Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy is his major work of the 1980s. Sure, he may have kicked off the Cadwal Chronicles trilogy in that decade, but that was not so special – as well as being far from his best work, it was yet more science fiction set in his Gaean Reach setting, of which there had already been plenty. Sure, Cugel’s Saga from 1983 and Rhialto the Marvellous from 1984 might have been welcome new entries in the Dying Earth sequence, though in some respects Rhialto feels a little out of place with the other four books in the series, its tone more comedic than ever (and given how comedic the two mid-sequence novels starring Cugel the Clever novels are, that’s saying a lot). Sure, he might have released The Book of Dreams, the final book of The Demon Princes – one of his greatest science fiction series.
Nonetheless, Lyonesse was a project both contained entirely in the 1980s and evidenced a greater density of research and worldbuilding and a far greater complexity of plot and characterisation than more or less any of these other projects. Lyonesse is Vance’s other fantasy series, and since the Dying Earth setting is arguably science fantasy, it’s the most “pure fantasy” material you will find in his bibliography.
The setting is the Elder Isles – an archipelago that never was, sitting in the Atlantic a little way west of France, north of Spain, and south of Ireland. The literature of medieval Europe is positively lousy with mythical islands – Lyonesse, Ys, Hy Brasil, Avalon, and whatnot. As it turns out, the Elder Isles is the archipelago which encompasses all of these locations and more besides.
The events of the trilogy take place somewhere in the early Dark Ages – long enough after the fall of Rome that there are Roman ruins on the Isles rather than Roman garrisons, but a generation or two before the rise of King Arthur on Britain (whose forefathers fled the archipelago after fortune turned against them). Christianity is on the rise, but slowly, and still shares the island with numerous pagan faiths, some of astonishing antiquity. (The mysterious city of Ys, for instance, was built and inhabited long before recorded history, and may well be an outpost of Atlantis.) Beyond this, the society and culture is more like that of the late medieval period than the Dark Ages.
This is a deliberate conceit; though the trilogy does not relate to Arthur specifically, it takes a lot of influence from Arthurian legend, as well as from similar bodies of legend and myth and stories from the high Middle Ages, and the likes of Malory and de Troyes and so on who forged those stories did so in an anachronistic manner, depicting a world much like the one they were familiar with rather than one rooted in historical accuracy.
This is not the only literary feature of medieval literature Vance lifts; the trilogy features significant use of Entrelacement – the technique of having multiple apparently independent stories which all seem separate and weave into and out of each other (and are not necessarily told in strict sequential chronological order) before their relevance to the whole tapestry becomes apparent by the climax, as used in sources ranging from Le Morte d’Arthur to the Poetic Edda to the Nibelungenleid.
With Vance regularly resorting to the picaresque over his career (as he also does here), it’s apparent that he had a long-standing interest in archaic literary forms; here it reaches its peak, as he brings together all of his imaginative powers and writing technique to make an attempt at writing a body of legend that could sit aside its inspirations proudly. Much like the source material, the subject matter is sometimes dealt with in strikingly direct and brutal fashion: content warnings for sexual assault, gruesome torture, and suicide apply.
Suldrun’s Garden (AKA Lyonesse)
The first book in the trilogy was initially released as merely Lyonesse on the front cover, but the interior title pages of such editions made it clear that this story was Suldrun’s Garden. That’s important, because it is Suldrun and her garden that tie the whole thing together.
When Suldrun is born, the Elder Isles have long ceased to be the united kingdom they were in her grandparents’ era. Now they consist of ten kingdoms – the great kingdoms of Lyonesse and Dahaut laying claim to much of Hybras, the large central isle of the archipelago, whilst other kingdoms claim the remainder of Hybras or the various satellite islands. In practice, the kingdoms of mortals only really control the circumference of Hybras, for at the centre of the island is the Forest of Tantrevalles, where the fairies hold sway.
Suldrun is born the daughter of King Casmir, the ruthlessly ambitious ruler of Lyonesse, and grows up in the royal palace of Haidion in Lyonesse Town, commanding a magnificent view of the sea. Suldrun chafes under the restrictions placed on a royal princess, but knows the grounds of the palace well enough to at least find somewhere she can be alone: an old, ruined garden under the cliffs, swiftly accessible from the palace grounds.
One fateful day, Casmir’s strategies reach a point where an alliance with the mysterious Duke Carfilhiot – theoretically a vassal of the King of South Ulfland, in practice an independent warlord – seems desirable. Carfilhiot is not averse to the idea, and requests as his price Suldrun’s hand in marriage. Suldrun, however, has great insight into the characters of others, and accurately perceives in Carfilhiot a cruel streak which would make marriage to him a living nightmare. On the day of the betrothal ceremony, she does not show, instead going off to be alone in her garden. Finding her there, a coldly furious Casmir pronounces his judgement: Suldrun must remain in the garden, and if she goes beyond its bounds she will be the slave of any man who captures her.
Suldrun’s time in the garden is lonely and melancholy, but she can stand being alone. This all changes when Prince Aillas of Troicinet, which is at war with Lyonesse, is washed up on the shore where the garden meets the sea – having been shoved overboard on a sea-voyage by his rival for the throne of Troicinet. Suldrun saves Aillas’ life and nurses him back to health, and the two fall deeply in love and hatch a daring escape plan – a plan foiled by the venal Brother Umphred, a Christian missionary who had his own intentions towards Suldrun, and who Aillas had bullied into witnessing his folk marriage to Suldrun.
