ClarkThe Poetics of Morbidity:
The Original Text to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Maze of Maal Dweb"

commentary by Jim Rockhill


Like many others, my first encounter with the work of Clark Ashton Smith was through anthology appearances in volumes related to H. P. Lovecraft. I could hardly wait to read anything by this man of whom Lovecraft wrote, "in sheer daemonic strangeness & fertility of conception, (he) is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer dead or living." Unfortunately, reading Smith's works in the context of Lovecraft's myth cycles is an exercise in frustration, since the authors' respective strengths are well-nigh incompatible. "The Return of the Sorcerer," a tale just as dreadful for its author's even cruder imitation of Lovecraft's crudest first-person-hysterical narrative mode as for any of its supernatural events, was the first, & for some time the last, work of Smith's I read.

I did not give Smith another chance until the colorful Gervasio Gallardo cover for Xiccarph caught my eye in a wonderful used-bookstore-headshop that used to lie an hour's bike-ride from my parent's home. My first impression, trying to read a supernatural (or was it super-science?) adventure tale entitled "The Maze of Maal Dweb" while parked outside a fish-and-chips shop, was that Smith was trying too hard. The first few sentences reminded me of Mark Twain's remarks concerning the pompous, almost comical aspects of German sentences, with their long strings of polysyllabic words & convoluted syntax, but this quickly changed. I found myself going back to those opening paragraphs again & again, fascinated that Smith's use of erudite or archaic expressions, his yoking of seemingly similar words with subtly different meanings & the way he manipulated rhythmic pauses & stresses within the text had created an entire world -- luxuriant, gorgeous & threatening -- previously unknown to me.

While I had that book in my hands & long afterward, the only thing that mattered was the progress of Tiglari, the jungle hunter, as he scaled the mountain upon which perched the labyrinthine gardens & fearsome abode of the seemingly omniscient, omnipotent, & omnipresent scientist-mage Maal Dweb, absolute ruler of the triple-sunned world Xiccarph. I had to know what kind of "man" was this Maal Dweb who had a voice of iron & whose abode was protected by colossal iron servitors, who was capable of reforming the peak of a mountain to his own uses & punished disobedience with a rain of fire, who had created a garden as beautiful as Paradise, but populated it with a variety of malevolent flora & fauna "that might have been those of some teeming & exuberant hell," & who selected, one at a time, no less than fifty of the fairest maidens from the planet of Xiccarph? Why had no one of all those who approached his abode in the last three decades returned? What was the Mirror of Eternity? These mysteries & more filled me as I read.

Most of the science fiction stories & almost all of the tales with contemporary settings continued to leave me cold or even irritated me, but this tale, its lesser sequel "The Flower Women" & the tales I would later find set in such locales as Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne, Malneant, Hestan & Zothique possessed a verbal magic capable of freeing my mind from the tyranny of time & space in general & the mundane stresses of life in the Midwest in the early 1970's in particular.

Clark Ashton Smith wrote the tale "The Maze of the Enchanter" in autumn 1932. Unable to publish it, or unwilling to submit it to the editing he knew any commercial editor would demand, he included it in the self-published pamphlet The Double Shadow & Other Fantasies in 1933. Five years later a severely pruned version of the tale appeared in the October 1938 issue of Weird Tales as "The Maze of Maal Dweb." This later text appears in the canonical volume Lost Worlds (Arkham House, 1944), The City of the Singing Flame (Timescape, 1981) & A Rendezvous in Averoigne (Arkham House, 1988). Aside from appearances in two volumes edited by Lin Carter for the Adult Fantasy Series -- the anthology The Young Magicians (Ballantine, 1969) & the collection Xiccarph (Ballantine, 1972) -- & a 150 copy facsimile edition of The Double Shadow & Other Fantasies (The Strange Company, 1979), Smith's richer, original version of the tale has been supplanted by the later, simpler text.

Lin Carter is the only writer on Smith I know who has called attention to the differences between these two texts & the merits of the original. Nothing I have read by either Donald Sidney-Fryer or Steve Behrends so much as acknowledges that these differences exist. This is particularly frustrating, because Mr. Behrends edited an excellent series of booklets for Necronomicon Press devoted to The Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith &, with Donald Sidney-Fyer & Rah Hoffman, cast further light on CASian textual matters in Strange Shadows (Greenwood Press, 1989). The restored text of "The Beast of Averoigne" printed in this latter volume is so different in narrative structure as to constitute an almost entirely different, & superior, story to the version hitherto available.

