This article originally appeared last year on the Rogue Blades Web site, but I thought readers of Black Gate would appreciate it.
“The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times…”
Henry David Thoreau wrote those words in the mid-19th Century for his distinguished book, Walden. They rang true then and they ring true today. Of course there will be those who say we do not live in degenerate times, that we live in the greatest of all ages, that our technological and social achievements are pressing us towards some utopia, but those who are true students of history and have open eyes might argue otherwise, or at least they might hold more than a little skepticism about the potential greatness of the immediate future.
Whether or not we live in a degenerate age, we are in need heroes more than ever. The Thoreau quote above concerns heroic books and not specifically heroic individuals, but I still believe it is appropriate to our current age.
But why do we need heroes? What do they bring to the table? After all, haven’t we shattered the myths of all our heroes from the past? Haven’t we discovered all the dirty little secrets about our real-world heroes? Haven’t we become so modern and avant-garde that the very idea of a fictional hero is quaint? Was not Tina Turner correct in her 1985 hit song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero?”
In a matter of weeks, months, it has become a different world. Even within the confines of speculative literature and what’s oft referred to as nerd or geek culture, there have been big changes. For instance, disappointing to those of us who had planned to attend this year, Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, has been canceled, as have hundreds of conventions and gatherings across the globe. Closer to home for me, a board member of Rogue Blades Foundation, a nonprofit publisher focusing on all things heroic, we have had to push back to 2021 publication of the book Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (though The Lost Empire of Sol is still expected to be published next month).
Now don’t think this is grousing, complaining. I’m merely pointing out how some of the world has changed of late. For that matter, some of the changes aren’t all bad.
As a writer and editor, I normally work from home, so all this isolation most of us are having to contend with of late isn’t new to me. What is new for me is that everybody else is home. Including all my online gaming buddies. And most of them don’t seem to be working at home. Which means they have lots of time for Dungeons & Dragons. Which means I have lots of time for Dungeons & Dragons. And other games. Which means I’m getting less work done than usual.
On my last trip to Tangier I purchased a 1925 edition of Beau Geste, one of those classic novels that I’ve always intended on reading but never had. It’s a swashbuckling tale of three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion a few years before the start of the First World War.
The novel opens with a mystery. Mild spoilers follow. A French officer in the Legion leads his troops to an isolated fort, responding to a call for help. Once there, he finds all the legionnaires dead inside, apparently shot by the warlike Tuareg. The commanding officer, however, has a French bayonet sticking out of his chest and the private beside him, although shot, has been carefully laid out with his hands across his chest. The private’s hat rests nearby, torn open. In the hands of the dead officer is a mysterious letter in English that contains a confession. . .
From that tantalizing beginning we cut to England, where three rich brothers have to flee home and end up in the French Foreign Legion. Add a cruel officer, hordes of Tuaregs, and some boon companions and you have the recipe for adventure. Author P.C. Wren writes in a breezy, wry style halfway between pulp pulse pounders and more highbrow literature. The style never feels dated although Wren’s worldview certainly does. There’s a definite hierarchy in this book, with the aristocratic Englishmen firmly at the top, the various Europeans and Americans they meet ranged further down depending on their social class, and the Arabs and Tuaregs right at the bottom. Women hardly figure in this book at all which, considering how agonizingly maudlin the one love scene comes off, is probably for the best.
My local produce seller, a farmer from one of the villages in the Rif
When the writing gets tough, the tough writers go to Tangier…
One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you have North Africa right at your doorstep. Sadly that region, with all its diverse cultures and beautiful landscape and ancient sites, has largely become a no-go area. Algeria and Libya are war zones and Tunisia and Egypt are highly unstable as well. That leaves Morocco, a safe and stable country that’s drawn me back several times to use as a writing retreat.
As I mentioned in a previous post about Living in a Moroccan Medina, I regularly go to the northern port of Tangier to get away from email and editors and take some time to do some serious writing. Not only does the city resonate with literary giants of the past like Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and Mohamed Chukri, it also provides inspiration in the form of a large traditional medina, fine views over the Strait of Gibraltar, and a growing arts scene.
So what does a Canadian writer living in Madrid work on when he’s in Morocco? Read on. . .