An Unclean Legacy: “Grinding Samael”

Once upon a time, the Devil came to Castle Gargamel and Violet walked out to meet him in the halls.

“Hello,” she said.

She was 11 years old. She was wearing striped pajamas, slippers, and a nightcap.

Dead old Baltasar turned to look at her. The shadow moved in him. He hissed at her.

“You’re keeping the children awake,” Violet said. “You’re scaring everybody. What do you want?”

Suddenly he was upon her. The grave-stench of him was in her face. He was pushing her back against the wall. And he said: Montechristien.

But Violet was not frightened.

“He can’t even hear you,” she said. “He’s still asleep in his rooms, and when you loom in the halls shrieking your terrors, he snores, like this: honk, kzhhh!”

You will give him to me.

“Or?”

I will take you instead. I will carry you off to the furthest corners of the world and there visit terrors and indignities upon you.

And Violet sagged in relief and laughed, a bright clear laugh.

Dead old Baltasar loomed in. He hissed softly and the smell of him was horrid.

“No,” Violet said smugly. “You won’t.”

Baltasar’s black eyes narrowed. Then, suddenly, he withdrew. He turned away. He stared down the hall.

It does not matter, he said. I will enter his rooms. I will pluck him up. I will destroy him. Then you will have no father and the children will tear their hair and pluck out their own eyes in sorrow.

“If you could do that,” said Violet, “then you would have.”

It turned.

Then I will eat Francescu, it said, and be satisfied thereby.

Violet stepped into its path, and then winced, visibly, because now it knew what she feared.

Dead old Baltasar reached out with his shadow arms. He lifted her up and held her against the wall. He walked past her towards the children’s rooms.

“Wait,” said Violet.

Wait?

“We’ll make a deal,” Violet said.

Give me Montechristien.

“No,” Violet said flatly.

There was a moment’s silence.

“Give me fifty years,” Violet said.

No.

They stood there, still, Violet pinned by shadow.

I will give you twenty years, the shadow said, for one of the little gold men.

“Twenty?”

Twenty years, and I will kill none of you in that time.

“I can’t—they’re father’s—”

They are stolen lives. Did you think that they were crafted? They were made from living men.

Violet looked sickened.

I need only one, said the sin of Montechristien Gargamel.

Violet was silent.

Very well.

The shadow dropped her. It moved on.

“Wait!” Violet screamed.

And she cut her thumb and pledged with the shadow, and the shadow left Castle Gargamel for a time.

In a time of wizards and kings, one name stood above the rest. He was Montechristien Gargamel.

He seized from the mushroom village one hundred of the blue essentials and transformed them into gold. From that time on his power was limitless. He broke the world and repaired it again. He dispensed terrible destinies and powers as if they were the most ordinary of gifts. And as the time of his death approached his children came to his Castle to dispose of the matter of their legacy.

Violet, his eldest and most dear, who had betrayed him before she was even half-grown.
Francescu, the deathless sorcerer, who had turned his back on the affairs of the world.
Manfred, the fallen knight, whose strength was legend and whose spear was magic’s bane.
Tomas the cruel, who had looked in his tenth year upon the face of God.
Christine, the mad sorceress, who wandered the world in her living house.
Sophie the skinchanger, soulless and Devil-tainted, and once the one Montechristien loved best.
Elisabet, the Devil’s child, a creature as much of shadow as of life.

In the hour of the end, each turned their hands against each other, and the halls of Castle Gargamel ran with blood. This is the twenty-second installment of the story of that time.

Sometime in her twenty-first year, Violet wakes with a start. There is a dampness and a darkness in her room.

A hand comes down over her mouth.

Its fingers are webbed and pale. She bites at the palm but due to the construction of the human mouth does not succeed.

“My name is Samael Saraman,” says the man in her room. “I have come to pay suit to you and bind our houses together in matrimony. But as I have heard that you grind up your suitors into a fine mist and expel them over Castle Gargamel, I do not wish to pay you court by conventional means.”

His fingers press against her neck. They form a magical seal. Violet finds herself unable to move.

Samael scoops her up. He walks to her window. He whistles.

There is a creature below. It is like a horse. It is like a serpent. It eddies its way up the wall and out Samael steps onto its arching neck.

“We will be wed by morning,” Samael says.

An Unclean Legacy


“Grinding Samael”

The beast descends the wall and Samael takes her away to the ruined cathedral by the Castle. There are squamous guards beside the door. There is a priest rousted from his bed by cold white fingers in the night.

