Monday, October 24, 2011
Over the course of a writing career that spanned a half a century, Lamb wrote many short stories and novels, in addition to working with Cecil B. DeMille as an advisor and screenwriter for several historical films. Lamb's stories usually took place in Asia, often with Asian protagonists from lands as diverse as Mongolia, India, and Aghanistan. This is in addition to his Cossack stories that take place on the Asian steppes in the 16th and 17th centuries, which were among the best known in his lifetime and highly influential on other writers. He also wrote a number of tales set during the Crusades and these, too, were influential, particularly on Robert E. Howard, whose Cormac Fitzgeoffrey stories owe a lot to them.
"Durandal" is an example of one story set during the Crusades. Originally published in the September 26, 1926 issue of Adventure, it introduces the reader to Sir Hugh of Taranto, a Frankish knight fighting against the Turks in support of the Byzantine emperor. While fighting at Antioch, however, the Franks are betrayed by the Byzantines, resulting in a slaughter that leaves only Sir Hugh alive, thanks to the intervention of a mysterious warrior. This warrior not only saves the Frank's life, he also gives to him a sword with which to defend himself -- none other than Durandal, the unbreakable sword of Roland, the paladin who once serve Charlemagne and was himself betrayed by an ally while fighting against Saracens in Spain. Sir Hugh vows to avenge himself and his comrades on the Byzantines, some of whom are pursuing him in an effort to ensure that word of their emperor's treachery is never revealed.
"Durandal" was joined to two other short stories about Sir Hugh, along with new linking material, in a 1931 fix-up novel also called Durandal. Regardless of the version, Lamb is a joy to read. His characters are not caricatures, even the antagonists and his knowledge of and love for history comes through quite clearly. That said, "Durendal," like nearly all of Lamb's stories, is not a product of a cynical age. Instead, it lauds honor, nobility, and courage in the best tradition of heroic literature, making it an excellent "palate cleanser" after a regular diet of more roguish pulp fantasies.