Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Iron Maiden Maiden England tour--who's going?

I recently found out that Iron Maiden is touring this summer. The title of the tour is Maiden England and it is an homage to a live video released after their 7th Tour of a 7th Tour, featuring a heavy rotation of their awesome Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album.

I'm going to see Maiden on June 26 at the Comcast Center in Mansfield, MA. I can't even tell you excited I am for this show. I started listening to Maiden right around 1988 when Seventh Son was their newest album. I was blown away (still am) by songs like "The Clairvoyant," "Can I Play With Madness," "Infinite Dreams" and my favorite on the album "The Evil That Men Do."

A bit too young (15) at the time to score tickets and transportation, I had to wait until 1991's No Prayer for the Dying before I was able to see them in concert on the No Prayer on the Road tour. By then they had begun a downhill decline and Adrian Smith had left the band, though it was still an excellent show. I've seen them many times since, but this particular show looks particularly great with its heavy rotation of old material and apparently their old stage set from 7th Tour, featuring faux glaciers and other cool stuff.

Anyone else planning on seeing the greatest heavy metal band that ever was?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A few closing thoughts on Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers

I promised a few closing thoughts on Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, which I’ve since finished, so here goes.

 De Camp has an annoying habit of throwing around unsupported opinions in almost everything he writes and I think that’s why he has such a poor reputation as a biographer in some quarters. Prime example: He calls T.H. White—author of The Once and Future King—a “second-rate intellect” in Chapter 10, “Architect of Camelot.” Which is rather humorous (except that it’s not … ). To whit: White writes a book that absolutely dwarfs anything de Camp has ever done—in influence, art, and profundity—name the category—and somehow said work sprang from the mind of a “second-rate intellect.” Maddening. He also describes White’s homosexuality as “an abnormality” and “a deviation.” Yeah, he doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory in this chapter. That said, I did not know until I read Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers that White made some significant revisions to the four individual books that comprise The Once and Future King when it was released as a standalone novel in 1958, some of which lessened their original force. That much was interesting, at least.

Given the recent brouhaha over on Ferretbrain, I thought de Camp’s observations on the matter of REH and race were worth sharing:

Many of Howard’s views would today be called “racist.” In presenting such views, Howard merely followed most popular fiction writers of the time, to whom ethnic stereotypes were stock in trade. If a racist, Howard was, by the standards of his time, a comparatively mild one. He agreed with Lovecraft’s rhapsodies on the “Aryan race” and his rantings against non-Nordic immigrants. But then he noted the superior qualities of the intelligent, industrious, orderly Bohemian settlers in Texas. He admitted that every ethos has its share of saints and scoundrels. 

De Camp’s opinions here largely jibe with my own. I acknowledge that REH’s writings contain elements of racism that are highly problematic today. I just don’t think Howard’s views on race exhibit nearly the kind of taint over all his stories that the author of the Ferretbrain piece does. Almost no one, save for perhaps a fanatic fringe of fandom, claims that REH was not racist to some degree. The much harder case to make—and one that Arthur B fails to even attempt—is whether REH was a racist by the standards of 1920s Texas. As biographers and scholars of Howard have pointed out, again and again using historical evidence, he was not. This doesn’t make one an “apologist” for Howard’s racism, it’s called having a developed sense of history, and a notion of the concept of contextualizing an author based on the time and place in which he or she wrote. Most readers also understand that the good in Howard—his wonderful plotting, pacing, style, vivid imagination, ability to convey action, his fine poetry and effortless prose—overwhelms the bad, which is why he continues to be read today while most of his pulp fiction contemporaries have been forgotten. And that’s why I continue to recommend him as a cornerstone of fantasy.

I enjoyed reading de Camp’s account of his meeting with Tolkien in the latter’s garage over pipes and beer, but found his evaluation of The Lord of the Rings a bit lacking. For example, he criticizes Tolkien for assuming that good and evil are absolute values, not subjective or relative. I think Tolkien did feel that way, but more interesting is that characters in his universe operate with free will and can exhibit good and evil behaviors (see Denethor, Boromir, Gollum, Saruman, etc.). He also criticizes Tolkien for having an all-powerful God that “will save the characters” if the situation is grim enough. De Camp did not have the luxury of reading The Silmarillion in which it becomes apparent that the world of Middle-earth does not operate by benevolent divine intervention alone: See Turin, and Feanor, for counter-examples. Long periods of blackness and despair, there. Also Tolkien’s universe was a combination of Christianity and paganism; the Valar are taken from Old Norse and Greek mythology and they too influence the affairs of Middle-earth. Relying on Eru to come in and save the day is likely to get you killed.

A chapter on Fletcher Pratt was scant but has inspired me to begin The Well of the Unicorn. 