Aillas is flung into Casmir’s oubliette; Suldrun gives birth to his son, Dhrun, and is able to obtain the aid of her childhood maid Ehirme in keeping Dhrun out of Casmir’s clutches. Alas: Dhrun is eventually abducted by fairies, unbeknownst to Suldrun; very much beknownst to her, for she can hear the screams from the torture chambers, Ehirme has been captured by Casmir and put through agonies to try and get knowledge of the location of the child. Convinced that Dhrun must eventually fall into Casmir’s power, that Aillas is dead, that all her plans have come to naught and that she will forever be at the mercy of Casmir’s dispassionate cruelty, Suldrun commits suicide. (Meanwhile, the half-fairy baby girl who was swapped by the fairies for Dhrun is taken in by Casmir and raised as the Princess Madouc.)
Aillas, however, is not dead; on escape from the oubliette, he reaches the garden only to encounter Suldrun’s ghost, who informs him of Dhrun’s existence and exhorts him to find their son. Meanwhile, little Dhrun lives with the fair folk and grows eight years in the space of one, and is then turfed out to make his own way in the world – taking with him a treasury of precious faerie gifts from his old playmates and a curse of bad luck from a rival. Shimrod, a former alter ego of the archmage Murgen who has now taken on independent personhood, must set off on his own journey to thrwart the machinations of the rival magicians who wish to strike at Murgen through him – among their number is Duke Carfilhiot himself.
As Aillas, Dhrun, and Shimrod weave their way throughout Hybras, picaresque adventure, fairytale whimsy, unseelie horror and brave deeds await them. Will Dhrun, Aillas, and Shimrod be able to find each other? And if they do, what will it mean for Casmir and Carfilhiot’s ambitions – or, for that matter, the greater game between magicians that Shimrod’s troubles, Carfilhiot’s plans, Casmir’s ambitions, and the very division of the Kingdoms themselves are merely the outward consequences of?
Believe it or not, the above summary merely covers the very beginning of the plot of Suldrun’s Garden, a true epic in every sense of the word. At some 400-0dd pages, it is substantially thicker than a typical Vance novel, and despite his famously florid and mannered writing style there’s really very little in the way of wasted space in this; more or less every incident of note, even if it seems irrelevant at the time, has its role to play in the greater structure.
Indeed, the various threads that kick off from the scenario outlined above are not wholly tied off here; the epilogue to the novel essentially consists of Vance reminding the reader of these questions, of some apparently-random details which we should expect to display deeper meaning later on, and of some matters which we have not yet heard of. (And, because he’s a cheeky scamp, some matters which won’t actually show up at all: “what of the Knight of the Empty Helmet, and how does he comport himself at Castle Rhack?” he asks; we need not worry about that.) Vance, in short, ensures that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg – and even this tip is richly realised indeed.
Much of the deeper parts of the iceberg relates to the affairs of wizards – you know, the sort you shouldn’t meddle with due to them being subtle and quick to anger. The wrangling of the magicians of the Elder Isles reminds me of a grimmer, darker version of the wizardly politics in Rhialto the Marvellous – or, since it emerged after Suldrun’s Garden, perhaps it’s more correct to say that the bickering, gossip, and absurd adventures of Rhialto the Marvellous remind me of a light-hearted parody of the magical intrigue here. Why, though old-school Dying Earth style “Vancian spellcasting” – which Dungeons & Dragons borrowed the mechanics of whilst inheriting nothing of the rich flavour – is also in evidence in Lyonesse, it is here that we find wizards making use of sandestins to accomplish their most powerful effects. To my knowledge, this is the first time these things come up in Vance’s fiction; the sandestins would, of course, later become signature features of Rhialto, despite not having been mentioned in prior Dying Earth works.
All this makes me suspect that Vance essentially wrote Rhialto the Marvellous as a palette-cleanser, using it as a way to let off steam and unwind ideas which, despite him being quite taken with, wasn’t appropriate for the Lyonesse setting’s aesthetic or atmosphere, and setting it in the Dying Earth party to ensure it had some distance from Lyonesse itself, partly to save the effort of cooking up another setting for it, partly because he knew it’d get the fans excited and boost sales a bit. (For that matter, Cugel’s Saga could well have been blessed by those ideas for picaresque adventure that Vance couldn’t quite fit into the context of Lyonesse.)
Not that Suldrun’s Garden has a monotonously grimdark tone – far from it, there’s a pretty fair diversity of moods represented in it, and the sudden turns in mood the book regales the reader with are masterfully handled. It is, however, clearly a more serious-minded and often sombre affair than the generally jollier Dying Earth stories. A wide range of storytelling traditions are drawn on – chivalric tales, fairy stories, folk legends, the whole gamut. But even the most charming and delightful passage can take a sudden turn for the nasty, just as even the darkest moment can offer an opportunity for laughter and hope.
This is especially the case when it comes to all the rape and sexual assault in the book.
Back in Ferretbrain times, I and our editor (the esteemed Wardog) would speak of the Fantasy Rape Watch – a theme we used largely to highlight the often shoddy handling of such subject matter in fantasy. In the type of literature Vance is imitating here, themes of sexual assault are commonplace, and are portrayed in manners ranging from bawdy farces (think a sort of pre-Renaissance Benny Hill sketch) to gruesome tragedy. It is only fair to warn potential readers that Vance includes similar material here.
