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.


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).

The Riddle of Currer Bell: Solved!

From the Dutch newspaper archive comes this article from the Groninger Courant, 16 August 1850.

The Zondagsblad writes in their latest issue:

A literary riddle has been solved. About two years ago the novel Jane Eyre appeared, from one Currer Bell, who astounded the whole of England. People were clamouring to know who this writer may be, as there was no Currer Bell, and they didn’t know whether they were a man or woman; as the tone of the novel betrayed then a man’s and then a woman’s hand. The public guessed one, and then the other, and meanwhile the work got a second edition without the riddle being solved.

Now, finally, a second novel has appeared, Shirley, from the same author, and this was devoured with the same zest, though it was of less value than the first. But the anonymity of the author was maintained. Then, finally, in the autumn of last year the rumour went round, that the mirror image of Jane Eyre, a pale young lady with grey eyes had appeared in London, and became known as the long sought writer. She meanwhile remained invisible.

Again it was said that Currer Bell was in London in June 1850, and this was true; miss Bronte, the real writer, had arrived, be it not for a curious public. She didn’t want to be a lionne des salons; she doesn’t want to let herself be stared at and admired. Miss Bronte is a plain, country child, raised in the north of England in the rectory of her father. That’s why she is enjoying the fame she got in silence.

Self portrait, 1843

We add to this article the following:

Miss Charlotte Bronte is of the 3 sisters, who all in the literary world appeared under the name Bell, the sole survivor. One of her sisters, Emily, called herself Ellis Bell, and published a collection of novellas; the other, who wrote as Acton Bell, has written the novel Wildfell-Hall. Both died young from tuberculosis.

Currer Bell’s famous Jane Eyre has recently appeared in Dutch translation from the publisher of this newspaper, and we think we ought to take this opportunity to draw the attention of our readers to this important writing. (See advertisement.)

JANE EYRE, or the Life of a Governess, by CURRER BELL, AFTER THE ENGLISH. TWO PARTS. Price f 5-80

Of this novel, three editions have been sold out in a short time in London, while a fourth edition is currently appearing. The English magazines have judged this work in the most favourable terms. See here, what they had to say.

“What we have to say about this book, can we but express in a few words; – it is one of the strangest products of the press in the past years. We know no other writer who has so capably developed in those pages, no writer who can keep such a calm tone, instil such urge, without using those tricks that we see used so often nowadays.

“From the first to the last page, this book has the same stamp of liveliness, and a detail and development in every way make this a true view of life, and important an important one above any other in our time.

Conan in Holland

Curious about when Robert E. Howard’s Conan landed on Dutch shores, I once more dived into the excellent online newspaper archive.

On 30 October 1976, Het Vrije Volk (a social-democratic newspaper), in its book review column, is very taken with E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, “a book you have to have read.” It then asks why Jenry Kane’s A Kind of Rape has been translated as Clare, and goes to the header Fantasy:

Seemingly encouraged by the success of the science fiction publishers are releasing a flood of Fantasy to the market. Bruna comes with the first of two parts of the new series Conan, a creation from the thirties of the American Robert. E. Howard. The unbelievably badly written stories are about the primitive and very aggressive hero Conan. Proudly the publisher mentions that Fritz Leiber once called him “the super barbarian”. It’s just how you tell it. (4,25 per part).

Publisher Bruna would eventually publish eight Conan books under their Zwarte Beertjes imprint.The first cover illustrations were by Julius de Goede, and of rapidly declining quality.

The further four paperbacks got a redesign with weirdly stiff cover illustrations by L. Ashton Fisher.

Further Conan books appeared from other publishers, with covers by Boris Vallejo and Michael Whelan (showing Elric, actually). Robert E. Howard immediately landed in the ghetto of Dutch fandom, without much hope of breaking out of it. There’d been early signs, when he was mentioned in the papers a few years earlier. An article about “Ghosts, witches, devils and other occult horrors” notes a flooding of the market with Rosemary’s Baby clones, and then reports:

Another side effect of this renewed interest in “paganism” is a bastard child of science fiction, the “Sword and Sorcery” novel. These novels are situated in the imaginary medieval times, on earth or on other planets, where heroes and villains for once don’t have access to technological miracles, but intensively wield white and black magic to strike the vapours from each other. (…) Often considered the Vincent van Gogh of this literature is the American Robert E. Howard who wrote, forty years ago already, alone and with others, a whole series of books about the superhero Conan, the most manly fiction hero imaginable, but who himself was not able to live on after his mother died… (Het Parool, 28 February 1970)

