Fanning the Ember

Our story, The Ember Inside for New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine (download it for free!), found itself an early critic:

2nd story was meh. Felt like a lecture disguised a story.

Is it a lecture? We’ll let you decide. Should Fantasy shun deeper meaning, or politics? Absolutely not. One of the old Lancer Conan books had this in its introduction: “In these stories, don’t look for any hidden meaning or philosophies,” and that’s become something of a gospel to some S&S readers. I think it was Dr Nicole Emmelhainz who offered the theory that it was a marketing ploy, in an era of political upheaval: “Rest assured, friend, there are no feminists or uppity Black people to be found!”

When you know a little bit about Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard, then you also know that his work was a reflection of and reaction to his own life and world. Scratch the surface of any of the great works of SFF literature, and you’ll find a deeper meaning, deeper concerns. Was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four not politically charged, and was his Animal Farm just about talking animals on a farm? Was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings not about his own changing world? And did Margaret Atwood pull her Handmaiden’s Tale out of thin air, while her Gilead becomes less and less fictional?

When invited to submit a story for New Edge we did what we often do, and had a look in our folder of ideas. This is where we dump any notions, ideas and outlines that come to us. Often, they’re incomplete, or have yet to gel. They may be as slight as a setting, or a theme, or a MacGuffin. (If you haven’t read The Ember Inside yet, you may want to do so before reading on – there be spoilers ahead!) From the folder, we picked this as a starting point:

Kaila and Ymke caught by sorcery, putting them to sleep and taking from them ‘that which they treasure deepest in their hearts’. They wake up, each years earlier, Ymke on the farm, Kaila on the road to the mountains. From there, the paths of their futures diverge. Ymke grows old on the farm, marrying the neighbour’s son; not loving him, but doing her duty still, giving him children that she loves, but cause her health to worsen. She stares out over the horizon, knowing she’s lost something, heart-broken her whole life.

…And from a “Poe, by way of Roger Corman” outline called House of Phantasmagorias:

Also – eyes in the walls, behind paintings. Artist has corridors behind the halls to spy on them. He’s without inspiration, and this is how he gets notes for new works: out of the imagination, the fear, of others.

We figured we could combine these bits into something that would work. In line with New Edge’s remit to evolve Sword & Sorcery into something more inclusive and diverse, we thought that Ymke’s foil would be a writer of ‘traditional’ S&S, who finds himself sidelined by progressive whippersnappers. This meant that we’d have to have an idea of what he writes. Beowulf immediately came to mind, and the word Berseker. This became Bersk, the bear-raised feral man, later renamed Bärsk because an ‘ä’ is even more metal. Our heroes Kaila and Sebastien would be fans of the blood and guts stories, while Ymke would have ‘higher’ literary standards. We then set ourselves to writing a bit of the tale, to form the intro to our own story. Out came Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and we wrote a paragraph, faithfully following Beowulf’s rhyme scheme and alliteration.

But what of Ymke’s alternate life? While we liked the idea, it felt as if Ymke meekly assented to her captivity. We were just starting to put the elements together when, in the USA, Roe vs. Wade was repealed, and with it the constitutional right to abortion. This caused a lot of upset and worry among many people we know, and we decided that this was the missing angle: the loss of bodily autonomy. We knew we were painting a picture of Ymke in what amount to a marital rape situation, where she must bear the children of a man she’d been wedded to for the sake of a land grab, and we wanted to explore how she would survive that. And we were thinking not just of her physical survival, but of how she would keep her individuality intact, and how we could show her as more than the sum of what others did to her.

This thought informed the whole of Ymke’s alternate reality. We then decided to bring Kaila into her world, albeit as a mercenary, and one not yet tempered by friendship and love. With this all in place, Angeline wrote a first draft in a single afternoon. As this was very much Ymke’s emotional journey, it felt right that it was written from a female perspective. Then Remco did the next draft, focusing on the action, and fleshing out Bärsk and his creator. Though storyteller Sigismond was the villain of the piece, we could not resist writing him with a modicum of compassion.

Ymke’s story and the framing narrative are distinctly different, tonally speaking, which is intentional. If it jolts the reader, then all the better, as Ymke’s enforced dream is supposed to be different from the life she leads with Kaila. Our editor, Oliver Brackenbury, also was on board, and in a Sunday afternoon Skype session we talked through the story. The questions he asked guided us to sharpen some areas which were unclear in their meaning, and hinted at some loose ends we could tie up.

At the story’s end, Ymke is less resistant to the idea of Bärsk, and we can well imagine her posting Bärsk fanfic on her world’s equivalent of AO3. It echoes our own feelings on Sword & Sorcery: far from wanting to burn all the old S&S tales, as some have feared, we believe that while some works are rightfully forgotten, others are worth treasuring, despite elements that are not of this time. There are giants on whose shoulders we gladly stand. We also believe that by writing our stories, we cannot do other than put ourselves and our feelings about the world into them.

And we think that goes for most writers, even for our critic, a writer himself, and not averse to bringing a point across with fiction. It seems to us that those who complain about a story being about something have a bigger problem with the nature of the message than with its presence.

Wild Man’s Process

Like writing, art is not a case of starting in the upper left corner and producing a masterpiece. At times, there’s gnashing of teeth and rending of garments involved. So it was with the illustrations for our story-within-a-story, featuring the character Bärsk, in our recent effort “The Ember Inside.” If you haven’t read it yet – go here first and download it for free.

I’d previously done medieval-style drawings for what turned out to be pages of our heroine Ymke’s diary, which is part of the chapbook you get when subscribing to our newsletter. As Bärsk’s tale is Sword & Sorcery, but set within an S&S story, I figured that that approach would be the right one. And as Bärskis a wild man, my immediate thoughts were of medieval depictions of wild men, and also William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, which is quite similar.

