Monday, March 16, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Tros of Samothrace

While very few people remember him today, the Englishman William Gribbon, who used the pseudonym Talbot Mundy, was one of the most successful and well regarded pulp writers of the 1920s. His stories appeared in many places, including Adventure magazine. It was in the pages of Adventure that Mundy introduced the world to his greatest creation, Tros of Samothrace, a Greek rebel living in the time of Julius Caesar. More than that, he was a swashbuckling adventurer and initiate into a mystery cult, who traveled the Ancient World, fighting against the tyranny of Rome while aiding peoples crushed beneath its iron-shod sandals. Tros is also a peerless sailor and dreams of one day sailing around the world, seeking both excitement and freedom from Roman domination. Consequently, the stories of Tros see him travel the length and breadth of the Mediterranean world, giving Munday the opportunity to show off a wide variety of locations, cultures, and historical events.

In 1934, the publishing house Appleton-Century collected nine Tros novellas together under a single cover and released it. This same collection was re-released in 1958 by Gnome Press and, through this edition, many future fantasy and science fiction writers were first exposed to these well-written stories of historical fantasy. Mundy was a very talented writer, far better than many of his contemporaries, particularly when it came to characterization. His characters have a depth that is usually lacking in pulp fantasy. Likewise, the details of the Ancient World are presented in a way that, while not always historically accurate, nevertheless provide a verisimilitude that nicely grounds them in reality, thereby making some of the stories' more outlandish elements easier to accept. Of course, the adventures of Tros are broadly "realistic" anyway, so it's not much of a stretch. Still, it's hard not to appreciate Mundy's facility with his material; these stories are a lot of fun and good inspiration for players and referees alike.

(Tros of Samothrace is also one of several books that might have inspired the D&D druid class, since Tros makes common cause with the druids in his battle against Rome)

22 comments:

  1. Oh very cool. Never heard of these stories before. They sound great. I'll add them to my list. Thanks!

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  2. You know, you spend a lot of my money haunting used book stores (online and physical) as well as eBay.

    I hope you're getting kick-backs :)

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  3. Thanks so much for the recommendation. I have often thought of running a D&D game set in Roman Europe. This book will be full of ideas for how to go about doing that.

    I found a 1st edition, 3rd printing on eBay in very good condition for a great price (by comparison to the antiquarian book seller sites).

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  4. Just stumbled over "Avenging Liafail" -- if books were cats, I reckon being a "hoarder" would be the least of my problems.

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  5. Tros is superb, but be prepared for a lot of reading - it is 1000 pages of adventure, after all.

    It is interesting that the novel was one of the first in historical fiction to cast Caesar and the Roman Empire in a massively negative light; instead of a hero, he is depicted as monstrous and inhuman, and his empire as a destroyer of the Mediterranean's original cultures. Mundy himself drew attention to parallels between his Caesar and the likes of Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini. This depiction did not go so well with all readers, and supposedly, a multi-year flamewar erupted over the right to say not-so-nice things about Mr. Caesar - with multiple historians chiming in, the final verdict seems to have fallen in Mundy's favour. It is to his credit, though, that even Caesar is a likeable villain, with a terrific "stage presence" and a divine fate... while Tros is a true Odysean hero, winning more through his wits than his might (as in the terrific conclusion, which I will not spoil - let's just say it's an absolute classic).

    Some of Mundy's other works are also recommendable: particularly King -- of the Khyber Rifles, whose depiction of the massive bandit-infested caverns under Afghanistan are also good inspiration for gaming, and whose villainess, the seductive and devious Yasmini, is not just another classical (and this time more sympathetic) antagonist, but also the precursor to REH's Yasmina of Vendhya, from People of the Black Circle.

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  6. Great recommendation. I've been "pushing" Tros books on people for years. I fimrly believe that this series would make an awesome series of movies. I would characterize them as "high end" pulp...well written, wildly entertaining, and packed with all sorts of good D&D-esque things.

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  7. Okay ... now tell us how to find it, or you're just a tease. :)

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  8. I got mine from eBay. It usually goes for a horrendously high price (escept the original version, which goes for even more horrendous collector prices). Still, not a bad investment.

