In February 1967, Roger Zelazny finished writing Nine Princes in Amber, the first of a five-book series that became known as The Chronicles of Amber. Its first-person narrative begins with Carl Corey awakening in a private hospital in upstate New York, afflicted with a head injury and recently broken limbs from a motor vehicle accident, but lacking all memories of who he is. He soon learns that he is Prince Corwin, heir to the throne of the real world, Amber. As he recovers his identity and memories, we discover that compelling science fantasy world with him. Our own Earth is but one of an infinite number of parallel universes which are Shadows of Amber. Amber represents Order and is opposed by the Courts of Chaos; all potential Shadows lie in between these extremes. Corwin and his blood relatives can traverse and possibly create these Shadows, but they are preoccupied with internecine schemes for control of Amber itself. The throne is vacant because their father, King Oberon, is missing and presumed dead. In the first book, Corwin says that he is recounting the tale to someone while standing at the Courts of Chaos; in the final book (The Courts of Chaos), we learn that he has been telling the tale to his son Merlin after the final battle at the Courts.
The five volumes of The Chronicles of Amber were published between 1970 and 1978 and became Zelazny’s most popular and commercially successful work, spawning spin-off computer and role-playing games, conventions, compendiums, artwork, costumes, fanzines, and fan fiction. Zelazny later surrendered to the demands of his fans and publishers by expanding the series to ten books and a half-dozen shorter story fragments. The latter five books are told from Merlin’s viewpoint, and these were published between 1985 and 1991. All ten books have been published in one volume as The Great Book of Amber but are also collectively considered to be The Chronicles of Amber.
Beloved by a wide readership, Nine Princes in Amber was panned by other fans who bemoaned that Zelazny had abandoned the experimental creativity and craft of his short fiction and the novels Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness. Critics generally considered it an entertaining adventure that lacked literary substance. James Blish described it more favorably as “Zelazny’s version of sword-and-sorcery, but not for addicts only. Zelazny has not borrowed the standard apparatus for this sort of thing, but has invented his own, and the result is an adventure story with real originality and zest” (39). In a letter to Doubleday editor Marc Haefele, Zelazny admitted that “I meant it to be something a bit lighter than my usual fare, sort of sword-and-sorcery and something which I would have fun writing.” But although he’d intended to write a trilogy, he was uncertain as to the finished novel’s merits and declined to send it to Doubleday editor Larry Ashmead when requested. The manuscript gathered dust on a shelf for more than a year until Samuel Delany mentioned the novel to Haefele, who purchased it (Kovacs 559). The hardcover was mistakenly pulped shortly after its release, and so it wasn’t until the 1971 paperback that Nine Princes in Amber really began to gather its wide readership.
I’ve recently begun annotating The Chronicles of Amber for my own enjoyment. Along the way, I’ve rediscovered depths to the writing in this series that are characteristic of Zelazny’s best work. By depths, I am not referring to the obvious care that he took in universe-building to make Amber, Shadows, and Chaos believable and compelling. With much of his fiction there can be multiple layers of intended meaning, and the same is true for this work where the adventure tale with smart-talking, amnesiac Corwin is only the surface layer. Critics and readers who dismiss these books as lacking substance seem to have seen the adventure but not its depths. And so the point of this essay is to identify and explain some of the subtler allusions, layers, and influences, while focusing on the first five books that are Corwin’s tale.
Corwin, Arthur, and the Wasteland Myths
At Western Reserve University in the 1950s, Zelazny worked on a BA in English Literature and formalized a lifelong study of mythology. An important influence he encountered then was Sir James Frazer’s massive multi-volume The Golden Bough, which catalogued the myths and posited that old religions were fertility cults. A sacred king would marry an earth goddess, die at harvest, and be reincarnated in the spring. Many of Zelazny’s early works were influenced by Frazer’s research, and he even quoted from The Golden Bough in his first novel . . . And Call Me Conrad/This Immortal. During those college days, Zelazny also studied Jessie L. Weston’s 1921 book From Ritual to Romance, which controversially tied those fertility myths into Arthurian legend and Celtic Wasteland myths. Weston’s analysis informs the root story of The Chronicles of Amber.
Weston spent decades studying the common elements among the different versions of the tales of King Arthur, the Fisher King, the Wasteland myths, and the Holy Grail. In broad strokes, these stories postulate a close connection between the vitality of the king and the prosperity of his kingdom or fruitfulness of the land. If the ruler’s vitality has been weakened by sickness, a wound, old age, or even death, in turn the land is laid to waste and the hero’s or quester’s task is to restore the king, the land, or both. Similar to the myths of the fertility cults studied by Frazer, loss of virility in the king is sympathetically reflected in the land by a suspension of the reproductive processes of Nature.
In broad strokes, this brief summary of Weston’s academic analysis of the Celtic Wasteland myths is an outline of The Chronicles of Amber. Corwin’s assault on Amber leads to the Vale of Garnath being laid waste. When Corwin’s eyes are burned out of his head with a hot poker (so ordered by his brother Eric, who has seized the throne), Corwin pronounces a powerful curse that helps create the sinister Black Road which emerges in Garnath and enables agencies of Chaos to gain a foothold in Amber. But Corwin’s errors don’t end there. His dalliance with his much younger relative Dara, an agent of Chaos, enables her to walk the Pattern in Amber, gain power to control Shadow, and credibly threaten to destroy Amber. Still later, his casual dispatching of Dara’s beloved mentor and fencing master causes her to hate him and actively plot his demise.
