Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Short Rest

For anyone following The Silver Key, I'll be heading to our family's equivalent of Rivendell (a place that's internet free) and won't be posting here until after July 4. Cheers!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

(Closing in on) 100 years of Tarzan of the Apes

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes was first published in All-Story Magazine in 1912, which means that we’re closing in on 100 years of the iconic jungle hero (wow!). Tarzan of the Apes proved so popular among All-Story’s readers that it spawned two dozen sequels, several movies, and stacks of comic books.

Yet somehow I’ve managed to avoid reading the original story that started it all—until now.

Shame on me, because was I missing out. Tarzan of the Apes is a lot of fun and I highly recommend it. It’s a lean novel but packs a big story into its 245 pages (paperback—I own the Ballantine Books authorized edition, pictured here). It’s chock-full of action and violence, the clash of animal vs. animal, man vs. animal, and man vs. man in the savage jungles of darkest Africa. There’s some really manly, barbaric stuff going on in here, like Tarzan’s battle with the great ape Kerchak for possession of Jane in a clash with prehistoric echoes:

Jane—her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration—watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman—for her.

As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.

Although I hadn’t read Tarzan of the Apes previously I knew the story well enough through exposure to movies and the comics. Aristocratic English couple John and Alice Clayton, the Lord and Lady Greystoke, are marooned in western Africa following a violent mutiny aboard their ship. Alice’s delicate constitution can’t handle the shock of the jungle and its terrible denizens and she dies after giving birth to a son. Her husband is mauled to death by a great ape shortly thereafter. A female member of the ape tribe, Kala, takes the then six-month old infant John to her breast and raises him as a member of the tribe.

Named Tarzan (which means “White Skin” in the language of the apes), the young Lord Greystoke attains near-superhuman levels of agility and strength through his rough upbringing among the great apes. Though he never attains the full strength the bull males possess, Tarzan is more agile, smarter, and equipped with a hunting knife and rope which he uses as an accurately thrown noose from the treetops. Soon he becomes the fiercest beast in the jungle, rising to the top of his tribe. Eventually Tarzan finds his parents’ abandoned cottage and manages to teach himself to read. Through the printed word and encounters with civilized visitors he discovers his humanity and his ancestry and finally returns to England.

Like A Princess of Mars which I recently re-read after a span of many years Tarzan of the Apes is not without its flaws. Edgar Rice Burroughs has been described as a great writer of ideas, but not necessarily great in the execution of said ideas. I tend to agree. A more patient, careful writer than Burroughs might have turned the transformation of savage into man into something even more powerful and beautiful than we see in Tarzan of the Apes, and ultimately, in a more believable fashion (in the novel Tarzan transforms from savage ape-man to courteous, timid love interest in a span of a few pages, which I found hard to swallow). Burroughs is a writer of boundless imagination and energy but I think he suffered from turning out his stories at a white-hot pace.

But these criticisms are ultimately minor. As I said before I enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes a lot, even more than A Princess of Mars. More than just action, Tarzan of the Apes offers a thoughtful, multi-faceted view on the nature of civilization. In general it’s roughly equivalent though slightly more positive than we find in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. Howard wrote in “Beyond the Black River” that “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” Likewise, in Burroughs’ universe being raised among the animals in the wild seems to trump city life. Tarzan is not only far physically superior to civilized men, but he’s morally and spiritually superior as well. Tarzan views black cannibals and white murdering pirates with an equal degree of disgust. Back in England he’s able to see through the schemes of the gentleman Robert Canler, who is little more than a finely mannered animal. He judges with clarity man’s capacity for not just sub-human, but sub-animal behavior (“for it has remained for man alone among all creatures to kill senselessly and wantonly for the pleasure of inflicting suffering and death.”)

But again the novel is not that black and white. Too much city life may make us weak and dissolute, but living in the jungle isn’t fit for a man. Education and civility are a good thing and man (or more accurately, cultured, aristocratic man) is more than animal, a superior creation. Though he’s lived among brutes and feasted on raw flesh, Tarzan still treats Jane with a natural sense of chivalry. But unlike a gentleman his attitude is unfeigned and not a scheme to maneuver her into bed.

Yet Jane, though attracted to Tarzan’s vitality and stunningly good looks, is simultaneously repelled by this man-ape. She’s reluctant to marry him and risk severing her place in the social order. I found the Tarzan-Jane dynamic to be one of the book’s chief strengths.

“Could she find anything in common with a husband whose life had been spent in the treetops of an African wilderness, frolicking and fighting with fierce anthropoids; tearing food from the quivering flank of fresh-killed prey, sinking his strong teeth into raw flesh, and tearing away his portion while his mates growled and fought about him for their share?

Could he ever rise to her social sphere? Could she bear to think of sinking to his? Would either be happy in such a horrible misalliance?

Read Tarzan of the Apes to find out.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

First official photos of The Hobbit released

From Entertainment Weekly.