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  9. I hope you're getting kick-backs :)

    How I wish I were. Be nice to make some money from this blog :)

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  10. I would characterize them as "high end" pulp...well written, wildly entertaining, and packed with all sorts of good D&D-esque things.

    Absolutely. Mundy is a cut above most of his contemporaries.

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  11. It is interesting that the novel was one of the first in historical fiction to cast Caesar and the Roman Empire in a massively negative light; instead of a hero, he is depicted as monstrous and inhuman, and his empire as a destroyer of the Mediterranean's original cultures. Mundy himself drew attention to parallels between his Caesar and the likes of Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini.

    Oh yes. Mundy's Romans are proto-totalitarians and his Caesar, though likable in many ways, is nevertheless a monster.

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  12. It looks like this book has (in addition to being available in a single, 1,000-page tome) been published in a series of paperbacks. Can anyone with the 1,000-page tome post its ISBN?

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  13. Amazon lists a 2008 paperback printing of this book for $22.76 under the ISBN 1596542594. I haven't read the original or this one, but it might be cheaper for the reprint than finding used copies.

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  14. Melan wrote:

    It is interesting that the novel was one of the first in historical fiction to cast Caesar and the Roman Empire in a massively negative light; instead of a hero, he is depicted as monstrous and inhuman, and his empire as a destroyer of the Mediterranean's original cultures.

    I find this bit very intriguing. Using this as a major theme in a D&D campaign would give it a very Starwars feel.

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  15. I've seen the paperbacks many times at reasonable prices in used book stores. The whole history of all the versions published is somewhat confusing, as there are a variety of editions, all contradictory. However, I would suggest either going for the one on Amazon or, if you want to try the used book route, the 4-volume Avon series (Tros, Helma, Liafail, and Helene) then tack on Queen Cleopatra and The Purple Pirate to get the full story.

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  16. There is a review article on Amazon that explains all the different editions (how the stories were bundled together, split up and bundled back together again in different volumes.

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  17. Cool. This gave me a few minutes of web-surfing. I'll keep a look out for his stuff when I'm next near some 2nd hand book shops.

    Have you read Norman Spinrad's "The Druid King"? Sounds like it would be in a similar vein except maybe with a more modern sensibility.

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  18. I would be careful with the earlier paperbacks. They are said to have been handled in a very cavalier way - on the other hand, the new paperback seems all right, although reading 686-page monstrosities can be hard on your hands...

    Also, on the Amazon page, you will see recommendations pointing to Harold Lamb's four-volume Cossack tales. This is no accident; Lamb gives Mundy a very good run for his money (or may actually be the better one - although it would be a hard choice to make). If you like REH... you owe yourself to read the tales REH was getting his motifs from. Lamb is very, very good, and his main protagonist, the aging, illiterate Cossack Khlit, is simply one of the most likeable characters in pulp fiction.

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  19. Here is my review of the first volume, for what it's worth: http://www.amazon.com/review/R3B9HODCOU59VW/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

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  20. Have you read Norman Spinrad's "The Druid King"? Sounds like it would be in a similar vein except maybe with a more modern sensibility.

    I have not. I must confess to not having read much of Spinrad.

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  21. I am re reading Tros for the first time in 35 years.

    Discovered him while in junior high.

    He was instrumental in establishing my love for aphorisms which took me to Nietzsche and a philosophy degree.

    I am amazed by how much of my character is revealed to me to have been influenced by this character.

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  22. My mother worked at the LaJolla Theosophical Institute founded by Madame Blavatsky; Talbot Munday lived at the Institute for several years while writing such books as "Black Light". Almost ALL of TM's novels are listed on the Project Gutenberg web site, and to be certain, i have downloaded ALL of them to my Nook. I also have a complete set of TM's works in First Editions with dust covers, willed to me by my mother. I've been a TM addict since junior high school. But, be warned, once you start reading him and Harold Lamb, you will be hooked -- like Heroin on your first shot.

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