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The Lyonesse Trilogy is a group of three fantasy novels by Jack Vance, set in the European Dark Ages, in the mythical Elder Isles west of France and southwest of Britain, a generation or two before the birth of King Arthur. An Atlantis theme haunts the story, as do numerous references to Arthurian mythology.
Some place names and concepts, such as references to sandestins as magical creatures that do the actual work of carrying out a magician's spells, are shared between Lyonesse and Vance's Dying Earth series, suggesting that the two worlds may be linked.
Vance makes no pretence of historical accuracy. The society depicted is in general of the later Middle Ages, with trading cogs plying the seas, knights engaged in jousting and following the fully developed Code of Chivalry, and royal courts dancing the pavane and cotillon – all of which would be gross anachronisms when assumed to take place in the 5th century. In this Vance, in fact, followed the conventions of the original Arthurian tales, which depicted the society of their own time rather than that of the historical King Arthur.
The three volumes were published in order of their fictional chronology:
- Lyonesse (1983) (subtitled Book I: Suldrun's Garden on the title page)
- The Green Pearl (1985)
- Madouc (1989)
Lyonesse (also known as Suldrun's Garden)
The story is told in several interlocking threads which are not always chronological.
King Casmir of Lyonesse arranges the marriage of his daughter Suldrun to Faude Carfilhiot, Duke of Vale Evander. In this Casmir hopes to bring armies through Carfilhiot's lands in South Ulfland, so as to attack the rival kingdom Dahaut on two fronts. Repelled by Carfilhiot, Suldrun refuses. In a rage, Casmir confines her to her garden, barred on two sides by a steep ravine, the third by a wall and a locked gate, and the fourth by the sea. Suldrun is content to be alone until one day a half-drowned sailor washes ashore.
Princes Aillas and Trewan of Troicinet are sent on a sea voyage to visit the various kingdoms of the Elder Isles to gain experience at statecraft. While in port, Trewan learns that his father has died and that the line of royal succession now passes from King Granice to his youngest brother Ospero and then to Ospero's son Aillas, bypassing Trewan. He conceals this knowledge from Aillas and, late at night, pushes Aillas overboard. Aillas washes ashore at the foot of Suldrun's garden. While he recovers, they become lovers and plan to escape. However, they are caught and betrayed by the Queen's confessor Brother Umphred and Casmir orders Aillas imprisoned without even bothering to learn his name. In due time, Suldrun delivers a son named Dhrun, and gives him into the care of her former nurse to hide him from her father. However, Dhrun is taken by the fairies and replaced with the changeling Madouc. Casmir retrieves the baby and, none the wiser, takes her back to the castle. Believing that Aillas and her son are dead, Suldrun hangs herself in her garden. Aillas manages to escape and returns to the garden where he learns from Suldrun's ghost that he has a son, but he is perplexed to see the Princess Madouc in a royal procession. Aillas learns of the changeling from the old nurse and sets out on a quest to find his son, using a "Never-Fail", a talisman that points him in the right direction, obtained from the fairies at no small price.
Dhrun, a cheerful happy baby, is raised in Thripsey Shee by Twisk, Madouc's mother, who stole him from the old nurse's family, leaving Madouc, her willful and cranky child by an unknown vagabond. Time passes differently in the shee than in the mortal realm; Dhrun lives 9 years in the shee in the span of one mortal year. Since he is not a true fairy, he is cast out of the shee, but without malice (except for a spiteful rival who curses him with seven years of bad luck). Dhrun sets out through the forest of Tantrevalles, a haunted place where the human presence is weak and the supernatural is very real. He rescues Glyneth, a girl of about 14, from a troll, and they have a number of adventures before joining Dr. Fidelius, supposedly a physician specializing in the treatment of sore knees, who travels between the country fairs of Dahaut in a medicine show wagon pulled by two two-headed horses.
