Finally figured out a subplot in Zelazny's Lord of Light

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by bzipitidoo, Mar 14, 2018.

  1. bzipitidoo

    bzipitidoo Full Member

    One of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors is the 1968 Hugo Winner, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. Zelazny loves to depart from chronological order, but that sure can make a story harder to follow.

    The overall plot of Lord of Light isn't too difficult to understand once you figure out it is not a fantasy story about actual gods, but rather a classic tale of oppression of the weak by powerful but otherwise ordinary humans who call themselves gods. And that the events of the 1st chapter actually occur between the 6th and 7th chapters. As to how the plot goes, well, I shan't spoil that for you, yet.

    At the end of the 1st chapter, after the final sentence states that the hero is taking a little trip down memory lane, you can easily think that the remembering happens off stage, so to speak, during the break between chapters, and when chapter 2 commences, our hero is finished with his remembering and the plot is moving on. Nope! The next 5 chapters are the memories. Just one of the ways Zelazny yanks the readers' chains, playing little games with our expectations of how a story should be laid out.

    And now that I've danced with spoiling the story for those who haven't read it, be warned that this next part really will give much away.

    SPOILER ALERT!
    (Does this board have some way to make spoiler text hidden until the reader slicks on it?)
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    So the question I wondered about on and off for over ten years, is the ending of chapter 3. The setting is a planet colonized by Hindi, and the "gods" have masked themselves as the various deities of the Hindu pantheon. Sam, the hero, has successfully launched Buddhism, and one of his followers, a former assassin who worked for the gods, is now Sugata, his chief follower. Not liking the competition, the gods send Yama, god of death, to execute Sam, and thereby demonstrate to the people the superiority of Hinduism to Buddhism. In actually, Yama is the greatest technologist among the gods, basically is their nerd, responsible for designing many of the tools and weapons that help them maintain their power.

    Sugata blocks Yama's way and gets in a fight with him. Yama kills him, then moves on to confront Sam, who tells him that Sugata knew he couldn't win that fight, and that therefore he was trying to demonstrate something, send some message. Yama asks what Sugata could possibly have been trying to say, and Sam says he doesn't know. Then they drop that matter, and no more mention is made of the message.

    So that's what I've wondered about. What was Sugata trying to say? Was his message to Yama? Or to Sam? Both? Whatever the message was, it's not essential to the story, but I was still curious. And I think I finally figured it out.

    Sugata quoted a bit of an ancient holy text, the Katha Upanishad, to Yama. You have to read at least an outline of the Katha Upanishad. Then you will understand what Sugata was driving at, and why Yama, who also knew the words, broke the script and just up and killed Sugata.

    For those who don't want to bother, the part Sugata quoted is a conversation in which the Hindi God of Death rewards a mortal with whatever he wants, and the mortal asks for knowledge os what happens to people when they die. Death offers him great wealth and women to be excused from answering that question, and the mortal rejects the offer, and repeats his request for knowledge. And in Lord of Light, that was as far as Sugata was allowed to get when Yama killed him. In the Katha Upanishad, Death praises the mortal for having the wisdom to seek knowledge rather than being swayed by the offers of wealth, and sinking into ultimately meaningless hedonism. But as the Yama in Lord of Light is doing exactly that, being a hedonist and empowering the gods to lord it over everyone else, he probably would have choked trying to play along and continue with the words from the Katha Upanishad. So now it makes perfect sense to me why Yama cut things short just where he did and killed Sugata.





















































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    Boreas likes this.
  2. ofer

    ofer Regular Member

    First, let me congratulate you for your good taste. Zelazny is also one of my favorite authors, and Lord of Light is my favorite book by him. In fact, I'll go even farther and say that Lord of Light is one of the best 10 books I've ever read (and I read thousands) and together with The Master and Margarita by Michael Bulgakov, the best fantasy standalone I've read.