So far so good, though I can’t say I’m surprised, given the precedent set by the wonderful scenery and set-pieces of The Lord of the Rings films. Martin Freeman couldn’t have been a better casting choice, visually, for the part of Bilbo (though I picture Mr. Baggins as slightly more rotund).

As I’m sure it was for many others The Hobbit was my gateway to fantasy and, largely, to reading in general. As such I have very high expectations for this film (or more accurately, films). I have little doubt The Hobbit is going to look great, but my hopes and fears are pinned to the faithfulness of the script. And the amount of screen time allotted to Beorn kicking ass at the Battle of Five Armies.

Cross-posted from Black Gate.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Broken Sword, an (audio) review

Note: This post also appears on

The Viking Age of England offers fertile ground for storytelling. It was a time of strong men, beautiful fair-haired women, and bloody raids for plunder. Christianity was the new religion on the block, striving to make inroads on the old pagan beliefs—and often at the point of a sword. Gods were said to mingle with men and the world lay poised on the edge of Ragnarok, a final battle and fiery conflagration that would end the world.

Poul Anderson drew on the best of this wild and poetic age, stirred it up with myth and fantasy, and the result was his 1954 novel The Broken Sword. Its like has rarely been matched in the annals of fantasy literature.

I’ve read The Broken Sword previously and knew what a wonderful book it was, but TV and film actor Bronson Pinchot’s narration in this new Blackstone Audio, Inc. production added a new dimension to the novel. I had first heard Pinchot in a reading of Stephen King’s Eyes of the Dragon. While he was wonderful there he ups his game in The Broken Sword, reading with a spite and fury in his voice that perfectly matches the book’s unrelenting grimness and battle fury. Pinchot breathes life into beautiful maidens and proud warriors, deep-throated trolls, and ancient elven warrior-kings whose voices are like winds sighing through treeless leaves.

Oddly enough there is exactly one sound effect in the entire recording—an echo effect used to convey the cold, cruel laughter of Odin—and it’s on the final disc. It was cool but rather jarring, considering it’s on the last disc and there’s no precursor. But on to the tale.

In The Broken Sword the land of Faerie exists alongside the lands of men, invisible save to those with the witch sight. Faerie is a land of bright castles and achingly lovely elves, of the gods of Odin and Tyr, the giants of Jotunheim, black-eyed trolls, and other, fouler monsters.

Pride and ambition touches off the events of The Broken Sword. Orm the Strong is the fifth son of Ketil Asmundsson and thus low in the totem pole of inheritance. Rather than accept a smaller share of wealth Orm seeks his own fortune by going a–viking. On one of his raids he kills a husband and his sons, burning their hall to the ground. The man’s mother, a witch, escapes and swears revenge: She bestows a curse that Orm’s eldest son will be fostered beyond the world of men, while he in turn will foster a wolf that will one day rend him.

The elf-earl Imric travels to the lands of men and sets the witch’s curse in motion. Imric takes Orm’s unbaptized infant son Skafloc and replaces him with Valgard, a changeling, whom Imric himself has fathered by raping a captive troll woman. Valgard’s dark ancestry is evident when he bites his unknowing mother’s breast and grows restless and violent in Orm’s care. Skafloc, raised among the elves, is fair haired and fair of spirit, though equally mighty and otherwise a mirror image of his dark changeling “brother.”

After he discovers his true half troll, half-elf heritage, Valgard embarks on a mission of revenge, killing several members of his foster family. Aided with an army of trolls he then launches a war of annihilation on the elven lands of Alfheim. Skafloc and the elves are beaten back by the initial assaults and all seems lost. Only by going on a quest to reforge a powerful ancient weapon—the eponymous broken sword, a weapon of terrible demonic power that demands blood each time it is drawn and ultimately turns on its wielder—can Skafloc save Alfheim and avenge his family.

Though The Broken Sword seems largely forgotten these days it remains influential. The elf Imric for example reveals the clear stylistic (and thematic) influence The Broken Sword had on subsequent authors like Michael Moorcock. Moorcock (a big fan of the book, who once wrote that The Broken Sword “knocked The Lord of the Rings into a cocked hat”) based his Melniboneans heavily on Anderson’s elves. Imric is (largely) Elric of Melnibone, not only in similarity of name, but in appearance and even character. Anderson’s Elves are darker than those in The Lord of the Rings (though I would point out that Tolkien’s elves closely resembled Anderson’s in his source material; see the prideful warrior Feanor from The Silmarillion). They are haughty, prideful, shun the sunlight, and if not malicious are certainly mischievous. These traits have their roots in Norse myth, which both Tolkien and Anderson drew upon.

