Stan Nicholls looks at David Gemmell’s motivations during writing his first eight books.
If science fiction can be characterised as the literature of ideas – a genre essentially cerebral in nature – then fantasy (and to some extent horror) can be characterised as literature concerned with emotions.
This is gross simplification, of course, and a calumny on the many SF writers who have supplanted cardboard cut-outs with rounded characters, and defied the clichés of hardware and chauvinism that traditionally bedevilled the field. And admittedly it is a generalisation that only holds true when rigidly applying Sturgeon’s Law. But if the best science fiction inspires a sense of wonder, then the best fantasy inspires a genuine involvement with its protagonists.
At their finest, David Gemmell’s novels do just that. They also convey a curiously uplifting quality which transcends their subject matter, largely as a result of the presentation of characters with frailties, and occasionally less than courageous impulses. Typically, his heroes are ordinary people confronting extraordinary situations; a running theme is that of men and women of goodwill coming to the realisation that they can have an impact on the tide of events.
On one level his books are about the nature of friendship, love, growing up, and accepting responsibilities – topics not readily associated with sword-and-sorcery adventures, and usually guaranteed to have me reaching for something else to read. If I don’t, it is because these concerns are handled with an absence of the tweeness and tooth-rotting sentimentality that can plague novelists whose self-imposed brief is simply to entertain. More to the point, a great number of other people seem to feel the same way – with eight published novels to his credit at time of writing, Gemmell is among the top five best-selling fantasy authors in this country.
Born in 1948, in West London, David Gemmell worked for over twenty years as a journalist with provincial and national newspapers before turning to fiction. His transition to novelist came about as the result of a personal, potentially tragic, crisis.
In 1976, passing blood and losing weight, he was told he might have cancer. While waiting for test results, his wife persuaded him to distract himself by writing a piece of fiction, and in just two weeks he hammered out a novel, The Siege of Dros Delnoch. This had a diverse group of heroes, led by ageing fighter Druss, coming together to defend the last stronghold of the Drenai empire against an enemy called the Nadir.
Not immediately realising that what he had written basically symbolised his own situation (he was the fortress and the Nadir the point of greatest hopelessness represented by the cancer) he nevertheless left the ending open; if he had cancer Dros Delnoch would fall, if he didn’t it would survive. In the event, he turned out to be suffering from the recurrence of an old kidney injury, sustained some years earlier when he was badly beaten-up in the course of his work as a journalist.
The book was forgotten for some time. Then a friend read the manuscript, recognised its potential, and suggested Gemmell rewrite it. Following a year of revision, and retitled Legend, it was accepted by Century Hutchinson (now Random Century) in late 1982.
There were two main influences on Legend. The basic plot was based on the siege of the Alamo – reflecting Gemmell’s fascination with the American old West – or rather the Alamo story as it should have been. When he first read about it, he was impressed by the heroism of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and the rest, but subsequent research revealed the story as largely myth. Most of the participants were self-seeking, if undoubtedly brave, and didn’t expect to die; the management of the defence was inept and shambolic. So Gemmell’s aim with Legend was to embody the perceived spirit of the Alamo.
The second influence centres around the patriarchal figure of Druss, to whom the book’s title partly refers. Druss is a legendary warrior fighting his greatest campaign; the battle against time and his own waning powers, which was to become a recurring theme in Gemmell’s later work. The interesting thing about the character, who comes over as fundamentally more likeable, and certainly more believable, than the average fantasy hero, is that he was modelled on the author’s stepfather.
Gemmell was brought up in a very violent part of London, and has around a hundred and twenty stitches on his body from fights as a child to prove it. When his stepfather (whom he describes as “a natural man of action”) came into his young world the only thing he insisted on was that the boy learn to box in order to defend himself. He did learn, but being up to then a rather bookish child, and a bit of a loner, he never came to really enjoy it. The important point is that this powerful man, whose attitude to problems was to meet them head-on, would seem to have had a profound and lasting effect on Gemmell’s subsequent career as a novelist. Legend has a pantheon of youthful heroes supporting Druss, but there is no doubt he is the principal player. To engage the reader’s empathy with him to the extent it does – to be audacious enough to present an old man as the central character in the first place – is a not inconsiderable achievement in itself.
