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More Tavern Thoughts

Thursday, September 13th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

I mentioned taverns in the last post, particularly stories that start in them. I want to expand on that. It’s not that BG has solemnly declared that a good fantasy story can’t start in a tavern. I’m no fan of those kind of absolute declarations, as though we or anyone else speaks from on high, so I thought I should make myself clear. I spoke to John Hocking about this tavern issue the other day and he summarized my ramblings into some succinct statements; together we managed a coherence I’ll do my best to paraphrase.

In many, many hands, the character type and location are a shorthand way to describe a thing without bothering to fashion any originality. When John O’Neill and I complain about stories starting in taverns, what we mean is a tavern that’s just a cardboard movie set. Here’s the tavern. Here’s the ranger. Here’s the elf. Here’s the wizard. There’s no real invention going on here, no innovation. The tavern and the characers from central casting who’ve walked inside are just ciphers for original work.

Can you start a story in a tavern? Sure! One of the greatest of all sword-and-sorcery stories begins with a scene in a tavern. Well, truthfully it begins with a cinematic overview of what’s going on in the area outside the tavern; the action, though, begins within a tavern… hey, I’ll shut up and let Robert E. Howard work his magic:

Torches flared murkily on the revels in the Maul, where the thieves of the east held carnival by night. In the Maul they could carouse and roar as they liked, for honest people shunned the quarters, and watchmen, well paid with stained coins, did not interfere with their sport. Along the crooked, unpaved streets with their heaps of refuse and sloppy puddles, drunken roisterers staggered, roaring. Steel glinted in the shadows where wolf preyed on wolf, and from the darkness rose the shrill laughter of women, and the sounds of scufflings and strugglings. Torchlight licked luridly from broken windows and wide-thrown doors, and out of those doors, stale smells of wine and rank sweaty bodies, clamor of drinking-jacks and fists hammered on rough tables, snatches of obscene songs, rushed like a blow in the face.

In one of these dens merriment thundered to the low smoke-stained roof, where rascals gathered in every stage of rags and tatters — furtive cutpurses, leering kidnappers, quick-fingered thieves, swaggering bravoes with their wenches, strident-voiced women clad in tawdry finery. Native rogues were the dominant element — dark-skinned, dark-eyed Zamorians, with daggers at their girdles and guile in their hearts. But there were wolves of half a dozen outland nations there as well. There was a giant Hyperborean renegade, taciturn, dangerous, with a broadsword strapped to his great gaunt frame — for men wore steel openly in the Maul. There was a Shemitish counterfeiter, with his hook nose and curled blue-black beard. There was a bold-eyed Brythunian wench, sitting on the knee of a tawny-haired Gunderman — a wandering mercenary soldier, a deserter from some defeated arm. And the fat gross rogue whose bawdy jestes were causing all the shouts of mirth was a professional kidnapper come up from distant Koth to teach woman-stealing to Zamorians who were born with more knowledge of the art than he could ever attain.

That’s “Tower of the Elephant,” in case you didn’t recognize it, text courtesy of the Del Rey The Coming of Conan collection.

See, all you have to do is create cinematic imagery in an original setting with brilliant prose. Okay, maybe it’s not that easy. Here’s how Lin Carter advised his friend Poke Runyon to bring a tavern scene to life:

The scene in the inn: low rafters, a-dangle with hams and dried onions; roaring fire in huge stone fireplace with roast moofobar turning on creaking spit; sailors with bristling beards and told rings in ears sprawling on low benches wrapped in black cloaks stiff with dry salt; roar of son, scuffle of argument, rich smells of hot steaming meat and spilled grog, etc; wavering orange light splashing over everything, casting huge black flapping shadows on the walls.

(from a letter of Lin Carter to Poke Runyon, published in Poke Runyon’s novel Drell Master.)

This seems excellent advice to me. In short, if you’re going to take your readers somewhere, take them somewhere interesting. Bring the place to life. Even some place as ordinary as a tavern.

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