As an enterprise, The Cimmerian is nothing if not ecumenical; before deciding on skull trophies for the Cimmerian Awards, Leo briefly considered statues of Hanuman with the male attributes grossly emphasized, as is of course de rigeur down Zamboula way. So I’m going to borrow Ashkenazi Judaism’s concept of the Yahrtzeit (German: Jahrzeit) the “time of [one] year,’ when a relative’s death is commemorated and a Yahrtzeit candle burns for 24 hours. David Gemmell died a year ago this past weekend, on July 28, 2006. He once said “I write about love and honor and courage and the spiritual and I get dismissed as a hack and slay writer. It would be annoying, if I let it be,” and the danger now exists that he’ll be dismissed as a dead hack and slay writer, which would be annoying, if we let it. I’ll do my part to stave off such an eventuality when Troy: Fall of Kings, the third in a series that recreates the flesh and blood inside the Homeric bronze, is published (which will be on August 27 in Britain; Americans are expected to wait until December 26, but Amazon.uk was invented for just such occasions). For the moment, as the functional equivalent of a Yahrtzeit candle why don’t we allow Gemmell to speak for himself, from some vintage interviews long since lost to the broken-link-strewn gulfs of cyberspace:
When Del Rey sought to launch him in the U. S., an interviewer at the publisher’s website commented on his “Dickensian” biography:
I don’t know about Dickensian, but my background certainly helped me when I became an author. Running [a gambling syndicate at his school] taught me about human frailties, and my stints as a nightclub “doorman” made me realize just how easy it is to intimidate people if you just take the time to learn the moves. . .step swiftly into the other person’s territorial space, then speak softly, etc. The journalism, and the consequent interviews with politicians, gangsters, film stars, scientists and men from the armed forces gave me a huge cast of characters to call upon.
One of those characters dated back to the period before Gemmell was jotting on his notepad. He volunteered to an interviewer “If a Spielberg or Lucas offered to make Legend the movie, and mentioned Sean Connery for the role of Druss, I’d be sorely tempted. By the way, as a boy I used to deliver Sean Connery’s beer when he was a struggling actor living in West London. I was disappointed every time he answered the door, and was constantly peeking past him to catch a glimpse of his wife, the beautiful British star Diane Cilento.” The Connery of the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-through-The Hunt for Red October era would indeed have been an ideal (but never idealized) Druss–after all, the axeman has been known to address protégés as “laddie.”
In another interview with U. K. genre specialist Roz Kaveney, Gemmell elaborated on some early influences:
Growing up in West London, I knew my share of gravel-voiced hard men and, later on, as a journalist, I interviewed mercenaries and members of the SAS. What they had in common was a sort of focus, a capacity to break a job or a crisis down into the immediate next thing to take care of with no thought about long-term risks. They also had in common a refusal ever to bluff. One of them tossed me a coin and said to catch it, and I did; he then said to imagine he had a gun to my mother’s head and to catch it, and I said that would be harder. But it would not have been for him.
Jon Shannow. . .is largely based on a friend of mine who ended up in jail for armed robbery. When I was a youing journalist, I wrote about a Rachman-style landlord who threatened me; just round the corner from a café he owned, I was jumped and beaten and hospitalized. My friend went to his café, which was full of his men, checked which one of them was him and then laid into him with a length of pipe, facing down the others. I knew people like that, so I write about them.
A link to Howardian SOP can be found in Gemmell’s disclosure “I used to box and fence and I have a strong sense of fighting as a series of moves. I collect weapons and I work out action sequences with them in my back garden, preferably when the neighbors are not watching.” He added “Collecting weapons has another advantage — I have a friendly rivalry with Terry Pratchett about sales and prestige. He rang me up to say that they were going to name a fossil turtle after him and asked what I had to say about that. And I could say that I had just bought a Winchester that Wyatt Earp probably used.”
