The Coldfire Trilogy: Inspirations and Associations

This essay was written partly around 2006 and partly in 2009 (the part concerning Barbara Hambly’s novels). Needless to say, it would profit from some reworkings, but for now I decided to leave it as it is.

The Coldfire Trilogy is a work of fiction stunning in its originality and the richness of the world created by the author. One may state similar things about another works of C. S. Friedman, first and foremost This Alien Shore. The more interesting it seems, then, do some speculations and to try and trace the sources that may have inspired the author, starting with approaching her most popular creation, The Coldfire Trilogy. In some cases the inspiration is obvious (the sirens), in others it has been suggested by the author herself; in some cases it is clear that we are dealing not as much with any kind of inspiration as with the case of similar ideas occuring simoultaneously in the minds of various authors.

Let us start with Friedman’s most original creation, the physics – and magic – of Erna. The first association that comes to one’s mind while thinking about the planet fulfilling its (alien) “guests” desires and nightmares is most obviously Stanislaw Lem‘s masterpiece, Solaris. The idea seems similar, even though in Lem’s book it is the entire (conscious?) planet that produces these illusions, not, like in Friedman’s case, a kind of energy present on and specific to the planet, but having no will of its own. Lem also uses his concept for a different end, to prove a different point: in the Coldfire, despite the specific environment, it becomes possible for humans – partly thanks to the existence of the fae – to contact the alien force present on the planet and to communicate with it against all odds, something that is impossible in the world of Lem’s novel.

One of the most fascinating ideas in the Coldfire Trilogy is the development of the rakh. From what we know, the rakh may have never evolve to the position of an intelligent (and dangerous!) species, at least not that quickly, if it wasn’t for the humans, perceiving them an intelligent indigenous species. Humans, whose will and unconsciousness may interact with the fae, have virtually made the rakh evolve into what they imagined them to be, and then, as humans unfortunately turn out to do all the time, having created the “monsters” they started to fight them with all their might. In Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms one may find an interesting parallell: an alien planet, colonized by humans, which causes numerous changes in the evolution of local life forms. The actual process looks different (and much less plausible) in Card’s book and the association seems rather accidental, but the main theme – a human intervention, altering the course of processes that normally take an extremely long time – remains similar.

As for the characters… as for the characters, there are even more interesting parallels to be explored. So, first things first, let us start with, unsurprisingly,  Gerald Tarrant. Leaving aside the suggested Faustian elements in his characteristic, I would like to concentrate on some other traits of his characterization. My guess would be that in constructing this character the author had in mind mostly all kinds of traditional vampire stories. Let us then enumerate some (less obvious) associations and similarities.
Gerald is explicitely called vampire by Karrill. If in need, he drinks blood, like every vampyric creature we meet in both literature and movies. Like some of them, he feasts on fear and negative feelings. Like nearly all, he fears sunlight and holy symbols (Fire, in this case) that may destroy him. Another feature that reminds the reader of vampires is the fact that he is specially bound with the soil of his “homeland”. The Forest is my power base,, Tarrant says to Damien in Crown of Shadows. Remember Dracula’s coffin, filled with Transylvanian soil, in Bram Stoker‘s novel?
Obviously, like Dracula, Tarrant can both turn himself into an animal and control animals (in the Forest). More interestingly, all the association of vampires with (twisted) sexuality seem fully justified in this particular case (see for example the scenes with Narrilka at the end of Black Sun Rising). And, last but not least, the way he is presented may once again to some point remind the reader of Dracula – but this time the Dracula of Francis Ford Coppola‘s masterpiece movie. Stoker’s Dracula is a mighty enemy and a disgusting monster. Coppola turned this traditional picture into something new. He presented the Count as a great warrior and strategist, who rebelled againts God after what he perceived a deep injustice: when he was fighting for the God’s glory, his wife died. True, he becomes a bloodthirsty monster, yet he never loses his greatness and finally, due to the love of Mina Harker, he earns God’s forgiveness and salvation. Sound familiar, doesn’t it? Once again, the association is probably accidental, but it might point at some common (uncoscious?) motif underlying both creations – a Romantic/Byronic hero, an individual great in both his merits and his sins, rebelling against the world, perhaps?

Damien Vryce is another problem. A friend of mine, having read some 40 pages of Black Sun Rising, has stated that he seemed to her a typical RPG hero with his sword and his horse and the need to look for adventures just for the sake of looking for them. Well, that’s certainly a plausible first impression… completely wrong, as it turns out.
What was relatively easy with Gerald, seems much more difficult with Damien. On one hand, he does remind the reader of the warriors-priests from David Eddings’ Elenium or some RPG systems. On the other, he is very different from them – the choices that he makes, alliances he decides for and finally his ability to accept and embrace the changes in the world he lives in… it all makes him a character more complicated and psychologically developed than his RGP “counterparts”.

