1977: All roads to nowhere

Review: Circle of Light, by Niel Hancock


Not long ago, Tor Books released a new edition of the Circle of Light tetralogy, but Niel Hancock continues to be a rather obscure author. It is difficult to understand, or even to remember, the fanfare that attended the series’ first publication. These were perhaps the first books ever to proclaim their author a new Tolkien on the frontcovers: ‘A magnificent saga for all who love THE LORD OF THE RINGS!’ In fact the resemblances are few and feeble, but it was a portent of worse things to come.

Of the books that kicked off the fantasy boom of 1977, these were the only ones not published by Lester del Rey. Fawcett released them as paperback originals under their Popular Library imprint. Five years later, Fawcett was merged with Ballantine, but even then Hancock’s books were not received into the Del Rey catalogue. Instead they were reissued by Warner Books, simultaneously again, in December, 1982. Warner kept the absurd front-cover hype, merely adding their own in a white medallion: ‘THE BESTSELLING SERIES—OVER ONE MILLION IN PRINT!’ By del Rey’s standards that was a paltry sale, and the books did not at all fit the Procrustean template that he was imposing on the field. He seems not to have wanted Circle of Light at any price.

It would be difficult to blame him. Circle of Light is quite definitely a period piece, the work of a Vietnam veteran with a head full of the fuzzy and Californiated Buddhism that was popular at the time. The series has few real affinities in the fantasy genre, but bears a strong family resemblance to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It has also been compared with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, but Le Guin, an altogether harder-headed writer, has little patience with cod Eastern mysticism. What she says in ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’ might be applied to Circle of Light without serious injustice:

Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up.

All you do is take all the sex out, and use little short words and little dumb ideas, and don’t be too scary, and be sure there’s a happy ending. Right? Nothing to it. Write down. Right on.

If you do all that, you might even write Jonathan Livingston Seagull and make twenty billion dollars and have every adult in America reading your book!

But you won’t have every kid in America reading your book. They will look at it, and they will see straight through it, with their clear, cold, beady little eyes, and they will put it down, and they will go away. Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: they have not yet learned to eat plastic.

Hancock intended Circle of Light as a children’s story, and filled it with the kind of condescending tweeness that one finds in books of prettily expurgated fairytales. Like Donaldson, he seems to have earned a lot of rejections before he found a home for his primum opus. Then some gentle editor at Fawcett took him aside and informed him politely that children do not read 400,000-word epics, and the story would have to find an adult audience or none at all. (This was before Harry Potter stood that particular egg on end. Amazon now recommends the series for nine- to twelve-year-olds.) So the manuscript was chopped into four pieces, each was given a more or less arbitrary title, and the whole set was rushed into print just in time to cash in on the boom in epic fantasy.

Comparatively few people have read Circle of Light, so a summary may be in order. As it begins, a bear, an otter, and a dwarf, who by convenient happenstance are called Bear, Otter, and Dwarf, are leaving their old homes in the Meadows of the Sun beyond the river known as Calix Stay. Calix Stay is, of course, death; it is the River Styx, and possibly Lethe, and also the river leading out of samsara in Buddhist tradition. Hancock seems to have named his river after the Latin for chalice, one of the recurrent Christian touches in his peculiar brand of syncretism. The Meadows of the Sun are the afterlife, or an afterlife; or, rather, an in-between-life, because Atlanton Earth is one of these places with seemingly endless cycles of reincarnation. It is also the battleground between Lorini, queen of the Light, and her twin sister Dorini, queen of Darkness. Hancock has no marked gift for names.

Apart from a few conventional and tacked-on character traits, a certain silly playfulness in Otter, a certain grumpiness and an insatiable appetite in Bear, Hancock’s animals do not exhibit any really animal qualities. Even more than the animals in The Wind in the Willows, they are human souls in animal skins, and rather censored and edited souls at that. Bear is a vegetarian, as far as we can tell, and Otter seems never to have heard of fish. They both live chiefly on tea and honey, jam sandwiches, and suchlike rubbish. In the early chapters where these three peculiar heroes are merely fending for themselves, establishing their characters and indulging in Hancock’s equivalent of ‘too much Hobbit talk’, they can be unbearably cutesy and Winnie-the-Pooh-ish — but without the charm and brevity that made Pooh such a success. For the first couple of hundred pages, Tonstant Weader was tonstantly fwowing up. After he ran out of raw material and settled down to an occasional attack of dry heaves, he got along better.