Faude Carfilhiot, wanting to be a powerful magician but lacking the patience to learn the necessary skills, schemes with his lover Tamurello. They will use Melancthe to seduce and distract Shimrod while Carfilhiot steals his magical apparatus, by which theft Shimrod (relatively new to his craft) would be so weakened as a magician that he could not retaliate. The plot is successful but Shimrod's equipment is protected by magical locks and is unusable. Shimrod learns from a magic monitor that watches his house that the thieves who tortured his house servant and stole his goods were a handsome young aristocrat and an older robber who complained that years of climbing on rooftops had left him with sore knees. Shimrod adopts the guise of Dr. Fidelius, a specialist in sore knees, in hopes of finding the robber, who will lead him to the aristocrat.
Aillas' quest to find his son is interrupted when he is captured by the Ska. He tries to ransom his freedom, but they are not a numerous people and need labor more than gold. The Ska lay siege to Carfilhiot's castle Tintzin Fyral, and Aillas gets a good look at the castle's defenses. He is then sent to work as a house slave at Castle Sank, home of the Ska Duke Luhalcx and his family, where he becomes infatuated with Lady Tatzel, the Duke's daughter. Aillas escapes Castle Sank with two other slaves, Yane and Cargus, but they are recaptured and sent to the fortress Poëlitetz, which guards the boundary of Dahaut and North Ulfland. Here, Aillas is assigned to a work crew digging a secret tunnel from Poëlitetz out to the plain in front of the fortress. Aillas leads another escape, and after a series of adventures finds himself on the southern outskirts of Avallon, the capital city of Dahaut. The Never-Fail indicates that Dhrun is northward, in the city or beyond.
Faude Carfilhiot leads a band of men out from Tintzin Fyral on a "hunting" expedition to capture one of the barons who oppose his rule. However, it's an ambush, set up by Carfilhiot's enemies working together. His troops are killed one by one but he escapes with his life and seeks refuge at Melancthe's palace. He says they should be lovers; who better, since they are the same person. She disdains him because he inhaled the green fume whereas she tasted it and spat it out. He seduces her. In retaliation, she magically transports him all the way across the Elder Isles to Avallon. Lacking funds, he seeks out the bandit Rughalt of the sore knees, his accomplice, to provide him shelter and funds. Rughalt is practically destitute; his knees are so bad he can no longer burgle houses and his only income comes from robbing the guests of a mean little inn. He sees Dr. Fidelius' wagon at the great fair of Avallon and is desperate for a cure. Carfilhiot tells him Fidelius is probably a quack but Rughalt is adamant; if he got his agility back, he would no longer be poor. Shimrod takes Rughalt deep into the woods and extracts Carfilhiot's name from him.
Carfilhiot, waiting for Rughalt, suddenly intuits that Fidelius was Shimrod. He kidnaps Dhrun and Glyneth and steals the wagon, driving it to Tamurello's mansion, who uses magic to send it back to Tintzin Fyral.
Aillas, now in Avallon, learns from the captain of a Troice ship that his father lies dying; if he dies and Aillas is not on hand, Trewan will be crowned king. As Aillas, Yane and Cargus debate what to do, Shimrod runs up and asks if they have seen a wagon pulled by a pair of two-headed horses. Aillas had, and Shimrod tells him that Faude Carfilhiot has kidnapped two children that were travelling with him. Aillas notices that the Never-Fail is suddenly pointing south, and asks the names of the children. Shimrod and Aillas ride to Tamurello's mansion but arrive too late; Carfilhiot and the wagon are gone. Aillas decides with a heavy heart he must return to Troicinet to prevent Trewan from being crowned king. Accompanied by Yane and Cargus, Aillas arrives at the last possible minute and confronts Trewan with his murderous deed. When Trewan attacks Aillas Cargus kills him, and Aillas is crowned king of Troicinet.
Shimrod can not act directly against Carfilhiot to rescue Glyneth and Dhrun, because that would constitute taking Aillas' side in a political matter and violate Murgen's edict. However, Aillas has learned that Quilcy, King of South Ulfland, has drowned in his bathtub, and that Aillas is his rightful heir by collateral lineage. He lands a force of troops in South Ulfland, proclaims his kingship, and demands a show of fealty from Carfilhiot as Carfilhiot's rightful liege lord. Carfilhiot refuses, and Aillas' Troice troops lay siege to his castle. Aillas' soldiers, informed by his knowledge of the castle's defenses, avoid the traps and pitfalls Carfilhiot has prepared, much to Carfilhiot's dismay. He calls on Tamurello, who confronts Aillas. This gives Shimrod an excuse to call on Murgen, who forbids Tamurello from acting and banishes him to his mansion. Tamurello offers to bring Carfilhiot to his manse, but Carfilhiot refuses to leave his castle. The siege is eventually successful, Dhrun and Glyneth are rescued, and Carfilhiot is hanged as a traitor to his king. When his body is cremated, a green fume escapes and blows out to sea, where it mixes with the spume and condenses into a "green pearl", which sinks into the sea and is swallowed by a fish.
