Saturday, February 28, 2009

Elric of Melnibone--a review

It’s a testament to the imaginative might of author Michael Moorcock that his most famous creation, Elric of Melnibone, has become a permanent and prominent thread in the fabric of fantasy history. Though he may not be quite the same household name as Conan, what fantasy fan hasn’t heard of the albino warrior/sorcerer, he of the tortured soul and wielder of the black demon sword Stormbringer?

The character of Elric first appeared in print in 1961 in a short story entitled “The Dreaming City.” Author Michael Moorcock later expanded the work into a short novel, Elric of Melnibone (1973). Though not perfect, I consider this latter a must-read for fans of fantasy fiction. It’s a marvelous work of imagination whose beautiful trappings include Imrryr, a city of alien architecture and strange, often abhorrent customs; demon-summoning sorcerers; and appearances by elementals and the gods of chaos. It combines the fast-pace and adventurous swagger of pulp fiction with a main character prone to brooding meditation and self-doubt.

The Elric stories are deliberately iconoclastic, taking an ironic stance in opposition to traditional/Tolkienian high fantasy and their often conservative worldviews. Elric is the reluctant emperor of Melnibone, a decadent, fading, yet still powerful kingdom that has dominated the Young Kingdoms of the earth for 10,000 years (think of Rome had it never lost its military might and was ruled by emperors like Caligula for millennia). Drunk on the blood of conquest, immoral to the core, and frequently under the influence of dream-inducing drugs, the Melniboneans live by the philosophy, “seek pleasure, however you would.” Slaves perform all the menial work, and some have been surgically altered/bred to perform single functions like singing a single, perfect note, or rowing a war-galley.

The army is unwaveringly loyal to the lineage of the Ruby Throne, as are its emperors—until Elric inherits the throne. He begins to question the old traditions, including the Melnibonean’s right to rule the Young Kingdoms with an iron fist. At heart Elric wants to abdicate the throne and run away with his love, Cymoril. But he’s afraid that the next in line to the throne—his cousin, the wicked Yrkoon, a throwback to the cruelest lords of Melnibone—will institute a reign of terror in his stead.

Yrkoon and his followers despise Elric, whom they perceive as weak and a threat to Melnibone’s place of power. They devise a plot to kill him during a barbarian invasion from the sea. Elric leads a successful attack that routs the barbarians, but at his lowest ebb (Elric’s weak constitution requires him to take a potent concoction of daily drugs to maintain his energy), Yrkoon shoves him into the sea. Weak and weighed down by his armor he begins to drown.

Thinking Elric slain, Yrkoon sails home and assumes the throne. Elric, however, is saved by a whispered spell to an elemental god of the sea and returns to Melnibone to punish and exile his cousin. Aided by a handful of followers, Yrkoon takes Cymoril hostage and escapes the Dragon Isle to start an uprising in one of the barbarian kingdoms. The remainder of the book includes Elric’s quest to get Cymoril back, which culminates with Elric’s recovery of the powerful but cursed Stormbringer.

Elric of Menibone starts off exceedingly strong with some memorable description and characters. Moorcock succeeds in making Melnibone feel like an alien place, as torture, incest, and dining on human flesh are routine occurrences (a scene with the sinister court torturer/chief interrogator Dr. Jest—a thin, sinuous man wielding a merciless, razor-thin scalpel—is forever seared into my memory). Moorcock’s portrayal of magic is exactly the way I like it—powerful and capricious, accessed through great grimoires capable of summoning great powers of darkness, but also prone to turn on the caster in unpredictable ways.

For all its strengths, however, Elric of Melnibone—and in particular its sequels—are not perfect. Moorcock is blessed with a tremendous imagination, but at times I find that he fails to deliver on his promise. For example, we’re told that the Melnibonean sorcerer-kings engage in drugged dream-sleep that allows them to wander other worlds and universes, “consort with angels, demons, and violent, desperate men,” and learn the accumulated lore and magic of the Melnibonean race, all from their dream couches. As a result of these dream-quests, their minds are millennia old. It’s a great concept. And yet how does this activity result in a character like the impetuous Yrkoon, who acts like a spoiled 25-year-old prince instead of a thoughtful sage suffused with the wisdom of ages? I also found the Elric series slips into repetition in later books as Elric battles one demon after another. His world-weary attitude in itself grows tiring after several books as well.

Finally, I must state that I found this Audio Realms AudioBooksPlus presentation a mixed bag. The reader, Jeffery West, was talented and altered his voice enough to create recognizable characters. This version also featured a brief overview/introduction read by Moorcock himself, a very nice, unexpected bonus. But the production was marred by the head-scratching decision to play music in the background throughout the entire reading. This included a loud heartbeat sound played during dramatic scenes. After a while I ceased hearing the music, but at times it was jarring and took me out of the flow of the story.

