Richly resonant

Holman Hunt Scapegoat Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (Wikipedia Commons)

Robert Silverberg Kingdoms of the Wall Grafton 1993

This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, who has been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall, who has seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, who has grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and of death.

So begins this richly resonant novel, set on some distant planet — well, all planets are distant, aren’t they? — in a part of that world which is dominated by a inconceivably vast mountain called the Wall. From a community which is made up of distinct villages surrounding the Wall forty youngsters are chosen periodically to attempt the scaling of the mountain. Despite the honour accruing to the chosen ones, few of them ever return, and those that do seem unable to give a coherent narrative. Poilar is determined to be the one who not only achieves the ascent but to return and give an account. Despite the very first sentence providing the most monumental spoiler ever, Silverberg’s novel maintains a very palpable will-he-won’t-he tension throughout: Poilar’s nickname, Crookleg, is just one of the most obvious obstacles to him ever making his dream a reality.

I said that Silverberg’s fantasy is richly resonant. On all levels – mythological, anthropological, folkloric and literary – the quest by aspirant heroes to achieve an impossible task is archetypal. The forty chosen youngsters are reminiscent of Theseus and his companions setting off for Crete, its labyrinth and the Minotaur; or of Arthur’s knights questing for the grail; or of a fairytale hero such as Gluck (in John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River) attempting to succeed in sprinkling holy water into a magnificent cataract in the face of failure by his malevolent brothers. The visible dangers that they face on the way remind me of the perils faced by Odysseus on his journey home, of the Labours of Hercules or of the perils surmounted by Perseus in classical myth; and of course the range of social interactions among Poilar’s forty companions is typical of the motifs found in many folktales. Indeed, Silverberg’s epic has the feel of a traditional tale surviving from the mists of time, a prime example of what Joseph Campbell termed monomyth.

Over all looms the presence of the Wall, an overbearing but non-human character, which dominates or at least cannot be ignored in Poilar’s account. This too conforms to an archetype, that of the sacred mountain found in many cultures: Mount Meru or Kailas in Eastern myth, Ararat or Sinai in the Middle East, Olympus or maybe even Glastonbury Tor in the West. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia, built as artificial sacred mountains, recall to mind Silverberg’s earlier novel Gilgamesh the King, by all accounts a demythologised version of the Sumerian culture hero who confronts the demon Humbaba on Cedar Mountain. Kingdoms of the Wall seems like yet another take on the same theme, this time with the ‘gods’ on top of the mountain being not what was expected, in a revelation not unlike the denouement of Planet of the Apes.

The Wall is also resonant with another of Silverberg’s creations, Castle Mount in his Majipoor novels. Here too is another colossus of a geographical feature which the human beings on this alien planet have to somehow furnish with an artificial atmosphere, so high does Castle Mount reach. In Kingdoms of the Wall all the natives have to do is effect some metamorphosis of their bodies, an innate adaptive feature of their physique. In this (and in other physical features) they resemble the Metamorphs or Shapeshifters of the Majipoor series, so much so that I wonder if this novel was originally conceived as a kind of Majipoor prequel before Silverberg backed away from this approach and made it a standalone novel.

So far only the technical, structural and thematic features of this novel have detained us, but I must briefly discuss whether it delivers an emotional punch. Of the odd few Silverberg writings I’ve read many are technically intricate but strangely disengaging – I admire them for the world-building but never quite care about the mostly male protagonists (unlike, say, Ursula Le Guin, who makes you believe in the humanity of her characters). In many ways his fiction can be dryly descriptive, like his non-fiction (I particularly enjoyed his The Realm of Prester John, first published in 1972). Kingdoms of the Wall, however, is written in the first person, and spread over a few hundred pages this approach allows one some insight into the human psychology of its ostensibly alien leading man, enabling the reader to develop some empathy for him.

  • Repost of a review first published 7th April 2013, and here intended as a second introduction to Silverberg’s Majipoor novels proper. Claude Lalumière, in his A Brief History of Robert Silverberg, calls it “a deeply affecting and evocative extraterrestrial novel whose subtle and complex structure invites layered readings” — a judgement I thoroughly agree with.
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4 thoughts on “Richly resonant

  1. How interesting it is to get a feel for the reading mind of different bloggers. I admire the way you’ve written about this book but it’s not one I would have the slightest inclination to read. Vive la difference!

    1. I do like to try different genres, Gert, but they have to be ones I’m in the mood for. I can’t say that science fiction is currently what I’m drawn to — being rather immersed in 19th-century and related literature at the moment — but I do find it stimulating when I find the right novel. This one was a little slow to get into until I got a handle on it, but I agree it’s not a plotline to appeal to everyone.

  2. My first thought was, “Gods on the other side of a wall? Sounds similar to Game of Thrones” but your comparison to classical works squashed that idea. As I read on, Gilgamesh’s journeys were forefront in my mind. I enjoy most quest tales no matter what the setting, so yes, you’ve added to my list again.

    1. My mind naturally drifts to classical comparisons, Sari, but I’m sure others would note entirely different parallels or influences. I did enjoy this but it’s not one I’d seek out to read again — too much else to catch up on!

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