Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, is probably best known for The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Otherwise perhaps for his Jorken’s stories and his clever, witty fables of the foibles and fallacies of gods and men. The Sword of Welleran is a collection of his earlier works. I think, perhaps, his relative inexperience shows when these stories are compared to his later, more mature writing, though I’m hardly qualified to judge. Still, I found the collection well worth my time, starting with:
The Sword of Welleran. A parable in search of explication. The unnamed dreamer (Dunsany himself, perhaps, as a recurrent character?) narrating this tale provides no moral of the story. What are we to make of the sacrifices of the heroes? Of the city’s reliance upon reputation and its failure to maintain martial standards? Of the heroes’ ghostly return? (Make note of the role of afterlife.) What to make of the new, young hero’s abhorrence of the Sword of Welleran. Beats me. There may well be a message here, but if so, I remain too dense to grasp it. Still, I enjoyed reading the tale.
The Fall of Babbulkund. This is not a story. It is instead a fabulous travel guide, a catalogue of wonders written by an Old Testament poet, painting the glories of the decadent city of Babbulkund and portending its doom. I recommend reading this with a fine tawny port. Slippers and a smoking jacket are optional, but certainly appropriate.
The Kith of the Elf Folk. A speculation only: Tolkien read and absorbed this one. There is something of the Dead Marshes, a (coincidental?) Gladden Fields, a hint of Leaf by Niggle, a glimmer of Tom Bombadil, and fey, melancholy elf-kind. Note the discourses on the soul and Paradise.
The Highwayman. If the previous story might have — should have — influenced J.R.R., this one might have influenced REH as he wrote Solomon Kane. Dunsany reminds us of the thread of gold in even the foulest soul. “…one sin at which the Angels smiled.” Damn, that’s good. Note the POV of the dead man.
In the Twilight. A lengthy description of walking into the light. Quite picturesque, providing images that could come straight from The Wind in the Willows. It becomes impossible to ignore at this point that death and the afterlife are recurrent themes in this collection.
The Ghosts. Rather on the nose, but accurate. A take on the Gothic horror story, and a good one. Logic meets the supernatural. Was Dunsany obsessed with life after death? This was, after all, the era of spiritualists.
The Whirlpool. This is more the Dunsany I expect, with this short vignette about the god of the whirlpool. And yet even in this the book’s theme recurs, as the whirlpool discourses upon the souls of sailors and the Happy Isles.
The Hurricane. Another vignette. But here we get an abrupt departure from the theme. Dunsany indulges in what I presume are warring impulses: a dislike of the effects of the industrial revolution (which as a nobleman of leisure he could tut-tut about from Olympian heights) and his clear love of humanity. How to destroy what Man has wrought without destroying Man? And he cannot do it.
The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth. I’ve written about this excellent tale previously. The break from the theme continues.
The Lord of Cities. This is a philosophical piece more than it is a story. It opens in a fashion that makes me think of Bilbo musing upon roads. But it transitions into a discussion of Man versus Nature, of primacy, Is there value in Nature except through the lens of Man’s perceptions? Or — in a take E.A. Poe would appreciate — is the entire enterprise, the work of both Man and Nature, ultimately for the benefit of the spider?
The Doom of La Traviata. We return to the theme after a three-story interval as we witness the post-mortem judgement of the soul of La Traviata. For those who need a refresher on Verdi, La Traviata is the story of the courtesan Violetta. She gives up her chance of happiness at the behest of her paramour’s father. Dunany picks up the story after her death and considers the wheat and chaff admixture of her soul. What to make of Dunsany’s judgment? Is it the vestigial Victorian ascendant over the 20th century modern man? I dunno.
On the Dry Land. Love and death. We finish up more or less on theme. I wonder, did Dunsany feel this way: ambition thwarted by the demands of love/marriage? Or perhaps writing this piece was a cathartic exorcism of a passing malaise.
As a work of Swords-and-Sorcery I’d have to give this collection a failing grade. I’d consider only a couple of these S&S: the title story (barely) and the classic Fortress Unvanquishable. But time is never ill-spent reading Dunsany, even when he is pondering the afterlife rather than reveling in this one.