Note to Audio Realms and other audio book producers: The thought is appreciated, but please drop the soundtracks and stick to the text.

Note: This post also appears on

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Are fast or slow zombies scarier?

The recent remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) surprised many fans of the horror genre—myself included—by tweaking one of its oldest conventions: That of the slow moving zombie. The shuffling, shambling hordes of George Romero were suddenly yesterday’s news, replaced by flesh-eating sprinters courtesy of Zach Snyder, director of the remake of Dawn.

This surprising twist was more than many horror fans bargained for. Suddenly, hard-core zombie survivalists who prided themselves on their (theoretical) ability to run rings around slow-moving corpses in order to grab guns and food found their odds of survival (ahem) eaten away.

Snyder certainly deserves credit for attempting something new in his remake of Dawn. Although I’m a purist in some respects, I’ve never understood the purpose of frame-by-frame remakes of films (see Gus Van Sant’s 1998 soulless photocopy of Psycho). Refreshingly, Dawn of the Dead 2004 was not afraid to embrace change. Zombies are fast in Snyder’s universe, at least as fast as their fleeing prey (and what’s worse is that the pursuers presumably never get tired). It’s a pretty scary thought, and I was admittedly shocked at the high-speed carnage shortly after the credits of the new Dawn of the Dead began to roll. In fact, I think the opening 10-minute sequence of that film is an improvement on the original, which is high praise, given the esteem in which I hold Romero’s masterwork. The new Dawn also has a pretty great soundtrack going for it as well.

But after the initial shock of watching zombies chasing prey into their homes and launching themselves onto screaming victims, the effect became progressively less scary. Ultimately, I discovered that I prefer the creeping death of Romero’s shamblers over the high-speed cannibals of Snyder’s new Dawn. Here’s why.

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

Friday, February 20, 2009

Taking another Tolkien-basher to task

Novelist Richard Morgan recently wrote a critical piece on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in which he argues that the book suffers from its shallow depictions of good and evil, “ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh - and guess who wins),” writes Morgan.

I don’t agree with Morgan’s piece and consider it a rather surface-level bit of analysis. It’s kind of like claiming that Watership Down is a simple tale of Nature vs. Man. But I will concede that he makes some good points that are certainly food for thought. Tolkien’s characters are rather simple and one-dimensional compared to what we are used to in the modern novel, though I don’t think this is proof of his failure of his as a writer, but rather the result of deliberate choice. Many critics have successfully argued that Tolkien based The Lord of the Rings on much older sources, including Beowulf and medieval romances.

Tolkien also did not choose to write from a liberal humanist perspective or create characters conflicted with self-doubt, though I do point out that the main character of the book, Frodo, is tormented throughout by inner struggle. This may be the evil influence of the One Ring, or it may be something much more interesting—his own frailty and desire for power. Or both. Morgan in his essay also seems to have forgotten Gollum, a complex character who began his life as a hobbit, succumbed to his own weaknesses and the One Ring, and was on the brink of redemption but tragically had his window of opportunity slammed shut by the (to quote Morgan) “unwearyingly good and wholesome” Sam.

I would also note that The Lord of the Rings offers much more than a simple struggle of good vs. evil. In it Tolkien explores coming to grips with death, the possibility of a higher power, the problem of power and possessiveness, and the pervasiveness of war and the long-term effects it wreaks.

But unfortunately this isn’t the end of Morgan’s piece. He then goes on to salt his essay with nasty stilettos aimed at the professor and his readers, spiteful barbs that for me completely undermined any legitimate points he may have been trying to make. Apparently anyone past puberty who finds value in The Lord of the Rings is developmentally delayed, according to Morgan:

I’m not much of a Tolkien fan—not since I was about twelve or fourteen anyway (which, it strikes me, is about the right age to read and enjoy his stuff).

I’m honestly at a loss to even answer this statement. It's so ludicrous, inaccurate, and poorly thought-out (and deliberately inflammatory) as to defy belief. Hell, a 10-second Google search would provide a litany of reasons why Morgan is wrong.

So, Mr. Morgan, here’s a homework assignment for you from all of us overgrown 14-year-olds. Read some Tom Shippey and John Garth. Pick up Meditations on Middle Earth by Karen Haber to find out what authors like George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, Raymond E. Feist, and Terry Pratchett have to say about Tolkien. You may be surprised that all of these worthy authors seem to have found something of lasting value in The Lord of the Rings, which I guess in Morgan’s world makes them all uneducated hacks (sidebar: I wonder if 50-60 years from now we’ll be reading anything Morgan wrote).

