TITLE:  The Annotated Amber

           Roger Zelazny got a Master's degree in English from Columbia University. When he decided to become an author, his first step was to go out and read; ten books on widely varying subjects. He kept this up all his life--the man was fantastically literate. And by allowing his background in literature to come through in his fiction, Zelazny helped shape one of the major movements in science fiction, the New Wave. Thus it is no surprise that despite general feelings that his Amber series is less groundbreaking than masterpieces like Lord of Light or Creatures of Light and Darkness, it is still rife with allusions. The trouble is that since few of us have the background of Zelazny, we may not be able to catch all of his references.

           This website is an attempt to remedy that. By pointing out references in the Amber series, we will hopefully get a better idea of the shades of meaning Zelazny imbued in his work. People running games of Amber may be able to pick up ideas for other places to look for inspiration, and the rest of us may be pointed to interesting reading material. And of course, the whole page is a tribute to the unending coolness of Roger Zelazny.

           Suggestions are warmly welcomed and will be credited to you... I don't have time to find all the allusions, and more importantly, I don't have the background to be able to recognize all the allusions. (If you like, you can check out the Bibliography page, where I give credit to the non-people non-linked sources that assisted me in researching these.) The more people keeping this hunt in mind, the better.

--Madeline Ferwerda, 11 January 2002

Nine Princes in Amber | The Guns of Avalon | Sign of the Unicorn | The Hand of Oberon | The Courts of Chaos
DIVIDER: a gold flourish  
TITLE:  Nine Princes in Amber
Published 1970.

           Theodore Krulik, in his biography of Roger Zelazny, opines that Nine Princes in Amber follows the form of the typical space opera, in that the protagonist starts out in the here and now and then goes off into some fantastic adventure. Everyone else on the planet thinks that NPiA is very much like the typical Noir detective story, as popularized by authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. (To be fair to Krulik, he goes on to mention that "recovery from amnesia" is an oft-used mystery theme; and Zelazny did actually say to him that he liked the way earlier science fiction used that tie-in with contemporary reality.)

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

...and then there was a black-haired girl with the same blue eyes, and her hair hung long and she was dressed all in black, with a girdle of silver around her waist. My eyes filled with tears, why I don't know. Her name was Deirdre.
                                                                                                                         -Corwin, Ch. 3

           Many people have had a great deal of fun tracking down the meanings of the names used in Amber. In most cases, however, I'd suspect that Zelazny didn't give much thought to name origin when he decided on character names... Like most of us, he probably named characters based on personal feelings about the name.

           Deirdre may be an exception to this. I had in the past assumed that Corwin teared up when looking at Deirdre's trump because he loved her and couldn't have her (or perhaps he was sad because he didn't remember her). But as Michael Schwartz points out, the connection of the name Deirdre to "Deirdre of the sorrows", an Irish tragic heroine, was likely known to Zelazny and may have influenced this passage.

           "Deirdre of the Sorrows" is a play written in 1909 by J.M. Synge, an Irish playwright who hung out with W.B. Yeats (who in 1907 also helped popularize the ancient tale with his own play "Deirdre"). It may be Synge titles her thus because one of the oldest versions of the story, Oidheadh Chloinne Uisneach, written in the 12th century, was in the 15th century collected with two other tragedies into the Trí Truaighe na Scéalaigheachta ("The Three Sorrows of Storytelling"). The oldest version of the legend of Deirdre known is Longes Mac n-Uislenn, and may be from the 9th century.

           The legend of Deirdre runs that upon her birth it was prophecied she would be incredibly beautiful, but would bring death to many men and great ruin on Ulster. This came about when she eloped with Noísi, escaping a bethrothal to Conchobar, the king of Ulster. For severn years she and Noísi and his two brothers lived on the lam, until eventually they were tricked into returning to Conchobar's section of Ireland, where the king had the three brothers killed treacherously. Deirdre killed herself. The brothers's friends wreaked havod on Ulster. The tale was vastly popular in Ireland and Scotland for a millenia.

           However, on closer examination I find that the Irish Deirdre had golden blond hair. Zelazny's Deirdre was never particularly praised for her beauty, either, and since there's a perfectly logical explanation for how her name could get hooked with Corwin's sadness, in my opinion the whole connection is tenuous at best.

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

Eric loosened his blade in its scabbard.
     "You want the throne," he said.
     "Don't we all?" I told him.
     "I guess so," he said with a sigh. "It's true, that uneasy-lies-the-head bit."
                                                                                                                         -Ch. 5

           "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" is a phrase so common in English that it seems like its origins ought to be utterly lost... But like so many of these phrases, it comes directly from Shakespeare, and I'd wager that Roger Zelazny (whose master's thesis was on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama) knew exactly which play spawned it. This is the final line in a somewhat famous monologue in Act III, Scene i, of "Henry IV, part 2". The monologue is spoken by Henry IV, who muses on how sleep comes to even the rudest peasant or the most storm-tossed sailor boy easier than it does to the great.

