Friday, July 6, 2012

The Periapt of Eponymous Dweomers

There’s a list in the back of the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide that always proved fascinating to me as a DnD loving child. It’s tucked away on p224, Appendix N, between Conjured Animals and Encumbrance of Standard Items (not areas of the book I used frequently it must be said).

The list is of ‘Inspirational and Educational Reading’ and was written by Gary Gygax as a sort of source guide for the things that inspired him to write DnD the way he did. What interested me as a kid was that UK book stores never seemed to have half of these authrors. The main fantasy books at the time I found were Donaldson (which I skipped), Eddings, Brooks and, latterly, Hickman and Weis’s Dragonlance. Yet I dug around then and found Robert E Howard, Michael Moorcock,  Fritz Leiber, HP Lovecraft and, of course, JRR Tolkein.

Ironically, in this series of posts on books that influenced AD&D, and thus influenced me (and I suspect most of the Skull Dust Circle) in my writing, I plan to start with books that I have read recently from that mighty list. These include Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, and Roger Zelzaney. The likes of L Sprague De Camp, Fletcher Pratt and A Merritt are on my radar to read eventually.

Jack Vance’s seminal series Tales of the Dying Earth was published over a thirty year period, with the third and fourth books (Cugel’s Saga & Rhialto the Marvellous) published in the early Eighties, and thus not a direct influence on Gygax.

The first book, The Dying Earth, is essentially a collection of linked short stories about inhabitants of an earth far into the future, where magic and science have merged together, and most recorded history is long lost. It takes a while to get settled with Vance’s prose, but once you do it is simply excellent. The tales involving mages are particularly good, and the basis of the AD&D magic system (in its first incarnation) arose here. Spells are learned, but once used disappear from the mind, until refreshed after rest. The good old Prismatic Spray pops up here, along with the penchant for eponymous dweomers (Phandaal’s Gyrator; Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell).

The second book tells the story of Cugel the Clever, and how he falls afoul of Iucounu, the Laughing Magician. The title ‘The Eyes of the Overworld’ refer to a magical rose-tinted lens that Cugel is sent to fetch after a burglary goes awry. He is encouraged in this quest by having a clawed demon grafted into his liver. Cugel is a wonderful anti-hero: a cheat, a liar, a coward, a rogue, a thief. He feels his wit is quicker than it is, although he still cons a fair few people on his long journey back to Iucounu. In most encounters he comes off the worst, yet you can’t but help root for him. Cugel was an evident inspiration for the thief character class in the original game, and Gygax had admitted as such in interviews he gave over the years.

The characterisation in Vance's Dying Earth quartet is excellent. He creates a selection of bizarre, verbose and articulate characters whose dialogue fizzes along. There were moments when the spectre of Blackadder rose in the verbal fencing, and I chuckled at many of Cugel's witty remarks.

Vance’s work offered a number of other things to the DnD game—Ioun stones, The Robe of Eyes, Evard’s Black Tentacles—but the influence of the magic system (and the love of eponymous spells) was the greatest contribution.  I really enjoyed reading the book and would say it’s definitely worth the time, although gentler than more modern fantasy offerings.

My review of the book on Fantasy Book Reviews is here


  1. Jack Vance's books were amongst the first fantasy genre I read. I particularly enjoyed his Lyonesse series. Well done for reviewing this wonderful author's work.

  2. Thanks Kate- they're on my TBR list. I found his style entrancing once I'd got used to it.