Your Yore and My Yore

A while back I wrote a humor piece on the appeal of High Fantasy versus Sword and Sorcery, where I opined that no one has a real taste for High Fantasy who does not think the modern age has lost something precious.

To my bewilderment, I was savagely criticized for this innocuous comment. Inquiry to the critic proved useless, as he was not in a mood to explain himself.

In that original post, I never explained the statement, and this was for two reasons. First, I thought it was self-explanatory. Second, to this hour, no one (especially not my critic) has asked me to explain it.

Let me explain it now:

As far as I know, each fan might have a different thing on his list of the things the modern world has lost: one might regret the rise of smoggy factories; another the loss of small-town intimacy; a third the dreary secularism of the age; a fourth might miss the lack of chivalry; a fifth might wish she had lived in the days of horses rather than honking automobiles; a sixth might wonder what life was like when maps had edges beyond which was the unknown; a seventh might regret the loss of the pomp of monarchy, or the days when kings indeed took the sword in hand and stood on the battlefield with their men; an eighth might appreciate the care with which craftsmen made beautiful things; an ninth might bemoan the loss of the frontier, or the lack of churchbell music, or the slattern ugliness of modern dress; a tenth might simply think cloaks look nicer than overcoats; an eleventh might be enamored with the glamour of swordplay; or a twelfth might be attracted to the charm of hearing a harpist in the hall singing the ancient lays of heroes of yore rather than rock&shriek  music “Yeah, yeah, yeah” over a tinny transistor radio.

And the list goes on.

Of these things, some might admire some things about the past and detest others.Your ‘yore’ is not necessarily the same as my ‘yore.’

Some of the things on this list really were better in the old days, and some only are romantic nostalgia. But real or imaginary, that is the appeal.

And more than all of this, the fan of High Fantasy regrets the loss of magic in the world.

People used to believe in wizards and saints, witches and good fairies, or at least some people did or said they did. (Skepticism was not unknown then, as ancient writings will attest.) Now, in real life, if you time traveled back into the land of yore, you might find charlatans as convincing as Uri Geller, and witches no different from Lucrezia Borgia whose ‘magic’ consisted of poisoning people. But the allure and appeal of fairytale magicians is that we here in this world don’t have magic ( or at least you agnostics don’t).

My point is you don’t have to believe in any of this stuff to enjoy the book, and you don’t have to want to be one of Conan’s corsairs sweating at the oar or a serf living in Ithilien under the kindly bootheel of King Aragorn Elessar Telcontar to enjoy the yarns of his exploits.  But you do have to sympathize with the nostalgia of it.

I keep using the word ‘nostalgia’ — but this word is misleading, since the past we are glamorizing is not the real past.

I should hasten to add that Sword and Sorcery, or low fantasy, has less glamor because its glamor is a darker hue.  Call it blue collar glamor if you like, stories not about epic quests but about pirates and barbarians and footpads.

To use a military SF analogy, GRAY LENSMAN stars more admirals and generals than it does footsoldiers, and it concerns itself with the big picture of the intergalactic war. We never find out the fate of the gun-crew of the number 13 heavy-bore DeLamiter ray-cannon serving aboard the Brittania during the battle of Klovis. By contrast,  STARSHIP TROOPERS concerns one footslogger who never makes it past First Lieutenant, and neither the causes nor the resolution of the war is on stage, nor anything about the big picture. We do not even know, to this day, if the Klendathau or the Humans win that war.

The Lensman are like a High Fantasy figures, by whose hand Sauron of Eddore and the Dark Galaxy of Mordor is obliterated. Mr Rico is more like Solomon Kane or the Gray Mouser, a man who fights the battle in front of him. No dark thrones fall.

In either case, high fantasy or low, the past in fantasy stories is never the real past. The whole innovation of William Morris, who basically invented modern fantasy, was that the tales of yore took place beyond the fields we know, somewhere off the edge of the map even though we now live in a world whose every land from pole to pole has been mapped.

These are not historical novels. Some of them of not placed on Earth at all, but an air of the familiar and half-remembered things hangs over them alongside the air of strangeness and mystery.

