Monday, September 13, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Dying Earth

Caricatures of my position to the contrary, I don't believe there's a single "key" to understanding Dungeons & Dragons, especially in its original (1974) form. The game's inspirations are diverse and it is, in many ways, more than the sum of its parts. That said, it's hard for me not to look upon Jack Vance's 1950 short story collection The Dying Earth as a significant part of the foundation upon which Dave Arneson and (especially) Gary Gygax built their game more than 35 years ago. I'm not just referring to D&D's spell system, which is sometimes called "Vancian," often by those who've never bothered to read a word of Vance. No, the influence of this collection goes far beyond its quasi-scientific approach to magic and recognizing that is, I think, an important step in understanding what D&D was like at its inception.

The Dying Earth contains six short stories that share a common setting and a few characters. The setting is our world untold millennia in the future, when the sun hangs large and red in the sky, and human civilization has risen and fallen many times, leaving behind a decaying, decadent remnant of its former glory. In this time, magic exists in the form of a hundred spells -- formerly a thousand or more -- that generations of wizards have researched and perfected into a canon of sorcery. These spells work reliably; despite their arcane names, they're effectively a kind of technology. But they're a technology the knowledge of whose principles are slowly fading from the world, as fewer and fewer people, even mages, truly understand magic. Unsurprisingly, seeking out the eldritch knowledge and treasures of bygone ages is a significant pastime for latter day sorcerers and their companions.

The Dying Earth is written in a "high" voice, echoes of which you can certainly hear in Gary Gygax's own style. Vance uses well-chosen vocabulary to impart both awe and pomposity to his far-future setting. I also think it lends a fairy tale quality to the short stories in this collection, which only further enhances its charm. Consequently, some will no doubt find these stories stilted at times, with protagonists that veer toward being primarily archetypes rather than fully-fleshed out characters. I think that's a fair criticism, especially when one compares The Dying Earth to some of Vance's later work, but, at the same time, I'm certain that Vance wrote these stories in this fashion with a definite goal in mind. He intended them to have an almost formal feel to them; it's a clever way of elevating what are, at base, just rousing good pulp fantasies, a fact Vance himself subtly acknowledges through his trenchant use of humor throughout.

But, in the end, what remains most entrancing about The Dying Earth is not so much the specifics of its characters, plots, or even setting, though all of them are fascinating. Rather, it's that this book represents an example of mainstream pre-Tolkienian fantasy. This book predates the release of The Lord of the Rings, a novel that had such a profound impact on nearly everything that followed in its wake that one really must divide the history of the literary genre into "pre-Tolkien" and "post-Tolkien" ages. (Yes, I am well aware that The Hobbit was released in 1937, but its influence on later literature was negligible, unlike its successor.)

The kind of fantasy we see here -- whimsical, picaresque, weird -- is something we don't see much of anymore, whereas, once upon a time, it was the default assumption. The kind of wild and woolly approach to fantasy that The Dying Earth evinces is what D&D has always done well, whereas the more serious, elegaic tone of Tolkien isn't in my opinion a particularly good fit with the game. If you read through the LBBs, certainly there are references to Tolkien; indeed, I suspect he's the author whose actual name is used most throughout. Nevertheless, I think the "soul" of the game is more likely to be found in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, a setting where the venal and heroic alike venture forth into ancient sites and otherworldly realms in search of wealth, knowledge, power, and, occasionally, often in spite of themselves, something even more meaningful -- just like a good D&D campaign.


  1. I was 15 the first time I read it, and it was 10 years more before I owned a copy of my own, but I never stopped thinking about it in between. It has a lurid dream like quality that I could never really hope to define. I have a copy of that edition, by the way, which I was lucky enough to get signed in the latter 90's (around the time Nightlamp was released). Meeting Vance was one of the great honors of my life.

