Northern Matter in Poul Anderson’s “Middle Ages” of The Broken Sword and in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

1971 cover art by Boris Vallejo

1971 cover art by Boris Vallejo

Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword originally was published in a different form in 1954, which is why I’m discussing it at this time and not later. It is important to note that in Anderson’s introduction to the 1971 edition, he refers to his earlier self, the writer of the 1954 version, as if that person were not himself but in fact a different writer with the very same name. Anderson’s 1971 introduction also specifically takes into account J.R.R. Tolkien and his works. Anderson asserts that, like Tolkien, he has mined the rich veins of the Northern fantasy tradition, but he claims that, unlike Tolkien, he has found riches of a slightly different hue, perhaps gems with deeper or gloomier lusters. He writes:

In our day J.R.R. Tolkien has restored the elves to something of what they formerly were, in his enchanting Ring cycle. However, he chose to make them not just beautiful and learned; they are wise, grave, honorable, kindly, embodiments of good will toward all things alive. In short, his elves belong more to the country of Gloriana than to that house in heathen Gotaland. Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it was necessary to Professor Tolkien’s purpose.

I was at first horribly confused by this reference to Gloriana, able to uncover at first only a post-dated work by Michael Moorcock of that title. Until I realized that Moorcock’s novel borrows from the very thing that must be Anderson’s reference – Gloriana, or the Queen of Faerie in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (a work of whose ending I have not yet got to) who is herself an allegory of Queen Elizabeth.

What a very puzzling suggestion. Of course we know, from Tolkien’s own introduction to The Lord of the Rings, that Tolkien detests allegory, so this certainly isn’t the point of comparison that Anderson finds. So it must be Gloriana’s character, and in Spenser’s medieval reconstructionist tradition Gloriana must of necessity stand as the ideal form of every human virtue. But does this truly characterize Tolkien’s Elves? One may even become incensed when Anderson appears to make a slightly disingenuous comparison by claiming that he harks “further back” than Tolkien, to medieval Europe in which “cruelty, rapacity, and licentiousness ran free.” Um. Tolkien’s Elves lived in a vanished Earth Age, not in Spenser’s proto-Romanticist reimagined “Arthurian” England. If we’re talking in terms of scope, Tolkien’s setting might have more to do with Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age than even Anderson’s Middle Ages.

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Chaotic and Lawful Alignments in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

ThreeHeartsI’m willing to bet that Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions published in 1953 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and Anderson’s close friend and frequent collaborator Gordon R. Dickson’s St. Dragon and the George, published likewise in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction at about the same time – later republished as The Dragon and the George) owes quite a bit to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And Anderson doesn’t disguise this, for he at least once overtly references Twain’s historical romance when he has his protagonist, Holger Carlsen (a “Carl” again!), unconvincingly scare away a band of barbarians by using his tobacco pipe to blow smoke out of his mouth. The work further encourages comparisons to Twain’s book through Holger’s use of other “Enlightenment” tricks in a secondary world, and Anderson uses bookends reminiscent of Twain’s. Anderson’s bookends here are worth a closer look.

Holger Carlsen’s history, as relayed by an unspecified narrator, funhouse-mirrors Anderson’s personal history. In a book profiling Supernatural Fiction Writers, Ronald Tweet reports that Anderson was born to Danish parents and lived in Denmark for a while previous to WWII. Holger of Three Hearts and Three Lions is a Dane who, after wandering Europe, starts attending an Eastern university in the U.S. When WWII breaks out, he goes back to Denmark, where, through fairly compressed and elliptical telling, the narrator says that Holger eventually ends up in a pistol fight with Germans. At this point, “all his world [blows] up in flame and darkness.” And Holger finds himself in a fantasy world.

In light of Anderson’s own biographical information, one is tempted to believe that much of this work is the result of a highly personal fantasy, a kind of daydream out of which many fantasies certainly must arise. I’m sure that most of us have fantasized about being an important person in an important place – If only we could get there, somehow!