    Personally, I always thought that the point that Sugata was trying to make is that it's not futile to fight for something you believe in, even if you have no chance to win.

    You didn't mention the last part of the dialogue between Yama and Sugata: in the end, Yama agrees to Sugata's request, but tells him that he can't do it by words and has to show him what happens after death. After seeing, Sugata starts to cry and asks Yama if it was truth, and Yama tells him he will find out soon enough. Then they resume their fight

    How to make a spoiler: click on the 4th icon from the right at the command line (insert) and choose spoiler. you can title the spoiler or leave it untitled.
     
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  3. bzipitidoo

    bzipitidoo Full Member

    Thank you!

    I'd also thought of several other possibilities. Such as...

    The day that Yama came to kill Sam, Sugata asks Sam why the gods can't just leave him be, as he preaches such a gentle religion that can't possibly mean harm to anyone. And Sam turns away. In that moment, Sugata very likely understood that Sam had ulterior motives. So perhaps Sugata, by his act of confronting Yama, and telling Yama that he is now nameless as he is betraying Sam's teachings, is telling Sam that he gets it, gets that Sam has been opposing the gods all along and so his preachings of peace is fraudulent. Life is endless competition and fighting, and you can't quit that and go live in peace and harmony, really live in absolute peace and harmony, without quitting life itself. But I felt that didn't entirely add up.

    So another possibility is that Yama was being too nerdy, and took Sugata's request too literally. Yama most certainly could have subdued Sugata without killing him. Leave Sugata chained somewhere. Then, when he learns from Sam what Sugata was up to, there was a chance to satisfy their curiosity on that point by just asking him. So perhaps the lesson is also "do not kill". If you kill, you may be destroying knowledge, and you'll end up never being able to answer questions. Of course there's the risk that Sugata, had he lived, could refuse to answer.

    But Yama's profession of mystification was given without taking any time to think about it. Despite that he paused to talk with Sam before trying to kill him, Yama was rushing things. He obviously did know the words of the Katha Upanishad. He didn't tell Sam that part, or maybe Sam could have figured out Sugata's final lesson. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the task the gods had asked of him and which he too readily accepted because he was too deep into their propaganda and seemed to think he and his fellow gods really were a cut above, and was trying to hurry through the job so as not to have to think too much about what he was doing. Sam however forced him to think more about that aspect.

    Zelazny had a good understanding of nerds, and wrote a lot about them. Takes one to know, perhaps? Yama was a pretty big nerd, ending up savagely used by his fellow gods, and furiously humiliated. Mark in Wizard World was another nerd. Zelazny's character in the Amber Chronicles, Merlin, was perhaps his most nerdy. Merlin routinely misjudged people and overlooked tons of evidence that he was getting them wrong, being far too trusting and merciful to those trying to harm or manipulate him, and at the same time being too fearful, paranoid, and suspicious of genuine friends. Still, he formed a genuine friendship with Luke, one of the people who'd been trying both to kill and manipulate him, repeatedly suckering him with cheap sales tactics he shouldn't have fallen for, but did. So you can't say that Merlin was a total idiot about people, not when his good-heartedness ended up winning Luke over in spite of all. Luke himself got suckered, despite his training and interest in the art of selling.

    That brings me to another question. Why did the Logrus want to put Merlin, of all people, on the throne of Chaos? Surely as political a position as kingship is, you'd want someone a little more sophisticated in that area? There could hardly be a more naive person for that than a total nerd who cares nothing for studying people as his interests are primarily on technical and scientific puzzles and problems. And I think I can guess that one. The Logrus isn't really trying to "win" its endless contest with the Pattern, despite the seeming object of the test they put Merlin through. Merlin is possibly the only person in the Courts of Chaos who is not impressed by their fight, and wasn't afraid to refuse to take a side. And perhaps Merlin will also break the custom of staying on the throne for the rest of his life, and abdicate before too long, once he has things settled down. That however, is, sadly, a tale that Zelazny didn't get to write.
     

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