Trying to Write Part 4

Part I, Part II, Part III

11.

Nothing but mud and bones grew in the garden. It was an open air courtyard in the center of the keep surrounded by sheer stone walls, un-interrupted by windows or design of any kind. Single door was the only way in or out.  Crows swollen from feasting on corpses left to rot peered down from the their perches at the tops of the walls at their next meal chained to the lone wooden pillar in the garden. He yet breathed with head hung low dripping from the cold rain that beat against his body, mouth speaking words that only he could hear:

Weave and Spin

Hammer and Forge

My life your work

Crafted and shaped

Instrument of your hand

To live is to serve

Until upon your Mountain

I am born again

He finished his prayer and hung silently listening to the rhythm of the rain dancing on stone in the dark. The door to his prison opened and man stepped through, lantern in hand. He wore the armor of the guards, dual short swords hung at his sides. Orren raised his head to greet his new visitor.

“You must be the flayer. I’d tell you not to waste your time, that I have no knowledge that could aid you, but I doubt you’d listen. I imagine with a name like the flayer you probably enjoy your work too much to be dissuaded.”

“Keep quiet” he replied. “I am no flayer. That degenerate fetishizes his knives too much to be caught dead with them in the rain. I have come simply to ask you a question.”

“And what might that be?”

“Was it truth you spoke in the great hall? Have you power to vanquish the one that dwells beneath the mountains?” the man said.

“The power is not my own, but I am it’s conduit. Darkness flees at the name of my master. With who am I speaking?” Orren replied, confusion in his voice. Then he recognized the man as one of that stood guard upon dais of the master’s throne

“Does it matter who comes to free you?” The man said as he pulled a set of keys from his cloak. A moment later Orren was loose.

Orren rubbed his wrists and stood. “I suppose it does not, but should we die this night I’d like to know the name of the man for whom I will advocate at the gates of my Lord’s feasting hall.”

The man handed Orren one of the swords that hung at his side and spoke:

“Much blood will be shed this night, may it not be our own. My name is Berek. Follow me”

12.

Berek extinguished his lantern as soon as they entered the corridor that led to the garden and they raced along the damp stone, extinguishing every torch they passed that lit their way.

“I sent the guard on duty away on an important task, an important task that does not exist. He will realize my deception soon and alarms will be raised. We have little time.”

Berek navigated the labyrinth that made up the halls of keep without hesitation. Even had Orren freed himself of his bonds he would have been hopelessly trapped here in the winding hallways, a structure designed to confuse and disorient. They came to an abrupt halt by the a large wooden door flanked on either side by torches. Berek extinguished both of them, then he knocked.

“‘Berek, captain of Lord Zathen’s guard requires entrance. Official orders.” He shouted.

There was a rustling from within, the sliding of a deadbolt, and the door swung open. Orren stood in the shadows to the side of the doorway, sword in hand.

“Who is in charge here?” Berek barked, surveying the room before him. Swords and battle axes hung on walls next to shields and mail, they were nothing if not well armed. Three men sat at a round table playing cards, faces full of shock at seeing their captain unexpectedly.

“I…I am” said one of the men as he jumped up from his seat, spilling ale on the cards laid out on the table. “Forgive me, I did not know that you were coming.”

Berek frowned. “We will discuss playing cards on duty at another time. I’ve come to retrieve the armor and weapons confiscated from the prisoner. Our Lord wishes to study them.”

The guard squinted. “I was commanded not to release these arms to anyone, not unless the Master himself comes down here to retrieve them.”

“I catch you neglectful of your duty and now you are also calling me a liar? Perhaps you would like to see the flayer when he is done with our visitor?” Berek said moving his hand to the hilt of his sword.

“I mean no offense captain, but he will have my head without his direct order. My head is much more useful attached to my body.”

“That’s not what your wife told me” one of the men from the table interjected, causing the other guards to roar with drunken laughter. The head of the guard made an obscene gesture and threw his mug of ale at the offender, then turned back to Berek.

“I will go myself up to the throne and verify the orders. You can wait here with the other guards.” he smiled and started for the door. Before he could take two steps Berek drew his sword and removed head from shoulders in one swift movement. There was a moment of calm as the headless body crumpled to the floor. The blood streaked faces of the remaining two card players stared at their captain in disbelief, the head of the third player rolled with an almost comical wobble to their feet.

“Should have just given me what I came for.” Berek sighed.

Shock turned to rage on the faces of the living guards and swords were drawn. Berek was surrounded for a brief moment before Orren appeared in the doorway and ran his sword straight through the chest of the unfortunate fellow at the door. He kicked the now limp body off of his blade. It was now an even fight but not a fair one for drink had slowed the movements of the remaining guards. A few clashes of steel, screams of agony, and the fight was finished.

