What Cugel the not-so-Clever teaches us about character

Dying-EarthJack Vance died on 26th May in California aged 96. Enough has been said on the blogosphere about this amazing genius of a writer who wrote over 60 genre fiction books, and I’m not going to repeat it, except to say that he influenced such writers as Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin and Michael Chabon. RIP Grand Master. Your words dance across the page, astonishing and marvellous as ever.

What I wanted to do today was talk about the Tales of the Dying Earth and the rascally Cugel, the character I most love to hate. Far in the future, the sun is red and feeble and the folk are few and strange. Not to mention dangerous, greedy and – some at least – utterly heartless. The genre, if one has to define it, is science fantasy. Tiny blue Twk-Men ride dragonflies, selling information for salt, and evil creatures abound. It makes for very entertaining reading. 

Into this world we are introduced to Cugel, an utter rogue if ever there was one. Selfish, cowardly and a thief to boot, he tries to steal the treasures of the mansion of Iucounu the Laughing Magician. Caught by Iucounu, he agrees that in exchange for his freedom he will hunt for a small violet glass, an ‘Eye of the Overworld’, to match the one already in the wizard’s possession. An alien creature of barbs and hooks is attached to his liver to encourage his ‘unremitting loyalty, zeal and singleness of purpose,’ and a spell is used to transport Cugel via flying demon to a remote land.

Thus begins the saga of Cugel the not-so-Clever and the not-at-all-nice. We are given ample opportunities to dislike him. Similarly Cugel is given ample opportunities to redeem himself – but he never does. He uses and tricks everyone he meets, and is injured when they trick him back. With women he is especially awful. He trades one to bandits for safe passage, and leaves another to drown. Knight in shining armour, he is NOT.

And yet, by the end of Cugel’s Saga, if we’re not exactly rooting for him, we are at least rooting against his enemies. What saves Cugel is his absurdity, his wit, his instinct for self-preservation which so often backfires – no, actually none of those. What saves Cugel are his repeated failures to accomplish his goals of accumulating wealth and power and defeating Iucounu the Laughing Magician. We can snort with laughter at his failures, pleased at his punishment, but we’re always happy to see him back on his feet, determinedly trotting toward another dreadful adventure.

This brings me – by a rather long route I admit – to what makes characters empathic to a reader. If you’re going to have an anti-hero, make sure he or she is relatable in some way. Jack Vance does it with style and humor and having his anti-hero’s plans crumble at every turn. What’s your take going to be? Perhaps your character is damaged in some way by the past. Perhaps he or she has one saving grace, a propensity to rescue  drowning kittens, perhaps. Or he saves the world by mistake from an alien starship. You get my drift.

The Dying Earth series consists of the following books and each one is worth a read from start to finish:

The Dying Earth (1950)
The Eyes of the Overworld (1966)
Cugel’s Saga (1983)
Rhialto the Marvellous (1984)

Unpretentious and unassuming, Jack Vance claimed in an interview with Locus online that he wrote to make money and because he had the knack for it. He wouldn’t take any credit for his writing – it was like taking credit for being beautiful.

Well Mr Vance, you may be modest, but your legions of fans know better. Your vivid prose and colorful characters ensure that your stories will be read for a long, long time to come.

About Rati Mehrotra

Science fiction and fantasy writer. I blog at: ratiwrites.com Thanks for dropping by!
This entry was posted in Books and media, Science fiction and fantasy, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.