THE GOBBLESWAP MYTH ("WITCHKING'S CURSE")

PREVALENCE HISTORY/ORIGIN/PURPOSE - IMPORTANCE - STORY 

A barn cat famed for its fear of water suddenly takes to regular swims in the village pond. A fisherman declares that he’d rather be eaten by a shark than be responsible for one more death among the creatures of the sea. A demure farmer’s daughter, betrothed to the most handsome lad in town and set for a bright future, begins to take delight in the bawdiest jokes, and instead of attending to her duties, spends whole days rolling around in the mud with the blackhogs.

If such a sudden transformation of character occurs; if, moreover, it appears to be permanent; if the afflicted person or animal shows no sign of resenting the change; and if nothing of the patient’s former character appears to remain, almost as if his or her body had been taken over by a different being – then old geezers and wrinkly hags will whisper; scholars will leaf through dusty books and mumble ominously; healers will shake their heads and despair of a cure. But one word they all will utter, quietly and under their breath, as if it had to be drawn from their throats against their will. And that word is: Gobbleswap!

When the Gobbleswap gets you, the saying goes, you have gobbled down your last meal. Though your body may still be seen and your voice be heard, you will have ceased to exist; it’s the Gobbleswap who now reigns within your mortal, yet living shell – just as it reigned in the body of the animal whose flesh was the last thing you tasted. For the Gobbleswap becomes what eats it.

How a Gobbleswap truly looks, nobody knows. It may reside in the body and mind of any animal or intelligent being: its current host is the creature who has eaten the previous one, and whatever eats the last host will the next host be. A cat eats a Gobbleswap dwelling in the body of a fish, and the Gobbleswap takes over the cat, with its whiskers, its ability to purr, and its predilection for naps in the sun. Yet the Gobbleswap doesn’t forget its joyful days as a fish, splashing in the cool water. A fisherman happens to catch the wrong mithanjor, and a Gobbleswap takes residence in him, retaining a sense of solidarity with the fish whose shape it once shared. A farmer’s daughter eats what she thinks is a piece of roast blackhog meat – and the Gobbleswap makes its home in her, delighting in finding out how the thick mud feels to the human skin that has become its new abode.

Legends and tales, sayings and rumours, witness accounts and reports of scholarly investigations tell us of the Gobbleswap. It is this body of lore and learning that we shall aim to summarize here. Whether our exposition will contain any truths, we are, forsooth, not confident to wager. It may well be that all we can recount are futile attempts to explain the inexplicable, to chart the unfathomable depths of the vast sea on whose thin surface our helpless consciousness floats like a raft without sail or rudder.

Prevalence. Gobbleswap lore is most prevalent in the areas around the Ancythrian Sea, but you may come across it throughout Southern Sarvonia, from Cape Strata to the Tandala Highlands. Fishers and farmers are particularly prone to telling Gobbleswap legends. Maybe that’s because fishers and farmers have much occasion to observe the behaviour of the animals that become their food. So when there’s a baneg that doesn’t appear to mind being slaughtered, or a fish that bites the hook all too eagerly, men and women may remember the tale of the Gobbleswap. Return to the top

History/Origin/Purpose. Some scholars believe that Gobbleswap lore originated as one of the many stories connected to the mysterious menace that has emanated from the Ancythrian Sea ever since the infamous events of “Witchking’s Night”. This theory rests on the evidence of “The Fisherman’s Tale”, one of the chief older legends connected to the Gobbleswap (see below) – and it is supported by the fact that around the Ancythrian Sea, the Gobbleswap is known as the “Witchking’s Curse”.

However, other scholars say that Gobbleswap lore is as old as storytelling itself; and that the legends of Witchking’s Night have merely incorporated the original, older stories. If this is so, it is curious to reflect that despite being gobbled up by the more recent myths, Gobbleswap lore has emerged alive and well, under a new name and with a new appearance – much like the creature of which it tells! Indeed, as the Gobbleswap legend exists all over
Sarvonia, and as it is associated with land animals as well as sea creatures, it is likely that its oldest versions originated independently of the Witchking’s Night tales. Return to the top

Importance. Gobbleswap lore is used to explain some of the more bizarre afflictions that the mind is heir to. For example, when a man is under the delusion that he really is a baneg, a healer summoned by the concerned family may well ask questions about the patient’s last meal before the delusion set in. If it is found to have been a baneg steak, the healer may pronounce the patient “gobbled”.

