As Fabulous Realms has today reached the milestone of one hundred posts, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do something that I’ve been planning to do for some time. Long-time followers of this blog will be aware that I regularly put the spotlight on a ‘mythic archetype’ or fantasy genre, draw out its identifying features and provide what are in my view some of the finest examples of the form. Along the right hand side of this blog site, you’ll see that I’ve grouped my posts into general categories, many of which are self-explanatory but some of which may require a little more in the way of explanation for the casual reader or non-fantasy fan. What do I mean when I talk about ‘Sword & Sorcery’, for instance, and is this the same thing as ‘Epic’ or ‘High’ fantasy? What’s the difference between ‘Urban fantasy’ and ‘Contemporary fantasy’, and where does ‘Paranormal Romance’ fit in? Is ‘Dark fantasy’ the same as horror and is ‘Science fantasy’ the same as science fiction? These questions may or may not have exercised you at one time or another but I thought that it might, all the same, be interesting to explore the – not quite one hundred – ‘Fabulous Realms’ of fantasy fiction in search of answers.
What is it that makes barbarian characters so popular and appealing? The original barbarians – the Huns, the Goths, the Gauls, the Saxons, Jutes and Picts etc – were history’s Hell’s Angels, credited with nothing less than bringing about the fall of western civilisation and the onset of the Dark Ages. They were anything but heroic, yet their fantasy equivalents are some of the most enduring and well known characters in the genre. Few have not heard of Conan, Robert E Howard’s muscle-bound anti-hero (although in fairness that may have more to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger than the character on the printed page). Of rather more respectable vintage are Druss, axe-wielding hero of many of David Gemmell’s Drenai heroic fantasy novels, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd in the Lankhmar novels. Barbarian warriors are also, of course, a staple of role-playing games. In this medium they are often represented as lone warriors, very different from the vibrant historical cultures on which they are based. Several characteristics are commonly shared, including physical prowess and fighting skill combined with a fierce temper and a tolerance for pain. No doubt due to their animal magnetism (though not to their general lack of personal hygiene) they appear to be irresistible to the opposite gender, and seem to possess an equal appetite for food and drink. While Conan, Druss and Fafhrd are all fairly standard examples of this archetype, the graphic novel character Sláine is a somewhat more ambiguous and intriguing take on the classic barbarian.
There are many memorable pairings of hero and sidekick in the fantasy genre – Frodo and Sam, Elric and Moonglum, Harry and Hedwig (or Ron and Hermione if you prefer). This is mirrored in science fiction by pairings such as Han and Chewie, Kirk and Spock, Doctor Who and his innumerable lovely assistants. In mythology, where would Robin Hood be without Little John, Gilgamesh without Enkidu? In all of my reading, however, I have never come across anything to match Fritz Leiber’s incomparable fantasy pairing of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Fafhrd is a seven foot tall northern barbarian; Mouser is a small, mercurial thief, once known just as Mouse, and a former wizard’s apprentice. They are perfect foils for each other: Fafhrd talks like a romantic, but his strong practicality usually wins through, while the cynical-sounding Mouser is prone to showing strains of sentiment at unexpected times. Both are rogues, existing within a decadent world where to be so is a requirement of survival. They spend a lot of time drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing and gambling, and are seldom fussy about who hires their swords. But they are humane and – most of all – relish true adventure. Together, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are truly the Butch and Sundance of the fantasy genre.
Everyone has a clear idea of how fantasy elves – as opposed to their fairy tale counterparts – look and act. They are ancient and wise and possess both great nobility and power. In form Elves stand as tall as men – taller than some – though they are of slighter build and greater grace. They revel in the wonders of nature, the beauty of songs and tales, the glimmer of the stars, and the voice of the waters. They are not always called Elves but, whether it is Tolkien’s Eldar, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lios Alfar, Tad Williams’ Sithi, Raymond E Feist’s Eledhel, Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans or Katherine Kerr’s Elycion Lacar, these common features make them unmistakable as a fantasy archetype. In the worlds of fantasy role-playing there are numerous divisions and subdivisions of this proud, noble and ancient race – High Elves, Wood Elves, Half-Elves, Wild Elves, Sea Elves, Deep Elves – the list goes on and on. But there is one Elvish race that pops up time and time again in almost every fantasy world, one that is as synonymous with darkness as their fair cousins are with light and goodness. They have many names – Drow, Moredhel, Dark Eldar, Svart Alfar, Norns – but they are best known as Dark Elves.
