Saturday, June 26, 2010

A pause in programming

Note to passers-by: I won't be posting to The Silver Key for a good week or so--I'm taking a vacation (internet-free) with the family.

See you after July 4.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: Camlann

1. Battle of Camlann, from various sources

Many a spear was thrust and splintered,
Many a stern word spoken;
Many a sword was hacked and bent,
Many a helmet broken;
Noble companies clashed together,
Battering helmets bright.
A hundred thousand fell to the ground;
The boldest were quelled ere night.

Since Brutus voyaged out of Troy
And Britain for kingdom won,
No war so wonderfully fierce
Was fought beneath the sun.
By evening not a knight was left
Could stir his blood and bone
But Arthur and two fellow-knights
And Mordred, left alone.

—Le Morte Arthur

Camlann, the final battle of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, has been retold and re-imagined by authors as diverse as Sir Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Bernard Cornwell, appearing in ancient sources like the stanzaic poem Le Morte Arthur (written circa 1350) and modern novels like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (published 1958). Despite differing details of the order of battle and the manner in which its final blows were struck, all the sources agree that Camlann was the end of Arthur’s reign. He either dies outright, or is mortally wounded and spirited away to the mystical isle of Avalon from which one day he will return, healed, to repair a broken world.

Was Arthur a real figure? I suspect he was. Ancient legends, however altered they may become with the passage of years and the vagaries of recorded history, typically have some basis in fact. Most histories place Arthur as a sixth-century ‘dux bellorum’ (war-leader) or high king of the post-Roman period in Britain. His legend fomented in Geoffrey of Monmouths’s History of the Kings of Britain, was adapted and romanticized by various French poets, and eventually reached its fullest form in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.

But beneath all the romance and splendor of the myth—handsome knights winning favors for their lovely ladies in tournaments, or riding off gallantly on glorious grail quests and the like—is the grim, bloody battle that ended the dream. Whether it was fought in the fifth century A.D. by bearded warriors armed with spears and shield and wearing coats of ring-mail, or was a mythic 15th century tilt of plumed knights in gothic plate, Camlann kicks ass and rates as no. 1 on my list of Top 10 fantasy fiction battles. There are many reasons why it has such resonance with me, but here’s a few:

The aging Arthur, lacing them up one last time like an aging but still dangerous prize heavyweight. Arthur bleeds pathos; betrayed by his best friend and his wife, hated by his bastard son, and unable to patch together his squabbling knights, he nevertheless rides out to battle one final time for the good of the world. He fights for a concept of what is right.

Lancelot, Arthur’s disgraced betrayer, returning to the fray to help out his beloved king. In many versions of the story he reaches the battle too late, but I’ve always been partial to those where Lancelot returns in the nick of time, fights bravely, and dies at Arthur’s side after begging his forgiveness. See John Boorman’s Excalibur (cue lump in throat when a wild-haired Lancelot rides into the fray swinging a mace).

Mordred is a complex enemy. Either you love to hate him, or find it hard to wholly root against him. In some versions of the tale Mordred is Arthur’s nephew and a terrible betrayer, utterly unsympathetic to the reader. In others he’s Arthur’s illegitimate child whom the King in a moment of supreme weakness tries and fails to drown after hearing a prophecy that his birth will bring ruin to Camelot. Thus Mordred’s hatred for his father and the Round Table is rather justifiable.

The desperate nature of the affair. Order and the age of chivalry hang in the balance, and underneath the pounding hooves of Mordred’s forces can be heard the heavy footsteps of an approaching Dark Age. Against these are arrayed a thin red line of Arthur’s knights, the remains of the once great round table.

Its finality. Everyone of consequence pretty much dies in the Battle of Camlann, including Arthur, Mordred, and the great knights Lancelot and Gawain. It’s the end of a golden age and a shining castle on a hill.

The alliterative Morte Arthure says that Mordred’s forces include 60,000 soldiers while Arthur’s troops number just 1,800 knights. The stanzaic Le Morte Arthur estimates a larger order of battle with a combined 100,000 casualties.

