Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Accursed Wanderers

The figure of the AW goes back as far as Cain and the medieval legends of the Wandering Jew, both of whom give many features to the character: AWs are taboo-breaking or blasphemous, they may bear a distinctive mark, and they enjoy supernatural protection against mundane threats. But the legend did not take on classic form until the early days of Romanticism, when Lord Byron and Charles Maturin in particular not only reinvigorated the archetype in their works but also tried to live it out in their own lives. In doing so, they added some important details – an extension of the taboo-breaking element to cover disapproved sexual practices and the implication that the curse is infectious: the eponymous AW featured in Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) can free himself from a Pact with the Devil only by persuading someone else to take it on, and therefore continually puts people in situations where they might be tempted to do so. Byron, in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818), attempted (with only partial success) to create an AW who is also a Childe; and in Cain (1821; 1822) creates a protagonist who realizes that his sins are minuscule in comparison with those of the God who has condemned him. Here the AW is an antinomian figure – that is, one of the blessed elect in spite of or even because of his vile acts – who perceives the Wrongness of things in a way not open to those with calmer lives.

Sometimes the AW comes to see his curse as a Night Journey in which he has been instructed in virtue; Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), is a person who Learns Better. Something of this also affects the eventual fate of Goethe's Faust, whose continual damaging of other people's lives nonetheless redeems him when it leads him to break the Conditions of his pact in a moment of high-minded and forgetful altruism; this sort of Quibble has as its descendant the redemption by true love which Richard Wagner added to the tale of the Flying Dutchman (see Opera). Many others have used this device to soften, sentimentalize and revise Legends.

The AW is often also an Obsessed Seeker; Hidden Monarchs may be AWs, or at least closely resemble them when first met – in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), Aragorn in his role as Strider often resembles the archetype. AWs may have much to offer humanity yet be cursed with an affliction so disgusting that humanity rejects their aid. Some AWs are Shapeshifters and most of fantasy's Vampires are AWs, not least because one of the clinching adaptations of the vampire myth into Western European art was John Polidori's melodramatic lampoon of Byron in The Vampyre: A Tale (1819 chap). Other immortals (see Immortality) are often AWs, simply because of the drying of their affections by long life; even Satan can appear as an AW – the 19th-century Romantic misreading of John Milton is crucial to this particular form of the archetype. The AW is frequently an Avatar of some earlier figure – in which case the curse may be simply a matter of leftover bad karma, as in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence (1990 onwards).

Michael Moorcock's Elric is the classic type from High Fantasy; Moorcock clearly intended to give him almost every conceivable feature of the archetype. Elric is incestuous, a kinslayer and a traitor; he is marked out both by his status as prince of an Elder Race and by his albinism; he is almost inevitably fatal to everyone who comes near him, particularly his lovers and friends; he gradually learns he has been manipulated by the Lords of Chaos and Order, and that any crime he may have committed is trivial by comparison; he is effectively a vampire as a result of his dependency on lives taken for him by his Sword; he is on several occasions redeemed, temporarily, by the love of a good woman.

The AW is a useful protagonist in Revisionist Fantasy like Moorcock's because his position is readily seen as an injustice and therefore an indictment, from a radical, atheist or anarchist position, of a Theodicy like Tolkien's. Sometimes the AW is a figure of revisionism from a standpoint more rigorously orthodox than Tolkien's Catholic pietism. The protagonist of Stephen R Donaldson's Thomas Covenant sequence has many characteristics of the AW because the element of theodicy in the two trilogies' resolution is specifically an antirationalist one, in which grace comes capriciously through wild Magic rather than because Covenant has done the right thing throughout. Because he is an embodiment of grace, Covenant's worst acts turn out to have been for the good.

In Heroic Fantasy curses are likely to be a generator of plot, either because they cause things to happen or because the AW's attempt to free himself of the curse (or of the compulsion to wander) provides the driving force of a Template. As a general rule, heroic fantasy avoids the deeper implications of the archetype in favour of its narrative conveniences. An example of this in action is the curse on Brion Rouwen in Robert Vardeman's The Accursed (1994), which causes him constantly to be instrumental in the deaths of allies when he comes to care for them, and accordingly forces him continually into alliances with people he despises and distrusts. In Bernard King's Starkadder (1985) the eponymous character (drawn directly from Norse mythology) is cursed by the Gods to live three lives consecutively, the end of each being marked by his betrayal of someone to whom he has sworn loyalty; he must reconcile his wish finally to die with his reluctance to do so in dishonour. [RK]

see also: Belatedness.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.