As the purchaser of that Winchester, Gemmell had pronounced views on the (d)evolution of his favorite film genre:
Traditional westerns like Shane and High Noon created the fantasy hero of the early twentieth century, but these were overstamped with revisionist westerns which showed the West “as it really was,” portraying Wild Bill Hickok as a syphilitic braggart, Wyatt Earp as a crooked whoremaster, Custer as an incompetent glory hunter and so on. This effectively killed the western as a fantasy outlet. With the death of the genre, people needed heroes who could not be corrupted by new “truths,” and sword-and-sorcery began to soar in popularity. No revisionist could expose Conan, or Gandalf. No one could sully the deeds of Elric of Melniboné or Druss the Legend. In fantasy, the reader could expect good to combat evil, and to triumph.
(In fairness, more than a few of Elric’s deeds come pre-sullied) When an interviewer observed that the late twentieth century lacked “dragons to fight,” Gemmell responded as follows:
One night, when I was fifteen, and had been re-reading Lord of the Rings yet again, I was on a subway train coming home. As the train reached the platform I saw three men beating up on a guy. Every instinct told me to stay out of it, but Tolkien was in my mind. Would Aragorn stay out of it, or Boromir, or even Sam Gamgee? The answer was no so I pitched in and stopped the fight. In that moment I experienced a soaring sense of self worth. That was a gift Tolkien gave me and a gift I try to give to others.
“It’s plain that Tolkien influenced you in more than just a literary sense,” the interviewer remarked:
Tolkien had a massive influence on me. When I was fifteen I wrote to him and he wrote back. That touched me in a way beyond description. Lord of the Rings is a magnificent, inspiring work. I read it over and over again.
The interviewer was understandably curious about the letter. “It was a short letter thanking me for contacting him and telling me that he was working on another novel. It concluded ‘I am afraid there are no hobbits in it, but I hope you will read it one day.'”…Gemmell’s death occasioned a brief thread at the website of another English fantasist he read rabidly. The writer Morgan Holmes calls The International Man of Fantasy posted this himself at Moorcock’s Miscellany:
I only met him twice. Once when he was a boy in a second hand bookshop. He asked me if I’d ever read any Michael Moorcock, whose work he really liked. I told him Moorcock was crap, he shouldn’t be reading that stuff. Years later I met him again, as a successful author. Was that you? he asked. It was, I said. You bastard, he said, that confused me for years. Affable bloke, the little I knew of him. I never read his work, only because I don’t read much of the sort of stuff I write, on the whole.
More talk of Tolkien led one interlocutor to opine that “something that goes beyond moral judgment or instruction and into more ambiguous, and more interesting, spiritual territory” was detectable in Gemmell’s own work. The latter answered:
I try to ensure that there is a spiritual core to all my work, but I want it to be there for those “with eyes to see and ears to hear.” I am delighted when people peel back the layers and discover what I am trying to say, and disappointed when others don’t. But I feel it best to leave it for the readers, and not elaborate on it.
And yet “As a journalist, I saw nice guys finishing last; I like to construct histories in which that is not true, at least for a while — in most of my worlds, any triumph by good is going be temporary.”
And what about possible film adaptations?
I’ve turned down several offers for Legend, and one for Wolf in Shadow. Every time the contracts arrive there is a clause that gives the rights to the characters to the movie company. I won’t surrender rights to Druss, Shannow or any of my characters. I remember reading years ago that Brian Garfield, who wrote the wonderful Death Wish novel, was almost suicidal when the producers churned out the awesomely bad Death Wish 2, 3, and 4. . .
Elsewhere in that interview, Gemmell mentioned having finished an advance copy of Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, “a wonderful, triumphant, and heart-breaking read.” Pressfield returned the favor when Gemmell’s Trojan novels appeared: “David Gemmell carries us away to a four-cornered, wholly convincing cosmos, so masterfully done that the reader thinks, ‘Ah, so this is what it was really like.'”
