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Frequently described in terms of its action and adventure, Roger Zelazny's classic Amber series is filled with flashing blades and convoluted court politics. However, the true heart of the tale lies not in the outward actions of the protagonist, but rather in his interior journey. The whole of the classic Amber series is in fact a quest, rather than a straight adventure story; the momentum and unity of the series arise not from Corwin's shifting outward goals—grand gestures that progress from escaping a sanitarium to claiming a throne and repairing the Pattern that is the basis for all reality—but from the continuity of Corwin's metaphoric quest for identity.

The difference between a quest and an adventure, according to John H. Timmerman in Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre, is one both of intent and meaningfulness for society. An adventure often does not have a specific goal; it may lead anywhere, having arisen for any reason from whimsy to boredom with the status quo. The quest, however, is undertaken for a specific purpose and directed toward a particular goal, though that goal, often being a spiritual, philosophical, or religious one, may not itself be specifically defined; in fact, the questing itself may help to define this goal, which is "always a grave, serious undertaking [...] often life-threatening, marked by a sense of struggle, of imminent or immediate danger in which the character must call upon all of his will and power to push on" (Timmerman 91). Further, the quest is undertaken because "grave events threaten the well-being of a society [....] An adventure is often undertaken simply because the status quo has become torpid in its uneventfulness and the adventurer is motivated by little more than accentuated ennui. In the quest, the threat to the status quo often makes the hero long for the routine, and frequently the quest is pursued in order to recover that state" (93). Corwin's search to discover his identity clearly falls into the category of quest; it is a necessary goal that must be pursued in order for him to restore the Pattern and thus the society of Amber to a peaceful state. He, and his siblings, often long for the simpler days when every sibling was a known quantity and their father maintained order within the kingdom. In order to restore the center of this order, by setting up an undamaged Pattern against the Chaos which threatens Amber, Corwin must define his new identity, finding himself: for he, in his new personality, is the key figure in saving the reality of Amber, from which all other realities stem.

Many clues point to the centrality of this concern for establishing Corwin's new identity. The most potent is the fact that the series opens with an amnesiac Corwin searching for clues to his former self—a search which culminates eighty-seven pages later with Corwin's walking the mirrored replica of the Pattern in the sea-kingdom Rebma, an act which restores all his memories, mingling those of his life as a prince of Amber with those of his centuries of masquerading as a normal human on the Shadow Earth. It is out of this convergence that his new personality emerges, containing both the superhuman hubris of the Amberite and the moral philosophy of the human, but resulting in something that is more than their sum. Some further clues to the presence of the underlying quest are the constant tensions between the person whom others perceive Corwin to be and the way that he feels himself different from these assumptions; Corwin's continuing, painful self-interrogations; and the questions of the importance of identity in the creation of the Pattern, as revealed both in Corwin's discussions with Dworkin, the creator of the original Pattern, which is now damaged, whose mind is also damaged in harmony with his creation, and in Corwin's own inscription of a Pattern at the climax of his quest in The Courts of Chaos—an act that sets up a set of realities separate from those shared by all others—a powerful symbol that provides concrete proof that Corwin is claiming individuality, autonomy, and the right to define his own identity. The new Pattern literally springs from Corwin's memories and reflections, even as it solidifies who he is in a sign that others can read. In thus exposing himself to public view, Corwin does make himself vulnerable, as he can be damaged through harm to the Pattern; yet, at the same time, by setting his boundaries and laying down the complex message of who he is in the form of this new Pattern, Corwin has physically established his identity in a way that will serve to protect him from the violence of others, which might otherwise injure or alter him.