Aillas, now King of Troicinet, Dascinet and South Ulfland, and his son Dhrun, make a diplomatic visit to Lyonesse. Casmir is puzzled as to how Aillas, barely out of his teens, could have a nine-year-old son, and why Aillas' face seems rather familiar.
The Green Pearl
In a fishing village in South Ulfland, a fisherman catches a flounder and discovers the green pearl inside. The pearl changes hands a number of times, impelling each new owner to strange excesses of conduct, until the final owner offends a minor magician, who takes him deep into the forest and casts a spell of paralysis on him. His body decomposes and merges with the forest floor; in the Spring, beautiful flowers with strangely evocative odors sprout at the site.
Aillas and Dhrun divide their time between Watershade, Aillas' placid castle on the island of Troicinet, and his new capital Doun Darric in South Ulfland. Glyneth has been installed at court with the anomalous title "Princess" and Shimrod is a frequent guest. Aillas journeys to South Ulfland where he attempts to convince the fiercely independent barons to accept his rule as king. He bans private justice and torture and orders the barons to forget their old feuds and unite against the Ska. Aillas' program gains credibility when he sends a force to destroy the mountain keep of the first baron to openly defy him.
In Lyonesse, King Casmir plots to destabilize South Ulfland by sending two agents, Sir Shalles and Torqual. Casmir sends Shalles into the Ulfish uplands to sow dissent among the barons through rumor and intrigue. Torqual, a renegade Ska, is ordered to assemble a band of cutthroats to attack those nobles who support Aillas' rule. Torqual has his own plans, to conquer all of the Elder Isles for himself, and Casmir soon grows exasperated with Torqual's demands for ever increasing amounts of gold. Casmir is also troubled by a prophecy made at Suldrun's birth that her son would rule the Elder Isles; Casmir believes Suldrun gave birth to a girl, the princess Madouc. He applies to Tamurello for assistance, who sends to him Visbhume, a low magician of peculiar personal habits. Visbhume makes inquiries and informs Casmir that Suldrun's child was, in fact, a boy and that Madouc is a fairy changeling. Visbhume learns that the boy, known to the fairies as "Tippet", was travelling with a girl named Glyneth, and that Suldrun's former nursemaid, who had tried to hide Dhrun from Casmir, had left Lyonesse with her entire family and were now landed gentry on Troicinet. The next line of inquiry is obvious.
In South Ulfland, Aillas ponders how to test his new army, composed of Troice knights and Troice-trained Ulfish soldiers. The Ska are fearsome in battle but their weakness is their small numbers. Aillas plans a series of hit-and-run raids designed to inflict casualties while avoiding a pitched battle he would almost certainly lose. Aillas sends a force against the lightly defended Castle Sank and succeeds in destroying the garrison and the outer buildings but not the inner citadel. Watching from a distance, Aillas sees a party of Ska approaching Sank on horseback, including the Lady Tatzel. Aillas pursues and captures her, declaring she is now his slave. Since the route back to Doun Darric was likely to be swarming with Ska troops responding to the attack on Castle Sank, Aillas decides to travel north along the high moors into North Ulfland, to arrive at Xounges where he can take a ship home. Along the way they pass Torqual's fortress hideout; Torqual challenges Aillas who defeats him in a duel and leaves him for dead.
Tatzel is proud and haughty; her worldview will not accept that she has been made a slave by an "otherling", as the Ska refer to outsiders. However, she gradually comes to recognize Aillas' intelligence and competence. Aillas, for his part, discovers that the Tatzel of reality is nothing like the Tatzel of his daydreams, and the infatuation is broken. They eventually develop a wary mutual respect.
