August 16, 2019

Michael Meyerhofer's "Then, Stars": Sword and Sorcery and Life Lived Intensely Unto Death

At Robert E. Howard Days this June, on the 4th Annual Glenn Lord Symposium, I presented a paper titled, "Conan the Compassionate:  'Red Nails' and the Dehumanizing Stalemate War." Videographer and REHUPAn Ben Friberg uploaded a video of it. You can watch it here, if you're interested.

In the paper, I argue that Conan, and his female compeer in this tale, Valeria, are distinguished from the dehumanized denizens of the decaying, war-torn city of Xuchotl because of a surprising capacity to show compassion to each other. In contrast, the two factions who engage in bloody warfare--the Tecuhltli and the Xotalanc--are distinguished by their inhumanity, by their absolute lack of compassion.

Rehearsing every detail of this argument isn't necessary to reiterate the paper's central claim: sword and sorcery is a literature through which runs a strong vein of elemental, human compassion.

Several protagonists of sword and sorcery, Conan the Cimmerian not least of all, are characterized by virtue of their valuing of individual human dignity. Though many S&S protagonists are death-dealers who glory in battle and blood and eschew compassion strategically, many are nevertheless acutely aware of the vulnerability and finitude of the ephemeral human form. Not necessarily heroes who seek to sacrifice themselves for others, S&S heroes are often stirred to action by human suffering.

Here's an example. Many argue that Solomon Kane is an Ur-source of the sword and sorcery protagonist: consider his famous reaction in "Red Shadows" to the horrible spectacle of human suffering, a raped and bleeding young woman:
     Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.
     "Dead!" he muttered.
     Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.
     "Men shall die for this," he said coldly.

I recently read a story by Michael Meyerhofer, "Then, Stars," published in the most recent issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly that powerfully demonstrates this surprising element of S&S, its occasional thematic preoccupation with compassion. Meyerhofer's story is an emotionally powerful chronicle of an anonymous soldier's last words. The aesthetic strategy of the story is to coax the reader into focusing on the death of an anonymous soldier, to "exorcise" this soldier's anonymity. The story itself represents a rhetorical act of compassion, the translation of what is traditionally a minor, supporting character (the squire) into a main character.

Let me summarize it before proceeding (spoilers galore):

The story relates the dying words of a squire who has been dragged bleeding from a battlefield where he had been left for dead. In a first person narrative p.o.v., the squire recounts how he became a squire to Sir Bryson of Akonbree, how he followed Sir Bryson into a battle with the Shii-duán, and how he was mortally wounded by a Shii-duán who caught him unawares during the battle. After the battle, as he is lying wounded, night falls, and the Shii-duán come into the field. At first the dying squire thinks they are looters. Instead, he discovers that they are gathering the wounded and giving quick death to those who are suffering. Eventually he is discovered by a Shii-duán, one Eli Ben-Sodr, who can communicate with him. The squire learns of an important Shii-duán custom: if they can be given, a dying person's last words are sacred. By and by the squire is taken to Eli Ben-Sodr's house where he is attended and his pain alleviated (as much as is possible). The squire is then asked to tell his story. The reader realizes that what they have been been reading is in fact a transcription of the squire's final words.

This is a powerful, artfully told story that inverts a lot of conventional S&S tropes. The protagonist isn't powerful at all but a wounded soldier who is dying. The enemies, the Shii-duán, aren't dehumanized foes who the powerful protagonist kills en masse; instead, they are noble in their own way and live by a code. There are also representations of "domestic" (ordinary) spaces in the story, a straw-lined deathroom in Eli Ben-Sodr's house populated by servants, Ben-Sodr's wife, and his young daughter (conventionally S&S is set in extraordinary spaces). One might argue because "Then, Stars," inverts so many tropes of S&S--the powerful protagonist, the hordes of dehumanized enemies, the emphasis on extraordinary (not domestic) spaces--that the tale ceases to be S&S and something else. Perhaps. But I don't think so.

