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Roger Zelazny's Amber Series

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The Black Road was caused by Brand who lured Martin to the Primal Pattern and wounded him,thereby shedding the blood of Amber upon the Pattern and breaking it. Dworkin claimed that this damage was reflected in his own brain. Corwin initially takes the blame for this road having placed a curse upon Amber after his capture and subsequent blinding by Eric. Corwin describes this path as passing "through madness into chaos" (SOTU, p 165) saying that "only the dangerous, the malicious might walk that pathway" (NPIA, p 173).

Once the way was laid open to them, the people of Chaos turned the "war of Succession" into a "war of the worlds" -- Amber against Chaos -- and the result was the "end of the world".

Amber, illustration by Ali Kayn from original Forerunner publication With the Pattern damaged and Amber under attack Oberon plans a two-fold attempt to save the world. He attempts to repair the Primal Pattern with the help of the Jewel of Judgement, but sends Corwin on a hellride to Chaos. After failing, Oberon sends a red bird which he had created from Corwin's blood after his with the Jewel that he might create a new order.

With the Primal Pattern broken, the world beings to disintegrate from Amber outwards and the ensuing storm chases Corwin throughout his ride: "Even now, Chaos wells up to fill the vacuum back at Amber. A great vortex has come into being, and it grows. It spreads over outward, destroying the shadow worlds, and it will not stop until it meets with the Courts of Chaos, bringing all of creation full circle, with Chaos once more to reign over all" (TCOC, p 45). The storm moves in a steady line, distorting all in its path "as if it is melting the world - or stamping away its forms." Finally Corwin creates a new Amber in the face of the storm, forming a new Pattern with the help of the Jewel of Judgement and the new Pattern by Corwin.

In the end Oberon leaves the choice of his successor "on the horn of the unicorn" and she chooses Random to rule the world Corwin has created.

However before Corwin can create the new Pattern he must face the rigors of his own "Pilgrim's Progress". In The Courts of Chaos Zelazny treats his readers to a succession of philosophical arguments and allegorical scenes. The result is a showcase for what one assumes are Zelazny's philosophical arguments against our society and its component members.

First we have the Dinesen quote which, as an effort to put the series into perspective comes so late that it appears to be an afterthought. By putting so much symbolism into his final novel after so little in those previous the author creates an imbalance. The strength of a symbol is that is can stand alone and be meaningful. A sea of symbols presents a jumble of meanings and the effectiveness of individual symbols is lost.

The Hand of Oberon by Roger Zelazny (c) 1976, Sphere 1979, paperback cover The characters Zelazny employs include "The Head", a head protruding from the ground who is "groping after something, but proceeding incorrectly by holding the world responsible for his own failings" (TCOC, p 79). Those familiar with the Tarot will doubtless be reminded of "The Hanging Man". Also mentioned is Hugi, a bird of ill-omen, who holds lengthy philosophical discussions with Corwin until in a burst of uncharacteristic good taste Corwin eats him.

Hugi claims: "The whole problem lies with the Self, the ego, and its involvement with the world on the one hand and the Absolute on the other ... You see, we are hatched and we drift on the surface of events. Sometimes, we feel that we actually influence things, and this gives rise to striving. This is a big mistake, because it creates desires and builds up a false ego when just being should be enough. That leads to more desires and more striving and there you are, trapped ... One needs to fix one's vision firmly on the Absolute and learn to ignore the mirages, the illusions, the fake sense of identity which sets one apart as a false island of consciousness." (TCOC p 79)

This view of Hugi's can be compared and contrasted with the Dinesen quote, but within the context of the series, although this is done, no satisfactory resolution is made. Unless it is in Corwin's statement: "The conflict between our views are irreducible." (TCOC p 90).

Psychology also rears its head in the series. Freud is mentioned several times by Corwin who apparently sought his help whilst on "shadow Earth" and suffering from amnesia. Freud himself would no doubt find the series characters an interesting study with the sibling conflicts and the feelings Corwin has for his father, his mother's successor and, especially, his sister Deidre.

The series exhibits some of the trappings of classic mythic structure. There is the quest, magic aids and a mentor who instructs him in their usage, and of course the happy, if philosophical ending. Naturally there are certain inescapable details such as the patriarchal, almost medieval society, the references to legendary places and people and the fulfilment of legend as seen in the story of the Archangel Corwin. Not forgetting the use of the Tarot and the psychic powers and the inevitable birds: the white bird of his desire, the black bird of his desire, the blood bird and the bird of ill-omen. The series is thick with such items.

However it is thin when it comes to concern with female characters. Women are readily discarded by Oberon who himself was not born of woman, and apparently not treated much better by his sons. "The girls" tend to be considered en masse. For example, Eric seems "the best choice", Eleys and Eric "had some rather heated discussions on the issue", Gerard and Cain "will go along with Eric: and "the girls tend to take things lying down." SOTU p 35). Or when it comes to the question of succession "They are neither interested nor fit." (SOTU p 198). The women who do don armor to do battle and take part in the succession intrigues are seemingly only there as a device to have them at the right place at the right time. They HAD to take part in the final battle if they were to survive (except Deidre who made a perfect hostage being particularly special to Corwin.)

The Courts of Chaos by Roger Zelazny (c) 1978, Sphere, 1978, paperback cover The character Vialle, the blind wife of Random, who is given very little space in the series has a story which is worth of a book of its own, and it is unfortunate that Zelazny did not see fit to exploit this. Her tale is one of infinitely more courage than that of the 'cool' hero Corwin.