Rudolf von Ems, Nebuchadnezzar, ca. 1400-1410
William Blake, Nebuchadnezzar, 1795

And with those as starting point, I made my first sketches of Bärsk.

“Yes, that looks proper medieval” I thought, and did a neater version. I had a big book about the Crusades next to me, with plenty of medieval artwork, which I mainly used as inspiration for the soldiers. I then inked it, and shaded it with watered down ink.

And I saw it was no good. My literal words were “It’s namby-pamby!” I’d been focusing too much on making it a medieval pastiche, and forgotten that the thing should stand on its own and be fun. So, I pushed it aside, and did what I call the frustration draft. Quickly pencilled, forget about realism (even stylised) and proportions – just get the emotion down. I did this one knowing I wouldn’t use it, but it was a way to free myself from rules and style.

Then I considered what I liked about this frustration drawing. Certainly the tension and the heightened emotion, and Bärsk himself was also more dynamic. And from there, I was able to make a new drawing, which still looked medieval, but was also more interesting. For the shading of this new version, I felt that ink wash wouldn’t look quite right, and to do it on the computer would look too sterile. Luckily, Angeline had some 6B pencils, and they were ideal. After that it was a simple matter of scanning, playing with the contrast, and doing some minor corrections.

Then I sent it to the editor of New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine, who had it made into a glorious spread for our story!


About Us

We are Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten, and we write Horror and Heroic Fantasy. Our stories have appeared, amongst others, in the Sesheta anthology Underneath the Tree, in Air & Nothingness Press’ The Wild Hunt and AaNX #1, Flame Tree Press’ Beyond the Veil, and in Dutch translation in Wonderwaan. Our collection The Red Man and Others was nominated for a Robert E. Howard Foundation Award.

We began our collaboration in journalism, working for various local and national publications. There we wrote about film, theatre and books, and interviewed authors like Neil Jordan, James Ellroy and Anne Rice. The biographical piece on Robert E. Howard we wrote for Fortean Times received a Robert E. Howard Foundation Award nomination.

Now we focus on telling our own tales. These stories are firmly rooted in the green hills of Northern Ireland where Angeline grew up, and the heavy clay of the Dutch coast from which Remco came. They are steeped in our shared love for history and folklore, not shying away from treasured genres and formats, yet are infused with modern sensibilities and a healthy dose of black humour.

I have written about disability for online magazines like The Toast and Disability in Kidlit, and my talk on Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fiction for Octocon, the National Irish Science Fiction Convention, was nominated for a Robert E. Howard Foundation Award.

I am a lived experience consultant for healthcare and medical research clients. I specialise in the needs of autistic patients with GI issues (which in my own life covers Crohn’s disease, short bowel syndrome, intestinal failure, and life with an ostomy and artificial feeding), but I also bring my literary and healthcare interests together by offering sensitivity reading services to authors who want to portray disabled characters. As an activist, I am particularly interested in disability and healthcare justice.

Ymke’s rebellions, like mine, have often been subtle ones: staying alive in a world that oppresses disabled people is also a form of resistance. But sometimes we’re both surprised by what we’re capable of doing when we really have to – and with the right person by our side.

I studied illustration design at the Utrecht Academy of Arts and provided artwork for several Dutch speculative fiction magazines. I co-created Waen Sinne, an anthology which had a lasting impact on Dutch SFF publishing, and was a jury member for the Paul Harland Award, Holland’s leading contest for speculative fiction.

I spent a lot of my childhood and teens reading, and discovering Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories was a watershed moment. I have always wanted to emulate him, and indeed the title of this collection is a hat-tip to his collection, The Dark Man and Others.

Hallowe’en is one of our favourite festivals, and from childhood both of us have been fascinated with ghosts, monsters and other scary and mysterious things. Over the last few years we’ve gone back to the age-old tradition of carving turnips instead of pumpkins. The turnip’s texture is irregular, with lumps and bumps that decide the features for the carved face. Unlike pumpkins, turnips grow underground and hint at things hidden and slowly emerging from the soil. They symbolise the much older, much more forbidding tradition of Hallowe’en.

The Shell Shocked Zombie

Zombies appear in a story we’re writing. In the very first draft, they were the shambling dead, having come back to life, but when we glommed on to The Walking Dead, and hoovered up its 10+ seasons plus spin-offs, we realised that there wasn’t much we could do with those zombies without boring ourselves, and the reader. So we decided on a different tack. We back to basics, to the zombies of Haiti, those unfortunate dead revived by the magic of the bokor.

Painting by Wilson Bigaud.

There’s a stubborn but infuriatingly intangible belief that zombies do exist. Theories around the phenomenon explain that those turned into zombies are marked out by their families or their community: the ‘difficult’, dishonest, the burdens. They would be poisoned to a state indistinguishable from death, then dug op from their grave and kept in thrall to the bokor.

Anthropologist Wade Davis wrote his book The Serpent and the Rainbow about his search for the zombie powder used to produce the state of near-death, and the poisons used to keep the zombie in a state of amnesia and suggestibility. Davis’ work has met with scepticism, but it did bring the case of Clairvius Narcisse to prominence. In 1962 Narcisse admitted himself to hospital, with a fever and spitting up blood. The symptoms got worse and three days later he was pronounced dead and, after a day in cold storage, buried.

Clairvius Narcisse, at his grave.

In 1980 Narcisse returned to his family, claiming to have been conscious but paralysed, and forced to work on a plantation. Only when the bokor died, and Narcisse was given no further drugs, did he regained his sanity. The motivation for his enslavement was that he had broken a social code and and abandoned his children, while his brother had fought with him over land and inheritance.Narcisse only returned home when he heard of his brother’s death.

A medical study from 1997 in The Lancet reviewed the cases of three ‘returned’ zombies. The results are decidedly mixed. All three were diagnosed with mental, intellectual or neurological disabilities. Tellingly, the first known photograph of a zombie, Felicia Felix Mentor, was included in anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s Voodoo Gods, which notes that the subject was photographed in a psychiatric hospital.

