Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Friday, November 23, 2007
Far more than just the tale of a single battle, Gates of Fire examines the mindset of this society of proud warriors. It demonstrates their brutal methods of training and how they governed themselves, in the process painting a vivid picture of day-to-day life in bronze-age Greece.
- Xeones, the narrator, a non-Spartan who starts his life as a slave but gradually becomes a respected squire, fighting alongside the Spartans and acquitting himself with great glory in the heart of battle;
- Dienekes, the platoon leader, a scarred veteran and natural leader, a salt-of-the earth soldier yet also wise and fearless;
- Alexandros, a young Spartan who loves not battle but the strains of music, a singer and poet who fights not for glory but out of duty and pride;
- Leonidas, the Spartans' king, 60 years old but still a fearless figher, a man who sleeps beneath the stars and enters combat in the front lines, scorning any advantage of his station; and
- Polynikes, a physical specimen and greatest of Sparta's warriors, haughty and merciless, demanding to the point of sadism, who undergoes a transformation and eventually embraces the humanity and valor of Alexandros and Xeones with tears in his eyes.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Monday, November 12, 2007
But recently (and miraculously) one of the Web's most respected fantasy blog sites, The Cimmerian, picked up on The Silver Key and wrote a very flattering review. You can read the post here.
Thanks to author Leo Grin for his very kind words, and as I briefly mentioned in a recent post about Robert E. Howard, please go check out The Cimmerian. The insight of its authors are amazing and, despite its name, it covers an impressive breadth of material, much more than just Howard and his works. For example, a recent post by Steve Tompkins, "An Irish Bard at King Hrothgar's Court", starts out with a preview of the new Beowulf film, but then launches into an erudite study of the history of the Beowulf poem and its recent translation by Seamus Heaney. It's the kind of high-quality article you'd expect to read in a literary journal, frankly. (Yes, that is a sucking up sound you're hearing, but frankly, it's true. They do great work over there).
In conclusion, I started The Silver Key as a sounding board for my own thoughts, but it's nice to know that someone out there is reading. And thanks again to The Cimmerian for the acknowledgement.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Need I say more? I mean, look at the picture I've embedded--that's a Blind Guardian album cover, and it looks like it could have been plucked off the cover of a Robert Jordan novel.
I've always been drawn to heavy metal for its power and grandeur. Narrowing that down further, I prefer bands with a clean, epic sound and soaring vocals. Even more specifically, I prefer those metal bands whose subject matter covers the fantastic, be it dark magic and the occult (Black Sabbath), medieval/ancient history (Iron Maiden), or sci-fi (Judas Priest and The Sentinel, Electric Eye, etc).
Blind Guardian fulfills all those requirements. To get an idea of what they like to sing about, all you need to do is view some of their song titles, of which I've included several in the below list. Note that Blind Guardian doesn't just make oblique or occasional references to Tolkien, King Arthur, Dragonlance, etc., like other bands have done (Led Zeppelin's mentions of "The Dark Lord" and "Gollum" from Ramble On spring to mind), they write songs--nay, entire albums--about fantasy, without a hint of satire:
- The soulforged
- Born in a mourning hall
- Lord of the Rings
- Mordred's song
- Skalds and shadows
- The Bard's song
- The curse of Feanor
- By the Gates of Moria
- Gandalf's rebirth
- A past and future secret
I'm not making this stuff up, folks. These guys are hard-core fantasy fans. Their music may as well be the soundtrack of a Dungeons and Dragons game. In fact, I've seriously considered incorporating some of their lyrics/subject matter into that D&D campaign I'm hoping to someday get off the ground.
In a lesser band's hands, the combination of long hair, electric guitars, and some German dude yelling "Mordor--dark land under Sauron's spell" could be embarrassing. But Blind Guardian is able to pull off this material successfully and with a straight face because a) They're passionate and obviously well-versed in the material; and b) They're damned talented.
Don't believe me? Check out this clip of one of their acoustic numbers, "The Bard's Song," from Youtube. I don't think you'll be disappointed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_tORtmKIjE&feature=related.
The bard's songs do indeed remain alive and well in the capable hands of Blind Guardian.
To read more about Blind Guardian, go to their Web site: http://www.blind-guardian.com/.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
…and thus begins "The Phoenix on the Sword," the first published tale of Conan of Cimmeria.