In Nine Princes in Amber, Corwin is initially pleased that his curse has caused troubles for Eric, but when he sees the wasted Vale of Garnath he is dismayed by what he has done:
There was something evil present in that great wood, I knew, and then I recognized it. It was myself. I had done this thing with my curse. . . .
I had created a new entranceway into the real world. Garnath was now a pathway through Shadows. Shadows dark and grim. Only the dangerous, the malicious might walk that pathway. . . . I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had done a very bad thing indeed. . . . If I won out in Amber one day, I might have to cope with my own handiwork, which is always a devilish thing to attempt. I lowered the glass and sighed.
So be it, I decided. (Nine Princes 186)
In The Guns of Avalon, Corwin encounters hellcats and other strange and violent creatures which have come out of Chaos. He realizes that he is to blame for their presence and that he must undo the damage: “You see, I was the party responsible for the whole thing down there. I had done it, and it was up to me to undo it, if I could” (Guns 37).
Corwin’s suspicions are confirmed by the two hellcats who call him “Opener,” and later by the goat-headed leader of demons whom he fights to the death:
“Lord of Amber,” it said then, “why do you strive with me? It was you who gave us this passage, this way . . .”
“I regret a rash act and seek to undo it.”
“Too late—and this a strange place to begin.” (Guns 45)
In the third and fourth books, Sign of the Unicorn and The Hand of Oberon, Corwin learns about the schemes that were carried out by his siblings and realizes that he is not wholly responsible for the problems in Amber and its Shadows. His brother Brand shed Amberite blood on the Primal Pattern, and that created critical damage which was reflected from Amber all the way to Chaos. Corwin’s curse simply aided Brand’s attempts to allow Chaos to gain supremacy over Amber. But Corwin reaffirms that he is the quester destined to heal the land:
The damage to the Pattern had laid Amber open to this access, and I believed that my curse had provided the precipitating element. I felt now that it would have come to pass without me, but I was certain that I had done my part. The guilt was still partly mine though no longer entirely so, as I had once believed. I thought then of Eric, as he lay dying on Kolvir. He had said that as much as he hated me, he was saving his dying curse for the enemies of Amber. In other words, this, and these. Ironic. My efforts were now entirely directed toward making good on my least-liked brother’s dying wish. His curse to cancel my curse, me as the agent. Fitting though, perhaps, in some larger sense. (Hand 76)
In the concluding novel, The Courts of Chaos, competing variations of the Wasteland myths are presented as King Oberon plans to restore the land through efforts that will result in his own death, while Corwin seeks to heal the land and die in his stead. Corwin wrests the Jewel of Judgment away from his father and tries to begin repairing the Primal Pattern but is thwarted by Oberon. He tells Oberon that he is more than willing to sacrifice himself to heal Amber but no longer wishes to be crowned its king:
I still felt that the black road owed something of its final form to the strength my curse against Amber had given it. I wanted to wipe that out, too. Dad would do a better job of putting things together after the war than I ever could, anyway. I realized, at that moment, that I no longer wanted the throne. (Courts 26)
Later, as he carries out his father’s orders by starting a hellride through Shadows toward Chaos, he sees evidence of early repair to the Vale of Garnath and is pleased: “I am sorry for my part in this, I addressed everything mentally, half-prayer like. I ride now to try to undo it. Forgive me, O spirit of this place” (Courts 38).
Finally, when his traitorous brother Brand convinces him that Oberon died in a failed attempt to repair the Primal Pattern and the land, Corwin takes the Jewel of Judgment and creates a new Pattern with its own attendant set of Shadow universes. An island universe of peace and order now exists while the forces of Chaos swirl futilely around it. Creating this requires an effort that nearly kills him. He then learns that Oberon did succeed before his death, so now there are two Patterns of Order to compete against the forces of Chaos.
Zelazny acknowledged the influence of Weston’s book on the Amber novels. “As for the Weston book and the legendary and mythological materials—their substance was already present in my mind and had been for a long while” (“Road” 1980, 9). And so it should be clear that Corwin is the quester or hero in a story that follows the path of the Wasteland myths elucidated by Jessie Weston. Corwin is, effectively, the knight who will heal the land.
For readers who did not appreciate the allusions to Weston’s theories about Arthurian legend and the Celtic Wasteland myths, on another level Zelazny made blatant references to King Arthur. We learn in The Guns of Avalon that Corwin ruled in Avalon, a Shadow he deliberately created over six centuries earlier to resemble Amber most closely. Avalon is also Arthur’s kingdom. Sir Launcelot du Lac once served Corwin in Avalon, and so too he was King Arthur’s most trusted knight. Corwin fled Avalon after it had been laid to waste and Ganelon betrayed him, while Arthur’s Avalon progressively crumbled because of Launcelot’s adultery with Queen Guinevere, the failed Grail quest, and the death of King Arthur. We learn that King Uther reigned in a Shadow that resembles the Avalon Corwin created, and Uther is the father of King Arthur. These similarities suggest that Zelazny intended that Corwin’s fateful reign in Avalon became the source of Arthurian legend.
