Monday, October 24, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Durandal

On the one hand, it's mildly encouraging to ponder that, in 100 years time, some currently fashionable writer I can't stand won't even register with the readers of 2111 (assuming there are any). On the other hand, it's equally disappointing to consider that authors who were highly regarded in the past are often unknown today. A good case in point is Harold Lamb, a multi-lingual American pulp writer with a keen interest in the cultures and histories of Asia.

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.


  1. Harold Lamb was a genius!

    I think he uses a lot of techniques that work well in roleplaying. For example, he's always specific. These aren't just Generic Bandits, they are warriors of the such and such tribe, trying to prove their manhood.

    Also, every single relationship is defined by conflict.

  2. I must confess I wouldn't have heard about Lamb if I hadn't played Marathon 2: Durnadal.

  3. I'm slowly working through the first volume of Lamb's "Cossack" stories, _Wolf of the Steppes_, edited by Howard Andrew Jones (also the author of _The Desert of Souls_.) Wonderful stuff, and I've been told I haven't even hit the best stories yet.

    zornhau, that's a good point about the characters always having specific origins and cultures. And I'm not sure I've met any "bad guys" yet, although there are characters who are cruel or who have lost their perspective out of desire for revenge.

  4. Robert E. Howard apparently read and enjoyed Lamb, and I would be more than happy to have a chance to do the same!

  5. Sounds like something to look out for. :D

  6. Love your pulp-related informative posts. I sent you an email about where to get up to speed then realized a post here was probably more in order. Anyone have a suggestion for where I can get some public domain pulp magazines online to get me started? Thanks in advance!

  7. How are his historical biographies? I've wanted to read a few of them but haven't gotten around to it yet.

  8. Some of his historical biographies are great -- they're what got me interested in Lamb in the first place. Try Hannibal, or Tamerlane... but better is March of the Barbarians, his history of the Mongol empire. His two volume history of The Crusades is excellent as well.

    Some of the later bios are odd combinations of biography and historical fiction and don't work as well -- Alexander -- and some that libraries shelve as bios actually ARE historical fiction, like Nur Mahal and Omar Khayyam. Both the last are fun reads, but not quite as good as the fiction that originally appeared in the pulps.