Felicia Felix Mentor, ca. 1935

Genetic research further showed that two of them were a case of mistaken identity, with wandering mentally ill or neurologically impaired strangers taken to be missing family members. Even so, the belief in zombies is deeply rooted, and it seems that there’s more to it than folklore and the inter-generational trauma of the people’s previous enslavement.

Culturally, zombies are identified with these characteristics: they cannot lift up their heads, have a nasal intonation and a fixed staring expression, they carry out repeated purposeless actions and they have limited and repetitive speech. I had seen these symptoms in a different context: in footage of shell-shocked soldiers from the First World War, now recognised as having severe PTSD. And it is easy to map this onto zombification.

Imagine the man who is getting sick, then falls into a state of catalepsy. He’s conscious when his family mourn him, when the coffin is closed and the mud falls on the lid. He may find he’s able to move again, but he is deep underground. Then the grave is opened, and he is dragged out, beaten and drugged. Then he is enslaved – like his forefathers. Yes, there are the drugs to bring him to near-death and to keep him docile, and perhaps existing mental disability or brain damage through lack of oxygen. I don’t believe those are the main factors that make a zombie. Trauma, untreated and reinforced, is.

The man believes he’s died, if not physically then spiritually. By transgressing his community’s codes, Clairvius Narcisse placed himself beyond the protection of the law, of family and society, with being made a zombie the ultimate embodiment. Medieval England expelled its outlaws from society, literally outside of the law. The Church may excommunicate its heretics, placing them outside the grace of God. The zombie finds himself an un-person, outside of humanity, with no hope of release.

The real story of zombies is far sadder and terrifying than The Walking Dead. Let’s make sure that we not treat the disabled and poor of our own society as unwanted, burdens, because what follows is their un-peopling.

Urtext: King Kong

In the early summer of 1983, Tim Finn had a hit in the Netherlands with Fraction Too Much Friction. I remember watching the weekly pop music program, waiting for the video to appear, because King Kong was in it! Disappointment followed when it wasn’t shown. Almost four decades later, I’m watching that video, and there is a lot going on in it, with a family at breaking point. One shot has the Gary Larson-esque mother standing behind an aquarium, with a black puppet in it. It’s just a few seconds long, and it might indeed be King Kong figure, bending from the waist, arms half raised.

I was in the third grade of primary school then. That October, on World Animal Day, I brought a model of King Kong I’d built from Lego to school. I could move its arms up and down by turning a wheel on its back, and open and close its jaw by turning its ear. I’d already pored over a sequence in the Swedish artist Jan Lööf’s comic Kareltje (originally Felix) which we had at home, in which the young hero finds a robotic giant ape, which crooks use as a circus exhibit but also run amok with. There was a time machine too, a prehistoric man, and a professor’s robot assistant – all food for my budding SFF appetite. And that was years before I found out the young man travelled to Transylvania!

Not long after after that, my father brought home a typewriter, a cast-off from work. It was a huge, cast-iron 1940s affair, which I could operate only by holding a pencil in my fist and jabbing at the keys. Naturally, I started to write a novel – my own adaptation of King Kong (1933), to be precise. I typed it out on A5 sheets, double-sided, with a half-page illustration on every second page. All the plot elements are there, though somewhat garbled, and the racist depiction of the “natives” as I knew them drawn from comics and children’s books of the time. My older brother glued the cover drawing onto card (cast-off display cards from dad’s work), and I brought it to school, where my teacher read it to the class in daily instalments.

I’d watched the film some years earlier, when I was five or six – certainly before I could read the Dutch subtitles, proving that it’s a very visual film, with a clear narrative not overly dependent on the dialogue. Over the past half century, the idea of King Kong as anti-hero has grown up. Ray Bradbury spoke in dozens of interviews about having felt sad when King Kong fell of the Empire State Building, and that interpretation seems to have taken hold from there. Perhaps there was a certain pathos in Kong’s downfall, and in both the 1976 and 2005 versions, Ann Darrow wants to save the ape by the end. According to 1976 producer Dino DeLaurentiis: “When Jaws die, nobody cry. When my Kong die, everybody cry!” For a long defunct film website, we wrote this about the film:

Before he is seen, Kong is described as “Neither beast nor man… Something monstrous, all powerful,” implying Kong’s undefined nature, in a time when it was still debated where exactly Black people sat on the evolutionary tree. While we first glimpse him crashing through the trees as a terrifying force of nature, he is a demi-human when he curiously pokes at the captive Ann. He even becomes the hero when Ann is threatened by a dinosaur, his upright stance and fighting style those of a man. However, constantly rebelling against our expectations, he then is all beast again, beating his chest and roaring, when audience’s allegiance must shift to Jack Driscoll. Deprived once again of his new-found companion, Kong assumes the role of vengeful God, smiting villagers, before being brought down by the movie people.

A God to the people on Skull Island, the hapless Kong is brought to Broadway and billed as King Kong. But hobbled and humiliated like so many exotics (beast and human) before him, Kong’s size doesn’t scare or impress. Cooper and Schoedsack wink at the camera when they reveal that the disappointed audience had hoped for a movie. Perversely, the directors cast themselves as the flying aces who finally shoot Kong off the top of the world. “T’was Beauty killed the Beast,” showman Denham declaims, trying to evoke those God’s son-slayers Delilah and Salome, while in fact it was him and the demands of a bloodthirsty audience that had brought Kong to New York and his doom. A bitter ending for one who was the last of his kind who, torn from his native comforts, briefly held his own against a hostile world to regain the object of his desire.