One of the most distracting aspects of the series is the shifts from one style of dialogue to another. Corwin's speech moves from the extravagantly medieval: "I recall the sweetness of thy airs, and the temples, palaces and pleasances thou containest, contained, will always contain. Amber, immortal city from which every other city has taken its shape, I cannot forget thee ..." (NPIA p 90). to such remarks as "Sitting there in my mind, I gestured back at the silent parade of moments that crossed between Amber and then."{ Throughout the series there are many flippant sentences used as an alternative to more economical phrases.

This might have served as a characterisation device in Corwin's speech except that Random's speech is so similar when HE is acting as narrator that it is not immediately obvious that the identity of the narrator has changed: "So Child Random to the dark tower came, yeah, gun in one hand, blade in the other." (SOTU p 22).

Corwin's predilection for the involved is best illustrated by his use of metaphor. As every schoolchild knows, you NEVER mix your metaphors, it's just not done; however, there is a limit to just how far a metaphor should be carried, even if not mixed."

"But solitary, plus blindness with small hope of recovery, made for a big charge at the sensory-deprived counter in the department of the mind ... I generally keep these memories safely tucked away during waking hours, but at night, sometimes, they come loose, dance down the aisles and frolic round the notions counter, one, two, three." (SOTU p 97).

As seen in the above and following examples, sometimes the author appears to be so carried along by the flow of his metaphor that he is swept away and the reader diverted from the book's course by the literary eddy.

"The emotions, the plans, the feelings, the objectives I had seen swirled like floodwater through the city of facts I was slowly erecting n the grove of my other self, and though an act is an act, in the best Steinian tradition, each wave of interpretation that broke upon so shifted the position of one or more things I had though safely anchored, and by this brought about an alteration of the whole, to the extent that all of life seemed almost a shifting interplay of Shadow about the Amber of some never to be attained truth." (THOO, p 142).

This does not mean that the writing style is without redeeming features. The descriptive passages, particularly those relating to the ravels through Shadow are both vivid and imaginative, although they do tend to blend together after a few pages (or volumes).

Another problem, possibly caused by the length of the series, is the inconsistencies. The number of Oberon's offspring appears flexible, the incompleteness of information adding to the confusion.

However, more confusing is the problem of the Chaos-Amber time differential. Both Merlin and Dara appear on the scene as fully grown individuals. Dara claims that generations separate herself and her ancestress, Lintra, and the appearance of Merlin seems to substantiate the belief that time travels faster in Chaos that it does in Amber. BUT, when Corwin is in Chaos, he says, "Actually, time was running faster for me than it was for you, so from where I am sitting I have hardly been away." and that the short time during which he was involved in the battle with Chaos years passed. Surely if time travels faster in Chaos then his absence should be shorter in Amber time than it appeared in Chaos.

I would also like to know who Carmen was ("Carmen, voulez-vous venir avec moi? No? Then goodbye to you too, Princess of Chaos." (TCOC p 141). Does he mean Dara?

And, if Random attempted a rescue of Grand before he meets up with Corwin, and if the Black Road, which appeared during Corwin's subsequent imprisonment was caused by Brand's damage to the Pattern prior to HIS imprisonment, does it mean that Brand was imprisoned before he damaged the Pattern, or that the Road took a long while to develop, or that Zelazny changed his mind after Nine Princes in Amber?

The constant switching from story to story as the series progresses makes it difficult to distinguish who id what to whom and when. This is not helped by Zelazny's use of first person narration. Because his narrator is not omniscient he can plead ignorance and disregard the need for explanations. Corwin simple side-steps issues and questions by claiming disinterest. When it comes to the family intrigues especially there comes a point where a score card would be more than useful.

Unfortunately any attempts at keeping score are doomed to failure. Corwin launches into periodic "recaps" probably remnants of the original serialised form of the series, after which the story generally changes again. The most extreme example of these sometimes lengthy revisions is in The Hand of Oberon where Corwin passes time (and nine pages) with a summation of the previous volumes.

In the final chapter of The Courts of Chaos, Corwin does, to be fair, offer a final summation: "I deal you out like a hand of cards, my brothers and sisters. It is painful as well as self-indulgent to generalise like this, but you - I - we - seem to have changed, and before I move into the traffic again I require a final look" (TCOC p 140). But even the best intentions can get lost in a couple of pages of "And the man clad in black and silver .. (he) would like to think that he had learned something of trust, that he has washed his eyes in some clear spring, that he has polished an ideal or two." (op cit, p 141).

And so Corwin rides off into Chaos with his son at his side.

"Goodby and hello, as always."

Ali Kayn
Melbourne, Australia

Nine Princes in Amber.Avon, New York, 1972.
The Guns of Avalon. Avon, New York. 1974.
Sign of the Unicorn. Avon, New York. 1976.
The Hand of Oberon. Sphere, London, 1979.
The Courts of Chaos. Avon, New York, 1979.
Also of interest: The Illustrated Zelazny.

Originally published by Jack Herman in Forerunner.

See also:
Fascination Place, The Amber Series
Fascination Place, The Chronicles of Amber
Family Tree created by Ali Kayn in 1980 when researching this article
Family Tree created by Ali Kayn in 1980 when researching this article

Series Series
Filed: 2005
Last changed: 5-Jan-2009
Last tested:
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copyright © Ali Kayn 2005 All rights reserved
Filed: Sep-2005
Last Compiled: 3-Jan-2009