Bear, Otter, and Dwarf go down to Calix Stay to cross it back into the lands of the living: not, as so often before, to begin a new life, but to appear full-grown and ready for heroism on the other side. It is not so much a reincarnation as a resurrection, or the return of Arthur from Avalon. In fact very like the last: for while it is never quite made explicit, our three protagonists seem to be the reincarnation of their respective peoples’ greatest legendary heroes.

They are met on the other side by an old wizard named Greyfax Grimwald and a young one named Faragon Fairingay, two members of the eponymous Circle. Greyfax is an obvious copy of Gandalf, both in name and in temperament; so obvious, in fact, that Hancock does not trouble to describe his appearance. He even does fireworks, though we are spared a demonstration. Faragon bears a very superficial resemblance to Aragorn: he has been hopelessly in love with Lorini’s daughter Cybelle from time out of mind. He is known to the vulgar (sc. nearly everyone still living) by the improbable name of Froghorn. I have never been able to read that name without thinking of Foghorn Leghorn, and it is a curious fact that whenever I try to picture any scene from Circle of Light in my mind, it generally comes up as an animated cartoon. (The ghastly cover art may be an influence in this.) Faragon, or Froghorn, is a ‘nice, I say nice boy, but about as sharp as a bag of wet mice.’ But I have already said that Hancock lacks the gift of names; let us not harp on it.

After a preliminary adventure in the decayed Dwarf-mansions of Tubal Hall (an Old Testament reference and a touch of Moria), the three heroes settle in a well-wooded and bucolic valley (previously used, I think, as a stage-set for Narnia) and compose themselves to wait for the wizards’ return. Some fifteen years go by before Froghorn turns up with a maguffin called the Arkenchest (another O.T. reference and a touch of the Arkenstone). This little box is frightfully important: if it falls into Dorini’s hands, Atlanton Earth will fall, with the usual dire consequences. It was originally used to hold the Five Secrets of Windameir, which alone can save the world from Dorini’s malice. Atlanton Earth is positively infested with armies and wizards, to say nothing of Lorini’s court in the secret and impenetrable realm of Cypher: therefore it makes perfect sense to give the Arkenchest to a defenceless manikin and his pixillated animal friends for safekeeping.

Of course Dwarf is captured by one of Dorini’s most dread servants, who for some unfathomable reason is named Cakgor. Fortunately Cakgor is stupid as well as evil, and whisks Dwarf away to his mistress’s frozen lair in the World Between Time (I am not making up any of these names) without first making sure that he has the Arkenchest on his person. Dwarf accidentally frees himself by the power of the Secret he carries, that is, by shouting it from the housetops without knowing what it is; after which it somehow remains as secret as it was before. By the time he gets back to the valley, he finds that Bear and Otter have taken off in search of yet another wizard: just in the nick of time, for Cakgor has been back for a visit and burnt the whole place to the ground.

This third wizard is named Mithramuse (another echo of Gandalf), but at present he is working incognito as General George Greymouse. Greymouse’s army is one of several scattered here and there about the chartless hills and plains of Atlanton Earth. We are never quite sure what this army is defending, where the attackers are coming from, or indeed how any of them keep themselves fed. Bear, Otter and Dwarf pass through a ruined town or two, but apart from that the countryside seems entirely desolate. Greymouse’s men are armed with rifle and cannon, but there is no hint of a powder-factory, a munitions dump, or even a supply train. They are under attack from various subhuman or near-human nasties, called Gorgolacs and Worlughs, and perhaps a dragon or two. One sept or tribe of the Worlughs are called Ashgnazi: an echo perhaps of the inscription on the One Ring (ash nazg durbatulûk, etc.), and certainly of Nazi, but with an unfortunate echo of Ashkenazi as well. One almost wonders if Hancock is a closet antisemite — or perhaps a Sephardic snob.

On their several ways to meet Greymouse (with Bear and Otter in human disguise, and let there be no Victor/Victoria jokes), the three acquire human sidekicks with names like Cranfallow, Flewingam, and Ned Thinvoice. These remind one of the token rankers in Henry the Fifth, or of Corporal Trim. Cranfallow and Thinvoice are stolid but fearful fellows with comical accents; Flewingam seems a step higher on the social scale. They finally meet Greymouse, in spite of the brute bureaucratic stupidity of his staff-officers (for Hancock was a Vietnam veteran, and it shows in his depiction of army life), just in time to join in a titanic battle, which more or less ends in a draw. The leading characters are separated from the army during the fray, and end up being rescued and whisked away to the safe haven of Cypher. Much hugger-mugger and artificial tension ensues, with armies moving to and fro in the wasteland while more and more enemies come to bear against them, and Dorini and her consort gloat and cackle and hatch plots in the background.