This story maintains its status as sword and sorcery because of the outlook of the protagonist. Despite the squire's impending death, he maintains a grim determination to live and, most importantly, to justify his existence even as he dies anonymously in darkness. By virtue of their intense (though ephemeral) experiences, their powerful (though finite) sensoriums, sword and sorcery heroes become their own monuments by living. 

To clarify, consider this passage, where the squire is recounting being carried from the battlefield with a spear still stuck in his abdomen:
I'm no poet so I don't have the words for how much it hurt when they moved me. I don't remember screaming but they say I carried on so loud and pitiful, one of Eli's sons wanted to slit my throat--maybe mercy, maybe nerves. Only Eli stopped him and I passed out instead. They took me to their home. I slept most of the way, but when I woke, the hurt wasn't as bad. I looked up and saw the first tendrils of moonlight peeking behind a dark sky, like bare parchment peeking through spilled wine. Then, stars.
"Like bare parchment peeking through spilled wine. Then, stars." What a powerful, singular, yet archetypical image, a hauntingly beautiful allegory for the transition from life to death that this story dramatizes.

Meyerhofer's story blew me away. It reminds me of the great thematic range of sword and sorcery, its contemporary fecundity as a living literary tradition. Moreover, it shows how S&S can incorporate powerful protagonists and enervated protagonists; how S&S, surprisingly, is concerned with compassion, our capacity to withdraw it and our equally surprising (perhaps more surprising) capacity to give it in the midst of violent conflict.

Finally, Meyerhofer's story reaffirms why S&S, as campy as it sometimes can be, nevertheless contains the germ, the potential to render high literary art: it is concerned with nothing more nor less than life lived intensely unto death

In the world of sword and sorcery, the ephemeral human form is destined for formlessness. The sword and sorcery protagonist lives intensely. Why? From their point of view, death is ever present, looming above, like the infinite stars.

August 7, 2019

Sword and Sorcery and Realistic Renderings of the Unreal: Howie K. Bentley's "Thannhausefeer's Guest"

Sketch by J!ndo

A few weeks ago I looked at D.M. Ritzlin's sword and sorcery (S&S) tale, "The Infernal Bargain," the leading story in DMR Books' free anthology, The Infernal Bargain and Other Stories. The story was excellent, a sincere pastiche of pulp-era S&S. It demands that one read more of the anthology.

Scrutiny as Active Valuing

My mentor taught me something about how critics can actively value literature: scrutinizing a work is an intrinsic act of valuing as such. Moreover, one of the main ways a critic compliments and supports an artistic enterprise is by attending closely to it, to its fine brush strokes, i.e. its intentional technical decisions.

I'm going to try and put that principle in action by analyzing the second story of DMR's The Infernal Bargain and Other Stories, "Thannhausefeer’s Guest," by Howie K. Bentley.


The story begins with an enthralling (though disorienting) montage of battle images combined with the panicked interior monologue of a nameless protagonist. After a horrible battle at sea, the protagonist seems to be dragged from the water (or tossed by a storm). He is discovered by a beautiful woman named Lydiana. As the protagonist, now nicknamed "Manannan" by Lydiana, convalesces, he realizes he has memory loss (i.e. the perennial literary theme of anamnesis). Thus, the main conflict becomes Manannan's struggle to learn his identity and the mystery of the violent circumstances that begin the story. By and by, Lydiana informs Manannan that he is in a realm of the giant Thannhausefeer, who is hosting gladiatorial battles. Lydiana takes Manannan to Thannhausefeer's hall; he learns the giant is a cannibal who eats the warriors who fall in his deadly games. To the triumphant survivors, the giant gives various boons such as women and treasure. The story proceeds through a series of excellently rendered gladiatorial battles, a sword and sorcery version of golden age WWF match ups (but with more blood and more blades). The climax happens when, after witnessing Lydiana dancing hypnotically, Manannan recalls his identity: he is Argantyr Faoladh of the Tuath je Danaan, also known as King Argantyr Fenris, ruler of Skaldavia. Moreover, he recalls that Thannhausefeer is his mortal enemy against which he had been waging war for the giant had kidnapped and killed his (Argantyr's) true love, Friona. Also--surprise--Argantyr is a @#$%ing werewolf. Argantyr transforms, rips out the giant's throat, and kills Lydiana (for she had abetted Thannhausefeer's transgressions). The story concludes when Argantyr is rescued by an ally's men, the Sea Hawks of King Friodere.

