Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Riff on Grim Fantasy while Reading Nathan Hawke's "The Crimson Shield"

Growing up in in a small town in Texas, nearly every Saturday night I would accompany my mother and father to a drive-end theater near our home and watch a double feature. My father, being who he was, the movies were always Westerns and usually starred John Wayne. Around 1957, we saw a film that basically changed me, turning me into a cinephile; it was "The Searchers" by John Ford. While watching this movie, I discovered or realized for the first time that there was someone directing the action. When I mentioned this to my father, an inveterate movie-goer, he said, "The director is John Ford, the greatest director that has ever lived." Suddenly, this exciting, violent, and psychologically realistic movie started growing in my mind and since that summer night I have watched it over and over again until I have almost memorized it. "The Searchers" showed me a Western (or fantasy) could overcome its tropes and express a higher degree of artistic depth and integrity.

"The Searchers" is an exciting Western but it is also a psychological tale of vengeance, race, miscegenation, reconciliation, and forgiveness. At the time I thought "The Searchers" was one of a kind. And in some respects it was; but, more broadly, something else was going on: the Western was changing, growing up. Directors like Henry Hathaway, Anthony Mann, Fred Zinneman, Arthur Penn, and John Ford were changing it. Maybe it was because they were just back from the war or maybe the genre was maturing naturally like any living being. These new Westerns were satisfying a part of me that demanded depth and complexity but they did not supersede my appetite for the Western. There were other films that were simply fun to watch. So as one type of Western matured and sought the high road, other Westerns proliferated and simply entertained. They existed side by side. I think the same thing is occurring in epic fantasy.

Unlike my father, who was a Western purist, I liked all action films. My favorites starred Errol Flynn. I also liked fantasy. In the late 50s and 60s, most of my reading was either historical fiction or fantasy fiction. In 1967, I picked up a copy of "The Hobbit" at the grocery store, along with my usual purchases of Marvel comics. We only had one bookstore in my town and it was a bookstore/card shop combination, with more cards than books. Most of my books were checked out of the Carnegie Library downtown. "The Hobbit" was another revelation, a seismic quake. Rather than continuing reading anything and everything, I searched for more books like "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." I sought a combination of romance, myth, action, and world building. And I was in luck, in the sixties and seventies there were a lot of writers trying to continue the "Middle Earth" experience. However, they were pale imitations of an original. These were simply amusements that seemed to be like Tolkien but really weren't.

In 1970, I entered college and majored in English and History. Fantasy dropped by the wayside, to be read at Christmas and summer break. By the mid-80s I was reading fiction sporadically. I had moved on to non-fiction, psychology and history primarily. One afternoon, my brother, also a fantasy fan, gave me "Legend" by Dave Gemmell and told me to read it. Hold on, I thought, as I tore through the book. This was fantasy as exciting and as violent as some of the Westerns I loved. What kind of fantasy is this? I later discovered that "Legend" was based on the battle of the Alamo and that Gemmell was a rabid fan of John Wayne. "Legend" in some ways is an imagining of a Western as fantasy. And in its incarnation this fantasy was as cruel and as violent as an American Western. However, there is also something else going on in "Legend," just as there was another message working underneath the Western tropes of "The Searchers." There was an idea or a philosophy lurking within its pages. "Legend" was Gemmell's response to his experience with cancer. It was an existential exercise for him. He was not trying to recapture the joy he experienced when he read Tolkien, he was working out psychological issues through art. The fantasy battle of Druss illustrates his feeling about death, mortality and courage. Below the fantasy tropes Gemmell employed was a "big idea" about mankind's response to its very existence; consequently, "Legend" possessed a seriousness that transcended a lot of the fantasy of the seventies.

In a fundamental way Gemmell was writing against Tolkien. He admired Michael Moorcock and Moorcock's fantasy was one of the major responses to Tolkien's brand of fantasy. The literary children of Tolkien were growing up and rebelling. Their fantasy emerged from the chaos of the 60s and the fantasy of Tolkien wannabes.  Fantasy fiction was following a pattern somewhat like that of Western fiction. It was maturing and changing.