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Many obstacles stand in the way of Corwin's quest for identity. While physical obstacles abound, there are far more pernicious ones arising from the sphere of the mind. These are both internal, as seen in Corwin's destructive bouts of self-doubt, self-mockery, and self-deprecation; and external, as seen in the projected assumptions about his identity that others create. Even when these are favorable, as is the case with the view held by Queen Moire of Rebma, these outside perspectives are necessarily flat and incomplete. When Corwin tells Moire of his love for the Shadow Earth, she replies, "It is strange that a lord of Amber should possess this capacity." When Corwin answers, "Perhaps I chose the wrong word," Moire replies, "I doubt it [...] for the ballads of Corwin do touch upon the strings of the heart" (Nine 82-83). Later within this conversation, when Corwin professes his love for his brother Random, Moire says, "Then this is the first time a son of Amber has ever said such a thing, and I attribute it to your poetic temperament" (83). Moire seems willing to accept deeper aspects of personality in Corwin than would be suggested by the stereotypical conception that seems to characterize the princes in general; yet even she possesses a limited—and limiting—view of his nature, against which he must assert his inner feelings in order to be more properly understood. Even so, the revised view Moire comes to hold of Corwin during their brief encounter seems equally shallow, a flat characterization which differs from the original stereotype only in that it highlights his poetic rather than warlike characteristics. Others are less willing to allow Corwin to make revisions in their preconceived notions of his identity. One such is Dara. Corwin has recently slain her fencing master, Borel, who tried to kill him. Through half-truths and lies, the dying Borel convinced Dara that Corwin acted with dishonor. Dara then accuses Corwin of hypocrisy because he does not match her ideas of what his personality should be—ideas which, in turn, had been based entirely on the stories of others: "You are not what I was led to believe. I had seen you as a truly noble figure—strong, yet understanding and sometimes gentle. Honorable . . ." (Courts 125). The irony here is that this is actually a fairly good description of Corwin's new identity; only Dara's insistence on her personal inner vision of his character prevents her from seeing that Corwin actually does correspond to the attributes she had imagined and admired.

There are other stereotypes within the family with which Corwin must contend. In many ways, Corwin's previous Amberite personality seems to have fit the bloodthirsty mold of the intrigue-minded, Machiavellian princes to which even most of the princes themselves have subscribed. The expression of Corwin's new humanist philosophies is often frustrated by the cynical disbelief he encounters whenever he acts out of character with this stereotype. When Corwin and Random first encounter their brother Julian in the Forest of Arden on their trip home, discussing the possibility of violent conflict with Julian, Corwin says, "Live and let live is my philosophy these days." Random responds, "What a quaint notion. I'll bet it will last all of five minutes" (Nine 56). However, Corwin soon proves the truth of his words in a series of actions that help to solidify the sense of the character he has just defined for himself, giving it an external reality that can be observed by others. This physical manifestation of Corwin's new identity impinges on Julian's own being forcefully enough that Julian actually begins to revise his previous, self-generated opinion about his brother.

When Corwin visits Benedict's version of his Shadow Avalon and then leaves abruptly, Benedict, returning to his manor to find his servants murdered, assumes that Corwin must have done it—the logic of a brother's hand in murder prevailing against all of Corwin's rational protestations of innocence, to the extent that Corwin's compassionate act in calling for Gerard to assist the unconscious Benedict is met not even with astonishment, but with raw disbelief. Corwin is thus forced to confront others' conceptions of his previous identity—and is thus, in a sense, fighting against himself.

Gerard in particular is so convinced that Corwin is still a devious, intrigue-minded prince that he blames Corwin for the murder of their brother Caine and, later, for the disappearance of their brother Brand. Gerard threatens Corwin's life on both occasions despite the fact that Corwin is actually the sibling working hardest to defeat the Chaos which threatens the realm. During one of the sessions in which Corwin attempts to uncover the truth of these events, Corwin discusses with his sister Fiona the impossibility of Julian's having murdered Caine, due to their strong friendship. Fiona replies, "For someone who has been around for as long as you have, Corwin, you say some silly things. Were you changed by your long stay in that funny little place? Years ago you would have seen the obvious, as I do." Corwin here attempts to establish his new identity, answering, "Perhaps I have changed, for such things no longer seem obvious" (Sign 115). But his previous identity—and others' perceptions of him—will not be so easy to change. Humorously, but at the same time revealing some of the attitudes that Corwin must combat, Fiona announces, "I have just noticed that this is not really Corwin! It has to be one of his shadows! It has just announced a belief in friendship, dignity, nobility of spirit, and those other things which figure prominently in popular romances!" (116).