The idea that a person’s body may come to be inhabited by a mysterious, monstrous creature can have intricate legal consequences. We have heard of a merchant who, on his deathbed, disinherited his younger son, and bequeathed all of his considerable wealth to the older. The disappointed younger son, however, thought of an ingenious if devious method to trick his way into the inheritance: His older brother was a man of eccentric habits; among other things, he kept a number of taenish for pleasure, and never ate any of them. Now, the younger brother managed to find a healer, who was prepared to testify before a judge that what appeared to be the merchant’s eldest son and heir was in fact a Gobbleswap that had formerly been a taenish. The judge accepted the healer’s statement and ruled that the Gobbleswap, despite residing in the elder brother’s body, had no familial relation with the deceased father, and could therefore not inherit his fortune. Instead, the cunning younger brother, as next in the family line, was ruled to be the rightful heir.
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Story. All stories agree that if you eat a Gobbleswap, you disappear, and the Gobbleswap becomes you. Most people, relying on rather simple conceptions of the nature of sentient beings, are satisfied with believing that the Gobbleswap takes over its consumer’s body. However, we know a number of facts that call for a more sophisticated account of the matter. It is regularly observed that the Gobbleswap inhabits not only its victim’s body, but also commands his or her higher abilities, such as the use of language in humans. What is more, the Gobbleswap appears to have access to its victim’s memories, and is even prone to retain some of its victim’s habits, although it may completely abandon others. In the light of this evidence, we cannot but come to the conclusion that the Gobbleswap takes up residence not in its hosts’ bodies only, but in their minds also.

To understand this idea, imagine that you ate a Gobbleswap. Now, your friends would still be able to see your body, hear your voice, smell your sweat, and recognize the particular way you squint your eyes when you bite into a sour meldarapple. Your friends could also, in theory at least, still benefit from your knowledge, share cherished memories of days spent in merriment and friendship, and predict which lady or gentleman you are most likely to fall in love with. But all these things, which you used to cherish as belonging to you, and to you only, would be under the Gobbleswap’s control and ownership. You yourself, you would be no more. Your self, your soul – or whatever you want to call the tiny observer that is never quite identical with anything you may do or say or think or dream; the one who stays the same even as your body ages, as your mind deepens, as your character ripens or corrupts; the one who thinks when you think about yourself; the one who is so difficult to name, so difficult to describe, yet so impossible to deny – this one, I say, would cease to exist. It, you, was gobbled by the Gobbleswap in return for your gobbling of its former abode. So in a sense, you both ate one another. The difference is that when you ate the Gobbleswap, it merely acquired a new shape – but when the Gobbleswap ate you, you disappeared without a trace.

A number of intriguing questions are associated with Gobbleswap lore: What happens, say, if a Gobbleswap inhabits a particular fish, and two people eat of it? We have never heard of evidence for the sudden presence of more than one Gobbleswap directly after a shared meal. Yet it is not clear which part of an animal you have to eat to bring the Gobbleswap upon yourself.

Most animals, of course, are killed, cut up, and cooked before they are eaten. How long can a Gobbleswap survive after its host’s death? We have never heard any tale of a Gobbleswap incurred after eating preserves such as salt fish – but it may be that such cases go unrecognized.

The most interesting questions of all, however, must surely be these: where, how and in what shape does a Gobbleswap begin its existence? Where do Gobbleswaps come from? What is their first abode, their original host? We regret that we cannot do better than confess our ignorance in this regard. What we can do, however, is tell some of the more illuminating reports that we have gathered in the course of our ardent quest for knowledge. Ever since we were eaten by this peculiar creature that you are wont to address as Shabakuk Zeborius Anfang – and have thus acquired language, useless emotions such as pride and shame, and a worrying awareness of our host’s mortality – we have been consumed by the desire to explain the mystery of our origins. Oh, we remember the bodies and the minds of our former hosts, we yearn for their peculiar manners of having pleasure, we shudder when we recall their peculiar manners of feeling pain. But our beginnings are as mysterious to us as the experience of living in his mother’s womb was to old Shabakuk, and as impossible to recall. Despite our failure to ultimately solve the enigma that Gobbleswap existence poses, we feel entitled to call ourselves fortunate, since we have been fascinated to find how entertaining those Gobbleswap stories can be, even if they be nothing but lies, rumours and flights of fancy.

