Sunday, December 11, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Prince of the Powers of this World

In which Roger Zelazny finally gives us a version of Merlin who is not a magnificent tool.

Zach recommended this one and I love this story. The title seems to come from the bible, where Satan is referred to as the Prince of the Powers of the Air in Ephesians, and as the Prince of this World in the Book of John, and the exact phrase "Prince of the Powers of this World" is used in Ivanhoe.

It's a backwards Nativity story, where Asmodeus appears to a trio of gravediggers to bring them glad tidings,

"Rejoice, you miserable motherfuckers, for tonight is the night of your lord's birth!"

"Glad to hear that," said the first.

"I'm rejoicin' a'ready," said the second.

"Me too," said the third, eyes darting towards the cover of a nearby thicket.

I like that bit, because it serves to set the tone of the story. (And "I'm rejoicin' a'ready", always cracks me up, and I eagerly await the day when I can work it into a conversation.(I'd like to work "Rejoice, you miserable motherfuckers," into a conversation too, but that seems less likely.)

Asmodeus continues:

"This night he is born to a former virgin tupped screamin' by the Lord of Darkness in the convent where she dwelled," the dark creature went on. "Cast out by the nuns, refused shelter by the fearful country folk, she wandered, halfmad, till she gives birth in a cave occasionally used for the quartering of animals. Her son is the Messiah of Hell, and I, Asmodeus, proclaim his reign to you! Now get your asses over to the cave and pay him homage!"

The gravediggers follow a demon in a fiery chariot to the cave where they find the Messiah and the Madonna surrounded by ravens and jackals and the like. One of the gravediggers offers his cloak to the woman, because she lacks the hairy hide of her child.

The babe, who has been able to speak since birth asks why he has done this and the mother explains the difference between love and fear. The gravediggers depart, foreign kings arrive with gifts of silver, strychnine and opium, and the child's father arrives some time later.

At midnight, a great rush of fire occurred beyond the cave mouth, filling the entire enclosure with baleful brilliance. The mother gasped and shielded her eyes, but the child stared into the flames, where a dark, brooding, masculine figure took shape. With a laugh, the figure strode forward, to regard them. Then he stooped, snatched the gravedigger's cloak away from the woman and cast it back over his shoulder where it burst into flames. Then he threw an ermine robe atop her and the child.

"You!" she gasped.

"Yes," he replied. "My son and mare deserve the best of garments."

I like the imagery there, but I like the characterization even more. Because Satan had no idea that the gravedigger had given his cloak to the woman (and he certainly wouldn't have cared if he did know) and he destroyed it without a second thought, and he was such an asshole about the whole thing too.

The Dark Lord tells his son that he may call upon legions of demons by naming them, and that if he thinks upon it, he will realize that he knows all of their names. The demon can see dimly into the future and he foresees a time when his son will bend a young king to his will and use him to bring about the final conflagration. He will know this king because he is the only one will be able to pull a sword from its place in the stone.

The demon departs and the story ends this way.

The child yawned and snuggled against his mother once again. "Tell me, son," she asked. "Can you really see the future, like your father?"

"Better," he replied, yawning again. "Arthur shall be my friend."

It's a fun story. You wouldn't think a story with the line, "Rejoice you miserable motherfuckers..." and an assault on a nun by Satan would make more an inspiring Christmas fable, but somehow Zelazny pulls it off.


  1. For some reason the comments section is not allowing me to post with LiveJournal. It keeps saying that my OpenID credentials could not be verified, even though I am logged in. So I'm trying another method.

    I thought you'd be interested in this article from the December issue of Locus, a thoughtful essay on Zelazny's writings by Graham Sleight:


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Er . . . deleted my last comment 'cause there was something dumb about it.

    Long story short: nice review, Josh, as always!

  4. Chris, thanks for the link and Zach thanks for the kind words. I'm rejoicin' a'ready after reading them!

  5. I came back to this post just to point out that Christmas is nine days away, and I'm rejoicin' a'ready.