His style was direct to the point of simplicity, but he himself was not necessarily a simple person, as his Guardian obituary (by Christopher Priest) points out:
At first sight a conservative man, he was an advocate of capital punishment, a devout Christian, a collector of Louis L’Amour westerns, and an admirer of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone. But this was only one side of him. His background, through his mother, was socialist. After he became wealthy, Gemmell quietly supported many small charities and good causes. He gave generously to a women’s refuge and to a rehab programme for young addicts, and he did much to encourage novice writers. In Hastings, where he made his home, he revived the fortunes and aspirations of the local writers’ group, and established a short story prize, administered in Hastings but open to all comers. The Legend competition is still held annually. Gemmell always took an active role in the final judging and award ceremony.
That same obituary deems his prose “muscular and sometimes didactic” and comments “Like all successful novelists, he had his detractors. His critics complained of the repetitive nature of his plots, and the restricted, if colourful, vocabulary. Violent events occur in all his books, and generally provide the sole impetus for plot development. Gemmell was a generic writer within a specialised and somewhat esoteric genre of fiction: the sort of book you might imagine would be classified as ‘heroic fantasy…'”
Even allowing for the Kulturbolschewismus of The Guardian, I’m not sure why heroic fantasy is necessarily “esoteric,” but here are several voices we might think we already know from Homer and Euripides and Virgil as they speak to us in Troy: Shield of Thunder. First, perhaps the least pitiable Hecuba (Hekabe here) ever:
“Innocents?” replied Hekabe, her voice rich with contempt. “On the mountains of ambition there are no innocents. You think Priam would still be king if I had viewed the world through such naive eyes? You think Troy would have survived against the avarice of powerful kings had I not dealt with them, bribed them, seduced them, befriended them, and killed them? You want to live among the innocents, Andromache, among the sheep? Yes, in every peasant village they will live their loving lives, among true friends, and they will sing and dance together on feast days, and weep when their friends and loved ones die. Sweet little sheep. Brings a tear to my eye. We are not sheep, stupid girl! We are lions. We are wolves. We devour the sheep and we snarl and tear at each other.”
And now a Realpolitik-dictated falling-out between Priam and an Odysseus who has been the “sea-uncle” and mentor of both Hektor and Aeneas:
“I had no desire for a war with Troy. You remember that, Priam. You remember that when your sons die and your influence shrivels. You remember that when the flames consume your palace.”
“I feel my bones trembling,” sneered Priam. “Little Ithaka against the might of Troy. You have a weapon to throw down my walls? You have an army to defeat the Trojan horse? No, you do not. Not you, nor a hundred like you gathered together, would make more than a fleabite on the body of Troy. A hundred thousand men could not take this city. You have a hundred thousand men, little king?”
In that moment Odysseus realized Priam had engineered this clash in order to make exactly this point to the assembled kings. He stood silently for a moment, then laughed. “I want you to remember that boast too, Priam,” he said. “I want all the men here to repeat it across the Great Green. Not I, not a hundred like me gathered together, would make more than a fleabite on the body of Troy. Let the valleys echo to that boast. Let the mountains ring with it. Let the seas whisper it across the beaches of the world.” With that, he swung away and strode through the doors.
And lastly Aeneas (also known as Helikaon), in conversation with a friend from a strange tribe once enslaved in Egypt:
“What have I become?” he said, at last, anguish in his voice.
“A reflection of Agamemnon,” said Gershom softly. “You lost yourself in the grand designs of war, focusing on armies and strategies, calculating losses and gains in the same way you did as a merchant.”
“Why could I not see it? It is as if I was blinded by some spell.”
“No spell,” said Gershom. “The truth is more prosaic than that. There is a darkness in you. in all of us, probably. Beasts we keep chained. Ordinary men have to keep the chains strong, for if we let the beast loose then society will turn upon us with fiery vengeance. Kings, though…well, who is there to turn upon them? So the chains are made of straw. It is the curse of kings, Helikaon, that they can become monsters.” He sighed. “And they invariably do.”