After a series of further adventures, Aillas and Tatzel arrive at Xounges, to find the dying King Gax beset by a Ska delegation headed by Tatzel's father, Duke Luhalcx. The Ska wish King Gax to appoint a Ska successor to his throne, in return for which the Ska promise amnesty for the inhabitants of Xounges. Gax would prefer that his successor drive the Ska out, but the legal heir, Sir Kreim, has already indicated to the Ska that he could be bribed to abdicate, and Gax expects to die a bitter death. Aillas returns his unsatisfactory slave to her father, and in a private audience with King Gax, reveals his identity. In a public ceremony, Gax transfers the crown to Aillas, much to the surprise and consternation of the Ska.
Glyneth, at Watershade, ponders her future. She has been playing flirtatious games with Aillas, testing him, but decides that the time for games and testing is over. Before she can act on her decision, she is kidnapped by Visbhume and taken to the alternate world Tanjecterly. Visbhume promises to return her to Earth if she tells him the circumstances of Dhrun's birth, but his obvious designs on her person inform her that she will be killed once he has the information. Glyneth feigns intimacy long enough to strike Visbhume with his own dagger, then runs away into the wilds of Tanjecterly.
Aillas and Shimrod are prevented from following Glyneth through the portal into Tanjecterly by Murgen, who understands that this is part of a plot by Casmir and Tamurello to get rid of them, thus weakening Murgen and advancing Casmir's political goals. Murgen instead sends an agent, synthesized from the physical pattern of a fierce beast from Tanjecterly and the guile and cunning of a barbarian pirate named Kul. To give Kul a human soul with love and loyalty for Glyneth, Murgen infuses it with Aillas' blood.
In Tanjecterly, Kul catches up with Glyneth and rescues her from Visbhume. Under duress, Visbhume explains that passages to Earth can only be opened at certain times and places, and the next opportunity is many leagues distant. After many adventures they arrive at the portal and Visbhume opens the way, but causes the animal they have been riding to attack Kul, injuring him. Glyneth, though frightened of Kul at first, has grown to love the human spirit within him, and refuses to leave him. Glyneth tells Visbhume the truth about Dhrun's birth, and Visbhume vanishes through the gate.
At the Goblin Fair in the forest of Tantrevalles, Melancthe is entranced by four beautiful flowers she has bought, which evoke emotions she can't quite identify. Both Shimrod and Tamurello arrive, prompted by the opening of the interworld portal. Tamurello accosts Visbhume, learns Dhrun's secret, and then turns Visbhume into a snake so that he can not reveal the truth to anyone else. Shimrod and Melancthe peruse the booths at the fair. The flower seller, in search of more, has dug up the green pearl, causing the flowers to die, to Melancthe's great disappointment. He offers her the pearl, but Shimrod dissuades her. Tamurello also sees it and is captivated, but before he can take it, a snake darts out from the forest and swallows it. Tamurello instantly chants a spell and turns into a weasel, pursues the snake into its hole and returns triumphantly with the pearl in his teeth. Murgen, disguised as a peasant, quickly seals the weasel and pearl in a glass jar. The weasel dissolves into a green transparency, like a skeleton in aspic.
With no word from Tanjecterly, Aillas resumes his campaign against the Ska. His hit-and-run strategy finally prompts a tactical mistake by the Ska, who divide their forces into two smaller armies. Aillas' Ulfish army attacks and destroys one of these armies. Aillas offers a peace agreement whereby the Ska return to the original limits of their territory; in return Aillas will demand no reparations or hostages. The Ska agree.
In Tanjecterly Kul follows the orders implanted in him to return Glyneth to their original starting point, which is the location of the other portal. On the way they are attacked several times so that he loses a great deal of blood, and the beast and pirate aspects of Kul begin to assert themselves. They reach the portal and are besieged by enemies, but Shimrod appears to rescue her. Glyneth will not leave Kul, but Shimrod explains that while Kul is dying, his love for her came from someone else. Shimrod and Glyneth return to Earth where she is reunited with Aillas, now the undisputed King of Troicinet, Dascinet and Ulfland, who reveals his deep love for her (manifested through Kul) and asks her to be his Queen, which she gladly accepts. Aillas, Dhrun, Glyneth and Shimrod journey to Watershade for a banquet, while in Lyonesse, Casmir awaits news from Visbhume that will never come, and ponders the mystery of Suldrun's son.