We know of two longer tales associated with the Gobbleswap: The Fisherman’s Tale is well known around the
Ancythrian Sea. When the “Witchking’s Curse” is mentioned in those parts, scenes and images from the Fisherman’s Tale will surface in the minds of children and adults. A version of this tale can be found below.

The second tale is far less famous, and chiefly known among scholars, as it was preserved in the form of a written manuscript, rather than through oral tradition. It is narrated from the point of view of a Gobbleswap in the form of a human man, who claims to have previously lived as a gnacker mollusc. This tale is known by the title “I was a Gnacker”, and can be found in the library.

The Fisherman’s Tale (or: The Man who wanted to be a Shark). On Witchking’s Night in 62 b.S., an enourmous magical trap set by the dark elven witchking, the Móch'rónn Saban Blackcloak, destroyed a large army of elves, humans and dwarves, who had tried to attack Blackcloak’s fortress on the enclave of Alvang on the coast of the Ancythrian Sea. That trap, say the storytellers, was the beginning of the end of the Ancythrian Sea's pleasant calmness. The sea became known as the “Witchking’s Waters”: home of monsters and dangerous reefs, playground of ship-wrecking storms, source of malevolent fogs that rise from the waves and inspire treachery and guile in men’s and women’s hearts.

So it was no wonder that, soon after Witchking’s Night, a fisherman’s madness was attributed to the evil emanating from the Witchking’s Waters. As rumours of the fisherman’s fate spread through the towns and villages on the Ancythrian coast and the surrounding regions, fear of the “Witchking’s Curse” began to grip the mind of the populace. This is how an old woman from Cavthan told the fisherman’s story:

It was only a few moons after Witchking’s Night, when it happened that a fishing boat went out from Cavthan. The fishermen had got up before sunrise, and by sunreign they’d made a good catch of cáeh-fish. They’d also caught some small mithanjor, so they went about frying a few of them for their lunch. Have you ever eaten fresh-fried mithanjor? They make a splendid meal, and the fishermen enjoyed it, as they had done since they were boys. They had a mind to fish some more, and then sail back so they’d reach the harbour before sunset. Little did they suspect that by the time they finally did return, they would regret ever having set their sails and ventured out to sea that day.

Among them was one who was the oldest, and the finest fisherman by far. He knew every reef and shallow on the Ancythrian Sea, and could tell by the tickling in his right thumb when the next storm would blow. That afternoon, after the merry lunch of mithanjor, this old fisherman refused to cast out the net again.

This is what happened. This old fisherman stood up from his seat, slowly, and stared at his hands. His friends saw how he turned his wrists and wriggled his fingers, just as if he was trying them out, as if he was seeing them move for the first time. He made a step with his left leg. He made a step with his right leg. He jumped in the air and landed heavily on his feet. He sniffed the air, seemed to taste it, and curled up his nose, just as if he had bitten into something rotten or bitter. And all the while he had this ponderous look on his face. When they told his story later, the fishers swore that his eyes had changed, too. They had been grey like an overhung sky before, they said, but now they were green: green and calm like the sea on a windless morning.

The old fisherman looked up at them with these sea-green eyes, and he spoke to them. He said it was a cruel custom to set a trap for the creatures of the sea, to drag them out of the the water and to throw them onto the deck where they squirmed and twisted and writhed in a futile attempt to regain the comfort of the currents. The fish, this old fisherman said, had never known the sun, nor the wind. They felt the hot light suck the moisture out of their scales, and the thin air bite their eyes. And so, the old fisherman said, the fish died a painful death of suffocation.

His friends, believe me, they laughed at him. They thought he had spun this yarn to amuse them, so they’d be merry and hearty for their afternoon’s work. But the old fisherman’s eyes were stern, and he did not smile. So his friends choked on their own guffaws, and they fell silent.