I’d love to say that I identified with Kong, and for that matter with Frankenstein’s monster, who I’d also become fascinated with at a young age, many years before I saw James Whale’s 1931 film. However, unlike little Ray Bradbury, I didn’t regard Kong (or Frankenstein’s creature) as the underdog. For me they were, plain and simple, monsters on the rampage. I had a difficult childhood, and was bullied a lot. I didn’t see myself as different, and if anything I identified with the people terrorised by Frankenstein’s creature and Kong. Or, perhaps, I wanted to be the one unleashing the monsters on the world. Which I now gleefully do.


From Thundercats to S&S

One of my formative Sword & Sorcery influences is Thundercats, the 1980s cartoon series (and comic, and action figure line, and shampoo bottle, and…) in which a group of anthropomorphic cats flee their dying planet, Thundera, to make new home on Third Earth.

Their leader Lion-O is the hereditary wielder of the mystical Sword of Omens, and finds there a rich array of dangers, both mechanical and magical. He also finds a worthy foe in Mumm-Ra, an ancient sorcerer bent on taking the Sword’s power for himself. To that end, Mumm-Ra often manipulates the barbarian Mutants into doing his dirty work. The observant among you will have spotted that this science-fantasy blend makes Thundercats Sword & Planet rather than pure Sword & Sorcery. That hardly matters, as many of the ingredients that primed me to enjoy S&S later were already there: the Sword of Omens, towers with traps and treasure, a wicked sorcerer, and a threatening world.

I was five when the Rankin Bass cartoon series and the Marvel UK comic arrived, so I didn’t know there was such a thing as Sword & Sorcery, and some of its key elements aren’t present in Thundercats, like the lone wolf protagonist alienated from society. Granted, Lion-O – a ten-year-old accelerated to manhood during space hypersleep – does a fair bit of lone prowling around Third Earth, but he’s got his adopted family to temper his rashness. Mumm-Ra and the Mutants generally thwart the Thundercats by trapping them individually or luring them into isolation, so the ‘cats largely survive through cooperation.

The world they live in is still rich in Sword & Sorcery influences, and that’s hardly surprising: the writers of both the show and the comics were of an age to have enjoyed the S&S revival of the 60s and 70s, and they gleefully funnelled everything else they liked into Thundercats. So, there’s a Viking story, and an Arthurian story, as well as straightforward Sword & Sorcery episodes like The Tower of Traps, in which one of the younger ‘cats gets trapped in the booby-trapped tower of Baron Karnor after foiling a robbery. In rescuing him, Lion-O escapes giant swinging blades and a precarious bridge over a fire pit.

It’s the sort of thing that could happen to Conan – if Conan had a kid sidekick prone to getting into scrapes. When they discover the Baron’s corpse in a treasure room, it looks exactly as we’d seen in Conan the Barbarian. And come to think of it, when Mumm-Ra is in his beefier shape, he wears Thulsa Doom’s double-snaked helmet.

Of course Lion-O is, aesthetically speaking, your classic S&S barbarian, as are the mutants: scantily-clad, muscular avatars of masculinity. If the show is rich in science fiction elements – notably the Thundercats’ own advanced technology, the neighbouring robot bears, and the occasional fugitives and troublemakers who visit Third Earth by spaceship – then it’s arguably the fantasy and occult aspects that lend it its atmosphere.

Nobility in the world they came from, the Thundercats bring an honour code of “justice, truth, honour and loyalty” that many S&S antiheroes would roll their eyes at. On reaching Third Earth, they stop short of conquering ambitions, but in their urge to cultivate their new land and mine its natural resources to power their high-tech fortress and vehicles, they flaunt their power and wealth. In effect, they become the sort of people S&S protagonists typically try to rob. The series often contrasts their scientific and technological expertise with their naive susceptibility to magic, which often threatens to divide and destroy them.

Some Thundercats themselves have uncanny powers, though they’re innate abilities rather than derived from arcane studies, and they play second fiddle to their more obvious learned combat skills. Tygra can telepathically create illusions in his enemies’ minds and become invisible to them, and Cheetarah has a ‘sixth sense’ warning her of danger – though when she forces it, it drains her energy. The stealthy disciplines of the sorcerer are beyond them. Only Jaga, Lion-O’s mentor, offers consistent supernatural aid – and it’s more in the form of hints that drive Lion-O’s moral education than anything else.

Usually, the magic of Third Earth is an uncanny and threatening outside force, whether it’s Mumm-Ra’s machinations, the terrifying Netherwitch, or deadly supernatural phenomena native to the planet. Treasure offers temptations, but often proves not to be worth the risk of acquiring it, and though they make friends, the Thundercats remain threatened by Third Earth. That very name, and Mumm-Ra’s onyx pyramid and Egyptian regalia, suggest it is our world’s far future, after two cataclysms. This is underscored by the explosive fate of Thundera, whose high civilisation could not save it from annihilation.

In the end, the Thundercats are saved from inhabiting a fully S&S world mainly by the fact they live in a 1980s children’s cartoon. In that decade’s atmosphere of moral angst around children’s shows, the production team included a child psychologist tasked with ensuring prosocial values in its storylines, and vetoing elements deemed too violent, scary or adult. We grew up with action cartoons ending with a heavy-handed moral, followed by a cheesy group laugh. In the same spirit, Jaga did not do anything as horrible as dying on their long voyage, but instead “translated himself to the spiritual plane”.

Thundercats, like its Filmation Sword & Planet peers He-Man and She-Ra, still had enough darker elements to feed our imaginations, along with enough S&S tropes to lead the youngest Gen Xers and the eldest Millennials to the genre that we would eventually explore in depth, fed by the glut of 80s S&S movies, video games and tabletop adventures.

And with a string of remakes of each of these shows, revamped and reissued toy lines, not to mention more straightforward Sword & Sorcery action in the pipeline across different media, and the massive groundswell of new D&D players, it seems certain that today’s children are getting their first taste of both Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet. They are the creators of the future, and I can’t wait to find out what they will make.