The first thing that strikes you about Robert E. Howard (who took his own life at 30 years of age) is, Damn, can this man write. It's hard not to spout the cliches when describing his writing: Howard’s prose indeed burns like coals, and yes, his words do leap off the page. Is it literature? No. But if your idea of fun is swordplay, colorful characters, clashing armies, wondrous lands, decadent civilizations, sanity-bending magic, monsters, and voluptuous women, then Howard’s your man. He was and is the reigning champion of the branch of fantasy known as swords and sorcery.
If your only exposure to Conan is the big, dumb brute of the film Conan the Barbarian (which I admittedly liked), get ready to meet a Conan you never knew. He’s smart, ruthless, ambitious, three-fourths savage, and just plain cool. And he’s a barbarian to the core, the walking embodiment of Howard’s philosophy:
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
You can feel this phrase at the heart of all of Howard's Conan stories, and it's what makes them so different than the mass of "fat fantasy" novels lining the shelves of bookstores today. Howard truly felt that, as a nation became more civilized, it grew correspondingly decadent and ultimately, corrupt. Men who fight and struggle to claim their kingdoms grow soft in times of peace and plenty until greed and sloth set in. Old kingdoms weaken through internal strife until they collapse from within or are invaded from without. Conan knew that tension as he simultaneously sought to rule the great kingdom of Aquilonia while experiencing the ever-constant pull of freedom and adventure, living life as a wild corsair on a ship or a raiding cossack on horseback.
In Howard's works and in the mind of the author himself, the howling "barbarians at the gates" were always waiting to pounce when kingdoms grew weak, and Conan himself was one of the horde. And maybe, Howard believed, rule by might and the axe was for the best. While at times that philosophy seems appealing to me, I can't say I agree with it. But there you have it.
Howard himself was a paradox: While he was a bit of an eccentric, attached to his mother, and wrote out of a small bedroom in his parents' home in Cross Plains, Texas, he nevertheless had no patience for academics and pacifists. He embraced rugged individualism and boxed and exercised himself into formidable shape. And he was a prolific, self-taught writer. Alas, his life ended far too soon, and we can only speculate on what works his prodigious talents may have eventually produced.
My first exposure to the barbarian came as a young boy of 10 or so through the old Conan the Barbarian comic book. While not a bad read, I didn't understand true greatness until I stumbled across a trove of back issues of The Savage Sword of Conan and Conan Saga. These magazines are loving adaptations of Howard's classic tales, and featured some amazing black and white artwork that captured the savage wonder of Hyboria, Howard's setting for the Conan stories. I still have my old back issues and I guard them jealously. One of these days I might even pull them out and read them again.
While great, the old black and white mags aren't as good as the classic Howard texts, and I was lucky to find the whole series of Conan paperbacks next. These helped start me on the path of becoming a lifetime reader and lover of fantasy. Of course, it wouldn't be until 15 years or so later that I realized even these books--published by Lancer and Ace--were in fact heavily modified (some would say mangled and bastardized) by editors L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Many of the stories were in fact pastiches, or stories told by different authors than Howard, and thus, not "canon." Some were bad. Even so, overall I found the old Lancer and Ace editions to be great reads, at least at the time.
Howard's best stories are the following: "Red Nails," "The People of the Black Circle," "The Hour of the Dragon," "Beyond the Black River," "The Devil in Iron," 'The Queen of the Black Coast," and "The Jewels of Gwahlur." But hell, they’re all good. None are novels; Howard’s longest tale is "The Hour of the Dragon," which checks in at a slim 174 pages.
All of Howard’s stories first appeared in the 1930’s pulp magazine Weird Tales, noted for publishing not only sci-fi, fantasy, and horror between its lurid covers, but also H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories. While Howard had a loyal following in the magazine, it wasn’t until well after his death in 1936 that he and his tales gained widespread acclaim.
Just make sure that if you read Howard, look for the unedited and pastiche-free stories. Real, raw Howard in his own words is fortunately now available in a nicely illustrated collection by Del Rey, which I highly recommend.
Until then, think on this quote from "Queen of the Black Coast":
“In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle … Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”
Postscript: There's a ton of cool Howard and Conan Web sites floating around the internet. Check out these:
Post-Postscript: If there is a god, and his name is Crom, he will let this movie be made: http://www.conanrednails.com/site/index.html.