The Moon Moth (Jack Vance)

Jack Vance wrote this story “The Moon Moth” about a culture of people who always wore masks and accompanied their singing language with various instruments always carried. It was also about the protagonist’s search for a dangerous assassin whose identity was impossible to determine because everyone wore masks. Right now I’m more interested in the masks.

The masks were part of the culture’s honor system, called strakh. If you had high strakh you could walk into a shop and receive a nice mask or a nice houseboat, no money required, since it increased the strakh of the craftsman to give it to you. A person with low strakh wouldn’t be able to get much at all. Your deeds could affect your strakh, for example a fine craftsman would have greater strakh than an unskilled one.

Slaves always wore black cloth masks.

Other masks had names, like Forest Goblin or Moon Moth or Sea Dragon Conqueror. The mask you wore showed what kind of personality you were trying to project. If you wore a mask with physical pretentions you would be constantly challenged to duels by Forest Goblins and so forth. A Tarn Bird mask showed that you made no claims whatsoever. A Moon Moth was a scummy stupid mask and it’s what the protagonist wore. People often had multiple mask types for various moods and occupations and settings.

You could affect your strakh a little by your persuasion: your skill at singing and choice of words, and skill at playing the instrument and choice of instrument.

The masks seem to have been organized into cycles. It was never explained well and I imagine a mask cycle is either a series of levels within a pretention type (such as various types of big bad tough guy mask) or a range of pretentions at a given level (explorer, wanderer, crusader, settler, etc).

The masks were interestingly named and could easily be the springboard for some cool magic items. We don’t really have enough magic masks. Especially since a magic mask has an opportunity cost: if you wear the mask and get a magical effect, you can’t also wear a helmet and get an armor bonus (especially a magic helmet giving a great armor bonus!).

I scoured the Internet using Google for several minutes until I gave up on finding anyone who had a complete list of the mask names. Here you are, in no particular order but arranged in generally the groups that I think fit together (the last block is weird ones that I couldn’t fit in another group). Enjoy!

Moon Moth
Tarn Bird (no pretentions)
Cave Owl (has some association with wisdom / scholarship, maybe not meant to be a bird-type at all)
Triple Phoenix

Red Bird
Green Bird
Bright Sky Bird
(these three were only ever described as worn by women, though I don’t know if that’s a requirement)

Tavern Bravo (apparently a mask for getting your drunk on)
Fire Snake
Thunder Goblin
Forest Goblin (the big bad tough guy mask)
Shark God
Sand Tiger
Dragon Tamer
Equatorial Serpent
Sea Dragon Conquerer (apparently the best mask)
Red Demiurge
Sun Sprite
Magic Hornet

Sophist Abstraction
Black Intricate
Wise Arbiter

Gay Companion
Star Wanderer
South Wind

Master Craftsman
Ideal of Perfection
Universal Expert (conflicted over whether this or ideal of perfection is the higher level craftsman mask)

Prince Intrepid
(All three apparently in the Kan Dachan Hero cycle)

Alk Islander (described as worn by a boy-child)
Pirate Captain
Emerald Mountain

Some masks had descriptions in the book. They’re not realistic masks, they’re highly stylized. Some are incredibly intricate (thousands of articulated wooden pieces) or just a bunch of scales and feather (Moon Moth … although the disparaging description may have been because the protagonist felt he should wear a greater mask and couldn’t).

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