Sunday, March 1, 2015

Heroes who use swords, aren't all noble, aren't all bestial, aren't all savage...

With varying degrees of joy I have been reading a lot of books featuring heroes in fantasy settings.  The authors are all quite a bit better than me in writing, I fully acknowledge, and the reason I am reading them has been to gain skill writing.  The fact that I forced myself to start some books with authors I really didn't like wasn't to punish myself, but rather, I wanted to see works that succeeded for what they were, rather than how they made me feel.  What my tastes were prior to beginning this project have not changed, I still like who I liked beforehand, and I still do not care for the writers who I previously avoided.  But, I can see that some writers made an effort to use flawed characters give them an angle to write from, and a hitch to secure their boat upon.

The books were the first 8 books from the White Wolf reprints of the Michael Moorcock Eternal Champion series.  The Death Dealer series written by James R. Silke about the character created by Frank Frazetta and had spawned numerous previous and post publication versions of the character and its origins. Karl Edward Wagner wrote the series of books featuring the character Kane, and these works are exceedingly expensive so these books were part of a lend lease agreement.  The hardcover collections of Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock, which featured some overlap from the Eternal Champion series, but I did not force myself to reread those that had been read already.  And the ever predictable choice of mine, CONAN by Robert E. Howard, in hardcover, from the Glenn Lord Berkeley series from the late 1970s.

Each character is different, a warrior, a thinker, a rogue, a spell caster, or some measure of the previous skills or roles, mixed together.  But the writers succeed in what they do by escaping cliché or exceeding it.  Michael Moorcock it is said began his works in epic fantasy to write the anti Conan the Barbarian.  Elric, an emaciated albino, dependent upon a tool, his sword, for his strength, is the king, even emperor of a people who are dying.  Conan was a brawny, ever youthful and valorous, scornful of magic, and his final life role was to acquire to throne of the lands.  Robert E. Howard wrote Conan and his other characters, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and more, very much to fit the established image of the rough journey ending in power over others.  Moorcock did the reverse.  And that is quite an amazing feat.

Elric was written as just one of a number of characters known as the eternal champion.  There was one at any give time, in the time and continuity stream. They were special, powerful, and able, and might have memories of their time in previous incarnations.  They spent their lives balancing the ever out of balance force between law and chaos.   Dorian Hawkmoon, Corum of the Silver Hand, and many more of memorable stories were flawed, cut from a far different cloth than the typical hero of epic fantasy, and memorable for that sense you feel of, what the hell happened.  Moorcock was playing with us, the readers, because keep expecting him to finally fulfill our desire to complete the journey, and he refuses.

Meanwhile Karl Edward Wagner refused to take sides.  His character Kane was equal parts flawed warrior/spell caster, and magnificent fighter, brilliant thinker.  This might make for an invulnerable character, but, he did have a weakness.  His soul, his inner self, was in turmoil, and faced a world that was equally dark.  Kane is a joy to read, because if you read the character Superman you eventually realize, he can't truly be beaten, he can only be slowed down, or distracted.  Kane is powerful, and hard to defeat, except when he is the one who defeats himself.

Death Dealer has been written in many fashions, and we, as the reader, are allowed, so far to sift through the versions of the character and try to pick up what is the real story.  James Silke does allow a single cohesive story and if you let the story flow, it is brutal, painful and perhaps without good guys and bad guys in the typical templates/roles, but it is exciting, and fulfilling to read about a character who is so powerful that his enemies fear him, and his allies have no idea what he might do.

Elric of Melniboné is the last emperor king of the elder kingdoms.  The human race, or the young kingdoms are encroaching upon the elder kingdoms, and they are hungry, powerful, and energetic.  Like his kingdom, Elric is emaciated, thin, exhausted, an albino with a torturous path to relief.  He loves a woman named Cymoril, has an evil cousin who seeks the throne, Cymoril, and to kill Elric, and all that stands between life and death for Elric, is a runesword, that sucks the soul of the enemy being fought, an alliance with a god of Chaos (Arioch), and Elric's own brilliant, if twisted, mind.  Michael Moorcock does not write an easy to love character, but the depth of his anti-hero is beyond that of most any other.  Do I like Elric?  I don't actually know.  I read him though.

Lastly, let us look upon before us, Conan of Cimmeria. He is a powerful, quick witted, agile, barbarian's blood.  Conan distrusts all sorcery, all sorcerers, and he would just as soon kill a user of magic as allow one to help him.  Conan is a loyal friend and ally, but he is loathe to be in the least way betrayed, or perceived to have been.  He loves battle, he loves women, and he prefers to use his sword to settle arguments.  He is the perfect warrior, and his stories are fruit from the seed of both great writing, and a great use of the world he "lived" in.  Robert E. Howard has and had detractors from his works, but for my money, he was brilliant, and deserving of far greater praise.

"Doomed Lord's Passing. For the mind of man alone is free to explore the lofty vastness of the cosmic infinite, to transcend ordinary consciousness, to roam the secret corridors of the brain where past and future melt into one...And universe and individual are linked, the one mirrored in the other, and each contains the other."

Michael Moorcock

"He stripped each body and made a blanket from their leather tunics. He heaped their armor and weapons along with his broken axe and helmet on the blanket, tied them in a bundle. He drank from the stream in animal fashion, and washed most of the dry blood and gore off his body. Then he picked up the bundle, heaved it to his back, and started down a narrow trail beside the stream." 

James R. Silke

“Men told that Kane was a giant in stature, more powerful than ten strong men. In battle no man could stand before him, for he fought with a sword in either hand - wielding easily weapons that another warrior could scarcely lift. His hair was red as blood, and he feasted on the still-beating hearts of his enemies. His eyes were the eyes of Death himself, and they cast a blue flame that could shrivel the souls of his victims. His only delight was in rapine and slaughter, and after each victory his banquet halls echoed with the tortured screams of captive maidens.”  

Karl Edward Wagner

“Elric knew that everything that existed had its opposite. In danger he might find peace. And yet, of course, in peace there was danger. Being an imperfect creature in an imperfect world he would always know paradox. And that was why in paradox there was always a kind of truth. That was why philosophers and soothsayers flourished. In a perfect world there would be no place for them. In an imperfect world the mysteries were always without solution and that was why there was always a great choice of solutions.”   

Michael Moorcock

"The Lion banner sways and falls in the horror-haunted gloom;
A scarlet Dragon rustles by, borne on winds of doom.
In heaps the shining horsemen lie, where the thrusting lances break,
And deep in the haunted mountains, the lost, black gods awake.
Dead hands grope in the shadows, the stars turn pale with fright,
For this is the Dragon's Hour, the triumph of Fear and Night."

Robert E. Howard

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