Berek walked over to the headless body and searched through the pockets. A moment later he produced a ring of keys and tossed them to Orren. He pointed to a chest in the back corner of the room.

“Put on your armor. More will be here soon and they aren’t likely to be drunk, just angry.”

13.

With armor donned and weapons in hand, Orren and Berek stepped out once more into the dark corridor. Berek had traded his short sword for a large double bladed axe. “We might have to hack our way out of here, this will help” he had said with a grin. Orren’s travelling bag was also recovered. His runic stones were all accounted for, but the flask was emptied of its contents. He would have to find a fresh water source when they escaped this wretched place.

They raced through the endless inky black, extinguishing all light as they passed. Darkness swallowed their path, there was no going back. Noises that no human could, or should, make could be heard behind some of the barred doors as they passed, they pressed on. Neither man spoke a word. Then Berek stopped suddenly. He remained silent for a moment then turned and spoke:

“Ahead is an entranceway to the keep. I thought it known only to myself and the master. Someone else has opened the door. I thought we had more time.”

Orren grinned. “The time for skulking in the shadows has ended it seems. Let us go to meet our fates beneath the light of the stars, the eyes of our ancestors.” Orren walked past Berek and out into the night. Berek hesitated for a moment in the black hall. He muttered to himself as he drew his sword and followed the foreigner out into the night, “At least it stopped raining.”

14.

They came out to a stretch of flat ground flanked by tall trees.  Across the clearing directly in the path of Orren and Berek stood was tall tussock grass swaying in the night breeze. Beyond that were the mountains. They were free.   

“Let’s go before we are seen” Berek said. The began their way across the clearing when Orren stopped. He reached down to the pouch that hung at his side a flipped open the flap. The four stones were aglow, pulsating slowly, blue light emanating from the bag.

“We are not alone.” Orren said with grim look upon his face.

“Indeed we are not. There in the grass.” Berek pointed the tip of his sword at the swaying tallgrass. A lone figure stood where the blade pointed, dressed in a long shredded shawl like that of a beggar. It stepped into the moonlight that illuminated the clearing and threw off the shawl. Orren’s grip tightening around his pike and he felt his jaw clench.

“Rather we’d have run into the entire barracks than him.” Berek said, spitting. Orren believed him.

Before them stood a man grinning madly wearing naught but a small cloth to cover his loins. He was lean and pale, almost sickly looking if not for the tight muscles that rippled beneath his skin, or at least what once was skin. His body was covered from head to toe in ancient script from the infernal language; words from the deepest of frozen hells, spoken only by the many tongued abominations that dwell there. Dark prophecies, blasphemies, horrific tales from the abyss had been carved into his flesh. His skin was but a monstrous scar, a walking testament of primeval malice.

In his hand was a dagger, a black blade attached to a gnarled wood handle. Orren could see it clearly in the moonlight, but no light reflected off of it. The blade was alive. He could feel its presence, and it could sense him.

“She was promised blood, she was.” The scarred man hissed. “I get to keep the skin but she takes the blood, your blood” He pointed at Orren. “Don’t put up too much of a fight and maybe we’ll kill you quick. Maybe. She always gets what she wants. It’s been too long since I’ve had to hunt my own prey.” He grinned, mouth full of teeth filed into razor-like points.

15.

“The blade…” Orren said. “I have seen its like before. It is not of man.”

“I’ve seen it before too, and I’d prefer to not be skinned by it. We have the advantage. Hurry before he calls for aid!” Berek shouted as he advanced quickly towards the scarred man.

Berek moved like a charging bull, an avalanche of steel and fury. He swung his blade at his foe but cut only the air. His opponent was quick, quicker than any human should be. His movements were almost arachnid in nature; limbs outstretched and dashing angularly from one point to the next. Before Berek could turn the abomination was behind him, a moment later and the stygian blade was brought across the armored shoulder before it. Metal and flesh split open like the seam of grainsack had been cut. Blood appeared for a moment…and then stopped. The wound was immediately blackened, as though a searing heat had cauterized it.

The ghoul jumped back a few steps before his now kneeling victim and held out the dagger. Not a trace of blood or flesh could be seen on it.

“Ohhhhh she likes you. Lots of fight. We will enjoy draining the life from you one cut at a time.”

He began to step forward with blade outstretched when the hook of Orren’s pike caught him from behind, hooking his right side. Orren pulled with all his strength, spinning the antagonist around to face him. A sound like metal scraping stone could be heard. The flayer glared at Orren, then reached down and unhooked the pike from his side. No mark from the blow could be seen. Any other man would have lost his innards from the force with which Orren had struck.

