A Personal Look at Jack Vance’s Dying Earth: The Eyes of the Overworld
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
I’m uncertain as to when I first read Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld (1966). It was sometime during high school I’m sure, but an unapprehended brush with the story came several years earlier. The first roleplaying book I ever bought was the Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes supplement for D&D. Under the section titled “The New Spells” in the chapter on Finnish mythology, was one called “Forlorn Incistment.” It allowed the caster to immediately bury, harmlessly, his target deep in the ground until released. It seemed an oddly specific (and oddly-titled) spell, but who was I to question the wisdom of Robert Kuntz and James Ward?
Step forward a year or two and imagine my surprise when, reading The Eyes of the Overworld, Iucounu the Laughing Magician threatens the scoundrel Cugel the Clever with the spell of Forlorn Encystment. Explicitly, it will “constrict the subject in a pore some forty-five miles below the surface of the earth.” I knew the D&D magic system had been lifted from Vance, but I had to chuckle at such a blatant steal.
Jack Vance did not create the dying earth setting–credit for that concept lies with several Romantic poets and authors–but he assuredly coined the term with the publication of his first book, The Dying Earth (1950). It is set in an almost unimaginably distant future when the Sun has dimmed to red, magic has returned, and civilization is spent and withered. The book features an assortment of characters, some good, some awful, and some indifferent.
When Vance returned to the setting in the short stories that comprise The Eyes of the Overworld, they all featured a singularly reprehensible rogue, Cugel the Clever.
“Cugel was a man of many capabilities, with a disposition at once flexible and pertinacious. He was long of leg, deft of hand, light of finger, soft of tongue. His hair was the blackest of black fur, growing low down his forehead, coving sharply back above his eyebrows. His darting eye, long inquisitive nose and droll mouth gave his somewhat lean and bony face an expression of vivacity, candor, and affability. He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine discretion, a mastery of both bravado and stealth.”
One of the things grimdark has done for fantasy is to make unsavory characters commonplace, almost jejune. This was not always the case, particularly in the fantasy of my youth. The Eyes of the Overworld was a dark novelty to me. I had never before read a book with a protagonist so self-centered and self-obsessed.
As implied above, Cugel the Clever is a man lacking in basic morals. On the very first pages, he is easily cajoled into burgling the mansion of Iucounu, the Laughing Magician. His almost immediate apprehension results in his facing encystment, or he can go on a mission to recover one of the titular Eyes of the Overworld. The Eyes, crystal lenses, allow their wearer to see and experience everything as magnificent and extravagant no matter the squalor and lowly state of his physical reality. Iucounu has one and wants another.
Upon accepting the mission, Cugel is transported thousands of miles to the general location of the Eye. Once it is procured, he must find his own way back to the wizard. In his journey across some of the more misbegotten regions of the Dying Earth, Cugel comes into contact, and often conflict, with a wide assortment of obstacles. Not once in these encounters does Cugel fail to act out of complete self-interest or evince a shred of morality. Oh, he is often able to act the honest man, but it is always an act. Of course, most people he encounters are as morally flexible and avaricious as he is, and are quite susceptible to being cozened by Cugel.
Cugel is not the man he thinks he is; he is neither as clever nor as suave as he believes. He is hoodwinked nearly as often as he hoodwinks, and none of his seductions are truly successful. Even when he wins, he still manages to come out the loser most of the time. When his plans do succeed, it is because the one trait he does possess in full is a complete and utter drive for self-preservation. In a world with as unforgiving a nature as the Dying Earth, it’s hard not to admire resourcefulness, even in a man like Cugel.
And Cugel is an awful person; he steals incessantly, murders wantonly, forces himself on the woman who tricked him into marrying her. He is never presented as anything other than a blackguard. And still, Vance manages to make it difficult not to be, at least a little bit, in Cugel’s corner as he faces off against coldly manipulative villagers, man-devouring monsters, and an angry sorcerer or two. The outrageousness of Cugel’s bad luck sways the reader to almost cheer for him to succeed.
Finally, for those inexperienced with the works of Jack Vance, he was, as is so prominently on display in The Eyes of the Overworld, funny!:
“Pour this unfortunate a cup of wine, at my expense.”
Cugel accepted the cup with mixed feelings. “I drink with thanks, though I specifically disavow the appellation ‘unfortunate’ lest the virtue of the word project upon my destiny.”
“As you will,” responded the peasant indifferently, “though in these melancholy times, who is otherwise?” And for a space the peasants argued the repair of the stone fence which separated their lands.
“The work is arduous, but the advantages great,” declared one.
“Agreed,” stated the other, “but my luck is such that no sooner would we complete the task than the sun would go black, with all the toil for naught.”
The first flourished his arms in derisive rejection of the argument. “This is a risk we must assume. Notice: I drink wine, though I may not live to become drunk. Does this deter me? No! I reject the future; I drink now, I become drunk as circumstances dictate.”
This is one of the truly great works of sword & sorcery and should be read by all.