Characterisation is arguably Gemmell’s greatest strength as a writer, and one thing Legend taught him was to take his characters from life; his upbringing among some tough people, and those years as a journalist, provided a good stock to draw from. And he also did something in Legend usually regarded as a common first-novel fault, but which actually worked quite well in this case: he based one of the characters, Rek, on himself.
Rek, a cautious individual bordering on timidity, starts out as someone more concerned with avoiding any sort of violence than indulging in heroics. Initially, he was also something of a poseur. In 1988, Gemmell commented, “He was more interested in whether his cloak was draped over his saddle correctly than getting involved in any problems. That was me.” Rek, like his creator, overcame his doubts about himself through being forced into violent confrontations, and because of the influence of his lover, Virae. Gemmell is on record as saying that the inspiration for Virae was his wife, Val.
Legend is a somewhat raw book, and suffers from first-novel crudities, not least a weakness of structure, and dialogue that occasionally looks mannered. But there is no denying its power, compulsive pace and mythic quality.
After Legend, he wrote a book called The Chaos Warrior, which was the life story of Druss. The publisher turned it down, saying Druss was interesting in Legend because he was old and fading, and therefore sympathetic; but when he was young, what was he but another Conan? 120,000 wasted words the wiser, he scrapped the novel and wrote another, The King Beyond The Gate. This was rejected too. Gemmell was experiencing the “second-novel syndrome,” a fairly common complaint for writers who can lose their way following the success of an initial effort; and his publishers expressed the fear that he might be a one-book author.
He asked them if there was anything at all they liked about the book, and they said, “The title.” To his credit, he took advice from them and wrote King Beyond The Gate Mark II. But by this time his deadline was looming, and he had to rush it, and subsequently came to consider it the least satisfying of his novels. I think this is a slightly harsh assessment. The book is less entertaining than Legend, but it has undeniable values. It also perpetuated and refined some of the themes established in the previous work.
The King Beyond The Gate is, loosely, a sequel to Legend, set a hundred years after the events in that book. The hero is Tenaka Khan, the Prince of Shadows, who is widely despised for his mixture of Drenai and Nadir blood. Like many of Gemmell’s heroes Khan is a loner. Pragmatic, even defeatist, about the part he can play in great historic events, he finally prevails after joining forces with other like-minded individuals. As before, we have the concept of strength in unity; but also an implication that fate – or a deity – is as much a motivating force as free will.
The menace directed at the Drenai people is represented by mad Emperor Ceska, a puppet despot manipulated by two evil groupings, the Joinings and the Dark Templars. The Joinings are werebeasts, the Templars a satanic sect of supposedly unbeatable warrior priests. Another group, the Dragon – officially disbanded fifteen years before and whose survivors are beyond their prime (the tyranny of Time again) – is the nexus for the forces of Order. These elements further develop two other motifs seeded in Legend – the complex nature of Gemmell’s villains, and elite groups.
The villain of Legend, Ulric, has a certain nobility, and is almost sympathetic; Ceska is a portrait of a weak man driven by demons. Gemmell’s intention is to avoid the tendency in fantasy to make the villains totally black. His feeling is that so many become caricatures of villainy and lose their credibility. He once explained this by citing the example of Herman Goering. While not questioning or denying the inherent evil of the Nazi leader, he pointed out that he ran great risks by obtaining exit visas for his second wife’s Jewish friends, and was one of the few in Hitler’s circle to confront him with complaints about the concentration camps. Gemmell’s point was that once you looked beyond superficialities, Goering was revealed as a human being, albeit a deeply flawed one. His belief is that no one is ever completely evil, and in giving his villains some redeeming features it not only throws their bad aspects into relief, but also makes them more credible.
