MemoryMythologyPoetry & ProsePsychology

Mythic Fantasy: Pages of Pain

Pages of Pain

Review of Troy Den­ning - Pages of Pain (1996)

What a chi­mera of a book this is. It has one foot in plain old fantasy, with quite a few battles, some spell-sling­ing, and a hero on a quest. The other foot is deep in myth. When I first read this book, around seven years ago, I did­n’t quite get it. I was already quite famil­iar with Plan­es­cape, the Dun­geons & Dragons set­ting that forms the back­drop for this novel. How­ever, in the novel, I found little of the vast vis­tas and wide-eyed won­der that typ­i­fied the set­ting for me. Instead, the book’s nar­rat­ive is almost com­pletely con­fined to a labyrinth, which offers only a few passing glimpses of all the ima­gin­at­ive places that make up the Plan­es­cape mul­ti­verse. How­ever, upon a second read­ing and some brief reflec­tion, I think I now see what Den­ning tried to do here.

There are two prot­ag­on­ists in Pages of Pain. The act­ive one is the Amne­sian Hero, a war­rior chosen by Pos­eidon to deliver an amphora to the Lady of Pain, mys­tery-shrouded ruler of Sigil, the City of Doors, the place at the centre of the mul­ti­verse. The hero has no memor­ies of his past life, except wak­ing up at the shore of a river one day, and doing a bunch of awe­some heroic deeds: i.e. slay­ing mythic beasts. How­ever, the task imposed upon him isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Lady of Pain does not grant audi­ences, and get­ting to her to deliver the amphora is a heroic task for which the hero isn’t pre­pared.

The story is told from the per­spect­ive of that other prot­ag­on­ist: the Lady her­self. In the Plan­es­cape set­ting, she is that all-import­ant mys­tery, the divine-like force that guards the City of Doors, and pre­vents it from becom­ing the ump­teenth battle­ground for gods, demons, and dev­ils. In this book, though still a mys­tery, she is much more per­sonal, reveal­ing an obses­sion with phys­ical and men­tal pains of dif­fer­ent kinds, and also reveal­ing that she might be an incarn­a­tion or avatar of the City itself.

As the story pro­gresses, the Amne­sian Hero is gradu­ally exposed to the con­tents of the amphora he is tasked to deliver, but these con­tents seem more meant for him than for the Lady. Whilst seek­ing a path through the Lady’s mazes with sev­eral unfor­tu­nate com­pan­ions, he regains snatches of his memory, and the pains that come with it.

In a strange, almost anti-cli­mactic way, the book ties up many strands in the end: the hero finds his path through the mazes, and defeats the mon­ster of the labyrinth, but at the cost of death of some oth­ers and pain for all, to the strange sad­o­mas­ochistic delight of the Lady, of whom we never become sure if she is per­son­ally tied to the Amne­sian Hero and the amphor­a’s memor­ies or not.

As for the hero, his tale is retold in a dif­fer­ent form by Morte in Plan­es­cape: Tor­ment, that other bril­liant piece of (digital) fic­tion based on the set­ting, also fea­tur­ing an amnesic prot­ag­on­ist. In a trad­ing-of-tales, Morte, the sar­castic float­ing skull with hid­den pains and depths tells the story of a man with no memory at all wak­ing up in an alley. An old woman asks him what his third wish is to be. The man does not under­stand, but she tells him he has already had two wishes. The man says: “I wish to know who I am”. The woman chuckles sar­don­ic­ally and replies: “Funny, that was your first wish.”

So, what is this book? In the end, it is much like the Plan­es­cape set­ting itself: an admix­ture of epic fantasy and mythic fic­tion, but at a level of ima­gin­a­tion that sur­passes most other set­tings of the Dun­geons & Dragons tra­di­tion. The set­ting is based on the idea that all mor­tal beliefs have power and real­ity on cer­tain levels (planes) of exist­ence, and as such it can encom­pass all other myth­o­lo­gies. In the case of Pages of Pain, the story of Greek hero Theseus is graf­ted onto a fantasy set­ting, a tale of regret, pain, memory, and amne­sia in a way that is weird and estranging as it is effect­ive.