Origins of Thieves Using Scrolls - Cugel the Clever

Continuing the investigation of the origins of D&D thieves being able to use magic spells from scrolls. Monday: Fritz Leiber's Gray Mouser. Today: Jack Vance's Cugel the Clever.

Cugel the Clever's Spell

This occurs at the very conclusion of the book The Eyes of the Overworld (also known as Cugel the Clever), published in 1966, by Jack Vance. [Even more SPOILERS below -- this is basically the "punch line" to the entire novel!] This book began with Cugel unsuccessfully trying to rob the mansion of the wizard Iucounu, being caught, and then being banished by a spell of transport to a far distant land. Over the course of the book, Cugel has quested all the way back and finally turned the tables on Iucounu, capturing him and taking over his mansion. (More info at Wikipedia.) Pages below are from the Orb Edition: Tales of the Dying Earth (2000).
Days went by and Iucounu's trap, if such existed, remained unsprung, and Cugel at last came to believe that none existed. During this time he applied himself to Iucounu's tomes and folios, but with disapppinting results. Certain of the tomes were written in archaic tongues, indecipherable script or arcane terminology; others described phenomena beyond his comprehension; others exuded a waft of such urgent danger that Cugel instantly clamped shut the covers.

One or two of the workbooks he found susceptible to his understanding. These he studied with great diligence, cramming syllable after wrenching syllable into his mind, where they rolled and pressed and distended his temples. Presently he was able to encompass a few of the most simple and primitive spells, certain of which he tested on Iucounu: notably Lugwiler's Dismal Itch. But by and large Cugel was disappointed by what seemed a lack of innate competence. Accomplished magicians could encompass three or even four of the most powerful effectuants; for Cugel, attaining even a single spell was a task of extraordinary difficulty. One day, while applying a spatial transposition upon a satin cushion, he inverted certain of the pervulsions and was himself hurled backward into the vestibule... [p. 284]

Returning to the great hall, he consumed the repast set forth by Jince and Skivvee, his two comely stewardesses, then immediately applied himself to his studies. Tonight they concerned themselves with the Spell of Forlorn Encystment, a reprisal perhaps more favored in earlier eons than the present, and the Agency of the Far Despatch, by which Iucounu had transported him to the northern wastes. Both spells were of no small power; both required a bold and absolutely precise control, which Cugel at first feared he would never be able to supply. Nevertheless he persisted, and at last felt able to encompass either the one or the other, at need. [p. 286]
Some days later, Cugel is himself the subject of an attempted robbery by a con-man named Fianosther. A struggle ensues, Iucounu is momentarily freed, but Cugel again gains the upper hand on both his opponents.
With great care he bound the arms of his enemies, then stepping into the great hall possessed himself of the work-book which he had been studying.

"And now -- both outside!" he ordered. "Move with alacrity! Events will now proceed to a definite condition!"

He forced the two to walk to a flat area behind the manse, and stood them somewhat apart. "Fianosther, your doom is well-merited. For your deceit, avarice and odious mannerisms I now visit upon you the Spell of Forlorn Encystment!"

Fianosther wailed piteously, and collapsed to his knees. Cugel took no heed. Consulting the workbook, he encompassed the spell; then, pointing and naming Fianosther, he spoke the dreadful syllables.

But Fianosther, rather than sinking into the earth, crouched as before. Cugel hastily consulted the workbook and saw that in error he had transposed a pair of pervulsions, thereby reversing the quality of the spell. Indeed, even as he understood the mistake, to all sides there were small sounds, and previous victims across the eons were now erupted from a depth of forty-five miles, and discharged upon the surface. Here they lay, blinking in glazed astonishment; though a few lay rigid, too sluggish to react. Their garments had fallen to dust, though the more recently encysted still wore a rag or two. Presently all but the most dazed and rigid made tentative motions, feeling the air, groping at the sky, marveling at the sun. [p. 287]
I'll interrupt at this point to note that the Spell of Forlorn Encystment was translated directly to AD&D's 9th-level spell Imprisonment -- reversible to a spell of Freedom, complete with "a 10% chance that 1 to 100 other creatures will be freed from imprisonment at the same time if the magic-user does not perfectly get the name and background of the creature to be freed" [AD&D PHB p. 92]. Continuing with the rest of the story:
Cugel uttered a harsh laugh. "I seem to have performed incorrectly. But no matter. I shall not do so a second time. Iucounu, your penalty shall be commensurate with your offense, no more, no less! You flung me willy-nilly to the northern wastes, to a land where the sun slants low across the south. I shall do the same for you. You inflicted me with Firx; I will inflict you with Fianosther. Together you may plod the tundras, penetrate the Great Erm, win past the Mountains of Magnatz. Do not plead; put forward no excuses: in this case I am obdurate. Stand quietly unless you wish a further infliction of blue concentrate!"

So now Cugel applied himself to the Agency of Far Despatch, and established the activating sounds carefully within his mind. "Prepare yourselves," he called, "and farewell!"

With that he sang forth the spell, hesitating at only one pervulsion where uncertainty overcame him. But all was well. From on high came a thud and a guttural out-cry, as a coursing demon was halted in mid-flight.

"Appear, appear!" called Cugel. "The destination is as before: to the shore of the northern sea, where the cargo must be delivered alive and secure! Appear! Seize the designated persons and carry them in accordance with the command!"

A great flapping buffeted the air; a black shape with a hideous visage peered down. It lowered a talon; Cugel was lifted and carried off to the north, betrayed a second time by a misplaced pervulsion.

For a day and a night the demon flew, grumbling and moaning. Somewhat after dawn Cugel was cast down on a beach and the demon thundered off through the sky.

There was silence. To right and left spread the gray beach. Behind rose the foreshore with a few clumps of salt-grass and spinifex. A few yards up the beach lay the splintered cage in which once before Cugel had been delivered to this same spot. With head bowed and arms clasped around his knees, Cugel sat looking out across the sea. [THE END; p. 287-288]
Coming Friday: Commentary and analysis.

1 comment:

  1. I still think that the thief scroll-casting ability was probably inspired by the Mouser rather than Cugel, but you're making a good case here; Cugel's goof with the Spell of Forlorn Encystment clearly got enshrined in the rules, so perhaps it does play a role in the thief ability. But Cugel's still doing what D&D magic users do with their spell books, not what they do with scrolls.