Amal El-Mohtar on Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
When I was first made aware of The Drawing of the Dark, I was told to expect “some problematic East/West stuff.” The title itself did not fill me with confidence, as I imagined light/dark dichotomies mapped, Tolkien-esque, on to pale and dark skin to represent good and evil as endemic to specific geographies or geo-political realities. But I love Powers’ writing, and decided it would be a good thing to familiarise myself with his earlier work.
Happily, the title is about beer.
Sadly, my instincts about the rest were not as far off as I had hoped.
The year is 1529, and the Ottoman Empire is advancing on Vienna. Brian Duffy, a well-travelled mercenary, accepts a job from a mysterious old man in Venice, agreeing to travel to Vienna and keep the peace in the Zimmerman inn, famous for its Herzwesten beer. But no sooner does he set out than he finds himself plagued by assassins working to prevent his arrival and a motley assortment of supernatural creatures working to safeguard it - hinting that the Zimmerman inn, and Duffy himself, are both more than they seem.
The Drawing of the Dark is a fantastically engaging novel, and one that is, in many ways, a proto-Powers work: I see in it the seeds of future writing that I have absolutely loved. A protagonist that has a complicated spiritual relationship with alcohol; magic and supernatural creatures shown to be responsible for historical events; world-weary characters that bring hundreds of years of lived experience to bear on modernity; all these are aspects of Last Call, The Stress of Her Regard, The Anubis Gates, and much short fiction that I’ve tremendously enjoyed. The contemporary language and perspectives in a sixteenth century setting worked pretty well for me - I laughed at what seemed like deliberate anachronisms about “those British shopkeepers who claim to be druids, and dance, rather self-consciously, at Stonehenge every midsummer’s eve” (183) - and Powers is remarkably adept at writing extensive fight scenes that don’t put me to sleep (a rare distinction shared only by Dorothy Dunnett and Ellen Kushner).
Where it all gets murky as Herzwesten Dark, though, is where women, brown people, and mythography are concerned.
The general premise of The Drawing of the Dark is that there are two spiritual Kingdoms locked in perpetual warfare: the Kingdom of the West and the Kingdom of the East. Each King is completely separate from and superior to the representatives of political power in Eastern or Western nations and empires: Charles V is not King of the West, nor is Suleiman I the King of the East. These two Kings each have demon-born magicians waging magical warfare upon each other across great distances and mustering the supernatural creatures of their respective Kingdoms to support them in the conflict, which is, in 1529, converging on Vienna, and the once-in-700-years event that is the drawing of Herzwesten (Heart of the West) Dark beer, which has been brewed over the grave of the first King of the West for over 3000 years and possesses vast magical properties.
But what are these spiritual kingdoms? The Kingdom of the West is headed by the Fisher King and defended by Merlin (named Ambrosius Aurelianus throughout much of the book), and comprises various Celticities as well as Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. Frequently the point is made that Christianity is only the most recent veneer to have been cast over assorted spiritual truths about dying and reviving kings, gods, and heroes that are essentially “Western” in nature. We are not told the identity of the King of the East, but his sorcerer is Suleiman’s Grand Vizier (Ibrahim Pasha), and he does not seem to command the same kind of aggregated myths; with the exception of ifrits, his troops are made up almost entirely of individuals stolen or enticed from the West. A lot of attention is focused, for instance, on the Janissaries in Suleiman’s army as being especially monstrous because they were once Christian:
“They’re…Christians, aren’t they?” he asked. “The Janissaries?”
“Well, they were,” Duffy said. “The Turks conscript them from Christian families inside the Ottoman Empire, but they take them before the age of seven. Then they bring them up as the most fanatical Moslems and highest-favored soldiers of the Sultan. They’ve been baptized, yes, but you couldn’t call them Christians any longer.”