  2. When I first started getting into the OSR last year, I picked up a copy of the "Compleat Dying Earth". I enjoyed the first several stories, but found the character of Cugel to be so unlikable that I couldn't finish the book. It could have just been my mood at the time (my father had just passed away unexpectedly), but I didn't feel like reading about a self serving hero.

  3. James, you put the tag 'pulp fantasy' on this, where before you were using 'pulp fantasy library' (I've got a link to your Pulp Fantasy Library posts on my blog).

  4. I picked up an enormous hard-bound anthology once, when reading about the OSR. I figured a guy that gets talked about this much can't be horrible.

    I found Cugel to be absolutely hilarious. A definition of "lout", Cugel is lazy, manipulative, and greedy. Reading about him always made me laugh, especially since he'd try his hardest to con people out of what they worked so hard for, only to find himself in ever deeper excrement.

    That, and the stories about the Dragon Masters were really cool, if for nothing than to turn what was on the surface a rather mundane fantasy creature-breeding affair into something deep, wondrous, and a little insane.

  5. I love the original Dying Earth book. It is a wonderous book written in beautiful language. I don't care for its sequels, however. I found them forgettable.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I love your last paragraph James, I agree profoundly.

    Really getting into the Judges' Guild Wilderlands stuff has fully awakened my love of the picaresque. Did you know that Balrogs are a common wilderness encounter in the Wilderlands? Check any of the old map books and you'll see a happy Balrog sat atop his hill! I love how the JG stuff takes all the Tolkien tropes and subverts them into something Vance would have recognised.

  8. Ah, Vance! My favorite author. Would that my own writing could be as colorful as his.

  9. I quite like Vance's Dying Earth tales, especially those featuring Cugel. But my favourite books by Vance are his Lyonesse ones. In fact, I would rank them within my 'top 3' (along with LotR and Howard's Conan stories).

    For some reason the Lyonesse stories never achieved much success (except in France, where I'm told they were, and perhaps still are, very popular).

  10. In addition to Vance (whose work I love and probably would have never picked up if it hadn't been mentioned in the D&D books), I think props need to be extended to L. Sprague DeCamp for the "Novarian" series of novels. I think these books date from mid-late 60s to early 70s (so they would have been 'current' for Gygax and Arneson) and DeCamp got his start writing for the sci-fi and fantasy pulps of the Golden and Silver ages. Like Vance, these books reference a more 'picaresque' fantasy world where lust, greed and pride are as important motivations to the characters as 'good' and 'evil' are in the more high-minded fantasy of Tolkien. In addition, the Novarian world features a series of kingdoms all constantly embroiled in intrigue against one another, a multitude of 'races' with different qualities that mirror the interrelations between elf, dwarf, goblin, orc, etc (the different races of Novaria are not all human (i.e.: there are 'demons' from another plane, cannibalistic humans from the south, neanderthals who are often enslaved by the homo-sapiens because they are lesser beings, etc.). Wizards and shaman within DeCamp's world will cast spells for hire and many stories involve quests for magic that will exploit the weaknesses of the enemy. As a reader, I felt the 'Novarian' books bordered on satire. In addition, some described scenarios and spells (like a 'Rope Trick' spell from "The Reluctant King") seem to have been lifted as a whole and imported into D&D.
    I also love the 'Harold O'Shea' books by DeCamp and Pratt (whose publishing dates I think either pre-date or overlap chronologically with the Novarian books). The "Harold O'Shea" stories have more in common with Twain's "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" story than with the high minded Tolkien. The hero goes through a series of adventures in Norse Mythology where he adventures through the inspiration for "The Steading of The Hill Giant Chief" and "The Hall of the Fire Giant King."

  11. I picked up a paperback anthology of these stories actually just a few months back, once I started reading this blog. It got me interested in seeking these books out. I remember having looked for them for years but I think they were out of print for awhile because I never saw them at any bookstore I went to.

    That said, I've been trying to get into it because I really want to read it, but for some reason, the writing style isn't engaging to me. The beginning of the first story was so confusing, I feel. Part of that might be because I keep getting interrupted in my reading (having a one-year old at home will do that to you), so I'm willing to accept that if I could just sit down and devote a large block of time to reading it then it would flow better.