I think it’s also necessary to discuss how he includes it, because whilst I have some reservations about his handling of it, I don’t think he uses it in a completely thoughtless or irresponsible manner. In particular, there’s no sequence where sexual assault is actually eroticised in the way some inferior fantasy authors handle it – like, say, the part in The King’s Buccaneer where Raymond E. Feist describes a kidnap in the same sort of terms you’d use to describe a sexy bondage party scene.
In addition, he never takes the Stephen Donaldson route of depicting a sexual assault and then attempting to redeem the perpetrator in our eyes or persuade us that there were extenuating circumstances. In each case I could identify, sexual assault or rape is the act of a true villain, someone who by this action puts themselves beyond the pale and deserves the reader’s scorn.
Where I have reservations is in the partiality involved: women (and girls as young as 12) are targeted for assault exclusively, it is never directed at men or boys. By making rape something only women need fear happen to them, Vance implicitly presents a worldview in which rape is intrinsically a thing which women have to fear from the world, rather than something which abusers (primarily but not exclusively men) inflict on the world.
(Then again, homosexuality is fairly rare in Vance, so it’s notable that two characters here are in fact in a gay relationship. They are, unfortunately, villains – but actually, they aren’t ostentatiously “gay/bi villain” stereotypes. At most, they both like their luxuries, but it’s rare to find a Vance character – hero or villain – who does not, and their sexuality is essentially totally incidental to their other deeds, save for it being the means by which the less powerful one attempts to persuade his more powerful partner to aid him at points, to varying success. Not once do any characters upbraid the individuals in question for this relationship – not even their foes, when they have the upper hand over them and are fully aware of the connection. If anything, the narrative makes one feel a little sorry for the more powerful partner, who ultimately – due to the constraints on the wizards – must deny aid to his lover and clearly feels heartbroken about it, even though we’ve seen that his partner has kind of been exploiting and lying to him. It is rare for SF/fantasy writers of Vance’s generation to depict such a relationship with such thought.)
Then again, the gendered nature of sexual violence might be serving a point here: despite its high medieval manners, this is still an intensely patriarchal society being presented here, and whilst I am fairly sure Vance would be the last person to use the terms “patriarchy” or “rape culture” in the sense used in modern feminist discourse the narrative doesn’t exactly endorse or celebrate this state of affairs. After all, it is precisely this patriarchal slant to society which puts Suldrun so totally in Casmir’s power as his daughter, which forces her into isolation when she refuses to comply with it, and which ultimately drives her to complete despair.
Suldrun herself is never raped; Brother Umphred attempts an assault, but doesn’t realise that Aillas is hiding in the room and soon has cause to regret this. However, it becomes apparent over the course of the book that Carfilhiot has no compunctions about sexually assaulting women (including an attempt on Glyneth, the 12 year old girl who ends up accompanying Dhrun on his adventures, though she skilfully gets away from him) and makes a sport of it. Suldrun’s fears about marrying him were therefore completely correct.
In effect, with this Vance is saying the quiet part loud. Every medieval legend or story involving a woman who is being pressured to accept a marriage she doesn’t want is basically a narrative about rape and the overriding female autonomy and women’s right to consent, since in the medieval era the assumption was that marriage entailed certain sexual rights a husband could expect. Vance refuses to pretend otherwise, and it would arguably be problematic if he did.
This, then, may be the point of the exercise. In contrast to much of the bright, optimistic epic fantasy of the 1980s, Suldrun’s Garden is disinterested in whitewashing over the more gruesome aspects of the medieval source material inspiring it, and instead presents an unbowdlerised version – not to engage in grimdarkery for the sake of grimdarkery, but two serve two purposes.
The first general goal is to depict what patriarchal societies in which powerful men believe they can do as they wish open the door to. Notably, in this respect Vance makes sure to include at least one society where rape culture is far less prevalent – the Ska, a people driven out of Scandinavia by the predecessors of the Norse and Germanic peoples who it is implied are the archetypal model of later Viking raiders. The Ska are cruel in many, many other ways, but they take such a hard cultural line on sexual assault that it seems like men and women intermingle entirely freely without consideration of chaperonage, unlike in high society in Lyonesse. The fact that such a society can exist without sexual assault being commonplace implies that assault is not inevitable.
The second, more specific goal to provide regular echoes of the vile thing that has been done to Suldrun at the start of the story; even though Suldrun herself fades almost out of sight for much of the second half of the book, these echoes of the overriding of her consent and of the fate she evaded implicitly keep the injustice of her treatment relevant.
Still, as I say, if Vance must go here it is a shame for this to be a peril so frequently visited upon women (though it is, at least, not the only peril they face). In addition he sometimes goes down this line in a sudden manner which, whilst undeniably shocking (a quirky fairytale segment takes a very grim turn for the worse; Carfilhiot suddenly makes a grab for Glyneth as they camp in the woods), may also be a lot to take for those who find depictions of sexual assault in fiction to be troubling. I blame nobody for writing off the series just on these grounds.
In addition, there is one sexual assault sequence – in which Lady Twisk, the fairy who is Princess Madouc’s true mother, escapes being raped by a troll by cursing his penis, so he places his own curse on her and forces her to remain in the stocks in the lonely wilderness location until three passing men have had their way with her – which is outright crass. Whilst I can see what Vance was going for here – the sort of ribald outrageousness of some medieval literary forms, combined with the ornate absurdity of his faerie sections – it’s much too much like treating the subject as a joke. Other incidents are handled with more sensitivity; this one is just plain crass and I consider it the most major mar on the novel (the slightly over-frequent revisiting of rape subject matter and the partiality of its targeting being a secondary but also important flaw).