Leaving behind (for now!) all other characters, let us turn for a moment to a short analysis allusions and quasi-quotations that may be found in The Coldfire Trilogy. C. S. Friedman herself stated (see Merentha for more details) that the names of the cities on the border of the Forest come from various names of evil and dangerous gods. Among the “real” ones, i.e. known from various mythologies, one may also find a city named Morgot, after, most obviously, J. R. R. Tolkien‘s Morgoth, the Valar who rebelled against Illuvatar and became a counterpart of Lucifer for Arda and the Middle Earth. Another interesting allusion we may find in When True Night Falls, when the crew of the ship (including Damien and the Hunter) meets the shallow water-demons, named after some legend as old as the Earth. They are sirens… and they are exactly like the sirens that Odysseus meets in Book 12 of The Odyssey: they feed on human flesh and create beautiful and lethally dangerous images, using one’s hidden desires. How could one prevent their “attack”? For some time, it is enough to remain bound, with one’s ears blocked:

Meanwhile the trim ship sped swiftly on to the island of the Seirenes, wafted still be the favouring breeze. Then of a sudden the wind dropped and everything became hushed and still, because some divinity lulled the waters. My men stood up, furled the sails and stowed them in the ship’s hold, then sat at the thwarts and made the sea white with their polished oars of fir. I myself, with my sharp sword, cut a great round of wax into little pieces and set about kneading them with all the strength I had. Under my mighty hands, and under the beams of the lordly sun-god whose father is Hyperion, the wax quickly began to melt, and with it I sealed all my comrades’ ears in turn. Then they bound me fast, hand and foot, with the rope-ends tied to the mast itself, then again sat down and dipped their oars in the whitening sea. But them, the Seirenes saw the quick vessel near them and raised their voices in high clear notes : `Come hither, renowned Odysseus, hither, you pride and glory of all Achaea! Pause with your ship; listen to our song. Never has nay man passed this way in his dark vessel and left unheard the honey-sweet music from our lips; first he has taken his delight, then gone on his way a wiser man. We know of all the sorrows in the wide land of Troy that Argives and Trojans bore because the gods would needs have it so; we know all things that come to pass on the fruitful earth.’
So they sang with their lovely voices, and my heart was eager to listen still. I twitched my brows to sign to the crew to let me go, but they leaned to their oars and rowed on; Eurylokhos and Perimedes quickly stood up and bound me with more ropes and with firmer hold. But when they had rowed well past the Seirenes–when music and words could be heard no more–my trusty comrades were quick to take out the wax that had sealed their ears, and to rescue and unbind myself.
[source]

To this one may add at least one Biblical allusion, when Damien and Tarrant make a joke, apparently understandable only to them, about parting the waters, pointing at Moses’s God-inspired action in Exodus.
And, finally, the Undying Prince: a man who has achieved immortality by separating his essence – his soul – from the body. This, for a change, is an old motif taken from folk tales. It is of special importance in Russian folklore, where the entire “genre” of stories of that kind exists. These stories tell about a mighty and wicked sorcerer (usually called Koschei the Undying or Koschei the Deathless) who hides his soul in objects such as a needle in an egg hidden high on the tree; only when the object is found and destroyed, the sorcerer dies.

Now I would like to look for a moment at an inspiration that the author herself suggests. There is a novel (two of them, in fact) that Celia Friedman metions among her favourite ones here and calls it one of the best vampire novels ever written; it is Barbara Hambly‘s Those who Hunt the Night (called, in the European editions, Immortal Blood) and its 1995 sequel, Travelling with the Dead. Both are among the best species of paranormal detective story (for a lack of a better genre description) and feature characters that share some qualities with both Coldfire protagonists. I would like to concentrate here on the characterization, and especially on the characters of Tarrant and Ysidro, stressing three things: firstly, the looks and behaviour of both of them, secondly – their worldviews, and, last but not least, the relatioship between Tarrant and Ysidro on one hand and the other protagonists  of their respective novels on the other.

At the heart of Hambly’s novel stands an uneasy alliance of two unwilling cooperators: an ex-spy, Oxford professor James Asher and a proud, aristocratic, four-hundred-year-old vampire, don Simon Ysidro – and the pattern may seem familiar to every reader of the Coldfire trilogy. Tarrant and Ysidro share a number of physical qualities, enough for a reader familiar with one of them to have a vague feeling of recollection when confronted with the other. Both are tall, fair-haired and slender, with delicate features, pale eyes and long-fingered hands. Both also tend to dress in the style that seems to the human protagonists slighty obsolete and archaic; nevertheless, the clothes both of them wear point immediately at the fact that we are dealing with someone both rich and elegant, paying a lot of attention to their looks. While these features may well be elements belonging to a certain type of character not seldom occuring in fiction (think Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford, for one), what seems interesting is an element of the more detailed description of both characters’ behaviour.