Princess Madouc, unaware of her true parentage, suffers an unhappy childhood comparable to Suldrun's, but has more spunk and actively resists the regimen imposed upon her as a royal princess. On an unauthorized outing into the forest, she is separated from her bodyguard (the stable-hand Pimfet) and discovers her mother, the fairy Twisk, and learns the truth, including the fact that her father's identity is unknown. She meets Prince Dhrun at a reception and shares her knowledge with him, incidentally establishing a mutual but low-key attraction.
Meanwhile, Casmir continues to plot against Aillas by funding the exploits of the Ska renegade Torqual, which however have little effect against Aillas's precautions. Allias defeats the Ska residing in a fort on the border with Dahaut and claims the fort itself by law of conquest, causing tensions between the two nations. King Audrey is distraught to find his army, though still strong, is slowly growing fat and complacent from mismanagement, and begins trying to re-assert himself as a military power.
Shimrod the wizard, at Murgen's request, investigates mysterious demonic attentions in Ys, which appear to involve Melancthe. Murgen is too busy watching over Joald, a trapped being of apocalyptic power, to do so himself. Melancthe continues to fascinate and frustrate Shimrod, and he is unable to learn what her plans are. Later, as part of his service to Murgen, Shimrod disguises himself as a Scythian bravo to infiltrate Torqual's band. He is unable to make progress in his investigation of Melancthe, but disrupts a plot to assassinate King Aillas and kidnap Dhrun. The corpses of the dead assassins are re-animated and march to Casmirs court before expiring in order to send a message. Torqual sets off with Melancthe.
Madouc having angered Casmir by refusing to be part of a marriage alliance he's devised, the king punishes her and humors Queen Solace by making Madouc the prize in a quest for the Holy Grail (a relic which would draw pilgrims to the cathedral being built under the instigation of the treacherous Brother Umphred, who has revealed to Casmir that Dhrun is Suldrun's son). Madouc's response is to seek the Grail herself, since that seems the best method of preserving herself. Casmir, distracted by other matters, accidentally gives the royal blessing to the journey. Together with Pimfet, Madouc sets off on a journey for the Grail and for the identity of her father. While she fails to find out who her father truly is even with the help of the Faries and Twisk (as he used a pseudonym while courting Twisk), she does discover what seems to be the Grail. She and Pimfet travel to the castle where the Grail is, and through cunning manage to kill the Ogre Throop and retrieve the grail, a task that hundreds of knights had tried and failed. Unfortunately, Casmir reneges on his promise. Though his life is spared, Pimfet is still punished harshly despite retrieving the grail, and Madouc begins to truly hate Casmir with all her being.
Madouc then discovers Casmir's plan to frustrate the magic mirror's prophecy that Dhrun would rule the Elder Isles, by having him sit momentarily at the magic table in the capital city of Dahaut and then having Dhrun killed. To this end, Casmir arranges for a colloquy despite having no desire for peace. On the way there, Madouc manages to earn a sliver of respect from Queen Solace when the latter learns of the deeds involved in retrieving the grail, though the two are still on poor terms.
In revenge for his treatment of Pimfet and herself, Madouc foils Casmir's plan by publicly warning Dhrun and the assembled worthies (humiliating Casmir) in the middle of the colloquy. She is stripped of her rank and forbidden from finishing what she had to say, but her message does not fall on deaf ears. Any doubt the worthies had in her statements evaporates when Allias, who had been running late, dramatically arrives and corroborates her story. After King Audry and King Dartweg publicly feud over Celtic bandits, the colloquy is called off. Madouc is then kidnapped by Casmir's agents but rescued by Aillas and Dhrun.
