C. J. Cherryh is the author of
an impressive number of books.
achieved fame with a Hugo Award in 1981 for Downbelow Station, a
complex novel about political struggle on a space station during a war between
Earth and its rebellious interstellar colonies. Today she is perhaps best-known for her Cyteen trilogy, published in 1988: The Betrayal,
The Rebirth, and The Vindication, in which an assassinated
politician on Cyteen Station, Ariane Emory, is cloned and the child raised
to be the same person. To the list of exceptional books from this particular
universe, I would also add Forty Thousand in Gehenna, in which colonists
dropped off on a planet to establish territorial claims, and then abandoned,
gradually succumb to the alien logic of the planet and its original inhabitants.
Largely forgotten, however, in her voluminous output of fantasy and science fiction is a series of four novels, the first of which began her career as a novelist. In 1976 two novels by Cherryh appeared in print, Brothers of Earth, a forerunner of her more famous science fiction novels, and Gate of Ivrel, a fantasy novel with some science fiction elements. A sequel, Well of Shiuan, was published in 1978 and it was followed 1979 by Fires of Azeroth. The three books were published in one volume shortly thereafter under the title The Book of Morgaine. After nearly a decade, Cherryh returned to the story of Morgaine, continuing it in 1988 with Exile's Gate.
The first book included an introduction by Andre Norton for promotional purposes (see the blurb on the cover to the right), in which she wrote: "Never since reading The Lord of the Rings have I been so caught up in any tale as I have been in Gate of Ivrel." Her basis for this identification was her claim that Cherryh has drawn an entirely believable hero on an alien and enchanting world, working in bits of customs, beliefs, and history so cleverly that it now certainly exists - somewhere." This praise is, I believe, somewhat inflated, for the first novel hardly has the depth or complexity of Tolkien's world. Because the action of each novel takes place on a new world, the backgrounds remain thin by comparison. There is, nevertheless, a greater history to which Cherryh adds sparingly throughout the course of her narrative. The focus is not so much on this history, however, as on the character of the main protagonist, Morgaine, who perhaps could be compared favorably with Aragorn in LOR when he appears to the Hobbits as a grim ranger named Strider. In the first book of the trilogy, at least until Rivendell, Strider is an enigmatic character, whom the Hobbits rely on but do not fully trust. This relationship is revealed most clearly in terms of Sam's slowly changing perceptions of Aragorn.
The relationship of the main characters in the Morgaine novels is somewhat similar. The novels are told from the point of view of a wanderer named Vanye. He is of mixed blood. His father was the chief of the Nhi tribe and his mother a woman stolen from the Chya tribe. Growing up as a half-breed, Vanye was endlessly taunted by his old brothers. As Gate of Ivrel begins, Vanye has just defended himself against his brothers, killing one, who was probably trying to kill him, and cutting off the hand of the other, who unarmed tried to intervene. Banished by his father, Vanye goes off into the wild where he eventually meets Morgaine. In accordance with the customs of his people, Vanye is "iln," which means that he can be required to serve for one year any lord who gives him shelter. Accepting Morgaine's hospitality in a rock shelter, Vanye discovers with some shock and horror that he is honor bound to her as iln. The horror comes from his knowledge of her past and the fact that she is not completely human and that, according to legend,100 years earlier she and four others had led 10,000 of his people to their deaths in a great war to destroy a gate.
To understand Morgaine and her purposes requires some discussion of very ancient history. At some distant point in the past an alien civilization created a series of gates which permitted them to move through time and space. One of these gates, seemingly abandoned, was discovered by another group of nonhumans, the qual, who traveled through them elsewhere and elsewhen conquering and creating civilizations of their own. The gates were, however, dangerous as the qual themselves eventually discovered when some of them went backward in time, rather than forward, and accidentally destroyed many time lines. It was hypothesized that the original alien civilization may have been destroyed by the quals' discovery of the first gate. To prevent new destruction, a group of scientists decided to pass through the gates closing or destroying them as they went. It was a mission of no return, that could only end in their deaths. As they progressed through various gates, many were killed until the original group of 100 was reduced to the five that undertook the assault on the Gate of Ivrel a hundred years earlier. In that battle, only Morgaine survived, the last of her people. Trapped in a gate, where she existed in a kind of electronic suspended animation, she was released when a deer, frightened by Vanye, triggered the gate during its flight.
Vanye's horror is further increased when he learns that she still intends to try to carry out her mission, the destruction of the Gate of Ivrel, this time with the help of only one person, him. Believing that he is following her to sure death, and that he will not survive to complete his year of servitude as an iln, he nevertheless elects to honor his oath.
In all of the books, there is a journey. Each journey, however, is fairly simple. Morgaine simply arrives and heads for the next gate, trying to remove all obstacles from her path as she goes. Although each journey is detailed, the focus of the novels is psychological rather than touristic. Cherryh is careful not to reveal anything that Morgaine is thinking. Instead, the reader is confronted with the thoughts of Vanye as he tries to understand her. She makes no pretense about what she will do and not do. She readily admits to Vanye that if necessary, he is expendable. In many respects, Morgaine foreshadows Signy Mallory, the hard and ruthless starship commander of the jump-carrier Norway in Downbelow Station.