“She has remade me in her image. I am darkness incarnate. You can no more strike me down than you can the shadows that haunt your dreams. And you do dream don’t you? I’ve seen them. We’ve seen them.” He said ,curling his lips into a sneer. Then he charged, swinging his dagger. Orren was able to lift his shield in time and the black blade bounced off the woven strands, staggering its wielder. The flayer regained his footing and stared at the armored man across from him. His eyes narrowed and the grin he wore until now was no more. Uncertainty was now in his eyes, uncertainty and rage.

Orren slowly advanced. With shield raised he absorbed blow after blow from the demon blade, pushing that tattooed man back further and further. Orren left no opening for him, corralling him with pike and shield, always at his front. The flayer cursed and spit like a feral cat, blows harmlessly bouncing off the holy shield, ever retreating. They were now almost to where Berek kneeled. He was conscious, but his face was covered in sweat and pain. His eyes met Orren’s for a moment, and then he smiled. Berek grabbed his sword and lunged towards the legs of the assailant. At first glance it appeared to Orren that Berek had missed, the blade entering the space between the torturer’s legs. Then he jutted the handle of the blade forward, disrupting the cursed man’s balance.

Orren saw his opening and lept forward, bowling the flayer over onto his back. He landed atop the foe and pinned the evil weapon beneath the shield. The demon’s free hand raked across Orren’s face. Blood poured down and stung his eyes, yet he remained firm in his positioning. With his pike Orren slashed at the flailing limb, but he could only fend off strikes. No lasting damage could be done to anywhere the text of damnation was written. Berek saw the struggle and crawled over to aid. He managed to pin the other hand of the ghoul and for a moment all was quiet. Then the flayer began to laugh, a cackle straight from the bowels of the demon serpent itself.

“You going to hold me here forever? Why don’t you tell me a story while we wait? HMMM? Tell me of your family foreigner. How are they doing? Would you like me to tell you?” The flayer howled with evil glee, teeth glinting in the moonlight.

Teeth….teeth. There is no writing on the teeth.

Orren lifted his pike and with the butt of the handle began to slam it on the open jaw of  his captive. Teeth splintered and broke beneath the onslaught, howls of laughter turned to howls of pain and the sound of gargled blood. Then Orren reached down into the pouch at his side and pulled out one of the stones, still pulsating with light, and shoved it into the bloody maw of the flayer. The flayer began to choke and tried to spit, but orren held his mouth shut with his knee and his nostrils closed with his mailed fist. He swallowed and the stone was gone.

The flayer’s eyes opened wide and his face became twisted with agony. He opened his mouth and coughed up smoke and black tar like substance.

“We should probably get clear” Orren said to Berek. He stood up quickly and dragged his companion away . As soon as they released the hands of their captive he sprang to his feet, both hands raised to his throat, dagger lying in the grass beside him.

“WHAT DID YOU PUT IN ME?!? WHAT DID YOU DO!?” he screamed through coughs of smoke. “GET IT OUT!”

He shrieked in pain and began to claw at his stomach to no avail. Then he saw the dagger in the grass. He picked it up and plunged it into his abdomen up to the hilt, then dragged it clean across the width of his body. Black liquid poured out as he shoved a hand inside the gaping wound. He dug through his bowels as Orren and Berek looked on in horror, and then produced the small stone, still glowing.

“I’ve got it…I’ve…got it.” He said in a voice barely above a whisper. He looked at the two men before him and smiled, then crumpled to the ground.

Berek and Orren sat in silence for a moment staring at the carnage before them. The words carved into the flesh of the now dead man began fade before their eyes, and then disappeared. The black knife was gone.

“Did you know that making him eat that rock would do…that?” Berek asked, still staring at the corpse in front of him.

Orren shook his head “No…but…I knew he wouldn’t like it very much.” He walked over to the dead man and pried the stone from his crooked fingers. He wiped some black gunk off of it in the grass and placed it back in his pouch. They were no longer glowing.

“We should go. Can you walk?” Orren looked at Berek.

Berek stood slowly, wincing in pain. Then he smiled, “I’ve had worse.”

Trying to Write Part 4

Untitled Novel, Teaser

  • by Gitabushi

The McCoy’s Story, Chapter 1: Beverly

Beverly woke, feeling groggy, not sure where she was for a moment.  Her bleary eyes blinked the world into focus.  Metal, glass, tile.  People hurrying past.  Voices over an intercom: “Flight 262 to Washington Dulles International, now boarding Zone 3.”

