Beyond the Keep on the Borderland (Pt.3) – Clifford Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage

So, the last war between Mankind and Fey has ended, settling into an uneasy armistice. The Caves of Chaos are no longer teeming with the creatures of Fey, and the Keep on the Borderlands is no longer garrisoned, has fallen into disuse and disrepair, and only a small church remains as a reminder that this was once a forward outpost in Christendom’s endless war with soulless heathens. What becomes of the heroes of that age? The Clerics who fought against the forces of Chaos to advance and defend Civilization and ensure that Mankind’s right to rule the land God bestowed upon Adam?

“I have never been able to settle quite comfortably into the role of churchman, although I do my best. I mortify the flesh and discipline the spirit, but the hungers rage within me. Age does not seem to quench them. Much as I may frown upon the folly of what you intend to do, I find within myself the ache to go along with you. I suppose it may be this place, a place of warriors and brave deeds. Peaceful as it may seem now, for centuries it was the outpost of the empire against the peoples of the Wasteland. The tower is now half tumbled down, but once it was a great watch tower and before it ran a wall, close to the river, that has almost disappeared, its stones being carted off by the country people to construct ignoble fences, hen-houses and stables. Once men manned the tower and wall, standing as a human wall of flesh against the encroachments and the depredations of the unholy horde which dwells in the Wasteland.”

“Your grace,” said Snively, far too gently, “your history, despite the centuries, is too recent. There was a day when the humans and the Brotherhood lived as neighbors and in fellowship. It was not until the humans began chopping down the forest, failing to spare the sacred trees and the enchanted glens, not until they began building roads and cities, that there was animosity. You cannot, with clear conscience, talk of encroachments and depredations, for it was the humans—“

“Man had the right to do what he wished with the land,” the bishop said. “He had the holy right to put it to best use. Ungodly creatures such as—“

“Not ungodly,” said Snively. “We had our sacred groves until you cut them down, the fairies had their dancing greens until you turned them into fields. Even such simple little things as fairies…”

This clash between clergy and demi-humans comes from the completely alien and antithetical worldviews each has. Mankind vs. Fey is older than Elf vs. Dwarf, though some of the reasoning and cruft is similar. Elves don’t like Dwarves because Dwarves cut down trees and pursue wealth; Dwarves don’t like Elves, because Elves are haughty and aloof. In the case of Mankind vs. Fey, Fey don’t like mankind because men encroach on their borders, and Mankind doesn’t like Fey because their existence is blasphemous.

So, strange must be the circumstances that a Elf, a Dwarf, or a Halfling would join with Men, especially Men of the cloth, to assist in pushing back that boundary of Elfland for the benefit of Man and Civilization.


Beyond the Keep on the Borderland (Pt.2) – Clifford Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage

The Keep on the Borderlands module is the subject of much debate and discussion. Isolated from the greater Known World setting into which it was eventually folded, you have a very simple dichotomy from which a world may be extrapolated–Law vs. Chaos, Civilization vs. the Wild, Christendom vs. Fey… and between the two are the Borderlands.

Now, with what information is given regarding the Caves of Chaos and the Keep on the Borderlands, there are a few things that we can assume:

Beyond the Keep, there is Civilization, and that Civilization is moving towards the wilds, rather than away from it.

Beyond the Caves of Chaos, there is simply more wilds. There is some migration towards the caves from these wilds, but caves are not unified nor are they a hard target. A dedicated push from Civilization could clear out the caves, but if all of Elfland were brought to bare against the Keep, it might topple one outpost at great cost yet it could not ultimately stop the advance of Civilization and man.

Most pre-genre fantasy depicts an Elfland in decline, slowly or rapidly withdrawing its borders to protect what little magic it has left. Determined individuals are sometimes able to find it, but finding it often means that the magic will be extinguished by the institutions of Man.

So, when there’s no push to cleanse the Caves of Chaos or there’s no Keep on the Borderlands to extend the shadow of civilization into Elfland, what is the Borderland and what lies beyond it? How do the demi-humans in the region live?

Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage seeks to answer just that:

“Do you know what the Wasteland is?”

“It’s enchanted ground,” said Gib.

“It is,” said Snively, “the last stronghold of the Brotherhood….”

“But you—“

“Yes, we are of the Brotherhood. We get along all right because this is the Borderland. There are humans, certainly, but individual humans—millers, woodcutters, charcoal burners, small farmers, moonshiners. The human institutions, government and church, do not impinge on us. You have never seen the lands to the south and east?”

Gib shook his head.

“There,” said Snively, “you would find few of us. Some in hiding, perhaps, but not living openly as we do. Those who once lived there have been driven out. They have retreated to the Wasteland. As you may suspect, they hold a hatred for all humankind. In the Wasteland are those who have been driven back to it and those who never left, the ones who had stayed there and hung on grimly to the olden ways of life.”