Still, this is a scattering of incidents in a book rich with plenty of other incidents. Another gruesome motif of older literary forms that Vance leans into is the ornately gruesome fate of some characters, both good and bad. Carfilhiot’s cruelty is particularly grim – his “aviary” is one of the most vividly disturbing concepts in the book, a mean joke taken entirely too far – but sometimes benign characters end up executing foes in ostentatious ways. Dhrun, on his successful defeat of a tyrannical ogre who had done some absolutely foul things to the children he keeps captive, ends up presiding over an especially nasty execution procedure.
The narration does not excessively celebrate these moments of vengeance: in tone, it strikes me more as noting that such harsh reactions are too be expected when folk end up suddenly with power over those who previously had a boot on their throat. Aillas is more virtuous than some in this regard, but only in the sense that he’d rather quickly and cleanly execute someone rather than inflict lingering tortures on them.
Vance is not trying to persuade us that this is how things should be in the modern day, but in contrasting the desire of the crowd for retributive torture and Aillas’ preference for swift justice he is, perhaps, implicitly still saying something about our carceral society and media-fed bloodthirstiness by analogy even if that was not his intent (and the thing he is saying – that criminals should not be tormented just to satisfy the anger of the crowd – is laudable enough).
Moreover, Aillas is not off the hook here. There are regular reminders, especially towards the end of the book, that Aillas has a long list of grievances against Casmir and will be loathe to delay his vengeance forever. (Shimrod enacts his own acts of vengeance for cruelty done to those under his care, for that matter.) A doom hangs over the Isles; matters may sooner or later come to a dark end by his deeds.
(If Vance is reluctant to depict an individual as 100% good or entriely evil, he is even less willing to wholly endorse or condemn entire cultures; despite the Ska being depicted as invading foes, feared and hated by all the Elder Isles, the appendix on them and the brief look we get at their society suggests a place rife with cruelties unusual to the Elder Isles, but also with virtues that the other societies of the Elder Isles seem to lack. Perhaps there is a comment here on how evils we are used to often seem to us like much less of a big deal than unfamiliar horrors.)
By the end of the book, King Casmir’s ambitions are thwarted – but not irreversibly – but there is much left unsaid and every sense that trouble is coming. Perhaps the most important part of the ending is the return to the garden, as Aillas and Dhrun slip away from their diplomatic visit to Haidion (in which Casmir fails to recognise Aillas as the man he’d had dumped in the oubliette) in order to pay their respects to Suldrun. The place is overgrown; Suldrun’s ghost, if present, now no longer speaks; Dhrun feels anxious and wishes to leave. Despite all that has at last come right, the great wrong which set everything else in motion has not been righted, can never be righted, and the architect of this cruelty has never been made to answer for it. Despite Suldrun being basically absent for most of the novel, she and her death loom heavily over the ending and seem to be the most important thing in the universe.
This lingering bereavement and regret on the part of Aillas is part of what puts Lyonesse aside from jolly, optimistic adventure fiction of the sort which Vance himself produced much of: the events of the tale have left scars on its survivors deeper and more vivid than the cuts and nicks light adventure protagonists tend to suffer. (Aillas mentions that rarely a day goes by when he does not have a dreadful moment of remembering the oubliette; the psychological harm, it is clear, will stay with him forever.)
It is in aspects like this that I find enough worth in Suldrun’s Garden to not just counterbalance its flaws, but make me regard it as a major accomplishment. With chapters from Suldrun’s perspective and Glyneth’s (she effectively becomes the main character in Dhrun’s strand after Dhrun himself is cursed by nymphs and has bees magically transported into his eyes, in which they buzz and flash and prevent him from being able to see), the novel even sees Vance making an effort to include some female protagonists; whilst Suldrun dies halfway through the novel, until she does she is our primary hero. This is a welcome shift away from the gender balance of much of Vance’s other work.
Suldrun’s Garden is so dense and uncommercial in comparison to Vance’s lighter and more straightforward and adventurous work that it’s very obviously a passion project of his, an examination of the roots of the medieval fantasy genre that highlights its darkest and brightest aspects evenly not to wallow in nastiness, but to encompass the entire scope of the form and present a world which it is fascinating to visit but would be terrible to live in. Despite its reservations, I cannot help but give it a high ranking in my personal esteem, but would also not recommend it to others without strong caveats about the presence and handling of the rape content.
The Green Pearl
In Suldrun’s Garden, we learn of how when the magician Desmëi tired of life, she performed a final great magic in which she dissolved herself into three persons through which to work her revenge on the world. One was Melancthe, who would inherit Desmëi’s place as a noble of Ys but be entirely unconvinced by her own reality; Melancthe would ultimately be manipulated by the sorcerer Tamurello to get at Shimrod. Another was Faude Carfilhiot himself, who if anything had a surplus of self-confidence and an over-strong ego, and would carve a path of misery across the world. And the third was Denking, a miserable little creature into which Desmëi had concentrated all of her evil and unappealing aspects.