Beverly pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes.  Zone 3?  That was her boarding group.  She stretched, picked up her backpack and purse, stifled a yawn and stood up.  She shuffled over to the line, then fished her boarding pass out of her purse.  Another yawn rose, and this one would not be denied.  She covered her mouth, but despite her best efforts, this one was audible.

The man in front of him turned around at the sound.  “Tired, huh?  Well, you’ll get some sleep on this red-eye, as long as there are no infants near you.”

“Yeah, I just flew in from China.  I’ve already been traveling for 22 hours.  I couldn’t sleep on the plane earlier, but I just caught a nap there in the waiting area.  I think it made me feel worse.”  The line moved forward a step.

“Wow, long trip!  Where are you headed?”

“DC is my last stop.  Good thing.  I feel like a zombie or something.”  A few more steps forward.

“You’re not sick, are you?”  The man looked like he wanted to sidle away.

“No, I loaded up on vitamin C before the trip.  I’m just tired.”

They reached the flight attendant, and the conversation died.  As he was looking at Beverly’s boarding pass, she heard some yelling down the foyer, maybe 10 Gates away.  The flight attendant glanced past her shoulder, a puzzled look on his face.  The sound of commotion increased, and Beverly turned to look.  She couldn’t see anything at this angle, and she wasn’t willing to step out of line to see better.  The attendant motioned her to go on, and she smiled faintly at him as she walked past.  Just as she entered the jetwalk, she heard what sounded like a scream, and a loud report like a firecracker.

A gunshot?

No way.  Beverly shook her head.  Guns aren’t allowed in airports.

20 minutes later they were in the air, and Beverly was fast asleep.

***

She woke again as they were making the final approach into Dulles, then dozed until they pulled up to the gate.  Lack of sleep and disruptions to all the normal biological cycles made her feel groggy even after she gathered her purse (no carry-on, for the win!) and staggered off the plane and up the walkway.

Her luggage would be arriving at the very last turnstile.  Before walking down there, she stopped off in the Ladies Restroom.  She sat in the stall, staring at nothing, trying to will herself fully awake.

She heard someone stagger in, then stumble over and push at her door.

“Taken!  Try the next one.”

More pushing at the door.  The groans sounded a little urgent.

“Hey!  Taken!”

Whoever it was seemed to take the message, and stumbled into the stall next to hers.  She could see the woman’s feet, rather large in tennis shoes, in the 12-inch gap.  She saw a hand reach through and paw in her direction.

“Out of toilet paper?  Okay, hold on a second.”  Beverly unwound a big wad, reached down and held it out.  The other person knocked it from her hand.  Fine, I don’t care, Beverly thought.  Some people just have no gratitude.

She closed her eyes and put her head in her hands, took several deep breaths.  She pulled out her cellphone and held the button until it began to turn on.  She stood up and had just gotten the door open when she felt her foot grabbed.  She looked down in time to see a man’s head stuck through the gap between the floor and the stall divider, and saw him sink his teeth into her ankle.

blinding pain–

“SON OF A BITCH!” Beverly yelled, and dropped her phone as she yanked her foot free.  She aimed a kick directly at the side of his face, heard his head bounce off the base of the toilet.  She opened the door and ran out with her purse.  She heard the man struggling to get out of the stall behind her.

Out of the restroom, she picked out a security guard a few dozen yards away.  She ran up to him.

“A man just assaulted me in the ladies restroom!”  She pointed back the way she had come.  She had to repeat it again before he understood.  He looked grim and began to walk in that direction, lifting his radio to his mouth as he went.

Beverly hesitated a moment.  She didn’t really want to wait around and see the guy.  Just thinking of him gave her the creeps.  There was something funny about his eyes.

She also didn’t want to wait around to repeat her story a dozen times to the police.  She knew that she should do her part to get a jerk like that off the streets…but she was exhausted, and just wanted to go home.  At least she could pick up her luggage first.  That would also give her more distance from the bathroom.

She walked another couple hundred yards to the luggage turnstile, which was already turning with a few pieces forlornly waiting for owners.  Hers was already there, too.  She grabbed her suitcase, then heard a scream and turned to look back at the bathroom entrance.

A struggle was ensuing between two security guards and the guy.  It looked like one of the security guards was down with the guy on top of him, and the second security guard trying to pull him off.  As she watched, the second guard pulled the assailant off of his buddy.  The guard on the floor wasn’t moving at all.  The creep turned in the second guard’s grasp.  It was hard to tell from the distance, but it looked like the guy was winning!

Beverly felt a bolt of terror in her heart.  She turned and hurried toward the exit.  She looked back as she reached the door, saw the guard fall to the ground and saw the man stagger in her direction.  She pushed out the doors as fast as she could, scrambled out onto the sidewalk.