           I'm afraid, though, that "Henry IV, part 2" is one of the Shakespeare plays I haven't read yet, and so I can't say what it means that Zelazny is comparing Eric to Henry IV (or that Eric is comparing himself).

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

I wore my left arm in a black sling and considered those who were about to die.
                                                                                                                         -Corwin, Ch. 6

           "Morituri te salutamus." The cry of the gladiators in the Roman arena, given to the Emperor before they began to fight, translates into English as "We who are about to die salute you." The echoes of this in Corwin's statement always struck me as another indication that he viewed the warfare as perhaps trivial, merely another way to advance his feud against Eric--and also, perhaps, this reference is an indication that he felt a bit of shame about this, for coming from the modern Earth as he did he likely picked up the modern disgust for the Roman bloodlust.

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

To sleep, perchance to dream... Yeah, there's a thing that rubs. Eric was killing us by inches and hours. His proposed coronation was only a few weeks away, and he obviously knew we were coming against him, because we died and we died.
                                                                                                                         -Corwin, Ch. 6

           You've all probably caught this--a reference to the most famous monologue in Shakespeare's most famous play, the "to be or not to be" speech from Act 3, scene i of "Hamlet". Hamlet's monologue follows his thoughts as he concludes that no one would bear the troubles of life when it is so easy to end it, except that they fear what may come after death:
                                            and by a sleep to say we end
                                            The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
                                            That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
                                            Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
                                            To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
                                            For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
                                            When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
                                            Must give us pause:

           The change in the line's punctuation in NPiA makes the reference into black humor. Corwin, instead of bemoaning his cowardice in not wanting death, is bemoaning the death of his troops (since it weakens his bid for the throne). The meaning of the allusion is slyly reversed.

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill
TITLE:  The Guns of Avalon
Published 1972.

           Krulik points out that The Guns of Avalon is very like the old-fashioned allegorical tales of knighthood and the Round Table. He says on page 103 of Roger Zelazny:
  "There are several comparisons that can be made between this particular novel and, for instance, Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene, a work that Zelazny knows well. The introduction and function of Lancelot du Lac in Avalon is done along lines similar to those of young Prince Arthur in The Faerie Queene. Both represent a spiritual, Christian ideal of goodness that is meant to associate the main protagonist of each book, Corwin in the one, and the Redcrosse Knight in the other, with a holy cause. Just as Lancelot single-handedly battles six men and overcomes them, so the Redcrosse Knight fights alone against six foes. The beautiful but false Duessa, whose true form is that of an old hag in The Faerie Queene, has her counterpart in the character of Dara, who reveals herself, at the end of Avalon, to be of non-human form."  

           Zelazny's interest in the legends of King Arthur is unquestionable. The passage from Krulik quoted above does raise an interesting point, though: the traditional tales of knighthood are steeped in Christianity, and it is notable that Zelazny filters damn near all hints of religion out of the Chronicles of Amber. An interesting point that Krulik couldn't make because the Merlin series hadn't been started yet at the time he wrote his bio of Zelazny is that in the Merlin Series, Dara is nearly a queen of Chaos, while in Book V of The Faerie Queene Duessa allegorically stands for Mary, Queen of Scots. A whole scholarly paper could be built up around this framework, connecting English and Scottish relations in the time of Elizabeth I with Amber/Chaos relations in the Chronicles of Amber by means of Spenser's The Faerie Queene... Does this suggest that the Chaosite ("Scottish") King, Merlin, would have taken the throne of Amber and ruled the universe in the rumored third series? Somehow, I don't see Random as anything like the Virgin Queen, but it's still a fun speculation.

           As for The Faerie Queene, it is a novel-length epic poem, published in the 1590s, which settled upon Spenser the title of "The English Dante". It has deep symbolism, and political axes to grind, and romantic imagery, and thus has been the darling of centuries of literary scholars; however, today only a few books of it are generally studied. Book I consists of a tale of the Redcrosse Knight, who represents Holiness, in his quest for Una, who represents Truth. He's lead astray by the false witch Duessa, but after paying for this with suffering, triumphs over the dragon representing Evil.

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

"Beyond the River of the Blessed, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Avalon. Our swords were shattered in our hands and we hung our shields on the oak tree. The silver towers were fallen, into a sea of blood. How many miles to Avalon? None, I say, and all. The silver towers are fallen."
                                                                                                                         -Corwin, Ch. 1

           This bit of spontaneous poetry owes a nod to at least two sources. First, there are the first lines of Psalm 137, from Psalms in the Bible:
  1 By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down, yea, we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our harps
upon the willows in the midst of it.
3 For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song;
and those who plundered us requested mirth,
saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
4 How shall we sing the LORD's song
in a foreign land?
(The Psalm goes on to a terribly mournful vow to never forget Jerusalem, and then a terribly embittered call for vengeance against Edom and Babylon.)

           The second source pointed out by Michael Croft (and Rikibeth Stein) is the old nursery rhyme:
  "How many miles to Babylon?"
"Threescore miles and ten."
"Can I get there by candlelight?"
"Yes, and back again.
Yes, if your feet are nimble and light,
You can get there by candlelight."