My summary doesn't do justice to the story, which gives a convincing antiquity of atmosphere; it is hauntingly dream-like at parts, such as the tastefully rendered sex scene with Lydiana. It is pervaded by beautiful, often lyrical, descriptions of bloody battle. As a touchstone, it reminds one of Poul Anderson's "The Tale of Hauk," which is often read in Andrew J. Offutt's S&S anthology, Swords Against Darkness (1977)

Mythology and Literary Realism in S&S

What distinguishes "Thannhausefeer's Guest" is the way it relates to mythology realistically. To generalize, "Thannhausefeer's Guest" is a literary chimera, the suturing of an ancient form (mythology) to a newer form (literary realism).

This rhetoric is worth exploring because the surprising combination of (1) realism and (2) "unrealism" (mythology, the supernatural, magic, demonology, etc.) is an aesthetic dimension central to S&S more generally speaking.

The setting of "Thannhausefeer’s Guest" is distinctive. Although it is an unreal world of cannibalistic giants and werewolves, it makes references to actual mythology (largely Irish) rather than "constructed mythology," á la Tolkien's Silmarillion. It also uses quasi-Irish language rather than the fantasy convention of the verbum novum; for example, consider references to the "Tuath ja Danaan" (or "Tuatha Dé Danann"), which is a direct citation of Irish mythology. The protagonist's sobriquet, Manannan, refers to another figure from Irish mythology. 

As mentioned above, the deploying of ancient mythology in modern fantasy writing suggests Poul Anderson's S&S, such as The Broken Sword (1954), as well as Fletcher Pratt's and L. Sprague de Camp's (and others) enchanter stories of Harold Shea (1940).

In these examples, the S&S writer uses mythology in a specific way: they bring mythology to life by eschewing alienating verse forms of the original texts (i.e. alienating for uninitiated modern readers); they then deploy novelistic writing techniques--i.e. modern narrative rhetorics of scene, temporality, dialog, and characterization--to render the wonders and spectacles reported of mythology in a contemporary fashion. Put another way, they take an antiquated aesthetic artifact--e.g. epic poetry derived from the oral traditions of sagas, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge--and they modernize it by rendering it in a form that readers today can relate to.

"A full and authentic report of human experience": Novelistic Writing and S&S

Such writers intuit the insight expressed by Ian Watt in his classic history of the novel, The Rise of the Novel (1957):  a "novelistic narrative technique" (or "formal realism" for Watt) uniquely provides "a full and authentic report of human experience." Why try to do this? Put simply: to make the aesthetic experience of a mythological narrative into something like an unmediated, virtual experience for new readers.

Does Bentley succeed on these grounds? Does he render a mythological narrative in novelistic discourse, i.e. as something like an unmediated, virtual experience, one where the imagination of the modern reader can temporarily dwell? Is the reader transported to the giant Thannhausefeer's Hall? For an answer, consider this description:
Manannan marveled at the colossal archways, doors, and vaulted ceiling as Lydiana led him down the corridor to the great hall where the Lord of the Realm held court. The roof was supported by columns that raised the ceiling high into the sky -- at least twice the height of any castle he had visited until now. The hall was abnormally wide, and he guessed that the walls were nearly twenty feet thick. Torches the length of spears blazed in sconces high up the walls beyond his reach. He could hear the clash of weapons down the hall.
This skillfully establishes a vivid, concrete setting. There is a specificity of detail that is distinctive to novelistic discourse. References to size is mostly mathematically precise (e.g. "twenty feet thick," "torches the length of spears," "twice the size of any castle he had visited"). 

