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On the Road to Ventimiglia

Ventimiglia is an ancient town on the Italian Riveria near the French border. It was the ancient seat of the Counts of Ventimiglia and is charming. Until recently I did not know this. Instead I have traveled my own road to Ventimiglia, a literary road, via a trip which I mean to recount.

Some people, I am told, read a book but once. I am not such a one. Books that I enjoy are friends and companions. One does not visit a friend only once; nor do I read a book but once. Some people choose their friends for their utility and importance, taking care to associate only with the best people. Likewise there are people who only read “great” books, books which improve the mind. Not I. My old friends among books are not chosen for their worthiness; some hobnob among the best canons and some, frankly, are commoners. Today I speak of some old friends who are comfortable and are not at all in anyone’s list of great books.

One of my old friends is a fantasy novel, The Swordbearer, by Glen Cook. I received it as a review copy circa 1982 when I was doing SF reviews. It was one of his earliest novels if not the first. I fell in love with it. Over the years that original copy has becomed frayed and tattered – a second copy shows signs of wear.

The story is the story of a sword bearer, one Gathrid. The sword is Daubendiek, the instrument of Suchara. Suchara is the mother in a family of four, a family trapped through the ages in a sourcerous dream, each member striving to bring into being a champion who will awake and free them alone. They dream and know not that their dreams shape the world. The world:

It was an old, old world. Its inhabitants were a worn and weary people fallen into long rhythms of empire and dark age. Its unremitting feudalism remained eternally static.

Daubendiek is evil, sentient, a soul drinker, imbued with sorceries, and bloodthirsty. The swordbearer is bound to it and given power by it.

Daubendiek hummed softly, pleased, but was not satisfied. Having tasted blood at last, it lusted for more. Much more. Rivers. Oceans.

Ahlert Mindak, the ruler of an empire to the East, discovered and opened Ansorge, a tomb of ancient sourceries and used the artifacts uncovered their in a great war of conquest. Daubendiek and its immortal esquire, the dwarf Rogala, was not among them. Gathrid is a refugee from Mindak’s war. He finds Daubendiek and becomes the sword bearer. The plot is complex, twisted, and dark, a byzantine struggle within a vortex of shifting alliances and treachery.

The empire? The name of the empire is Ventimiglia. I do not know if Cook borrowed the name or if he invented it independently. I suppose he borrowed it. In any case, for many years the only Ventimiglia I knew was the empire of the East in The Swordbearer. I had not been to Liguria or, rather, I had and remembered it not.

Daubendiek is not a McGuffin. A McGuffin is an artifact of great value whose real purpose is to provide an important artifact for the plot. A McGuffin may be a Maltese falcon, or the plans for a secret weapon, or the lost Ark, or whatever. It is just a thing. Fantasies are awash with talismans of great power but most of them are just McGuffins. In some fantasies, however, there are talismans which are not just McGuffins. They are not passive; they are active. They act on the characters and their actions shape the plot.

The ring in The Lord of the Rings is not a McGuffin although its analogues in the innumerable imitations of TLOTR mostly are. In most fantasies with a talisman of great power the artifact is a ring or a sword. The symbolism is, I suppose, obvious. I have not read a comparative analysis of the sexual imagery between fantasies which use rings and those which use swords but I imagine some mad man has written it. I am sure some one has written the definitive Perception of the Feminine within Masculine Western Mythology in which TLOTR is skewered on a Freudian cigar.

From all these rings and swords it is a relief to turn to fantasies in which the talisman is a book. What is the Freudian symbolism of a book? Who knows? Not I. A book of great power is not just a grimoire or a rare and curious volume. It is not just a focal point of mana. It acts on and interacts with the reader. Real books do that too. Magic books do that and more.

Curiously enough, most such books are evil and dangerous. Another scholar, perhaps the one who analyzed TLOTR, will have explained why this is so. One thinks of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. However my favorite book about a book is John Bellairs The Face in the Frost. This is a tale of two wizards, Roger Bacon and Prospero (but not the ones you are thinking of) who must find, confront a third wizard, Malichus, who has acquired and is reading a fateful book of spells and is well on the way to destroying the world in consequence.

The run of the mill fantasy has a character cast drawn from dungeons and dragons and feudal militarism for a plot. Bellairs doesn’t write those sort of books. It is thoroughly whimsical. There is a magic mirror which wallows in the trash of future centuries and is fond of singing:

“O-over-head the moon is SCREEEEAMING,
Whi-ite as turnips on the Rhine…”

The whimsy carries throughout but it slides into horror – horror that has nothing to do with Lovecraft or King or tales from the crypt. Malichus is reading the book. It requires enormous concentration; the spells it unleashes empty the world and populate it with empty things. Ursula LeGuin’s blurb reads:

“Lively, witty, unpretentious, THE FACE IN THE FROST takes us into pure nightmare before we know it – and out the other side. This is authentic fantasy by a writer who knows what wizardry is all about.”

The Face in the Frost, The Lord of the Rings, and The Swordbearer are three of my nominees for great fantasy, the other two being The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle (which has been made into a very good animated movie) and Jurgen by James Branch Cabell.

I do not only read fantasy. Think it not. I have read my War and Peace. (Many times, albeit not of late. I must dig it out and visit Pierre once more.) But we are not here to speak of books that all account as great.

Recently I was reshelving books. This is a refreshing experience. The literary litter of one’s life should be rearranged every so often that one might thereby uncover and renew one’s acquaintance with forgotten friends. In the course of doing so I came across The Grand Duke and Mr. Pimm by Lindsay Hardy, hardover printed in 1959, paperback in 1961. This definitely is not Jude, the Obscure. It is a romantic comedy and a lot of fun. The cover blurb reads:

Hunting season on the Riviera – where titled paupers chase the elusive heiress and genial crooks take their cut – an expert and wicked farce of the International Set at play.

Our hero is one Julian Soames, Grand Prix driver and Riveria bum, who is about to be deported when he is rescued by Timothy Pimm. Mr. Pimm is in the “business” of making matches between titled paupers and rich young women. His motives are noble, his means are underhanded.

This book is an old friend. It too is tattered and frayed. Having come across it I sat down once again to read of Julian Soames, of his courtship of Peggy Browning, secretary to the madcap heiress, Annabelle Mehaffey, of the scheming of the delightful Mr. Pimm and his comeupance at the hands of Aunt Matilda.

I read and, as I read, I came across the line “Annabelle’s letter came in the afternoon delivery and Aunt Matilda showed it to Mr. Pimm. It had been posted in Ventimiglia sometime the previous night and it read,”.

“Whoa”, I said to myself. Ventimiglia??? Isn’t that the name of the empire in The Swordbearer? Off to the bookshelves I went to rummage around until I found my tattered copy and confirmed the horrid truth. Yes, indeed, they were the same. In 1962 I brushed against Ventimiglia in a romantic farce. In 1982 I met another Ventimiglia in a dark fantasy. In 1997 I put the two together.

The world wide web is a wonderful resource. I fired up the search engines and persued a number of pages about the real Ventimiglia. Fascinating.

Someday I will go to Liguria. For real.

This page was last updated April 21, 1997.