Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Lord of Light, Part II - All Rild Up

Links to each part of the review: Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart Six 

I'm not entirely satisfied with the first part of my Lord of Light review. It covers all the points that I wanted to discuss, but it meanders all over the place and the different areas never coalesce into a unified whole. I'll go back to correct the odd typo in and old post, but I'm loathe to rewrite something substantially once it's already out there. I'll see if I can tighten up my style for this installment.

We finished the last one with the end of Chapter 1. I'm going to skip over Chapter 2 almost entirely. It's awesome, of course, but not so awesome as what comes later, and it's mostly serves to set up later chapter.

If, for some reason, you're reading the second part of a spoiler filled Roger Zelazny book review (the page indexing the rest of my Zelazny reviews an be found here) without being familiar with the book, the first chapter is set in the present day and deals with Sam's return from the cloud, and the next few describe the events leading up to that. The second chapter deals with his return from an ancient land, where he returns to civilization and learns that things have changed in his absence, and not for the better. His peers, the First, the original settlers of the planet, have set themselves up as honest to God gods, and they rule over the world in this fashion.

It's all around pretty good, but nothing in it inspires me to quote entire passages at length. Its goal is to set the stage for what is to come, and it achieves that admirably.

However, I would be remiss if I let a recap of the chapter pass without mentioning Zelazny's most famous pun. When the Shan of Irabek suffers an unexpected grand mal seizure, Zelazny describes it with the line: "Then the fit hit the Shan." It's a groaner, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Chapter 3: Death and the Executioner.

It is said that, when the Teacher appeared, those of all castes went to hear his teachings, as well as animals, gods and an occasional saint, to come away improved and uplifted. It was generally conceded that he had received enlightenment, except by those who believed him to be a fraud, sinner, criminal or practical joker. These latter ones were not all to be numbered as his enemies; but, on the other hand, not all of those improved and uplifted could be counted as his friends and supporters. His followers called him Mahasamatman and some said he was a god. So, after it was seen that he had been accepted as a teacher, was looked upon with respect, had many of the wealthy numbered as his supporters and had gained a reputation reaching far across the land, he was referred to as Tathagatha, meaning He Who Has Achieved. It must be noted that while the goddess Kali (sometimes known as Durga in her softer moments) never voiced a formal opinion as to his buddhahood, she did render him the singular honor of dispatching her holy executioner to pay him her tribute, rather than a mere hired assassin ...

That assassin was named Rild. I always thought it was pronounced to rhyme with "Killed", but Victor Bevine, the narrator of my audio book, pronounces it to rhyme with "Wild", as in "all riled up", thus the name of this review.

Rild falls ill on the way, and as he is nursed back to health, he abandons his mission and becomes a monk of the Buddha, the guise under which Sam is now operating.
Summer passed. There was no doubt now that there were two who had received enlightenment: Tathagatha and his small disciple, whom they called Sugata. It was even said that Sugata was a healer, and that when his eyes shone strangely and the icy touch of his hands came upon a twisted limb, that limb grew straight again. It was said that a blind man's vision had suddenly returned to him during one of Sugata's sermons.

There were two things in which Sugata believed: the Way of Salvation and Tathagatha, the Buddha.

"Illustrious One," he said to him one day, "my life was empty until you revealed to me the True Path. When you received your enlightenment, before you began your teaching, was it like a rush of fire and the roaring of water and you everywhere and a part of everything, the clouds and the trees, the animals in the forest, all people, the snow on the mountaintop and the bones in the field?"

"Yes," said Tathagatha.

"I, also, know the joy of all things," said Sugata.

"Yes, I know," said Tathagatha.

"I see now why once you said that all things come to you. To have brought such a doctrine into the world, I can see why the gods were envious. Poor gods! They are to be pitied. But you know. You know all things."

Tathagatha did not reply.
In that passage, Rild, now calling himself Sugata, has achieved enlightenment. He believes in the words of the Buddha, and in the Buddha himself but Sam, himself the Buddha, does not. I think that Sam is a decent enough fellow that this misguided faith (in both himself and his words) from such a good man unsettles him. Yet, it doesn't surprise me. When Jen and I first moved to New Hamster, we joined a Unitarian Universalist discussion group. I forget what exactly the topic was, but I remember the pastor saying that he stopped believing in God shortly before he completed seminary. (Feel free to insert your own UU joke here) I was somewhat surprised by this, but I wasn't shocked, because it seems like the "true believers" are never at the head of their respective organization. Perhaps it's because they are less willing to compromise on matters of principle and that makes them less suitable for leading an organization in the secular world.

In the passage below, because Rild has failed, Yama Dharma, God of Death is coming to kill Sam and Rild is barring his passage.
It was a small man who stood there, wearing the dark garments of a pilgrim, caught about with a leather harness from which was suspended a short, curved blade of bright steel. This man's head was closely shaven, save for a small lock of white hair. His eyebrows were white above eyes that were dark, and his skin was pale; his ears appeared to be pointed.

The traveler raised his hand and spoke to this man, saying, "Good afternoon, pilgrim."

