THE DEEP ONES: "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" by Margaret St. Clair
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"The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" by Margaret St. Clair
Discussion begins on November 21, 2018.
First published in the October 1951 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories
Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum
The Fantasy Hall of Fame
Looking forward to this one, based on my enjoyment of Dunsany generally. The DEEP ONES discussed Dunsany's "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles" in Summer 2012 -- though that was before I participated, so I'll take the opportunity to review the story and the discussion thread.
Should have put up some gnole/gnoll info up in #1.
As a late 70's D&D lad, I was of course familiar with the grungy, dog-like biped version of "gnolls".The tentacles in this tale threw me off a bit.
The Dunsany story gives, IIRC, no indication to the appearance of the gnoles, but I confess I'd assumed they were more humanoid, or at least vertebrate-like.
I enjoyed the story, though, and thought it captured the Dunsanian spirit pretty well.
The mention of the Gibbelins is a reference to another Dunsany tale, "The Hoard of the Gibbelins". I'm hardly spoiling anything if I say that selling rope to the Gibbelins is unlikely to be a good idea.
I appreciated that, considering the door-to-door salesman motif, St. Clair manages to keep the tale from being too glib. The matter-of-fact description of the salesman's fate is actually pretty horrifying.
Agree that for the most part, St. Clair manages to capture the spirit of Dunsany's tale, with a few mis-cues. The overall story and outcome, I thought, were spot on. I enjoyed the opportunity to read through the Dunsany thread, definitely.
One aspect of the story I especially appreciated was the indirect observation that modern salesmen are apt to be studious, but about precisely the least relevant aspects of the situation: psychology of sales, in this instance, and not at all about the individual to which they hoped to sell. From what little background we are given, it would seem Mortensen could have learned something about the gnoles, perhaps by asking his mother. A wry commentary on the dangers of occulted knowledge, as it were.
It's also as though St. Clair were poking fun at the apocryphal saying attributed to Communists: "They will sell us the rope with which we hang them."
Sort of a Thanksgiving tale, isn't it? It ends with a feast anyhow.
I got the impression that St. Clair was riffing on Dunsany's original story, rather than straightforwardly attempting a sequel.
The "modern salesman", to give the most obvious example, must have been suggested by the ironic treatment of "burglar", in Dunsany's original tale, as a trade that one could be apprenticed to, like "chimney sweep" or "plumber".
Was this kind of "company man" already a cliché by 1951, I wonder, or did that develop over the next quarter-century or so? Certainly I can remember such a figure being an instantly recognisable "type" in drama and comedy n the 1970s (by which time he has access to computerised market research, his mockery/pity by the counter-culture is already itself a cliché, he's mercilessly lampooned by Monty Python and the like). Anyway that is the one thing that marks and identifies this story as clearly of the mid-20th century, as much as Dunsany's feels "Edwardian".
We do of course get some extension of Dunsany's original, notably the gnoles, what they look like, what they actually do to people who fall foul of them, are described. There is an argument that leaving such things to the imagination can be more powerful, of course, but i didn't at any point think that what St. Clair does here is a mistake, or somehow weakens the original (as some sequels do). It's also funny, of course, the whole thing being structured like a joke with a set-up and a kind of punchline (that's not a criticism, or trying to dismiss it as a shaggy-dog story, i want to stress).
Back to the "riffing" on the original, there's a list of things that are reversed from the original story, but the end result is the same: Mortensen does not go to the gnoles with the intention of robbing them; he's received into their dwelling and treated honourably, he gets his hands on their gems! - but that's where things go wrong, of course. The blinkered nature of Mortensen's approach to selling, as >7 elenchus: delineates, is the fatal flaw that leads to this tragedy - if a salesman can be a big enough character for his death to be tragic - in an artistic sense. Actually it isn't is it? It's bathetic, mock-tragic; played for laughs. That also seems very mid-20th century (I suppose they'd been through two wars; they were toughened up but also messed up).
Finally, for a shirt story there's a surprising amount just about different types of rope! And St.Clair managed to keep it interesting.
Not really. Of course it came to mind as I was trying to put my thoughts in order, because it's the locus classicus for that trope, I would guess; but actually I have never seen a performance or read the play, so I'd be unwilling to talk about it based on third-hand ideas and assumptions about it. In addition, a lot of the stuff I was thinking about was from the UK, and the cultural references that I see attaching to the trope are different; class-based (no surprises there), elements of social anxiety, coming up from a new "red brick" university and being faced with the Old Boy network...moving a long way from St. Clair's story, admittedly (but, perhaps, parallels can be drawn with Dunsany's? Born half a century later, might Tonker have perhaps got a degree and gone into accountancy or market research..?
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