Mary the Tower

Neither of us are Christians, but living in a Christian culture, and a heavily patriarchal one at that, we can’t avoid having our lives affected by it. Its presence is felt, of course, in The Red Man and Others, in which the Brotherhood of the Wheel is a thinly disguised Christianity, with the cult in Otasring a stand-in for the most extreme and intransigent examples Protestantism – something we both feels needed critiquing, because we both grew up near examples of this.

To us, the Bible isn’t the Word of God but a collection of manuscripts compiled in the past, edited, and translated to fit a certain way of thought. In the process it has been translated, retranslated, mistranslated and, it appears, tampered with.

This blog post by Diana Butler Bass is worth reading in full, as it gives a lot of context. The gist is that when scholar Elizabeth Schrader studied a digital image of what is known as Papyrus 66, the oldest complete text we have for the Gospel of John, dating from around the year 200, she found that it had been edited. Those edits have subsequently made it into our Biblical canon, and have shifted the importance attributed to one of the women in the Bible called Mary.

The Bible, as we know it, has Jesus visiting Martha, from a certain village, and her sister Mary, who sat at his feet and listened to what he was saying (Luke 10:38-42). Then we have John 11, who has Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, who live in Bethany. You’d think that these are the same people. However, Jesus was travelling in the opposite direction from Bethany when he visited that “certain village” of Mary and Martha. So, these are two different stories, about different families.

John 11 opens with a simple sentence: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister, Martha.” This is where Elizabeth Schrader discovered that an alteration had been made in the 4th century: The name ‘Martha’ originally read ‘Maria’ – in Greek a difference of a single letter, changing the sentence into: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, at the village of Mary and his sister, Mary.” It’s a clunky sentence, for sure, but that’s what it says. The change had been carried through the text; Mary was changed into Martha, pronouns were changed and “sister” made plural.

So, it is not Martha, but Mary who tells Jesus: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah. The one who’s come into the world.” This does explain why this Mary was important enough to mention in Lazarus’ story. It is an important confession; one of two. The other? Peter, who tells Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” to which Jesus replies: “You are Peter, the rock upon I will build my church.”

If it was not Martha who recognises Jesus, but then further goes unmentioned, but Mary – could this then be Mary Magdalene? Did Mary see her own brother resurrected, and then was at Jesus’ grave to see himself resurrected? It would make narratively sense. Especially since Mary Magdalene is not “Mary, from Magdala” as long was assumed, as there was no place of that name at the time. Jesus liked his metaphors, and just like he called his disciple Simeon “his rock”, Petrus, so he named Mary Magdalene, “tower”.

Two people, a man and a woman, who recognise him as the Son of God. Two people he gives a title: Peter, “the rock upon which I build my church,” and Mary, “the tower.” Jesus also liked his parables of fish and fishermen – not strange for a preacher around the Sea of Galilee. The image that comes to mind if we take these very important people together, is a rock with a tower: a lighthouse. And perhaps that’s what Jesus had in mind for his church. Not a watchtower, a church wherein to huddle in fear, but a beacon of hope, a light that guides for all at sea. For him, God never lived in the temple, or in a church, but out there, in the world. Even if Jesus wasn’t familiar with lighthouses – they were around in Roman times, but the placid Sea of Galilee may not have needed them – then still Mary, the tower of strength, would be the church built on Peter, the rock.

How different Christianity could have been if Mary Magdalene’s story had not been partially erased: if that important scene of her recognising him as God’s son had been allowed to carry through to her being present at his resurrection. We might have had a more equal church; a kinder church, in which there was really place for everyone – not only as worshippers, but as its leaders.

Looking Back Without Blinking

“It’s okay to look back. Just don’t stare.” This is how a timely article on the excellent Atomic Junkshop blog quoted baseball player Satchell Paige when discussing the challenge of writing retro, to which that blog’s Fraser Sherman adds: “If you’re going to revive something from the past, like a Golden Age comics characters or pulp-style SF adventures, don’t bring their cultural baggage — racism, sexism, whatever — along with them.”

This is pretty much the topic of our latest newsletter. It appears that it’s hard to let go for some people, though, and our newsletter caused consternation. A lengthy ‘rebuttal’ to our newsletter followed on a pulp scholar’s blog, which was in turn reported on as ‘a fine response to a troubling essay’; apparently, we had wanted Sword & Sorcery’s “old works discarded.” This then was discussed in a labyrinthine Facebook thread, including the question: “Are there any women in the group? Are they excluded or just not interested?”

Angeline, one of the few women in that group, did not reply: she’s tired of meeting bad faith where the past – warts and all – is accorded deference, and once again asks: “Who do we want at the table?” The author of the ‘rebuttal’ to our last newsletter also chimed in, re: the Atomic Junkshop post:

Articles like this disorient me. It’s as if their intention is to make us hang dog faced or guilty for enjoying, for example, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fiction. If I … write modern pastiches of his work – al the while avoiding various “-isms” – would this article author define this activity as “starting” or “looking”? Honestly, who “embraces” racist/sexist/homophobic tropes? It seems like a straw man. I dare say most people would defend their tropes/descriptions/art as not racist/sexist/homophobic. There is a secret authority in this article: the elite who feels authorized to arbitrate what is and isn’t sexist/racist/homophobic.

This, to us, sounds like a case of “wanting to have your cake and eat it.” It’s not that difficult. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you know the drill. Yes, we love old films and old pulps, but it’s a qualified love. How you want to define qualified can differ: you may gloss over the racist/sexist bits, you may put your ‘1930s glasses’ on, whatever works for you. But you cannot just cop out with a “well, nobody should arbitrate what’s sexist/racist/homophobic,” because then anything goes, and everything is beyond criticism.