She looked for the economy parking lot bus stop.  There!  And her lot color was already there.  As she ran toward it, dragging her suitcase, it started to pull away.

Then the driver must have seen her, because it stopped and the doors opened.  She clambered on board, yelled, “Go!” and collapsed into a chair.  She looked back at the baggage claim door but didn’t see her assailant emerge.

Her ankle throbbed.  She pulled her foot up to the seat, looked her ankle over.  She winced as she pressed and explored the bite area.  Was the skin broken?  No blood, at least.  That seemed impossible with as bad as the bite hurt, but maybe her jeans got in the way?  The way it hurt, she was going to have one hell of a bruise.

When the bus reached her stop, Beverly raced to her car, jumped in, and locked all the doors. She sat, shivering with reaction, for about 15 minutes.  She transitioned directly from panic to exhaustion, however, and woke herself when her head lolled forward.
She shook her head to clear it, glanced at her watch, and estimated she had lost only about 20 minutes dozing.
“Better I get back home as soon as possible and crawl into bed for some good sleep,” she said out loud, trying to wake herself up.  “I just hope I don’t nod off on the road home.”
Not many cars were on the road.

At one point, she saw someone walking across the freeway ahead of her.  She slowed slightly, until she saw that he would pass safely across before she reached him.

Within about 40 minutes, she was turning the key of her Eckington neighborhood townhome.  Three levels, 4 bedrooms, all hers.  Well, after another 27 or so years of mortgage payments, as she liked to say to friends.

She stripped her clothes and showered as rapidly as she could.  She checked out her ankle, rubbed some soap on it, but no sting of an open would.  Sure enough, though, it was already turning purple. The sky was just beginning to lighten as she stumbled into her bedroom and slipped into bed.  And then out of bed again to close the heavier curtains, to make sure sunlight drifting in between the slats of the blinds after daybreak didn’t wake her.

She set the alarm for a little over 6 hours later, pulled the covers up to her chin, and waited to fall asleep immediately.

35 minutes later (as confirmed by the bedside clock), she was still waiting.  She started the self-hypnosis technique she had learned back in college, and before the second set (backwards from fifty), felt that curious falling sensation that accompanied entering sleep when completely exhausted.

***

Untitled Novel, Teaser

The secret formula of Kells

Some months ago I watched the Secret of Kells (2009) on Netflix and meant to share some thoughts about it. Actually I was hoping to pester Kaiju into making one of his rare appearances to talk about it (he being more qualified to opine on religious symbolism and whatnot than I), but alas.

Animated by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, the Secret of Kells is a Christian fantasy story crafted around the abbey at Kells, in Ireland, during the 9th century. Although I wasn’t initially impressed by stills I had seen of the movie, it’s actually quite beautifully animated in a style that reminded me of Samurai Jack.

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Kells incorporates many of the themes and elements that I and others have waxed about of late, regarding the shift in fantasy storytelling. The film weaves Christian history, dogma, and myth together with pagan Celtic legend in a thoughtful and effective manner. I won’t go into detailed analysis of the plot right now, but suffice it to say the setting – a secluded abbey surrounded by mysterious, magical woods, during the fearful age of the viking raids into England, is the perfect backdrop for the exciting, moving tale told here.

A young boy being raised by his uncle, the abbot of Kells, finds himself drawn to literary illumination and the legendary Book of Kells. Meanwhile the abbot is consumed with a burning drive to erect a great wall around the monastery to protect the monks and refugees from death at the hands of the invaders from across the sea.

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Aside from some breathtaking art and music, one of the things that impressed me most about Kells was the amount of research and thought that must have gone into the story and that was so skillfully incorporated without feeling forced.

For instance, the story involves a certain artifact belonging to St. Columba, the founder of Kells and at least in the film the originator of the Book. So far as I can tell, there wasn’t actually a myth about such an artifact, but Columba was the subject of other legend. St. Columba is credited with having spread Christianity to Scotland, and was said to have banished a great water monster to the depths of River Ness.

The abbey at Kells and its namesake book are real, the later currently residing in Dublin, and at some points the film shows us some animated versions of actual illuminations from the tome.

The observant watcher will also note the name of the dark Celtic god Crom, which was likely the inspiration for Robert E Howard’s Conan deity. There’s also some interesting imagery to be observed, including that of the ouroboros.

Perhaps my favorite “Easter Egg” or whatever you might call it, is a feline character belonging to one of the monks. The cat is named Pangur Ban, and was inspired by an actual 9th century poem written by a monk about his pet cat.

There’s an excellent song at one point in the film, where the character Aisling uses magic to enlist the help of the small animal. The Gealic lyrics of her singing invoke James 4:14. One theme of the story seems to be the giving way of the pagan powers to the Christian God, as perhaps reflected in Aisling’s song.

