Monday, June 26, 2017

By the Phoenix on this Sword I Rule

The first Kull story was the first proper Sword & Sorcery story, and other Kull tales followed, some better than others. In 1929 “The Shadow Kingdom” opened the Kull series, and later that same year the last one Howard wrote - “By This Axe I Rule!” - was rejected by both Argosy and Adventure, and thus the history of fantasy literature was changed. Unsatisfied with it, Howard re-wrote the entire tale with a new setting and a new hero, a brawny northern adventurer very much in the Kull mold – Conan of Cimmeria.

This is the point where Howard’s literary legacy really took shape, because no single character he created has ever gotten the traction Conan did. He wrote more stories about his Cimmerian wanderer than he did about any of his other heroes, and he did it all in a very short period of time. The rewrite of “By This Axe I Rule!” was entitled “The Phoenix on the Sword”, and was probably written sometime in 1931. By 1936 Howard would be dead, and between those two points in time he wrote a total of 21 complete stories about Conan – a creative outpouring of tremendous originality and energy.

“By This Axe I Rule!” is obviously the work of a younger writer – Howard was probably around 21 when he started work on it, and the style is in places quite primitive, making me wonder if parts of it don’t predate “The Shadow Kingdom”, with its polished, dreamlike prose. “Axe” is full of awkward sentences, diction drops, and even places where the tense wobbles.

It is by far the shorter story, at around 5600 words, and it contains no supernatural or horror elements. The cold open depicts a gathering of rebellious nobles who plot to kill Kull, and then shows Kull bored and stifled by the work of being a king. In both tales Howard makes the point that taking a throne and holding one are very different things. Kull is presented with a rather cliched subplot about a nobleman who wants to marry a slave, but is forbidden by ancient Valusian law, which Kull is powerless to change and chafes at.

The last act is the attempted assassination, with the conspirators bursting in and trying to cut down the king as he fights with his back to the wall. Kull slays almost all of them before the chief plotter is cut down by the lovesick nobleman from before, and then as Kull is wounded and bleeding he calls for the law tablet and smashes it with his axe, proclaiming the titular line.

It’s not Howard’s best work, and certainly far from the best Kull story. The characterizations are thin, and while the action at the end of the story is visceral, Howard can do much better. The plot is rather weak even for such a short story, and a lot of time is spent with Conan complaining to Brule about his duties, and a long encounter with the lovelorn slave girl, Ala. It’s not really a mystery why it was rejected.

In fact, only 3 of 12 Kull stories were ever published in Howard’s lifetime, and one of them is “Kings of the Night”, which is a bit of a mashup tale where Kull travels through time to fight the Romans alongside Bran Mak Morn. The rest of the Kull stories did not see print until more than 30 years after Howard’s death.

“The Phoenix on the Sword”, by contrast, shows Howard at the peak of his game. The prose is more measured, the tone and pacing much more controlled. At around 7000 words the story is quite a bit longer, and fills in a good bit of the world that would later become the well-known Hyborian Age. It also removes the subplot about the two lovers entirely. Parts of the dialogue and action are taken almost word-for-word from the previous story, with names changed and some small edits to make the text scan better.

In place of the frustrated lovers, Howard adds a subplot about a wizard held in thrall to the chief conspirator, Ascalante. The wizard has lost his ring, and is thus powerless and kept as a slave. His name – Thoth-Amon – will be one familiar to fans of Conan tales, as he was often used as a nemesis in later pastiches of the character. In the course of the story, Thoth-Amon recovers his ring and summons a demon to go and kill Ascalante.

The confrontation with the traitors goes very similarly to the events in “Axe”. Conan is warned of the coup by a kind of dream-vision, and a phoenix is scribed on his blade. Then the conspirators bust in and hell breaks loose. Howard is in fine form for this battle, delivering the kind of bloody action he is almost a byword for. This fight scene is much better than the one in “Axe”, even if the basic beats are almost the same.

At the end, rather than have Conan saved by the nobleman, Thoth-Amon’s demon rushes in and kills Ascalante, and then Conan is forced to kill the thing off with his broken sword. It makes for a tense ending, and Conan looks more badass because he doesn’t have to be rescued. The demon adds some supernatural horror to the story, and makes it feel much more like Sword & Sorcery. The story ends with a foreboding note, dwelling on the foul remains of the demon and men running away in mad terror from the sign of it. Conan, sadly, does not get a resolution to his ennui over being king, and does not get to smash a law tablet with his axe.