Camlann is often started seemingly a random when, during a parley of the opposing forces, one of Mordred’s men is stung on the foot by an adder and draws his sword to kill it. Thinking that their king has been deceived, Arthur’s knights attack. Perhaps the serpent is an allusion to Satan, the deceiver and sewer of discord, wreaking mischief on the Christlike Arthur.

Of the battle itself there are numerous versions. Bernard Cornwell wrote a memorable version in Excalibur, the concluding volume of his highly recommended Warlord Trilogy. Here Arthur’s knights engage Mordred’s in a clash of shieldwalls on a narrow strip of sandy beach (would you expect anything less from Cornwell, he of the shieldwall fetish?) Mordred’s forces vastly outnumber Arthur’s but he can’t bring them all to bear at once and his advantage is nullified. Cornwell does a usual fine job of depicting the nasty, brutish conflict that occurs in the interlocked walls of wood:

I recall confusion and the noise of sword ringing on sword, and the crash of shield striking shield. Battle is a matter of inches, not miles. The inches that separate a man from his enemy. You smell the mead on their breath, hear the breath in their throats, hear their grunts, feel them shift their weight, feel their spittle on your eyes, and you look for danger, look back into the eyes of the next man you must kill, find an opening, take it, close the shield wall again, step forward, feel the thrust of the men behind, half stumble on the bodies of those you have killed, recover, push forward, and afterwards you recall little except the blow that so nearly killed you. You work and push and stab to make an opening in their shield wall, and then you grunt and lunge and slash to widen the gap, and only then does the madness take over as the enemy breaks and you can begin to kill like a God because the enemy is scared and running, or scared and frozen, and all they can do is die while you harvest souls.

At the end of most versions of the battle only four combatants are left standing—Arthur, Mordred, and Arthur’s knights Sir Lucan and Sir Bedievere. Mordred and Arthur’s final death-duel differs depending on the source material. Most tales have Arthur running Mordred through with a spear, but suffering a mortal head-wound when the latter cleaves his helm and brain-pan with an overhand sword-stroke.

But in the alliterative Morte Arthure, Arthur, mortally wounded in the right side by a sword-stroke from Mordred, slashes off the latter’s sword-hand an inch from the elbow. Mordred falls to his knees in pain and Arthur drags him back upright again and drives Excalibur all the way up to its hilts. Cornwell’s version also has Arthur wounded in the side and right eye but concludes with Arthur chopping through Mordred’s skull-topped helmet (and Mordred’s skull beneath).

In any case, Arthur is terribly wounded, perhaps mortally. Lucan’s heart bursts as he tries to bear his wounded king from the field, leaving Bedievere as the final survivor of the battle. Arthur’s last order is for Bedievere to cast Excalibur into the sea, and after two false starts Bedievere follows his king’s command. The last rays of a red sun glitter on the sea as it dips below the horizon.

Some legends say Arthur is taken by boat to the Isle of Avalon to heal. Others say his wound was mortal and he died on the shores of the sea and was entombed there. But whether from some mystical isle or beyond the realms of death, Arthur will one day return. He is after all the Once and Future King.


So that does it for my top 10 fantasy fiction battles. Some honorable mentions that could have made the list on another day include The Battle of the Pelennor Fields and Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, The battle of the ice wall from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the final battle in C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, the battle of Nemedian and Aquilonian armies from Robert E. Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon, and The Battle of Yonkers from Max Brooks’ World War Z.

What are yours? Comments are welcomed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: Ragnarök

2. Ragnarök, from various sources

We will give our lives and let our world be destroyed, but we will battle so that these evil powers will not live after us.

—Odin, from
The Children of Odin by Padraic Column

The Twilight of the Gods. The Doom of the Gods. Not just the ending of the world, but the breaking of the world. A final battle of order vs. chaos. A creation myth that explains our dim remembrances of gods and monsters and the chants of old heroes singing in our ears. A conflict that ended in fire and darkness and ultimate defeat for the greatest gods and heroes of an age—but took evil down with it.

