Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett—a review

The Sword of Rhiannon (1949) was my first experience reading Leigh Brackett, one of the grand dames of science fiction along with C.L. Moore, and I must say I was quite impressed. Although it may sound like heresy to the Edgar Rice Burroughs fans Brackett’s depiction of Mars might be the best I’ve read. While not as action-packed, I thought it created a more convincing alien atmosphere than A Princess of Mars, although it certainly owes a huge debt in terms of form and genre elements to Burroughs' earlier work.

The Sword of Rhiannon tells the story of Matthew Carse, an archeologist from Earth who’s spent 30 of his 35 years on the red planet, an arid, dying world that at one time was home to a vibrant environment and an advanced alien culture. One day a wealth-seeking Martian leads Carse to the tomb of Rhiannon, in which a cursed, godlike figure from Mars’ ancient past is rumored to lie in deathless sleep. Carse enters the tomb and is swept back via some form of wormhole into Mars’ ancient past, before its seas dried up and when all was green and beautiful. Carse takes with him the jeweled-hilted sword of Rhiannon as well as a dark sentience from the tomb. He soon finds himself emeshed in an ancient conflict between the militaristic nation of Sark and their evil serpent-like allies, the Caer Dhu, who are at war with the Martian free peoples under the Sea Kings.

Despite its fantasy trappings, The Sword of Rhiannon is firmly in the sword and planet genre. While the protagonist wields a sword and ancient Mars is decidedly low-tech (transportation is by sail or rowed ships; combat is with medieval-style weapons), Mars was once home to a race of advanced beings called the Quiru. The Quiru abandoned the planet but left behind relics of their advanced civilization, incredibly powerful technology that includes time-travel devices. There is no overt magic in the story, save perhaps for a form of telepathy. The Quiru’s artifacts are sufficiently advanced to seem like magic though Brackett does describe them as working according to scientific laws.

More than its fun story (which rigorously follows Burroughs’ sword and planet formula), The Sword of Rhiannon succeeds due to its style and atmosphere. Bracketts’ writing makes Mars feel, well, otherwordly. She succeeds in creating a vivid contrast between the arid waste of the new Mars and the beauty of the old, and we as the reader feel the pang of loss of a great civilization that once was. Here’s an example, a scene in which Carse, chained to the oars of a Sark ship, awakes at his post and looks upon a sunrise on the sea that makes him momentarily forget his enslavement, so different is it from the dry wastes of Mars that he previously knew:

Through the oar port he watched the sea change color with the sunrise. He had never seen anything so ironically beautiful. The water caught the pale tints of the first light and warmed them with its own phosphorescent fire—amethyst and pearl and rose and saffron. Then, as the sun rose higher, the sea changed to one sheet of burning gold.

Whenever I finish a book I typically scour the web to see what others think about it. In my travels I was pleased to find a nice essay on Brackett by Michael Moorcock, “Queen of the Martian Mysteries: An Appreciation of Leigh Brackett."

As readers of this blog may know I don’t have a lot of love for Mr. Moorcock for his harsh and rather personal criticisms of J.R.R. Tolkien. But I freely admit that Moorcock’s piece was a nice read, informative and infused with some illuminating personal anecdotes about Brackett the person and the writer. It also manages to steer entirely clear of the spite-filled tangents into which Moorcock’s criticisms frequently seem to veer. I was surprised to find that many of his observations of Brackett were the same as mine, formed during my limited exposure to Brackett (which consist of The Sword of Rhiannon only).

I must say however that some of Moorcock’s commentary caused me to do a positive double-take. In particular I was flummoxed to find that some of the very characteristics he finds most admirable in Brackett’s romanticism-infused science fiction are the selfsame qualities that imbue his most hated of books, The Lord of the Rings. From his essay:

Yet Brackett has less in common with Mervyn Peake than she has with Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler and other superior writers of popular fiction. Yet common to all these writers is the sense of yearning loss, as of innocence, a nobler, irredeemable past and an uncertain future. Her heroes are often deeply aware of some moral transgression which everyone forgives them for except themselves. At the time these stories were written we had seen our sense of our history, of our progress towards real civilisation, blasted to bits before our eyes. By the time these stories were appearing in the pulps, Germany’s Nazi armies seemed unchallenged in their conquest of Europe. All those idealistic aspirations for world peace and the rule of civil law had collapsed before the cheap rhetoric of a bad journalist like Mussolini or a mediocre painter of postcards like Hitler.

