaths of his colleagues and frequent correspondents and he largely withdrew from the field of weird fiction. He made a few exceptions, one of the more memorable being 1941's The Enchantress of Sylaire, which, while not explicitly intended as such, proved to be the last tale of medieval Averoigne that he'd ever write.

Interestingly, The Enchantress of Sylaire represents something of a departure from previous Averoigne stories. Unlike the majority of its predecessors, it's notably lacking in cynicism. Indeed, it's a strangely positive, even optimistic fantasy that verges on fairy tale romance in both its content and presentation. It tells of an idealistic, love-besotted young man named Anselme, the object of whose current affections is a beautiful but empty-headed woman named Dorothée des Flèches, who does not share his feelings.
"Why, you big ninny! I could never marry you," declared the demoiselle Dorothée, only daughter of the Sieur des Flèches. Her lips pouted at Anselme like two ripe berries. Her voice was honey — but honey filled with bee-stings.

"You are not so ill-looking. And your manners are fair. But I wish I had a mirror that could show you to yourself for the fool that you really are."

"Why?" queried Anselme, hurt and puzzled.

"Because you are just an addle-headed dreamer, pouring over books like a monk. You care for nothing but silly old romances and legends. People say that you even write verses. It is lucky that you are at least the second son of the Comte du Framboisier — for you will never be anything more than that."

"But you loved me a little yesterday," said Anselme, bitterly. A woman finds nothing good in the man she has ceased to love.

"Dolt! Donkey!" cried Dorothée, tossing her blonde ringlets in pettish arrogance. "If you were not all that I have said, you would never remind me of yesterday. Go, idiot — and do not return."

Dejected, Anselme resolves to leave the world -- and women -- behind by becoming a hermit in the woods of Averoigne. A year into his new life, he spies a mysterious woman bathing in a forest pool. Though taken with her beautiful nakedness, he is not so distracted that he fails to notice "a huge wolf, appearing furtively as a shadow from the thicket" making its way toward her. Fearing more for the woman's safety than his own embarrassment at being a voyeur, Anselme reveals himself and cries out to her. Showing no signs of concern, the woman turns to answer him: "'There is nothing to fear,' she said, in a voice like the pouring of warm honey. 'One wolf, or two, will hardly attack me.'"

The woman dresses and introduces herself to Anselme as Sephora, an enchantress who dwells in a magical Otherworld known as Sylaire, reachable through an ancient collection of standing stones. She asks that Anselme accompany her there, to which he agrees and finds
the grass on which they lay was not the sparse and sun-dried grass of the moor, but was deep, verdant and filled with tiny vernal blossoms! Oaks and beeches, huger even than those of the familiar forest, loomed umbrageously on every hand with masses of new, golden-green leafage, where he had thought to see the open upland. Looking back, he saw that the gray, lichened slabs of the cromlech itself alone rearmed of that former landscape.

Even the sun had changed its position. It had hung at Anselme's left, still fairly low in the east, when he and Sephora had reached the moorland. But now, shining with amber rays through a rift in the forest, it had almost touched the horizon on his right.

The pair make their way to Sephora's tower, where she departs to rest. While she is asleep, Anselme takes the opportunity to explore Sylaire and again encounters the wolf he'd seen earlier. As it turns out, he is no wolf but rather a sorcerer cursed by Sephora to take the form of an animal -- or so he claims, as Anselme finds it hard to believe that the enchantress could ever be so cruel. The wolf-man, whose name is Malachie du Marais, says that he was once, like Anselme, a favorite of Sephora and became her lover but she grew tired of him and used dark magic to transform him into a wolf. Malachie further claims that Sephora is not a woman at all but a foul lamia and her servants are vampires; a bad end will come to Anselme if he does not flee Sylaire now and never return.

Anselme, of course, does not wish to believe Malachie's claims but the werewolf has nevertheless sowed the seeds of doubt in his mind. If Saphora's servants were not vampires who only appear at night, where were they? Likewise, Malachie claimed that, as a lamia, Saphora is afraid of mirrors, which reveal her true face to the world. If she is not the evil creature he claims, then why is that there are no mirrors anywhere in Saphora's home or among her possessions? And once Anselme returns to Sephora's home, her attitude toward Malachie has changed from her earlier nonchalance to genuine concern, saying that the werewolf is in fact a threat to her, as Anselme had suggested earlier -- a threat about which something must be done.

I won't spoil the ending of The Enchantress of Sylaire except to say that it's conclusion is at once quite different than those of most CAS tales and yet still very much in line with the worldview espoused in most of his fiction and poetry. Both Sephora and Malachie du Marais appears as NPCs in Tom Moldvay's Castle Amber, although Sylaire itself is portrayed not as a fey otherworld but merely as a location with the province of Averoigne.

11 comments:

  1. Such a fun story! It makes his diminished output so much more frustrating to think of how different this story was and the possible themes and stories he could have explored. I was just approached by Weird Tales to possibly do some work for the current incarnation. It's one of the biggest thrills of my career yet.

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  2. I'd respectfully disagree with your reading. Without spoiling, I found the ending dark and consistent with his lack of faith in humanity. Just my 2sp.

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  3. Off topic: I'm creeped out by that Robot God saying he killed Hitler.

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  4. I think its funny that Anselme is the son of the Count of Raspberry, and that Dorothee's lips remind Anselme of ripe berries. Apt, from the son of a berry grower.

    And Dorothee is the daughter of the local Arrow maker? Are her words like arrows through his heart?

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  5. I love CAS's work and this looks like another great one.

    I say that, but of course I read it years ago.

    Now I have a desire to pull out X2 again.

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  6. Sounds like he'd been reading Breton lais by Marie de France....

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  7. You know, a LOT of Clark Ashton Smith's work is public domain these days, and can be found online. May need to see about hunting that one up...

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  8. http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/short-stories/62/the-enchantress-of-sylaire

    Yup, sure enough...

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  9. Love the new profile photo.

    Heh, thanks. I like to use new ones every month or so, if I can, and, after my wife "wimpified" herself, I had to follow suit.

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  10. @suburbanshee:

    Just slip her these pills and I'll be free.

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