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Brand is the most obstinate in reading Corwin's behavior according to his previous image. Brand verbally speculates, "Same old Corwin [....] Or are you? I wonder. . . . Did it change you, do you think? Living all that while back in Shadow? Not knowing who you really were? Being a part of something else?" Yet Brand does not seriously consider the questions as things that may have actually occurred; instead, he is taunting Corwin with his own power over Corwin's identity, for it was Brand who caused Corwin's amnesia and kept him imprisoned in that state under a false, human identity. Brand, the ultimate egoist, seems to feel that nothing in the universe exists except as he wills it—including others' autonomy as individuals. When Corwin affirms that he has indeed changed, Brand chooses to interpret this as a facade that Corwin can put on at will to deceive others, rather than a true change: "Plain-speaking, blunt, plain-dealing? You miss some of the fun that way. But then there is a value to such novelty. Keep everyone unbalanced with it . . . revert when they least expect it [....] Yes, it might prove valuable. Refreshing, too" (Sign 150). Corwin's sister-in-law, Vialle, while not reading him according to the family lights, does nevertheless construct her own sense of his character based on Random's stories before she ever meets Corwin. Though Corwin later comes to identify in himself a strong, newfound sense of duty, Vialle's attempt to sum up his entire motivation since escaping from the sanitarium with this word brings only self-deprecatory dismissal from Corwin—it is too pat a summary. Indeed, of all his relatives, only one seems willing to allow Corwin to establish his own identity, waiting to observe Corwin's actions and reactions with relative objectivity before passing judgment or imposing stereotypes: his son Merlin, to whom Corwin is not properly introduced until the end of the series, after the successful climax of his quest.

As much as he must combat these prejudgments, most of Corwin's struggle with identity is conducted within himself. He has a lot to contend with here: for he, like his siblings, has been subject to certain family philosophies which serve to perpetuate the stereotype of only one sort of scion of Amber—egotistical, Machiavellian, and mad for power. One concept which is particularly pervasive among the children of the Unicorn—a concept that Corwin feels helps to explain their careless attitude toward the lives of others—is the idea that Shadow worlds are but extensions of the Shadow walker, created out of the psyche of each child of Amber rather than existing in their own right. Although Corwin has clearly developed an unusual compassion for the denizens of Shadow—even as early as his abortive assault on Amber in the first book in the series, he pleads with his brothers to spare his men—it is not until Corwin witnesses the Courts of Chaos, the opposite pole of reality from Amber, that he is able to fully confront and recognize the independent reality of the Other, a necessary component of his new personality. Although Corwin continues to develop and refine a newfound sense of morality based upon the need to treat others with respect and compassion, he mocks himself about this point at the same time. Knowing his past as a prince of Amber, he's cynical about his own attempts to become more responsible toward others. In The Guns of Avalon, while avenging the murder of Lorraine, Corwin tells the reader, "In my heart, there was something like a bit of joy that I had undone at least a small portion of the rottenness I had wrought. Evil? Hell, I've done more of it than most men, but I had picked up a conscience too, somewhere along the way, and I let it enjoy one of its rare moments of satisfaction [....] A Prince of Amber is part and party to all the rottenness that is in the world [....] In the mirrors of the many judgments, my hands are the color of blood. I am a part of the evil that exists in the world and in Shadow" (Guns 66-67). This inability to forgive himself shows how much he has matured: he can recognize that his every action is not good, and that the universe does not in fact revolve around him. This growing morality is an essential component of Corwin's new identity. Indeed, in his quest to understand himself, Corwin must fight against his own preconceived notions of who he is. To do this, he constantly questions himself and his motivations—and realizes that they are not what he had always thought them to be. Although all the children of Amber have been programmed to desire and fight for the throne, Corwin realizes after the death of his hated rival Eric that he does not truly want it. His final formal rejection of the throne is one of the last acts necessary to solidify his new identity before the culmination of his quest in the creation of a new Pattern—formed from his unique sense of self—that will serve as a bastion against the advancing waves of Chaos that would obliterate all reality.

