Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” series: Question Quest


Question Quest (1991)
Lacuna is the daughter of the Zombie Master and Millie. She is now 34 and her life is boring.  She goes to Good Magician Humfrey’s Castle to ask where she had gone wrong.  Grey Murphy (who is still doing the job in Humfrey’s absence) looks up the Book of Answers and says that she should have proposed to the man she loved 12 years ago. (His name was Vernon.) Princess Ivy (Grey’s wife) asks Grey whether there is some way Lacuna can correct this situation.  Grey says that only Humfrey can tell her that.  He is still absent; he is in the anteroom to Hell.  Lacuna insists on going there, so Grey gets her to lie in a coffin, while her spirit travels to the anteroom to Hell in a handbasket.

Lacuna arrives there, and finds Magician Humfrey.  He has been waiting there for 10 years, for a meeting with Demon X(A/N)th, to ask that his former wife, Rose, might be returned to him from Hell.   He must wait there without leaving the room, or he forfeits the interview.  The Demon is no doubt aware that he is waiting, and is hoping he’ll give up.

Lacuna tells Humfrey about Queen Irene’s pronouncement that no man can have two wives, originally made to apply to Dolph’s case (refer “Heaven Cent” and “Isle of View”).  Humfrey hadn’t anticipated this complication; he is already married to the Gorgon.

Lacuna’s magic talent is making writing appear, or altering existing writing.  Humfrey asks her to display his life history on the wall at his dictation.  When he reaches the present, and is about to tell about his future, this will somehow coerce the Demon into turning up.

Humfrey was born 157 years ago. (He had discovered the Fountain of Youth along the way.) He left his home at the age of 15 to go adventuring. He had no magical talent which he was aware of, but he had great curiosity, and collected all the information he could discover, and all the magical items and spells he could find. (This was before the law was enacted which required citizens to have a magic talent – refer “A Spell for Chameleon”.)

He discovered a girl with a unicorn; they had both been injured, so he helped them. Her name was MareAnne, she was also 15, and her talent was that she was able to summon equines (horse-like creatures). She and Humfrey travelled together. They were in love, but MareAnne didn’t want to lose the ability to summon unicorns, so their relationship remained chaste.

They met King Ebnez, where he lived in the South Village. The King gave Humfrey the job of Royal Surveyor – to search out all the magic talents. In particular, the King wanted to find a successor with Magician-level talent. So Humfrey and MareAnne travelled all over Xanth, generally riding winged horses which MareAnne summoned.

They came to Mount Parnassus, and saw the Maenads, but it was too dangerous to interview these wild women. Humfrey went to the temple of the oracle, and asked how he could interview dangerous people. He was given the Answer: “Demon Conquest”, which didn’t seem helpful. (This foreshadows people coming to Humfrey with their Questions, and receiving cryptic Answers.) Then a demoness called Dana came to him. She had somehow acquired a soul, which she didn’t want. She had asked the oracle, and received the Answer: “Marry the King.” She hoped that Humfrey could introduce her to the King. In the meantime she joined them in their survey. She interviewed the Maenads, but they did not have any significant talent.

Humfrey introduced Dana to King Ebnez. Since the time of King Gromden (refer “Crewel Lye”), there had been a prohibition against the King associating with demons. But hearing how useful Dana is to the survey, the King varied the law to permit her to visit him.

After three years the survey was finished. Humfrey heard that Ebnez was dying. Humfrey returned to the King and told him he had found no one with Magician-level talent. Ebnez declared Humfrey to be the Magician of Information, and named him his successor, and then died. Humfrey felt guilty, because he had no magic talent, but there was no one else, so he accepted and became King. He was required to marry, so he asked MareAnne, but she still did not want to lose her unicorns. So he married Dana. And after a time, MareAnne left.

(In a later book, it is revealed that Dana’s real name is Dara; Humfrey keeps getting it wrong.)

Some time later, a baby son was delivered to Dana, a half-demon child whom they called Dafrey. But Dana’s soul was transferred to the baby, and she was no longer in love with Humfrey, and she left. Humfrey needed a new wife, so he married a woman called Maiden Taiwan (referred to as Matron Taiwan after they were married).

Years passed, and Dafrey, now 17, left home. Humfrey had found a young man, called the Storm Magician, with the talent of generating thunderstorms. Humfrey made him the new King, and abdicated. Matron Taiwan had only been interested in the trappings of royalty, and left Humfrey.

Humfrey decided to try to locate the lost Castle Roogna. It had been abandoned after King Gromden’s death when King Yang took the throne. (Refer “Crewel Lye”.) Humfrey realised there must be an aversion spell on the Castle, preventing it from being found. He located where it must be, and headed towards it. When he reached the Castle, he met a beautiful woman, Rose of Roogna. They fell instantly in love.

Rose was the granddaughter of King Yang. She had been born more that 200 years ago. Yang died suddenly, and the throne was taken by a really nasty man, Muerte A Fid, whom it was suspected had poisoned Yang. When Rose was 20, her father died of poison, and the King wanted to marry Rose to legitimise his reign. But her parents had planned for this, and her mother directed her to the path to Castle Roogna. The castle had magic; she was allowed access because she was a royal descendant, and she was protected and confined there, without aging, until a Magician who would become King came to marry her. Her talent was growing roses, so she planted a rose garden there.

Eventually, after more than 200 years, Humfrey had arrived. Rose told him he must become a real Magician before he married her. So he enrolled in the University of Magic, run by the demons in their underground realm, and he spent a year studying, and passed. Humfrey and Rose got married, and moved to the Castle previously occupied by the Zombie Master. This became the Good Magician’s Castle.