Desmëi, still able to act briefly by way of a magical overrule of the usual laws of cause and effect, dumped Denking in a furnace; a green smoke issued forth as Denking was burned. Melancthe caught a small whiff but disliked it and protected herself from the rest; from this she gained an understanding of the flavour of evil, but no great desire for it. Faude inhaled deeply, and was imbued with it; hence his career of evil going forwards. At the end of Suldrun’s Garden, a defeated Faude Carfihiliot is hanged by Aillas; from his slain body emerged a green mist, which floated out over the sea, coalesced into a green pearl, and was swallowed by a fish.
Now, some time has passed since the end of Suldrun’s Garden, and the fish has been caught; the pearl, out in the world, works evil through all those whose possession it comes into. Meanwhile, Aillas is now King of Troicinet, Dascinet, Scola, and South Ulfland – but the Ska colonists in North Ulfland are a clear threat to his rule. Aillas must set his hand to forging South Ulfland from a bickering realm of feuding barons and clans into a unified Kingdom placed to push back against the Ska – but when the Lady Tatzel, a Ska noblewoman whose household Aillas had worked in as a slave and who had tormented him with the threat of having him gelded at her command, is captured by Aillas in the wake of one of his military actions, will he be guided by his desire for revenge on his captors or his honourable principles?
Meanwhile, Shimrod and Melancthe’s strange dance continues, whilst King Casmir dispatches the hedge-wizard Visbhume to try and discover whether Dhrun truly is Suldrun’s son – for if so, the prophecy of the magic mirror Persillian suggests trouble indeed for Casmir if Dhrun is allowed to grow to adulthood. On the cusp of adulthood is Glyneth, who Visbhume targets in a bid to get answers; after he spirits her away to the otherworld of Tanjecterly, can she outwit him, survive, and return to Earth?
The Green Pearl sags at points for me. As the middle book in the trilogy, it inevitably involves a certain amount of carrying over plotlines from Suldrun’s Garden and keeping the plates spinning without resolving everything. In addition, much of the book is taken up with Aillas’ imposition of a different type of rule in South Ulfland, which is somewhat drier and less rich and evocative than the more fantastical sections of the Lyonesse books.
Part of the issue here is that a lot of Aillas’ reforms seem to be somewhat Americanising – taking away the authority of the barons to make judgements in law and take prisoners, creating a professional judiciary, and establishing a standing army in particular. To be fair, these sorts of late medieval/early Renaissance developments would be a part of the cultural shift during the era when the later texts Vance is drawing inspiration from were penned, so it’s not as incongruous as instituting free and fair elections or radically curtailing the death penalty would be. In addition, Aillas’ reforms make sense given his own character and history; specifically, his hatred of dungeons and torturers are clearly attitudes which arise from his time in Casmir’s oubliette. It’s in Shimrod and Glyneth’s spurs of the story where we get more fantastical whimsy and sense of wonder; in the latter, Glyneth gets to officially be a lead protagonist, and has plenty of agency in her adventure.
Still, this feels more like business as usual than Vance than the departure of Suldrun’s Garden was, possibly due to the lack of a section like the first hundred or so pages of Suldrun’s Garden, possibly because the atmosphere is a bit less dense. It should be mentioned that over the course of the 1980s, Vance suffered with a severe decline in his vision until he ended up legally blind, eventually writing using specialised software developed for his needs. The Green Pearl would have come about at around the time that was happening, and may have been affected by it.
Perhaps the more noticeable respects in which The Green Pearl seems to have been affected is a number of retcons – or, if you are feeling harsher, contradictions. For instance, the standard period of service for a Ska slave has been reduced from 30 years to 20; more seriously, Vance seems to have entirely forgotten about the scene at the very end of Suldrun’s Garden in which Brother Umphred points out to King Casmir that King Aillas of Troicinet looks a lot like that ne’er-do-well who got oublietted a while back, and in which Casmir’s investigation discovers that Ehirme and her family have become landed gentry in Troicinet. Here, Casmir must discover the happy ending for Ehirme and her family all over again by different means, and has no such suspicions of King Aillas.
One could, perhaps, see this as a literary technique – Vance playing with the idea that with this sort of myth cycle different sources relate somewhat different versions of events. I feel like if that were the intended case, however, Vance would have made passing reference to how the version in Suldrun’s Garden was taken in one source, the version in The Green Pearl from another. It is best to write it off as simply a mistake on Vance’s part, an undeniable flaw but one which need not ruin enjoyment of the story.
When Madouc’s mother, the Lady Twisk, is mentioned in passing as “consorting with mortals”, one is almost willing to ponder whether Vance was also retconning the rapey origins of Madouc. It’s the sort of nasty, cruel story which Vancian fairies might tell about each other, after all; I forget how the subject is handled in the third volume so we’ll see about that when we get to it. It is true that there is significantly less rape and sexual assault in The Green Pearl than in Suldrun’s Garden.
There isn’t none, but what exists is handled with more care, giving me more confidence in saying that Vance is probably going something here with this aspect of the trilogy rather than using the concept totally thoughtlessly. There are two attempted rapes in the book. The first is when Tatzel is captured by some bandits encountered in Ulfland, in the middle of her and Aillas’ attempt to make their way out of the wilderness to a place of safety; Aillas disrupts this before it can come to fruition, but after this is led to question his own motives in a way you don’t usually see protagonists in this sort of thing questioning their motives.