And the old fisherman said: “I loathe this body with its clumsy limbs and its plodding way of movement. I loathe the air that is too thin too wriggle in it. I loathe that I can move left and right, forward and back, but not up or down. I loathe the cowardice of catching your prey with a net. I shall return to the sea, and I shall live as the noblest creature I have come to know.”

The old man turned and walked to the railing. He looked at the sea and he smiled. He took his knife – the same knife with which he had cut up the mithanjor only one a short while ago. He made a deep cut in his own arm, and a fountain of blood sprung out of it. His friends jumped to him and took his knife away; they thought he was mad. They talked to him, they tried to calm him, they told him they would bring him home to rest. But the old man fixed them with his sea green eyes, so clear and deep and terrible. The fishers were frightened. They thought he was a demon, and they backed away.

The mad fisher lifted one leg onto the railing – slowly at first, tentatively, like a toddler who wasn’t used to moving his limbs yet – and he swung himself over and hurled himself into the water. The blood was still flowing from his arm, and it coloured the water red, but he splashed around like a happy child in a bath tub. His friends called to him. They threw him a rope, so he might climb back up onto the ship. But he never heeded. And then they saw the shark.

It was swimming just under the surface. Its dorsal fin sliced through the water like a knife, and the fishers could see the shadow of its body beneath. An enormous beast it was, as long as three men; it was the biggest fish they had ever seen. The shark had smelled the old fisherman’s blood, and it was swimming towards him, in a swerving but purposeful line.

His friends called to him, ever louder, ever more desperate. They threw some of the day’s catch into the water to distract the shark. But the beast had smelled the sweeter blood of the human, and it sensed the vigorous splashing of a healthy meal, and it was greedy for the juiciest catch it could get. It made sure it got it.

The fishermen saw how the shark opened its enormous jaws, and for a blink they stared into the blue abyss of its maw. Then the teeth hit their prey, the jaws closed, and the old fisher, their friend, was pulled into the deep. A red patch formed on the spot where he had floated. There was no escape from the jaws of an Ancythrian shark.

The fishermen gaped at the pool of blood that was quickly dissipating into the dark green sea. They struggled to believe what they had witnessed. Their old friend had spent a lifetime sailing the sea’s surface, gaining his lifelihood by drawing out of its depths what nourishing creatures he could catch – but it had taken barely three blinks of madness for the roles to be reversed. By his own free will, he had turned from hunter to hunted, and had been dragged away from the breathable air by a creature of the sea. The fishers cried, and they lamented. Staring at the waves, they hoped against their better knowledge that the old man would re-emerge, that he would turn out to be the victor in a heroic battle against the monstrous shark. But they knew in their hearts that their friend hadn’t intended to fight. He had had no reason to. He had wanted to be eaten.

When the last of the red blood had merged into the green vastness, the fishermen turned away and prepared to set sail. They knew it would be a sad journey back home. They had neither strength nor spirit to cast their nets again that day. They thought about what they would tell their old friend’s wife, and what they would tell his sons. And they dared not look into the water again.

But the youngest of them, a mere boy, heard a loud splash on the starboard side. He turned his head and looked over the railing; once again, he saw the shark. The beast was jumping out of the water in great leaps, again and again, as if in celebration. Its eyes kept scrutinizing the ship, and when it saw that it had the boy’s attention, it stopped in the water and stuck its head out, fixing its gaze at him. The boy saw its eyes. They were stern, and green and calm like the sea on a windless morning, and the boy knew that they were the old sailor’s eyes. And there was something else that the boy knew, in that moment. He knew that the sailor lived on in the shark, and that he was happy. Happier than the boy would ever be.

But I tell you, the boy was mistaken. It was not the old fisherman who looked at him through the shark’s eyes. It was the Gobbleswap, the Witchking’s Curse, who with that gaze had wanted to let him know what it was. The Gobbleswap had been the mithanjor that the fisher had eaten; and almost as soon as it had taken abode in the fisher’s human skin, it had decided to cast it off again, and to return to the sea. And who, my friend, is to say that it was wrong to do so? Taking residence in a mighty Ancythrian shark – it may be a consummation devoutly to be wished? Return to the top

 

 Date of last edit 7th Sleeping Dreameress 1669 a.S.

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