Avram Davidson, “The Mirror and the Phoenix” (1969) – This was fun. Apparently, during what I’m told I’m not supposed to call “The Dark Ages” (though honestly, considering all the shit people say about the twentieth century, which say what you want about it, but cured a lot of diseases and put a man on the moon…), many Europeans believed that Virgil, the poet of the Aeneid, was a wizard of some renown! Old SFF hand Avram Davidson took that idea and made this story around it. Not only does he depict Vergil (he uses that spelling, apparently it’s gone back and forth) as a wizard, he depicts the world as a whole as having the confusion and geographical/historical inconsistency that a half-literate scribe scratching away in tenth-century Thuringia might give to it.
Vergil gets a job from a high-end lady: find her daughter, who went missing on the way to becoming an imperial concubine. To sweeten the pot, the lady steals Vergil’s potency! He doesn’t like that. He’s motivated. He has to create a mirror, and not just any mirror- a “virgin speculum.” This bronze mirror needs to be made in such a way that in the very instant of its ability to reflect light, Vergil can cast a spell and see where the daughter went. Mirrors were tricky enough for the ancients, I’m told, but a virgin speculum! That’s a whole thing. Vergil needs to secure tin and copper because normal bronze won’t do it, he needs his own bronze. Tin is a monopoly of Cornish chieftains, copper only comes from weird degenerated Aphrodite-worshiping Cypriots, the “Sea Huns” have given up their horses and taken to terrorizing the Mediterranean, so it’s pretty hard to get all that stuff. Meanwhile, there’s all kinds of mysterious hints as to where the daughter might be, and Vergil’s Phoenician friend who sails him around acts increasingly weird.
This is an agreeably shaggy, ponderous work, especially for a fairly short novel. It’s not hard to tell what’s going on but there’s also not the kind of handholding one gets used to in secondary world fantasies, especially contemporary ones. The world feels not just like there’s magic, but that it runs according to a magical logic. All too many stories with magic – and I can’t help but notice how the turn in this dynamic seems to have come with the popularization of games with magic systems, like Dungeons and Dragons – make magic seem like technology, a set of tools to use like any other, possibly dangerous but not really irrational, the world still works according to rules a Galileo or a Descartes could describe. It’s fun to see a world that isn’t like that, especially based on history. ****’