Tag Archives: Depth

DAVID GEMMELL, HEROIC FANTASY AND LITERARY FOILS

David Gemmell was one of the great fantasy authors. He chose to write heroic fantasy, rather than high or epic, and he mastered his preferred form. He remains, probably, the finest writer in that field. Nor is he likely to be surpassed. But what lifted him to the top of the genre?

Certainly, his books are page turners. Like any good writer, he knew how to hook a reader into a story and then to keep them in suspense. He filled the pages with excitement and then finished with a rousing bang. But many writers know how to do that.

He also deployed the full range of characters: good guys, bad guys, bad guys who turn good, good guys who turn bad – and most, just like ordinary people, aren’t really one or the other. They have traits of both. But lots of writers do this, too.

Regardless of the strong fantasy elements of his books, his stories are grounded in reality. In fact, he seemed to take great pleasure in grinding the reader’s face into it. Here, he’s a bit different from many, but hardly alone.

He also matches his characters external conflicts with internal counterpoints. That raises him a few rungs up the ladder, higher than many, but by itself doesn’t make him the master of heroic fantasy.

What sets him apart is that his stories resonate with depth. Not the depth of world building (languages, histories, appendices etc.) found in The Lord of the Rings, but something else that Tolkien also used: the power of contrast. They say conflict is king in storytelling. If so, contrast is queen, and she is an equal ruler.

In The Lord of the Rings, contrasts abound everywhere. Most things have a counterbalance – or an outright opposite. Think Gandalf/Saruman, Moria/Lothlórien, the hope of Théoden/the despair of Denethor. This is a trait shared by some of the great English storytellers. Shakespeare used opposites: comedy in tragedy/tragedy in comedy. Charles Dickens used contrast a different way in one of the best selling books of all time – A Tale of Two Cities. This is how it opens: 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . .

Small wonder that this is one of the best known literary quotes in the English language. It’s right up there with that other ultimate of opposites, “To be, or not to be…”

My point with all this is that contrasts (foils if we want to get technical) are powerful tools. They throw light on things in the same way that deserts taste sweeter after eating something sour.

Gemmell concentrates on his characters, which is fitting in heroic fantasy, and that’s where his contrasts are most at work.

Let’s take just one example and study how he uses the technique. I could choose any of his books and find a similar effect, but I think it’s most pronounced in Waylander.

The book takes its name from the main character. Waylander tragically lost his wife and children many years ago and has since lived the life of an assassin. Haunted by anger and guilt, he seeks revenge against his family’s murderers. In the process, he became a killer for hire. His last mission was the assassination of the Drenai king, and it’s shortly after this that the story begins.

Early on he meets the mystic, Dardalion. Dardalion is a Source Priest: kind, gentle, pure and a pacifist horrified by violence.

Waylander saves him from torture and death at the hands of outlaws. He achieves this with ruthless efficiency, for his skill at fighting is far superior to ordinary men. After the rescue, Dardalion travels with him, and they interact. Waylander’s ruthlessness washes off on the priest, and Dardalion’s goodness washes off on Waylander. Over time, he regains his conscience, though he loses none of his deadly skills. He puts them to use no longer as an assassin for hire, but to fight a great evil, and he transforms into a hero. And Dardalion, under Waylander’s influence, realizes that pacifism in the face of annihilation is not the only, perhaps not even the best, way to serve the Source. Ultimately, he forms a band of warrior-priests who also fight evil.

The two men are not only opposites of each other, but their futures are opposites of their past. They transform into something new, their change not only inspired by the other party but by the part of themselves that they realized was weak. They each find a balance – with the world and with themselves.

This is a kind of literary yin and yang. One force gives birth to the other. By their synergy, the whole becomes more than its parts.

The blurb to Waylander foreshadows this yin and yang contrast. Most tellingly in this:

Stalked by men who act like beasts and beasts that walk like men, the warrior Waylander must journey into the shadow-haunted lands of the Nadir to find the legendary Armour of Bronze. With this he can turn the tide.

