Sunday, 7 July 2013

Enchanted Pilgrimage

Clifford D. Simak Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975)
Although Enchanted Pilgrimage was, it could be argued, Simak's first full-blown nailing of colours to the fantasy mast - written in response to a number of his readers turning out to be fans of the genre, which was a rather nice gesture I would say - it's probably more the case that this novel tips the balance of his established style just enough to warrant chaps with swords rather than lasers on the cover. Simak was never the most scientifically puritanical of science-fiction authors, so gnomes, demons, goblins, and at least one banshee had already turned up in his fiction. The later Fellowship of the Talisman goes further into the murky realms of the genre, but to my surprise Enchanted Pilgrimage roughly occupies the middle ground between that and the larger body of Simak's work, all the stuff with the robots. Whilst those gnomes and goblins on a quest with a magic sword boxes are ticked and we learn of a world which branched off from this one many thousands of years ago, we also encounter flying saucers, extraterrestrials, and a traveller from a more scientifically orientated strand of human history resembling out own. The recipe suggests a hodgepodge of elements thrown in for chuckles to see what will work, but the result is surprisingly satisfying and runs by its own internal logic. Simak being a writer who occasionally bordered on the sentimental, it's always gratifying when he gets the balance just right - as generally he tends to do - writing even gnomes and goblins without ever quite turning it into a pointy-hatted episode of Last of the Summer Wine.

True enough, Enchanted Pilgrimage features that most ballsaching fantasy cliché of the misfit band of merry types on a quest, but it's told so well as to circumnavigate wincing potential, and by some minor miracle turns the trope on its head, ending up in entirely the wrong place but working all the same:

So this was the end of it, Cornwall thought, the end of the long trail that had started at Wyalusing when he'd found the hidden manuscript - and a different ending from the one he had imagined. He had set out to find the Old Ones, and now the Old Ones no longer mattered, for they had been something other than he had expected.

The finale, delivered without so much as an exclamation mark by way of fuss, hits you with the brilliance of its zen-like simplicity - a quest in which the protagonists find something they weren't even looking for. Failing to get what they want, as Mick Jagger might observe, they instead get what they need.

Very satisfying.

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