And what then are those harmful tropes we’re so bothered about? Consider this fragment from a short Sword & Sorcery story:

…an imposing figure stood there, an ebon giant dressed in mail shirt and high strapped sandals. He gave pause, for he saw that his visitor was a savage looking specimen carved seemingly from obsidian. (…) The stranger looked up at the greeting and gave a strong toothed smile before setting the blade carefully back down on the counter again. Folding his great arms over his chest, he regarded the smith through dark smoldering eyes.

(…)“How times have changed. Now they let any bare-arsed savage in the army. Why don’t you just run along back to your mud hut in the jungle and leave the organized discipline of fighting to the real men, eh?” (He) set his cup down slowly. “Times have indeed changed. Since when did the men of Agoria, Gallicia and Iber, as I take all you fine men to be, know anything other than sodomizing their children and raping the livestock?”

(…)Not for the first time, (he) found himself incarcerated. Nor for the first time did he find the experience tedious. He sat chained in a hot cell alongside a score of other miserable wretches whose only thought was how to outwit their fellow prisoners when it came to getting the bigger share of gruel at meal times. He took no part in their trivial squabbles. He endured the situation silently, resting back on his heels, eyes smoldering in the gloom like those of a great cat. In him was instilled the instincts of the wild and, with it, the patience of the hunter. Wisely, the other prisoners left him alone.

(…) Stretching like a great hunting lion, the Damballahan rose slowly to his feet until he towered over them. They noted the glower in his eyes, the great thews glistening like black iron in the torch light, and were mindful not to let their spears waver.

You could be mistaken in thinking that this was written in the 1930s, though it is by a fairly prolific modern writer who had an idea, which “stemmed from a conversation I had about racism in sword-&-sorcery. I got to thinking about how REH might have written a black Conan.” (Names removed or changed to make it a bit less googleable).

With his love for the prose of yore, and apparently without making the effort to think about how those tropes read now, the writer saddles us with a heap of racism, no doubt unintended yet still there, with a side dish of homophobia, courtesy of the hero. So much for no modern pulp writer embracing harmful tropes.

There are a fair number of people who genuinely try to push this genre into the 2020s. They aim for a more modern approach to the genre, with a focus on inclusion of minorities. However, there are others for whom ‘inclusivity’ means ‘never excluding anyone, or any idea or way of doing things, even when they do harm’ – top of the list of the Five Geek Social Fallacies. And to be very clear, this isn’t us demanding witch hunts, this is us advocating for a thoughtful evaluation of what we consume and what we in our turn create.

Did we really all follow the news cycle of the past few years to debate whether racism was and is a presence in society, and therefore fantasy fiction? Are commentators who shy away from selectivity and interpretation trying to say that Sword & Sorcery exists in isolation, somehow untouched by the impact of the world and cultures that produce it? Surely not: that would make Sword & Sorcery so much less powerful and meaningful than it could be.

The Lure of the Strongman

Fans of sword and sorcery, though a more diverse lot than often assumed, tend to have one thing in common: at some point in their youth, Conan the Cimmerian, or someone like him, strode into their lives to crush his enemies, to steal jewels of great price, or even take the crown of some troubled land. That hero may have come by way of the Conan films with Arnold Schwarzenegger, or tabletop gaming, or most potently of all, through the muscular prose of Robert E. Howard and those who came after him.

The typical sword and sorcery fan found Conan in his his teenage years, that time of life when he had maximum ambition but little agency to do anything with it. He was constrained by the rule of parents and teachers, but often also by social marginalisation, isolation and bullying.

And whether that bullying took overt or more subtle forms – whichever way the hero came, his appeal lay in his individuality; something which the powerless, weak and oppressed could cling on to and identify with.

And this last point is crucial, as sword and sorcery is often discovered when a teenager’s isolation is at its most damaging. The experience is transformative – this sense of liberation, however vicarious, through the adventures of Conan and his kind. This comes not just through their vanquishing of their enemies, but their grabbing of power and wealth and their magnetic appeal to the opposite sex – all of which they often accomplish both despite and because of an outsider status in society.

At best, this fictional experience inspires the isolated teen in making a mark in the real world. As they grow up, the realisation sets in that there was never going to be some cathartic scene in which their bullies were put to the sword, and their abusive parents banned from the realm. They grasp that school violence is not justice but horror; that they can win no deep, lasting satisfaction from mere shows of physical strength, or from seeing other people brutally punished. The revenge fantasies and strong man heroes are left behind where they belong: in stories, where they can help explain us to ourselves, and to each other.

And having had this experience of needing a stronger figure to look to, a righter of wrongs such as we lacked when the injustices of real life took place, we gain perspective. It can be used to look at other areas of life, at the broader experience of searching for different kinds of heroes (or “heroes”), and the dark turns that search can take. Because of course this is not just about sword and sorcery. It’s not even just about fiction – because not everybody outgrows the desire for a strongman, an avatar on which to project their discontents.

Some people conflate the very real injustices they suffer in society – violence, wage theft, inflation, homelessness, pollution – with any increase of rights and justice for others. And so, in finding their enemy, they must likewise find a strongman to protect them. The stage of reflection, of putting our teenage heroes in their proper place, has not taken place, and arrested development instead informs the thought processes, in particular concerning how the world is, and should be, run.

In politics, the lure of the strongman takes the form of the desire for an authoritarian leader. His sword and his axe are legislation and the security forces, and his muscles are the members of the public who defend him and his misuse of those tools no matter what. And we can actually recognise the tropes that appeal in heroic fantasy being skilfully used by the political strongmen of our time. So Vladimir Putin flexes his muscles in topless photos that depict him as a rugged hero surviving in the Russian mountains. So Donald Trump boasted (“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…”) of his ability to grab women by their genitals.

