I have to start this review with a confession. I picked it up at a library book sale specifically because I thought it would make me mad, and ranting about sexist asshats has led to some of my favorite reviews. It was written in 1921, and the back of the book talks all about how “remarkable women helped [the hero] along the road in their unique and pleasurable ways.” I thought it would be ridiculous and horrible and I could rip it to shreds in my review, a la my hating on Christopher Stasheff. I was so wrong! This book was great fun, and the shade the author throws at his hero AND the ladies is delightful.
Manuel is a swineherd, and fairly simple, in all senses of the word. His late mother told him he should go out make a fine figure in the world, so he spends all his free time sculpting clay men, trying to perfect his figure-making. One day a dude with a magic sword shows up and basically says “You there! Take this magic sword and go defeat the evil wizard Miramon, so that you may save his beautiful wife and marry her yourself as your prize. I’m sure there’s a prophecy or something.” Manuel, who insists throughout the book that he follows his own thinking and his own desires, decides that fame as a hero and a beautiful wife sounds cooler than swineherding, and goes off to defeat the wizard.
Things in this book move at a breakneck pace. In the space of a few pages, Manuel meets a sidekick, climbs a mountain beset by beasts, outsmarts all the wizard’s henchmen (or the sidekick does), and wins his way to the castle. He gets to the wizard only to discover that the guy who gave him the quest and the magic sword is Miramon himself. He wants to be saved from his wife, so he set the whole thing up to get rid of her. It’s hilarious instead of offensive because they’re equally awful, and because the writing is so good!
After this interlude, the breakneck pace continues, as Manuel falls in love and then loses her in a page and a half. He and Niafer, his one true love, meet with Death on the road, and Death demands that one of them must go with him. Since Manuel is under a geas from his mother to make a figure in the world, he sends his newfound love to her Death! Chivalry! And then he continues on his adventures, some of them even happening offscreen (“and what he found there is better left unspoken of.”).
From there, Manuel has many more adventures, sculpting disappointing clay figures along the way. He meets two other women – the Unattainable Princess, who he immediately attains but then doesn’t want – and the queen of the underworld, who gives up her throne and immortality because he’s a good kisser. She uses her magic to bring one of his clay figures to life, so he thinks his worldly obligation is fulfilled.
This is already way too long, but I’d say three trilogies worth of stuff happen in this slim little book. Manuel serves Misery for a year and gives up his youth in order to bring Niafer back from the dead, and they get married and promptly start squabbling. As the book goes on, Manuel gets less adventurous, more prosperous, less likely to follow his own thinking and his own desires, and less content. It’s all a big introspective hootenanny about growing up, and handling the obligations that come with being alive, and whether it’s best to be a swineherd with few obligations, an adventurer with a lifetime of possibilities ahead, or a rich count with lands and a wife and children but also an inescapable sense of loss. But it’s all told lightly through Manuel’s doofus-like philosophy, and when you get to the end, you’re surprised at how poignant it all is.
The characters are vain and silly and self-serving, but the writing is wonderful and the adventures are clever and surprising. Not at all the one-star book I expected to destroy!
Some favorite quotes:
“Men speak of him as Miramon Lluagor, lord of the nine kinds of sleep and prince of the seven madnesses.”
“This is very foolish and dear of him, and I shall be compelled, in mere decency, to pretend to corresponding lunacies for the first month or so of our marriage. After that, I hope, we will settle down to some more reasonable way of living.”
“When your face gets that look on it, I know you are considering some nonsense over and above the nonsense you are talking.”
“Fast and loose is a mischancy game to play.”
“I do not wish to consume you with lightnings, and to smite you with insanity appears so unnecessary.”
“You are really much nicer when you are cuddling so, than when you are running about the world pretending to be pigs and snakes and fireworks, and murdering people with your extravagant sorceries.”
“Thousands of men were slain in the war, to the regret of their mothers and sweethearts, and very often of their wives.”
“So I get through each day, somehow, by never listening very attentively to the interminable things she tells me about. But I often wonder, as I am sure all husbands wonder, why heaven ever made a creature so tedious and so unreasonable dull of wit and so opinionated. And when I think that for the rest of time this creature is to be my companion I usually go out and kill somebody. Then I come back, because she knows the way I like my toast.”
“I knew that all along,” observed Niafer – untruthfully, but adhering to her general theory that it was better to appear omniscient in dealing with one’s husband.”