Humfrey continued his research into magic, and started compiling his Book of Answers. Rose helped by sorting the pages and indexing them. Humfrey took trips back to Castle Roogna to consult the library there. They had a daughter called Rosetta. Time passed, and Rosetta grew up and got married.

One day, when Humfrey was away at Castle Roogna, Rose rode the winged horse, Peggy, to the Gold Coast in southeastern Xanth. She saw an Ivory Tower being built. She met an old woman who said her name was Peril, although she said some people called her the Sea Hag. But then the woman trapped her in a hollow tree! There was another captive there, a boy called Dread Redhead. He explained that the Sea Hag took over people’s bodies (as described in “Golem in the Gears”). But his magic talent was creating tunnels, and he enabled them to escape. But then he put her in a handbasket to Hell! Dread Redhead was actually a demon who had captured her so she could make Hell more attractive by planting roses.

Humfrey arrived back at his Castle, and discovered he had missed the deadline for rescuing Rose from Hell. He couldn’t bear living without Rose, so he drank Lethe elixir to forget her, enough to last 80 years, thinking he’d be dead by then.

After drinking the elixir, he realised he had forgotten all the time since his first approach to Castle Roogna. He found the Book of Answers, which he didn’t remember writing. He realised there had been a woman living in the Castle, but couldn’t remember her. He found his certificate from the University of Magic, and he did remember his time there.

Humfrey decided he needed a wife to sort his socks, and found Sofia, Sock Sorter, listed in his Book of Answers. But she lived in Mundania; she sorted socks for the company she worked for. So he went to Mundania and asked her to marry him, and brought her back to Xanth. (Later “Socksorter” would be used as if it was her last name.)

In due course they had a son called Crombie. [Yes this is Crombie the soldier mentioned in previous books. The author has retroactively made him Humfrey’s son.]

People started coming to the Castle asking Questions. Humfrey established the regime where the querent must pass three Challenges before getting in. Then they must pay for their Answer with a year’s Service or something equivalent.

With all that was taking his parents’ attention in the Castle, Crombie felt neglected. He went out and found a substitute mother, the mischievous Demoness Metria, whom he sneaked into the Castle. Metria was able to become invisible, or disguise herself as various objects. But she let him do what he liked, and helped him cheat in his studies. And eventually she left. Having been let down by both his mother and his substitute mother, he came to hate women. Humfrey sent him off to become a soldier. Crombie effectively disowned his parents.

During this period, first Trent, and then Iris, both children at the time, came to the Castle, and Humfrey gave them training in their magic talents.

When Trent reached 24, he tried to take the throne from the Storm King, using his magic powers on his opponents. But he was betrayed and exiled to Mundania.

Eventually Sofia returned to Mundania, to die there.

At this point in his dictation to Lacuna, Humfrey has reached the part of history where the Xanth novels begin. He recaps the events of these novels from his point of view. His marriage to the Gorgon occurred in “Centaur Aisle”. Of course, since Crombie was his son, this means Tandy (“Ogre, Ogre”) was his granddaughter, and Esk (“Vale of the Vole”) was his great-grandson. Humfrey continues with the description of events which occurred in Xanth after his disappearance. He has been able to observe them on a magic mirror in Hell’s anteroom.

Here is what happens prior to the disappearance of Humfrey, his wife the Gorgon, and his son Hugo at the beginning of “Vale of the Vole”.

Humfrey set up the Challenges for the three querents of that story. An elf who was serving him had been creating holy smoke, but it got out of control. (Because of the smoke, Dolph had not been able to observe the actual disappearance via the Tapestry, in “Heaven Cent”.)

At this point the effect of the Lethe water wore off. Humfrey remembered Rose. He thought that with his greater experience of magic, he might now be able to get her back. Using the magic power of the holy smoke, he transported himself and his wife and son to the Isle of Illusion (which was now empty of illusions). There were coffins there; they each got into one, and drank sleep potion. They found themselves in the realm of dreams. They met Electra, still in her enchanted sleep – prior to her awakening in “Heaven Cent”. She introduced them to a girl called Wira. Her parents had given her sleep potion to get rid of her, because she was blind. She was 16 when she was put to sleep, and appeared that age in the dream world, so would be a good match for Hugo, who was the same age. But her parents had used a cheap kind of sleep potion, which did not prevent her body from aging. She would now be 28. But the Gorgon pointed out that they could give her water from the Fountain of Youth when they awoke.

The Gorgon and Hugo didn’t want to go with Humfrey to the anteroom of Hell. They would remain in the dream world; the Gorgon would get acting jobs with the Night Stallion, to appear in bad dreams. So Humfrey proceeded in the handbasket to Hell alone.

Now Humfrey has reached the present in his dictation.  Will Demon X(A/N)th appear?  And can Humfrey do a deal with him?  Will the Demon try to cheat?

And if Humfrey can get Rose out of Hell, what will he do about the fact he already has a wife?  In fact it becomes even more complicated: all his previous wives, plus his former girlfriend MareAnne, are in Hell, because they have died – except Rose, who had been transported to Hell while still alive, and Dana – as a demoness she can presumably easily travel between Xanth and Hell. [But see “Knot Gneiss” in relation to Maiden Taiwan.]  Do any of them get to be released?

[Note: Hell in this story is the place of the departed dead of Xanth, not the place of punishment. It is also a place where demons live.  Later in the series a similar realm called Hades is introduced, presided over by the Demon Pluto.  There is also one of the Moons of Ida, which contains realms of Heaven and Hell.]

And what about Lacuna: will she get her Answer?