Even in its most diluted, buffoon form, the strongman archetype compels, as British people know to our cost, having elected a leader whose appeal lies not in his competence but in his extremity: Boris Johnson, that pound shop Trump, need not be skilled in governance or diplomacy when he’s proved his leadership qualities by “getting Brexit done” (making the public poorer in the process); proved his virility by producing more children than we can count (or he will acknowledge); proved his strength by surviving an allegedly severe case of the same disease he refuses to protect the public from. Even in his very absurdity he shows he’s an individualist and an iconoclast: the trademark thatch of hair he musses before being photographed; the burbling incoherence, peppered with Greek and Latin.

Johnson is his own kind of political barbarian, yet he is not merely at the gate – he holds the highest office in the UK. The man who started his career as Prime Minister by illegally proroguing Parliament now has no intention of ending it. His government may be riddled with scandal and corruption, but his reaction has been to announce he’d like to stay on for the maximum term. Because for a strongman there is no defeat, only temporary setback and tactical retreat. A strongman has no concept of shame.

Like King Kull, who took his axe to the ancient laws of Valusia, Johnson placed his friends and cronies in his Cabinet, and uses them to smash any laws that he doesn’t like. And what if the human rights of minorities are eroded, and the poor get ever poorer – it’s no skin off his back.

Generally, the strongman likes his own people – there will be other, stronger strongmen he aspires to. So Johnson, and Theresa May before him, sought favour with Trump, and Trump cozied up to Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (another one with a hairstyle daring anyone to defy him). More recently, Johnson has made trips to Ukraine, when British soil became too heated, to meet its wartime president. Volodymyr Zelensky is unlikely strongman, having started out as a comic actor playing the role of the country’s president, but an undeniable one: he rose in prominence on the populist ticket, the Ukrainian version of “drain the swamp”, and since the start of the war he invariably appears in a green army shirt in a show both of strength and solidarity with the common fighting man.

When ordinary people are ground down by evil systems built and upheld by these strongmen, they are ever reluctant to rebel. They’ve bought into those images of strength and success, and imagine that the strongman is one of them, that he actually cares about them. Having invested so much in a hero, it’s unthinkable that that love might go unrequited. Not if other people can be blamed; not if another strongman can be pointed out: “Fear her instead, the evil sorceress” (and her emails).

To the strongman’s supporters, theirs is the road of righteousness. Their strongman’s enemy – therefore, their enemy – must be cast as a villain, and tarred with the very weakness they sought to escape as teens, whether that supposed weakness takes the form of age (Trump supporters mocking Biden, born only four years before their hero, for being old), disability or Otherness of whatever kind.

Of course, investing your emotions in a real-life strongman makes about as much sense as imagining that Conan, where he to appear in our midst, would see himself as one of us, or have any particular interest in our wellbeing. It’s like believing that he would not turn slowly in our homes, noting our valuables, our vulnerabilities, and start calculating how he might exploit us.

Esmeralda, or Mother and Daughter

Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, better known as The Hunchback of the Notre Dame is one of those books I keep returning to. If you only know the Disney version, then do yourself the favour of reading the book. The real protagonist is the titular cathedral in Paris, around which the lives of the other characters revolve. How it has been received and adapted is as revealing as the book itself: films in particular have shifted the focus to the bellringer Quasimodo, and titling him “The Hunchback” sometimes brings an air of horror and the grotesque, as with Lon Chaney’s silent 1923 version, or of the pathetic, as in the 1939 Charles Laughton version, or Disney’s animation.

Rooting through the Dutch newspaper archive, I found an 1847 theatrical adaptation, and it’s interesting how it was staged and reviewed. First, a notice from the Algemeen Handelsblad, 10 March:

Soon expected: for the benefit of the widow R. Engelsman, Esmeralda, or Mother and Daughter, romantic play from the end of the middle ages, in six scenes, by Ms Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, with free use of the novel (Notre Dame de Paris) by Victor Hugo. Freely translated from High German, by Mr. C.J. Roobol. The music for the songs, the choir and the entr’actes, expressly made for this purpose by Mr. J.B. Van Bree. Decorated with new backdrops and costumes by mr. J.E. de Vries. (Never shown on any Dutch stage).

Specially commissioned music; all-new backdrops and costumes – this is a prestige production for the Amsterdam City Theatre. Mrs Engelman was the widow of Reinier Engelman, who was the co-director of the theatre and died in 1845, 50 years old. This also explains the title of the play, and the shift of focus not only to Esmeralda, but also her mother, the cloistress nun Sister Gudule. The review from the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant of 10 April that year explains:

Both main parts were played by Mrs Engelman-Bia and her adequate daughter. Ms Engelman played the part of Gervaise Sante-Fleurie, the later Sister Gudule admirably; her motherly love was tender and touching; her madness over the loss of her child chilling and horrifying; her bitterness against the heathens perfectly natural; her reunion with her daughter very striking. Ms Marie Engelman, Esmeralda, who daily makes more progress on the road of the arts, did her job admirably; indeed the most difficult the youthful actress has undertaken this far. Her dance and song as Heatheness, on the Place de Grève in Paris, made us think back with pleasure on the last performance of Preciosa by Father Cats, when we so admired her mother, the jewel of our stage.

No doubt Esmeralda was retooled as a vehicle for mother and daughter Engelman. Since 1841, when her husband became a co-director on the Stadsschouwburg, Maria Engelman-Bia got more influence on the programming and casting, which caused unrest among the other players, as she favoured herself and her daughters over the other two lead actresses. The latter pair subsequently resigned in the mid-40s, with the daughters taking their places. The titular role in Esmeralda was played by Wilhelmina Engelman, then 13 years old, and not yet emerged from her mother’s shadow by far. She was quite the child star, and remain on the stage until her death in 1902. It’s interesting to see Esmeralda played by a teenager though, as in Hugo’s book she’d be about 16, but has consistently been cast older in films.