And from the same editor, in the same newspaper a few years later, in an article “Horrors and heroes as entertainment for adults”:

“Infantile”, “ridiculous” and “perverse” – these and other insults are appropriate for the collection The Voice of El-Il (Bruna Fantasy en Horror); a selection of nine story and a pseudo-historical essay by the in America widely rediscovered Robert Ervin Howard, who in the twenties and thirties published in the pulps. With his heroes like the sword fighter Conan of Cimmeria, the 16th century Puritan Solom Kane, the prehistoric King Kull, we are completely in the world of the now so widely appreciated comics like Eric de Noorman and Prince Valiant. Sword and Sorcery romance is the literary term for this genre, because the heroes often vanquish all sorts of wizards, demons and tyrants with nothing more than their brute strength. As said, completely ridiculous, but the iron consequence with which these day dreams for boys from twelve to their end follow their own logic does demand a certain respect, and seeing its success a lot of people happily give in to it. The reader who is bored with science fiction and wants to escape even further from reality could well try Conan and Howard’s other heroes. These horror and feats of strength stories will also be enjoyed by people with a taste for the spaghetti western and the disarming nonsense of the Hercules and Ursus films. In the original English, the Lancer pockets already reprinted a dozen or so Conan collections. (Het Parool, 27 May 1972)

1972’s The Voice of El-Lil, with cover art by Robert Nix, and The Black Stone from 1969; design and illustration by Dick “Miffy” Bruna – a pigeon from hell, I assume.

The article then goes on to praise Ballantine’s editor Lin Carter, who rediscovered such gems as William Beckford’s Vathek and the semi-Fantasy novels by William Morris. Perhaps it’s for the best that Parool hack J.J. Strating didn’t notice that Carter was also associated with those Conan paperbacks, or -god forbid!- read Carter’s pastiches! The same newspaper man is a bit mellowed, some years later, writing about “naïve romantic and hard violence”:

Conan, the superhero from the imaginary pre-history from Robert E. Howard had to be translated, now the sword-and-sorcery romantic has taken hold in the Netherlands. Bruna and translator Pon Ruiter honour it with the first two parts, Conan and Conan of Cimmeria, naïve heroics about an unbeatable fighter and mercenary in a sinister fairytale kingdoms, where brute force constantly triumphs over evil wizards and tyrants; monstrous alliances from hell and slithery intrigants. While on the other side of kitsch, these stories do have quality. Robert Howard and the two continuators of these pulp stories work in their prose with bright, primary colours, but with this they manage to create enough atmosphere to give pleasant thrills to the fan, while others will happily long for a primitive world in which brute force is always a solution. What is also worth mentioning is that for once Bruna’s translations are cheaper than the American paperbacks. (Het Parool, 23 February 1977)

In Search of Frankenstein

Curious about the earliest mentions of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein in the Dutch press, I went for a search on the excellent online newspaper archive. Finding Frankenstein was not an easy task however, as Frankenstein is also a geographical location and there are dozens and dozens of mentions of a Squire Goll van Frankenstein, from Amsterdam, and his family. Oddly, the earliest mentions of the book are by way of Mary Shelley’s later works. In 1835, Mr. Freylink in Amsterdam offers an English edition of Lodore, and in 1842 the Estate F. Bohn in Haarlem has The Last Man for sale, in three parts.

In 1844 we get mentions of the German author Carl von Frankenstein, and of wounded soldiers transported to the hospital of Frankenstein (!), likely to be patched up and sent back to war. The liquor of one Polko from Frankenstein is being recommended in 1847, and then, something more tangible! The Journal de La Haye is an intellectual magazine from The Hague, in French. It mentions “monstre de Frankenstein” in relation to the “monstrous government which has suddenly arisen” in France, “like Frankenstein’s monster, to be the terror and curse of the waters that created it.”

Then! Finally! In De Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant of 19 January 1850, in the column “Sketches from London (from a Dutchman over there)” an overview is given of what Christmas is like for the Englishman, including an overview of the seasonal theatre offerings:

So were this year the pantomimes as follows: In the Durylane theatre: Harlequin and the good queen Elisabeth or the jolly England of the olden times; in the Princess-theatre, King Jacobus or Harlequin and the magic violin; in the Haymarket theatre, The ninth statue or the Jewels and the Genie; in the Adelphi Frankenstein or the Model Man; in the City of London, Pen, Ink and Paper; in the Queens, The sleeping beauty in the woods, or Harlequin with the golden horn and the magic goddesses of the silver water; (…)

1850 sees further offerings of Frankenstein’s English tooth powder, and the Java-bode, in November 1853, has a line in their serialised story: “Like Frankenstein, when his spectre visits him at his home, I did not know better than to flee from my bully.” Further, the newspaper Nederlands-Indië laments, in 1859: “We forget that there is a power that we ourselves have created, and which is stronger than ourselves, if we do not find a magic potion to control it. This Frankenstein of our own making is the press.” So, Frankenstein had become part of the collective subconscious – at least in the colonies. Was this because they’d read the original in English, was Frankenstein a book which was just not advertised in the newspapers – too sordid?