Finally, Morgan concludes his “essay” with this:

Well, I guess it’s called fantasy for a reason. I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that. And I’ve written a fantasy novel for all those adults who wouldn't. I hope you like it.

Ah, now we get to the true purpose of this post. Congratulations, Mr. Morgan. By posting on my blog I’ve fallen for your trap, and given you what you obviously were after all along—publicity for your new book.

I hope it sells through the roof. And all you had to do was demean Tolkien and all of his readers to get it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cimmerian sightings: London calling

"I have carefully gone over, in my mind, the most powerful men – that is, in my opinion – in all of the world’s literature and here is my list: Jack London, Leonid Andreyev, Omar Khayyam, Eugene O’Neill, William Shakespeare. All these men, and especially London and Khayyam, to my mind stand out so far above the rest of the world that comparison is futile, a waste of time. Reading these men and appreciating them makes a man feel life is not altogether useless.” —Robert E. Howard, letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, 20 February 1928 

 It’s no secret that Robert E. Howard was a devotee of Jack London. In fact, Howard once referred to London, a spinner of rugged tales of the Klondike and the Yukon, as “this Texan’s favorite writer” (for more examples of the glowing praise Howard heaped on London, head on over as I did to the REHupa Web site). And yet, I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent of London’s influence on the greatest swords-and-sorcery writer who ever lived until this week, when on my commute to work I listened to the audio version of my favorite London story, The Call of the Wild (1903). It was a startling reminder that Howard’s sensibilities are splashed across every page of this wonderful book. If you are a Howard fan frustrated by fruitless searches for like-minded literature, I recommend you turn your gaze backwards, to Howard’s influences, and London in particular. Don’t be turned off by the lack of traditional fantasy trappings in London; while you (unfortunately) won’t find swords, man-eating apes, and giant snakes in The Call of the Wild, there’s plenty here to satisfy lovers of pulp action and adventure, including epic dog duels, murdering Indians, and high-stakes wagers placed on improbable feats of strength. More to the point, there’s more of Howard—the dark philosophy that makes Howard uniquely and greatly Howard—to be found in The Call of the Wild than in most other sword-and-sorcery tales published since Howard’s death. London’s work certainly puts most of the pastiches to shame in this regard. 

The Call of the Wild is a hymn to the law of club and fang. The rule of might-makes-right is pounded into the reader in literal fashion by the unforgettable Man in the Red Sweater, who delivers a brutal lesson at the outset of the story. London’s disdain of civilized, city-bred types is readily apparent in his depiction of Hal, Charles, and Mercedes, a pathetic trio who are swallowed up by the unforgiving wilderness, a fate reserved for all the decadent cities and peoples of Howard’s Hyborian Age.

London’s book even features a Howard-like treasure-hunt, a perilous search for a lost mine rumored to be shrouded by some ancient, evil fear: “Many men had sought it; few had found it; and more than a few there were who had never returned from the quest . . . no living man had looted this treasure house, and the dead were dead,” London writes.

Even more than its Howardian themes and storylines, shades of Howard’s most famous creation stalk through the pages of The Call of the Wild. While some may find a comparison between Conan and a member of the canine species less than flattering, Howard appears to have derived at least some of his inspiration for the Cimmerian from Buck, the great St. Bernard/Scotch shepherd crossbreed and undisputed leader of the pack. Though he may lack the square-cut mane of black hair and sullen blue eyes, Buck is a testament to the superiority of the wild-hardened beast over the soft, civilized races.

Although Conan is a barbarian born, and Buck, at the outset of the story, is introduced as domesticated and city-bred, this civilized veneer is purely illusory. For within Buck’s powerful breast dwells “the dominant primordial beast,” the barbarian spirit. It was always there, lying dormant until the stark, unforgiving Yukon country brings it out:

All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the blood lust, the joy to kill — all this was Buck’s, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood.

Like Conan, Buck has no physical equal among his own species. He’s a massive, powerful animal with lightning-quick reflexes who exhibits a terrible ferocity in combat. And like Conan, Buck is also smarter than his foes: On the few occasions when his might isn’t enough, Buck uses war-tricks and cunning to prevail over huskies, timber wolves, and occasional larger prey.