Weston’s analysis of Wasteland myths also noted that the Grail variations incorporated four symbols which have subsequently become associated with tarot cards—a cup (chalice or goblet), a lance (wand or scepter), a sword, and a dish (circles or pentangles). She concluded that these symbols were originally used to predict the rise and fall of the water which brought fertility to the land, and that it was only later that tarot adopted these symbols to foretell the future.
The Chronicles of Amber prominently features a special form of tarot cards—the Trumps—through which the royalty of Amber can communicate with each other and be transported across Shadows. Zelazny appeared to have forgotten this part of Weston’s analysis because he believed that he had added tarot for other reasons:
For several years I’d been fascinated by the art of playing cards. I began collecting them—odd decks, old decks, tarots. I found them in junk shops, antique shops, hobby shops. I read books on them. What they were all doing in that special place in my mind is hard to say. But when the time came and Corwin searched Flora’s study, looking for anything that might give him a clue concerning his past, they were there, waiting for just that moment, and they had to be the right thing. And when Flora mentioned Amber, I saw it, I suddenly knew what it was, what it had to be. (“Road” 1996, 3)
Since Zelazny admitted that Weston’s thesis of the Celtic Wasteland myths was very much in his mind at the time he wrote these novels, it seems likely that her linking of tarot to the myths was a subconscious influence on his creation of the Trumps.
Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World
A definite subconscious influence was The Dark World, a 1946 novel ostensibly written by Henry Kuttner, but later revealed by C. L. Moore (his wife and frequent collaborator) to have largely been written by her (Bradley 69). Zelazny described it as one of his all-time favorite novels but had forgotten its content. It wasn’t until Jane Lindskold pointed out the similarities to him that Zelazny realized its importance as an influence (Zelazny “Introduction to The Dark World” 38–39; Lindskold 27–30).
In The Dark World, the character of Edward Bond has amnesia but is haunted by memories of a world he cannot recall. He gathers information while being cagey about his impaired memory and learns that he is in reality Lord Ganelon. His memory is eventually restored. His adventure begins on our Earth before he is transported to the Dark World. Originally there were two worlds, the Earth-world and the Dark World, but now there are multiple worlds co-existing in time and space but separated by the variant of probability. These worlds are nearly identical at branch points but then diverge greatly down the timestreams. The Dark World is explained to be the source of many myths and legends on Earth. Ganelon has been so changed by his experience of living without knowledge of himself that even his enemies declare he must be an imposter: “Aye, that is not Ganelon speaking! In the old days, you cared nothing about how many enemies you made. If you have changed so much, danger to us all may result.”
In The Chronicles of Amber, we first meet Corwin as the amnesiac Carl Corey who is clever enough to conceal the gaps in his memory while gathering information from his siblings Flora, Random, and Deirdre. His memories are eventually restored by walking the Pattern in the city of Rebma, an underwater mirror image of Amber. His father Oberon disguises himself and uses the pseudonym of Ganelon, the infamous name of a betrayer (from The Song of Roland), and betrayer of Corwin in Avalon. Amber and Chaos are at opposing ends of a continuum with an infinite number of Shadow worlds between them. We learn that the near-immortal Amberites have been the source of many myths and legends on Earth. Corwin has been so changed by his amnestic life on the Shadow Earth that his siblings and father declared he has changed substantially. His sister Fiona exclaims, “I have just noticed that this is not really Corwin! It has to be one of his shadows!” (Sign 109).
The Alexandria Quartet
A conscious influence on the writing of The Chronicles of Amber was Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (1957–60), in which the author retold the same tale from a different character’s viewpoint for each of four novels. Zelazny originally planned to echo this approach with Corwin’s automobile accident being the key mystery and each novel told by a different sibling. He abandoned the change of narrators when he grew more fascinated with Corwin (Krulik 82). However, he began the novel in the aftermath of the accident, revisited it from multiple perspectives, and made clear its importance as a central puzzle. Each character (Flora, Brand, Julian, Fiona, Bill Roth, Dr. Bailey, and others) provides a different version of the event and its consequences, and by sifting through contradictory evidence and accounts, Corwin comes closer to knowing the truth. It was a simple motor vehicle accident, or Bleys shot out the tires, or Brand shot out the tires. Brand rescued him or Brand tried to drown him. The accident provoked his memories to start returning, or his memories had already begun returning but the accident further scrambled his wits to delay his recovery.
