Pre-Tolkien Challenge: T'Sais by Jack Vance


Today we continue the Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge series. First we reviewed “The Regent of the North” by Kenneth Morris. Now we put “T’Sais” by Jack Vance under the microscope. The story is one of six that make up Vance’s indisputable classic The Dying Earth. It was first published in 1950, only a few years before Lord of the Rings.

A magician named Pandelume from the idyllic dimension of Embelyon has created a woman named T’sais, but has erred and her brain is flawed. She cannot see beauty, finding it loathsome and hateful. She tires of life in Embelyon and asks Pandelume to send her to dying Earth. The magician agrees, but not without warning her of the dangers of a strange land. He supplies her with a bag of jewels, a magic rune and an enchanted rapier. Her first encounter on Earth is with Liane the Wayfarer. Bewildered, T’Sais watches him torture a helpless man and his wife for information. Liane approaches her, but the enchanted rapier fights of its own accord and pierces him. T’Sais departs from the forest and is accosted by three brigands who wish to rape her. Again the rapier comes to her aid. T’Sais slays them and flees in sorrow.

This was Earth! She remembered Embelyon, where the most evil things were flowers and butterflies. She remembered how these had aroused her hate.
“Embelyon was lost, renounced. And T’Sais wept.

As soon as she overcomes the brigands, a Deodand, a man-eating demon, appears and chases her. She finds safety in a cottage owned by a hooded man. He scares off the Deodand with threats of magic.


T’sais’ masked rescuer shares his story with her. He is Etarr, and has been cursed by his former lover Javanne. When he discovered her cavorting with demons, she enspelled his face, shaping it into the visage of the demon he found most grotesque. None other than she can break the curse. Etarr plans to capture her at the upcoming Black Sabbath—“The night dedicated to evil since the dawn of Earth.”

T’sais accompanies Etarr to the depraved gathering of wizards, demons and necrophages. The saturnalia is disrupted by the assault of The Green Legion of Valdaran the Just. In the ensuing chaos Etarr catches Javanne. I won’t spoil the ending of the tale for you.

The greatest difference between dying Earth and Middle Earth is their respective creators’ approach to worldbuilding. Tolkien spelled out everything down to the smallest detail. Vance left things much more open, using evocative names to inspire wonder in the reader. One can’t help but wonder what The Land of the Falling Wall might be, or be curious about the story behind The Cape of Sad Remembrance or The Forlorn Land. Exploring dying Earth would be a very interesting proposition. There could be anything out there!