Buck even shares ancestral memories of a time very similar to Howard’s Hyborian Age. The subject of Howard’s poem “Cimmeria” reflects on an age of axes and flint-tipped spears, a heritage which leaves him wrapped “in the grey apparel of ghosts”; Buck’s dreams are haunted by a Neanderthal man from a remote and yet very real past, a barbaric time in which the law, down from the depths of time, was kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. Like Buck, Conan possesses a brooding savagery in every fiber of his being, an ancient trait passed down by generations of barbaric ancestors.

Yet for all this Buck is not a mere analogue of the Cimmerian. Early on Buck embraces a form of servitude, bending his might willingly to the honest toil of the sled traces. Conan would never stoop to working for another man. Also, Buck at story’s end heeds the call of the pack and melts into the wilderness to live among the wolves, while the latter eventually becomes a king, seizing the crown of Aquilonia. Buck arguably proves to be the greater savage of the two. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that Conan is an amalgamation of Buck and his companion, John Thornton. Though he’s a self-sufficient man of action, more at home in the rough Yukon than the sun-drenched Santa Clara Valley, Thornton, like Conan, recognizes the value of gold.

One other sequence from London’s book bears mentioning: Fans of the film Conan the Barbarian may be startled upon reading this passage from The Call of the Wild:

One day the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a cliff which fell away, straight down, to naked bed-rock three hundred below . . . A thoughtless whim seized Thornton, and he drew the attention of Hans and Pete to the experiment he had in mind. “Jump, Buck!” he commanded, sweeping his arm out and over the chasm. The next instant he was grappling with Buck on the extreme edge, while Hans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.

Shades of James Earl Jones/Thulsa Doom? Was this paragraph the predecessor to the “Come to me, my child” cliff-diving scene from Conan the Barbarian? Perhaps John Milius and Oliver Stone themselves drew from Howard’s source material when writing the screenplay for the film, and, like Howard, also recognized the powerful barbaric heritage of the Call.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: The Iliad

7. The Iliad, Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Book V—A Hero Strives with Gods

Many fantasy fans avoid Homer’s ancient heroic epic The Iliad, perhaps fearing that it will prove too academic and stuffy, one of the dreaded “classics” so revered in academia (and avoided outside the classroom). This is a mistake. If you’re a lover of bronze-age battles and the clash of spear and shield, The Iliad is a must-read. Who would have thought a near 3,000-year-old poem would contain some of the greatest depictions of hand-to-hand combat ever put to the printed page?

I was shocked by its scenes of carnage, which, without exaggeration, equal or surpass the gory combats of George R.R. Martin and Bernard Cornwell. For example, when the great Achaean warrior Ajax spears Archelochus, Homer describes the blow thusly: “Just at the juncture of his neck and skull the blow fell on his topmost vertebrae, and cut both tendons through. Head, mouth, and nostrils hit the earth before his shins and knees.”

Or this:

Peneleus instead brought down Ilioneus, a son of Phorbas, the sheepherder … Peneleus drove his spearhead into the eyesocket underneath the brow, thrusting the eyeball out. The spearhead ran straight through the socket and the skull behind, and throwing out both hands he sat down backward. Peneleus, drawing his longsword, chopped through the nape and set the severed helmeted head and trunk apart upon the field. The spear remained in the eyesocket. Lifting up the head by it, as one would lift a poppy, he cried out to the Trojans, gloating grimly.

Homer is not shallow in his treatment of combat and does not treat the battlefield as a glorious stage for heroes. He refers to the bloody action as “man-wasting war,” a costly harvest that leaves in its wake grieving mothers and fathers, and wives and children bereft of husbands and fathers. Tragically, Homer reminds us that many loved men with beautiful homes and far-ranging vineyards back in Greece will never return home on their long ships. Like the heroes of Normandy, their lot is to be buried in graves in far lands.

The events of The Iliad comprise 50 days in the 10-year war between the Achaeans and the Trojans. Homer’s epic poem is highlighted by various heroes who experience an aristeia, a sustained period of excellence in combat. Achilles’ wrathful aristeia is the most well-known in The Iliad, but for epic action I prefer Diomedes’.

Diomedes is arguably (along with the giant Ajax) the second-greatest of all the fighters on the field behind Achilles. Supported by the goddess Athena, in Book V of The Iliad he goes on a glorious rampage that nearly routs the Trojan army single-handed:

But as for Diomedes, you could not tell if he were with Achaeans or Trojans, for he coursed along the plain most like an April torrent, fed by snow, a river in flood that sweeps away his bank. No piled up dike will hold him, no revetment shielding the bloom of orchard land, this river suddenly at crest when heaven pours down the rain of Zeus. Many a yeoman’s field of beautiful grain is ravaged. Even so before Diomedes were the crowed ranks of Trojans broken, many as they were, and none could hold him.