The World of Tiers
The other conscious influence was Philip José Farmer’s series The World of Tiers (1965–93). Zelazny acknowledged this in several essays and interviews. “One of the things that had occurred to me about the Tiers novels was that I liked the fact that Farmer had these nearly immortal Lords who tested one another, and I was thinking that the family relationships involved with something like that would have been more fun to explore” (Dowling 20). “I had been reading the World of Tiers novels before beginning work on Nine Princes in Amber, and I decided at that time that I would one day write something involving a large family of peculiarly endowed near-immortals who did not get along very well with each other” (“Road” 1980, 9). “I thereby freely confess that my own Amber series owes more than a little to Phil’s World of Tiers and the bickerings of the immortal lords” (“Guest” 7). He identified two main reasons why the World of Tiers appealed to him so much: “I am fascinated by the concept of physical immortality and the ills and benefits attendant thereto. This theme runs through the books like a highly polished strand of copper wire.” Also, “the concept of pocket universes—a thing quite distinct, as I see it, from various parallel-worlds notions—the idea of such universes, specifically created to serve the ends of powerful and intelligent beings, is a neat one” (“Introduction” 1968, 6). He incorporated both aspects in The Chronicles of Amber by creating a feuding family of near-immortals who have the power to create their own Shadow worlds.
Solipsism is a philosophical theme interrogated throughout the novels. The concept of solipsism is raised tangentially in Nine Princes in Amber when Corwin acknowledges of his family, “We had spent much of our time in wandering in Shadow, or in our own universes. It is an academic, though valid philosophical question, as to whether one with power over Shadow could create his own universe. Whatever the ultimate answer, from a practical point we could” (93). But in Sign of the Unicorn, Corwin specifically addresses solipsism:
Solipsism, I suppose, is where we have to begin—the notion that nothing exists but the self, or, at least, that we cannot truly be aware of anything but our own existence and experience. I can find, somewhere, off in Shadow, anything I can visualize. Any of us can. This, in good faith, does not transcend the limits of the ego. It may be argued, and in fact has, by most of us, that we create the shadows we visit out of the stuff of our own psyches, that we alone truly exist, that the shadows we traverse are but projections of our own desires. . . . Whatever the merits of this argument, and there are several, it does go far toward explaining much of the family’s attitude toward people, places, and things outside of Amber. Namely, we are toymakers and they, our playthings—sometimes dangerously animated, to be sure; but this, too, is part of the game. We are impresarios by temperament, and we treat one another accordingly. While solipsism does tend to leave one slightly embarrassed on questions of etiology, one can easily avoid the embarrassment by refusing to admit the validity of the questions. (Sign 158)
Corwin goes on to explain that it is the madness of Chaos that proved to him that there is a reality beyond his own self that he can’t have created because Chaos is something he couldn’t imagine or control:
There is a place where the shadows go mad. . . . When you purposely push yourself through layer after layer of Shadow, surrendering—again, purposely—a piece of your understanding every step of the way, you come at last to a mad place beyond which you cannot go. . . . when you come to this place, as we all have, you realize that you have reached the limit of Shadow or the end of yourself—synonymous terms, as we had always thought. Now, though . . .
Now I know that it is not so. . . . because I knew that the black road ran beyond that point. It passed through madness into chaos and kept going, the things that traveled across it came from somewhere, but they were not my things. I had somehow helped to grant them this passage, but they did not spring from my version of reality. (Sign 159)
In The Courts of Chaos, Zelazny quotes Isak Dinesen’s thoughts on solipsism. Dinesen wrote, “Few people can say of themselves that they are free of the belief that this world which they see around them is in reality the work of their own imagination. Are we pleased with it, proud of it, then?” (180). Corwin calls this “a summation of the family’s favorite political pastime” (Courts 76).
It is blind Vialle who forces Corwin to explain why he and his siblings fight for control of Amber when the nature of their power over Shadow means they could create their own perfect kingdoms to rule. Solipsism aside, the reason they do not is that they perceive a difference between the reality of Amber and the Shadows they create:
“Lord Corwin, my knowledge of the philosophical basis of these things is limited, but it is my understanding that you are able to find anything you wish within Shadow. . . . If you wished, could not each of you walk in Shadow and find yourself another Amber—like this one in all respects, save that you ruled there or enjoyed whatever other status you might desire?”
“Yes, we can locate such places,” I said.
“Then why is this not done, to have an end of strife?”
“It is because a place could be found which seemed to be the same—but that would be all. We are a part of this Amber as surely as it is a part of us. Any shadow of Amber would have to be populated with shadows of ourselves to seem worth while. . . . A shadow is never precisely like that which casts it. These little differences add up. . . .”
“I begin to understand,” she said. “It is not just Amber for you. It is the place plus everything else.”
“The place plus everything else . . . That is Amber,” I agreed. (Hand 47)
“A Philosophical Romance” and the Nature of Reality
These philosophical discussions about the nature of reality take a further twist in The Hand of Oberon. Zelazny gave himself an Alfred Hitchcock–like cameo in the form of Roger the guard, a “lean, cadaverous figure who rested against a storage rack, smoking his pipe, grinning around it” (52). Many readers failed to recognize the author and some still refuse to believe it, but Zelazny admitted that it is him (Shannon 38). The character of Roger goes on to say:
“I am writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity. I work on those parts down here.”
“Fitting, fitting,” I said.
“I’ll be needing a lantern.”
He took one from the rack, brought it to flame from his candle.
“Will it have a happy ending?” I inquired.
“I’ll be happy.”