The interest in elite groups, apart from their usefulness as plot devices in this branch of fiction, stemmed from a childhood in which Gemmell belonged to none of the gangs prevalent in his neighbourhood, and dreamed of having lots of friends. In addition to this, during his time as a journalist he interviewed men from elite regiments, like the SAS, and noted how in their 60s and 70s they still attended reunions and displayed pride at having been part of such exclusive cliques. This group psychology, the discipline and camaraderie, came to fascinate him.
If The King Beyond The Gate marked time to some extent, Waylander saw the author well into his stride. The third of the Drenai Saga (a somewhat arbitrary label as, like all of his novels, it can be read in isolation), Waylander is a classic quest story. Following the assassination of the Drenai king, an enemy army, the Vagrians, invade Drenai territory intent on total genocide. Waylander the Slayer, the archetypal lone hero by now a staple of Gemmell’s stories, is the only hope. To repel the invaders and redress the balance between Order and Chaos he has to travel into Nadir lands to find a legendary Armour of Bronze. The McGuffin is that Waylander, a skilled assassin, was the man who murdered the Drenai king.
Waylander was the point at which all the elements and themes originally touched upon in Legend started to come together in a totally coherent way. A series of climaxes are deftly spaced, dialogue rings truer, and the pace is well orchestrated. But it was his following book, Wolf In Shadow, that was to provide the first totally satisfying unity of content and style.
Wolf in Shadow (Jerusalem Man in the US), which in some ways resembles a conventional thriller in structure (a field Gemmell has expressed an interest in entering), is the first of another series, the Sipstrassi Tales, and the nearest he has come to writing science fiction. The setting is a post-catastrophe world three hundred years after a tilt in the Earth’s axis has wiped out civilization. Central character Jon Shannow, a tortured individual on a personal quest that could be termed spiritual, is peaceful in intent until his woman is taken for blood sacrifice by Abaddon, Lord of the Pit. Shannow becomes an avenger, facing black magic and an arsenal of weapons from the days before the Fall, wielded by Abaddon’s Hellborn army.
Considering the accomplishment of the result, it is interesting to discover that Gemmell felt deeply unhappy about the way Wolf in Shadow was going when he wrote it. At the time he had just lost his job – “axed in the back by people I trusted,” as he put it – and his mother was very ill, and subsequently died. Understandably, all this effected the tone of the book. The character of Jon Shannow became increasingly depressive, and Gemmell was too close to the novel to see that it was taking some spectacularly wrong turns. Always generous in acknowledging those who have helped him in his work, Gemmell credits Century editor Lisa Reeves with suggesting revisions which put it back on an even keel. Her main contribution was to suggest that he cut much of the science-fiction element and replace it with magic. “Suddenly everything channelled the right way,” he recalls; and he set to rewriting the second half. Subsequently it was the first of his books to be sold in the American market.
Ghost King, the second of the Sipstrassi Tales, published in 1988, takes place earlier than Wolf in Shadow; and while it contains magic and mysticism it is actually nearer to a straightforward historical romance (in the purest sense of the word) than fantasy. Indeed, by his own admission, Gemmell could have as easily been an historical novelist as a fabulist, and his books tend to contain more swords than sorcery. Legend originally had very little sorcery; when it came back for revisions the publisher asked for more magic, and the supernatural elements were grafted on at that stage.
The reason he does not write historical novels or biographies is because most of the things which intrigue him about history ended badly. An example is one of his great heroes, the 13th-century Scottish noble William Wallace, who raised a peasant army and drove the English out. The Scottish establishment of the time, realizing they were in danger of having a new order imposed which would erode their privileges, betrayed him. Wallace was taken to London and publicly executed. Fantasy allows Gemmell to create worlds where characters like Wallace are not betrayed, or survive and win if they are. An alternate-world version of the story of someone like Wallace is out because Gemmell recognizes science fiction isn’t his forte; and he is mindful that the amount of research needed to make such a setting credible could swamp the storytelling impetus.
