Monday, June 13, 2016

Winds From the East

Stepping backwards a bit, we find a writer who was instrumental to the formation of Sword & Sorcery, yet died before it was named, and was very much a part of an earlier generation of pulp writers. Born William Lancaster Gribbon in Hammersmith, London in 1879, he was later known to millions as Talbot Mundy, one of the giants of the Adventure genre.

Along with H Rider Haggard and the better-known Rudyard Kipling, he was part of that generation of westerners fascinated by the strange locales and mysterious cultures of what was then called – without irony – the “Orient”. In fiction that could encompass anything from Istanbul to Tokyo, though Mundy’s focus was very much on the traditional hotspots for authors in his line: Africa, India, and Afghanistan.

His education was unremarkable, and he spent some years knocking around the British Empire in the long afternoon of its existence. He was a journalist in India during the Raj, poached ivory in Kenya, served briefly as an official, and then came to New York where he found himself without prospects. At the age of 31 he finally found his calling, and began to write adventure stories set in the far-off places he had lived, drawing on his experiences there, and he became a success.

Mundy was never as successful as his contemporaries, though he did well enough. Unlike Kipling and Haggard, he took a definite anti-colonialist stance, and his work showed a greater positive interest in foreign cultures and peoples. So of them all, his work comes across as less dated than his better-known peers.

He was also hugely influential on early S&S writers like Howard and Fritz Leiber, who praised his work, and you can see the effect on their own. Howard in particular was a fan of Mundy, and you can see his influence in Howard’s “Oriental Adventure” tales like his stories of El Borak and “Swords of Black Cathay”.

The biggest influence on Howard – and thus on Sword & Sorcery in general – comes from Mundy’s massive historical fantasy Tros of Samothrace. It is a book so huge it has usually been broken up into multiple volumes. It tells the story of the title character as he adventures around the edges of the Roman Empire, doing battle and making alliances with northmen, Gauls, Bretons and Irishmen. The book was controversial at the time it was printed for its depiction of Caesar and the Romans as tyrannical, when the tenor of the time was to see them as civilizers of barbarian peoples in Europe.

It is obvious that Mundy’s epic of Tros and his battle against Rome electrified Howard, who always felt his sympathies with the downtrodden and barbaric races of the borderlands. One of Howard’s pet ideas was the Picts – a brutish, unlovely race that he saw as being utterly primordial, dating back to the dawn of time. His classic stories of the Pictish King Bran Mak Morn: “Worms of the Earth”, “The Dark Man”, “Kings of the Night” – all of them resonate with the theme of outsiders forced to battle for their lives against tyranny, and they remain among his most emotionally compelling works.

Mundy was an odd man. He was fascinated by mystical ideas, and drifted from one religion to another throughout his life, eventually seeming to settle on the bizarre cult of Theosophy – kind of the Scientology of its time, complete with loony ideas and a charismatic leader. He was progressive in his ideas on race and gender equality – certainly very much so for his day.

Late in life he was afflicted by diabetes, and his health declined severely. He died in bed at his home in Florida in 1940, having never stopped working at a breakneck pace, leaving behind almost sixty novels and a legacy that still lives on.

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