Meanwhile, Torqual and Melancthe arrive at Murgen's manse. Desmei manifests out of Melancthe, possesses Torqual, and the Melancthe is left to be brutally killed by Murgen's sentries. Inside, Murgen himself is bound by demonic hands. Desmei orders Torqual to free the Green Pearl so she can be whole, but by accident the Ska instead releases Tamurello. Desmei's physical form is destroyed, and an insane Tamurello tries to free Joald with the help of Torqual simply to spite Murgen, fully aware that it will mean the end of the Elder Isles.
Joald manages to partially wrench free, and his presence in the Atlantic causes a massive tsunami that wipes out Ys instantly and the majority of Vale Evander shortly after. Before they can cause the downfall of the entire island however, Tamurello is defeated and Torqual is beheaded. Desmei and Tamurello, unable to be destroyed by normal means since the Green has rendered them partially demonic, are instead sent to an alternate dimension where one of Murgen's associates annihilates them utterly in supernatural fire. The Green is revealed to be a corrupting magical force and an element of a much larger inter dimensional war, which Murgen has been trying to keep from reaching Earth. The deed done, Murgan collapses into a chair, crestfallen. Murgen explains to Shimrod that some of the dead gods of Lyonesse favor Joald, that to kill him would incur their wrath, and thus all that Murgan can do is keep Joald imprisoned for as long as he lives.
Casmir, emboldened by the news of the destruction of Vale Evander, throws the dice on a war against Dahaut. He finds that Dahaut puts up much more of a fight than expected. The ulfs counterattack by raiding the coasts of Lyonesse, and Godelia enters the war on Casmir's side in response. After several battles, the Dahaut army is routed. Prince Cassander is wounded trying to kill the fleeing king Audrey. Ignoring the advice of his more experienced advisors and overeager to prove himself, the wounded Cassander orders his scouts to embark on a pointless search that gives the Dahaut army time to regroup and escape.
Though King Audrey later puts up a valiant fight that allows the majority of his remaining army to escape across the border into the Ulflands, he and his son are killed. Dahaut is conquered, but this triggers an attack on Casmir by Aillas. Cassander is killed during a retreat shortly after, putting an undignified end to the ambitious young man. The Troice army routs Casmir's army, and Casmir enters the battle only to shortly after flee back towards Lyoness Town.
Casmir discovers to his dismay that Lyonesse Town was captured in his absence. Queen Solace, still in possession of the grail, was exiled to Europe after the castle fell, and the reader is told she would spend the rest of her days crying over the holy grail and her dashed dreams of sainthood. After her death, the grail is lost again, to be searched for later by King Arthur.
After this aside, Casmir is arrested and spends the rest of his days in a cell ruminating over his defeat. Aillas declares himself king of the Elder Isles (with Dhrun as his heir) and brings peace to the realm, also taking the opportunity to have Umphred drowned for his betrayal of Suldrun. Glyneth, now Queen, gives birth to her and Aillas' daughter, Princess Serle. Madouc and Dhrun are in love, and when Twisk is summoned to partake in the celebrations it is finally learned that Madouc's father is actually Shimrod. All ends happily.
One view is that the characterisations of the various kingdoms are decidedly Euro-centric. The Celts of Godelia are fickle and eccentric, the ambitious and aggressive King Casmir is a Germanic despot in all but name, the court of King Audrey of Dahaut is a caricature of the decadent excesses of a French monarch and the Ska are transparently cruel Viking raiders. The picture is complete with the Arthurian figure of Prince Aillas hailing from the plucky island race of Troicinet whose sea power is crucial to the story. Aillas' policies are based on the balance of power doctrine, whereby Troicinet seeks to make sure no mainland power would become too strong by supporting the weaker party in any conflict – which is clearly reminiscent of the traditional British policy with regard to continental Europe. Also Aillas' later policy, after having become ruler of the entire central island of Hybras – to maintain only a limited land army and rely on a strong navy for protection against outside invasion – has a distinct British flavor.
Indeed, it can be argued that the entire background to the work is a re-working of the Arthurian myths, complete with a great mage (Merlin/Murgen), a Round Table (Cairbra an Meadhan), chivalric codes and a search for the Holy Grail. However, unlike the awe in which the original Arthurian characters hold the Grail, Vance's attitude is quite cynical. While many objects described in the Trilogy have considerable magical powers, the Grail does not seem to have such; the only use contemplated for the Grail was King Casmir's idea of increasing pilgrimage to his capital and thus the Royal revenues. This did not come true, and in the end the Grail gets taken out of Lyonesse without having made much impression on anybody.