In this segment Aillas has, as mentioned, taken Tatzel prisoner; he declares that she is his slave, since it is the Ska practice to take prisoners as slaves and therefore turnabout is fair play, and he makes cracks about it in this fashion over the course of their journey. He had noted Tatzel during his time as a slave and had promised to himself that one day they would meet under very different circumstances. Those circumstances have come – but now they are here, he can’t find it in himself to force himself upon her, though the thought had previously crossed his mind. Whilst this revenge seemed to have merit in theory, he finds it revolts him in practice, and the attempted rape of Tatzel by the bandits only confirms in him that he’s not going to take that path; for the rest of the journey Aillas is largely resolved to keeping Tatzel safe and delivering her unharmed to the other Ska.
On the one hand, a man rejecting the notion of raping someone shouldn’t be something to applaud – it should instead be the bare minimum anyone should expect of him. On the other hand, for a man to acknowledge that he has that fantasy but he is making a deliberate choice to put it aside is notable – and certainly preferable than blankly deciding that “this is what I am about, I make no excuses for it”, an attitude which Carfilhiot in Suldrun’s Garden embodied and which Visbhume exhibits here.
The other major incident is Visbhume’s constant threats to assault and rape Glyneth whenever she is under his power. This is not as frequent as Visbhume would hope; in fact, Glyneth is extremely resourceful at getting away from Visbhume and gaining an edge on him, thanks in part to Kul, an entity created by Murgen using, among other things, the passions of Aillas as expressed in his blood. The one time Visbhume attempts to make good on these threats, Glyneth is rescued by Kul in a moment which I think is meant to mirror the previous incident with Tatzel, as a reminder to the reader of how much of Aillas is found in Kul.
Bar from these two major incidents, Vance seems to have backed off from the sexual assault theme strongly in this volume of the trilogy; it’s not impossible that the reaction to such incidents as the Lady Twisk story from Suldrun’s Garden prompted some self-examination of the sort depicted in Aillas. Whatever his reasons, Vance easing off on this front is a welcome development; on now to the final story.
As the action of the previous two novels has unfolded, Madouc – the changeling child swapped for Dhrun – has been presented to the world as Suldrun’s daughter, and is mocked by her peers for her lack of a pedigree. As she starts to navigate her way into adolescence, Madouc discovers the truth, and after making the acquaintance of her real mother, Lady Twisk, learns some useful arts of fairy magic from her, the better to keep her safe in the world. Still, King Casmir’s political ambitions have not ceased, but Madouc is no more inclined than Suldrun to co-operate – and between an inherent disregard for social niceties and the fairy magic she’s learned, she’s much harder to cow.
Meanwhile, Queen Sollace and Father Umphred (the corrupt priest having gone up in the world) want to build a cathedral in Lyonesse Town, so that Umphred may be Archbishop of the Elder Isles and Sollace be declared a saint. The duo decide that the best way to persuade King Casmir to support their endeavour is to obtain some fabulous relics to draw wealthy pilgrims, who Casmir can then tax to his heart’s content. The most famous relic that is likely to be within the environs of the Elder Isles is the Holy Grail.
Seeing a way to wash his hands of Madouc without scandal and enrich himself, King Casmir declares a quest for the Holy Grail; whichever brave knight brings the Grail may have any boon he asks, with the hand of Princess Madouc in marriage explicitly mentioned as a possibility. However, Princess Madouc has a loyal knight of her own to command: Pymfyd, a stableboy of around her age, who she has dubbed “Sir Pom-pom” in honour of his service to her and her horses. Pymfyd wants to go on the quest, but – the occasional joking flirtation aside – knows full well that marrying Madouc against her wishes would end tremendously badly for him.
Meanwhile, Madouc’s questions to Casmir about her pedigree has prompted him to lose his temper and command her to go figure it out for herself. Madouc takes this as permission to issue forth on her own quest to seek out her true father – and if Lady Twisk and the fairies can help Sir Pom-pom find the Holy Grail, thus derailing Casmir’s latest marriage plot, so much the better…
Madouc is essentially a fantasy coming of age story. A plethora of these were written by men in the 1980s; Ray Feist practically writes nothing else, to the point where every so often he has to mint a new younger set of protagonists so he can have them come of age again. Precious few men attempted to write one in which the protagonist who is undergoing this coming of age is a woman; almost none essentially wrote two books to pre-load the coming of age story with a rich background and history. Merely in attempting this, Vance was trying something a bit new for him, for though he had his own past form in coming of age stories, the vast majority had been about men.
In addition, in Madouc we finally see where Vance has been going with the rape stuff in the trilogy; we’re back to King Casmir trying to arrange marriages for a female descendant (or someone he is passing off as family), but unlike in the opening movements of Suldrun’s Garden we now have more of an idea of the big picture here, and more context about the threats women face in this world.
More specifically, Vance is coming back to the idea that when this sort of royal arranged marriage was forced through over the objections of one or both of the parties, it was socially sanctioned rape. Prince Brezante, who Casmir at one point wishes to marry Madouc to, is more or less unambigously presented as a pedophile (well, he’d probably describe himself as an ephebophile, but anyone who makes a big deal out of the distinction is acting rather suspicious) whose previous wife died as a result of his abuse.
(This rings true with the medieval literature Vance is drawing on; though some medieval marriages were arranged with participants who are shockingly young by our standards, there was still a sense that this should not mean sexual activity ought to commence immediately, and “creepy man who predates on inappropriately young women” was an archetypal trope for condemnation.)