    As it is, I had to put it down and go back to reading some other things. I hope to get back to it soon.

  12. Jack Vance made me finally understand D&D.

    So many authors like Tolkien, have a fantasy setting which adheres to tropes like FATE and DESTINY, not to mention honor and good triumphant over evil - things which simply do not work in a game where the dice tell thier own story and the players are largely beyond the control of the DM.

    Cugel is just like a long-time and somewhat BAD player. He is often presented with interesting or even mind-blowing information or situations which he often chooses ingore or just scoff at and go about with his own schemes.

    But Vance shows us how to spin this very "quality" of a misbehaving character and turn out a riotous series of adventures. He seems to let Cugel follow his whimsy and passions for revenge, sloth, and crime. Meanwhile the WORLD Vance creates, is constantly putting danger and bizarre circumstance in his path - no matter how many scrapes he gets out of.

    His writing, specifically how he as an author deals with the character of Cugel, showed me how to be a better DM.

  13. Vance is one of my all-time favorite authors. His descriptions are so lovely, his dialogue so outrageous, his characters (aside from a couple of pedestrian supercompetent heroes) so eccentric- he is simply enchanting.

    These spells work reliably; despite their arcane names, they're effectively a kind of technology. But they're a technology the knowledge of whose principles are slowly fading from the world, as fewer and fewer people, even mages, truly understand magic.

    I just re-read The Miracle Workers in its entirety last night, and this novella takes this theme as its core. The jinxmen characterize their space-faring ancestors as wild, barbaric wizards.

    Unsurprisingly, seeking out the eldritch knowledge and treasures of bygone ages is a significant pastime for latter day sorcerers and their companions.

    This is a facet of the game which isn't often played up. Reading Vance's description of how one of the wizards (probably Mazirian) used negotiation and stratagem to gain the hundred spells that he possessed will always color my view of how the lowly Prestidigitator gains his arcane knowledge.

    In addition, some described scenarios and spells (like a 'Rope Trick' spell from "The Reluctant King") seem to have been lifted as a whole and imported into D&D.

    The "Indian Rope Trick" is one of the great classic tricks of the illusionist's craft.

  14. I'm an idiot. I just clicked on the comments to scroll through them -just in case- anyone said they didn't like Jack Vance so that I could call them out and tell them how wrong they were because language is the soul of writing and he was a master of it.

    And then nobody had and then I realized I have, like, work to do.

  15. For those interested in Vance's rich use of language I recommend TOTALITY Online, "The Vance Vocabulary Search Tool". The dialogue in Cugel the Clever is even more stylized and quotable. "It is the height of impudent recklessness to hector a person already struggling to maintain his judicious calm!"

    I'm thinking of a Dying Earth campaign using Swords & Wizardry (with renamed spells) and tech from Mutant Future.

    When you realize the Earth is dying and there's nothing you can do about it, that's very liberating.

  16. Cudgel saga I liken to Voltaire's Candide--if the protagonist had the morality of pangloss and never learned to tend to his garden.

  17. Man, I'm going to have to add another writer to the list. Darn you to heck, Maliszewski!

  18. Only one other person mentioned Lyonesse so far? The Dying Earth is fantastic, and is more relevant to D&D, but Lyonesse is his masterwork IMO.

    Ravenconspiracy- Excellent observation.

  19. Having read about Vance, Cugel, and Rhialto for some time made me want to actually read Vance. "Tales of the Dying Earth" is solidly listed in my Amazon's wish list. Thanks for the post, James.

  20. An excellent book - especially if you can track down the Omnibus edition

  21. There's an excellent RPG based on Vance's work. It is a thoughtful and very inclusive of his work.

    Lazarus Lupin
    art and review

  22. I tried to read the last story in the Dying Earth Anthology but it is so verbose I couldn't get through it.