The Literary Effect of Reality

As modern readers we tend to take this sort of specificity of description for granted. At one point in Anglophone literary history, perhaps before the publication of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), this close attention to the surface details and textures of the world would have struck the reader as odd. Don't believe me? Consider this description of the Herot Mead-hall from Beowulf (from the Lesslie Hall "literal" verse translation):
The greatest of hall-buildings; Heorot he named it
Who wide-reaching word-sway wielded ’mong earlmen.
His promise he brake not, rings he lavished,
Treasure at banquet. Towered the hall up
High and horn-crested, huge between antlers.
This would have definitely been more vivid in the original context: listening to it being recited by a bard to a melody in a mead-hall at night time, no doubt while being pleasantly drunk on mead. However, read as a dead text and not as a performed poem, the language here doesn't signify in the precise way we expect of most modern writing. We make different demands on paperbacks held in the hands read silently alone. 

Compare the description of Heorot to Robin's description of his camp in Robinson Crusoe, widely considered the origin text of novelistic writing in English:
I soon found the place I was in was not fit for my settlement, because it was upon a low, moorish ground, near the sea, and I believed it would not be wholesome, and more particularly because there was no fresh water near it; so I resolved to find a more healthy and more convenient spot of ground. [...] In search of a place proper for this, I found a little plain on the side of a rising hill, whose front towards this little plain was steep as a house-side, so that nothing could come down upon me from the top.  On the one side of the rock there was a hollow place, worn a little way in, like the entrance or door of a cave but there was not really any cave or way into the rock at all. On the flat of the green, just before this hollow place, I resolved to pitch my tent.
This precise description of the camp site does not seem so innovative or experimental to modern readers, but in Defoe's literary milieu, his attention to detail--the disenchanted surface of the world--represented a new, a "novel," form of writing. What emerges in Robin's description of his campsite (and is missing in the passages from Beowulf) is something the literary theorist Roland Barthes calls an "effet de réel," a kind of aesthetic/literary effect of verisimilitude, a virtual reality (consider reading Barthes' 1968 essay for a more in-depth discussion of this effect).

In any case, the quality of precision of the description of Thannhausefeer's hall creates a virtual space, a kind of experience, for the reader to mentally inhabit. It is rendered realistically even though it is a clearly a residue of a mythological imagination. To an extent, the description of Thannhausefeer's hall is attempting to achieve a similar effect to the original epic poetry but it is importantly a modernized rendering of a mythical place out of time.

To conclude, let's briefly consider character, specifically Bentley's description of Thannhausefeer:
The Giant’s red, square-cut mane was a shock of tangled hair held back by a massive leather band encircling his head. The head band held a large polished oval of azurite centered in front. Cold blue eyes bore into the two warriors endeavoring to deal death to each other. Thannhausefeer’s crimson beard fell down his chest and was braided at the ends by ornaments fashioned from the stringed bones of human fingers. Enormous steel sinews rippled under the deceptive roll of fat that partially concealed them. He was dressed in a silver-studded black tunic that fell below his waist and white wool britches. His boots were made of stitched animal hides and were as big as panniers. Red spiked leather gauntlets covered his forearms. He wore no crown; he needed none to proclaim himself the master of his demesne.
This description is compelling because the close attention to the sartorial style contributes to setting, character, and theme, all at the same time. For example, consider the "massive leather band" on Thannhausefeer's head, the "crimson beard," the ornamental fingerbones, the "roll of fat," the "animal hide boots," the "red spiked gauntlets": everything about this character's precise physical description signifies beyond the visual, suggests a charnel house, a rapacious appetite, a love of butchery, and a gormandizing spirit. The red gauntlets suggests a butcher's hands stained in gore; the giant is garmented in skin of many animals, even meat-bare bones; the roll of fat gives the disturbing intimation that the giant is well fed. And the crimson beard suggests a mouth besmeared with gore, a violent hunger suggestive of Goya's famous "Saturn Devouring His Son."

In this realistic rendering of an unreal cannibalistic giant, Bentley reminds the attentive reader of S&S of one of its key affordances: S&S is a distinctively modern genre but with an ancient DNA. Thus, the S&S writer can render the unreal realistically. 

With the proper incantation, with the right word, with the description just so, the S&S writer can truly summon demons from the thin air.