Damien Vryce and James Asher notice from the beginning that their undead allies move with the grace of wild, dangerous animals (Ysidro being compared to a cat, Tarrant to both a cat and a snake), although this might simply be a more general quality of a vampire. They also share some gestures and typical facial expressions: a trace of ironic smile that Damien starts to notice only after having spent some time with Tarrant and James sees from the beginning of his acquintance with Ysidro, or dark amusement, the most obvious reaction of both Tarrant and Ysidro to the problems of their mortal cooperators. Interestingly, both the undead characters from Friedman’s and Hambly’s novels, while looking seemingly perfectly human, have in their looks something that hints at the fact that they have lost their humanity, or majority of it, long ago. There are, however, the moments when from behind the perfectly beautiful, inhuman facade one can see a spark of Tarrant’s or Ysidro’s former human identity. In most cases this is caused by emotions: love, compassion, friendship. And while both the characters revel in their inhumanity and proudly declare themselves non-humans, it seems obvious that – especially in Tarrant’s case – such a behaviour often seems to contain a hint of irony and just a little bit of self-torture. Interestingly, both of them are religious and both seem very much convinced that by choosing such a walk of life they have ensured that in case of meting their death they are both condemned and guaranteed a certain place in Hell. At the same time, both Tarrant and Ysidro claim full responsibility for the murders they have committed to survive; both also seem to regret those murders, yet at the same time be fully aware that if they were given the choice once again, they would have chosen just the same. yet both cling to the last vestiges of their humanity and both, under the influence of friendship and love, start manifesting the need for this humanity more openly, even if it is dangerous: Simon gives up on killing humans (essential for his survival), when he travels with Lydia Asher to Istanbul, just like Tarrant does on his final fateful journey to Mt. Shaitan.

Tarrant as well as Ysidro count among the oldest (un)living creatures in their respective worlds, and yet they have both adapted surprisingly well to the new era: Tarrant might speak with slight contempt about new customs and Ysidro – have his misgivings concerning trains, but none of them shares the problems of Anne Rice‘s vampire Armand (or rather his movie version). For the Romantic heroes that they are, they both have surprisingly good orientation in economy and business matters, being able to profit from more modern forms of economy and earn enough to be able to get whatever they need, first and foremost – complete privacy. They also share intellectual inclinations, having their houses filled with books and notes, as both are aware that after hundreds of years of accumulating knowledge it is difficult to rely only on memory.

Tarrant, a member of Ernan elite and a person of importance in king Gannon’s court, is an aristocrat born, just like the Spanish grand and king Philip II courtier, Ysidro, and they do share a number of qualities commonly associated in literature with aristocratic origins; namely, both seem proud, vain and self-assured: it is enough to look at Tarrant’s reaction to Damien’s initial threats or Ysidro’s amusement at the thought that Asher could be a danger to him. Here we touch one more interesting feature of the characters: a relation between the two undead protagonists and the two mortal main characters of their respective novels. The acquintance of Tarrant and Vryce, as well as that of Asher and Ysidro, starts with threats and forced, unwilling cooperation, filled with mutual distrust despite the apparent need to work together. Both Damien Vryce and James Asher are strongly convinced that it is their duty towards the human society to finally try and destroy the undead allies they cooperate with, being at the same time perfectly aware that such a mission may prove suicidal. And, most interestingly of all, both Damien and James realize at some point that while their undead companions do remain monsters, it is hard not to feel a certain kind of liking and respect for them. The cooperation and mutual loyalty form a background for unlikely understanding and friendship, which makes Asher hope that Ysidro has survived the Istanbul massacre and causes Damien to weep over Tarrant’s death in Crown of Shadows. While both Ysidro and Tarrant feed on humans,  they both, to some extend, fall for mortal women: Tarrant is certainly fascinated with Narilka Lessing and Ysidro falls in love with James Asher’s wife Lydia, who, in some strange way, reciprocates his feelings. Both are also portrayed as sexually attractive, despite their vampiric nature, but this seems to belong to the tradition of the genre (one can detect a long shadow of Anne Rice here) *. Both Tarrant and Ysidro, let me add, are also able to make great sacrifices for the cause they believe in.

Yet despite all these similarities one can notice significant differences in the treatment of undead characters in Barbara Hambly’s series and The Coldfire Trilogy. For one, the caliber of Ysidro’s sins and crimes is relatively small when compared to Tarrant’s. While Ysidro’s problems are mostly relevant to the small vampire world, Friedman puts her character firmly within the context of crucial religious, moral and political struggles of his world. And, most importantly, Tarrant’s personality is crucial to the final develompent of the story in the way that Ysidro’s isn’t. Without Tarrant being as he is, without his internal conflicts and his tormented soul, without his pride, he and Damien would never come up with this particular way of defeating Calesta. And while the characters of Hambly’s series and The Coldfire Trilogy do share a number of qualities, it only shows how intelligently Celia Friedman can rework and embellish the motifs and themes already present in the tradition of the genre and how, while paying hommage to her favourite books, she can be truly creative. The above examples are just sketches and fragments of the bigger picture. They show, to some extend, what links could be drawn between the works of Celia Friedman and the tradition of literature, not only SF/fantasy. By analysing the way these allusions and inspirations function in her works, one may show how original and creative a writer Celia Friedman is.


* Let me remind you that this was written before the explosion of paranormal romance popularity, when the notion that a vampire, despite his/her erotic appeal, does not have a living body and thus cannot perform a sexual act was rather a commonplace in literature, with Anne Rice being probably a most notable exception. It all changed, obviously, with the increasing popularity of all kinds of Anita Blake/Sookie Stackhouse/Bella Swan stories and now it is more common to represent a vampire having sex, getting married or even having children…

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