Wow, where to start…at last check The Lord of the Rings is infused with a sense of “yearning loss, as of innocence.” It certainly draws the readers’ attention (even without benefit of The Silmarillion) to a “nobler, irredeemable past,” and transitions the reader with its heartbreaking, equivocal ending, to an “uncertain future.” When LOTR was written progress was being “blasted to bits” before Tolkien’s eyes, which he witnessed first-hand in the trenches of WWI and later in the rise of Nazi Germany. Yet Moorcock somehow finds these traits admirable in Brackett and execrable (no exaggeration on my part) in Tolkien. Is it because Tolkien’s hobbits are too British and countrified for his tastes, or perhaps because Tolkien offers the possibility (not the guarantee) of consolation/salvation?

Moorcock even comments that the hard science fiction in vogue during Brackett’s time (her stuff shares more in common with science fantasy) fails as lasting literature because of its lack of humanism and inability to portray technology as anything less than progressive. Writes Moorcock, "We were beginning to realise that controlling [the world] might not produce the effects we desired."

Hmm, sounds conspicuously like the point Tolkien made with that whole One Ring bit.

But enough Tolkien digression. In short, The Sword of Rhiannon=highly recommended.


Trey said...

Good post. While I'm a pretty big Burroughs fan (or at least I was when I was younger), but I find Brackett's Mars more compelling, though ERB's name coining is probably superior.

Talysman said...

But as I recall, Moorcock didn't hate those features of Tolkien. He disliked Tolkien's prose style, which he thought was pretty stodgy in LotR although he admired bits of it... and he disliked The Hobbit, but more importantly books by other writers like C. S. Lewis, because he thought they talked down to kids and idolized the boring and simple. That's a little more extreme than regretting the passing of innocence.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Michael Moorcok too, and I recomend Brian reading the Runestaff, the cycle of Dorian Hawkmoon, as a whole (4 novels) even better than Elric of Melnibone, with really only two or three great novels, the rest being repetitive and poorly written
ehem... by the way I hope to not be banned but... I haven't read Lord of the rings... yet... this year I will try to read the four novels of Song of ice and fire by George RR Martin translated to spanish and Lord of the rings

Eric D. Lehman said...

Well, expecting a writer to be consistent in critical opinion is like expecting a tree to sprout symmetrical branches. Or something like that. But it's the rancor that Moorcock attacked Tolkien with that is really the problem. That allows (nay, encourages) us to attack him by showing the flaws in the angry argument.

Brackett sounds like a good read - on my ever-increasing list...

Brian Murphy said...

Talysman, here's quote from Moorcock that illustrates my point:

Tolkien has the right elements of snobbery and escapism to make it a huge success. John Buchan for teenagers. A compendium of disguised bigotry and English high church snobbery. I hate it for exactly those qualities which made it so popular. It's a lullaby. Not sure we need lullabies at the moment. Unless we're all just going to give up, go to sleep and wake up dead. I really do feel contempt for Tolkien and a certain disgust for those adults who voted him writer of the century. This has nothing to do with why I decided to be a writer.

Rancor is the right word, as Eric said. Moorcock pretty much despises everything about JRR Tolkien, which again, I find surprising because many of the qualities he praises in Brackett are to be found in LOTR and his other works.

Francisco: I'll read those if you promise to read The Lord of the Rings... deal?

Anonymous said...

it's ok amigo... ; ... I will let you know

Tex said...

Moorcock's essay can also be found as the introduction to Martian Quest: The Early Brackett (Haffner Press, 2002.)

(who recommends this, and any Brackett, highly)

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Tex, I did not know that.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I still feel it's simply that Moorcock is jealous he will never be as popular, or as good of a writer.. after all he writes about people becoming hermaphrodites and doing drugs.. not exactly quality material.

Jay said...
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Jay said...
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Jay said...

This may be heretical, but I've become less entranced with Tolkien as I've grown older. In Lord of the Rings, Sauron and Saruman don't accomplish much besides annoying the heroes, only managing to kill one because his line is not the rightful heir to Gondor. The Ringwraiths and Orc armies lose every conflict with the heroes, making me wonder at the point of the conflict in the first place.

Meanwhile, in Sword of Rhiannon, the Dhuvians are suitably powerful opponents who lose only when Stark, quite literally, the Darkness Within. Nothing feels anticlimactic in the story as Carse and Ywain are completely different characters from what they were at the beginning. They are redeemed as well as irredeemably changed. This carries a much more poignant pathos than Tolkien achieved in his magnum opus.

I truly wish Sword of Rhiannon were better known. It is better both stylistically and thematically than Lord of the Rings.