“I mean, does good triumph and hero bed heroine? Or do you kill everybody off?”
“That’s hardly fair,” he said.
“Never mind. Maybe I’ll read it one day.”
“Maybe,” he said. (52)
Readers responded, “Okay, if that’s Zelazny, then what novel he is referring to?” Some of those readers have posed the question to me, and the answer is obvious. The confusion arises because “romance” now brings to mind love stories, bodice rippers, and cover art that depicts passionate embraces with bare-chested Fabios.
But Roger the guard meant Nine Princes in Amber and its sequels because Zelazny was using the classical definition of romance. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were far fewer categories of prose. The novel was realistic, while the romance used an historical or imaginary setting to depict heroic or marvelous deeds, pageantry, amorous exploits, reversals of fortune, chance happenings, turns upon wonders, etc. Romance characters were not necessarily lifelike but instead fitted stereotypes of noble heroes and heroines, and they usually achieved a happy ending. And quite clearly The Chronicles of Amber is a romance in that classical definition, and it is certainly “shot through with elements of horror and morbidity,” including Corwin’s blinding in the first novel. Zelazny, as Roger the guard, is writing the book that Corwin is living and we are reading.
But what is a philosophical romance? It is an uncommon term, but the most straightforward interpretation is a romance that explores philosophical issues. According to Benson, it is a romance that includes philosophical reflections on human destiny, the inevitable alternation of joy and sorrow, and the divine order of the universe (7). Corwin’s tale certainly fulfills this definition because he explores solipsism, the nature of reality, the origin of Order arising from Chaos in the universe, the role of the Ego and Anti-Ego in striving for the Absolute, and other philosophical issues.
Philosophical romance was first used in Hugh Murray’s 1805 work Morality of Fiction to refer to a romance that tries to prove the truth of some philosophical opinion or the obligation of some moral principle. Murray was specifically referring to the novels of William Godwin and other British rebels who supported the ideals of the French Revolution, and who sought to educate the masses and gain their sympathy through this form of storytelling. Murray considered it a form of brainwashing for political gain. Most recently, Robert Miles has echoed this definition while narrowly defining three main features of a philosophical romance: “standard romance plot of obscure family origins . . . national stories of becoming . . . [and] a calling into question of the foundational moments of one’s culture through the trope of legitimacy” (194). Corwin’s tale doesn’t fit this more academic definition of a philosophical romance, but it’s a definition that was created decades after Zelazny wrote those lines in The Hand of Oberon.
Zelazny’s cameo reveals his playful nature. He is intruding as the author to remind the reader that this is a work of fiction. But Corwin had earlier revealed that he is aware of this:
“Yes,” [Bill Roth] said. “But I wonder . . . I’ve a peculiar feeling that I may never see you again. It is as if I were one of those minor characters in a melodrama who gets shuffled offstage without ever learning how things turn out.”
“I can appreciate the feeling,” I said. “My own role sometimes makes me want to strangle the author.” (Sign 133)
This is an especially fitting dialogue between Corwin and his friend. The discussion about the perception of reality frequently focused on the solipsistic view that everything outside the self is unreal but imagined. But Corwin’s dialogues with Bill Roth and then Roger raise an opposing possibility, that the self is unreal because it is being actively imagined by someone else. This echoes Chuang Tzu’s classic observation about perception of reality: “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”
The Ego, Anti-Ego, and Striving for the Absolute
Zelazny read widely and understood even the difficult metaphysical concepts proposed by German philosopher Johann Fichte. It is impossible to meaningfully summarize this philosophy in one sentence, except to say that the Ego posits itself and therefore is self-aware (conscious), but it is opposed by the anti-Ego as it strives to attain the Absolute.
In The Courts of Chaos, Corwin encounters the raven Hugi, who unannounced begins debating about the role of the Ego and the merits of striving:
“He is groping after something,” [Hugi] went on, “but proceeding incorrectly by holding the world responsible for his own failings.”
“No. He would not even grope to get out of the mud,” I said.
“I meant philosophically.”
“Oh, that sort of mud. Too bad.”
“The whole problem lies with the self, the ego, and its involvement with the world on the one hand and the Absolute on the other.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Yes. You see, we are hatched and we drift on the surface of events. Sometimes, we feel that we actually influence things, and this gives rise to striving. This is a big mistake, because it creates desires and builds up a false ego when just being should be enough. That leads to more desires and more striving and there you are, trapped.”
“In the mud?”
“So to speak. One needs to fix one’s vision firmly on the Absolute and learn to ignore the mirages, the illusions, the fake sense of identity which sets one apart as a false island of consciousness.”
“I had a fake identity once. It helped me a lot in becoming the absolute that I am now—me.”
“No, that’s fake, too.” (Courts 98)
To some readers this may seem like tiresome and confusing babbling, but Zelazny’s intent is humorous. It is an absurd situation for Corwin’s exhausting journey to be interrupted by a raven who wants to debate metaphysics. And by contrasting Hugi’s flat, academic tone with Corwin’s tired sarcasm, Zelazny expresses enough of the concept for the reader to understand that he is mocking it: philosophy = mud, false island of identity = fake ID, etc. But perhaps the funniest aspect is how Corwin abruptly ends the debate:
“The conflict between our views is irreducible. I see desire as hidden identity and striving as its growth. You do not.” I moved my hands forward and rested them on my knees. . . . “If I fail here, it will become Absolute. As for me, I must try, for so long as there is breath within me, to raise up a Pattern against it. I do this because I am what I am, and I am the man who could have been king in Amber.”
