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Monday, January 08, 2018

From the Books: THE COMING OF THE KING

So yesterday I saw a New York Times article linked on Twitter in which apparently some members of former European aristocracy are starting to raise the notion that maybe, just maybe, world problems might be helped somewhat by a return to monarchy. I confess I didn't bother reading the article because...well, the whole notion just sounds goofy. But I did note the name of the first person quoted in the article: one Count Nikolai Tolstoy, who is a member of onetime Russian nobility, a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace fame, and the writer of a fantasy novel about the wizard Merlin called The Coming of the King.

As it happens, I bought this book way back when I was in college and going through the big Arthurian phase of my reading life. There was a couple of years where if I was reading a book not related to any of my classes, it was an Arthurian book of one sort or another: either fantasy novels retelling the tale, or a nonfiction book about the legends or the larger category of British folklore from which the Arthurian matter springs. Tolstoy's novel is...well, I started it and got about seventy pages in before I gave up. His writing style was very formal and almost stilted (not unlike The Silmarillion), but what got me was a passage that ranks as one of the strangest passages I have ever read in a fantasy novel. I thought that I had shared this before, but I did a cursory search of the archives and couldn't find it, so here is is anew.

I don't even recall the contextual events in which this takes place, save that it is a big feast-type party or something at the King's great hall. Tolstoy is describing some of the evening's entertainment here, and...well, this happens. I swear that this is from a novel that actually got published.

Low before the king bowed the seven newcomers; and bowed low they remained, with buttocks bare gleaming from the ruddy glare of the king's hearth. For they were the far-famed farters of the Island of the Mighty, whose skill in farting surpassed any that might be found in Prydyn, or Ywerdon, or distant Lydau across the Sea of Udd.

Wonderfully loud was the farting of the royal farters at the feasting of King Gwydno Garanhir upon the Kalan Gaeaf; wonderfully lour, skillfully sonorous, and evil-smelling beyond the achieving of all others of their calling. At first they emitted with rare delicacy the seven notes of the scale, moving up and down the line in harmony, high and low. Then they blew forth tunes such as cowherds and milkmaids sing. They whistled high and they whistled low in semblance of the whistling of the keepers of the king's kennels. or of unseen birds that pipe in the brake.

But these wonderful feats were as nothing to what followed, and an ecstasy came upon the Men of the North as each of the performers excelled his fellow with some new and marvelous display of art and skill. Marvelously true to reality was the snorting of war horses, the braying of trumpets, the roaring of stags, the rumble of thunder, the bellowing of bulls, the snarling of wildcats, and long, low drone of a homing cockchafer on a summer's eve.

Well-fed were the performers upon dulse and lentils and beans, but not beyond the space of half an hour were they able to sustain their skillful performance. There came a moment when their conductor gave vent to a long, low whistling sound like a serpent retiring to its heathery laid; so sibilantly soft, stealthy-sounding, and stalely stinking as to instill an awed silence upon the assembled company. It was a signal for the departure of the troop, and with a final effort of such loudness and force and vigor that men swore afterward it set the goblets rattling upon the royal board, and all but extinguished the pine torches flaring in their sockets and even the great hearth burning beneath the royal cauldron.

Like the gale before which no man is able to stand upright, which blows without ceasing from the mouth of that Cave in the land of Gwent which men call Chwith Gwent, was that mightiest of farts which was in the North at that time. There were those in the king's hall, however, who feared lest the performance might arouse storms and tempests in the winter sky, avowing they could hear afar off in the mountains the rolling of Taran's wheel.

It was amid smoke and confusion and stench that the king's farters flew from the banquet hall to the hostel set apart for them. It was long before the pleasure passed and laughter died away and tongues were stilled, so delightful was their performance to the Men of the North.

As noted, I have little idea what to make of this, and I recall that I read very little farther in the book after this.

As for the novel itself, it was apparently at one point to be the first book in a trilogy of novels about Merlin, but the next books never appeared. Count Tolstoy was apparently involved in some sort of legal action involving libel, which put a bit of a kibosh on his writing at the time. To my knowledge these books have never appeared.

And there, folks, is the strangest thing I've ever read in a fantasy novel.

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