So overall, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers is a fun read, featuring an opinionated de Camp at his best and his worst, and worth picking up if you can find a copy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Styrbiorn the Strong, a review

“There is but one way for a man, and that is to remember that none may avoid his fate. This is to a man as the due ballast to the ship, which maketh the vessel indeed loom somewhat deeper, but keepeth it from tossing too lightly upon the uncertain waters.”

–E.R. Eddison, Styrbiorn the Strong

As a youth, E.R. Eddison (1882-1945) so loved William Morris’ translations of the Old Norse sagas that he taught himself Old Icelandic, desiring the pure injection of North Sea ice water into his veins that the stories in their original tongue delivered. He carried that love of the Sagas with him as a writer of fantasy fiction. Their echoes can be felt in Eddison’s best known work, The Worm Ouroboros (1922), but four years after the Worm Eddison set to work on the real thing, trying his hand at his own saga Styrbiorn the Strong (1926).

Styrbiorn the Strong tells the story of Styrbiorn Olaffson, teenage heir to the throne of Sweden. Denied his birthright and exiled from Sweden, Styrbiorn spends three years a-viking, during which his power and influence waxes mightily. Three years later he returns to claim his share of the kingdom. Except for a few minor characters everyone in the story is an historical figure. The main facts of the tale are also historical, including the concluding bloody Battle of Fýrisvellir, but the details and characterizations are of Eddison’s own making.

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

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Falling under the spell of the sword: de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers

I just received a book in the mail that I’ve had my eyes on for quite a while, and am now very pleased to own: L. Sprague de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (1976).

If there was a book made for me, this is it. It’s an out of print hardcover from Sauk City Wisconsin-based Arkham House Publishers, Inc, whose very name awakes fond thoughts of Cthulhu and other tentacled horrors. The book is a handsome little volume with great black and white cover art by Tim Kirk that would be right at home as interior art of a Moldvay/Cook Dungeons and Dragons manual.

The back of the dust-jacket features a list of books available from Arkham House, complete with prices and ordering information. Does anyone else love to read these old lists and wonder if you could still write to the specified address and receive a “catalog available on request” straight from the 1970s, folded up and shipped off by a geeky clerk with a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed spectacles? The interior features some great full-page black and white photographs of all the authors covered. There’s also a nice picture of Sprague himself on the inside back dust-jacket, complete with dated sports coat, ready to pontificate on some SFF subject.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Excalibur remake dead? Good

I came across this old story while surfing the web after the recent news of Nicol Williamson’s passing: Bryan Singer Excalibur Remake Is Dead (file this one under news to me, and therefore new).

In a word: Good. Excalibur does not need to be remade. There’s no way a remake would take the same risks as the original, which practically demanded that its viewers understood at least the basic myths of the Fisher King and the symbolic nature of the grail. I’m sure the new version would look great, but even then, would it surpass the falling petals with “O Fortuna” from the Carmina Burana playing in the background, or would it merely ape what has gone before?

The King Arthur story has been told again and again over the generations, and that mythic dimension—version upon version, each different than the one that came before but with the same broadly depicted characters and themes—is part of its allure and appeal. If Alfred Lord Tennyson didn’t have the courage to retell Malory’s LeMorte D’Arthur we wouldn’t have Idylls of the King; if T.H. White didn’t pick up where Tennyson left off we wouldn’t have The Once and Future King, and so on. The world would be a much poorer place.

But the difference of course is that Tennyson,White, Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Trilogy, et al., are retellings, not remakes. There’s a big difference. While I welcome new Arthurian retellings, we don’t need a remake of Excalibur. I couldn’t agree more with this paragraph from the linked article (bold emphasis mine):

Directed by John Boorman and starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, and Nicol Williamson, Excalibur is the definitive version of Arthurian legend for many of us who grew up in the '80s, a dark and bloody affair that has often been imitated but never equaled in the years since. Maybe this is a good thing. At this point, we've seen the story of King Arthur told just about every way it can be. If we're going to sit through yet another retelling, let's wait until somebody comes up with a brilliant new spin on the legend rather than just remaking the already-good ones.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Transcendent fantasy, or politics as usual?

My Black Gate post this week is not a review, nor an essay proper, but a question: Is it possible for fantasy to move beyond the political? Or because it is written by authors of a particular time and place, must fantasy—however fantastic its subject matter—forever remain trapped within the circles of our own world?

China Mieville and others say that no, you cannot read fantasy except through the lens of politics, and that there is no escape. In this interview from 2000, Mieville says:

The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can’t escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren’t about the real world they therefore ‘escape’ is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That’s why some fantasies (like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) are so directly allegorical–but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can’t help but reverberate around the reader’s awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.
I think that as we’ve grown more secular and rational fantasy is following suit. Led by writers like George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, fantasy has become less whimsical and more historical, less hopeful and more gritty and pessimistic. Many “fantasies” now actively grapple with issues like racism and misogyny, or conservatism vs. liberalism, which lurk beneath the veneer of strange secondary worlds that in other fundamental ways closely resemble our own.

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