Here, we have the men/beasts opposites, the shadow-haunted lands/(shiny) bronze armor opposites, and the tide, which is always in a state of flux; a perfect symbol of yin and yang harmony.

Gemmell could easily have told the story without Dardalion. But he was a master of his art, and he brought them together so that their contrasts would throw a sharper light on Waylander’s heroic struggle.

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TOLKIEN AND THE MAGIC GRAPE JUICE

The Lord of the Rings is the second highest selling book of all time. It trails A Tale of Two Cities, although I note that Charles Dickens had nearly a century head start. Tolkien’s masterpiece was consistently voted as the best book of the last century during a series of large-scale reader polls. For myself, I agree. But I have one question.

Why?

Undoubtedly, Tolkien was a great storyteller. He created memorable characters. His plotting was seamless, his prose fluent and poetic. But many authors can claim similar skills. What makes Tolkien different?

A blog on high, heroic and epic fantasy could do worse than attempt an explanation. And I do have one.

I think there are many reasons for Tolkien’s success, and I’ll come back to the subject in the future. For now, I’m going to focus on just one aspect. But first – a detour into history. It will, in the end, clarify my point.

The earliest archeological record for wine making dates to the late Neolithic period in the Caucuses. The people of that time (about 6000 BC) discovered that wild grape juice transformed into wine when buried in clay vessels through winter. And glad would they have been who first drank it.

Grape juice is nice. Its bold flavor is raw, fresh and vibrant. Its sweetness competes with its tartness. But it’s not wine. Wine is more subtle. Wine is refined. Wine is luxurious. The magic of fermentation turns grape juice into something entirely different. The flavors of the crushed grapes and the special characteristics of the yeast on their skins, which begin the process, come together as a whole and meld into something new. Just as soups and casseroles taste better the next day, so does wine improve over weeks, months or years. The flavors interact with each other and work together rather than compete.

The Lord of the Rings is like that. Everything works together as part of a greater whole. This gives the story depth. It makes it seem that things happen for a reason, rather than because of arbitrary chance, or author convenience. It makes things seem real. And that feeling of realness, of reading recorded history rather than fiction, of depth, is something that distinguishes Tolkien from other writers.

Many fantasy authors think that by adding appendices to their work, providing name lists, using a prologue establishing the mythological background, by giving dates for historical events in their fictional world, that they’re emulating Tolkien’s depth. But what they’re doing is tipping distilled spirits into a glass of grape juice and hoping for wine.

Tolkien’s depth comes from the melding of events, characters, names, languages and artifacts, rather than a mere dumping of raw information. If you pull on a single thread of his story, you find that the whole tapestry twitches. Shall we look at just one example to see what I mean?

When Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the Barrow-wight, they retrieve some daggers. Tom explains their history and something of the Men of Westerness, foes of the Dark Lord, who long before had been overcome by the evil king of Angmar. Nearly a thousand pages later we see one of those weapons in use. Merry has stabbed the Witch-king, who was once that same evil king of Angmar. When the Black Rider is dead, Merry watches the blade wither away on the grass. Tolkien gently reminds us, “But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago . . .  and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king.”

In this way Middle-earth’s past, Merry’s more recent past, and the present are connected. Just as in real life, events have repercussions, and they reverberate through the world.

But that’s not the only link. All through the novel is a sentiment that “Oft evil will shall evil mar.” This is reinforced by the fact that had the Barrow-wight not taken the hobbits, Merry would not have had the blade, and the Witch-king would not have been slain.

This is only one example. Take just about any event, character, name, sentiment or artifact, and think about how it’s connected to something else, and you’ll soon see that very little stands in isolation in The Lord of the Rings. The whole novel is like one of those buried clay vessels. The past is always bubbling up to the present, the fermentation always working its magic.

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