The Secret of Kells is a wonderful movie, though I wouldn’t show it to young children due to some emotionally intense scenes. It’s uplifting to observe that though many mainstream entertainment media shy away from Christian SFF storytelling these days, there are smaller outlets that do not, and they’re capable of some fantastic work.

-Bushi

bushi

The secret formula of Kells

Three Thoughts on Three Hearts and Three Lions

I finished up my second Anderson novel over the weekend. While I don’t think I’d rank Three Hearts and Three Lions among my favorite fantasy stories, I continue to be astounded at the state of the genre in relation to these older writings. Maybe it’s mostly due to the constant flow of new works and the pace of writers like R.A. Salvatore and Kevin J. Anderson, who seem to be putting out a new book every few months. But reading Poul Anderson and his seminal tales like Three Hearts leaves little doubt as to the towering influence he’s had not only on fantasy literature, but throughout the many spheres of nerdom. Why are we not seeing republications of this guy?

I’ve got three major thoughts I’d like to explore here. *Minor spoilers follow.*

 

1. Origin of the species

Jeffro wrote a great analysis of Three Hearts a couple years ago and the part it played in inspiring, in particular, the Paladin class, the concept of the troll, and the alignment system in D&D.

I’ve written before about the paladins and their origins, and I was pleased to see that Anderson drew upon the Matter of France in his own development of the Holger character. I feel like the Carolingian legends have never enjoyed the same degree of popularity as the Matters of Britain and Rome (the Arthurian and Ancient Greek and Roman myths, respectively), and yet there is so much to draw from the tales of Charlemagne and his knights. I must admit I was surprised to learn that “Cortana” is the name of another powerful sword forged by the legendary blacksmith Wayland (who is sometimes credited with having forged Durandal and even Excalibur). And here I had never given any thought to from whence Microsoft may have taken the name.

As for the Paladin, Jeffro notes:

Of course, a number of people are going to be reading and recommending this book because it is the literary antecedent of the paladin class from the first edition AD&D Player Handbook. Certainly, the laying on of hands, the warhorse, and the “Holy Sword” are all here.

There are a number of other fantasy traditions established or reinforced by Anderson here, but I’d like to focus for a moment on the concept of “Law vs Chaos.” Although those familiar with his works may credit Moorcock and his Eternal Champion saga for the trope, Anderson’s employment of it predates that of Moorcock. And indeed, in Elric of Melnibone‘s acknowledgement Moorcock gave a shout-out to Anderson as one of his inspirations.

Law vs Chaos has been done in different ways; sometimes it’s just a slightly more ambiguous label for Good vs Evil. Sometimes there is more nuance. But especially in the gaming scene, it’s certainly become a popular system for fleshing out alignments or dividing factions.

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The fact that Anderson and Three Hearts put so much of this subsequently widely-adopted material out there may actually be its biggest weakness in the eyes of modern readers. I’m by no means saying that the story is a let-down or unworthy of a read, but some people may perhaps be bored by what they see as yet another serving up of common fantasy tropes.

 

2. Talking the talk; walking the walk

As Rawle Nyanzi recently observed in his own first reading of Three Hearts:

Anderson also shows that he knows the old folktales on a very deep level, interweaving them into crucial plot points throughout the entire novel — it made the tale feel deep and full. It was nothing at all like the fantasy stuff I was used to, where a legendary figure’s name would be used without capturing any of that character’s substance. It did not treat European folklore as a grab-bag of powers and names to use simply because they sounded cool; I could tell that this story came from the pen of someone who truly loved these tales.

That rang true as I read through the story, as well. Although I wouldn’t describe the plot as seamless (certain parts of the story did feel a bit jerky or disjointed to me), I thought Anderson did a masterful job incorporating elements of older fantasy and fairytale, Christian mythology, and real history to color this rich yarn. I especially enjoyed the attention he put into characterizing his fey folk, and the tradition he drew upon in the process. Elf Hill, for example, was probably a Fairy Mound of the Celtic sort.

He was also up on the works of his contemporaries – in a nod to Tolkien, Anderson included mentions of wargs and Mirkwood. I also noted that there was a minor character in the book named Frodoart, and wondered whether Tolkien may have liked the name poached a part of it for LoTR (Three Hearts predated Lord of the Rings). Or maybe it was pure coincidence.