The man did not reply, but moved to bar his way, positioning himself before the log that led across the stream.

"Pardon me, good pilgrim, but I am about to cross here and you are making my passage difficult," he stated.

"You are mistaken, Lord Yama, if you think you are about to pass here," replied the other.

The One in Red smiled, showing a long row of even, white teeth. "It is always a pleasure to be recognized," he acknowledged, "even by one who conveys misinformation concerning other matters."

"I do not fence with words," said the man in black.

"Oh?" The other raised his eyebrows in an expression of exaggerated inquiry. "With what then do you fence, sir? Surely not that piece of bent metal you bear."

"None other."

"I took it for some barbarous prayer-stick at first. I understand that this is a region fraught with strange cults and primitive sects. For a moment, I took you to be a devotee of some such superstition. But if, as you say, it is indeed a weapon, then I trust you are familiar with its use?"

"Somewhat," replied the man in black.

"Good, then," said Yama, "for I dislike having to kill a man who does not know what he is about. I feel obligated to point out to you, however, that when you stand before the Highest for judgment, you will be accounted a suicide."
The other smiled faintly.

"Any time that you are ready, deathgod, I will facilitate the passage of your spirit from out its fleshy envelope."

"One more item only, then," said Yama, "and I shall put a quick end to conversation. Give me a name to tell the priests, so that they shall know for whom they offer the rites."

"I renounced my final name but a short while back," answered the other. "For this reason, Kali's consort must take his death of one who is nameless."

"Rild, you are a fool," said Yama, and drew his blade.

The man in black drew his.

"And it is fitting that you go unnamed to your doom. You betrayed your goddess."

"Life is full of betrayals," replied the other, before he struck, "By opposing you now and in this manner, I also betray the teachings of my new master. But I must follow the dictates of my heart. Neither my old name nor my new do therefore fit me, nor are they deserved, so call me by no name!"

Yama kills him and advances onward to speak with Sam, the Buddha.
When he was about twenty paces away, the other turned his head.

"Greetings, oh Death," he said.

"Greetings, Tathagatha."

"Tell me why you are here."

"It has been decided that the Buddha must die."

"That does not answer my question, however. Why have you come here?"

"Are you not the Buddha?"

"I have been called Buddha, and Tathagatha, and the Enlightened One, and many other things. But, in answer to your question, no, I am not the Buddha. You have already succeeded in what you set out to do. You slew the real Buddha this day."

"My memory must indeed be growing weak, for I confess that I do not remember doing this thing."

"The real Buddha was named by us Sugata," replied the other. "Before that, he was known as Rild."

"Rild!" Yama chuckled. "You are trying to tell me that he was more than an executioner whom you talked out of doing his job?"

"Many people are executioners who have been talked out of doing their jobs," replied the one on the rock. "Rild gave up his mission willingly and became a follower of the Way. He was the only man I ever knew to really achieve enlightenment."

"Is this not a pacifistic religion, this thing you have been spreading?"


Yama threw back his head and laughed. "Gods! Then it is well you are not preaching a militant one! Your foremost disciple, enlightenment and all, near had my head this afternoon!"

A tired look came over the Buddha's wide countenance. "Do you think he could actually have beaten you?"

Yama was silent a moment, then, "No," he said.

"Do you think he knew this?"

"Perhaps," Yama replied.

"Did you not know one another prior to this day's meeting? Have you not seen one another at practice?"

"Yes," said Yama. "We were acquainted."

"Then he knew your skill and realized the outcome of the encounter."

Yama was silent.

"He went willingly to his martyrdom, unknown to me at the time. I do not feel that he went with real hope of beating you."

"Why, then?"

"To prove a point."

"What point could he hope to prove in such a manner?"

"I do not know. I only know that it must be as I have said, for I knew him. I have listened too often to his sermons, to his subtle parables, to believe that he would do a thing such as this without a purpose. You have slain the true Buddha, deathgod. You know what I am."

I like the manner in which Zelazny justifies Sam's coming monologue. Yama is mired in quicksand, and can't climb out. "For the moment, however, you are something every preacher longs for, a captive audience, representing the opposition. So, I have a brief sermon for you, Lord Yama."

Possibly the strongest chapter in Zelazny's greatest book. (Though the others are pretty wonderful, also.)The part that sticks with me after everything is Sam's last line in the passage above: You know what I am. Sam knows it too. He has no illusions about what he is or what he is doing. And yet, despite not believing his own words, he somehow found something true and beautiful and inspired his disciple to surpass him. Rild is only mentioned once after this chapter, but I like to believe that he did not make his sacrifice without purpose, that he did it to shape the path that Sam would take.


  1. I stumbled on your reviews while on a Zelazny-related ramble around the web.
    Great stuff. I particularly liked this review. There was an insight to it that I can't quite put my finger on.
    I agree that this may be the best chapter Mr. Zelazny wrote.

    -Brent Jablonski

    1. Well, thank you! I'm glad you liked it. This is one of the really all time great pieces of Zelazny's writing. I love this chapter.