The Arthurian hypothesis can perhaps be countered by strong indications that the author has delivered a very conscious melding of various other medieval folkloric and more formal story telling themes, characters and plot devices. The proto Arthurian characters are rather a "pre-working" of the later romance and still distinct from that tale. Similarly, the Ska, who are equated with the Nemedians of Irish mythology are repeatedly described as pre-Viking, and indeed having encountered Neanderthals, giving them a far richer presence than "cruel Viking raiders".
Vance builds the history of his world using layers of facts, names and religions taken from various European cultures – Greeks, Romans, Celts, pre-Carolingian French and Spanish "kingdoms" etc., and adding in places and peoples imagined by those same cultures – Atlantis, Ys, Avalon, Formor and so on. This fantastical/factual mix is used to ground his tale in "history". It also seems to give some of the same depth that a longer series of books might develop where place, relationships and plot are built up over time (as in Thomas Hardy's "Wessex" or Trollope's "Barsetshire"). It seems to provide the believability that develops where a story is set in a well-known, well-defined historical setting as if the reader holds merely a hitherto untold story.
The combination of a tale that is apparently set in medieval Europe, but which contains significant elements of fantasy and magic lends itself to use as setting for role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons.
Lands doomed to sink
At the very first paragraph of the first book, Vance informs the reader that the Elder Isles sank under the sea at some later time (which, indeed, readers can know for themselves by glancing at the map of Western Europe and finding no such islands off its shore). The Elder Islands are clearly not Atlantis, which was an ancient myth already in the time of Plato – still, the overtones of a land doomed to eventually sink beneath the waves influence the story. All the more so as to the city of Ys, where much of the plot is laid, which has its own Breton myth ending with its being eventually engulfed by the waves.
Throughout the series, the characters move though their lives, loves and conflicts, blithely unaware of this total doom hanging over their land – all but the wise magician Murgen who, as eventually turns out, is all too well aware of it, and has devoted his life to the effort of averting it. The name "Joald" is mentioned already in the first part as that of a mysterious being inspiring hush and fear. But only in the end of Madouc is Joald revealed to be a giant underwater being – "a strange gray creature, human in general configuration, with glistening gray skin, short hairy neck, heavy head with smeared features and the filmy eyes of a dead fish" – who seeks to destroy the Elder Isles by breaking down the submarine pillars on which they rest. Murgen keeps a simulacrum of Joald tightly bound, and he also devotes much of his time and effort to "guard Joald and soothe his monstrous hulk, and ward away whatever might disturb his long wet rest".
Tamurello, Murgen's rival, in a frenzy of blind hatred and revenge seeks to free Joald, and manages to get the monster's head and right arm free before being stopped by Shimrod – enough for Joald to cause a huge tidal wave which destroys Ys, bringing upon this city its foredoomed destruction (though in a manner quite different from that recounted in the original Breton myth). The rest of the Elder Isles are spared, for the time being. However, Joald can only be bound again, not destroyed, as he is under the protection of certain elder gods – and thus the Isles' doom is only put off.
Commentator David Williams, remarking on a "sense of loss" evident in much of Jack Vance's writings, notes that "Vance exercised this sense of loss in high ironic form in the Lyonesse sequence: all the adventures, all the triumphs and tragedies are futile in an ultimate sense, because the reader knows that, regardless of Murgen's striving, the Elder Isles are doomed to sink into the Atlantic Ocean. All the loves and hates, all the magic will be lost, to be recalled only faintly in myth."
There is no clear indication of how long it would be after the last book's happy end. Aillas is still a vigorous young king, and by the prophecy which figures so large in the plot he would clearly live out his reign, and his son Dhrun would become king in turn, presumably with Madouc as his queen. It is also mentioned that in later times, fishermen sailing over drowned Ys "sometimes glimpsed the wonderful structures of marble, where nothing moved but schools of fish"; but there is no clear indication of how many generations of fishermen would have this experience before Joald finally broke loose and the whole land shared Ys' fate.
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