The lad shuddered. “It’s like the old stories of draugs or changelings. To take our own people away, and change them, and then send them back to destroy the place they can no longer even recognize as their fatherland.” (246-7)
Similarly, there’s an essentialism about where certain creatures do and don’t belong geographically; Aurelianus expects a physical manifestation to accompany the unnatural appearance of ifrits in Europe, because “those creatures don’t belong here, and the very land knows it” (122). And yet fauns, dwarves, sphinxes, basilisks, “monstrous crabs and things that seemed to be nothing but knots of writhing tentacles” (56) move quite happily through the Alps without repercussion as they protect Duffy on his journey from Trieste to Vienna. The Mediterranean, apparently, belongs to the West - but we also see Emperor Antoku and other Eastern (or Non-Western?) persons without any allegiance to the Eastern King who are only interested in the magical beer: “and all the other Dark Birds, the Ethiopian, the several Hindus, the New World aborigine and the rest of them, they too hope for a sip of it” (204), says Aurelianus.
What, then, do all those “Western” creatures have in common—and more to the point, what essential, primordial difference is there between West and East? Why are the literally hundreds of wars fought across the territory of modern-day Europe not considered to have been spiritually significant in any way (except in terms of weakening the Fisher King with their in-fighting), while Vienna is held up as the last stronghold of Westernness in the face of the encroaching East? If the marker is geographic, does it split the globe down the middle with Vienna as the dividing point? If so, are we to understand that the “New World aborigine” and the Ethiopian are in fact Western? How is the rest of the world involved? And if it’s not involved, then why should so many people be converging on this one beery heart instead of seeking metaphysical power centres closer to home?
It is heartening that “good” and “evil” are not explicitly attached to West and East respectively—one can obviously make allowances during a war for the demonization of an invading force by the invaded - but they are implicitly. Aurelianus and Duffy are not paragons of virtue by any means, and their differing moralities interact with each other in interesting ways; Aurelianus repeatedly shows a callous disregard for his allies in safeguarding the Fisher King, and Duffy is at best a selfish, amoral anti-hero who treats women terribly - but the privileging of their perspectives means that we never get to see the advance of the Ottoman Empire as anything but the end of the world. In fact Aurelianus’ Norse allies explicitly associate Suleiman with Surtur, Muslims with Muspelheim, and the taking of Vienna with Ragnarok.
The sad fact is that while this book strives to separate “the West” from the fractious Christian sects and regional powers warring over much of the continent in order to root it in a history of overlapping esoteric traditions, it fails (or does not attempt) to separate “the East” from an exoticised, Orientalist, fetishistic representation of Islam and brown people. Frequently we get descriptions such as “malevolent Oriental faces” (367) and “he could see the white teeth snarling in the brown, straining faces” (257), as well as an emphasis on scimitars, turbans, “Arabian” language, and turned up shoes as sources of terror.
Which is a shame, because the prose has passages of splendid beauty written with that tight, effective twist of the knife that is so distinctly Powers, and the book is gripping. I can only imagine how magnificent it might have been had Ibrahim been given a PoV, or a Janissary been given a voice that wasn’t only a “wild, wailing cry” (257), or had we witnessed a meeting between Aurelianus and Ibrahim, who seem, at least from some of Aurelianus’ passages, to have legitimate respect for each other’s craft. I imagine an aged sorcerer from the Levant who lived through the Crusades seeing in this East/West conflict a repeat of previous ones, or two women getting the opportunity to have a conversation together (even if it’s just Anna and Epiphany talking about how horrible Duffy is), or there being any Jews anywhere at all, and think that I could have genuinely loved this book that is so full of things to interest me.
As it is, I appreciated this taste of Powers’ earlier work, but am very happy to continue drawing from the ferment of his later, stouter, more matured brews.
Amal El-Mohtar is a writer and poet. Her short story, "The Green Book" was a Nebula Award nominee. Her first collection of poetry and prose, The Honey Month, is available from Papaveria Press, with each piece written to the taste of a different honey. She has twice won the Rhysling award for Best Short Poem, and in 2012 she received the Richard Jefferies Poetry Prize. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. You can find her website here and bother her on Twitter at @tithenai.