House of Chains, Lost (-1), Infinite Jest: mysteries, chains and choice

Last week I commented the Lost episode mixing it with considerations about the Malazan series. This week the Lost episode was shallow and just moved the pieces to position them for the finale, culling some useless characters, but it didn’t have anything meaningful to say. So I’ll focus on just Malazan.

This is a kind of minor side-story. Happens in just five pages or so, where the focus is actually on something else. It’s a good example of Erikson’s style, filled with hints that it’s up to the reader to put together and find a meaning. But the meaning is absolutely there (just continue read). The story can be understood without previous knowledge, yet is intricately woven with the rest. Karsa and his temporary Jaghut companion are walking up a hill nestled close to a bigger hill that protects the smaller one from harsh winds. On top of this smaller hill there’s a big tree. Moving closer Karsa notices that there’s an ancient Jaghut (female) that is kind of “embedded” into the tree. The wood passes through the clavicle of the Jaghut to then reunite with the main trunk.

What distinguishes Malazan from Lost, is that in Malazan mysteries are continuously unveiled. With generosity. And the strength of the mystery isn’t in it being hidden and unsaid (like Lost’s smoke and mirrors), but in the secret it holds. It isn’t a fraud. The strength is in the revelation, not in the continue pushing back of the mystery itself. Karsa’s Jaghut companion is like a physical manifestation of something that Lost would never tolerate. Remember in Lost how all questions are systematically dodged through typical tropes, such as: “You aren’t ready to know.” “It’s not time yet.” “Every question I answer will lead to another question.” “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” And so on. There are endless variations. Instead in Malazan we have this:

(Jaghut) “Why, you ask?”
(Karsa) “I do not bother, for I know you will tell me in any case.”
(Jaghut) “Of course I shall, for I am of a helpful sort, a natural proclivity.”


“Of course you must. It is your nature to leave no word unsaid.”

Refreshing when compared to the stubborn and pointless opaqueness of Lost, grown to parody levels.

So Karsa’s Jaghut companion narrates the mystery of this other Jaghut imprisoned in the ancient tree. This tree isn’t simply very old, it’s hundreds of thousands years old. It’s the only one left of its species in the whole world. How did the ancient female Jaghut end imprisoned in the tree? The story begins when this Jaghut was just a child with her mother. Jaghut (as a race) were indiscriminately hunted by another race, the Tlan Imass, so this family of Jaghut was found and slain. The child was spitted on a lance and left there, with the lance thrust in the ground. The wood of that lance was the same wood that originated the tree. For some extraordinary reason it sucked the life from the child and grew roots and developed in a tree. At the same time it transferred its life to the child, who was also kept alive. Now it’s not explicitly told in the text, but it is obvious that the Jaghut story is the story of that tree, meaning that the Jaghut’s whole life has been there, imprisoned. For hundreds of thousands years.

“Same for Phyrlis, whom you will meet tomorrow. She can never see beyond the leaves
in front of her face, though she ceaselessly strives to do so, as if the vast panorama
offers something other than time’s insectile crawl. Empires, thrones, tyrants and
liberators, a hundred thousand tomes filled with versions of the same questions, asked
over and over again. Will answers deliver their promised solace?”

The meaning of this story is then left to the reader, because there are here echoes of themes that define Erikson’s work. Elliptical patterns and loops. Refractions of light. In this case the story of the Jaghut echoes with the story of the Tlan Imass. In a way, the spear saved the life of the Jaghut, only to imprison her for eternity. Was that a blessing or a condemnation? The central point is how the Tlan Imass decide to exterminate the Jaghut. There are reasons for this, but here we see the perspective of a child. So the perspective of someone that represents innocence. Tlan Imass exterminate Jaghut indiscriminately. Including killing kids. This Jaghut in this story not only represents innocence, but also the lack of choice. Her imprisonment is obligated. And her fate echoes frighteningly with the fate of the whole Tlann Imass race:

“I am forced into continuation.”