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I also credit Anderson with putting a lot of work into his characters’ dialogue. Like in the High Crusade, the people in Three Hearts speak in a way reminiscent of older times. Hugi the dwarf and Alianora the swan-may speak with Scottish accents (dwarf trope, anyone?), Holger the Dane at times uses flawed “ESL” English, and the denizens of the fantasy setting all make use of older, more archaic language. This adds a little bit to the effort required in following dialogue, but not so much as to require intensive labor on the part of the reader. I imagine Anderson must have studied quite a bit to pick up the right words and phrases for this kind of endeavor.

 

3. The old ways

We’ve already talked about Fantasy’s shift away from Christianity, and greater critics than I have analyzed the trend. In light of that movement, there’s something satisfying and almost fresh (old is new again) about fey folk who cannot stand the touch of iron and who are vulnerable to the cross and the invocation of the Lord’s name. Rather than brute force, the Middle Worlders must rely on cunning and guile. At one point the Three Hearts protagonist reflects that given their weaknesses, the fey can really only harm or ensnare those who wish to be taken. Given how many times they get the drop on him, though, I’d probably amend that theory to venture that a properly prepared Christian Man in his proper frame of mind can withstand the eldritch powers of the Middle World.

Incidentally, I noted that Anderson’s tale equated Pan with the Devil. One of the characters exposits upon the original fall of Chaos to Jesus Christ and mentions the death of Pan. Rather than a mostly harmless imp, the hircine pagan god is depicted as a much more sinister being. I only raise this point because I know it has been another topic of discussion within critical circles.

Further reading:

In addition to checking out Jeffro and Rawle’s (linked above) takes on Three Hearts and Three Lions, there’s also a worthwhile post-read analysis over at Tor.com.

 

Next:

I’ve now gotten to work on the first of Zelazny’s Amber books, and having already enjoyed one of his (mostly) fantasy tales, I’ll also be sampling one of Dickson’s scifi stories. I really should jot down some thoughts on the Dragon and the George before memory fades and a revisitation becomes necessary. We’ll see!

-Bushi

bushi

Three Thoughts on Three Hearts and Three Lions

Andrew Lang and the colors of imagination

The name of Scottish writer and anthropologist Andrew Lang is one that I didn’t at first recognize while working on the Grand List, although I encountered his work as a child. Although he’s not to be found in Appendix N, he does make an entry in the green Ballantine column, as coauthor of The World’s Desire.

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Happily, both Kindle and physical copies of many of Lang’s more popular books are still available for purchase (see Amazon, in particular). Somewhat less happily and a bit ironically, although he was a literary critic and author in his own right, today he’s best known for the story collections he compiled (perhaps akin to Lin Carter in that regard). I’m not entirely sure he would be displeased by this, however.

Lang was a passionate lover of mythology, folklore, and fairy tale. Over the course of 20+ years, he sought out and compiled such stories from all over the world and divided them into “Fairy Books” of various colors. The first entry, the Blue Fairy Book, was published in 1889 and contained classic tales from the Brothers Grimm, stories from the Arabian Nights, the Lilliputian segment of Gulliver’s Travels, and more.

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The geographical and cultural range to be found in Lang’s books was great indeed. His Violet Fairy Book (1901), for example, collected stories from Japan, Serbia, parts of Africa, and Russia, among other places.

In addition to the core twelve “colored” fairy tale books, he put together thirteen other volumes such as the Animal Story Book, the Book of Princes and Princesses, the Book of Romance, and the Strange Story Book.

I personally have a soft spot for Lang. When I was a young boy, my father used to read to me before bed (my mother would substitute in a pinch). I’m sure there were many books and stories, but the ones that stand out most in my memory are the scattered Fairy Books of Lang and various Frank Baum Oz books that my dad would search for at nearby libraries. I have little doubt that my parent’s cultivation of my imagination through myth and fairy tale has contributed in large part to my love of SFF.

My fiance and I talk of one day having our own home library, and I already have Lang’s work marked for our shelves.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Andrew Lang and the colors of imagination

Benign werewolves and dog men

It’s it funny how often you learn a new word and then almost immediately spot it in use somewhere. Who’d have thought this would be the case with a word like “cynocephali” though? I guess if you expose yourself to enough fiction and fantasy…

I noted this tweet in my timeline the other day.

And then while playing a little Witcher 3, I came across this text:

CqBrH_hWYAAQcIT

Cynocephalus is the catch-all term for dog-headed beast men. Apparently throughout history there have been reports across civilizations of such creatures. St. Augustine even mentions them in City of God, apparently, discussing their existence and if real whether or not they would be considered descendants of Adam (aka human).

If I were to venture a guess, I’d wager that the reports of these kinds were based on some mixture of folklore, hearsay, and observed anatomical deformities. Rare diseases like Proteus syndrome can cause bizarre, monster-like skin and bone development.

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There have been documented cases of people with horns and such, so why not hound-like facial features?