Before examining this final act of achievement, it is necessary to briefly detail the progress of Corwin's quest. From the opening of the series, Corwin's quest for identity goes beyond metaphor. An amnesiac in danger because of who he was, Corwin believes that by recovering his memory, he will discover the key to both his personality and continued existence. However, even before reaching Rebma, where he regains his memory, Corwin begins to experience the tension created by the discrepancy between who he was and who he is becoming, seen mostly in his new, merciful philosophy toward his brother Julian, which seemingly accords so little with the old Corwin that Random interprets it as a sneaky political move. After recovering his memory, Corwin spends many significant moments contemplating the differences between his new and previous selves. At this early stage in the quest, however, he is not certain how to cope with all the new aspects of his personality, and, thrown back by default on the model of the Amberite prince, he concludes that these new traits are actually weaknesses and flaws, inasmuch as he now fails to resemble the Ideal: "I was willing to die fighting, but it was senseless for all these men to go down with me. Perhaps my blood was tainted, despite my power over the Pattern. A true prince of Amber should have had no such qualms. I decided then that my centuries on Shadow Earth had changed me, softened me perhaps, had done something to me which made me unlike my brothers" (Nine 121). However, having experienced "the quality of human suffering" (Guns 12) during his stay in the dungeons, Corwin accepts his new moral philosophy enough to be able to say, as he looks on the Vale of Garnath, which his curse against Amber has helped to destroy, "There was something evil present in that great wood, I knew, and then I recognized it. It was myself" (Nine 173).

After his escape from Amber, Corwin comes face to face with this darkness within his soul. Accepting his responsibility for the destruction visited upon Avalon, a shadow of his former kingdom, he helps to wipe out the evil in the land, attempting at the same time to purge himself of that evil to some degree, though he knows that his responsibility for having empowered it in the first place can never be erased. It is in cleansing Avalon that Corwin, faced with the choice between tacitly ignoring the evil he has created and doing something to rectify the situation, first begins to accept his Earth-born moral philosophy—a philosophy that tacitly posits the reality of the Other. Taking responsibility for one's actions implies that there are consequences for those actions outside the universe of the self. If there is a universe beyond one's own needs and desires, then there are others whose needs and desires must be considered before one acts.

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By the time he returns to Amber to help his siblings confront the growing menace, Corwin realizes beyond doubt that he has changed. His former traits and behavior are far from adequate in characterizing his new identity. Corwin begins to try to convince his siblings of this change as well. Acknowledging the reality and autonomy of others, he seeks to define and change his own boundaries in their minds. When the Unicorn leads Corwin to the primal Pattern, the true identity behind the reality that is Amber, this seems to confirm the validity of his quest for his own true identity. The Pattern is a powerful symbol of the identity not only of its creator, but of the entire family that sprang from this progenitor. Indeed, this primal Pattern exists at a level of reality beyond that which Corwin and many of his siblings had believed existed. In just such a way, Corwin must cut deeper to discover who he truly is. Now that much of Corwin's understanding of both himself and the importance of identity is solidified, his conversation with Vialle leads Corwin to begin to understand one of the central components of his identity, a love for Amber so strong that he is willing to sacrifice both his life and his sanity—all that makes him who he is. Likewise, Corwin's sense of duty and responsibility are absolutely necessary to preserve the realm and reality as he knows it. Further, Corwin learns from his grandfather Dworkin, the author of the original Pattern, about the intense connection between the Pattern and identity; although the Pattern is traced from the design within the Jewel of Judgment, it is so inextricably linked to the identity of the person who inscribes it—upon whose life it literally draws to come into existence—that damage to the Pattern is reflected within his or her mind, disrupting their identity.

Knowing that it will likely mean his death, Corwin attempts to repair the damage to the Pattern himself, in a self-sacrificial act that clearly values the good of the realm above Corwin's own existence. Thus, in an act that both recognizes the identity of the Other and places its needs above his own, Corwin has firmly traced the boundaries of his own identity as an entity both separate from and inextricably part of the rest of the universe. Although Corwin is halted in his attempt, the willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good demonstrates that he has achieved a level of consciousness necessary for the salvation of the realm. Later, when Corwin draws his own version of the Pattern against the approaching tides of Chaos which would obliterate all reality, this new Pattern is both a culmination of his realization of his new self, and an affirmation of the value of his identity—and the importance of his individuality to the universe he holds dear.