Previously in the book we have witnessed to the destiny of some Tlan Imass, whose head was the only part to survive, condemned to consciousness for eternity and with the only desire of being placed at least on a vast natural panorama that would sweeten this sentence of continuation. So there’s this echo between the single Jaghut child, whose destiny was forced by Tlan Imass, and the destiny of every Tlan Imass, as a race. With the difference that the Tlan Imass have embraced and shaped that destiny for themselves. They’ve chosen it. Something that echoes even with Infinite Jest, the part with Marathe:

“No, but this choice, Katherine: I made it. It chains me, but the chains are of my choice.”

If you have read Infinite Jest you KNOW that line is central to the book. If you’ve read “House of Chains” you know that the theme of the chains is central to the whole Malazan series. If you’ve seen Lost, you know the smoke monster makes chain-like noises. The monster is being chained to the island, can’t leave, is imprisoned. The meaning in these three disparate mediums is essentially the same. Tapping onto something true.

The (one of) theme(s) in the Malazan series is how Tlan Imass, in order to fight against the abominations of Jaghut, become themselves a worse abomination. In “A Game of Thrones” the driving theme of the book and the most shocking one is how “doing the right thing” doesn’t always lead to an happy end. In Malazan we see deep in the corruption of goodwill. In the true twisting of intentions. The twisting of faith and belief. Also the lack of absolute truths, and the delusions that accompany them.

“Misleading” and deception aren’t just plot devices in House of Chains. They are its theme, down to a meaningful level. Mysteries that reveal terrible truths. And the lacerating tragedy embedded in those truths.

As it happens, in Malazan truths are contained within bigger truths. So, just a few pages later, we discover that the story we’re told of the Jaghut imprisoned in the tree is only one part. Because the reason of the extraordinary event is that the lance was being thrust into the ground where existed a dying Azath house. It was the Azath that gave the life to both the wood and the Jaghut child. With another link to Lost. A theme used in Lost is how there must be balance in power, and that balance has to be maintained. Malazan answer to this is a kind of natural event. Whenever on the world there’s a convergence of power that rises to threaten the world itself, an “Azath” forms to imprison that power. Like an antibody of the world. In this particular story the Azath was antecedent to the Jaghut/tree, so why there was an Azath in that place and why was it dying? Who was imprisoned in the Azath? In Malazan answers come by just turning the page: it is revealed that Gothos was in there, another Jaghut. The reason why the Azath was dying was because it was assaulted by Icarium (Ghotos’ son), trying to free his father (who didn’t want to be saved, again the theme of choice and chains/imprisonment).

Icarium’s own fate echoes again with the ones of the Tlan Imass and the Jaghut. Icarium is one of those Jaghut with immense powers and who used those powers to annihilate an inordinate amount of other beings and other disasters. He himself represents the kind of reason why Tlan Imass decided that Jaghut had to be completely exterminated. In order to stop him they made him lose his memories. Like a brain reset. Like forcing him becoming a child again. Becoming innocent. Like the Jaghut imprisoned in the tree.

Icarium’s own condemnation is then linked to the stories already told. It’s again deeply woven with the theme of choice. Icarium also can’t choose, because he can’t remember and without awareness there’s not choice. And without choice there’s no guilt. He doesn’t deserve his fate, because he’s also innocent. And his deepest secret is kept by his friend who never separates from him. The friend who knows the truth but can’t reveal it to him in order to protect him from that dangerous truth. Icarium is condemned to unawareness, against his choice. He’s also chained, arguably for a good reason. It is then consequential that Icarium’s obsession is about “time”. He builds complex machines to measure time and he’s brought again and again to that hill with the tree and the Jaghut imprisoned within, because the wood of that tree is the most durable material that can be used to build his machines. Unaware that he has been there before, unleashing destruction. And this closes an ideal loop.

That’s how the Malazan series works on a general level. It’s a good example of how plots and themes are woven and why secrets and revelations are meaningful when they originate from something true. Mirrors and refractions of ideas, used in meaningful ways. Mysteries that truly hold secrets that is worth to unveil and understand.

This was a side story.

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