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From Poul Anderson’s Vault of the Ages to the End of All Things

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

VaultoftheAgesEven though this survey seeks to showcase, specifically, Anderson’s fantasy works, I want to begin with what may be argued to be his first novel: Vault of the Ages.  It moreover wouldn’t be all that hard to argue that this work is fantasy, anyway. Perhaps it’s historical fantasy – a kind that anachronistically depicts a medieval northern tribal culture in the future. It’s undeniably post-apocalyptic, and many of these works are not only fantasy but escapist fantasy at that. Who hasn’t been locked into a frustrating, mind-numbing job – a stereotypical office job, for instance – and thought, “If only I had some real problems with which to deal with right now, like zombies, or road warriors, or radioactive mutants”? Who hasn’t secretly yearned for the chance to see what they truly are capable of, to pit their meager store of talents against all that the dangerous world might offer, and who hasn’t secretly concluded that they would do just fine – they would just have to get a gun, of course, and stockpile some food – and take out that weirdo next door, first thing!

Not only would I classify Anderson’s first novel as belonging to the species of post-apocalyptic literature, but I’d also call it mundane science fiction, because none of the science in here is extrapolative. In fact, it can be argued that there is no “science” here at all, because the gist of the science is the salvage of iron, to be hammered into common swords and shields, out of radioactive cities. And gunpowder which is hidden in the – you guessed it – Vault of the Ages.

I also might classify this as a boy’s novel, because it begins with an overly informational account of actual time capsules in Atlanta, Georgia and in New York City. It’s hard to see what purpose this introduction might serve other than didacticism, and this consequently suggests an audience that often is perceived to be in need of didacticism. Moreover, the main characters are routinely called “boys,” which, intentionally or not, because of the way in which these characters gleefully and energetically hurl themselves into very scary, very potentially fatal situations, lends this work the character of an adventure novel aimed at Boy Scouts. In other words, for me, this book is short in emotional realism. We shall have to talk about Viking age perspectives in time, but even taking this into account, the boys’ worldviews and actions seem wantonly cavalier.

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Destination Barsoom, Nehwon, Narnia: A Few Thoughts in Defense of Escapism

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 | Posted by Nick Ozment

wardrobe

The wardrobe that inspired C.S. Lewis. Collection of Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College.

I memorized all of John Carter and Tarzan, and sat on my grandparents’ front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen. I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, “Take me home!” I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities. — Ray Bradbury (“Take Me Home,” The New Yorker June 4, 2012)

A couple weeks ago, friend and fellow Black Gate blogger Gabe Dybing texted me with a proposition. “Read chapter one of Maker of Universes,” he typed, “and if you’re interested let’s talk about doing a survey of the series together.”

World of Tiers is probably Philip José Farmer’s most renowned series next to Riverworld, which I read a few years back. Currently I’m reading the Dungeon books, a shared-author series of six novels set in another world created by Farmer. Did I want to add this to my plate? Gabe piqued my interest by noting that the protagonist is an older English professor, somewhat disillusioned, who wants to escape — a character with whom we would feel some personal sympathies.

And so I read the first chapter, and the survey is on. In coming weeks we will be reviewing the books together — interspersed, I’m sure, with Gabe’s own Wednesday survey of the fantasy works of Poul Anderson and my own eclectic ranging far and wide across the spec-fic landscape.

But before we begin that undertaking, here is a prologue of sorts, a few thoughts I jotted down after reading the first chapter of Maker of Universes (1965). My thoughts, you will see, apply broadly to all “escapist” fiction…

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The Art Of Retreat, a.k.a. “Run Away, Run Away!”

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Run MemeOver the last thirty-five years, I’ve enjoyed gaming (mostly D&D and its ilk) with something like ten different role-playing groups. Other than the blindingly obvious traits that all such gatherings share, such as a love of good company or having a pulse, the most salient characteristic exhibited by each band of gamers was a stunning inability to retreat in the face of bad situations or superior foes.

I find this mind-boggling. Fascinating, too.

