Cugel the Clever

A minor discourse I did on Cugel, the Harry Flashman of fantasy.

Cugel is featured in the books Cugel’s Saga and Eyes of the Overworld as well in Michael Shea’s A Quest for Simbilis. A small word on the Shea book. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with Cugel’s Saga, written some time before it and allegedly with Vance’s permission.

Shea, a renowned fantasist, has done a great job thematically and descriptively with vivid images of a bizarre underworld of powdered glass oceans and people with lizard legs. It’s reminiscent of his superior Nifft the Lean.

Yet, it falls down as a sequel to Eyes of the Overworld in that Cugel ceases to be a protagonist. At the end of Eyes we see Cugel sitting forlorn on Shanglestone Strand eyeing the south. He’s there due to a combination of dreadful irony, miscalculated magic and tragicomic tribulation, what happens next?

Well, in Quest he builds a coracle, and heads off over the sea, he eventually runs into Mumber Sull, an official, and off they go to seek Simbilis the Sixteenth, he who “pained” the demon Unda-Hrada and caused the eponymous Eyes to be scattered in the first book. Sounds like fun, and it is if you have no expectations.

Cugel is Mumber Sull’s sidekick and the quixotic roguishness is muted, damn! Shea has written a good book, but one must ask why Vance himself penned a sequel in 1983, a sequel twice as large as Eyes. Was he disgusted with Shea’s effort? Did he need the money? Or was he pressured into doing a sequel by agents/fans/editors?

In the first and only spoken conversation I have had with Vance, he stated that neither title was his and that there would be no more additions to the series.

“Anticlimactic”, he claimed. Also Vance pronounced Cugel as Koogel. Australian English has a tendency to palatize the consonant before a u, such as in the word cute.

I asked Vance why Shea had written the book and, for the life of me, I cannot recall the answer. (it was 1986/87). He was surprised to know I was living in Brisbane, as he thought I would’ve dwelt in Sydney or Melbourne.

I should also remark on the cover art of the Grafton edition I have. It’s by Geoff Taylor, who does a lot of covers for British editions.

He’s holding the Sky-break Spatterlight in his other hand and it’s this “piece of brummagem” that’s central to the story, like the cusps were to its predecessor. In actuality, he’d be absorbed by the Spatterlight scale, as happens to a lot of unfortunates in the novel.

Back to the illustration; there’s a moon in the background where there’s none in the story and he’s wearing his triple-tiered hat although we can’t see the “foppish bedazzlement” that ordinarily adorns it.

Having the character back-lit is interesting. Cugel, by his nature, is a penumbral and shady fellow though outwardly droll. A ray from Spatterlight occludes his left eye but his right one pierces the observer with crafty intensity, two lizards bask in the sun on rocks behind him, perhaps fluke lizards from the Tustvold mud-flats.