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Literature / The Traveller in Black

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The Traveller in Black is the central character of a series of fantasy stories written by John Brunner and published in various magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. The first four were collected in The Traveller in Black in 1971; The Compleat Traveller in Black, published in 1985, collects the entire series in revised form.

The stories are set in a fantastic land, described as being part of Eternity as distinct from Time, where magic is everywhere and forces of Order and Chaos contend with one another. Walking the Earth in this land is a mysterious stranger dressed all in black, who has "many names, but only one nature".


Part of the nature of the Traveller in Black is that any wish spoken in his presence will be granted, not always to benefit of the wisher; those who wish carelessly and selfishly get their comeuppance, while those who wish unselfishly (whose number, in the entire series, can be counted on one hand) are rewarded.

These stories provide examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Manuus is one of the most welcoming and polite wizards in the stories, all the while trying to foment a war between two cities in the cause of Chaos.
  • And I Must Scream:
    • A man wishes he could start a new religion so that he could have all the fine clothes, food and young women he wanted. The Traveller grants his wish by freezing him where he sits. His fellow villagers consider his perfect immobility miraculous and worship him as a god, dressing him in fine robes, giving him food in the form of burnt offerings, and presenting him with young women as human sacrifices.
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    • A man wishes he could learn all the secrets of a magical tree. The Traveller complies by incorporating the man's body into the tree's, so that he instantly understands how to use its magic but is physically incapable of using it (or of doing anything else).
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: In "The Wager Lost by Winning", the rather unsympathetic wish-maker is bathed before being claimed by Lord Fellian.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: A recurring theme.
    • In "Imprint of Chaos", Duke Vaul is trying to bring the Statue of the Quadruple God to life, since it is prophesied that if this happens, the Quadruple God will destroy the city's enemies. Despite the traveller's warning that said enemies are not abroad but right here in the city, Vaul insists on going ahead. Whereupon the traveller awakens the God, who indeed destroys the city's enemies — starting with Vaul, and continuing with his priests.
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    • In "The Wager Lost by Winning", Viola wishes to be reunited with her fiance, who's been kidnapped and enslaved. The slavers promptly return and drag her off, too.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: In several cases, it's hinted that brother/sister pairs of sorcerors have increased their magical power by doing this.
  • Catchphrase: "I have many names, but only one nature" and "As you wish, so be it".
  • Covered in Mud: At the end of "The Things That Are Gods", when Crancina's plan fails, she and Count Lashgar and his priests are precipitated into the muck at the bottom of the recently-drained Lake Taxhling, much to the amusement of the population.
  • Epigraph: Each story begins with one.
  • Exact Words: In "The Things That Are Gods", an elemental incapable of lying assures the Traveller that the new threat he senses is not an elemental working against him. It's an elemental working with him, to enact a wish that runs contrary to his purpose.
  • Fake Memories: In "Imprint of Chaos", an evil magician takes a seat on the Ruling Council of a city, the better to cause the citizens to make a choice that will increase Chaos in the area. His plan includes implanting Fake Memories in the rest of the Council members that he has always been a member of the Council himself.
  • Fictional Colour: When the Traveller uses his staff to heal an injured man, it shines with light, "the color of which humans have no name for".
  • Forever War: Between the Kanishmen and the Kulyamen, as one of the symptoms of Chaos.
  • The Gods Must Be Idiots: The god in "Imprint of Chaos" is basically a big, powerful child.
  • Hard Light: The Traveller carries a walking-staff made of "light curdled by a number of interesting forces". The Traveller can dissolve and recreate at least one of these forces at will, allowing him to use his staff as a powerful source of light.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: Once Chaos declines to a point where they have no hope left of ever being freed again, the bound elementals start asking the Traveller to make them "cease".
  • I Have Many Names: The Traveller in Black is described more than once as "having many names, but only one nature". A subversion, as he's never actually called anything but "the traveller".
    • In 'Imprint of Chaos', the traveller "introduces" himself by mentioning his singular nature, and then continues "You may call me Mazda, or whatever you choose." This would appear to be one of his names, but he doesn't insist on it. He also uses the name in the magazine printings of the other stories, but not in the revised text of The Compleat Traveller in Black.
  • I Know Your True Name: In "Break the Door of Hell", it's mentioned in passing that Vivette knows Ormond's true name, and this gives her a measure of power over him.
  • Informed Attribute: While he says he has many names a lot, none of those names are actually stated in the stories. Even "traveller in black" doesn't seem to be one, as this description is never capitalized.
  • Jerk-to-Nice-Guy Plot: One of the wishes the Traveller grants is for a haughty young woman, who wishes to be loved for who she is rather than her looks or fortune. Instantly her supply of suitors dries up, and it's not until she's worked at becoming a likeable person that she meets her eventual husband.
  • Literary Allusion Title: As the epigraphs make clear, "Break the Door of Hell" alludes to The Epic of Gilgamesh, "Dread Empire" to Alexander Pope's Dunciad.
  • The Magic Goes Away: Occurs over the course of the series as Order gains ground on Chaos; magic can not function in a world entirely given to Order.
  • Mutagenic Goo: The waters of the river Metamorphia transform people, animals, debris and even eroded lumps of mud into all sorts of unsightly things.
  • Naïve Newcomer: The first story has a 20th-century Londoner find himself transported to the setting of the series, providing a familiar viewpoint for the reader. (He's sent home at the end of the story, having served his purpose both in-universe and out-.)
  • Order Versus Chaos: The overarching conflict of the stories; the Traveller himself is an agent of Order.
  • The Power of Blood: In "The Things That Are Gods", Crancina schemes to gain magical power by filling an entire lake with blood to animate the magically-transformed statues on the lakebed as her minions.
  • Recut: The text of The Compleat Traveller in Black is revised, adding foreshadowing in the earlier stories for "Dread Empire" among other changes.
  • Scarecrow Solution: Used to frighten off a god (it wasn't a very smart god) in "Imprint of Chaos".
  • Unfazed Everyman: In the first story, a 20th-century Englishman is summoned to the magical past in which the stories are set, and reacts to every strange thing he encounters with calm rationality. (It's suggested that he was specifically chosen for that attribute, it being in notably short supply in that place at that time.)
  • Virgin Power: A rare male example appears in "Imprint of Chaos". Eadwil, one of the diviners consulted by the Margrave of Ryovora, is a youth who's postponed "a major upheaval of his physiology", the better to preserve his sorcerous abilities. Another (female) wizard is strongly implied to likewise be dependent upon her virginity for power, as she demands that her would-be lovers castrate themselves before they can touch her.
  • Walking the Earth: The Traveller.
  • Walking Wasteland: In the presence of the enchanter Tyllwin, plants wither and birds die.
  • When the Planets Align: The Traveller makes his periodic journeys when a certain array of four planets comes into alignment.


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