I’m referring of course to Ragnarök, the epic battle of giants, heroes, gods, and monsters from Norse mythology. Although I’m not aware of one definitive treatment of the battle (for this post I’m drawing upon Snorri Sturluson’s The Prose Edda and Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin), and it lacks the detail and narrative voice of the others on my list, for sheer scope, stakes, and iconic elements, it’s almost impossible to top, and so checks in at no. 2 on my Top 10 Fantasy Fiction Battles of all time.

Ragnarök. Heck, I even love the pitiless, hard sound of its name.

Ragnarök pits Giants, a wicked race which seeks to destroy the race of men, versus a pantheon of Gods who beautify the world and elevate its inhabitants. The battle is leant an extra degree of poignancy by the fact that Odin knows the Gods are going to lose. But victory is not their goal—they’re fighting to smash the enemy and not let them rule the world. Ragnarök is the essence of the northern theory of courage that J.R.R. Tolkien so loved: bravery and unshakeable resolve in a hopeless situation.

Ragnarök is preceded by three consecutive hard winters without a summer. Great battles rock the world, brutal conflicts pitting brother against brother in wars of destruction. Humanity is at its lowest ebb and can only be cleansed by fire:

Brothers will fight
and kill each other,
sisters’ children
will defile kinship.
It is harsh in the world,
whoredom rife
—an axe age, a sword age (and the sun rises)
—shields are riven—
a wind age, a wolf age—
before the world goes headlong.
No man will have
mercy on another.

Then comes the final battle. Heimdall, Watcher of the Gods and Warder of the Rainbow Bridge, sees the advancing host of foes and blows the Gjallarhorn. The Gods awaken and assemble. Valhalla opens its 540 doors with 800 champions ready to pass through each door. That’s 432,000 of the greatest champions, ever. The mind reels.

And that’s not counting the Gods themselves, the Aesir and the Vanir, the Asyniur and the Vana, the Einherjar and the Valkyries. I’ve always liked the thought of the Valkyries—fair maidens who collect the souls of the bravest warriors from the battlefield and take them to Valhalla on flying horses—engaging in the battle. They know the tremendous stakes involved in its outcome. The great host is resplendent in its war-gear and Odin rides in the vanguard. Writes Colum: “Odin rode at the head of his Champions. His helmet was of gold and in his hand was his spear Gugnir. Thor and Tyr were in his company.”

But the forces of evil are equally mighty—so mighty, in fact, that Ygdrassil, the World Tree whose roots are deeper than memory, is said to tremble. “And nothing, whether in heaven or on earth, is without fear,” writes Sturluson. The forces of evil include Surtur and his army of fire giants, Hrym and his host of frost giants, Jormungand, the midgard serpent, whose length encircles the globe, Fenrir, a wolf whose gaping mouth reaches from the ground to the sky, and Garm, the hound with the bloody jaws. The traitorous god Loki (whose father is a Giant and is thus allied with the forces of evil) leads into battle all of the dead from the realm of his daughter Hel. The rainbow bridge shatters and falls into pieces under their weight.

The combat is fierce and apocalyptic. Fenrir slays Odin. Vidar, the Silent God, places his leather sandaled foot in its lower jaw and seizes the wolf’s upper jaw, then tears its head apart. Thor crushes Jormungand with a hammerstroke from Miolnir, but the serpent in its death throes spews its choking and blinding venom. Thor perishes (too soon for me, I wanted to see the thunder god pulverize some Giants with his hammer). Loki and Heimdall slay each other in single combat. Garm slays Tyr but is himself slain by the one-handed God.

The fire giant Surtur sets the world on fire with his blazing sword, evoking thoughts of some great nuclear holocaust. Surtur and his host are consumed in the fire. Ygdrassil is said in some versions of the story to go up in flames as well, perhaps symbolic of the passing of the spring from the earth. Others claim it survives and gives root to a new world from the ashes of the old.