The focus of the tale is quite different, without the romance subplot and the emphasis on the king feeling enslaved by laws, the story has less subtext, and plays much more like an action story. That said, it is much more well-written than “By This Axe I Rule!”, and is obviously the work of a writer who has grown up a lot in the years since he wrote the original tale. There are still some awkward parts, such as the coincidental way the wizard recovers his ring – which feels rushed – or the vision of the ancient scholar who warns Conan as a kind of deus ex machina.

The Conan stories flowed onward from this beginning, and Howard kept getting better and better at what he was doing. This is a telling point where we can see, between one version of a story and another, an artist turning a corner and really starting to take off.  "The Shadow Kingdom" is the first Sword & Sorcery story, but "The Phoenix on the Sword" is where you can hear the engine start to roar.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Left Hand of Fire

Bells rang from every tower in the ancient city of Samzar. From the high places where the sunset last touched the stone the great bronze bells tolled, and the sounds and echoes rang clear over the city, across the gorgeous palaces, through the busy market places, down the white avenues and streets, and out over the sea and the harbor thronged with ships from a hundred lands. The bells rang a dirge, for this was the last day of the king, and the very walls sang for his passing.

Vonkar was old, and had ruled a very long time. There were many who could not remember a time before he had sat upon the throne, and those who could were gray-haired and bent with age. Now they all told the stories they knew of the reign of the king. They told of his youth, when he had been a tall and valiant warrior, and of his wars against enemies near and far. They told of the voyages of the iron fleet across the sea to subdue far countries and bring back heaped treasures to swell the coffers of the palace.

They spoke of his young wife, taken late in his life, and of her tragic death birthing a single child. They lamented that the heir to the realm was only a young girl, barely grown, now robbed of the wisdom and tutelage of her wise father. They did not speak ill of the princess, for had not the line of kings been forged by Asherah herself? The very greatest of rulers out of the old ages, dead now these three centuries. Some of them hoped for a new age, a new golden era under the hand of a queen once again.

As the sky turned dark blue and then black, fires kindled all across the city. Thousands of torches lit and burned, lining the great streets. A candle burned in every window, from the meanest hovel to the tallest tower, and by the light of so many, the city seemed to glow with a strange fire.

By that light the great doors of the palace opened, and the funeral procession came forth into the night. Five hundred warriors on white horses came forth as the forward guard, spears high and plumes and pennons white for mourning. Then trumpets blew and a thousand slaves ventured forth barefoot and dressed in white, and they cast white petals to scatter on the road, lining the stone so that no foot might step and not touch flowers.

Then came a hundred toiling slaves with powerful arms and strong backs, and they pulled hard, singing a somber song as they labored to pull the funeral bier of the king through the gates and under the stars. As of old, the bier was a vast, wheeled shape, draped in thousands of flowers and a fortune in silks. Beneath it was made of gold and silver, encrusted with jewels, and upon it the body of the king lay within his gilded sarcophagus. Torches burned at the corners of the canopy that arched over him, and all who saw the shape of his death mask beneath the shrouds turned their faces away in respect.

Behind the funeral bier came more guards, all in black on black horses, to guard and shelter the living heir from the power of the dead. At the center of them, carried on a litter, stood the princess Chona, tall and pale and black-haired. It was said her eyes were blue, like those of her long-dead mother. Now she stood robed in white for mourning, straight and unmoving and veiled in silk.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Black God's Kiss

C.L. Moore was one of the greats of the pulp era, all the more remarkably because while the pen name was a bit deceptive, it was not long before it became well-known that “C. L.” stood for Catherine Lucille. By the time the secret was out, her reputation was already made, and no one seemed to mind much. She wrote all kinds of stories, but she is important to the history of Sword & Sorcery primarily because not only was she the first female writer in the genre, but she penned the first female S&S hero: Jirel of Joiry.

The first Jirel story appeared in 1934 under the title “Black God’s Kiss”, and it remains the best-known of the six tales Moore wrote about her medieval heroine. There is some speculation that she was inspired by Howard’s stories featuring his own female character, Black Agnes of Chastillion. It’s hard to say, since the Black Agnes stories did not see print until long after Howard’s death. Moore was one of his correspondents, and apparently saw at least one of the tales in manuscript form – perhaps Howard solicited her opinion on how he was doing with a female hero, as that was unusual for him. Regardless, we know she thought Black Agnes was awesome, and it is obvious Howard was an influence on the style and feel of her first foray into genuine Sword & Sorcery.