I’d like to think that time is not ill-spent reading my scribblings either. I’ll have announcements to make as the year goes on concerning upcoming works. But in the meantime, why not try my crime/fantasy, S&S heist novel, Thick As Thieves?
I think a brief reminder is all that is needed here: Lin Carter was a gifted and prolific editor. One of the volumes he put together for The Adult Fantasy series was a book titled Golden Cities, Far. The introduction is one of his better efforts, and seems to have been exhaustively researched. In fact, the book benefits from Carter’s notes, commentary, and humor throughout. This is the second of his collections of old myths, legends, and tales that are the roots from which the tree of heroic fantasy sprang (following Dragons, Elves, and Heroes, which I suppose I ought to track down at some point.)
Swords & Sorcery is L. Sprague de Camp’s first entry in his four-volume series that spanned seven years. His introduction — an early sample of the short essay he’d return to with variations on the theme often enough — is a decent explication concerning what heroic fantasy consists of. (I found myself nodding in agreement at a portion of his opinion of William Morris.) With a promising introduction and a list of authors printed on the cover, I”m ready to dive in. But let me first make note of the gorgeous Virgil Finlay illustrations.
The Fantastic Swordsmen is the third entry in L. Sprague de Camp’s swords-and-sorcery anthology series. De Camp’s introduction is solid, but after a few of these apologias for S&S they all begin to read much the same. Don’t worry, the stories are better.
Lin Carter is back with another volume and more alliteration. Flashing Swords! #5: Demons and Daggers. The cover is drab and uninspiring, a tepid fantasy scene with a dull background, far from the evocative Sword-and-Sorcery covers of the previous volumes. The intro is equally unpromising. Carter writes that he is doing “something a little different” and is soliciting “stories for #5 from writers who have not yet become members of [SAGA].” The names of the contributors — with the notable exception of Roger Zelazny do not inspire confidence in those hoping for the raw fire of S&S. No slight is intended to the others, all fine fantasists in their own right. But, I don’t read the FS anthologies for the larger, inclusive category of Fantasy. Well, I’ll keep a more-or-less open mind. Come with me.
Lin Carter presents yet another anthology in his stellar Swords-and-Sorcery series. This one is Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians. Is there more than alliteration fueling the subtitle? He’s certainly doubled the thematic possibilities. Let’s see.
This anthology reads like the literary equivalent of hosting a costume party, but neglecting to mention that aspect to most of the guests.
Barbarians II has three, count them, three editors credited. I wonder what about this endeavor required so many hands on deck. Richard Adams’ introduction jokingly discusses the etymology and history of the word barbarian. I found this introduction — and the title — odd in a collection in which barbarians are few and far between. Though, in fairness, the intro did suggest that the word barbarian is, ultimately, meaningless. So, touché, Adams, I guess.
The important question is: are the stories any good? Let’s see, shall we?
The Toads of Grimmerdale. Andre Norton. I have written about this story before. It’s still good. Barbarian Quota: Only via reference to previous Witch World events.
Maureen Birnbaum at the Earth’s Core. George Alec Effinger. Jokey, genderswapped Pelucidar parody. Presumably, this is a sequel to Maureen Birnbaum on Mars, which I haven’t read. (I just researched this after writing the previous sentence. Seems I was basically correct.) The Jewish American Princess shtick is amusing, but the references are dated. Luckily, I’m old enough to appreciate them. This is fluff, fast food. The McRib of S&S. Goes okay with beer, though. Then again, doesn’t everything? Fun stuff if that’s what you’re in the mood for. Barbarian Quota: The only barbarians are the ape-men of the Earth’s core.
Trapped in the Shadowland. Fritz Leiber. The incomparable duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, once again cross paths with the Death of Newhon in this slight tale, more anecdote than story. Barbarian Quota: Fafhrd, of course, qualifies.