Everything about the book is wonderfully northern. Characters mingle soaring verse with common speech in conversation. Anderson weaves old northern vocabulary into the tale, evocative words like “Fetch,” “Fey,” and “Weird” (the latter is a fate from which no man escapes), which lend The Broken Sword a hard northern ethos to match its flavor. In this pagan hierarchy the Norns are higher than the towering Jotuns or even the Aesir. Even the gods will die in the fires of Ragnarok at their appointed time. That grimness bleeds through into The Broken Sword as its protagonists are slowly crushed beneath the merciless wheel of fate.

"Throw not your life away for a lost love," pleaded Mananaan. "You are young yet."

"All men are born fey," said Skafloc, and there the matter stood.

This is hard stuff and an unforgiving outlook on life, though not incompatible with that other somewhat famous work that debuted in 1954—Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. No matter what Moorcock—he of the tin ear when it comes to Tolkien analysis—may tell you.

The writing in The Broken Sword is top-notch, really and truly great stuff. A small sample of dialogue uttered by the troll-woman Gora:

“The world is flesh dissolving off a dead skull,” mumbled the troll-woman. She clanked her chain and lay back, shuddering. “Birth is but the breeding of maggots in the crumbling flesh. Already the skull’s teeth leer forth and black crows have left its eye sockets empty. Soon a barren wind will blow through its bare white bones.”

One final, important note about the Blackstone recording: The text is Anderson’s original from the 1954 version of the book, which Anderson updated in 1971 for republication in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. This is not immediately apparent from the description on the Blackstone website. I’ve only read the 1971 version, so for those who haven’t had the chance to experience The Broken Sword in its earliest and rawest incarnation you now have another chance.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Any other Edguy fans out there?

German power metal band Edguy is hard to pin down. On one album you're likely to hear medieval fantasy flavored songs in the vein of Iron Maiden or Blind Guardian alongside hair metal inspired hits like "Lavoratory Love Machine" and "King of Fools." They've been known to branch out into loud and proud power ballad material. Their material ranges from soaring bombast that sends chills down your spine, to goofy head-scratching attempts at humor that generally don't come off too well.

A common thread (if there is one) is that Edguy really, really seems to be enjoying themselves and doing whatever the hell they want.

I've gotta give credit to my friend Falze for turning me on to these guys. If you haven't heard of Edguy before (and most people in the States haven't, it seems), they're definitely worth checking out. Though their first full studio album is 1997's Kingdom of Madness, they sound like they picked up where 1988 left off and kept on playing. Their sound on songs like "Theatre of Salvation" (which incorporates an all-male church choir to great effect) is borderline divine. They're not afraid to do it big and epic, which is what I want when I listen to metal.

Some of their lyrics are ... puzzling, though I might chalk that up to a translation issue (Edguy is German but their songs are written in English). Others are grinningly good, like they've been taken from the pages of a purple swords and sorcery tale:

Prayers have been spoken
May the gods be on my side
May they join my way to bring me victory
seven at one stroke
my triumph and my pride
will be history

As I've stated on numerous occasions what draws me to certain metal acts is the singing, and Edguy shines in this regard. Tobias Sammet is a pretty awe-inspiring lead singer. He's got tremendous range and a great sound, which is why I have him in my top 10 metal vocalists of all time.

Some of my favorite Edguy songs include:


Theater of Salvation

Vain Glory Opera

The Piper Never Dies


Rise of the Morning Glory


If I had to pick a favorite album, it would probably be Hellfire Club by a hair, though Mandrake and Theater of Salvation are in the running, too. Their last couple albums have been a letdown but I'm hoping they return to form with Age of the Joker, due out in August.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, a review

John Joseph Adams has a well-earned reputation as The Man Who Delivers Anthologies. Barnes & has dubbed him “the reigning king of the anthology world.” By my count he’s published at least nine of them. I own one, The Living Dead, which contained enough zombie goodness (along with a few stiffs) to prompt me to buy his Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse.

To be honest, I probably would have bought Wastelands regardless of its editor. I’m a big fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, from novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, to films like Escape from New York or Mad Max. Why? As an inhabitant of the northeastern seaboard of the United States I’m not often confronted with existential issues. I know that I’m going to die one day and suffer separation from all that I know and love, but because civilization affords me everything I need—and much of what I want, too—I tend not to think about these issues much. The panaceas of electricity and refrigeration, and healthcare and schools, and television and the internet and books, masks the skull beneath the skin. I’m effectively insulated from the hard life and death struggle that’s woven into so much of human history. But what if it was all stripped away, and life was reduced to its essentials? That’s the question post-apocalyptic fiction asks, and one I occasionally like to ponder. With my feet up on the couch of my air-conditioned living room, of course.

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

Monday, June 6, 2011

Books: This is Exactly How They Work

An arresting image making the rounds:

I'm not sure who the credit for this piece of art goes to so I'm including the link rather than posting the image.

Some might argue with the squalid depiction of life, but I like the sentiment that books can elevate our worldview and take us out of the mundane crap of day-to-day living. True, that.

On a less serious note: It's a reminder of another reason why physical books still beat e-readers.