Rather than a fantastical world, Jirel inhabited a kind of fictionalized medieval France, similar to the made-up province of Averoigne used by Clark Ashton Smith. A lady ruler of an undefined fiefdom, she begins her tale as her lands have been conquered by a guy named Guillaume – no other info is given about him, save that he has a beard and laughs. He kisses Jirel, likens it to “kissing a sword blade”, and has her locked away in anticipation of more lascivious attentions later. Jirel escapes and hatches a plan for revenge. Knowing she can’t defeat him with all his men, she sets out on another course.

This is where the story becomes very Lovecraftian. Jirel opens a hidden trap door in her castle’s basement and descends into a hole said to be inhabited by something inhuman. Eventually she comes out in a seeming parallel dimension with weird creatures, strange stars, and an air of foreboding and horror. All of this is quite reminiscent of the kind of thing Lovecraft did in stories like “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Mound”, as well as shades of Howard’s “The Worms of the Earth”. Moore uses a highly poetic prose style, though she trades in surprisingly little violence.

Eventually she is directed to a lost temple, where a statue (the Black God of the title) sits with lips pursed as if awaiting a kiss, and Jirel kisses it, feeling it thus impart to her a terrible power she knows will destroy Guillaume. Then she has to escape this nightmare world and confront her nemesis. When she is face to face with her enemy again, she kisses him, and the power she took from the idol destroys him.

And unfortunately, here is where the story veers off for a modern reader, because the very end is Jirel throwing a fit because she realizes, now, that she was totally in love with Guillaume and that now there is “. . . no light, anywhere in the world, now that Guillaume was gone.”

It really comes out of nowhere, as her only interaction with him has been at the very beginning, where he laughs at her, kisses her, and essentially says he’s going to keep her as a concubine. Throughout the tale Moore keeps him in mind with Jirel thinking about how mad she is at him and how she wants him to be dead. She goes through all this trouble and danger to kill him, and then she immediately dissolves in tears and claims she was somehow in love with him.

It doesn’t work, since there is not enough of Guillaume as a character or interactions between them to sell this idea. I can see how it could have worked, if we knew who he was, or what their relationship was like and how they knew one another. It there was something there to make this work at all, but there isn’t. As it is, it just comes across as a silly contrivance, and it almost manages to derail the atmosphere and character Moore has built up to this point. Some people may feel it does ruin it. I myself just see it as a disappointing relic of an earlier, more sexist era.

Still, flaws and all, “Black God’s Kiss” is one of the earliest stories to show the influence Howard was having on the fantasy genre with his work, and it is the first definitive Sword & Sorcery story with a female protagonist. Long before Red Sonja sallied forth in her armored bikini, there was Jirel of Joiry.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Black Shrine

On a dark day a mist rolled in over the sea before dawn, and those who rose to greet the sun saw nothing but the dark, and heard nothing but the waves. Lights gleamed eerily in the fog as the city of Samzarah was enveloped, and the dawn did not come. The city had grown into a wealthy crossroads over many years, filled with gorgeous architecture, streets paved with marble, and the domes and towers of the temples and palaces sheathed in silver and gold. An eternal flame blazed in the highest tower of the palace of the king, lighting the way for pilgrims by land and by sea. From all the corners of the earth supplicants came to give gifts at the sepulcher of the Sleeping Emperor.

The greatest tomb in the empires of the earth stood at the heart of the city, the walls gilded with ivory and jewels. The dome that rose over it was carved blue stone, and the plaza around it made from red tiles in honor of the Goddess of Fire herself. With the coming of the sun, acolytes came forth and paced the great circle around it, bearing lanterns and torches, welcoming the greatest fire of all.

This day they saw no sun, only a heavy fog, and there was no light. The sky and the stars were hidden, and men made mortal signs to protect themselves from evil. They whispered of old magics, long forgotten, and of the malignant legend of Nathigu, the God of Darkness. Ever did he covet the fire, ever did he seek to destroy the light.

Upon the walls of the city, close to the sea, the guards and watchmen heard the sound of the waves, and then they heard other sounds. They heard the clangor of chains and shields, they heard the beat of drums and the sweep of oars. They looked out over the dark waters, seeking to look through the mist, and then they saw fires.

A hundred, and then a thousand points of fire kindled within the dark, and then the mist drew back on the morning wind, and it reared up like a wave of the sea, poised and dark as a storm, and from it burst a great host of ships. Ten, then a hundred, then a thousand. Great, heavy ships with their gunwales sheathed in iron and their ram prows plated with bronze. Shields swarmed the sides, and from each ship rose the battle calls of hundreds of warriors.

The alarm rose slowly, for the men of the richest city in the world – well-fed and sleepy from decades of peace and tribute – could barely believe they were under attack. Only when the first wave of warships ripped through the waves and plunged into the great harbor did they understand, and the screaming began.