The wolf Hati devours the Sun (Sol) and the wolf Managarm devours the moon (Mani). Stars fell and darkness came down over the world. Writes Colum: “The seas flowed over the burnt and wasted earth and the skies were dark above the sea, for Sol and Mani were no more.”

Eventually the earth springs green again and a new sun and moon arise. The death of the world paves the way for what could be a Christian creation myth: Corum writes of a new heaven above even Asgard. “Will and Holiness ruled in it.” Deep in a wood two of human kind are left, parallels to Adam and Eve. “A woman and a man they were, Lif and Lifthrasir. They walked abroad in the world, and from them and from their children came the men and women who spread themselves over the earth.”

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Cimmerian awards and REH-related writings

One of these years I need to make it out to Cross Plains, Texas for Howard Days. It's an annual gathering of Howard-heads at the old Howard homestead, which has since been designated a historical site. It features guided tours, panel discussions, special guests, fellowship, and awards given out by the Robert E. Howard Foundation. And some spirits appear to be imbibed as well, which is okay by me.

Here's one report of the event on the REHupa blog , and another over on REH: Two Gun Raconteur.

At this year's Howard Days The Cimmerian won a pair of Stygian awards, given for outstanding achievement by an REH-oriented website. I was glad to play a part in the award for contributions during calendar year 2009. Although I miss writing for The Cimmerian, as our penultimate post notes, it was nice going out on top. (Al, that's a sweet sports coat by the way).

I'll also blast my own horn and note that I had two essays nominated for a Hyrkanian (Outstanding Achievement, Essay): “An Honorable Retreat: Robert E. Howard as Escapist Writer” (from The Dark Man, V4N2); and “The Unnatural City” (from The Cimmerian, v5n2). I didn't win but it was an honor to be nominated. The winners were Leo Grin for 2009 and Steve Tompkins for 2010. Having read both essays I have no complaints there. These guys were and remain two of REH's greatest champions.

For the record I have a third essay just published in the latest issue of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur. It's called “Unmasking “The Shadow Kingdom:” Kull and Howard as Outsiders.” I'm not sure if, to paraphrase H.P. Lovecraft, Howard's Kull stories represented some weird peak in REH's writing career, but there's no doubt that they feature Howard at his most philosophic and meditative. They certainly demonstrate that the best pulp/fantastic fiction can and should be treated as literature. There's a lot more going on in "The Shadow Kingdom" than meets the eye. From my essay:

Regarded by most as the first swords-and-sorcery tale ever written, ["The Shadow Kingdom'] remains one of its finest examples, for it serves as a reminder that the genre can transcend empty action. Figuratively and literally, there is something both sinister and brilliant going on beneath the skin of this tale. Bound up in the reptilian hide of a pulse-pounding work of heroic fiction, “The Shadow Kingdom” is a vehicle that Howard used to probe for the truth of the human condition.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: The Battle of Thermopylae

3. Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield
Battle of Thermopylae

"Answer this, Alexandros. When our countrymen triumph in battle, what is it that defeats the foe?”

The boy responded in the terse Spartan style, “Our steel and our skill.”

“These, yes,” Dienekes corrected him gently, “but something more. It is that.” His gesture led up the slope to the image of Phobos.


Their own fear defeats our enemies.

“Now answer. What is the source of fear?”

When Alexandros’ reply faltered, Dienekes reached with his hand and touched his own chest and shoulder.

“Fear arises from this: the flesh. This,” he declared, “is the factory of fear.”

The above dialogue from Steven Pressfield’s incomparable Gates of Fire (in addition to reminding me a bit of the famous “what is best in life?” exchange from Conan the Barbarian) is one of those grab-you-by the throat moments in which you realize that there existed such a thing as a warrior culture. The ancient city-state of Sparta offers prima facie evidence of such a society. Its entire purpose was to produce unstoppable, peerless, fearless fighting men. As a result the Spartans boasted the best warriors of their own, and perhaps any, age.