In 1996, my brother (again) sent me a copy of "A Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin. Martin was different from Gemmell in that he writes fantasy as history and horror. Mature, gritty, and sexy. Another seismic shift. Tougher than Gemmell, Martin writes Medieval Romance as American hard-boiled fiction, with a soupcon of Bismarck's realpolitik. Although he says he loves Tolkien, his novels are history without history, sentiment without sentimentality, situated in a world without remorse, a world without the softening effect of  Christianity. Where Tolkien's fantasy is rife with Christianity and its ideals, Martin's is godless and his characters are Hobbesian beasts. I would argue that Martin has created a sub-genre to epic fantasy and that his fiction does not lie on the same genealogical line as Gemmell. His influences are Vance and historical novelists like Thomas Costain and Maurice Druon. Gemmell and Martin both inhabit the bronze age of epic fantasy but they are different in tone, style, and message. Gemmell is still read and loved but Martin currently dominates the epic fantasy landscape like a bitter Smaug. He is the Tolkien of his age; the author that young writers write against as they struggle with the maturing and ever-changing fantasy genre.

After Martin, Joe Abercrombie is probably the strongest proponent of grim fantasy but he is not alone. A slew of  talented writers are crowding the field. Among them is Nathan Hawke. Hawke's "The Crimson Shield" (Gollancz 2013) falls somewhere between Gemmell and Martin. In 'The Crimson Shield," Tolkien-like tropes are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, we have a set-up that could have come from Gemmell's pen. Four nations collide in warfare. The Vathen, a horse culture, attack the Marroc Coast. The Marroc join with their enemies, the Viking-like Lhosir, known to the Marroc as Forkbeards to defend their land. Unseen but mentioned over and over are the Aulians, a ancient and more sophisticated race. The action begins en medias res, tying us to the epic Greek tale, The Iliad, and grounding us in the heroic fantasy genre. The question is, however, where are the fantasy elements? The novel reads like historical fiction: there are no wizards, elves, goblins, or dragons. Instead, human armies vie for power and land. An easy correlation between Romans, Vikings, Huns, and Saxons is made. And the cultural period as determined by the technology lies somewhere before the 1st Century. Fantasy, to the limited extent it exists, is supported by the savage warriors' superstition--a sword is powerful and evil, a shield is powerful and good. These items are probably imbued with some magic but there is also a rational explanation to their power. In this regard, Hawke is more like Martin than Gemmell.

The most essential fantasy trope in the novel and the one that is the sine non qua to emerging grim fantasy is the fantasy land, the map on which the action occurs. Tolkien's created world is all important, just as is his created languages. In grim fantasy fiction, it is the world that supports the fantasy and ties the grim fantasy to its most important ally--the fantasy game. Gaming, whether board, table, card, or RPG is essential to the new grim fantasy. And as such, grim fantasy fiction enhances, informs and enlightens the game and the game transmogrifies the novel, stripping it of its complexities and paring it down to its essential parts so that it becomes cinematic and episodic.
'The Crimson Shield," however, does not seem game-like because it possesses a strong narrative and a fairly consistent point-of-view. The reader spends most of his/her time with Gallow, the protagonist, and only occasionally drifts off with other POV characters. This gives the book a stronger unity and tighter plot. However, there is a historical verisimilitude and an implied unrolling of fate's plan on the protagonist. Magic seeps in around the edges but does not overwhelm the narrative. Consequently, the original impulse of fantasy--to escape into a daydream of power--is absent but so, too, is the depth of the world. Gallow's world is drawn just enough that we believe in it, just as Druss' was. The corollary with history grounds us and we imagine either England or the Northern shore of France besieged. Like a game though, we anticipate more world building, new cultures and the hidden Aulians to emerge in later books.

So, Nathan Hawke's "The Crimson Shield" is an entertaining fantasy novel, written in the vein of Gemmell.  His fiction demonstrates all of the tropes of Martin's emerging sub-genre of grim fantasy but it shies away from its nihilism. Martin says that the great theme in his fantasy work "is the existential loneliness that we all suffer." That big idea is not evident in 'The Crimson Shield." What does come through is a rollicking good tale. It is a hybrid work, closer to Gemmell than Martin. Its strength lies in its battle scenes and well-wrought characters.

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