Samael’s hand touches Violet’s neck. She is free to move.

“You are in error,” Violet says.

In Castle Gargamel there is a great threshing machine. It is in an isolated chamber and the blades spin lightly this way and that even when it is unpowered.

“Begin,” says Samael to the priest.

Above the threshing machine the Castle is open to the sky. Below it, there is a hole in the Castle’s stone floor.

“It’s a really bad error,” Violet says.

The priest looks uncomfortably between them. “I don’t—I don’t know—”

“It’s all right,” Violet says to the priest. She smiles.

Samael looks sideways at her.

“It is necessary,” Samael says.

So the priest begins to recite from the wedding ceremony. He stumbles his way through; until the guards bring Violet a ring of nickel and iron.

“Alas,” says Violet, as Samael puts the ring onto her finger.

In Castle Gargamel, the threshing machine spins to life. Pedals in a nearby room begin to pump, without feet on them. Levers lower themselves. The blades turn faster and faster.

“Alas?”

“I can’t get married,” Violet says. “I can’t get swept away. I have to take very special precautions if I even want to have sex.”

Samael looks oddly at her.

“Pronounce us man and wife,” he says, to the priest.

The priest says: “I—”

There are long creeping tendrils of eldritch power on the ground. They seize Samael’s legs. He looks down. He looks up.

The tendrils pull.

Samael is whisked away. He is dragged, and his hands come down nail to the ground to fight it, into Castle Gargamel. He thumps past the great barking dog and under the eyes of the watching statues. He passes Montechristien Gargamel, staggering through the Castle in his nightcap to find a midnight snack. Montechristien stares at him.

Samael is of the cold folk, and he does not scream.

The threshing machine reaches its fastest pitch as he enters that room. Samael is flung up among its spinning blades. They cut him into a fine black mist.

A series of great levers yank themselves downwards. There is a puff of wind from the hole in the floor below the threshing machine. The mist that is Samael flies up and out and hangs over Castle Gargamel in great clouds. He disperses; and the crops and livestock fare poorly that year in the lands around.

“Mom always told me,” Violet says, “that someday I’d find a man who would sweep me away. But back then, these horrible brats were always coming to the castle to woo me or Francescu, and . . . well, when my tenth birthday came around, I really hated boys.”

Does the autothreshing of suitors really count as a birthday present?

Who got the better deal: the shadow or Violet?

Tune in on Monday for the next exciting installment of An Unclean Legacy: “Francescu’s Angel!”

12 thoughts on “An Unclean Legacy: “Grinding Samael”

  1. I noticed a potential wogly-alert in this one. From “The Duel”:

    He’s mocking her, because Sophie is, of course, incapable of personal sin and grace.

    Sure, the Devil means to deceive, but this sentence seems to have been from the narrator, and narrators in Hitherby are usually reliable. The narrator in this entry also describes Sophie as being “soulless”, so it doesn’t seem like she has been fooled about that.

    Maybe Montchristien has been fooled by his abusive brother into thinking that he’s a twin without a soul, when he really has one? Seems unlikely, given various confirmations along the way and M.’s own powers to detect his own state. But in this entry the narrator describes the shadow as “the sin of Montechristien Gargamel”. That would mean that soulless beings in this universe could commit or have sins after all. What did I miss?

    As before, when I noticed it in the entry with the mini-people attacking the perfection beast, I’m bothered by the way that Turing-test-passing creatures without souls exist in Hitherby, and how in some sense both they and the people who want to use them for their own ends tend to agree that this use is in some sense justified by their soullessness. This seems like a very bad metaphor if applied to real-world interactions between people (where “soullessness” might be used as a metaphor for some kind of psychological problem). On the other hand, if this metaphorical element is eliminated, then it seems to produce stories in which the reader responds to a false heuristic — I would say that of course the reader would be likely to feel sympathy for Vanity (not because blue intentions are more important than others, but because Vanity appears to be a living person) and Sophie. But once you postulate a universe in which soullessness really exists, the user can haul out their soul-o-matic soul detector and say that look, their use of the soulless is justified by an actual confirmable physical/metaphysical difference. It becomes “just physics” as the Devil says when he explains why Sophie doesn’t have a soul (and I find it troubling also that this may be an echo of the phrase “pure physics” in Essay Without Shame). I suppose that this might be a sort of thought experiment, like a proof in non-Euclidean geometry, but its importance within the story and its relationship with possible metaphors to real people always makes me uneasy with it.

