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Enjoying the Unique Character of Karl Edward Wagner’s Dark Crusade

Thursday, December 8th, 2011 | Posted by Brian Murphy

dark-crusade-wagnerWhy has swords and sorcery languished while epic fantasy enjoys a wide readership? In an age of diminished attention spans and the proliferation of Twitter and video games, it’s hard to explain why ponderous five and seven and 12 book series dominate fantasy fiction while lean and mean swords and sorcery short stories and novels struggle to find markets (Black Gate and a few other outlets excepted).

During a recent reading of the late Karl Edward Wagner’s Dark Crusade (1976) a potential answer coalesced: Many readers want and expect deep characterization in their fiction, and it’s simply not a particularly strong suit of the swords and sorcery genre (or at least of classic swords and sorcery, circa 1930 through the early 1980s). Wagner is one of a handful of classic swords and sorcery authors to whom history has not been particularly kind*. His dark, God-accursed hero-villain Kane deserves a place alongside Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the roll of great genre heroes, but is sadly left off many “best of” swords and sorcery lists. Relegated to the status of cult figure, Kane is the darling of heroic fantasy connoisseurs but unread of by many casual genre fans, and unheard of by most of the larger fantasy fan base.

Kane and many of his swords and sorcery ilk are not what most modern readers would consider fully realized characters. You just don’t get anything close to the same level of introspection and cradle to the grave development of Kane in Dark Crusade as you do of, say, Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind.

Now, before the Conan fans complain that Conan evolves greatly from his days as a brash young rogue in “The Tower of the Elephant” to a jaded king in “The Phoenix on the Sword”: I agree, he does. But Conan’s development takes place across stories, with Howard showing a character in different stages of his life. It’s very rare to get that type of coming of-age bildungsroman development within a standalone swords and sorcery tale. You do in David Eddings’ popular five book The Belgariad series.

The same pattern remains consistent in Dark Crusade. Wagner doesn’t spend time explaining why Kane is the rootless dark drifter to whom we’re introduced. There are no flashbacks to his childhood or to life-altering tragic events leading to his current cynical worldview. Wagner paints Kane using a few bold strokes of color and then moves on to the story. Swords and sorcery fans accept this limited characterization, but other readers have different expectations that can lead to disappointment (on a related note I think this is why a lot of S&S fans are so aggravated by Conan the Barbarian, both the 1982 version and the new half-assed remake. We don’t need a complete origin story, thanks. Get to the story!)

bloodstone-wagnerBut rather than viewing this as a limitation I find the conventions of swords and sorcery a welcome change of pace. I enjoy theorizing and speculating as to who (or perhaps more accurately what) Kane really is without needing it all spelled out. We know a few tantalizing details: He doesn’t care for life’s pleasures because he knows that they’re hollow. Kane exalts combat because military conquest is one of the few things he can control. He has no compunctions about destroying those who would kill him. Why? We’re not entirely sure. But that’s okay—our minds can fill in the gaps. Only by reading all of the short stories can a coherent background be pieced together. But understanding Kane is not necessary to enjoy the stories, including Dark Crusade.

Characterization is certainly not beyond Wagner’s capabilities as a writer. In fact, he performs a neat trick in Dark Crusade by transforming the foil Jarvo from one of the least likeable characters imaginable—a preening, egotistic, overconfident jerk—into, if not a sympathetic figure, then someone whose black vengeance you cheer to see fulfilled. George R.R. Martin rightly deserves praise for doing something similar with Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire, but Wagner did it thirty years’ prior, and in far fewer words.

I just think characterization wasn’t Wagner’s motivation for writing the Kane stories, and I can accept that the priority of swords and sorcery is mood, atmosphere, and story. It’s not emotional immaturity or anything of the sort that critics frequently ascribe as a flaw of the genre, just a different way of telling a tale. Storytelling is not mathematical formula; it’s art.

Dark Crusade contains all I ask of a swords and sorcery tale. You’ve got gonzo chaos and destruction with three factions killing each other, none of whom are particularly worth cheering for. The world is devolving into chaos with the next cycle of orgiastic violence ready to break out at any moment. Orted Ak-Ceddi touches flame to powder by reviving the cruel cult of Sataki. Soon he draws thousands of converts to his dark crusade. After suffering a crushing military defeat (hordes of undisciplined, poorly armed foot soldiers are no match for heavy disciplined cavalry) Orted enlists Kane’s expertise to his side. Kane, ever the cold-hearted pragmatist, joins the cultists’ side to line his pockets and further his own ambitions.

In and amongst the swordplay and scheming Dark Crusade is a commentary on religious fanaticism. The hordes of followers of the Cult of Sataki for whom Dark Crusade is named destroy all non-believers, flatten great art and architecture, and crush free thinking. The choice is simple: conform or be killed. Worth noting too is the vivid atmosphere of the tale: demon haunted towers, battlefields yielding red harvests, cities buried beneath the sands concealing relics of eldritch magic. Given this potent brew of story and atmosphere, is deep characterization also a necessity? No.

