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Reflections on Zhandivar


This is an essay of commentary on the epic poem Zhandivar. It is even less connected to reality than the poem is.


The fate of Zhandivar is a central myth in the Elonian mythos. The narrative poem, Zhandivar, alludes to many of the elements of the mythos. Quite often the allusions are mysterious or misleading to readers who are not thoroughly conversant with the Elonian mythos.

Thus the narrative poem makes no mention of the peculiar status of Zhandivar in the mythos. Zhandivar was the quintessential fabled golden city at the end of the world; a Byzantium or Samarkand in Earthly terms. It both did and did not exist. Many tales were told about it, about its wealth, its kings, and of the curious events that occurred within it. And yet there is no historical record that the city ever existed, no map bearing the inscription, "Here lies Zhandivar". The counterpoint to the stories about Zhandivar are the stories about quests to find Zhandivar and the frequently unfortunate fates of those who do succeed in their quests.

The messenger of the first part of the poem is a familiar figure in Elonian mythos. He is The Messenger, always nameless, who delivers cryptic warnings of doom. As the poem says, he is dressed in rags as a beggar, "The beggar man, no beggar man was he", and is never truly recognized for who he is; however his warnings are always heeded and are always misunderstood. Chatham, et al, have interpreted him as the primeval sensation of dread, a mysterious emanation from the subconscious.

The Messenger is a thoroughly enigmatic figure; he has powers but it is never quite clear what they are. He is not the creature of any god; indeed the gods themselves are as perplexed by him as any mortal.

His warnings are always accompanied by an allusion to some action that he will take. More precisely, the allusion is to an event which he represents. Thus, in the poem he responds to the King's question about who he is with the line "I am the death of he who never lived."

This is a reference to the legend that Zhandivar was founded by the undead who rule for a while and then retire to crypts under the city; supposedly their power is the source of the power and wealth of Zhandivar. It is a striking feature of the mythos that the legend is treated as being a legend. There are no stories as such about the vampire kings; there are only stories which mention the legend. (The Vampire Kings of Zhandivar is not part of the mythos; it is a literary product which uses the Elonian mythos as a basis.)

The Messenger's warning seems straightforward; however it is misleading to the reader, to the people of the city, and to the questers. The questers are told in the end that their quest has failed and so has it has. But it is their quest that has failed. Zhandivar is no more for them. Note that although the doom of Zhandivar is provisionally prophesied we do not see this doom. The Elonian mythos is notably inconsistent on this point; Zhandivar both suffers a mysterious doom and is eternal.

Essential inconsistencies are thematic in the mythos. It is clear in the mythos that Zhandivar exists in the mirror world; however this is never admitted or recognized in any of the stories in which Zhandivar is mentioned. The fate of the questers is typical. When they set out they are mortal and have access to Zhandivar. When they reach the Wall That Girds the World they are, so to speak, reflected. They pass from the mirror world to this world. On this side of the mirror they are immortal but no longer have access to Zhandivar.

What, then, happened to Zhandivar? As the captain of the color guard says, "We do not know. We never knew." This odd phrasing is not an invention of the poet's; this answer to pregnant questions recurs in the mythos. It signifies that not only does the respondent not know the answer to the question, the question informs them that there is something that they should have known but do not. The appearance of this answer portends an ambiguous resolution. The phrasing of the patchwork beast's reply, "Tis passing well and passing poor," is specific to the poem but the form of the reply is standard in the mythos - it speaks both well and poorly of the respondent.

In the poem the destructive passage through Alderman is an incidental event. The reader should not be misled; the destruction of Alderman is one of the major themes of the Elonian mythos. There are no stories about Alderman as such, i.e., no stories set in Alderman. Stories in the Alderman cycle begin with a description of Alderman as a green, enchanted land of beauty and proceed immediately to the events that lead to its destruction; the viewpoint is always from outside Alderman. The destroyers are always a group from Zhandivar; disaster to the group that ensues. Zhandivar, the city, is never the culprit; the destroyers are always a group which, having strayed beyond the bounds of Zhandivar, acts on its own initiative. The classic variant of this cycle is The Rape of Alderman; however the plaintive poem Green Fields That Run With Blood is the most affecting variant.

The questers traverse three barriers, the Great Desert, the Mountains that Pierce the Sky, and the Western Lands. The Great Desert and the Mountains that Pierce the Sky are the traditional barriers guarding Zhandivar from those who seek it. This quest, however, is from Zhandivar rather than in search of it. It is quite noticeable that the traditional traps are not met. Thus, the questers do not encounter the Elven Oasis nor the Hall of the Troll King. It as though the poem were saying that these traps do not exist on the Zhandivar side of the mirror world.

Little is said about the Western Lands other than the offhand reference to questers being killed by dragonfire. The Western Lands are the subject of a separate, distinct cycle. This poem is of the few connecting the two. The Elonian mythos does not have the notion of Faerie as such; the Western Lands are as close as it comes. Being strangers the men from Zhandivar do not realize how truly strange the Western Lands are.

The patchwork beast, a bit of this and that, is a ubiquitous figure in Elonian mythology, usually as the guardian a gate. It always demands an answer to a question as the price of passage; the question is always essential, always cryptic, and always misunderstood by those who would gain passage. The only exception is the mystical Gates of Forever in which Moranus does understand the question and answers "correctly" - unfortunately we understand neither question nor answer. The patchwork beast is never described - never. In some tales, though not in this, there is an implication that it is not simply a chimera but rather a patchwork of different bits of reality.

The poem devotes a single verse to the Utter West which lies in the shadow of the Wall That Girds The World. The questers, being from Zhandivar, would know nothing of the Utter West. It is, however, a central feature of the Western Lands cycle in which it is the physical source of the quiet within the soul.

It is a common mistake to cast Elonian mythology in dualistic terms, e.g., contrasting Zhandivar and the Western Lands as polar opposites. Elonian mythology is fragmented rather than dualistic, separated into distinct realities which are only loosely coupled. Indeed, Chatham argues that the patchwork beast is a metaphor for the entire mythos.

The poem ends with the remnant of the questers returning as an immortal band forever in search of Zhandivar which they can never find. European mythology has the figure of the immortal wanderer under a curse who forever wanders the world, e.g., the Wandering Jew and Vandervecken. Elonian mythology also has immortal wanderers but there are differences. The wanderers are always a group; moreover it is always a group which, as mortals, has failed to achieve a goal which they striven for so hard that they have passed beyond the limits of mortality. By so doing they splinter off into their own static reality of eternal striving. The group is important; a single person is not sufficient for creating a separate reality.

This page was last updated June 20, 1998.