Monday, July 30, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tale of Hauk

For reasons I've never quite been able to ascertain, Gary Gygax singles out the third volume of the Andrew J. Offutt-edited anthology series, Swords Against Darkness, for special mention in Appendix N to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. This isn't to say that Swords Against Darkness III isn't worthy of inclusion -- it includes stories by Ramsey Campbell, Tanith Lee, and Manly Wade Wellman, not to mention Poul Anderson's essay "On Thud and Blunder," which ought to be enough to qualify it by almost any standard -- but I can't help but wonder what it was that made it so memorable to Gygax. I say this because the first volume, published in 1977, contains a similar lineup of authors and is, to my mind, just as good as (or at least no worse than) its successor.

A good case in point is Poul Anderson's "The Tale of Hauk," a short story based on Scandinavian legend. The titular hero, Hauk Geirolfsson, is a "chapman" -- a trader -- who has traveled far and wide beyond the northern lands of his birth. Hauk is often gone for years, visiting places and seeing things of which his people have never dreamed. Despite this, his father does not think especially well of him, seeing trading as no profession for a Norseman. At one point, a female friend of Hauk asks him about his manner of life.
"So you grow mighty as a chapman, Hauk," Alfhild teased. "Have you never gone in viking ... only once, only to please your father?"

"No," he answered gravely. " I fail to see what manliness lies in falling on those too weak to defend themselves. We traders must be stronger and more war-skilled than any who seek to plunder us." A thick branch of driftwood, bleached and hardened, lay nearby. Hauk picked it up and snapped it between his hands. Two other men would have had trouble doing that. It gladdened him to see Alfhild glow at the sight. "Nobody has tried us twice," he said.
Anderson thus makes it clear that, while Hauk is unlike others of his people, he is still a stout warrior and a brave one, too, having faced more than bandits in the course of his many travels. Geirolf, his father, is now an old man who can no longer go viking, as he once did. Embittered, angry, and fearing "straw-death" -- death in his bed rather than in battle -- he has taken to insulting and challenging all whom he meets, in hopes of rousing them to strike and kill him. He does this repeatedly to Hauk, but his son ignores his affronts.

While away on yet another journey, Hauk's father dies in his bed. Because of his manner of death, Geirolf cannot be buried in his ship, but is instead placed in an ordinary earthen grave. This does not sit well with his spirit, which rises as a "drow" and begins to wreak havoc on his people. When Hauk returns, his family and friends turn to him, assuming that, in his travels, he might have learned of a means to deal with such a threat. "I am no wizard," he replies. "If the gods themselves would not lay this ghost what can I do?" The remainder of the story deals with that question and how Hauk decides to answer it.

Poul Anderson is one of my favorite authors, so my judgment when it comes to his work is likely impaired. Nonetheless, I don't think I exaggerate when I say that "The Tale of Hauk" is one of his best short works of fantasy, not so much for its story -- though its story is quite compelling -- but for its use of language. Among Anderson's many interests was what English might sound like bereft of its non-Germanic word borrowings, culminating in his 1989 essay on atomic theory called "Uncleftish Beholding."  "The Tale of Hauk," though from an earlier date, was written in a similar vein and, rather than being whimsical, the style suits it perfectly, making it at once easily readable but also evocative of another time and place. As Offutt says in his own introduction to the piece:
If the language of this story isn't the way scholars think the tales of Scandinavia should be translated -- they're wrong. If you don't promptly fall in love with the language -- you're wrong.
That may be a bit strong of a sentiment, though only a bit. For myself, I adore the way Anderson tells this tale; his use of largely "Anglo-Saxon" words lends it a unique sound and rhythm that, along with its story of filial piety and a society in transition, makes it well worth a read.

10 comments:

  1. Fletcher VredenburghJuly 30, 2012 at 12:33 AM

    Great, brutal story from a great writer.

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  2. Wow, its been a long time since I read that story, probably when the book was new, but your recounting brings it back.

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  3. Fun fact: Tanith Lee wrote the screenplay for a 3rd-season episode of Blake's 7.

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  4. Poul was never one of my favorites, but not one of my least favorites either. I enjoyed "Three Hearts and Three Lions," "The Broken Sword" and "Conan the Rebel," but was never a big fan of Science Fiction and thus many of his works have gone "unread" by me.

    I'm also unfamiliar with the story you've introduced me to here, but I'll certainly have to give it a read. Thanks!

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  5. I’m guessing Gary just happened to own Swords Against Darkness III, and not the other ones.

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  6. Falconer took the words out of my mouth. :)

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  7. I first read this a few years ago. I think it's one of Anderson's best. Not only a fine piece of writing, but it has a level of depth often not found in "sword and sorcery." The story is, on one level, about a man trying to get out from under the shadow of his father and become his own person. Excellent.

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  8. "Hauk" is a great one.
    I have not read most of the "Swords against darkness" anthologies, but recall that the preface or introduction to volume 4 mentioned that the prior volume was extremely dark and doom-laden. Could that be what EGG liked about it? :) I'd guess it's Thud & Blunder though -- it has some useful stuff for DMs I thought.

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  9. Poul Anderson's fantasy is unfairly eclipsed by his science fiction, but is much better, imho... His "The Broken Sword" gets my vote for being one of the best fantasy novels ever, right up there with JRRT and GRRM, but far less better known... it would make an awesome movie!! And yes, Tale of Hauk was fabulous both as a story and as an example of a fantasy-friendly writing style... I still miss PA.

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  10. After reading this, I ran across the Tale of Hauk in the "Sword and Sorcery" compilation edited by David Hartwell and Jacob Weismann and widely available now ( (c) 2012, published in May). I got this for that story, so "Hooray, Luck!"

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