While not pretending to historical accuracy, Ghost King nevertheless takes place against a background of cities and areas which actually existed in Roman Britain, and some of the characters are based on real people. He has gone back to the events which some historians believe may have been the origin for the Arthurian legends. One character, Cunobelin, was a warrior chieftain who reigned for forty years from his base at Camulodunum, and his exploits may well have come down to us as the story of King Arthur.
In a kind of reversal of Legend, the hero of Ghost King is a boy called Thurso, son of the High King Aurelius Maximus. (The suspicion is that Thurso, more interested in reading than fighting, is another incarnation of the author.) But he is aided in his battle against the machinations of the Witch Queen by Culain, elderly Lord of the Lance, a character whose mission becomes a race to impart wisdom to his young charge before death overtakes him. Obviously this is a variation on the story of Arthur and Merlin; confirmed when we learn of the existence of an Excalibur-like Sword of Power.
Ghost King is one of the more successful reworkings of a fairly well-mined area. It is a compelling and pacey action adventure with few pretensions beyond entertainment, and is no less impressive a piece of story-telling for that.
The third Sipstrassi Tale, Last Sword of Power, is set against the chaos following the Roman Empire’s decline. Free of occupation, Britannia faces a new threat from the Goths and their charismatic leader Wotan, an apparently unstoppable conqueror drawing his strength from the forces of evil. Roman-born Uther – the “Blood King” – and his alliance of British tribes may be the only one able to oppose Wotan. But Uther, despite his awesome reputation as a warrior chief and possession of a Sword of Power (we learn there is more than one) is, true to form, an old man, struggling to hold together the disparate elements of his kingdom.
The wild card is introduced in the figure of Revelation, who proves to be legendary man of arms Culain lach Feragh, who is said to be a survivor of the lost continent of Atlantis, and practitioner of a sorcery as potent as Wotan’s. Revelation befriends Cormac Daemonsson – a fourteen-year-old outcast found as a baby among a litter of black pups in a mountain cave – and blind sorceress Anduine, quarry of Wotan’s legions of men and demons.
An interesting counterpoint is that while Uther, like Druss in Legend, is desperate to hang on to life in order to achieve victory for his people, Revelation, an immortal, longs above all to drop the burden of longevity and meet his end as a human.
In my view, Last Sword of Power may be Gemmell’s best novel to date. The characters, as ever, are exemplary, the dilemmas they face are believable despite being fantastic, and there are some excellent action set-pieces. Which is not to take anything away from Knights of Dark Renown (1989) or his latest published book to date, The Last Guardian.
Knights of Dark Renown, a medieval fantasy unrelated to either the Drenai or Sipstrassi series, appears to be a one-off. A brotherhood of warriors, the Knights of the Gabala, whose duty is to protect the Nine Duchies, disappear through a portal into a kind of parallel world. But one, Manannan, obeys his instinct to stay behind. Inevitably, he becomes known as the Coward Knight for this apparently craven act, and is tortured by his conscience because of it. But when the Duchies are threatened by dark magic, Manannan is the only one to stand for them. The Last Guardian completes the saga of Jon Shannow, facing a reptilian army admitted to his present via a gateway to the past. Not the least of the appeal of these two novels lies in watching the continuing development of a fine gift for the telling of tales.
Gemmell’s plots may not be blindingly original, as I think he would be the first to agree, yet somehow the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. And there is that quality of uplift I mentioned at the start. if pushed to identify unifying factors in his work, beyond the purely thematic, I would say optimism and decency. These are moral tales, in the most acceptable sense of the word.
He contends his books have an essentially religious basis, although this is in no way intrusive, or particularly apparent on first reading. He is a Christian, with strong views on the subject, and would say, perhaps, that the qualities I have identified spring from that belief. (As a non-Christian, I might argue that the values put forward could as well be termed Humanistic, but that is beside the point.)
Whatever his source of inspiration, whatever light he may be following, I can only say that he has brought me to a renewed interest in a field – fantasy – which I have long considered moribund. But then that probably has more to do with Gemmell than the genre. What I do know is that he passes a fundamental test for successful fiction – almost always, the experience does not come to an end with the book.
(c) 1999 Stan Nicholls