The Spartans’ legendary prowess was put to the ultimate test when a two-million man Persian army under King Xerxes poured into Greece in 480 BC to enslave the western world. The ensuing events are now the stuff of legend: 300 Spartans were dispatched to slow the advance of the Persian forces at the Hot Gates, a narrow strip of land between the cliffs and sea. All were killed, but the Persian army was delayed for seven crucial days, which bought the rest of Greece enough time to mobilize, unify, and ultimately defeat the Persians at Salamis and Plataea. The west was saved.

How did the Spartans hold out so long at Thermopylae and eventually beat the Persians? The answer lay in a combination of superb training and an unbeatable martial mindset. The armies of Xerxes sewed fear in their opponents with their overwhelming numbers. Their hordes of archers, for instance, were said to fire enough arrows to blot out the sun. But Xerxes did not understand the nature of the opponent he faced in the Spartans, who were not only exquisitely trained and skilled with shield, spear, and sword, but quite simply knew no fear in battle. Theirs was not the mindless, slavering fearlessness of a barbarian horde bolstered with liquid courage, but the unbreakable fearlessness of superbly disciplined soldiery. The fear of death was stamped from the Spartans during a pitiless 13-year period of training that turned boys into iron-hard warriors who regarded dying on the battlefield as a gift. I would have wet my pants and defecated if I had to stand in a shield wall and fight belly-to-belly with an opponent who wanted to kill me; the Spartans relished the opportunity.

Gates of Fire offers its reader battle without compromise. Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t in the Spartans’ vocabulary. That’s actually not fair: The Spartans mourned and honored their dead. After battles they wept and shook, or fell on their knees and thanked the Gods they survived. They were in the end only men, after all. But this never occurred during battles, which the Spartans conducted with ruthless efficiency and impeccable discipline. In the midst of the unspeakable carnage of the shield wall they entered into a displaced state of mind which allowed them to avoid a condition called katalepsis, or “possession, meaning that derangement of the senses that comes when terror or anger usurps dominion of the mind.” Gates of Fire introduces its readers to a host of these Spartan descriptors—Arosis (harrowing, or a hardening the will), Phobos (fear), Aphobia (fearlessness), Andreia (true courage). Pressfield also acquaints his readers with the Spartans’ fearsome eight-foot war spears and their most prized possession, 20-pound shields of bronze and wood that served as both protection and offense, a battering ram whose rim could crush an opponent’s skull.

Pressfield simply writes awe-inspiringly well about the Spartans’ training and discipline and how it manifests itself during battles. From an early skirmish against the Syrakusans:

Now from the Lakedaemonian ranks rose the paean, the hymn to Castor ascending from four thousand throats. On the climactic beat of the second stanza,

Heaven-shining brother
Skyborne hero

the spears of the first three ranks snapped from the vertical into the attack.

Words cannot convey the impact of awe and terror produced upon the foe, any foe, by this seemingly uncomplex maneuver, called in Lakedaemon “spiking it” or “palming the pine,” so simple to perform on the parade ground and so formidable under conditions of life and death. To behold it executed with such precision and fearlessness, no man surging forward out of control nor hanging back in dread, none edging right into the shadow of his rankmate’s shield, but all holding solid and unbreakable, tight as the scales on a serpent’s flank, the heart stopped in awe, the hair stood straight up upon the neck and shivers coursed powerfully the length of the spine.

This scene (and many others like it) are to me what make Gates of Fire such a great book. Yes, the battles are awesome and Thermopylae is enough to earn a place in my Top 10 Fantasy Fiction Battles. But it’s the lead-up to the battle that’s the crowning achievement of the book.

Once the Battle of Thermopylae begins the action and the carnage are unrelenting. Thermopylae is like some great marathon without a finish line; the warriors fight on, day after day, beyond endurance, until they are ground down and destroyed. Each day the Spartans take the field thinned in number, horribly wounded, dog-tired, but committed to the purpose. They were going to die and they knew it. Their wives and children and peers expected no less and would not have accepted surrender or retreat.