  2. I suppose that this might be a sort of thought experiment, like a proof in non-Euclidean geometry, but its importance within the story and its relationship with possible metaphors to real people always makes me uneasy with it.

    Have you head of “philosophical zombies”?

    Also, I should probably mention that non-Euclidean geometry is actually quite useful in certain areas of physics. It doesn’t happen to describe much in our day-to-day universe, but there are things going on behind the scenes that it describes very well…

  3. If memory serves, the idea of the metaphysical zombie has been brought up in Hitherby before. Of course, this being Hitherby Dragons, they also ate brains…

    But yeah. The idea of the metaphysical zombie is really one that you have to consider when dealing with the Problem of Other Minds, which is generally connected to most people’s ideas of what souls are.

    -Eric

  4. Hitherby tends to use “soulless” as a technical term, although the definition varies a bit from legend to legend and certainly from legend to history.

    I suspect that tribal cultures in the world of An Unclean Legacy could consider their soulless children special and blessed, giving them a shaman/holy fool-type social role with a focus on challenging the prevailing moral norms.

    However, Sophie grew up surrounded by insincere practitioners of pseudo-Medieval Christianity, so there’s a bit more guilt.

    Rebecca

  5. well, even today, certain christian sects believe that gentiles are soulless creatures, and that only the descendants of adam & eve have souls. So, really, its not that impossible. Hitherby has to at least accept the possibility, before denying it as without merit.

  6. Montechristien and Sophie are not soulless in the same way that blue essentials are soulless. They share a soul with their twins.

    From ‘The Blessing Beyond Price’: “Dear child,” said Gargamel, “it is a blessing beyond price. Look: you may do as you like, and suffer no damnation. It will not matter what you have chosen, so long as Christine is saved. In all the world, only twins like you and I may know no consequence.”

    They are in some sense sharing the soul of their respective twins. Remember that the devil is in the form of Baltasar, who was dragged away by the burning gods. Baltasar had sinned, and Montechristien will be damned based on those sins.

    I think this means that the line ‘I need only one, said the sin of Montechristien Gargamel.’ refers to Baltasar’s sin. And that Montechristien will be dragged to the burning hells when he dies unless he can do something spectacular to prevent it. Montechristien is damned not for anything he did, but for what Baltazar did.

    Given how Baltasar has turned out, being a soulless twin turns out not to be a blessing as much as it is a curse. You can shed the responsibility, but you also lose all control. A lousy bargain in my book.

  7. Thanks to everyone for responding. A few brief notes to each of you:

    cariset and Eric, I understand what you’re saying in terms of the general category of thought experiments. Whatever they are, though, the soulless twins in this story aren’t metaphysical zombies; the narratiion describes both Sophie and Montechristien as thinking, describes some of their thought process, refers to them giving honest answers or lying, etc., none of which metaphysical zombies (which act and speak, but do not think) can do.

    Rebecca, I’m somewhat reassured. There’s such a history of “soullessness” being used problematically as GoldenH says and in a pseudo-psychological context that it’s good to have it confirmed that when people treat e.g. Sophie badly because she’s soulless, it’s them acting badly, not them reacting to an unfortunate but real metaphysical condition that justifies their acting badly.

    duerig, I think you’ve got it, but I guess I was confused by the phrasing. It can’t really be “the sin of Montechristien Gargamel”, because he can’t sin, although he can be damned. He’s going to suffer the results of his twin’s sin, but that doesn’t quite seem like the same thing as the sin being his.

    Anyways, sorry for derailing the discussion of this entry. To get back to it, a lot of Montechristien’s birthday gifts really look similar to the faerie gifts that people are always asking for in fairy tales that never work out the way they expected. I think it’s really a poor parenting decision of Montechristien’s to give them out to unsuspecting ten-year-olds who don’t have the adult experience or judgement to make these life-defining choices. Let’s see: Manfred’s was bad, Francescu’s looks like a dead end, Violet’s is pretty bad if she ever does meet someone she wants to settle down with, Tomas’s has either screwed him up or given him the extra arrogance to really empower his cruelty, Christine’s was a sort of babyhood misfire, Sophie’s seems pretty bad, and … we haven’t found out about Elisabet’s, have we?

