Roger Zelazny, Appendix N Supplemental
I’ve written about Roger Zelazny before in my sporadic Appendix N series of posts. My recent reading of the entirety of the Dilvish the Damned sequence of tales requires that I add this supplemental. Because Dilvish is worthy of the effort.
Now, the culmination of Dilvish’s saga (The Changing Land, 1981) postdates Appendix N, but I’m going to include it in my comments for the sake of completion.
Dilvish (nicknamed “The Damned” for reasons I’ll make plain momentarily) is the half-elven hero of Zelazny’s revenge cycle. The elf bit is never fully delved into. The difference between elf and human cultures, the history of Dilvish’s world, etc. did not seem to greatly interest Zelazny. The world building is incremental, a brick here, a brick there in each short story as Zelazny makes it up as he goes along. That’s fine. The foundation of the saga is the short story, after all. I rather doubt Zelazny had mapped it out when the first tale, Passage to Dilfar was published in 1964. Then again, perhaps he had. I merely speculate.
Dilvish is an aesthete, a reluctant military man, a man of honor, though not rigidly so. He runs afoul of the powerful sorcerer Jerelak. Jerelak transforms him into a statue and sends his soul to hell, where he endures a couple centuries of torment. The driving motivation behind the sequence of tales and the subsequent novel is Dilvish’s desire for revenge.
And within that rather standard character motivation Zelazny invests his stories with subtle themes and gradual shifting of perspective. I don’t know if he did so deliberately, but this plays out somewhat in the style of the narrative as well. The initial stories are mannered, framed in stilted language. But as Dilvish’s years of pursuit wear on and other characters begin to question his monomania, the language Zelazny employs shifts to a more contemporary mode, with the characters speaking in colloquial American English. It suggests, perhaps, a softening of purpose, a relaxation and a temptation to accommodate to the needs and desires of the moment. Dilvish is hardly above giving in to the desires of the moment.
The short stories bring Dilvish near to his revenge, leading to a damaged and weakened Jerelak, who manages to escape. The novel takes place at a location mentioned near the end of the stories. Interestingly, Dilvish becomes one of many POV characters, all with differing objectives. The culmination turns out to be more the final development of Dilvish’s attitude toward revenge than the demise of Jerelak. It is interesting and well done, though in the hands of a lesser writer it might have come across as disappointing or anti-climactic.
The same praise can be made with regard to Dilvish as a character. He is well drawn and interesting. But Zelazny provides him with crutches, in the form of his steed Black (a powerful spirit or perhaps demigod, usually taking the guise of a metallic horse-like creature), his elf boots, and (early on) a magic sword. He gets out of scrapes by way of these aids rather than by his own wiit, skill, or stratagems. There is something more of the European fairytale to this rather than American Swords and Sorcery. But again, thanks to Zelazny’s skill, it works. The amusing conversations between Dilvish and Black help. And help delineate Dilvish’s character. Black if cautious and pragmatic. Dilvish is chivalrous, if not quixotic, bordering on reckless. Black is always there to help pull Dilvish out of the predicament his curiosity gets him into. Zelazny is wise enough to write the occasional bit in which Dilvish aids Black, showing us that their relationship is a partnership.
I’ve enjoyed reading the odd Dilvish story here and there. But reading through the entirety in sequence helped me appreciate them even more. I assume Gary Gygax was familiar with at least some of the stories. The Elven Boots magic item in the Dungeon Master’s Guide might well have been inspired by Dilvish. I can see the adventures Dilvish gets entangled in being influential. In summary, good stuff.
If you’d like to read some other good stuff, may I recommend my series Semi-Autos and Sorcery, published by Aethon Books? They are pulp-influenced, contemporary fantasy adventures. Check them out and let me know what you think.