Coming Around on Cugel

Saturday , 29, April 2017 18 Comments

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.



PCBushi can also be found on Twitter or at the PCBushi blog, where he ruminates on scifi/fantasy, games, and other spheres of nerd culture.

  • Nym Coy says:

    I haven’t read Cugel, but your description strongly reminds me of the Harry Flashman books in historical fiction.

  • Jeffro says:

    Planet of Adventure is closer to the Burroughs/Brackett style of hero. The guy wants to get the girl at the end… and he’s likable enough that you want him to!

    • PC Bushi says:

      It’s on my radar! I think the Demon Kings protagonist is similar in that regard, though I’m not sure how central his love interest will be to the story. It is a tale of revenge, after all.

  • deuce says:

    Cugel is definitely not a Boy Scout. As Nym noted, he’s a bit like Flashman. Both characters were born in the increasingly cynical post-WWII era. For me, Cugel’s fine to read about, but I wouldn’t want a large percentage of my fiction to read that way.

    For a more likeable descendant of Cugel, check out Shea’s Nifft the Lean novels. In fact, Vance authorized Shea to write a sequel to EYES OF THE OVERWORLD called THE QUEST OF SIMBILIS. Shea’s Cugel was more like Nifft than he was Vance’s Cugel. A gifted writer who died not long after Vance, unfortunately.

    • john silence says:

      I like “Simbilis” too, even though it is neither on par with Vance nor with Shea’s more accomplished works. Though, it is worth noting that Cugel is somewhat underused for the good part of it.
      For something that borders on Vance pastiche, there’s also Shea’s “In Yana”. I reckon that it will satisfy those who enjoyed the Cugel books (also, its protagonist is quite a bit more likeable than Cugel, even though he is far from heroic).

    • PC Bushi says:

      Same, Deuce – I got comfortable with Cugel, but two books was quite enough (probably more than enough) for me.

    • caleb says:

      I’ll add another recommendation for Shea. Also, one of his final stories, “Hew the Tintmaster” is quite excellent piece of Vanciana (I can imagine that it was originally written for Martin’s Dying Earth anthology but then rejected, due to that gentleman’s unique judgement).

  • cs7850 says:

    He refuses to be a victim in a world of monsters, thieves and murderers. He becomes monstrous himself, but he does seem to mellow in the second book as you say. The way Cugel doesn’t accept anybody’s value system except his own puts me in mind of an existentialist.

  • Jim says:

    I honestly hated the Cugel books. He is one of the most unlikable characters in fiction. It doesn’t help that Vance completely repeats the plot of the first book in the second but doubles the length.

    • PC Bushi says:

      That was my initial opinion of him. I think it was Vance’s world and technical skill that kept me going. True, Cugel repeats his journey in the second book, but there are all manner of new and interesting characters and locales.

    • deuce says:

      I’ll take Cugel, written by Vance, over Thomas Covenant, written by Donaldson, any day.

      As bastardly as Cugel is, he’s a better person than Holden Caulfield.

  • icewater says:

    He definitely evolves in the second collection, ever so slightly and subtly (which makes it believable). Indeed, he is quite often wronged himself there – when trying to dutifully do his lowly menial labor on ship, for example, and is often juxtaposed with characters just as amoral or worse. I’d call it a case of him being a learning animal, if nothing else.

  • caleb says:

    That Vance tribute anthology of Martin’s had a couple of good Cugel stories. Kage Baker’s story is laugh out loud hilarious, and ending stays etched in one’s mind, and Mathew Hughes story is pretty enjoyable too (and it plays with first person narration in a cool way). Tho, I am only recommending that anthology if you can get it for cheaps. You have a handful of decent stories, and a majority of meh ones (with some real stinkers thrown in for good measure). For someone who considers himself a judge on whether or not writers “know their Vance” (his own words), Martin wasn’t at all good either at writing a tribute to him or picking up stories worthy of him.

    • deuce says:

      Color me surprised. Anxieties concerning just what you described are what stopped me from buying it in the first place.

      People need to understand that, despite his occasional championing of various pulp/App N stuff, GRRM’s taste is located somewhere near his fundament. He can’t be trusted as an editor. However, I suppose I should be glad that someone with his very high profile is getting names like Vance, REH and ERB out there to some people on the off-chance that a few readers will be red-pilled.

  • caleb says:

    Concerning Shea, Dark Regions Press KS includes his collected Cthulhu Mythos short fiction (including one of his final, previously unpublished pieces).

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