August 23, 2015
Today I’m turning my attention once again to Appendix N. The writer in the spotlight this time is Gardner Fox. Not exactly a household name, not even among aficionados of sword-and-sorcery fiction. He’s probably better known to comic book fans as a prolific comics scripter, writing from the 1930s into the 1980s. His claim to Appendix N membership is predicated on his Kothar sword-and-sorcery novels.
It is hard to evaluate Kothar without appearing to damn Fox with faint praise. That’s unfortunate, since the truth is that I like Kothar. The novels are entertaining, and that’s the entire point of a sword and sorcery tale. Fox succeeded. He brought to life this fellow:
…a giant youth…leading a grey horse. He wore a mail shirt that glittered as if newly polished, there was a leather kilt about his loins, and a great sword with a red gem set into its hilt bobbed at his side. A yellow mane of uncut hair hung down to his shoulders…
If you read that description and it imparts a sensation akin to homecoming, if reading that makes you want to settle in for a satisfying S&S yarn, then Kothar is exactly the book for you. Gardner Fox ticks all the barbarian boxes. All the boxes. And therein lies the issue.
With Kothar, Fox has constructed the barbarians’ barbarian. Kothar is, in a sense, the generic S&S barbarian. He’s the benchmark against which all other sword-swinging, loin-cloth-and-sandal clad heroes measure themselves. If Conan is the ur barbarian, then Kothar is the barbarian after being thoroughly market-tested and vetted by every department at Corporate.
Like I said, damning with faint praise. But the reason Kothar sailed through Corporate and won over the test audiences during market research, is that he works. He’s entertaining. Kothar novels provide the goods: a mighty-thewed hero, diabolical wizards, demons, monsters, magical swords, buxom wenches, barroom brawls, exotic locals, chases, clanging sword fights. A Kothar novel might not remain lodged in your memory, but damnit, you had fun reading it. And what’s wrong with that? Gardner Fox earned his spot in Appendix N.