Appendix N to the Dungeon Master’s Guide is an ever full well. Each dip of the bucket brings up something thirst quenching. Gary Gygax’s pulp influences were as broad as they were deep. Some feel that D&D is best seen as an immersive plumbing of pulp Sword and Sorcery. There is probably much to support that opinion. But even a cursory reading of Appendix N indicates that he did not limit himself to the sub-genre. He mined science fiction, historical fiction, and epic fantasy.
Carl Jacobi (1908-1997) is one of the forgotten genre writers, penning weird tales, crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy for the pulps, and later in life for their successors. He’s an author I intend to keep an eye out for when browsing for something new to purchase. Why? Well, I happened upon a short-short of his by the title of A Pair of Swords. It’s a weird tale, from 1933, with just a touch of the swashbuckling fare I enjoy brought to life with the assistance of an unexplained supernatural occurrence. Classic pulp contrivance; museum antiques, weapons, the King’s Musketeers, an out-of-time encounter. Good stuff.
Glen Cook’s bibliography indicates he’s been publishing fiction since the early 1970s. So 1982’s The Swordbearer shows the work of a writer with a good decade of craft under his belt. Ten years isn’t really that long in the scribbling biz, but even at this early stage in his career, some of the stylistic quirks of Cook are apparent: the naming conventions, the fast pace, the glossing over of detail, and the complex interlocking of backstabbers that makes figuring out who shot Nice Guy Eddie seem child’s play.
Anyway, Swordbearer is relatively early Cook, but nonetheless solid. How to pigeonhole the genre? Tough. A synopsis would suggest that there are enough quests, continent spanning wars, battles, and deep time backstory to easily qualify Swordbearer as epic fantasy. But the book isn’t even 240 pages long. It is told with Cook’s typical economy, sometimes reading more like Sword and Sorcery, even though the opening chapters suggest more of a YA, coming of age tale.
As usual with Cook, the characters are almost all morally complex. If Cook were a digital photographer, he’d be baffled by the chromatic spectrum, working only in grayscale. Even the big bad emperor assaulting the West is, ultimately, a sympathetic character. Some of the foul, murderous, nigh-immortal beings are portrayed as possibly redeemable, their actions understandable. But don’t trust any of the characters in Swordbearer. Keep spinning in a tight circle, because if you ever come to a stop, you’ll find a knife between your shoulderblades.
Sounds a bit like The Black Company, doesn’t it?
The hero of the tale is a likeable kid, forced to grow up fast, and selected/compelled to take up a cursed sword. A sword that has an evil will of its own. Swordbearer is fundamentally a tragedy, going over ground you’re already familiar with if you’ve read the doings of Elric and Stormblade and/or Túrin Turambar and Gurthang. But for fans of S&S, familiar ground isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If I had to summarize Swordbearer, I’d call it preliminary concept work for The Black Company, combined with Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer and Mournblade, along with a special guest appearance from Tolkien’s Nazgul. I’m an admitted fan of Cook, so take this recommendation for what it’s worth: pick up a copy of The Swordbearer, crack open a beer, enjoy.
Reading a collection of Louis L’Amour stories has got me thinking about the Western. The Western genre has generated a solid collection of tropes and narrative expectations. It also, it seems, has exercised an influence on science fiction and fantasy; that is, certain speculative fiction stories traffic in the same tropes. All to the good, in my opinion.
I suppose I ought to dip a toe into what makes up a Western, before I proceed. This is a mere surface grazing. Attempting a precise definition of the Western is limiting. Why try to corral a genre with vast possibilities?
Science Fiction has its big three. Most often these are listed as Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. The line up varies, of course. It can’t be objectively determined and prominence waxes and wanes with time. Weird Tales had its own holy trinity: Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith. Three seems to be a magic number. Who, I wonder, would be Fantasy’s big three?
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?
My faulty memory assured me that I had read Abraham Merritt’s The Moon Pool. So I picked up a copy figuring I would enjoy a re-read. While it is possible that I did read it during some lost year of my long and dubious past, I consider it unlikely now. How could I have forgotten such a vividly colorful, wild book as this? It will sit in good company next to my copies of The Dweller in the Mirage and The Ship of Ishtar.
Monsters come in many guises. Andrew Offut put together an anthology illustrating that very point. It is a fine collection. It doesn’t achieve the heights of some of the other anthologies I’ve discussed in earlier posts, but it ain’t no slouch either. Most of the stories first saw print in this volume, so Offut could not simply cherry pick, stacking his roster with ringers, if I may crudely mash together metaphors. Given that (self-imposed?) handicap, he did an excellent job.