A couple of hundred pages later, our three heroes set out on a hopelessly quixotic mission to bring relief to the besieged forces of Melodias Starson, another wizard-cum-general. They escape with the skin of their teeth, trying to take the Arkenchest to safety by a magical crossing of Calix Stay, and the story becomes comparatively simple again. Bear, Otter, Dwarf & Co. are captured by the scouts of a condottiere with the unlikely name of Garius Brosingamene, Tenth Watcher of Amerigin. Garius’s camp seems rather like a nineteenth-century U.S. Army fort that has somehow been cut off from civilization for several generations, and Garius himself is an odd cross between the One True King in Hiding and a cavalry colonel. They become involved in the fifteenth act of a melodramatic tragedy involving Garius and his (unacknowledged) mother, until a fresh invasion of uglies settles the dispute by killing all the disputants. Again our heroes escape, this time into an abandoned subterranean city of the dwarfs, where various disasters ensue. They never reach the magical crossing of the river, but instead cross in the old-fashioned way, by being killed.

Meanwhile Cypher has turned out to be less impenetrable than advertised. Dorini sets up for business in the ruins of Lorini’s court, holding the captured Cybelle for ransom, and sends yet more armies across Calix Stay to conquer the afterlife itself. There an elf-lord named Tyron has set himself up as an independent king, striking a pact of neutrality with Dorini, which ends, predictably enough, with his betrayal and destruction. Meanwhile Dwarf, dizzy with the power of the Arkenchest, and probably also a bit disoriented by his recent death, succumbs to delusions of grandeur and tries to set himself up as an independent king. The survivors of the Circle agree to exchange the Arkenchest for Cybelle. Dorini has won, evil is triumphant, darkness descends upon Atlanton Earth, and then—

And then the deus pops out of the machina. When opened, the Arkenchest affects Dorini rather as the Ark of the Covenant affected the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.Except that she is not destroyed, but merged into a single entity with Lorini: ‘I am simply the Truth of the Five Secrets, the five forces of Love. My name is Faith, and Hope, and Forgiveness, and Charity, and Humility,’ she says, as Hancock performs another genuflection towards Christianity in his syncretist gospel. This new character is as like Lorini as no matter, and nothing like Dorini; so that how Dorini’s fate differs from destruction must be left as an exercise for the reader. It turns out that the very Gorgolacs and Worlughs are humans, corrupted by Dorini, and by the gradual erosion of too many reincarnations without any good home cooking from Windameir. Now everyone without exception can be saved and returned to the Lord of Windameir from whom they first came, and nothing remains but the long and tedious job of cleaning up the mess. Bear, Otter, and Dwarf are offered full membership in the Circle, for their help will be greatly needed in the reconstruction; or perhaps not, for when they refuse they are told they have learnt their lessons and can go up to Windameir at once.

In short, the entire plot has been a gigantic cheat. It never mattered an ounce whether the Good Guys won or lost. They could have settled the whole difficulty at any time just by surrendering, letting themselves be killed, and giving up the Secrets to Dorini. Coming after more than a thousand paperback pages, this may just be the worst anticlimax in all of fiction. The story arrives in mid-air, then falls at your feet with a sodden thud. All the striving, the searching, the fighting, the dying, the desperate resistance, served no purpose but to give people a few good sound moral lessons so that they might return to Windameir a little sooner. It would have been better for all concerned if they had refused the extra credit and let the rest of the class catch up.

For in the end Circle of Light turns out to be, not an allegory as such, but almost as pure a psychodrama as the Thomas Covenant books. It is a book with a message, and the odd thing is that it lies about the message until the last minute. Despite the frequent clumsiness of Hancock’s writing, and some hideously twee moments when he is writing down to his intended juvenile audience, one does come to have some fellow-feeling with the characters, if only because one has read and suffered with them so long. To find out that they were wrong about everything, and all their efforts wasted, is a gross betrayal. The story points firmly to a moral, and then preaches the opposite.

The implicit moral can be viewed in either Buddhist or Christian terms. The Lord of Windameir is clearly God; the Five Secrets turn out to be good solid Christian virtues, although you would never guess it by observing the behaviour of those, like Dwarf and Tyron, who keep them. Courage, determination, persistence, self-sacrifice, honesty, all are held up to our admiring view; their opposite vices are caricatured in a way that makes Snidely Whiplash look like a realistic villain. On the other hand, the reincarnations, the repeated crossings of Calix Stay, and some of the words of wisdom proffered by the various wizards, definitely point towards the Buddhist idea of seeking after nirvana, and the necessity of self-denial and right conduct in order to achieve it. But when you put the two together, as he does in constructing the explicit moral at the end, you get a recipe for utter indifferentism. The two systems do not mix like oil and water, but like red paint and green paint. In the end Light and Dark are both dismissed, and everything is reduced to the same dirty colour.

