What is it that sets this book apart from virtually everything else you’ve read and every television show and movie you’ve watched besides…?
Well there’s plenty, really. And I do like that they’re are plenty of warrior women here– warrior women that we’ve been told time and again shouldn’t be in the pages of a battered old pulp novel such as this. And I like it even better that they play their parts sensibly, staying out of melee range while firing volleys of arrows. Not one of them says something snarky or sassy. Not one of them turns down a suitor. Not one of them announces her independence from biology or convention or tradition or nature. Not one rolls her eyes. Not one issues some sort of withering sarcasm toward a mate or an admirer. Not one kicks some oafish twerp in the privates for comic relief. Not one judo flips a man to his death just as an admirer is about to arrive to rescue her. Not one turns down any such offer of assistance while in the midst of a harrying press of fisticuffs.
But that’s not the thing that makes this so inspiring, though it is devoid of the sort of casual sexism that saturates virtually everything these days.
Seriously, though, just look at this:
“And I remember now,” it was Gigi, dropping back to his first thought, “that when I dragged you up the side of Klaneth’s cabin that day you fought his priests, you still bled from the bites of Sharane’s girls. Yet with us there had been time and time again for them to have healed, And here you are once more with old wounds fresh. It must be a strange place indeed, that you go to, Wolf, is there no time there?”
“It is your own world,” he answered. “The world from whence all of you came.”
That’s nice trick there: to the people of this Elfland, it’s the real world that seems timeless!
Yes, the man with the title of “Lord of Fantasy” made trumping Dunsany look like a breeze. And we’ve already seen how a stray paragraph from this book inspired an a complete science fantasy novel by de Camp and Pratt. My question at this point is… how much are passages like this responsible for bringing Prince Caspian and the other books in the chronicles of Narnia to fruition…? Or is it just too out there to wonder if C. S. Lewis read the guy that was even bigger in his day than George R. R. Martin is today…?
Never mind that, feast your eyes on this:
Past him walked Assyrians, men of Nineveh and Babylon with curled heads and ringleted beards; hook-nosed, fierce-eyed Phoenicians; sloe-eyed, muslin-skirted Egyptians; Ethiopians with great golden circles in their ears, almond-lidded, smiling yellow men. Soldiers in cuirasses of linked mail, archers with quivers on back and bows in hand strode by; priests in robes of black and crimson and blue. There stood in front of him for an instant a ruddy-skinned, smooth-muscled warrior who carried upon one shoulder the double-bladed ax of ancient Crete. Over his other shoulder lay the white arm of a sandalled woman in oddly modern pleated and patterned skirt, snake-girdled and with high, white breasts peeping from her opened and as oddly modern blouse. A Minoan and his mate he knew the pair to be, two who had perhaps watched youths and maids who were Athen’s tribute to the Minotaur go through the door of the labyrinth to the lair where the monstrous man-bull awaited them.
And there went a cuirassed Roman, gripping a short sword of bronze that might have helped cut out the paths the first Caesar trod. Behind him strode a giant Gaul with twisted locks and eyes as coldly blue as Sigurd’s own.
Up and down along the center of the thoroughfare rode men and women in litters borne on the shoulders of slaves. His eyes followed a Grecian girl, long limbed and lithe, with hair as yellow as the ripened wheat. They followed, too, a hot-eyed Carthaginian lovely enough to be a bride of Baal who leaned over the side of her litter and smiled at him.
What you’re reading there is not just the words of someone familiar with the peoples of the ancient world. They’re the words of someone that actually loves them.
You don’t see that today. You really don’t. The reason for that is that when people have imbibed the axioms of glorious progress, they cease to admire anyone in the past. Any mention of them is liable to be drenched in a combination of contempt and condescension. If they’re brought up at all, it is typically just as an object lesson in how superior this generation of sixty-seven genders is in every conceivable way. Merritt writes the exact opposite of that sort of thing. And just like Poul Anderson after him, he’s capable of conveying just how impoverished our existence really is in comparison:
“And none now go viking!” mused Sigurd. “Clearly then I see that there is no place for me there. Best for Sigurd, Trygg’s son, to end his days where he is.”
The Persian nodded.
“And no place for me,” he echoed. “For a man of taste such as I, it seems no world at all to live in, I like not your way of waging wars. nor could I learn to like it–I who seem to be a soldier of an old, old school, indeed.”
Even Gigi was doubtful.
“I do not think I would care for it,” he said. “The customs seem so different. And I notice, Wolf, that you were willing to risk chains and death to get out of that world–and lose no time getting back to this.”
Who could blame him?