The reviewer of the Rotterdamsche Courant assumes that his readers are familiar with Victor Hugo’s book, so he doesn’t want to outline the plot. If the book indeed was so well-known, then theatre goers wouldn’t be saddened that one of the book’s big reveals, that Esmeralda is Sister Gudule’s daughter, has been spoiled. He gives an overall assessment of the play:

How many – yes, perhaps an incredible number – are there not who were bored with Moliere’s masterpiece? Is it not because of that that a big audience attended all performances of Learned Women? For that audience, we admit, Esmeralda is not suitable, but as folk art, well, je nomme un chat un chat, yes for the lesser ranks of the theatre Esmeralda is wanted, and as such it entertains. It contains many horrifying scenes, though all engaging; it has chills and naughty bits, though the action is set at the end of the 15th century; it’s not free of improbabilities, though the play is “romantic.” Even so, the fruitful dramatic writer Charlotte Birch-Pfeyffer in this new fruit of her pen also shown virtues in a laudable manner. Motherly love is nicely sketched, the madness could have been left out; loyalty and gratefulness shine in full lustre; and should one of the personas be one of the lewd, then opposite his malice stands the nobles, purest love. In one word, the Esmeralda is a play as the Esmeralda could not be otherwise: a comedy, a play as tragedy.

And what then of the other actors?

Mr Roobol is without doubt a highly capable actor; this he has definitely proven in the role of Claude Frollo. A little less speaking loudly, especially in the moments where a high voice is needed, would be recommended. As translator of the Esmeralda Mr Roobol also deserves our praise. As amateur, Mr E. van den Berg filled the part of Quasimodo, the bellringer of the cathedral of Paris. His fine acting, with his appearance and the considerable yet easy use of gesturing, earned him the loud cheers of the audience. We give him our praise, and believe we don’t say too much when we claim that the directors would have found it difficult to find anyone as suitable to the part. Mr Munnich! Mr Munnich! In this paper we have honestly praised you so often when you earned it; we have also pointed out the weaknesses which now and then spoilt your acting; even so our impartial judgment this time too is that we have no reason to be satisfied with the way in which you filled the part of Phoebus. Indeed, Mr Munnich had just a few good moments, no more.In general his acting was too cold or too passionate; furthermore he was inconsistent, something we also noticed in Learned Women and Eduard of Scotland. Aside from these people we need to praise the experienced actor Stoete; Clopis Trouillefou was masterly presented by him.

Mr Münnich had only debuted with the Stadsschouwburg in the 1845/46 season. An earlier appearance got him the qualified praise of “shown to have considerable aptitude, and with application and study could develop into a jewel of our stage.” E. van den Berg is a common Dutch name, and I cannot find any more about the man who played Quasimodo. The review notes his appearance, and the use of gestures. It seems likely that he played the bellringer as a deaf-mute, and put more nuance into the part than might have expected. It’s noteworthy that the role of Quasimodo is played by an amateur, perhaps chosen because of his appearance. Quasimodo and other characters are described in a review from the Algemeen Handelsblad of 27 March:

A mother, who made her only beloved child into an idol, falls into insanity when it’s stolen; a stolen girl who like Preciosa is raised by heathens, retains her childish purity of soul and body, shines through beauty and artistry, and finds herself in the tender and loyal love of a noble young man, then persecuted by the villanous passion of a highly placed man, and cast in a well of disaster; that noble youth in contrast to the highly placed man who, earlier a paragon of virtue and sensibility, is tempted to the cruelest of crimes because of his love for the comely heatheness; A miscast creature, whose blunt soul and neglected heart is pierced by a ray of love, and is spurred on to noble feelings and heroic deeds; a fickle crowd which first cheers on the gifted Esmeralda, then enjoys her undeserved downfall and again her liberation; a band of heathens, such a miraculous appearance in medieval times.

A week earlier, the 22nd, the Algemeen Handelsblad already wrote about Esmeralda:

Next week shall see the debuts of two amateurs, Mrs L.J. Veltman and E. van den Berg, who we hope, if successful, will tie themselves to the theatre. The content of the new drama Esmeralda, by Birch-Pfeiffer, is well known from the much-read novel by Victor Hugo; we just want to add that the author has made substantial changes and additions, mainly in the prologue in which the mother loses her child, and the end, when Esmeralda is condemned to death bt is saved. The translator, Mr Roobol, we understand, has also made some important changes, and removed what could’ve been found to be loathsome for the spiritual dignity.

Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, the original adaptor of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, was a German actress and writer, the director of the Stadttheater in Zurich for six years, and author of over one hundred plays and librettos. She adapted Hugo’s book as Der Glöckner von Notre Dame, The Bellringer of Notre Dame, and further adapted such novels as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Her script for Notre Dame (if you have the wherewithal to read German blackletter) has six acts; the first is set in the farming community of Epernay, northern France, where Gervaise Sante-Fleurie loses her daughter. Then the action shifts to Paris, twelve years later. After being introduced to the lovely child Esmeralda, we meet Quasimodo, dragged in front of the baying masses by the student Gringoire:

Gringoire: My dear lord, that must be our pope of fools! (He grabs Quasimodo by the arm and drags him in the middle of the gathered mass. A rolling laughter ensues).
The Women: (Fall back, some cover their eyes, others cry).
All: (Through another). Oh phooey. Horrible. No, that’s too much. That’s the devil himself. God be with us!
Quasimodo: (Stands with arms folded around him, and looks blankly around himself)
Fleurie: Oh, but that’s Quasimodo.
Clopin: The bellringer of Notre Dame! You know him from his bellringer’s garb from a hundred paces.
A student: That’s Quasimodo the bandy leg.
Another: The one-eye, the beggar man! The creature that was laid in the foundling tray in the Notre Dame twelve years ago

They all agree; Quasimodo should be the Pope of Fools.

Clopin: Well, would you, red head?
Quasimodo (stares angrily around himself, doesn’t seem to understand anything, except that he’s being mocked).