Tanith Lee is a prolific writer, not only of fantasy but also of science fiction and modern horror. She wrote the Tales from the Flat Earth after a number of other works, most notably The Birthgrave (1975), in the “sword and sorcery” subgenre prevalent in the late 1970’s. Although these stories were unusual in their depth of characterization and use of imaginative imagery (especially that involving color), they were somewhat similar to other works in the Robert E. Howard/Edgar Rice Burroughs branch of the genre.
The Tales from the Flat Earth are much more experimental. The humans in the tales are more tragic pawns than heroes. Victory in the world of the Flat Earth simply involves avoiding manipulation or destruction. The Lords of Darkness, being immortal and, within their specializations, all-powerful, also make for poor hero material, especially because the evil they combat is usually of their own devising.
In both content and design, the tales are instead an alternative mythology, exploring the relations between humanity and the divine. Lee makes extensive use of devices from traditional myths and fables. Achilles was made almost invulnerable by immersion in the Styx, and Zhirem was made invulnerable by immersion in a well of fire. Ferazhin, a woman Azhrarn makes from flowers to distract Sivesh, is similar to the Welsh Bloduwedd. Simmu, stealing the elixir of immortality from the gods and being destroyed because of it, is both Prometheus and Gilgamesh. Objects, people, and events frequently come in threes. With the exception of the “Tower of Baybhelu,” however, Lee has borrowed only motifs, or threads from myths, rather than recognizable tapestries. The results are familiar enough to resonate strongly for those familiar with mythology but original in overall design and execution. Even Baybhelu, an immediately recognizable allusion to Babel, is reinterpreted, demonstrating the callous spite of the gods toward an enterprise of madness rather than their just punishment for hubris.
Lee’s mythology is distinctly irreligious; the gods do not figure prominently. Passionless and ethereal, they regard the earth with a vague contempt when they consider it at all. Their purpose, apparently, is simply to contemplate divine concepts beyond the ken of mortals, and they have no intention of allowing earthly matters, particularly the entreaties of humans, to distract them. Religion is a sham. It is revealing that the most developed treatment of it occurs in Delusion’s Master, in which the basis of an entire faith is an unintended side effect of one of Chuz’s acts.
It is possible to consider Azhrarn, Uhlume, and Chuz as the “real” gods of the mythology, because they have both the powers and the defined roles of more traditional gods. Lee, however, specifically denies them that status. The “Lords of Darkness” definitely fulfill all but the initial creative role of deities, acting as supernatural influences and whimsical agents of change....
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