The last chapter “In the Lair of Yslsl” (originally published as a standalone story in a period magazine) is downright trippy, blurring the line between author and creation in a disturbing meta-textual reverie on consciousness and being. Though Kane is battling a demon struggling for possession of his mind it can be read as a commentary on the enormous problems inherent in trying to solve the workings of the human brain and pin down the slippery “I” (Wagner in life was an MD and worked briefly as a psychiatrist):

His thoughts drifted, and his thoughts were pain. “Am I insane? Am I insane? Shouldn’t I know something? Shouldn’t I know something? Shouldn’t I be somewhere? And where is here—and is it anywhere? And who am I—and am I anyone?”

And cosmic horror wrenched at his soul—horror surpassing all that had haunted him. He did not know.

He did not know. Where. How. Why. When. Who. If. Ever. Who.

Through sheer will Kane wrests his dissipating mind back together. I am Kane! He roared at nothingness, but Kane himself is not in our ken to understand. And that’s okay. After all, how much can one soul truly know another, let alone itself? Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. In swords and sorcery and in Wagner’s tales of Kane, story is all.

* Part of the blame for Wagner’s obscurity resides with his literary estate. Although you can find the 1970s and 80s Kane paperbacks relatively cheap they are currently out of print. Reissues in 2002 and 2003 quickly sold out and now command high prices. Centipede Press is about to issue a high-priced volume of Wagner’s horror/weird fiction, but it will not include the Kane stories, it seems.

12 Comments »

  1. Modern readers, and authors, do seem to be obsessed with characterization.
    And on the face of it, I have no trouble with that at all. Flat, unconvincing characters can poison an otherwise worthy tale.

    What troubles me is the way characterization has often come to be used, not only in fantasy, but in a good deal of genre entertainment both on the page and on the screen.

    I’m always most pleased with characterization when it is a natural outgrowth of the story. When we learn about the characters from how they speak, react and deal with one another. This gives me a feeling of immediacy, and even poignancy, as I feel myself coming to know the people in the story.

    What I see all too often taking place in the name of characterization is the story coming to a full-stop as characters are filled out by means of authorial intrusion, inserted flashbacks, prolonged soliloquies, and deep conversations between characters abruptly given to keen psychological examination of one another.

    To me this often feels laborious, tedious, unnecessary, and glued weakly into the story as an afterthought.

    For a time I thought this kind of approach was a conscious attempt to lend gravity and literary quality to genre fiction, but I’ve seen enough of it now that I’m not sure what to think.

    Comment by John Hocking - December 8, 2011 11:09 pm

  2. “Wagner doesn’t spend time explaining why Kane is the rootless dark drifter to whom we’re introduced.”

    I think this statement really sums up one of the things i love about sword and sorcery. They don’t spend time with these huge fleshed out back stories. They just drop tidbits through the short stories. I love the episodic feel of the pulps. When i read Kull or Solomon Kane i feel like i’m reading Kull the TV series.

    Thats why i like This Crooked Way by james enge. I love the episodic feel.

    Comment by Glenn - December 8, 2011 11:59 pm

  3. Not to get too far off topic, but I just have to point out that the cover art shown in that book cover, above, was also used by Molly Hatchet for their “Flirtin’ With Disaster” LP.

    Comment by markrigney - December 9, 2011 10:19 am

  4. Enjoyable piece. Not sure I agree though. Plenty of modern genre fiction has thin characterisation and is wildly successful.

    All fiction is a chimera. I think you readers notice the joins when they stop believing in the whole. So, something happened to stop people believing in Sword and Sorcery…

    Was it the bursting of the D&D bubble?

    Comment by zornhau - December 9, 2011 10:39 am

  5. Hocking –

    Agreed.

    I feel there is an obsession with ‘characterization’ in the last few decades of genre.

    I would add that the serpent is constricting us.

    It’s getting so bad with this ‘characterization’ thing, that I read/hear that phrase with no definition.

    I ask people to go into detail and it just gets worse.

    It just IS. Alpha and Omega. ‘There is one God Characterization and His prophet is So-and So.’

    Part of my issue with the aforementioned obsession is that writers rarely seem to offer a satisfactory realm for all this neuroticism.

    I mean is everyone in all possible worlds a (neurotic) philosopher/psychoanalyst/hierologian interacting with others of the same mental skills + aptitudes + tendencies?

    Disagree with the soliloquy
    comment. I think some writers are trying to pull off the affect of soliloquies, but probably couldn’t define it if I met them.

    Since they don’t seem to really get the idea behind such a device it’s no wonder they can’t have the same affect with ‘Thyrmgodr the Proto-McMarxist Vampire’ as Melville did with Ahab.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - December 9, 2011 12:49 pm

  6. I’ve loved S&S since I read my first Conan comic books forever ago. And I’ve love anything Frazetta too. So these books had always caught my eye back in the days when the novels were still in the bookstores, but I think I was too intimidated by Kane to read them when I was a kid.
    A few years ago, I picked-up all four of the books via internet sellers for a reasonable price and they were awesome. I love the whole concept of the alternate Biblical basis.
    I read somewhere that Wagner had plans for trilogy; I think it was called Dark or Black Eden? That would be the story of Kane’s origin and a more in-depth characterization. That would have been awesome!!. It’s so sad that Wagner passed-on too soon. Just like Howard, he had so many more, and maybe even better, tales left to tell.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 9, 2011 1:17 pm

  7. With Kane in particular a more elegant approach to characterization works because he’s meant to seem somewhat enigmatic. You can’t fully grasp the character unless you read all of it and even then there are gaps in what we know about him, but I think that’s by design.

