Tuesday 17 April 2012

Tales of Blood and Glory: The Murthe by Jack Vance

I tend to prefer short-stories to full-length novels. Maybe I just have a short attention span, or maybe it really is a more focused medium. In any case, here's a short story I recently read, and maybe this post will become a series...

The Murthe is the first story in Jack Vance's Dying Earth novel Rhialto the Marvelous.

The story opens filled with intricate detail and Vance's best flowery prose. The book's eccentric namesake, the wizard Rhialto, sits

at breakfast in the east cupola of his manse Falu. On this particular morning the old sun rose behind a curtain of frosty haze, to cast a wan and poignant light across Low Meadow.

But despite the peaceful surroundings, all is not well. Rhialto is repeatedly disturbed by subtleties in the local flora and fauna and therefore instructs his servant in the extravagant techno-babel of a Dying Earth wizard:

"Ladanque, I will be strolling the forest for a period. Take care that Vat Five retains its roil. If you wish, you may distill the contents of the large blue alembic into a stoppered flask. Use a low heat and avoid breating the vapor; it will bring a purulent rash to your face."

"Very well, sir. What of the clevenger?"

"Pay it no heed. Do not approach the cage. Remember, its talk of both virgins and wealth is illusory; I doubt if it knows the meaning of either term."

"Just so, sir."
Ultimately, Rhialto's walk does not go smoothly and things go from bad to worse when all but one of his Wizard colleagues fall into the clutches of the legendary "White Witch Llorio". Rihalto and Ildefonse team up with a mysterious time-traveling Wizard named Lehuster in a desperate attempt to thwart Llorio's plans and save their colleagues.

In the end, the warring Wizards are reduced to spectators to a much greater struggle between two archetypal forces of Elemental Male and Female. Vance's skill as a stylist is really felt at this point, as Rihalto and Ildefonse's decadent speech contrasts wildly with the regal, poetic tones of Calanctus and Llorio. This makes Llorio's climactic lament all the more powerful.

"Hope?" cried Llorio. "When the world is done and I have been thwarted? What remains? Nothing. Neither hope nor honour nor anguish nor pain! All is gone! Ashes blow across the desert. All has been lost, or forgotten; the best and dearest are gone. Who are these creatures who stand here so foolishly? Ildefonse? Rhialto? Vapid ghosts, moving with round mouths! Hope! Nothing remains. All is gone, all is done; even death is in the past."
Set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting, Vance's Dying Earth stories often carry this theme of lost greatness. A master of prose, Vance expresses this here with the contrast between the rich, Byzantine descriptions in beginning of the story and the classical overtones of the finale. Indeed, the reader feels the loss viscerally, the decadence of the Dying Earth and how all of mankind's greatest triumphs have waned to naught in the planet's twilight years.

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