  8. Of them all, Violet’s seems (so far) to have screwed her up the least, perhaps because it’s the least far-reaching.

  9. cariset and Eric, I understand what you’re saying in terms of the general category of thought experiments. Whatever they are, though, the soulless twins in this story aren’t metaphysical zombies; the narratiion describes both Sophie and Montechristien as thinking, describes some of their thought process, refers to them giving honest answers or lying, etc., none of which metaphysical zombies (which act and speak, but do not think) can do.

    It was more of a tangential remark – it seemed like a parallel system, which might resemble soullessness in form if not content. Although upon further reflection, the nature of the difference means that the thought experiments must also differ – with p-zombies, we look at the actions of others, but with the soulless, we look at their own actions as well. Though there is still some parallelism, in that it might be OK for others to react differently to the soulless than to the ensouled…

    For example, if someone’s actions don’t affect anyone’s state of salvation/damnation, then (as per Rebecca’s example), it’d be OK to put them in a (potentially unpleasant) situation, where putting someone with a soul into that situation would result in some amount of damnation for them, and thus would result in some amount of damnation for the one doing the putting. (Assuming, of course, that salvation/damnation works probabilistically, or that there may not necessarily be a correct action in all situations.)

  10. But once you postulate a universe in which soullessness really exists, the user can haul out their soul-o-matic soul detector and say that look,

    And that universe is the D&D universe, where detecting evil is reliable and easy, so that evil creatures (they’re not people!) can be killed. And have their stuff taken.

    Perhaps another D&Dism: the four realms, blue, purple, onyx and red. Do they correspond to the D&D alignments?

  11. Yes, check out the amusing second half of the Merin here. (Well, both halves are amusing, but the second half is the one I mean.) I think of this aspect as one of the worst parts of Tolkien to survive into D&D, all of those genocide-worthy unchangeably-evil orcs. I’m not one of the people who thinks that evil doesn’t exist, but I don’t think that people are born evil, and the possibility of simple detection of inarguable objective evil would really quickly encourage everyone to turn into Tomas. There’s a reason why there seems to be a (mostly British?) fantasy reaction that identifies orcs with various more-or-less sympathetic (or at least vigorous) elements of the lower class.

    Less seriously, I think this is an aesthetic problem as well. As I tried to say somewhat confusedly in the thread here, I think that attempted single resolutions are problematic as art. This can sometimes happen when the author is trying to force a certain limited emotional reaction in the reader (see Umberto Eco’s _The Open Work_: he uses the example of a Greek statue that could be art when standing by itself but kitsch when placed at the entrance to a cemetary in order to indicate that grieving is now in order). It is different with regard to plot, but the problem is that ontological assurance tends to creep into plot. (In other words, “The orcs attacked the village, and then we killed them” works much better as a plot summary with the implied support of a detect evil spell.) It was probably the wrong thing to do to bring this up in the context of Rebecca’s part of Exalted, which is definitely not overly defined, but …

    (Anyone who wants to point out that my own opinionated, verbose qualities tend to conflict with my aesthetic/ethical ideals may be assured that I am aware of this. I really felt sympathy for Manfred when both his demon and his angel agreed that he had the inclination to be a bully.)

    Anyways, I don’t think that the four realms correspond (except in suggestion) to the four basic D&D alignments. Good, in pseudo-Medieval Christianity, is pretty much defined as coming from God, so opposing God’s design through over-attachment to any of the four realms can not be good. The oppositions in the four colors seem to be blue (harmony and fellowship) vs red (drama and tragedy? but that was the Devil’s characterization) and purple (life) vs onyx (unlife? God in the story said it was the realm of “silence and the dark”, and it’s suggestive that both Saraman the elder thing and Santrieste the unicorn are part of it), so they could sort of suggest Law vs Chaos and Good vs Evil.

  12. On orcs:

    I don’t have any problem with entire races being evil. It may be nice to believe that each individual has control over their own destiny, but the fact is that both nature and nurture have an effect on the individual, and thus it’s entirely reasonable that one may not recognize or be able to choose the path that is most “enlightened”.

    Also, I haven’t dissmissed the possibility that certain people might not have souls. And the question of how you can treat soulless people isn’t an empty one. Especially when I have to deal with people who insist that nobody has a soul and that all spirituality is just deception.

    And on the realms: I’m just amusing myself with the parallels to Exalted. Blue is the Incarnae, Red is the Yozi, Black is the Malfeans, but I still haven’t seen the fourth realm so that hasn’t entered into my considerations.

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