In Hancock’s system everyone is bound to be saved in the end, whether slowly or quickly, whether they like it or not. Since you have all eternity before you, and it is never too late to change your ways (and inevitable that you eventually will), it matters not at all if in this lifetime you indulge all your most selfish and destructive passions. If every road leads to your destination, it makes no difference which road you choose; and if you can take as long as you like to get there, you can tarry at the roadside, or in the gutter, until your bones rot. In a world with reincarnation, you will only be given a new set of bones anyway. Dorini herself is saved, in a manner of speaking, though evil to the marrow and rebellious to the end.

But in fact not all roads lead to the same destination. Even in the days when, as it was said, all roads led to Rome, it was equally true that all roads led away from Rome. You could journey to the Eternal City or to the outer darkness of barbarism, depending on which way you were facing. There is such a thing as going in the wrong direction. We can choose to reject the good, or reject necessary parts of the good in our greed to have others more congenial to our appetites; and that only takes us further from our goal. We can even (I have known some who prided themselves upon it) choose to make depravity our goal, and reject the very idea of good. Whatever may be true of Lorini and Dorini, we mortals cannot be redeemed or perfected without ourselves making an effort of will. If Christ and Buddha agreed about nothing else, they agreed about that. ‘Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it’; and on the other hand, ‘Hard is it to meet with a Buddha in the world. Hard is it to attain to the state of a human being. Hard is it to find a fit opportunity. Hard is it to abandon the world.’

But nothing is hard in Hancock’s world; or rather, all effort is unnecessary and misguided. The ending, in effect, turns Circle of Light into a Universalist tract. Now Universalism was long ago defined as a heresy, not because the Church wanted any souls to be damned, but because it is logically impossible to prove that none will be. Lewis expressed the problem pithily in The Pilgrim’s Regress: ‘It is meaningless to talk of forcing a man to do freely what a man has freely made impossible for himself.’ You can get round this in various ways, either by denying the existence of souls outright, or denying the freedom of the will; but either alternative is fatal to the art of fiction.

To win our sympathy, a fictional character must have the appearance of free will, and he must seem to have a soul. The art of fiction, as practised in our civilization (and a great many others), depends upon conflict and resolution. Atoms do not conflict, and automata cannot be resolved. We want to read about people who have something at stake, and who must overcome obstacles to secure it. If poorly told, the story will matter less to us than to the characters; but it can never matter more to us, however skilful the author. If the stakes are a swindle to the characters, they will be a swindle to the reader — unless the reader knows that the characters are being swindled. That is the technique of irony; but Circle of Light is not an ironic tale. It is told with every appearance of earnestness, and Hancock does exhibit a fair degree of skill in manipulating the reader’s emotions and providing dramatic tension. The fiddle-string is wound tighter and tighter, and we grit our teeth and wince in apprehension of the moment when it will break. But then the tuner cuts it with a pair of scissors, which he could have done at any time; and in any case it turns out that the string was not even a working part of the fiddle. The song can be played just as well without it. Why, then, all the show and pother about that unnecessary string? It is truly much ado about nothing.

The Wikipedia article on Niel Hancock suggests that his work has not found a mass audience (except in those heady early days, when the audience was so starved that The Sword of Shannara looked like a feast) because his philosophical preoccupations are not accessible to most readers. It is true that Buddhism is a smaller ingredient in the New Age stew than it once was. But almost any system of belief will sustain a commercially successful fantasy novel, if the author treats it seriously and is honest with his readers. Philip Pullman’s beliefs are completely antithetical to C.S. Lewis’s, but both men were quite capable of writing an engaging novel when they were true to the implications of their material, and both could write utter drivel when they were not. Even John Norman’s weird and contemptible beliefs are coherent enough to provide matter for a series of hackwork tales. Hancock was true to neither the Buddhist elements of his system nor the Christian ones. He tried to ride two horses at once, and not being a circus rider by training, fell between them.

Continue to Part 5 . . .


  1. I have not read much in this series, and what little bits I have read confirm your judgment on its style. But from what you describe of the plot, I see nothing Buddhist here: what I see is Universalist Christianity. Now no Universalist claims that it can be proved that no souls are condemned to eternal punishment, they simply hold that it is not consistent either with God’s power, God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s goodness, and God’s love to assert that, as a matter of fact, there are such souls. Who are we, in other words, to out-stubborn the Almighty? And if we can be saved, cannot the fallen angels be saved as well? Will they not in the end come to their right minds?

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