The Hero’s Journey is a basic pattern that its proponents argue is found in many myths, legends and fairy tales from all over the world. This widely distributed pattern was described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the ‘monomyth’ (a term that he borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake). Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages, which he summarized in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”. This sounds like the basic structure of virtually every fantasy story ever written but what is particularly interesting is that Campbell goes one stage further and ascribes this same structure to the religious narratives of Buddha, Moses and Christ and argues that classic myths from many other cultures follow this basic pattern.
I’ve always found the archetypal figure of the bard fascinating in folklore as well as in fantasy novels. There is Mercedes Lackey’s Eric Banyon, the star of the Bedlam’s Bard series of urban fantasy novels; Taliesin, perhaps the most iconic of all bards in Celtic mythology; and Listener, hero of Hans Bemman’s stunning fairytale fantasy The Stone and the Flute, which sits somewhere on the grey borderland between fantasy and mythology. Two of my best-loved characters from a couple of my favourite fantasy series are bards: the not-so-simple gleeman Thom Merillin from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and the sometimes pragmatic but always loveable harper Flewder Flam from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. In real world history virtually every culture has their own wandering musicians and storytellers – Renaissance troubadours, minstrels from the Middle Ages, Norse skalds, Anglo-Saxon scops, Greek rhapsodes, Indian udgatars, Middle Eastern ashiks, French Galliards and a dozen others. The part they play in the old tales is absolutely crucial for, without bards and their ilk there would be no tales to pass down, especially in the ancient days when reading and writing skills were scarce or non-existent, and it was the oral tradition which kept history, myth and legend alive. Perhaps the most memorable bard in fantasy that I’ve ever come across, however, is Phyllis Eisenstein’s Alaric, who for me remains iconic from reading the classic novels Born to Exile and In the Red Lord’s Reach many years ago.
There is a common misconception that J R R Tolkien invented the field of fantasy fiction. Whilst it is true that in many ways he expanded the genre and brought it to a new and wider audience than ever before, it must be remembered that he was not entirely alone in doing so and was certainly not the first to make an important contribution. Before the reading public was introduced to the alternate world of Middle Earth, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard used the secondary world settings of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique for their heroic fantasy tales. Before them, fantastical creatures and other worlds appeared in the writings of William Hope Hodgson, most memorably The House on the Borderland (1908). Going back even earlier, the Victorian writer Lord Dunsany, who began his authorial career in the 1890s, was responsible for two major works – The Book of Wonders and The King of Elfland’s Daughter – that were a major influence on Tolkien and many of those who came after him. In 1946, almost a decade before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, there appeared the first of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, which are often compared to Tolkien’s epic due to their length, complexity and the depth of their author’s invention. In 1954, the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring was first published, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword was also released and over time it is a book that has proven in many ways to be almost as influential and universally loved as Tolkien’s masterwork.
David Gemmel’s death in 2006 was a massive loss to the field of heroic fantasy, which he made his own during a long and successful career. Gemmell’s work was distinguished by a muscular, stirring approach to heroic fantasy, which eschewed cartoon stereotypes in favour of exploring deep themes like loyalty, honour and redemption. He never shied away from depicting violence in his novels but I’ve always felt that this was balanced by the emotional connection he usually managed to make with his readers – you genuinely care what happens to the characters in a Gemmell novel, which is not always the case with many idendikit heroic fantasy novels. It is Gemmell’s memorable characters – including Druss the Legend, Waylander the Slayer and ‘The Jerusalem Man’ Jon Shannow, to name just a few – which he is best known for. Years after his death, the qualities which distinguished Gemmell as a writer have ensured that he continues to be one of the world’s bestselling fantasy authors.
Elric, albino prince of ruins, last emperor of the Elder Kingdom of Melniboné, sorcerer, summoner, outcast, wanderer, drug addict and anti-hero, is one of heroic fantasy’s best known and enduring characters. An iconic figure, Elric is distinguished by his albinism and his inhuman, Melnibonéan heritage, both of which serve to make him an outcast in the age of the Younger Kingdoms (a sort of prehistoric alternate Earth). Despite this, Elric is a flawed and very human hero, wracked by guilt over his people’s bloody history and his own vices. Melnibonéans do not consider themselves to be human (they are elf-like, quasi-immortals who dabble in sorcery and worship demons) and as such they have treated the other nations of the world which they have ruled for millenia with great cruelty. Uniquely among his race, Elric possesses something of conscience, and finds it hard to accept many of the traditions which he has been born into – in particular wielding the sentient blade Stormbringer, which drinks the souls of those whom it is used to slay, transferring their vitality to its bearer instead. Due to his frail albino constitution, Elric is particularly vulnerable to the lure of the black sword, for without it he must rely on a cocktail of herbs and drugs to keep him going. This constant struggle and the colourful setting of the Younger Kingdoms provides a fascinating backdrop to Elric’s unusual adventures.