Let me provide a couple of classic examples. Once upon a time, my friends Nick and Suzanne, playing a barbarian and a cleric, respectively, “went on ahead” of the rest of the group, which is to say, the rest of us couldn’t make it that week. They came upon a lonely cave inhabited by creatures we later came to call graylocks. I don’t recall the source or where the referee culled them, but that doesn’t matter: they were mean and tough. Think ogres with spells.

Nick and Suzanne pressed the fight, even though they were outnumbered; they pressed the fight even though their opponents were winning; they pressed the fight even when it was hopeless. In short, they behaved as if they could not possibly lose. It took hours of painstaking work over the ensuing weeks to rescue them.

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Dual Structures in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Stories and Robin Wayne Bailey’s Swords against the Shadowland

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

BaileyShadowlandRecently I completed my reading of all of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. After I had put down the second or fourth collection (this depends on how you approach the editions from White Wolf, which collected the books doubly in single volumes, and these are the publications with which I began my survey), I made some faintly denigrating comment on Goodreads (if I remember it correctly), something about the quality of these stories being like flies caught in amber. This was a metaphor for Leiber’s soupy, languid, highly embellished prose style.

But a year or so later, as I got to the end of The Knight and Knave of Swords and then the termination of Swords and Ice Magic, I found that I had really begun enjoying these stories. I had even begun to admire the writing style. So I bought, without question, Robin Wayne Bailey’s Swords against the Shadowland out of interest to see who possibly could be so foolish as to try to meet Leiber on his own brilliant terms.

Before I get to a review of Leiber and then, specifically, to Bailey, I want to detail the kind of place I come from. As I become a regular contributor to Black Gate, I realize that there are quite a number of books that I really should have read while I was growing up. Now, I’ve read a lot of fantasy. That will be apparent. But sometimes I pick up a new volume, open the cover, begin reading, and ask myself, “Why didn’t I read this twenty-five years ago?” One of the answers might be because of my intense snobbishness, a youthful shortcoming that I slightly touched on last entry. Another reason is because, at the beginning of eleventh grade, I artificially arrested the sheer volume of my high fantasy reading by consciously “growing up” and turning my back on the genre in preference for established “literary” pursuits. But also, as I cast my memory back through the years, I’m coming to believe that I didn’t read a lot of these works then because a lot of these weren’t all that visible.

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My Love/Hate Romance With Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit

Monday, January 26th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

GandalfLet me state for the record that I am a fan of the film adaptation of The Lord Of the Rings. Jack Nicholson can complain all he likes about “too many endings,” but that celluloid trilogy managed the impossible: it successfully imbued a made-up world not only with turmoil and action but with genuine emotional gravitas. The Lord Of the Rings (2001 – 2003), against all odds, mattered.

Having just seen the third of The Hobbit installments (2012 – 2014), I fear I cannot say the same for these sequel-prequels. I want to. At certain moments, I’m convinced. At others?

Yes, the task of adapting a book to the screen is arduous, full of perils, and the fact that Jackson’s scriptwriting team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and (for these films) Guillermo del Toro have had any success at all is remarkable. Tolkien, let’s face it, was not an efficient story-teller. Given characters like Tom Bombadil, it would not be unfair to crown him as King Of All Digressions.

So let’s take it as a given that adaptation involves violence toward the source material. Additions will be made, and subtractions, too. So be it. The goal, typically, is to preserve the spirit of the original.

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My Overly Conscious Love for Pathfinder

Monday, January 26th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Pathfinder Tales Stalking the BeastLately I’ve been reading a fair amount of Pathfinder novels. Partly this is because I want to play Pathfinder and have no one with whom to play it, because all of my adult friends who are so inclined live too far away, and my children and I just aren’t in the same frame of mind. (Roleplaying with a fourteen-year-old and a twelve-year-old is challenging, simply because logic, for all involved, works a little differently. For this audience, a straightforward dungeon crawl, like Fantasy Flight’s Descent, is a more viable option, but, with that, you don’t get enough freedom for story creation and character generation.)

Another reason I have been reading Pathfinder novels is because my oldest son has started reading them. If I read them as well, we can inhabit a shared text (and perhaps, in time, a satisfying Pathfinder gaming session).