There is an ethical similarity to LOR in the relationship of Morgaine and Vanye. In an essay called "Ofermod" in The Tolkien Reader, Tolkien discusses the relationship of kings and their people in the Middle Ages. The relationship involves responsibility from above and loyalty from below. According to Tolkien, Beowulf acted improperly, ignoring his responsibility to his people when he tried to fight a dragon alone and died; however, in contrast, his fight with Grendel, though similar in many respects, was not morally problematic because he was an adventurer without responsibilities to the people being terrorized by the monster.
Although, in accordance with the customs of his people, Vanye shows loyalty to Morgaine, she, an adventurer, does not reciprocate. Nevertheless, she does, in her hardened way, gradually develop some affection for him and eventually begins training him for the mission, against the possibility that she herself is killed. She is a warrior who claims to have no time for morals, who nevertheless spends much time in moral debate, at least as Vanye sees it, and who holds him morally to his oath. Although she looks like a qual, has knowledge that seemingly only a qual could possess, she insists throughout the books that she is not qual. As it turns out, she is half qual from her father and half something else on her mother's side, who came down a thread that her father had never known, one that leads to "stars outside." In Exile's Gate she admits that she killed her own father avenge her mother and herself.
She carries with her a sword, Changeling, which can disintegrate waves upon waves of horsemen, drawing unlimited power from the gates that it is intended to destroy. In addition, she carries a flame thrower up one sleeve that can incinerate anyone at short distance. No one else has comparable weapontry. Although she can be killed, she is otherwise immortal, since she is restored to a set pattern each time she passes through a gate. It is a gift that she also gives to Vanye in the last book.
The sword is not only an asset but also a liability to the mission, since it has the knowledge of qual gate technology inscribed upon it. This knowledge, which has largely been lost, could begin another cycle of calamities if it fell into qual hands.
In addition to the ethical tension between Morgaine and Vanye, there is the problem of holocaust. When Gate of Ivrel begins, Morgaine is considered to have betrayed 10,000 allies to their deaths. The fate of these warriors is a thematic concern of the first three novels. In Well of Shiuan, she and Vanye learn that they were not killed, but rather transported to Shiuan, where she finds their descendants have been living generation after generation for a thousand years. Unfortunately, they arrive at a time when it has become clear that the land is slowly being reclaimed by the sea. Within a few generations, all land will be under water. Ignoring the plight of human and qual alike, who are all living in poverty or near poverty, concluding that she can do nothing for them, Morgaine presses forward with her plan to destroy the gate, planning to leave them behind. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of the humans and quals go with her into Azeroth. When they then try to take the new world by force, Morgaine makes common cause with the local inhabitants, quals and humans, against the descendants of her former allies.
Unlike the other novels, Fires of Azeroth reveals a positive side to the qual and a number of similarities to LOR. Amazingly the qual living in Azeroth act much like Tolkien's elves. They live in the forests and benevolently manage the affairs of the humans, who live in peace without warfare. There are even creatures living in the woods that act much like ents. They are difficult to communicate with and are very dangerous, but also are cooperative within limits.
Most of the qual that Morgaine and Vanye elsewhere meet are less friendly than those on Azeroth. They consider themselves not simply conquerors but gods. While those of Azeroth have abandoned their despotic ways, believing that humans populations will overwhelm them eventually unless they make themselves useful, thereby ensuring a future for the qual, most act only as exploiters and despoilers, concerned only with their personal fate. These prolong their existence by invading the minds of humans when they are near death either from old age or mortal injury. These takeovers, however, are not without their own dangers, since the original mind continues to exist and struggles with the invader for control. The results are sometimes unexpected.
Like the novels before it, Exile's Gate reaches no definite conclusion. Morgaine and Vanye depart for still another world destroying the gate behind them. However, they go also with new companions, one of whom is invaded by the local qual lord as he passes through the gate. Whether there will be another novel seems to me to be uncertain, for it is possible that the basic focus of the novels, the relationship of Morgaine and Vanye, may have been adequately explored. Although the years between the worlds translates into days or months in Vanye's experience, this short time is surely enough for Vanye to fathom much of Morgaine's mystery.
Those who find this series especially interesting might consider taking a look at another earlier series of books by Philip Jose Farmer, specifically, his pocket universe series: The World of Tiers. It includes The Maker of Universes (1965), The Gates of Creation (1966), A Private Cosmos (1968), Behind the Walls of Terra (1970), and The Lavalite World (1977). In these novels there are "Lords of Creation" who are similar to the qual, though more powerful. They use many more gates, frequently setting traps against unwanted relatives. There are parallels with Morgaine and Vanye beginning with A Private Cosmos. There is a human named Kickaha who slowly develops a loving relationship with a female Lord named Anana, who shares some aspects of Morgaine's personality. There are even artifical creatures called Bellers who replace the minds of humans with their own. Despite these similarities, however, the two sets of books differ dramatically in tone. The emphasis in Farmer's series is on fast-moving adventure rather than psychological drama. After viewing this site, Cherry commented that she was not influenced by Farmer in developing this series of books: "No, not Farmer. Part of the story I'd done years before...though I'd read Farmer, I hadn't read that particular work at the time I wrote it. It's really more travel through space to where a planet "will" be when you get there. 'The world went wide, but I went through...'" There is no change in time in Farmer's books. Only seconds elapse during transmission.
Cherryh has never abandoned her interest in Morgaine. Recently she collaborated with an artist, Jane S. Fancher, to bring the early adventures of Morgaine and Vanye into graphics form. When the publisher lost interest, she recovered the unsolded books, which are now available directly from her via her web site.
ECH - September 21, 1996 - C. J. Cherryh Home Page