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill
TITLE:  Sign of the Unicorn
Published 1975.

           A classic locked-room mystery kind of situation, the beloved library scene, is central to Sign of the Unicorn, Krulik perceptively points out. Corwin assembles the suspects and begins to bake out the murderer of Caine, managing in the process to get Brand critically wounded as someone strikes in desperation...

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

So Childe Random to the dark tower came, yeah, gun in one hand, blade in the other.
                                                                                                                         -Random, Ch. 2

           This seemed to be a clear reference to something. When I threw out the question on the Amber list several people (Claire Bickell, Rikibeth Stein, and Bernie Hsiung) came back with the answer that the line referred to was from Robert Browning's 1855 poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came". The line is also found in Shakespeare, who used it in "King Lear", at the very end of Act 3, scene iv. Shakespeare probably had it from a ballad common in Elizabethan times but forgotten now... Bernie found a source on the web that suggested the ballad was "Child Rowland and Burd Ellen", which seems possible; however, none of the duplicates of this ballad on the web have any information as to the age and origin of the piece.

           Browning's poem, which I suspect is the most likely source of this allusion due to spelling and content, follows the surreal journey of Childe (childe=young man fit for knighthood) Roland, who according to this short essay had been groomed since childhood to attempt to subdue the evil of the Dark Tower, which had killed many knights far better than he. Thus Roland was somewhat bitter about being built to die futilely, but ended up deciding that duty and honor called him to make the attempt against the tower anyway. The poem ends as he finds it, his last words being "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," summing up the purpose of his life. The question of whether he then dies is left to the reader.

           The bit from King Lear is from a section where Lear has been thrown out of his castle by his ungrateful daughters, and is going mad on the moors, and encounters Edgar who is pretending to be mad. Edgar does this by rambling incoherently; the last lines of the scene are "Child Rowland to the dark tower came, His word was still,--Fie, foh, and fum, I smell the blood of a British man."

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

Benedict would not have missed the eye. He would have had one in each pocket by then and be playing football with the head while composing a footnote to Clausewitz.
                                                                                                                         -Random, Ch. 2

           General Carl von Clausewitz wrote On War, published first in 1832, which according to the website just mentioned is "unquestionably the most important single work ever written on the theory of warfare and of strategy".

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill
TITLE:  The Hand of Oberon
Published 1976.
DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

He stepped nearer and lowered the blade.
"Good night, sweet Prince," he said, and he moved to close with him.
                                                                                                                         -Ch. 13

           Another reference to Shakespeare's best-know work, "Hamlet" ; another of the most famous lines. Act V, scene ii: Hamlet has just spoken his last, and Horatio stands in a court littered with dead Danes, just before the Prince of Norway presses through the rottenness in the state of Denmark to the throne room itself. Horatio, who has been always true to Hamlet, reacts to his death: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"

Brand is clearly not in a similar situation. It may be that Benedict is something like Hamlet, desirous of death and too cowardly to make the leap... But I'd bet money that Brand is only using this line because, let's face it, it's cool.

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill
TITLE:  The Courts of Chaos
Published 1978.

Theodore Krulik notes Corwin's weary reference to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at the end of The Courts of Chaos and is of the opinion that the entire book has echoes of Alice. The surreal quality to it has something in common with Alice, and he suggests that the odd conversation between Corwin and Hugi the raven is much like that between Alice and the Cheshire Cat.

DIVIDER: a scrawling quill

"We are not yet beaten. You will be yourself again."
I shook my head.
"It is like the last chapter of Alice," I said. "If I shout, 'You are only a pack of cards!' I feel we will all fly into the air, a hand of painted pasteboards."
                                                                                                                         -Ch. 12

IMAGE: John Tenniel's illustration for "At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her."

           Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 12:
    "Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
    "Who cares for you?" said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). "You're nothing but a pack of cards!"
    At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her; she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

           And, a few paragraphs later, the book ends. Previously Alice had been sitting in on a trial of the Knave of Hearts (for stealing tarts), and had been growing increasingly more willing to bring logic to bear, much to the consternation of the King of Hearts. However, Alice, who has been enduring the mad inhabitants of Wonderland for twelve chapters, is now cross enough to cease being polite. Having finally come out and stated the real-world truth, Wonderland collapses around her and she wakes up.

           Corwin, by contrast, is so distraught after enduring the madness he has been through that he becomes polite. :) In his case, what he thought was real has been proven to be but a Shadow; the connection to Alice in Wonderland is natural. It is somewhat notable that he gives the power to blow the whole charade to bits to himself, even though he is an integral part of it... Solipsistic still, but as he says himself, "Corwin will always be Corwin, even on Judgement Day."

DIVIDER: a gold flourish


This page ©2002 Madeline Ferwerda. Last updated 11 January 2002.
Comments, suggestions of new allusions, and praise welcome: E-mail Madeline.