And yet another reason why I have been reading Pathfinder novels is because they’re good.

This was announced not too long ago, at least in reference to Howard Andrew Jones’s Stalking the Beast, when Nick Ozment realized that that novel was “better than it needed to be.” I’ve read some Pathfinder novels by other writers as well, and I will say that most of them are quite good.

Nick made clear why he found Jones’s second novel for the franchise so good, but what do I mean when I say that, in general, I like the series? I will say that they are highly satisfying Sword and Sorcery novels. They are entertaining. They are escapist. They have cool things in them. And, above all, they are quite familiar. They are based on the 3.5 (or 3.75) edition of Dungeons & Dragons, after all.

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The Barbarism of Bullfighting and Archaic Diction in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Rug and the Bull”

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

1974 Paperback edition. Cover art by Frank Frazetta.

1974 Paperback edition. Cover art by Frank Frazetta.

One of the many freedoms of Sword and Sorcery, it seems to me, is that it enables the adoption of a world that allows the writer to comment on just about anything on which one would want. One of Robert E. Howard’s purposes in the construction of his own Hyboria was to create a conglomerate of cultures, no matter how anachronistic their juxtapositions, so that his hero Conan might have any kind of adventure that Howard might think up. Whereas for previous tales, Howard perhaps had to construct different heroes for different historical epochs (Bran Mak Morn for the Celtic Picts, Solomon Kane for the sixteenth century, Kull for Atlantis), in the Hyborian Age Conan might be a thief, a soldier, a pirate, and ultimately a king, his adventures all the while providing Howard with powerful commentary on “civilization.”

So, too, writers after Howard have utilized this purpose. Dave Sim, through his creation of Cerebus the Aardvark, begins by commenting on the Sword and Sorcery genre itself (as well as the mainstream comic books of Sim’s time) and then goes on to explore High Society, Church & State, marriage – and this last, in Jaka’s Story, is as far as my reading has taken me, but I understand that Sim is so far reaching in his exploration of topics that in a much later volume he even explores the life and works of Ernest Hemingway through Cerebus taking on the position of Hemingway’s personal secretary!

Terry Pratchett uses the Sword and Sorcery milieu to ingenious satirical effect, cribbing directly (I believe) from Fritz Leiber in order to forecast to his readers, in the very first pages of the very first Discworld novel, just what tone and material his readers may expect. Pratchett’s initial perspective characters, soon abandoned, are Bravd and the Weasel (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, obviously). I quote the following description in order to give an example of Pratchett’s satirical treatment of Sword and Sorcery and to underscore, specifically, Pratchett’s debt to Leiber. For more humor, one might want to pick up this book and enjoy the way that these characters talk to each other – it’s impressively Leiberesque.

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A Look At The Year Gone By – 2014

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_624347x4h9YP6xBy my count, I published forty-two articles here at Black Gate during 2014. I reviewed thirty-two novels and over forty short stories.

While most of the books were older ones [e.g. The Eternal Champion (1962) and Year of the Unicorn (1965)], I did manage to sneak a few newer ones into the mix, as you’ll read below. The short stories, all from presently publishing magazines, reinforced my belief that there’s a continuing renaissance in swords & sorcery. There are talented authors toiling away despite the lack of commerical interest. I hope I convinced other S&S fans to investigate these books and stories and learn for yourselves how much good heroic fantasy is out there waiting for you.

As I’ve written in the past, one of my initial reasons for blogging about S&S was to get myself to read many of the books I had missed or neglected over the years. I managed to accomplish a lot of that this year.

Two-thirds of the books I read were brand new to me. Among the older ones were Darrell Schweitzer’s strange and intoxicating Echoes of the Goddess and Adrian Cole’s phantasmagorical Oblivion Hand. I’m very happy I finally read Keith Taylor’s great Celtic S&S book, Bard, as well as Teresa Edgerton’s The Queen’s Necklace. The best contemporary books I read were the densely constructed The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell, and sword & soul founder Charles R. Saunder’s brand new Abengoni: First Calling.

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