Hugi lowered his head.
“I’ll see you eat crow first,” he said, and he chuckled.
I reached out quickly and twisted his head off, wishing that I had time to build a fire. Though he made it look like a sacrifice, it is difficult to say to whom the moral victory belonged, since I was planning on doing it anyway. (Courts 114)
“A certain Monsieur Foucault”
Aside from these philosophical and metaphysical concepts that give depth to the writing, Zelazny is well known for making allusions to literature and history. The Chronicles of Amber is no exception. An especially subtle Zelazny allusion occurs in Sign of the Unicorn. Corwin interrogates his sister Flora about how she came to monitor his activities between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries when he lived on our Shadow Earth. He was completely amnestic and sought help from experts such as Sigmund Freud to restore his memories. Flora recalls that when she first encountered him, “It was in Paris, a party, at a certain Monsieur Foucault’s. This was about three years before the Terror—” (Sign 52).
For many readers, these sentences might pass without anything being remarked upon, and because Flora is interrupted we never learn more about the party or its host. But the phrase “a certain Monsieur Foucault” and the specificity of the time suggest that Zelazny is pointing us to something in particular.
Monsieur Foucault was a real person but it was quite a challenge to identify him; it didn’t help that his name is misspelled “Focault” in most editions. That Zelazny knew his name and deeds means that he must have read detailed histories of the French Revolution, and I needed to do the same to understand this allusion. Louis de Foucault, also spelled Foucauld in some texts, was a French noble (1755–1805), Marquis of Lardimalie, and member of the French National Assembly between 1789 and 1791. He was a right-wing monarchist who fought during the Revolution against the abolition of the nobility. He publicly declared that nobility was “an indestructible, imprescriptible, and inalienable property” and sided with colleagues who considered nobility to be an irrevocable gift from God (Blaufarb 64). He was arrested on August 28, 1790, after he and accomplices posed as national guardsmen, rescued a key political prisoner from a dungeon, and sheltered him in his home. Curiously, no proceedings were ever initiated against him, likely because he still had friends in positions of power (Shapiro 211–12, 278). This lenient treatment sparked public protest but he never lost his head on the guillotine. Instead, he died years later when he mocked warnings from the stonemasons renovating his castle, and the unsafe edifice collapsed upon him (Anonymous, “Louis de Foucauld”).
So what do we learn from this allusive sidetrack into the history of a minor French noble? At a minimum, Flora’s precise words invoke a sense of realism and verisimilitude, that Flora and Corwin are real persons who were present during key moments of the French Revolution. That Corwin interacted with him gives more realism than saying (as he does) that he met famous personages such as William Shakespeare and Sigmund Freud. But more specifically, it makes clear that even during his amnesia, Corwin identified with royalty and nobility and fought against the rights of lay people to hold power. Perhaps he helped Foucault plan and execute the daring nighttime rescue from the dungeon. It is clear that Corwin did fight, for he also recalls “I held a bloody blade and saw three dead men and my horse, on which I had fled the revolution in France.” (Nine Princes 91) Flora too felt herself drawn to the time of the French Revolution, saying, “I had been wandering, looking for something novel, something that suited my fancy. I came upon that place at that time in the same way we find anything. I let my desires lead me and I followed my instincts” (Sign 52).
The allusion may also serve to emphasize how Corwin has changed from his experiences, for during the events of The Chronicles of Amber he seems less of a royalist. He is more concerned about the common man and how he and his royal siblings have mistreated them in the past, and he specifically grieves for the soldiers who die during his attack on Castle Amber:
I was willing to die fighting, but it was senseless for all these men to go down with me. Perhaps my blood was tainted, despite my power over the Pattern. A true prince of Amber should have had no such qualms. I decided then that my centuries on the Shadow Earth had changed me, softened me perhaps, had done something to me which made me unlike my brothers. (Nine 128)
As an aside, The Chronicles of Amber has enjoyed some of its greatest popularity in France. Have French readers realized that Corwin was fighting on the side of the royalists during the Revolution?
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci”
Exhausted, wounded, and starving during his hellride toward the Courts of Chaos, Corwin takes a much-needed break. He mulls over Brand’s claim that Oberon died in a failed effort to repair the Primal Pattern, and he begins to get lost in a paralysis of depression and indecision:
If Dad had failed, then those were the growls of Armageddon and this whole trip was meaningless. It did me no good to think that way, for I knew that I had to go on, whatever. But I could not help it. I might arrive at my destination, I might see the battle won, and then see it all swept away. Pointless. . . . (Courts 80)
At this point, Corwin encounters a woman: “small, clad in white. She had long, dark hair and wild, dark eyes, and she was smiling. She carried a wicker basket, which she placed on the ground between us” (Courts 81). She addresses him as “knight at arms” and later calls him Corwin without being told his name. She offers him wine, a meal, and her body. “What better way to spend this final time than in one another’s company?” she asks. (Courts 84). Corwin shares the food and drink but reluctantly declines her offer to be the dessert:
I finished my wine. She moved to pour me more and I stayed her hand.