Diomedes suffers an arrow-wound in the right shoulder, though his armored cuirass prevents a fatal or crippling wound. After his chariot-driver pulls the shaft free, spattering Diomedes’ bronze armor with blood, he returns to battle in a fury. Homer uses metaphors like no one’s business in The Iliad, and Diomedes-as-lion is one of my favorites:

And once more he made his way into the line. If he had burned before to fight with Trojans, now indeed blood-lust three times as furious took hold of him. Think of a lion that some shepherd wounds, but lightly as he leaps into a fold. The man who roused his might cannot repel him, but dives into his shelter, while his flocks, abandoned, are all driven wild. In heaps, huddled they are to lie, torn carcasses, before the escaping lion at one bound surmounts the palisade. So, lion-like, Diomedes plunged on Trojans.

Diomedes quickly slays eight Trojans, including two sons of King Priam (Echemmon and Chromius). Observing the slaughter, the mighty Trojan warrior Aeneas, son of the goddess Aphrodite, and fellow Trojan Pandarus spur their chariot at Diomedes. Pandarus hurls his long spear, punching through Diomedes’ shield and glancing off his chest armor. Diomedes responds with a mighty cast to “cleave Pandarus’ nose beside the eye and shatter his white teeth. His tongue the brazen spearhead severed, tip from root, then plowing on came out beneath his chin. He toppled from the car, and all his armor clanged on him, shimmering.”

Aeneas attacks Diomedes on foot, moving in with spear and shield. Weaponless, Diomedes lifts up a boulder that “no two men alive could lift,” hurls it, and smashes Aeneas’ hip joint. Aeneas would have died there if not for the intervention of Aphrodite, his mother, who whisks him away from harm. Diomedes wounds the goddess’ hand with a lance thrust as she flees back to the heavens. Diomedes later becomes the only mortal to wound two gods in a single day, spearing the god of war himself, Ares, and driving him from the field.

I can’t leave The Iliad without quoting one of my favorite combat descriptions. Roused by the death of his good friend and companion Patroclus, Achilles finally joins the battle and wreaks awful vengeance on the Trojans. Homer compares his wrath on the battlefield to an unchecked wildfire:

A forest fire will rage through deep glens of a mountain, crackling dry from summer heat, and coppices blaze up in every quarter as wind whips the flame. So Achilles flashed to right and left like a wild god, trampling the men he killed. And black earth ran with blood.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Grail? I've already got one

Joseph of Arimathea used it to collect Christ's blood. King Arthur's knights spent decades questing for it, scouring Britain from end to end in a fruitless search. Launcelot, the greatest knight of all, had it within his grasp but proved unworthy.

Me? I bought the Holy Grail two weeks ago in Epping, NH. It cost me all of $5.25, plus tax and tip. Best of all I didn't have to kill any of Mordred's knights to get it, or spend decades wandering in the wasteland. Historians should take note it holds exactly 20 ounces of liquid.

The waitress seemed puzzled when I suggested in astonishment that her establishment was committing a grievous mistake by selling the Sacred Vessel at such a low price. After a raised eyebrow she completed the transaction, whereupon I feel to my knees in praise. And a 2,000-year-old quest was ended.

I didn't know how empty was my soul... until it was filled... with beer.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cimmerian sightings: A line drawn in blood


In anticipation of the release of the remake of Friday the 13th, which hits the theatres tomorrow (on Friday the 13th—imagine that!), the Boston Globe ran a prominent feature story this past Sunday on slasher flicks, “The Genre That Wouldn’t Die”. In this piece the Globe’s film critic, Ty Burr, pulls no punches in expressing his antipathy for slasher films: “I hate the nasty little things," he writes.

Hates slasher films? That got my hackles up immediately. I’m a big fan of the horror genre, both on the printed page and in cinema. While I prefer the tales of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King to the films of Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Sean S. Cunningham (the latter directed the original Friday the 13th), I still enjoy a good horror flick. Even the badly-made ones have some merit as harmless fun.

As I read Burr’s piece I mentally began preparing my counter-argument, mulling over which implement to take up in defense of the slasher genre (Machete? Fire ax? Chainsaw, perhaps)? But I soon discovered that Burr’s article wasn’t such easy prey. Instead of taking shots at the artlessness and bad taste of the slasher film genre—old, tired saws that many critics choose to employ—Burr asks some penetrating questions: Why do we like these films? What makes people want to watch explicit violence?

To read more, click here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: Battle of Cynuit

8. The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell
Battle of Cynuit

He stared balefully across the encampment where men were drinking. “Do you know who wins battles, boy?”
“We do, Father.”
“The side that is least drunk,” he said, and then, after a pause, “but it helps to be drunk.”
“Because a shield wall is an awful place.”