That’s grim, but would be grimmer if Vance had not made sure to arm Madouc with suitable means of protecting herself. In fact, Madouc is completely aware of the dangers of her society and has no illusions about them whatsoever; one of the more appealing aspects of Prince Cassander, her uncle and the next in line to the throne of Lyonesse, is that when she asks him about rape he explains to her what it is, rather than glossing it over or romanticising it or distorting it. With a clear-eyed view of what she faces, Madouc is better equipped to evade trouble than Suldrun ever was.
The rape themes in the Lyonesse trilogy ultimately needed to be justified by Madouc; this was the make or break point when Vance needed to actually make a point about all this or face coming across as indulging in grimdark for grimdark’s sake. By and large, I think he does. He is most successful when it comes to the announcement of the Holy Grail quest; it’s a standard use of a well-worn fairytale trope, and whilst it might now be old hat in the fantasy field to say “Well, actually, that sort of thing was kind of dodgy”, it wasn’t so played out in 1989, and the disparity between the romantic ideal we are used to hearing and the actual implications of the idea is clearly stated.
More importantly, rather than simply having a grim thing happen, Vance has this grim announcement made and then has Madouc do something about it. Madouc exercises agency and takes control of the matter, pursuing goals she has set for herself and taking Sir Pom-pom (who would have surely failed horribly without her) along for the ride; in doing so she does not rely on others to save her, she saves herself.
(There is one instance, towards the very end of the book, where Madouc must rely on men to save her rather than making her own way out of a bind. Not only is this more forgivable because of the number of times she’s saved herself, but in addition she gets into this bind because she does something selfless which could well have saved the life of Dhrun; she is saved by Dhrun and Aillas thanks not to their impulse to generically save maidens, but because of the relationship she has gone out of the way to establish with them. In this one instance she might not have rescued herself, but she also deliberately chose the risk that led to her peril and created the conditions by which she was saved.)
A less successful aspect is the bit where Madouc and the fairies fake up what they believe to be the circumstances of Madouc’s conception, with Madouc (glamoured with her own appearance as a full-grown adult) in the place of Twisk, to see if the original three men return to the scene of the encounter. To be fair, this could have gone a lot worse – Madouc is provided with perfectly sufficient means to prevent any actual assault occurring (though one of the gentlemen in question does make an attempt before she stops him), and it is eventually revealed that none of them are her dad and further inquiry into the incident is needless.
Even so, it is distasteful to spend this much time on what is essentially a red herring, when it could just have easily have been revealed that the rape story was nothing more than a slur floated around about Twisk by one of the crueller fairies, and then introduce the real story without the diversion, though Vance perhaps may have felt that he had already used one major retcon in the series already and been reluctant to use too many more lest the story start to seem totally arbitrary. (Madouc eventually, at the very end, is able to identify her true father, and as far as dads go she couldn’t do much better.)
It’s not like Vance necessarily became an enthusiastic feminist in the 1980s either. There are some passing “jokes” themed around domestic violence which, to put it mildly, were probably funnier to older generations than they are today. Queen Sollace is fat-shamed somewhat too (though elsewhere in the book it’s revealed that Queen Sollace has found that men like her shape just fine, and is happy with her features, so there’s that at least).
Like Philip K. Dick with The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, he was coming to the whole “let’s actually make a woman the protagonist” game fairly late here, but unlike Dick he hadn’t been prompted to reappraise his writing of women as a result of an Ursula Le Guin callout, so I think he is less successful at turning around the habit of a lifetime. But the attempt is, undeniably, made, and made in such a way that whilst I retain some reservations with his treatment of sexual assault in the trilogy, he still manages to do a better job than a bunch of other authors who’ve pinged the Fantasy Rape Watch radar over the years. (I would honestly have not expected him to do nearly as well as he does, flawed as it is.)
In addition to all this, if you wanted to see Madouc as a neuroatypical heroine, I think it is entirely possible; whilst I don’t think Vance consciously intended it, I think it’s highly viable to read Madouc as being somewhere on the autism spectrum. Some of this, of course, applies from her method of applying fairy logic to things; for instance, the way Madouc often twists her instructions from Casmir or the ladies she is in the care of is reminiscent of fairies twisting the words of wishes and agreements.
Still, this comes in the form of grasping the clear words but not quite understanding the unspoken meanings behind the words. There are other ways in which Madouc struggles with parsing the emotional responses of other characters. For instance, when contemplating Suldrun’s fate and visiting the garden, Madouc does not quite understand Suldrun’s decisions in relation to that. Escape possibilities which will have occurred to many readers of Suldrun’s Garden (and some twists unique to Madouc, like disguising oneself as a leper to deter interference from others) occur to her too. This doesn’t undermine Suldrun as a character, because it’s very clear that Suldrun’s emotional state and her attachment to the garden as her place of sanctuary are things which Madouc doesn’t quite understand.
If one chooses to read Madouc as someone on the autistic spectrum who is trying to figure out how to make her way in a world largely arranged around the assumptions of people not on the spectrum, interesting new meanings arise. For instance, much of the strife between Madouc and others ultimately arises because of a refusal by society to make adaptations; just as Casmir will not make adaptations for a daughter or granddaughter who does not wish to marry at his command, so too does Casmir and his household struggle to make adaptations for a girl who does not respond to things the way she is expected to. (In essence, Vance may have arrived at the social model of disability by accident.)
