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.