"The Maze of Maal Dweb" by Clark Ashton Smith

This date marks the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of Clark Ashton Smith. Readers of this site should require no introduction, as Smith was one of the “big three” writers for Weird Tales, along with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. It only seems appropriate that we should honor this master of exotic, bejeweled prose today by reading and discussing one of his many magnificent stories. I have selected “The Maze of Maal Dweb.”

Originally entitled “The Maze of the Enchanter,” Smith wrote this story in 1932 and published it the next year along with five other stories in the collection The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies. In 1938 an altered version appeared in Weird Tales under the title it is more commonly known by.

The tale begins thusly:

With no other light than that of the four diminutive moons of Xiccarph, each in a different phase but all decrescent, Tiglari had crossed the bottomless swamp of Soorm, wherein no reptile dwelt and no dragon descended–but where the pitch-black ooze was alive with continual heavings and writhings.

As you can see, the claim I made earlier of Smith’s mastery of fanciful prose is not a false one. With one mere sentence he has evocatively painted a picture of a fantasy world far removed from the mundane.

The tyrant sorcerer Maal Dweb rules over Xiccarph and its surrounding planets with an iron fist. When the mood strikes him he selects a woman of Xiccarph to come to his mountain palace, never to be seen again by her people. None dare refuse and tempt his wrath. On this night he has chosen Athlé, a maiden from a tribe of primitive hunters. Tiglari, a huntsman who desires her, arms himself (with a “needle-sharp knife that had been dipt in the mortal poison of winged vipers”) and scales the mountain in order to rescue the woman he loves.

Maal Dweb, being nearly omnipotent and omniscient, easily thwarts the assassination attempt. The sorcerer sends Tiglari into his bizarre garden labyrinth, where a horrible doom awaits him.

A more cynical reader might find fault with this story, unable to comprehend why such a powerful sorcerer would seemingly have nothing better to do than wait for heroes to assault his stronghold. To them it might seem like the plot is nothing but a series of traps laid for the protagonist. Maal Dweb’s behavior actually makes perfect sense. You don’t have to be an omnipotent wizard to realize that if you coerce women into leaving their homes and families, someone will want to rescue them. Therefore it’s only sensible for Maal Dweb to expect attackers, so he plans accordingly. Secondly, for all his power, the world-weary Maal Dweb greatly suffers from ennui (this is a common theme throughout Smith’s work, including the second Maal Dweb story, “The Flower Women”). Boredom is a greater threat to him than any mortal man, so he temporarily alleviates it by forcing victims into his maze.

But enough about potential naysayers. I think one would have to be blind to the beauty of Smith’s prose to even think of such frivolous concerns.

If you haven’t read this excellent story, you can find it for free (and many more by Smith) on the Eldritch Dark website.