She looked up at me. I smiled.
“You almost persuaded me,” I said.
Then I closed her eyes with kisses four, so as not to break the charm, and I went and mounted Star. The sedge was not withered, but he was right about the no birds. Hell of a way to run a railroad, though.
“Good-bye, Lady.” (Courts 84)
The passage is strange and dreamlike. If “he was right about the no birds” doesn’t provoke confusion, the stark non sequitur “hell of a way to run a railroad” signals that something significant just happened. Readers have speculated that the strange woman is Dara, seeking a last fling with Corwin or the Jewel of Judgment that he bears. Whether it’s Dara with altered facial features is unknown, but it’s very clear that Zelazny is alluding to the ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats. In it, a knight recounts how he encountered a beautiful faery-woman whose “eyes were wild.” She feeds him, loves him, and lulls him to sleep after he “closes her eyes with kisses four.” He has a nightmare that he is in the thrall of a beautiful, merciless woman. He awakens alone but depressed, unable to leave because he still wants her. He waits in that desolate place “though the sedge is wither’d from the lake / And no birds sing.” By alluding to Keats’s poem, Corwin is expressing his conviction that if he had stayed to share her pleasure, he would have fallen under her spell and failed in his quest.
“Hell of a way to run a railroad” is, of course, not from Keats’ poem. Corwin may be remarking that reenacting “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” was an odd way of giving him a respite from his exhausting journey, or breaking him free of the depression and hopelessness that gripped him just prior to his encounter with her. This is unlike the knight-at-arms of the poem, who remains trapped in his melancholy and longing. Corwin certainly is refreshed and reinvigorated by this encounter. Given Corwin’s power over Shadow, his own subconscious desires may be to blame for staging the respite and cure in that manner. Also, an expression suggesting chaos is especially fitting since he is close to the Courts when this picnic takes place.
A Too-Clever Allusion?
Perhaps Zelazny’s most clever and succinct multilayered allusion occurs at the end of The Courts of Chaos. Corwin has just finished dispassionately reevaluating his feelings about his relatives and himself when he abruptly says:
Carmen, voulez-vous venir avec moi? No? Then goodbye to you too, Princess of Chaos. It might have been fun. (182)
That line (“Carmen, do you want to come with me?”) has caused confusion among readers who have asked in discussion forums, “What does it mean and who the heck is Carmen?” while failing to appreciate that “Princess of Chaos” can only mean Dara, who loved and manipulated Corwin. Many readers will have recognized an allusion to Georges Bizet’s famous opera Carmen, which tells of a gypsy girl who seduces the naïve soldier Don José and manipulates him through a series of events that lead to his downfall. After he deserts the army at her insistence, she grows bored with him and takes another lover. In a fit of passion, Don José kills the woman he desperately loves but cannot have. And so in this way Corwin acknowledges that Dara is his femme fatale, he has avoided a downfall, and it is best they stay apart lest he end up killing her and regreting it.
To add another layer of complexity, it should be noted that Bizet’s Carmen was based on the third part of the novella “Carmen,” written by Prosper Mérimée. There are numerous differences between the novella and the opera, including that Carmen appears even more manipulative, wanton, and indiscreet in the novella, and so allusions to the character as portrayed in the novella may also be implied. Importantly, much of what we learn about Carmen is told by Don José while he awaits execution for her murder, and so the narrative is biased. So too all of what we know of Dara is gleaned through Corwin’s potentially biased first-person recounting of events.
The “voulez-vous” line becomes ironic in the context of the later five books told from the viewpoint of Corwin’s son Merlin, because we eventually learn that Dara returns within minutes of the events that close The Courts of Chaos, deceives Corwin into accompanying her, drugs him, and places him in a prison from which he cannot escape. His fate and whereabouts are unknown until the end of the last of the Merlin books, Prince of Chaos.
But the allusion has additional meanings for readers who recognize that it is not a quote from the opera Carmen or the novella “Carmen” at all; instead, it is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. This controversial novel is best known for its depiction of a middle-aged professor who is sexually obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, becomes her stepfather, and consummates the relationship. Lolita is his pet name for her, and he says “Carmen, voulez-vous venir avec moi?” while holding a concealed gun that he might use to kill her. And so the clever quote from Lolita may imply that Corwin is bothered by Dara’s much younger age and their somewhat incestuous relationship (she is his brother Benedict’s great-granddaughter). After all, he had always wanted his sister Deirdre but his father Oberon forbade it, and he spent much time worrying that Benedict would kill him for having sex with Dara. The quote may also imply that Corwin considered Dara to be sexually precocious, as the character in Lolita is often considered to be. It also reinforces the notion that Dara is his femme fatale whom he may be tempted to kill.