The Blacksmith. Raul Garcia Capella. When I first started these anthology posts (still primarily re-reading volumes picked from my shelves) I noted Ray (or Raul) Capella as an unknown. Yet he’s popped up frequently, and for good reason. He’s an excellent writer. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been deprived of some great, never produced Capella works. Blacksmith is a tale of arrogance and comeuppance, virtue and reward. It seems to be an origin tale of a unique S&S hero. I’m curious if any further tales of this new character ever saw print. Barbarian Quota: No barbarian in this one, though we do have a wizard, the eponymous blacksmith, and some sort of quasi-demon from a Valhalla lacking all the upsides. Perhaps he counts.
Demon of the Snows. Lin Carter. At last, a barbarian swordsman. A warrior of the cold north, broadswords strapped to his back, faces peril and mystery. Something like was promised on the cover. How about that? It is Thongor and LIn Carter, so you know what you’re getting. And that’s okay with me. Barbarian Quota: One Conan-clone.
The Dark Mother. Diana L. Paxson. I reviewed this one recently. Barbarian Quota: No barbarians here, except if they might be, metaphorically, the priestesses of the Dark Mother.
Misericorde. Karl Edward Wagner. KEW’s Kane is many things, but a barbarian is not one of them. Kane is, if anything, too civilized. Machiavellian, even. This is a jewel of a Kane story: a dark, vile jewel. If you need Kane encapsulated, here he is. Barbarian Quota: Zip.
The Warrior Race. L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp is reliably entertaining, so I’m always happy to see his name in an anthology. But Warrior Race is a science fiction story, not fantasy — heroic, S&S, epic, or otherwise. Are the Centaurans of the story barbarians? Well, in this historical analogy, yes. Corrupted and assimilated by the civilization they conquer. It’s a fine SF story. But I question it’s inclusion here. Barbarian Quota: See discussion above.
Fredeya. Charles Fontenay. A rather tedious slog through a post-apocalyptic setting to an end that is supposed to be some major surprise, but that is instead glaringly obvious about a third of the way through. It has its moments, and the author clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the setting. But it is undercooked. For example, the mutated monster that shows up out of the blue near the end comes without any set-up or foreshadowing. I’ve no problem with post-apocalyptic S&S (not that there is any sorcery in this) but after the straight up SF of the previous story and the ERB cutesy parody earlier, I”m growing rather disappointed with this supposedly themed S&S anthology. Barbarian Quota: There is a piratical atmosphere at the beginning of the story that was rather promising. I suppose freebooters might be considered as a type of barbarian.
A Logical Conclusion. Poul Anderson. Ahh, there we go. Leave it to Poul Anderson to right this listing ship. A man of our world exchanges minds with a Northern barbarian pirate in a fantasy world. This yarn is written as only Anderson could. A Logical Conclusion deserves recognition as part of the canon of S&S. Can’t recommend this highly enough. Barbarian Quota: You betcha.
The Winged Helmet. Fred Saberhagen. And…we’re back to science fiction. A time travelling Berserker story, to be exact. It’s entertaining enough, if overlong. Saberhagen knows what he’s doing. Still, I don’t think this is what I signed up for. Barbarian Quota: We’ve got a a barbarian in the form of a time-displaced cave-man type. (I think, so anyway. He seems to be a character from a previous story.)
The Changer of Names. Ramsey Campbell. Reviewed earlier. Barbarian Quota: Nope.
The Valley of the Worm. Robert E. Howard. The Ur-barbarian story. Anthologized many times, and for good reason. You all know this one. I need add nothing further. Barbarian Quota: Chockablock.
The Ghastly Pond. Jessica Amanda Salmonson. This is — fine. The setting lacks verisimilitude, like a hastily thrown together D&D campaign. I didn’t quite buy it. But the horror element of the second half add a compelling aspect, sufficient to carry me through. Barbarian Quota: Lacking barbarians, while at the same time portraying barbarity.
Verdict? Ignore the title and you’ve got yourself an excellent anthology. Only one or two didn’t work for me. Get yourself a copy.
And.or get yourself a copy of one of my books. How about this crime/S&S mashup?
The cover of Flashing Swords #2 promises four original stories. New S&S stories! Of course, since it was published in 1974, only five years after I was born, it turns out only two were new to me. But, I’ll take it.