The Spartans were not only better trained and more motivated but had topography on their side at Thermopylae. They built a wall of rough stone, the height of two men, from which they mounted their defense. The narrow defile of the Hot Gates allowed a maximum of 1,000 Persians to close with the defenders, of which there were 4,000 (the 300 were reinforced with other Greek soldiers). This created a pinch point of death, a meatgrinder into which the Persians marched. Xerxes’ watched over the battlefield from a throne perched on the cliffs; he expected his men to finish off the Greeks on the first morning and be treated to a warm noontime lunch.

The Persians, needless to say, didn’t know what was about to hit them. Their army was built for mobility and fighting on the open plains; they bore wicker shields, bows, javelins, and scimitars and were lightly armored. Fighting in close quarters against the Spartans and the massed heavy infantry of the Greeks resulted in their massacre. The Spartans’ phalanx hit the Persians like an armored rugby scrum and smashed and trampled them down, then speared them underfoot. They shoved them over cliffs en masse, tumbling them 200 feet to shatter on the rocks or drown in the churning sea below.

After the first day of fighting the Hot Gates looked like a scene out of hell. Writes Pressfield: “The ‘dance floor,’ now in full shadow, looked like a field ploughed by the oxen of hell. Not an inch remained unchurned and unriven. The rock-hard earth, sodden now with blood and piss and the unholy fluids which had spilled from the entrails of the slain and the butchered, lay churned in places to the depth of a man’s calf.”

On the sixth night the Spartans made one last desperate attempt to turn the tide, sending a handful of Peers on a forced march through the night to assassinate Xerxes in his tent. The attempt comes up just short. The next day most of the remaining Greek allies withdrew, leaving barely 100 of the original 300 Spartan Peers to guard their withdrawal. A few hundred Greeks remained behind as well. All die to the last man, save one, Xeones, who will go on to narrate the tale.

Before the final battle each of the leading Spartan Peers offers up some final words to their comrades in arms. Here’s a bit of King Leonidas’ speech, issued from this great king of 60 years, one tricep torn through in the fighting, shield lashed to his useless arm, recounting what men a hundred generations yet unborn will remember of this great last stand:

“They will come, scholars perhaps, or travelers beyond the sea, prompted by curiosity regarding the past or appetite for knowledge of the ancients. They will peer out across our plain and probe among the stone and rubble of our nation. What will they learn of us? Their shovels will unearth neither brilliant palaces nor temples; their picks will prise forth no everlasting architecture or art. What will remain of the Spartans? Not monuments of marble or bronze, but this, what we do here today.”

I wrote in a previous review that when you read Gates of Fire you feel as though you’re in the shieldwall, amid sweating, straining men awaiting the clash of spear and sword. I felt exhausted, terrified, and exhilarated while reading it. That’s the highest praise I can bestow on a battle-novel, of which, like the Spartans themselves, Pressfield's book is peerless.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: At last, the final, bloody three

After a lengthy and rather inexcusable hiatus, I’m finally bringing my Top 10 Fantasy Fiction Battles series to its savage, bloody conclusion. Spears shall be shaken, shields splintered, and Odin’s corpse hall shall overflow with fallen warriors, their souls borne away from corpse-strewn battlefields on the winged steeds of valkyries. Or something like that.

As a reminder this series focuses on the best mass battles of fantastic fiction, not small skirmishes or one-on-one duels. Note too that the term fantasy is a bit of a misnomer since a few these battles are historical fiction, but I chose to include them because they are either so ancient or so shrouded in legend that out of necessity they were heavily re-imagined by their respective authors. Plus, they kicked too much ass to leave them off the list--some of the best battle scenes I've read were penned by authors of historical fiction.

Look for the next installment a bit later this week. Here are links to the first seven parts:

4. The Battle of Unnumbered Tears, from The Silmarillion

5. The Demons Before Carce, from The Worm Ouroboros

6. Battle of Five Armies, from The Hobbit

7. A Hero Strives With Gods, from The Iliad

8. Battle of Cynuit, from The Last Kingdom

9. Battle of the Blackwater, from A Clash of Kings

10. Battle at Leidhra, from Hrolf Kraki’s Saga

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The eternal appeal of the life and works of Robert E. Howard

Although The Cimmerian’s days are numbered, the legacy and works of Robert E. Howard will live on and on. The TC print journal and its accompanying blog did their part to deserve his legacy, and I was proud to be a part of it, but we were literally laboring in the shadow of a giant who will continue be read for as long as the word exists.