    Comment by andy - December 9, 2011 1:24 pm

  8. I will be so bold as to add weight to a sensibility that begins in Brian Murphys’ Blog and agreed with by most commentators here.

    Sword + Sorcery offers an alternative mode of ‘characterization.’

    There is more than one soul on earth.

    There is more than one language on earth.

    There is more than one tale.

    There is more than one way to tell a tale.

    Sword + Sorcery will not die as long as I live.

    Now that I am an adult I can take a more active role in it.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - December 9, 2011 1:55 pm

  9. As much as I enjoyed “The Name of the Wind,” its focus on characterization and minutiae can be tiresome if it becomes the standard of fantasy storytelling.

    Let us not forget that “The Name of the Wind” is essentially the following story:

    A child’s parents are murdered by the greatest evil the world has ever known.

    The child learns to play the lute and spends years homeless.

    The child then goes to college and acquires student loan debt.

    There is more conflict in a good 20 – 50 page S&S story than in the entire book.

    Comment by ChristianLindke - December 9, 2011 2:21 pm

  10. What I see all too often taking place in the name of characterization is the story coming to a full-stop as characters are filled out by means of authorial intrusion, inserted flashbacks, prolonged soliloquies, and deep conversations between characters abruptly given to keen psychological examination of one another.

    That’s a great comment. I agree completely. Writing characters as you’ve described is intrusive, and dull, and bogs down the narrative, and too many authors feel like they have to do it.

    They don’t spend time with these huge fleshed out back stories. They just drop tidbits through the short stories. I love the episodic feel of the pulps.

    Me too Glenn, I can’t consume a steady diet of S&S/pulp, but I certainly love the flavor.

    Not to get too far off topic, but I just have to point out that the cover art shown in that book cover, above, was also used by Molly Hatchet for their “Flirtin’ With Disaster” LP.

    If I have my story straight, Frazetta was at the peak of his popularity when the cover was commissioned and would only agree to do it if the rights were non-exclusive. So Molly Hatchet was also able to use it.

    Enjoyable piece. Not sure I agree though. Plenty of modern genre fiction has thin characterisation and is wildly successful.

    I don’t think thin characterization is the only reason for the decline of swords and sorcery, but I believe it’s a reason among many. The fading influence of D&D may be another. A glut of bad pastiches and formulaic novels is likely a third–a very similar phenomenon happened with horror.

    I read somewhere that Wagner had plans for trilogy; I think it was called Dark or Black Eden? That would be the story of Kane’s origin and a more in-depth characterization. That would have been awesome!!. It’s so sad that Wagner passed-on too soon. Just like Howard, he had so many more, and maybe even better, tales left to tell.

    Wagner may have been planning a trilogy but I’ll leave that up to others; I’m not up on my Kane history. But I agree that he left us far too early.

    There is more than one tale.

    There is more than one way to tell a tale.

    Yup, I just wish more readers agreed so that S&S was a more viable genre.

    The child then goes to college and acquires student loan debt.

    Had to smile at that one…murderous demon-cults seem cheerful in comparison.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - December 9, 2011 8:19 pm

  11. I’m lucky enough to be in possession of original prints of all of Wagner’s work, including the short story collections (which include stories like the amazing Raven’s Eyrie, which actually does give some insight into who Kane really is as a character). I will treasure these forever.

    As you said, he’s sadly very underrated. In fact, I tried to read “Name of the Wind” and found it incredibly annoying (never finished it) because I felt like Wagner accomplished everything Rothfuss attempted in fewer words and a more exciting story. Just my personal opinion, of course.

    Swords & sorcery is one of my favorite genres. I’m so glad to see it discussed in the fantasy reader circles.

    The most recent entry I found that really called up the feeling of S&S for me was Andy Remic’s “Kell’s Legend”. I really enjoyed that one.

    Comment by ChristopherKellen - December 9, 2011 10:13 pm

  12. The Kane stories (less so the novels) are near perfect examples of S & S at its creative heights. As others have written, there’s just enough characterization to whet the appetite and lend believability to Kane’s actions. Instead of pages of thuddingly obvious psychological probings of Kane we get black magic, crazed cultists and gory battles. Who could ask for more?

    I read “Reflections for the Winter of My Soul” in “Death Angel’s Shadow” years before I read any Conan. It still holds a higher place in my heart even “Beyond the Black River”.

    It’s a shame the Night Shade omnibuses didn’t get a trade release. There’s no reason these books and stories aren’t in constant print.

    Comment by the wasp - December 10, 2011 11:40 am


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