Study Guide

Sam in Lord of Light

By Roger Zelazny


One of the first humans on the planet, Sam originally styled himself a god just like the rest. He was Kalkin, based on the tenth incarnation of Vishnu. He helped the gods colonize the planet, but then he grew disillusioned with the heavenly host and joined their human descendants as Prince Siddhartha. In time, he saw the world the gods created for what it was: a dark age of inequality and suffering. And so, he began a rebellion to overthrow the other Firsts and bring equality to the people.

Tall order. How exactly does one go about overthrowing the gods? Let's find out.

What Would Buddha Do?

As we mentioned, this world's pantheon of gods are not the Hindu gods. Rather, they are ordinary people who used some seriously boss technology to fashion themselves as the gods of Indian culture. In the same way, Sam is not the Buddha. Instead, he crafted a persona based on the Buddha by stealing "teachings from the Gottama [sic] of another place and time" (1.120). This means that while Sam shares many similar traits with the Buddha of history and myth, he's not simply the space Buddha. He's his own kind of guy.

Example? Sure we've got an example. When the Buddha was born, it was said he'd either become a great sage or a great warrior. Obviously, he became a great sage and founded the religion of Buddhism. Sam's story, however, compounds these two parts of the Buddha's tale as Sam takes on the roles of great sage and great warrior.

Also, when the Buddha left to discover the path to liberation from suffering, he was confronted by the demon Mara. Through the Buddha's strength of will and steadfast determination, he overcame Mara's temptations and was awakened to enlightenment. In the same regard, Sam meets his own demon in Taraka but claims, "I am a man who has set out to do a thing, and you are now blocking my way" (4.215). Clearly Sam inherited his forbearer's tenacity.

But then there are the personality traits that are Sam's and Sam's alone. When Sam fights in the Battle of Keenset, he reverts back to his Kalkin personality. He boasts, kills, grows blood thirsty, and his "lightnings [strike] friend and foe alike" (6.643). Obviously, a far cry from the peace loving Buddha who came to "teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering" (source). Also, the Buddha did not throw lightning either. We don't think…?

The Great Equalizer

Again, like the Buddha, Sam's mission is one of liberation. But again again, it's also very distinct from Buddha's. Whereas the Buddha sought to liberate humanity from suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth, Sam's goal is a little more tangible, a little more down to earth.

Sam desires social equality. He's a Robin Hood kind of guy, guys; he robs from the rich and gives to the poor. His goal is to "break the Celestial City, to open its vaults to the world" (5.1054). In other words, he wants all the people of the world to enjoy the life, technology, and privileges the gods enjoy, and to end the social caste system that has forced men to bow down to their fellow man. After all, when the some people live in a technological wonderland and other people don't have printing presses or toilets, then it's time for some social changes. Would you not agree?

What's in a Name? Hint: Not What You'd Think

Sam goes by many names during the course of the story. He is "variously known as Mahasamatman, Kalkin, Manjusri, Siddhartha, Tathagatha, Binder [of Demons], Maitreya, the Englightened One, Buddha, and Sam" (1.93). All of these names signify an aspect or part of Sam's life. Binder of Demons signifies that Sam once bound the Rakasha to Hellwell; Maitreya means Lord of Light (7.Intro); and Buddha, well, we've already discussed that one.

But during Mara's cremation, Sam gives an interesting speech:

"Names are not important," [Sam] said. "To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, 'What is it like, this thing you have seen?' So he tries to tell them. […] They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun […], but something different from each of these apart or all of these together." (1.409)

What are we to make of the fact that the man with so many names believes names to be meaningless? Here's a crazy thought: How about we take it at face value? Names are not important; names are meaningless.

Like the man trying to describe fire to someone who has never seen it, a name tries to describe the reality of the self but can't manage it. This is why Sam doesn't take offense when Yama calls him a false Buddha—he knows he is (3.433). And he's not the Binder of Demons, and he's not Maitreya, and he's not the Englightened One. All these names describe an aspect of Sam—in the same way a fire is like the sun but isn't—yet they don't get to the core of the entity of Sam.

In this light, Sam's entire character is a giant discussion on the concept of identity and self. His identity is always shifting, yet his self remains a mystery just out of reach.

It's an interesting place to end our character analysis. On the one hand, we've done what any character analysis should do: described aspects of Sam and what they can represent. But on the other hand, Sam's own character deconstructs our analysis. It says that these aspects are not the character itself. Sam is Sam. And even then, Sam's not really Sam—he's something beyond the name.