But there is one more aspect to this allusion that Zelazny doubtless intended. Lolita is also famous for its use of an unreliable narrator who draws on fragmented memories to tell the tale after the fact, gain the sympathies of his readers, and exact revenge. So too throughout The Chronicles of Amber we have heard from a narrator who began with no memories at all, admitted repeatedly to being confused about what really happened due to persistent amnesia, who tells us that not even he can be trusted, and who is recounting the tale to his son Merlin after key events have concluded and certain characters are dead.
All of this—femme fatale Carmen/Lolita, incestuous love with a young girl, and that Corwin is an unreliable, biased narrator who should not be trusted—can be justifiably inferred from Zelazny’s perhaps too-clever use of that one short phrase, Carmen, voulez-vous venir avec moi? It is a multilayered allusion indeed.
Theodore Sturgeon had warned Zelazny to be more careful about his use of allusions and vivid turns of phrase:
Not because they aren’t beautiful—because most of them are, God knows—but because even so deft a wordsmith as Zelazny can forget from time to time that such a creation can keep a reader from his speedy progress from here to there, and that his furniture should be placed out of the traffic pattern. If I bang my shin on a coffee table it becomes a little beside the point that it is the most exquisitely crafted artifact this side of the Sun King. Especially since it was the Author himself who put me in a dead run. (“Introduction” 9)
How many readers were tripped up wondering who Carmen was, and how many realized that it was actually a quote from Lolita and what it implied?
Incorporation of mythology and culture
Throughout The Chronicles of Amber, there are numerous instances where myths, legends, and aspects of our culture are interwoven in ways to suggest Corwin and his siblings have influenced the Shadow that is our Earth. Zelazny took much care in building the Amber universe, from its trappings (the Pattern, Trumps, Shadow-walking, Jewel of Judgment, etc.) to its integration with our own reality on Earth. For a time, Shaxspur (William Shakespeare) was one of Corwin’s drinking buddies. Corwin and his siblings quote lines that appear in various Shakespeare plays, but his siblings cannot all have met the Bard from our Shadow Earth. Does this imply that Shaxspur borrowed lines and plots from tales told by Corwin over a few draughts? Was Oberon, King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and quoted from in Nine Princes in Amber—based on King Oberon of Amber? Corwin encounters Ygg, a sentient tree that Oberon planted ages ago to mark the boundary between Chaos and Order, who is likely Yggdrasil, the central world-tree of Norse mythology. Corwin debates metaphysics with Hugi the raven, who evidently is also Odin’s raven from the pair of Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory). He spends time in Tir-na Nog’th, a mirrored version of Amber in the clouds that gives prophetic visions and recalls the Irish myth of Tír na nÓg. He has other adventures which recall myths, such as the Isle of Skye legend of a man lulled to sleep by fairies who awakens alone and elderly, hundreds of years later. Corwin hums an original tune while marching along and it becomes “Auprès de ma blonde.” Since that song first appeared around the time of the Franco-Dutch War in the seventeenth century, it suggests that Corwin fought with the French military then. He also fought with Napoleon during the disastrous winter assault on Russia.
Other casually dropped references indicate that Corwin was formerly a very ruthless man with whom we would not sympathize if we truly knew all that he had done. He rode into the Western Reserve and took three scalps one day. He was at Nuremberg, and saw the paper skins and stick-like bones of the dead at Auschwitz, but was he with the Nazis or the Allies? He doesn’t say. On the other hand, in his youth he composed music and ballads such as “The Ballad of the Water-Crossers.” When asked by Vialle if he has composed anything lately, his reply is a regretful “No. That part of me is . . . resting” (Hand 43). Casual mention of these incidents serves to underscore how much Corwin has changed over the centuries, just as he changes from the first book (determined to seize the throne and kill his brother Eric) to the last book (satisfied to undo the damage he did to reality and not wanting the throne at all). It is a wonder that some critics have claimed that Corwin is a flat, unchanging character. Corwin voices his self-realization at the end about how much he has changed, although he minimizes it in his typical self-mocking manner:
And the man clad in black and silver with a silver rose upon him? He would like to think that he has learned something of trust, that he has washed his eyes in some clear spring, that he has polished an ideal or two. Never mind. He may still be only a smart-mouthed meddler, skilled mainly in the minor art of survival, blind as ever the dungeons knew him to the finer shades of irony. Never mind, let it go, let it be. I may never be pleased with him. (Courts 182)
At its heart, The Chronicles of Amber is an adventure, a sword-and-sorcery tale with its own unique blend of magic or fantasy, taking place in a well-crafted universe with its own set of rules and paraphernalia. But it has far greater depth than originally conceded by critics and readers who dismissed it as lacking substance. How many modern fantasy novels have characters credibly discussing complex philosophical concepts in between or during their adventures, or complex allusions that reveal more about the characters or intent once they are understood? Like any multi-layered work, more remains to be discovered and enjoyed upon rereading. Or it can simply remain a rousing multi-part adventure with a smart-talking semi-immortal and his strange family of bickering, powerful relatives who’d readily stab each other in the back to seize the throne of Amber.
On this Shadow Earth, Christopher Kovacs resides in Paradise, Newfoundland, Canada.
A PDF copy of the NYRSF issue in which this article first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.