My reading on cynocephali lead me to related information about dog-man variants (God bless Wikipedia). Of course we’re all familiar with werewolves, but I did come across something interesting in the vein. Some of us have expressed consternation with the contemporary tendency to subjectivize everything, including good and evil. Gone are the easily distinguishable heroes and villains of yore, replaced by tormented anti-heroes and woefully misunderstood only-kinda-bad guys. We attribute this to secularization, the rise of the self, relativism, etc. And I don’t believe this to be untrue.

But it is interesting to see that there have been benevolent wolfmen long before the emergence of the sparkly, emo, good vampire.

The wulver, for instance, is a mythological wolfman of Scottish origin. Unlike the traditional werewolf, it was not once a man and was not cursed to change shape. Instead it was a solitary spirit that lived alone and would not bother people unprovoked. The wulver was known as a fisher and would sometimes leave fish on the window-sills of poor folk.

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Illustrated by Tess Garmen and Teagan Gavet for Werewolf Calendar.com

Another “good” wolfman is the Faoladh, of which I’ve been unable to find much information. Apparently it was an Irish guardian, though, which would protect children and wounded men.

Now I’m not saying that if confronted by a beastman of the canine nature one should warmly greet it with bread and salt. But who knows? Maybe it’s a non-hostile cynocephalus of some kind. Still, faith and silver are worthy safeguards..

-Bushi

bushi

Benign werewolves and dog men

Was it flame? I will show you how!

In many ways, Final Fantasy IV is my favorite of the bunch. Sometimes FF VI takes the #1 slot. One thing I’ve always liked about the Final Fantasy series (and to some extent J-RPGs in general) are the random references to bits and bobs of mythology, lore, and legend from various places and times.

Bahamut, for example, has become well-known in the RPG universe as the meanest dragon son-of-a-bitch around. In Final Fantasy games, he often appears as a summon spell and/or sometimes a boss.

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In actuality, the name Bahamut originates from Arabian mythology, and is a giant fish that makes up part of the layered cosmology of the world.

“Ragnarok” often appears as the name of an uber-powerful weapon, though the term is from the Norse mythological belief in the End Time, when a great battle will be waged and the world destroyed and born anew.

Final Fantasy IV has some great examples, as well; one of which I only learned of in the past few years.

There is an elemental quartet of villains that are encountered throughout the FF series: the Four Fiends. In Final Fantasy IV, they are manifested as Scarmiglione (Earth), Cagnazzo (Water), Barbaiccia (Wind), and Rubicante (Fire). Their role is somewhat mysterious, as they appear to be Golbez’s henchman, but I’ve also read that they keep tabs on Zeromus’ control over Golbez. This may warrant another playthrough sometime soon.

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Interestingly, the Fiends are named after demons from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Specifically, they are members of the Malebranche, thirteen demons who are assigned to guard a river of boiling pitch and tar in the eighth circle of Hell. In the Comedy, this river (the “fifth bolgia”) is the punishment for extortionists, blackmailers, and other sinners who used their wealth and power to take advantage of others.

In the poem, it’s worth noting that the demons are tricky and deceptive. Their leader promises Virgil and Dante safe conduct, but then tries to trick them into taking a non-existent path.

This makes me wonder about one of my favorite Final Fantasy villains – Rubicante.

He is depicted as being an honorable foe, of sorts. He expresses sympathy for Edge and admonishes his rage, and he is the only boss I can ever remember healing the party to allow for a “fair fight.” But he is working for the bad guys, and he does try to murder you more than once. So is he really a villain with some redeeming qualities, or is he just screwing with you and displaying a twisted sense of humor? Keeping in mind where his name comes from, the latter would make a lot of sense.

As an aside, Final Fantasies IV and VI have had numerous localizations, as the translations have been redone for several of the games’ ports to newer systems. I can’t speak to whether or not they’ve survived all these new word-parsings, but both games have a number of “famous” quotes. I say “famous” because they may only be recognizable to us farts who are old enough to  have played and possess some degree of nostalgia for these gems.

Most well-known from FFIV is the “spoony bard” dis, dished out by Tellah.

You-spoony-bard

Less well-known, but still appreciated, is a line by Rubicante in his first encounter with Edge. I was unable to find a screenshot or video (another good reason to replay this one), but it happens when Edge, fighting the fire Fiend solo, casts his flame ninja magic on his adversary. As we all know, fire magic heals fire bosses. Amused, Rubicante exclaims “Was it flame? I will show you how!” He proceeds to blow up the ninja prince.

Just another example of an odd yet charming line that adds flavor to a classic localization.

-Bushi

bushi

Was it flame? I will show you how!