If we study the texts of "The Maze of the Enchanter" & "The Maze of Maal Dweb" in parallel, we are again reminded of a passage from Mark Twain. In his dissection of the prose of James Fennimore Cooper, Twain repeatedly assails Cooper for using three or more words when he can just as easily use one. In the revision, Smith discards as many adjectives & adverbs as he can without sacrificing sense, removes major Classical allusions such as that comparing the maze of Maal Dweb to the labyrinth of Daedalus while retaining less explicit ones, & completely does away with his wonted use of words possessing a similar though distinct meaning. Smith, unlike Twain, Cooper & even Lovecraft, however, is not a prose realist & Smith's changes did more than merely purge the original of logorrhea. A study of much greater length & rigor would be necessary to analyze all of the differences between one text & the other, & how these differences affect the tale & our perception of it. I will try to focus on only a few of the more dramatic alterations from the earlier portions of the story, where the revisions are most severe, in order to give some sense of how in making the tale more commercially acceptable & closer to the assumed reading level of the herd, Smith's revisions brought about a corresponding loss to the finer shades of meaning, & in the more regularized syntax & the decreased rhythmic complexity of the sentences, blunted the tale's effect & diminished its atmosphere.

First of all, for all its polysyllables & dependent clauses, I find the opening paragraph of Smith's original magnificent, worthy of Keats or Milton in its cadence & the power of its imagery:

With no other light than that of the four diminutive moons of Xiccarph, each in a different phase but all decrescent, Tiglari had crossed the bottomless swamp of Soorm, wherein no reptile dwelt & no dragon descended -- but where the pitch-black ooze was alive with continual heavings & writhings. He had carefully avoided the high causey of white corundum that spanned the fen, & had threaded his way with infinite peril from isle to sedgy isle that shuddered gelatinously beneath him. When he reached the solid shore & the shelter of the palm-tall rushes, he was equally careful to avoid the pale porphyry stairs that wound heavenward through dizzy nadir-cleaving chasms & along glassy scarps to the ever-mysterious & terrible house of Maal Dweb. The causey & the stairs were guarded by those that he did not wish to meet: the silent, colossal iron servitors of Maal Dweb, whose arms ended in long crescent blades of tempered steel which were raised in implacable scything against any who came thither without their master's permission.

Smith's revision says much the same thing, but not precisely & at a loss of grandeur:

By the light of the four small waning moons of Xiccarph, Tiglari had crossed that bottomless swamp wherein no reptile dwelt & no dragon descended; but where the pitch-black ooze was alive with incessant heavings. He had not cared to use the high causey of corundum that spanned the fen, & had threaded his way with much peril from isle to sedgy isle that shuddered gelatinously beneath him. When he reached the solid shore & the shelter of the palm-tall rushes, he did not approach the porphyry stairs that wound skyward through giddy chasms & along glassy scarps to the house of Maal Dweb. The causey & the stairs were guarded by the silent, colossal automatons of Maal Dweb, whose arms ended in long crescent blades of tempered steel which were raised in implacable scything against any who came thither without their master's permission.

Frequently, the revision replaces a phrase evocative of a number of different impressions by a simpler one with a close, but less precise meaning, for instance the fusion of the first two clauses of the opening sentence minus the cosmic frisson produced by the earlier description, the removal of "writhings" from the swamp, the substitution of "he did not approach" for "he was equally careful to avoid," the substitution of "guarded by the silent colossal automatons" for "guarded by those he did not wish to meet: the silent colossal iron servitors," etc. Subtle indications of Tiglari's caution & motives disappear. Now he simply moves, & the world in which he does so is less colorful & a little less menacing than it had been.

Elsewhere the revisions do not merely dilute the atmosphere, but subtly blunt the action as well. Here is the description of Tiglari's escalade from the same point in first the original text:

Hand over hand he went up with simian ease from foothold to precarious foothold

and the revision:

He climbed with simian ease from foothold to foothold

Whereas the original makes it clear that even though this climb might be easy for Tiglari it would be a difficult task for anyone else, the same portion of the revised text merely depicts Tiglari's ease in climbing. A paragraph later, the omission of the seemingly superfluous word "dangling" from this passage in the original text

Evading the sharp & semi-metallic leaves that seemed to slash downward as the tree bent limberly with his dangling weight

again subtly distorts the sense of the original, since it is no longer clear that the leaves of the tree are slashing directly down at his body even as it supports his weight. This leads to the unintentional impression that Tiglari is in less danger in the later text than he is in the original.

If you love the revised version of "The Maze of Maal Dweb" or even if you think this tale, in the standard text, falls below Smith's best, you owe it to yourself, & Clark Ashton Smith, to read the tale as Smith originally penned it. Both tales are available on-line at Boyd Pearson's fascinating Clark Ashton Smith web-site, The Eldrich Dark.


copyright 2000 by Jim Rockhill, all rights reserved


Weird Tales authors including Clark Ashton Smith
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