In addition, Madouc’s willingness to just go direct and ignore social niceties sets up the true climax of the story – though major events happen after it, they are dealt with in a rather rapid-fire manner, and it’s pretty clear that is the big moment the trilogy has been building towards. (Another moment – which I will outline later – more directly kicks off the final war, but the outcome of that war arises as a result of Madouc’s deeds here.)
Specifically, by the last act of the book Casmir has finally learned from Father Umphred that Dhrun is the true son of Suldrun (he has been aware for a good while that Madouc was a changeling). Planning to thwart the prophecy of Persillian, and knowing that the prophecy states that Dhrun will at some stage attempt to sit at his “rightful place” at the Cairbra an Meadhan (the round table of the Elder Isles that was the model for King Arthur’s Round Table at Cameolot) and issue commands, Casmir arranges a summit of the Kings of the Elder Isles to take place in the Kingdom of Audry (who currently hold the table).
His plan is to have Dhrun duped into sitting at the table and make some superfluous command, thereby meeting the requirements of the prophecy – at which point Casmir can have him killed without worrying about thwarting the fates. Madouc suddenly insists on sitting in Dhrun’s place at the table – and, when pressed on it, finally just directly and bluntly lays out Casmir’s entire plan (incidentally exposing her own parentage and Dhrun’s origins to the assembled dignitaries), in such a way as to comprehensively ruin it. Casmir disowning her on the spot is the cherry on the cake, because of course by that very act he accords her a social freedom which he then has no standing to curtail (though he does make a bid to force its curtailment which fails).
From here, Casmir’s downfall comes about largely as a result of alliances forged during the meeting itself. The eventual fate of Casmir is handled interestingly; after his final roll of the dice backfires on him, his ambitions are demolished bit by bit, and this is narrated in a fair bit of detail (though much more briefly than other authors would treat the battles and conflicts involved). However, his final end is summed up fairly quickly. Queen Sollace, for all her faults, is permitted by Vance to escape to the Continent and eventually die of a broken heart after the Holy Grail is stolen from her; this is also dealt with briefly.
Vance does, however, dwell on the end of Father Umphred, depicting how King Aillas learns of his bid to escape the Elder Isles, captures him on the high seas, and extrajudicially murders him as he lies and flatters and pleads for his life. It is a shocking moment, but it is as fitting an end for Aillas’ revenge plotline as any: it was Umphred who attacked Suldrun, and would have raped her had Aillas not been there to stop him, and it was Umphred who warned Casmir of Suldrun and Aillas’ bid to escape the garden – leading directly to Aillas’ confinement in the oubliette and, eventually, to Suldrun’s suicide – and it was Umphred who finally in this book (after the retconning of the end of Suldrun’s Garden) blabbed to Casmir about Dhrun’s origins, thereby putting Dhrun’s life in danger.
On the one hand, it is impressive that Vance is able to make the killing of Umphred seem like the murky, nasty endeavour that it is, despite this context; on the other hand, it really couldn’t happen to a more deserving priest. A particularly skilled touch is how Vance does not have Aillas give any gloating speeches or anything – if anything, Aillas treats the matter as a distasteful process he takes no pleasure in, but cannot justify turning back from, and he speaks very little. (His only line in the chapter section is “Priest, it is a cold day for a swim, but so it must be.”) Umphred is given the most dialogue in the scene, and Vance artfully uses the dialogue to twist the knife one last time and remind us what a duplicitous abuser Umphred really was. (“My good works have been manifold! Often I recall how I cherished the Princess Suldrun and assisted her in her hour of need!” is a line which, since I know the context, cannot fail but to give me the creeps.)
In other strands, the motives of Desmëi in dissolving herself into three persons become apparent, and it turns out they are meatier than just “get revenge on a lover who spurned me” – which, as is teased out in a discussion between Murgen and Shimrod, was never really a compelling reason for a powerful witch like her to destroy herself. It transpires that she was an agent of the otherdimensional force known as the Green, and she re-emerges from her disparate parts (along with Tamurello) to attempt to free Joald, a massive entity that resides underneath the Elder Isles and whose eventual full awakening will destroy them, as part of an interplanar war between the Green and certain other forces.
Shimrod and Murgen are victorious once they finally make their move, but it is clear that whilst Murgen can do what he can to constrain Joald, the binding will not last forever; Joald’s momentary partial freedom causes a tsunami which destroys Ys and is the event that kicks off the final war for High Kingship of the Elder Isles. Other than that, the Joald stuff seems odd on first reading because it seems to be resolved almost as an aside to the main action, but it does serve a purpose – it’s a last reminder that nothing achieved here is permanent, that the Elder Isles must sooner or later sink beneath the waves, and that life is fleeting and best enjoyed in the moment when you have a chance.
This is more or less the lesson imparted by Murgen’s last words – not spoken directly onstage by himself but relayed via an anecdote from Shimrod. It adds a bittersweet tone to the happily ever after ending to the saga, because we know it cannot be “ever after” – but Vance has a knack for making this seem more precious, not less. The flood must come at some point after the end of the book – but how long later, we aren’t told, and don’t need to know.
What’s most important is that Madouc is now with her family of choice, rather than the family that the arbitrary whims of fate and fairies placed her with; in this respect, despite Vance sometimes taking a more old-fashioned take on subject matter, the trilogy has not aged as badly as it might have, since this conclusion expresses values as significant today as they were when Vance wrote it.