“But you left.”

“Centuries ago,” said Snively, “a group of prospecting gnomes found the ore deposit that underlies these hills. For uncounted millennia the gnomes have been smiths and miners. So we moved here, this small group of us. We have no complaint. But if the so-called human civilization ever moved in full force into the Borderland, we would be driven out.”

Fey is always in a precarious position with mankind nearby, because the institutions of man, particularly the Church, are inimical to them. Land is developed, with towns, roads, and agriculture changing the character of the land, and the bells of the Church and prayers of good Christian men and women drive the elves further back beyond their ancient borders.

Beyond the Keep on the Borderland (Pt.1) – Clifford Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage

Over the weekend, I started reading Clifford D. Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage. It’s one of his later works (mid-70s), and while it hasn’t been as wild and action-packed as his pulp short I reviewed awhile back, it’s been an interesting read for several reasons.

The mid 70s were a time of tumultuous sea-change in Fantasy. There was a pulp sword & sorcery revival going on in the early part of the decade, but Lord of the Rings was booming and Tolkienian primacy was on the horizon. Dungeons & Dragons and Shannara were about to change everything.

Enchanted Pilgrimage is a party-centric quest-fantasy, but the fantasy is still pre-genre, pre-Tolkienian. While the story isn’t particularly Dunsanian, the setting is, and the portrayal of fey is still on the far side of weird. What Enchanted Pilgrimage does best, though, is illustrate what a demi-human-centric adventuring party would be like.

A scholar finds an original manuscript hidden in the binding of a copy of a travelogue written by someone who traveled to the Wasteland (Elfland); an Inquisitor from the church is trying to hunt him down. The scholar goes on a quest to investigate the truth of the manuscript with the help of some goblins, gnomes, and swamp elves with the Inquisitor on his trail.

The setting is rather nebulous, but a war between fey and Christendom ended a generation before, leaving the Borderlands, co-inhabited by men and fey, between Civilization and the Wasteland.

The quest of the story kicks off in two parts: in civilization, the scholar finds the manuscript about a journey to Elfland; in the wild, a young… something (it’s not clear what the Marsh People are, other than that they’re furry almost-humans) pays visit to an elderly Christian hermit who has a final request for him. Simak very subtly highlights the uncanny nature of fey and the uneasiness that exist between them, even in the relatively peaceful Borderlands.

Gib, the young Marsh Man, is visiting a gnome, who has just finished a new ax-head for him, on his way to see the hermit.

“I only called on the hermit once. A neighborly act, I thought. I took him, as a gift, a fine pair of silver candlesticks. I never went again. I fear that I embarrassed him. I felt an unease in him. He said nothing, of course….”

“He wouldn’t,” said Gib. “He is a kindly man.”

“I shouldn’t have done it,” said the gnome. “It came from living so long in the land of humans and dealing so much with them that I began to lose the distinction between myself and man. But to the hermit, and I suppose many other men, I am a reminder of that other world in which I properly belong, against which men still must have a sense of loathing and disgust, and I suppose for a reason. For ages man and the many people of my world fought very hard and viciously against one another, with no mercy, and I suppose, at most times, without a sense of honor. In consequence of this, the hermit,  who is, as you say, the kindliest of men, did not quite know how to handle me. He must have known that I was harmless and carried no threat to him or any of his race, and yet he was uneasy. If I had been a devil, say, or any sort of demon, he would have known how to act. Out with the holy water and the sacred spells. But I wasn’t a devil, and yet in some obscure way I was somehow connected with the idea of the devil. All these years I have regretted that I called on him.”

“And yet he took the candlesticks.”

“Yes, he did. Most graciously, and he thanked me kindly for them. He was too much a gentleman to throw them back in my face. He gave me, in return, a length of cloth of gold. Someone, I suppose, perhaps some noble visitor, had given it to him, for the hermit would have had no money to buy so princely a gift. I have often thought, however, that he should have kept it and given me a much more lowly gift. I’ve wondered all these years what I possibly could do with a length of cloth of gold. I keep it in a chest and I take it out now and then and have a look at it, but that is all I ever do with it. I suppose I could trade it off for something more utilitarian, but I hesitate to do that, for it was the hermit’s gift and for that reason seems to me to have a certain sentimental value. One does not sell gifts, particularly a gift from so good a man.”

“I think,” said Gib, “that you must imagine much of this—the hermit’s embarrassment, I mean. I for example, have no such feeling toward you. Although, in fairness, I must admit that I am not a human.”

“Much closer than I am,” said the gnome, “and therein may lie a difference.”

Something to think about in your game–humans and demi-humans, even when not directly at odds, may always have a sense of unease about one another on a deep, spiritual level, and the unease will be mutual. These aren’t just people from different races, but beings from different worlds!