This Pattern which Corwin inscribes on the border between the former sway of Order and Chaos is a concrete embodiment of all he has discovered in his quest—a ringing affirmation of his identity even in the face of destruction. Though he fears that he may be destroyed by the approaching waves of Chaos before he can finish erecting the new Pattern, Corwin maintains strict concentration on his task. To succeed at this final test, he must focus on everything he has learned throughout the quest. Though it is a universal symbol whose shape is fixed, the Pattern is nevertheless shaped and made unique by the nuances of the personality that inscribes it. The new Pattern takes its form directly from Corwin's memories, his life force, and who he now understands himself to be. It thus forms both the physical object of his quest and the symbolic manifestation of the quest itself.

Having survived the Chaos-storm through the strength of his Pattern, Corwin will be able to join his siblings and aid them in destroying the threat to all existence. By preserving his identity by giving it physical form in the Pattern, Corwin is able to preserve the realm as well. And in providing himself and the children of Amber with a bastion against Chaos, Corwin also provides himself with a bastion against despair; for when the battle with Chaos has ended, and Corwin lies near death from exhaustion and grief, he takes stock of his newfound knowledge about himself and his family. When his curiosity is aroused by thoughts of exploring the worlds created by the new Pattern—the new worlds within himself—he is able to beat back his inner darkness. Corwin promises himself that he will return to that new Pattern, where he will doubtless continue the lifelong journey of discovering himself.


Works Consulted

Collins, Michael R. "Words and Worlds: The Creation of a Fantasy Universe in Zelazny, Lee and Anthony." The Scope of the Fantastic—Theory, Technique, Major Authors: Selected Essays from the First International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film. Eds. Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pearce. Westport: Greenwood, 1985. 172-182.

Francavilla, Joseph V. "Promethean Bound: Heroes and Gods in Roger Zelazny's Science Fiction." The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction/Fantasy. Ed. Robert Reilly. Westport: Greenwood, 1985. 207-222.

Krulik, Theodore. Roger Zelazny. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Lord, George deForest. Trials of the Self: Heroic Ordeals in the Epic Tradition. Hamden: Archon, 1983.

Mellor, Anne K., ed. Romanticism and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Rhodes, Carolyn. "Experiment as Heroic Quest in Zelazny's 'For a Breath I Tarry'." The Scope of the Fantastic—Culture, Biography, Themes, Children's Literature: Selected Essays from the First International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film. Eds. Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pearce. Westport: Greenwood, 1985. 191-197.

Sanders, Joseph L. Roger Zelazny: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: Hall, 1980.

Thompson, Raymond H. "Jungian Patterns in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Farthest Shore." Aspects of Fantasy: Selected Essays from the Second International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film. Ed. William Coyle. Westport: Greenwood, 1986. 189-195.

Timmerman, John H. Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre. Bowling Green: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1983.

Yoke, Carl B. "What a Piece of Work is a Man: Mechanical Gods in the Fiction of Roger Zelazny." The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction. Eds. Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich. Westport: Greenwood, 1982. 63-74.

Yoke, Carl B. "Zelazny's Black: The Sidekick as Second Self." State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film: Selected Essays from the Eleventh International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, 1990. Ed. Nicholas Ruddick. Westport: Greenwood, 1992. 115-120.

Zelazny, Roger. The Courts of Chaos. New York: Avon, 1978.

———. "Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Writer's View." Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction. Eds. George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. 55-60.

———. The Guns of Avalon. New York: Avon, 1972.

———. The Hand of Oberon. New York: Avon, 1976.

———. Nine Princes in Amber. New York: Avon, 1970.

———. Sign of the Unicorn. New York: Avon, 1975.


Lyn Gardner Photo


Catalog librarian by day, Lyn C. A. Gardner co-edits the journal Virginia Libraries. She's had poems, stories, and articles published or forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Sybil's Garage, The Leading Edge, Mythic Delirium, MindFlights, and more. She is a 2004 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can read more about her at her website www.gardnercastle.com.
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