I recently mused on Twitter that Jack Vance may be my favorite Appendix N author, despite the fact that none of his books that I’ve read so far would likely top my favorites list. I’ve explored this ambivalence in the past, in other dimensions, and for the most part it still holds. Still, I’m finding that I tend to appreciate Vance’s works on multiple levels once I’ve had a chance to chew and digest.
The Gray Prince, my introduction to Jack Vance, was a great story. But the buildup was slow and initially I found myself almost lost in the world-building. Ultimately I wound up appreciating the character and plot development, the statements his story made about society, and the payoff of the ending. The Dying Earth stories have been much easier for me to enjoy all the way through. The world is wondrous and awful and magical; the characters colorful and varied. Beyond that, Vance is a wordsmith of the highest order. Some might find his style laborious to read, it’s true. But it pleases me to encounter so many new words and interesting turns of phrase.
What, then, to say about Cugel?
At first, I must admit I was rather averse. Especially throughout most of his first story, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is a heel. He’s opportunistic, selfish, dishonest, arrogant and not notably courageous. We wind up in a cycle – Cugel tricks someone for profit. If they had it coming, he gets away with it. If he they didn’t, he often bungles, is outsmarted, or somehow winds up in a worse spot than when he started. Sometimes it’s a wash – Cugel tries to pull a fast one and his intended victim deserves to be hoodwinked. The result can go either way, but Cugel always manages to save his skin at least. Rinse and repeat.
Somewhere along the way, maybe a chunk through the second story, Cugel’s Saga, I realized that he wasn’t grating on me so much anymore. Had he grown as a character? Maybe he was taking advantage of the innocent a little less often. Or maybe I witnessed a glimmer or two of altruism. Or hell, maybe I just got used to his roguishness! I think most likely it was some combination of factors. Cugel did buckle down and do some real, hard work when he was unable to bilk. And he did suffer injustices at the hands of other villains and ne’er-do-wells. And despite being an avaricious fellow, our rogue did share his acquisitions on several occasions with those who did right by him. So maybe I got to a point where I felt I could root for him. Maybe.
Furthermore, we might do well to look at the world in which Cugel lives. Of course there are innocents and ordinary folk just trying to scrape by. But it’s a harsh state of existence! Powerful magicians take what they dare. Demons and monsters inhabit the dying husk of the earth and imperil humankind. And Cugel isn’t the only cur roaming the countryside. Kindness can be a liability (which isn’t to say we don’t want to see it in our protagonists). Indeed, one of the few vaguely heroic deeds Cugel performs backfires. He saves a traveler from a flying demon creature and as he is claiming the corpse (to present to a king who appreciates such oddities), the ungrateful cad tries to butt in on the monster’s body! It only gets worse for Cugel from there.
I don’t think Cugel will ever be one of my favorite Vancian characters, but at least now I can see why he has enjoyed a degree of popularity, and how he could exert a significant influence over DMs and players alike. As Jeffro and others have pointed out in other places, after all – the average D&D player is basically a Cugel. I guess I’ve made my peace with that.