What have I got in my Pocket?

A Quest for Simbilis

Once upon a time I bought a single second-hand book in a charity shop because I liked books and this one intrigued me. I was getting nicely into reading SF at the time, mainly via gifts from my uncle Jim, who first introduced me to the magical worlds of Bilbo and co. but most of my reading material was borrowed from the local Library. It was a good place and I found many wonderful treasures there to explore, but the SF section wasn’t all that large and thus I was still trying to work out whether I preferred Spaceships to Dragons or Swords to Sourcerers, Elves to Aliens or Rogues to Kings. This was a book about a rogue named Cugel the Clever, the eponymous hero of Cugel’s Saga, and the author of this book was Jack Vance.

I enjoyed it, it was a bit strange, stranger than my usual fare, and was an older style of fantasy, very linear in it’s approach, much like the hobbit describes a single journey there and back again. It was more like a collection of singular adventures masqerading as an entire story. The problem was that this was actually book III of a trilogy called the Dying Earth, and since I had not yet read books I or II many questions were left unasked and unanswered and thus I began my own quest to find myself a copy of these previous volumes. I wanted to know what went before.

The machine in the local library held records of many books and their locations from all across the county, and sure enough they managed to track me down copies of The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld, books I and II, which satisfied my Cuglish desires admirably. But there was a surprise too, not only had a fourth book had been published since, (Rhialto the Marvelous, more strangeness for me to read), but alongside there was a cross reference to another entry by a different author. The name of that book was A Quest for Simbilis by Michael Shea, and that was how I discovered Fanfic.

This book recounted some further adventures of Cugel and his travels but whilst it was a clear sequel to book II, all of the action took place before the start of book III and led our hero in on a circular journey which led right back to place of his original starting point with nothing whatsoever to show for all his efforts. It was really rather good, very tin-foil helmet stuff, the author had found a gap in the narrative and shoehorned in his own alternative ending, but if you didn’t know that it existed, you would never realise that it was ever there in the first place. The thing is that Michael Shea didn’t wait for the real book III to be released, he was clearly a fan of the first two books and, fed up of waiting for Vance to write some more about Cugel’s exploits, he decided to write his own ending. His waiting would have been a long one, The Dying Earth was a 1950 collection, Eyes of the Overworld was published in 1966, but Cugel’s Saga did not arrive until 1983! That is a long, long time to wait for a book, Pat fans beware, writing comes slowly sometimes, but Michael’s work was an authorized publication (coincidently also by DAW books) released in 1974, barely half way through the official seventeen year gap in Vance’s own work. Which just shows the lengths that some truly nerdy readers will go to and the things that they come up with to fill the void whilst they are waiting for something they greatly desire.

The Name of the Wind called to me quite early on. I liked the look of the cover, I was intrigued by the blurb on the back (I imagined Felurian would turn out to be some beardy old death wizard!) so I paid my money and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with my purchase (although with hindsight I really wish I had bought a Hardback!) It was a wonderful book, and straight away I wanted more. I must have read it over and again a fair few times whilst waiting for The Wise Man’s Fear to finally come out… but I still didn’t see this first book for what it truly was, it was a rabbit hole.

I was at the front of the queue for book II, and once again my mind was blown away by Pat’s wonderful worldbuilding but it was still another year or so before I finally came to realise exactly what I held in my hands. Book one contains many, many answers, but book two asks all the right questions. Up until then I was more concerned about discovering what happened next, who is the king Kvothe kills, what happens to Ambrose? Where is Denna? The usual sort of questions that most readers want to know more of, but then I started to relise that the greater part of the book dealt with all that which had come before. I began to see strange similarities in the old stories, all these characters with similar cloaks, old lore about forgotten things which rang a bell to an earlier remark and I noticed that the similarities between secrets about certain things couldn’t be written off as simple coincidence, and none of it made the slightest bit of sense…at first.

Nowerdays, Patrick Rothfuss may well be the finest fantasy fiction writer that there is, but before he was a writer, he was into dungeons and dragons, and he was more than any simple roleplayer it would seem, he was clearly an actual Dungeon Master. These books are not just a wonderful story filled with beautiful prose, they are also a puzzlebook to be solved by those with the desire to do so. In D&D the DM builds a world full of devious puzzles for all the other players to solve, and his desire is for it to be as fiendish and dastardly as he can make it. To complete the quest the players need to solve all of the DM’s puzzles to find the safest path through the maze of possibilities, avoiding dead ends and pitfalls, defeating monsters and saving princesses, finding the treasures and collecting clues to locate the hidden magics necessary to defeat the end-level boss. They may be seen as a never ending series of quests but like the chapters in Cugel’s saga, each problem faced is a seperate thing, created with love to make them work together. Any given dungeon game may take many days, weeks or even years to complete but the game only ends after every single part has been solved to the DM’s satisfaction. This is serious stuff played by serious players, in the biggest games the same wizards and warriors, dwarfs and elves, paladins and barbarians have all been running around within the DM’s own private universe for years, and the most enjoyable games are also the most difficult ones, the ones that really test your logic, your luck, your fellow dungeon travelers skills and discoveries and the cleverness of the DM himself. The DM is not going to suddenly turn round and say ‘ Do you all give up?? Oh, well, never mind, well let me give you all the answers and show you where you went wrong, where you should have been looking for them. Oh no no No! nobody ever learns anything without earning it first. Wizards first rule.

‘It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think.

If you give a man an answer all he gains is a little fact, but if you give him a question he will look for his own answers’

Pat’s work is more of a puzzle than a book, and so that is the way in which I now view it, indeed if you want to enjoy the game to it’s fullest then this is how it is meant to be viewed. I love puzzles, always have, you could say that I have a knack for them, and I have gleaned many answers too. After a while I started to spot the edges of things, how perfectly wonderful was the worldbuilding here and that how every word was important, every clue led to an answer that was itself just a single piece in the vast jigsaw of Pat’s head, and lowly but surely the puzzle pieces started fitting…and so I started writing all these things down.

So in the spirit of Simbilis, I offer up unto you, The Tinfoiler Chronicles by Matty Tangle. This collection of…essays? is my version of events that make up a Historical basis for the true story of Lanre, This is my version of the Song of Seven Sorrows if you like, finishing Arliden’s song with what really happened to this proud man. It is also a rough guide to the wonderful world of Temerant and the faen realm and all the stories of the universe that lie between and make her what she is today.

Enjoy.

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