—Bernard Cornwell,
The Last Kingdom

As a self-professed lover of medieval-flavored fantasy and historical fiction battles, and as someone who relishes in bloodshed on the printed page, I nevertheless must come clean: Some periods of ennui aside, I’m quite glad that I live in modern, civilized times. I especially thank the powers that be that I don’t have to strap on arms and armor and fight in the blood-soaked hell that was a viking shield wall.

Bernard Cornwell shattered any fantasies I may have had of engaging in dark ages combat in his wonderful, ongoing series The Saxon Stories. These books have something of a shield wall fetish, and are a repository for the sweet science of making one (keep that in mind should the need ever arise). For example, there’s this good-to-know factoid:

You can hear a shield wall being made. The best shields are made of lime, or else of willow, and the wood knocks together as men overlap the shields. Left side of the shield in front of your neighbor’s right side, that way the enemy, most of whom are right-handed, must try to thrust through two layers of wood.

Cornwell describes how many battles were delayed for hours as men on both sides gulped ale to build up their courage. Shield walls were simply too brutal and murderous to stand in completely sober. Picture a rugby scrum in which the participants not only push but stab one another with spears and short blades over the rims of their shields, or underneath, at exposed legs and ankles. Many fighters would strap iron plates to their boots to turn such wicked strokes, Cornwell says.

But more about shield walls later. The background of the battle of Cynuit is as follows: Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon who was captured in a raid as a youth and raised among the Danes, Ealdorman Odda, and approximately 900 Saxons square off against the raven banner of Ubba Lothbrokson and his 1,200 Danes. Odda and Uhtred have the advantage of high ground and some degree of protection from the old, eroded, earthen fort of Cynuit. But they have only a day’s worth of water and cannot withstand a siege, so they must act.

Uhtred develops a plan to sneak out at night with a small force of 100 men and burn the Danish ships, which are moored in a nearby river. Since the Danes are so protective of their longships, Uhtred predicts that they will lose their discipline when they rush back to quench the fires. Uhtred’s small force will fight them there, on the narrow strip of marsh-lined beach where Ubba cannot bring all his strength to bear. Then, in the heat of the combat when shield walls are locked, Odda will fall upon Ubba from the rear with the rest of the men from the fort.

But this plan is easier said than done. Though he’s beginning to gray Ubba is a mighty fighter, perhaps the mightiest in hand-to-hand combat of all the Danes. He wields a wicked heavy axe in combat and no man who has stood before him in battle has lived. His men are better armed than Uhtred's. But Ubba’s one weakness is his superstitious nature. He does nothing without a sign from the gods, and in this battle the runesticks have fallen against him. Thus, when Uhtred and Odda refuse his offer to surrender, Ubba feels fear.

Uhtred’s plan works. Sneaking through the pre-dawn hours on foot he manages to set fire to a few Danish ships at daybreak, rousing Ubba’s small army like a swarm of angry bees. The few Danes near the ships are confused and easily cut down. Uhtred and his 100 men form a shield wall that stretches across the narrow beach and close with the main of the Danish army. Uhtred recalls his father’s words as the shields touch close.

Shield wall. It is an awful place, my father had said, and he had fought in seven shield walls and was killed in the last one.

The angry Danes make the mistake of charging like mad dogs and not forming a proper shield wall of their own. Uhtred’s men slaughter the first wave. “It was ax work and sword work, butchers’ work with good iron.” A battle calm comes over Uhtred and he finds killing frightfully easy with his short sword Wasp-Sting:

I lunged Wasp-Sting forward, and the Dane ran onto her point. I felt the impact run up my arm as her tip punctured his belly muscles, and I was already twisting her, ripping her up and free, sawing through leather, skin, muscle, and guts, and his blood was warm on my cold hand, and he screamed, ale breath in my face, and I punched him down with the shield’s heavy boss, stamped on his groin, killed him with Wasp-Sting’s tip in his throat.

The Danes regain their composure and order a shield wall of their own. Five or six hundred Danes advance with murderous intent. Uhtred encourages his small force to stand its ground. “They’re coming to die! They’re coming to bleed! They’re coming to our blades!” he shouts.

The clash of shield walls rings like a thunderclap. Uhtred experiences “the thunder of shield hitting shield, my shield knocked back against my chest, shouts of rage, a spear between my ankles, Wasp-Sting lunging forward and blocked by a shield, a scream to my left, an ax flailing overhead.” The battle degenerates into a grunting mass of men hacking and stabbing and dying and bleeding. Uhtred’s shield wall is driven back on the burning ships.

