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!