The Eyes of the Overworld

The time has come to write again. I was considering some more poetry, but then realised that the majority of the last few posts have been poems; therefore, in need of some change, I ended up going with a favourite novel of when I was sixteen or so, though I haven’t read it in many years.

Firstly, the book is, as the post’s title suggests, The Eyes of the Overworld, also sometimes titled Cugel the Clever, by the science fiction and fantasy author Jack Vance. As an interesting aside, Jack Vance had a bit of a varied life; he failed an eyesight test to get into the army during World War Two, so, rather creatively, he memorised an eye chart so he could get into the American merchant navy, and do something for the war effort. Anyway, the novel. The book is set in Vance’s Dying Earth, thousands of years in the future when the sun is ready to die within the next few decades, the continents have all  been shifted, magic exists and is used, ancient ruins of vastly advanced cities cover the world, and monsters of other universes and genetic manipulation haunt the world. In short, it’s a very typical, very fun sword and sorcery landscape.

vance_eyes-of

Eyes of the Overworld follows the roguish Cugel (who adds the suffix ‘The Clever’), who is sent far away by a wizard to retrieve an artefact, and bring it back to the wizard. The novel, which is rather clearly more a bunch of linked episodes than a standard novel, follows all the ups and downs of adventuring in such a world. The book is amusing, and the humour comes from Cugel’s certain belief that he is, indeed, ‘the Clever,’ and that he can get the upper hand. What happens, instead, is everyone else gets the upper hand, or he leaves everything behind him in complete ruins; nevertheless, Cugel does show cunning. At one point, Cugel is cursed to an immediate death by a dying bandit. Swiftly, Cugel tells a nearby ghost that he shan’t bury the ghost’s corpse, at which point the ghost curses him to a slow and cankerous death. Very cunningly, the curses cancel each other out, and Cugel is left in the clear.

The writing is, in its way, over the top and grandiose. It works, though, as it creates the feeling of Cugel, believing himself to be so grand and wonderful, adding to the book’s effect. The dialogue is amusing; apparently, Jack Vance was always inspired by P. G Wodehouse, and his final test for any character was whether, devoid of the sword and sorcery, the character could fit in with Wooster and company.

So, the novel is very amusing, and a classic picaresque story of a ‘cunning’ rogue, mixed with fun sword and sorcery adventure. A word of warning, however: as I said, the book’s humour is in Cugel’s losing out, or leaving everything in ruins. As a side effect, which makes Cugel’s failures amusing and not depressing, Cugel is a rather awful person through most of the book. We first meet him conning people into buying fake talismans he has just made; he destroys ancient civilisations and lifetimes of work through his carelessness, selfishness, and sheer stupidity, amongst darker things. One cannot sympathise with Cugel, and enjoys his failings; although Cugel does become slightly better at the end of the book’s sequel, it can be hard sometimes to read about such an awful person. Fair warning!

So that is The Eyes of the Overworld. A classic fantasy romp, filled with much humour and hubris, and, though there are occasions when Cugel is too horrible, and one must put the book away and return later, to see him get his just deserts. It is not a horribly fantastic book, nor one filled with great pathos nor moral learning (unless one takes away that the rewards of being a nasty person are to have everything fall to ruin), but is fun to read on occasion. As one last aside, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series are also the source of the slightly odd magic system of Dungeons & Dragons, as wizards force spells into their minds, but, due to their arcane workings, forget them the minute they are cast.

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