But then Odda arrives and takes the Danes from behind. The pressure is immediately relieved. Uhtred draws his battle-sword Serpent-Breath and attacks, discovering that he is in elite, deadly company:

Beware the man who loves battle. Ravn had told me that only one man in three or perhaps one man in four is a real warrior and the rest are reluctant fighters, but I was to learn that only one man in twenty is a lover of battle. Such men were the most dangerous, the most skillful, the ones who reaped the souls, and the ones to fear. I was such a one.

Danes begin to fall back, and some retreat to their ships, shoving them off into the sea. But Ubba bravely stands, ordering a last shield-wall in a rearguard action. A berserk rage overtakes him:

And then, with a roar of fury, Ubba hacked into our line with his great war axe … his huge blade was whirling again, making space, and our line went back and the Danes followed Ubba who seemed determined to win this battle on his own and make a name that would never be forgotten among the annals of the Northmen. The battle madness was upon him, the runesticks were forgotten, and Ubba Lothbrokson was making his legend.

In a mighty single duel Uhtred slays Ubba when the latter’s foot slips in the spilled guts of a corpse. Uhtred stabs him with Serpent-Breath in the arm, then hacks his neck. Uhtred shows his foe the ultimate respect due a viking, holding Ubba’s hand tight to his axe as he dies, since only a man who dies on the battlefield clutching a weapon makes it to Odin’s hall.

“Wait for me in Valhalla, lord,” Uhtred says to the dying man. And with Ubba’s death, the Danes are finished.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Mourning the loss of print fantasy pubs

I'm thrilled to report that I've been asked to write occasional blog posts over at one of my most frequented cyberspace stops, The Cimmerian. It's a site dedicated to the life and writings of one of my favorite authors, Robert E. Howard. Recently The Cimmerian made the decision to widen its scope to include more broad-based fantasy and horror news, reviews, and analysis.

When I post there, my plan will be to include the first few paragraphs here, and then post a link to The Cimmerian if you want to read on.

Here's my first (and hopefully not last) contribution to The Cimmerian.

So far 2009 has been a lousy year for fantasy fans who like the feel of good old-fashioned print publications in their hands. For starters, we’ve lost the award-winning Robert E. Howard journal The Cimmerian. Elsewhere, long-running fantasy fiction and reviews magazine Realms of Fantasy is closing up shop, ending its 15-year run with the April 2009 issue. And, to top off the bad news, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, a well-regarded “best-of” anthology that spanned 21 years, has also been discontinued.

I’m not about to indulge in hyperbole and declare that print is dead, but there’s no doubt that the void left by these losses feels like, to quote J.R.R. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, “another piece of Mordor.”

To read the rest, click here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Zombie alert!

I'm taking a momentary diversion from fantasy battles to report an important news flash: Run, zombies are on the loose!

One of my worst fears, along with being consumed by a great white shark, is the possibility that one day the dead will walk the earth (presumably when there's no more room in hell, to steal a line from George Romero). I mean, I love zombie books and films, but when I watch or read about cannibal corpses it's with a strange mixture of revulsion, terror, and relief that I'm not one of the poor souls holed up in the shopping mall. Thus, when I clicked the link above I had a moment of panic before I realized it was a hoax.

Suffice to say that if I was driving along I-95 on the way to work and passed a sign that said "Caution!! Zombies Ahead!!", I'd be the guy you heard about on the evening news who was hospitalized after veering off into the nearest ditch. Missing the ditch, I'd be headed for home to grab canned goods, bottled water, shotgun, and axe and bee-line for my zombie-proof shelter in the basement.

(Thanks to my friend Falze for bringing this impending catastrophe to my attention).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My top 10 fantasy fiction battles: Battle of the Blackwater

9. A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
Battle of the Blackwater

George R.R. Martin is one of the most talented fantasy fiction authors writing today, and not just because of his great story-telling and characterization, or the cold-hearted, wildly unpredictable plot of his current series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin can also write damned good battle scenes, a few of which rank among the most convincing and violently portrayed that I’ve encountered in fantasy literature.

In particular, the Battle of the Blackwater from book two of his series, A Clash of Kings, is one of the bloodiest and most chaotic affairs I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It features ship-to-ship combat, the use of catapults, scorpions, and alchemists’ fire, a charge of armored knights, drownings, severed limbs, men burned alive, and even prisoners executed via trebuchet (you have to read it to believe it).

