Monday, February 28, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Ring of Set

Written in 1960 but not published until 1977 (in the anthology Swords Against Darkness), "The Ring of Set" is Richard L. Tierney's first tale of Simon of Gitta, the Samaritan gladiator-turned-sorcerer who lived during the 1st century A.D. Simon of Gitta is a fictionalized version of the Biblical personage Simon Magus, who appears as Saint Peter's antagonist in the Acts of the Apostles and after whom the sin of simony (the buying and selling of Church offices) is named. Tierney, however, portrays Simon is a largely positive light, turning him into a magical adept doing battle against the Cthulhu Mythos as reinterpreted through the lens of Gnosticism, with Yog-Sothoth standing in for the Demiurge.

Tierney is a fascinating writer. He has a long association with the writings of both Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, an association that comes through quite clearly in "The Ring of Set." Much of Tierney's fictional output was devoted to several novels (in collaboration with David C. Smith) about Roy Thomas's Red Sonja, a character Tierney and Smith tried to portray as someone more genuinely "Howardian" than her original conception. Whether they succeeded or not remains a matter of debate. Tierney also wrote a Bran Mak Morn pastiche (again with David C. Smith), as well as editing two collections of Howard's historical yarns. He's notable too for having been one of the earliest Lovecraft commentators to suggest that August Derleth had distorted the meaning and themes of HPL's stories, a position that was controversial in the early 1970s but has since become widely accepted.

What's interesting is that, while critical of Derleth's presentation of the Mythos, Tierney nevertheless makes some use of it, albeit from a skewed perspective. Tierney's Gnostic-tinged vision accepts that the Great Old Ones are in rebellion against the Elder Gods, but Tierney portrays the Elder Gods as distant and uncaring about humanity and the myriad other creatures that have arisen in the universe they have created. In this environment, humanity can expect no celestial aid against the Great Old Ones and must instead use whatever resources are at hand to preserve itself in a cold, unfeeling universe. Given that, Simon of Gitta's sorcerous adventures make a great deal of sense. As a "true spirit," who understands the nature of reality, he seeks out spells and ancient artifacts to aid him in his quest for transcendence.

"The Ring of Set" is thus a fun sword-and-sandal tale about Simon's efforts, on behalf of his current mentor, Ka-nephru, highest priest of Ptah in Thebes, to obtain a cursed ring -- the eponymous Ring of Set -- that has been stolen and put up for auction in Rome, where its eventual buyer is none other than the emperor Tiberius. Simon attempts to warn Tiberius of the ring's danger:
"The ring is old, older than all the nations of the earth. It was owned by Thoth-Amon, a sorcerer who lived ten thousand years ago in the land which is now called Egypt. The ring was old even then, but Thoth-Amon learned of its powers and used them to call up demons to do his bidding. His enemies died with the marks of fangs and claws on their bodies, and for a time none could resist his power.

"Yet the ring was not all-powerful: Once, Thoth-Amon invoked its power to destroy a king -- but the king had an ally who a greater sorcerer than even Thoth-Amon, and the ring's power was turned aside The king lived, and later Thoth-Amon died, but the curse was still on the ring and has never been lifted. Since then several kings have tried to wear the ring, but each died a terrible death, so that at last the priests of Egypt hid the thing beneath one of their altars -- and there it lay for nearly ten thousand years, until Diomed's curiosity brought it to light once more."
Tierney is here referencing the very first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," where Thoth-Amon makes his only canonical appearance in the Hyborian Age. It's also worth noting that Howard himself used the Ring of Set outside of "The Phoenix on the Sword," placing it in the Lovecraft-inspired John Kirowan story, "The Haunter of the Ring."

Tiberius doesn't heed Simon's warning, instead arresting him and throwing him into prison. Soon, though, Tiberius' nephew and heir, Gaius, comes to Simon with a proposition:
"I do not mock you, Simon of Gitta," said Gaius, bending forward and speaking in a low, intense voice. There was a strange gleam in his deep-set eyes. "Tiberius pretends to scoff at the hidden powers of magic, but I am not such a fool. Do you know that the Emperor has fallen ill? Aye, it happened but an hour after he had left the auction-place, and though he vows it is but a passing sickness I can see death approaching in his eyes. The ring is responsible, Simon -- I know it is the ring!"

"What do you want of me, then?"

"The ring, Simon -- and the power to wear it. Old Tiberius has named me his heir, and when he dies I will be Emperor of Rome. Yet an emperor has many enemies -- his throne is never secure. With the power of this ring at my command I would never need fear their plots; my enemies would fall to the fangs of demons, and none could ever dare hope to dispute my rule!"
How Simon responds to Gaius' proposition and the events that follow make up the bulk of the story and an enjoyable one it is.

Tierney clearly has some axes to grind, both historical and religious. Indeed, some of them come across to me as somewhat puerile, the kind of thing an adolescent would do to tweak his elders' sensibilities, though little of this is evident in this story. That said, there's no denying that the mixture is Howardian swords-and-sorcery, Lovecraftian entities, Gnostic nonsense, and the ancient Roman setting is a heady one. Despite my dislike of Simon, who's arrogant and self-absorbed, Tierney has created something very compelling in "The Ring of Set" -- so compelling that I eventually read as many of his Simon of Gitta's tales as I could. Though, as I said, I didn't find Simon particularly sympathetic as a protagonist, the world he inhabits is a terrific one and great inspiration for anyone looking to find a way to blend Howard and Lovecraft or to create a dark historical fantasy (or both). Consequently, I recommend the story most highly, if you can find a copy.

6 comments:

  1. I really enjoy Tierney's Simon of Gitta tales, many collected in the now hard to find "Scroll of Thoth" collection published by Chaosium. Also check out House of the Toad, an interesting Cthulhu Mythos tale.

    However, IMO, his Howard pastiches are awful.
    The worst being the dull, boring Bran Mak Morn tale For the Witch of the Mists (co-written by David Smith), where the protagonist does nothing the entire book except ride around on his horse. Seriously. Possibly one of the worst fantasy books I've ever read in my life, and that's saying something as I've read everything by John Jakes, Lin Carter, August Derleth and Gardner Fox! :)

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  2. I may have read this decades ago; that cover rings a loud bell in my memory. But my impression is of not being too impressed with the Simon of Gitta stories. Maybe it's time to give them another try.

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  3. Trivia note: one of the Simon of Gitta stories, "The Wedding of Sheila-na-gog", was co-written by Glenn Rahman, whom some here may remember as the author of the Divine Right boardgame and a number of short pieces in Dragon magazine about the setting of that game.

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  5. Yes, be nice if these were sold digitally.

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  6. I watched Sword of Xanten over the weekend and enjoyed it immensely. It deals with the legend of Siegried and in particular a magic ring that is cursed and originates in a dragon hoard... Is this the oldest tale of a ring that gives its wielder power that even kings desire... and yet is treacherous?

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