With my days as a TC blogger winding down I thought I’d get back to the reasons why I (and perhaps if I may be so bold, extend that to the plural we) love the life and works of REH—and why he continues to enthrall us.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian website.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Post-TC, the Road goes ever on, but to what end?

Sorry for the recent wall of silence around here, but I just returned from an incredibly busy, terribly stressful, but ultimately very successful business conference in Chicago. My blogging during the last week was non-existent and my weekly post over at The Cimmerian consisted of a re-print of an old Silver Key piece, a review of Mark Finn's fine Robert E. Howard biography Blood & Thunder. Weak, but under the circumstances it was the best I could manage.

But as Sam Gamgee famously said, "well, I'm back." A loaded, bittersweet phrase if there ever was one. Like Sam I've returned home, but changed from the experience, and finding that everything around me seems to have been altered irrevocably as well.

The big change of course is the impending demise of The Cimmerian, aka TC, which shuts its doors permanently as a blog on June 11. I was asked by the late, great Steve Tompkins to join the pirate crew as a weekly contributor to the TC in Feb. 2009. Very humbly, I accepted his erudite offer. Here's part of his first e-mail to me, which I continue to cherish for vain reasons and as a reminder of Steve's unique sense of humor:

Now that the doleful secret is out about the grand finale of THE CIMMERIAN as a print journal, I'm eager to get started on sustaining the blog as a clearinghouse for posts about Howard, Tolkien, Karl Edward Wagner, Poul Anderson, David Gemmell, Charles R. Saunders, horror (whether Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti, or big screen releases), fantasy movies, Westerns, and anything else within a hard day's ride of our particular Border Kingdom.

I hope you'll be able to join in. I uneasily recall some interviews Keith Richards and Pete Townsend gave way back when before they embarked on solo recordings wherein they said they would never want to be placed in the position of having to choose whether the Stones or Who got their "A" songwriting material or they kept it for themselves. Here's hoping you don't feel like you're ever robbing THE SILVER KEY, of which Leo and I are major fans, to pay THE CIMMERIAN.

For the next year and four months I did join in, writing posts every week on everything from horror to heavy metal to REH to Tolkien, including a lengthy series of which I'm rather proud, Blogging The Silmarillion. I told the current crew of guys over at TC that writing for that publication was an honor and a privelege, which sounds rather phony and cliche' but is quite genuine. Writing for TC forced me to be regular (though looking back I think I produced a few bowel movements) and pushed me to excel. Stepping into a shieldwall of talented writers elevated my own game. I hope you enjoyed my many posts there. I'm sad to see that fine blog come to a end.

Now that the halcyon days of TC are drawing to a Camlann-like end, it's time to figure out what I want to do next. Fellow TC blogger Al Harron posed a similar question over at his wild, wooly, and compulsively readable bit of cyberspace, The Blog that Time Forgot, and I now find myself confronted with a similar set of questions.

Should I become my own Mayor of Michel Delving and focus my attention here on making The Silver Key a better and more regularly updated place, should I move on to other established heroic fantasy websites, or should I strike out on the Road on some grand new adventure? My problem is that my interests range too broadly and far afield: One week I'm obsessed with Conan, the next week I'm poring through books on The Third Reich, the next I'm delving back into old tomes of Tolkien criticism. The wide-ranging reach of The Silver Key reflects my eclectic tendencies. All the advice I've read on successful blogging says that you should keep your focus narrow, but although it may cost me readers I can't ever see myself writing about any single author or genre. There's too much cool shit in the world to put blinders on.

I'll be giving these questions some thought in the coming days, but for now I'm just glad to be home with my own Rosie and my two wonderful daughters.