The Battle of the Blackwater is a microcosm of Martin’s strengths as a writer. In this violent struggle on land and sea, he captures the gruesomeness and realism of what a pitched medieval battle must have been like, while also managing to spring several nasty shocks on the reader (true to form, Martin hideously maims the battle’s point of view character).

In this battle the forces of Stannis Baratheon sail up the Blackwater River to attack the castle of King’s Landing and approximately 5,000 defenders under young King Joffrey. Baratheon’s force is formidable—20,000 men, many borne on war-galleys, the decks of which are studded with scorpions and catapults capable of flinging stones and barrels of burning pitch.

But the army is overconfident and fails to send ahead probing ships. As a result, they run into a deadly trap. Many of the ships at King’s Landing are empty hulks full of vicious green wildfire, a substance akin to napalm which sticks to its unfortunate target and melts flesh like tallow. Martin describes it as, “Evil stuff, and well-nigh unquenchable. Smother it under a cloak and the cloak took fire; slap at a fleck of it with your palm and your hand was aflame.”

When the attackers ships move in, great trebuchets from King's Landing send rocks the size of a man’s head raining down upon them. “When they fell they sent up great gouts of water, smashed through oak planking, and turned living men into bone and pulp and gristle,” Martin writes.

Battle is joined. Ships ram one another, spilling armored men into the water, who quickly drown. Other ships lock together with grappling hooks in a death embrace, and decks are soon awash in blood as men hack each other with swords and axes.

Despite some terrible losses the attackers are winning until an unfortunate ship, the Swordfish, rams a Lannister hulk floating low in the water—with slow green blood leaking out from between her boards. The crew of the Swordfish fails to recognize the wildfire and crashes in. The explosion and towering gout of flame engulfs a dozen Baratheon ships, destroying most of their crews. More ships begin to catch fire. Then, horribly, the defenders haul up a chain-boom behind the attacking force, cutting off the mouth of bay and preventing retreat. Another dozen ships, piled up against the chain, go up in flames. The Blackwater is turned into the mouth of hell. This marks the turning point of the battle.

Yet many of Stannis’ ships make it through and the attackers manage to land a fair force on land. Some of the men bring a ram to the king’s gate and bash away at the oaken doors. The keep appears on the brink of falling after the Lannister’s mightiest warrior, the pitiless, murdering Sandor Clegane, is humbled by the roaring flames (he's mortally afraid of fire) and refuses to go out and repulse the attack.

But Tyron Lannister, the stunted, dwarfish son of Lord Tywin Lannister, leads a sortie out from the Red Keep to repulse the attackers. He shames a group of knights to follow him (“They say I’m half a man,” he said. “What does that make the lot of you?”). They slam into the attackers at the gate, running them through with lowered lances. Tyrion takes a man’s head half-off with a swing of his axe. Another knight, dazed on his feet, tries to hand Tyrion his gauntlet in an act of surrender; Tyrion realizes the knight’s hand is still inside the steel glove.

Martin describes the chaos and carnage—and Tyrion’s exultant, near suicidal mood—with master strokes:

Men were crawling up from the river, men burned and bleeding, coughing up water, staggering, most dying. He led his troop among them, delivering quicker cleaner deaths to those strong enough to stand. The war shrank to the size of his eye slit. Knights twice his size fled from him, or stood and died. They seemed little things, and fearful. “Lannister!” he shouted, slaying. His arm was red to the elbow, glistening in the light off the river. When his horse reared again, he shook his axe at the stars and heard them call out “Halfman! Halfman!” Tyrion felt drunk. The battle fever.

Down in the bay twenty galleys, wrecked and lashed together, have formed a treacherous bridge. Hundreds of Baratheon troops on the far shore are using it to leap from one deck to another and cross the Blackwater. Tyrion turns to Ser Balon Swann, one his knights, and utters perhaps my favorite line in the series:

“Those are brave men,” he told Ser Balon in admiration. “Let’s go kill them.”

Tyrion leads another charge to the water’s edge and hurls the enemy back into the water as they swarm ashore. The carnage is overwhelming: “His own killing was a clumsy thing. He stabbed one man in the kidney when his back was turned, and grabbed another by the leg and upended him into the river … A naked man fell from the sky and landed on the deck, body bursting like a melon dropped from a tower.”

Tyrion nearly drowns as the ruined ship breaks beneath him and he falls, grasping for the rail. He reaches for the hand of one of his trusted knights, Ser Mandon Moore, but the latter turns traitor and slashes Tyrion cruelly across the face.

But Tyrion and the defenders have held out long enough, and a huge combined Lannister-Tyrell army arrives to take the remainder of the Baratheon army from the rear, ending the ferocious battle.