Monday, January 17, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Maze of the Enchanter

A characteristic of older fantasy that's fallen out of favor in recent decades is the more whimsical – or at least less rigorous – approach to world building than that evinced in, for example, Middle-earth and its legion of imitators. The action of many pulp fantasies occurred in weird worlds whose creators cared little for consistency, let alone plausibility. Clark Ashton Smith's Xiccarph is a world of this sort, an alien realm possessed of three suns and four moons. Consequently, its nights are short and its most abundant forms of life are a wide variety of deadly and toxic plants. 

Smith wrote only two tales of Xiccarph, the first of which was "The Maze of the Enchanter." He had a great deal of trouble selling the story, which suffered repeated rejections, first at the hands of Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, and then Astounding Stories and Esquire. Nevertheless, Smith was very pleased with it. In a letter to August Derleth, he described it as "ultra-fantastic, full-hued and ingenious, with an extra twist or two in the tail for luck." With no other outlet for the piece, he included it in The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, a 30-page volume Smith self-published in June 1933. (An abbreviated version would eventually appear in Weird Tales under the title "The Maze of Maal Dweb" in October 1938.)

The story opens with a man named Tiglari, his "naked body smeared from crown to heel with the juice of a jungle plant repugnant to all the fauna of Xiccarph," surreptitiously attempting to enter :the ever-mysterious and terrible house of Maal Dweb." Maal Dweb, we learn, is a "half-demoniac sorcerer and scientist," who rules as a tyrant and whom Tiglari hopes to slay

not for himself but for the girl Athlé, his beloved and the fairest of his tribe, who had gone up alone that very evening by the causey of corundum and the porphyry stairs at the summons of Maal Dweb. [Tiglari's] hatred was that of a brave man and an outraged lover for the all-powerful, all-dreaded tyrant whom no man had ever seen, and from whose abode no woman came back; who spoke with an iron voice that was audible at will in the far cities or the outmost jungles; who punished the rebellious and the disobedient with a doom of falling fire that was swifter than the thunderstone. 
Tiglari is not alone is his "uncouth adoration" of Athlé. The warrior Mocair is the most formidable rival for the maiden's affections and Tiglari believed that he had already made his way to the home of Maal Dweb ahead of him. There was thus no time to delay, lest Mocair rescue Athlé rather than himself. 

Like any tyrannical sorcerer-scientist worthy of the name, Maal Dweb had protected his home with numerous traps, as well as monstrous guardians of many sorts, not least of them being "iron servitors … whose arms ended in long crescent blades of tempered steel." Against all these dangers, he was well prepared; he made his way past them all until he found himself in the sorcerer's harem, "peopled with all the girls that the enchanter had summoned to his mountain dwelling over the course of decades." 

In fact, it seemed that there were many hundreds, leaning or recumbent on ornate couches, or standing in attitudes of languor or terror. Tiglari discerned in the throng the woman of Ommu-Zain, whose flesh is whiter than desert salt; the slim girls of Uthmai, who are moulded from breathing, palpitating jet; the queenly amber girls of equatorial Xala; and the small women of Ilap, who have tones of newly greening bronze. But among them all, he could not find the lilied beauty of Athlé.

As he surveys the women, Tiglari notes that they "had been made the thralls of a death-like spell of immortal slumber," making them appear almost as if they were statues. He pressed on, toward a nearby chamber, in which he beheld a man reclining as if in sleep. 

The face of the man was a pale mask of mystery lying amid ambiguous shadows; but it did not occur to Tiglario that this being was any other than the redoubtable tyrannic sorcerer whom he had come to slay. He knew that this was Maal Dweb, whom no man had seen in the flesh, but whose power was manifest to all; the occult, omniscient ruler of Xiccarph, the overland of kings; the suzerain of the three suns and of all their moons and planets. 

Unfortunately for Tiglari, he soon learns that the man before him is an illusion, a mirrored image – another trap of Maal Dweb, who laughed at him, unseen, before asking, "What do you seek, Tiglari?" The young man boasted of his intention to find and free Athlé, to which the voice replied,

"Athlé has gone to find her fate in the labyrinth of Maal Dweb. Not long ago, the warrior Mocair, who had followed her to my palace, went out at my suggestion to pursue his search amid the threadless windings of that never to be exhausted maze. Go now, Tiglari, and seek her also … There are many mysteries in my labyrinth; and among them, mayhap, there is one which you are destined to solve." 

"The Maze of the Enchanter" is an unusual story om that, as Smith claimed in his letter to Derleth quoted above, there's a twist or two in its conclusion. I won't spoil it here, but will only say that the story's ending is not a happy one – unless one is Maal Dweb. Smith is almost unique in the history of pulp fantasy for sympathizing with his evil sorcerers, or at least presenting their thoughts and perspectives sympathetically. It's what sets him apart from both Lovecraft, whose antagonists' motives are largely inscrutable, and Howard, whose dark magicians are never portrayed as anything but villains to be cut down. It's one of the reasons I think Smith and stories like this are well worth reading: they do something different in a genre that is too often filled with banal imitation.


  1. Always thought the scifi undertones in this one were particularly obvious.

    "who spoke with an iron voice that was audible at will in the far cities or the outmost jungles"

    Concealed speakers, maybe mounted of stealthy drones, playing broadcast transmissions like a PA system? Hell, he might even be using a TTS device by the sound of it.

    "who punished the rebellious and the disobedient with a doom of falling fire that was swifter than the thunderstone."

    Drones or even orbital mechanisms with laser or plasma weaponry?

    "iron servitors … whose arms ended in long crescent blades of tempered steel"


    1. I agree. Smith's writing always contained a strain of science fiction and it only became more so as the years wore on.

    2. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. Both the Dying Earth and Tekumel do the same thing, to name just a few. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and all that.

    3. Again, I agree. These days, I rather like a little SF in my fantasy (and vice versa).

  2. Great read (The Flower Women, too!). Thanks for the link!
    : )