Even when the world is utterly fantastic, as for example the lands about the seas of Melnibone or Lankhmar, or utterly strange, as the years beyond the Tragic Millennium when Hawkmoon and Count Brass dwell, or the years of the Dying Earth when Cugel the Clever or the Dying Urth when Severian the Lame have their lives, or the years after the death of Earth, where the Last Redoubt rises beneath a sky that long ago forgot it sun, and Mirdath the Beautiful dwells far across the volcanic crater-scape of the night lands draped in dark influences from aspects of reality unknown to sunlit worlds, yes, even in such worlds as these, the props and backdrops and tropes of our earthly past will make an appearance, if indeed the tale is to be considered fantasy and not science fiction: even if they are strange in appearance, or haunted, it is yet swords or battleaxes our heroes wield, and their arms and armor, their titles and dignities and names, will remind the reader of past things of history: this is why Count Brass is a count and not a congressman. This is why Stormbringer is a sword no less than Terminus Est.

Even if the tales take place on Earth, such as the adventures of Solomon Kane, Puritan, or Conan the Barbarian, they take place in some corner of time where things that do not happen now happened then, and if it is not off the edge of the map, it is somewhere in the blank pages before the first chapter of the history book:

The white gulls wheeled above the cliffs, the air was slashed with foam,
The long tides moaned along the strand when Solomon Kane came home.
He walked in silence strange and dazed through the little Devon town,
His gaze, like a ghost’s come back to life, roamed up the streets and down.
The people followed wonderingly to mark his spectral stare,
And in the tavern silently they thronged about him there.

He heard as a man hears in a dream the worn old rafters creak,
And Solomon lifted his drinking-jack and spoke as a ghost might speak:
“There sat Sir Richard Grenville once; in smoke and flame he passed.
“And we were one to fifty-three, but we gave them blast for blast.

“From crimson dawn to crimson dawn, we held the Dons at bay.
“The dead lay littered on our decks, our masts were shot away.
“We beat them back with broken blades, till crimsom ran the tide;
“Death thundered in the cannon smoke when Richard Grenville died.

“We should have blown her hull apart and sunk beneath the Main.”
The people saw upon his wrist the scars of the racks of Spain.

“Where is Bess?” said Solomon Kane. “Woe that I caused her tears.”
“In the quiet churchyard by the sea she has slept these seven years.”
The sea-wind moaned at the window-pane, and Solomon bowed his head.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and the fairest fade,” he said.

His eyes were mytical deep pools that drowned unearthly things,
And Solomon lifted up his head and spoke of his wanderings.
“Mine eyes have looked on sorcery in dark and naked lands,
“Horror born of the jungle gloom and death on the pathless sands.
“And I have known a deathless queen in a city old as Death,
“Where towering pyramids of skulls her glory witnesseth.
“Her kiss was like an adder’s fang, with the sweetness Lilith had,
“And her red-eyed vassals howled for blood in that City of the Mad.

“And I have slain a vampire shape that drank a black king white,
“And I have roamed through grisly hills where dead men walked at night.
“And I have seen heads fall like fruit in a slaver’s barracoon,
“And I have seen winged demons fly all naked in the moon.
“My feet are weary of wandering and age comes on apace;
“I fain would dwell in Devon now, forever in my place.”

The howling of the ocean pack came whistling down the gale,
And Solomon Kane threw up his head like a hound that sniffs the trail.
A-down the wind like a running pack the hounds of the ocean bayed,
And Solomon Kane rose up again and girt his Spanish blade.

In his strange cold eyes a vagrant gleam grew wayward and blind and bright,
And Solomon put the people by and went into the night.
A wild moon rode the wild white clouds, the waves in white crests flowed,
When Solomon Kane went forth again and no man knew his road.
They glimpsed him etched against the moon, where clouds on hilltop thinned;
They heard an eery echoed call that whistled down the wind.

Our world may have white gulls and Spanish Dons, but once we are facing vampire-queens of Atlantis, we have, without knowing it, stepped into a stranger and darker world than ours, even if that world, in her madness, still thinks she is our Earth.

Can one feel nostalgia for a past that never was? Ah, to a degree all nostalgia is fairy glamor for pasts that never were, made golden by the alchemy of memory.

Is there something unwholesome or dangerous in this glamor? Should sober men dwell in their thoughts on worlds that might have been and never were? Again, all elfin glamor has some danger to it. Not for nothing do the fairy queens and all their chivalry and vassals otherworldly live in what we mortals call the Perilous Realm.