Alas, looking at the somewhat sparser magazine archive doesn’t give me much either – more advertisements for Lodore and The Last Man. “Dear Frankenstein!” starts an 1852 piece in Het Leeskabinet (The Reading Cabinet, a potpourri for cozy entertainment of refined circles – I kid you not!). However, it’s a travelogue of New York, and while I’m sure it’s of some interest, the writing of Hugo, Count of Böllinghausen and Nystadt did not entertain me. In an 1857 Wetenschappelijke Bladen (Scientific writings) Frankenstein’s creature pops up in a footnote, as one of the works of Percy Shelley’s wife, albeit as Frankenstein or the new Prometheus. Mary’s footnote is very quickly taken over by her father William Godwin, by the way.

Back to the newspapers then, because this is getting us nowhere! In 1861 the Society for Folk Crafts announces that it has improved sewing and stitching machines, from Frankenstein & Co, Dortmond. Close, but no cigar. The Baron Frankenstein that leads us into the 1870s is not the one I want either (he’s an envoy to Denmark), so I think it’s time to admit defeat. In pictures, the earliest are of Boris Karloff, in James Whale’s 1931 film, the one from Het Volk, daily for the Labour Party with a long and pithy review from which I’ll quote some bits:

The ‘Royal’ program of this week shows the film Frankenstein. There has been a lot of to-do about this film. It was at first razed to the ground in the American press, but despite this, or perhaps because of the bad reviews, it was a tremendous success at the box office. Then the film came to Europe. (…) The book was published in 1815, more than a century ago. It’s a work without lasting importance. The writer is Mary Godwin. We don’t remember her name from Frankenstein. Her father was a certain William Godwin, who wrote a sort of crime novel, Caleb William. The name of Mary Godwin has especially been remembered because she was married with the great English poet Shelley. In the prologue to this yellowed and forgotten book (etc. Seriously!) (…) Summarising this film with one word: f i l t h !

Nominate us for a Hugo!

For the first time in our sojourn as writers, we find ourselves with Hugo eligible stories, so please allow us to set out our stalls, praise our wares, and beg your consideration and indulgence!

With One Eye, Bright as a Star (Short story, 3200 words)
In the stark northern Dutch countryside, an old man teaches his grandson to be a man, but the forging of their fragile bond is interrupted by a confrontation with the supernatural – and the family secret.
(Published in The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, Air and Nothingness Press, January 2021).

For All the Dead (Short story, 6800 words)
“The sea gives and the sea takes away.” Raised in a remote Dutch fishing village, in the shadow of a storm that took most of its men, Hanne’s heard this truism all her life. But as a new storm rolls in, Hanne issues the sea a terrible challenge. Find more background here, and reviews here.
(Published in Beyond the Veil, Flame Tree Press, October 2021)

Caught in Wax (Short story, 3600 words)
In an Amsterdam divided by poverty and disease, where the First World War never happened and the vampires scream from the rooftops, a band of misfits puts together a show to raise the dead.
The Chill Inside (Short story, 2200 words)
Anton, a medium who heals hearts and hides his own lost love, welcomes a skeptical guest to his circle, giving him an epiphany he’ll never forget.
Reel Number Seven (Short story, 6100 words)
It is the early days of cinema, when the pictures are silent and the cameras cranked by hand. A terrible incident disrupts the filming of “Wuthering Heights”, and Lawrence Olivier must go to desperate lengths to save his film, and bring his lover Vivien to the screen.
(These three stories form AaNX 1: Emerging From Darkness, Air and Nothingness Press, December 2021)

Hastur’s Canvas (Novelette, 14500 words)
Paris, 1886.
Drawn by the bright light of the Paris art world, Vincent van Gogh finds himself caught in the web of the mysterious count DeBontés, whose dark shadow reaches throughout history. Vincent, however, is not so easily corrupted.
“Constructed with all the care of a good hoax. Lovecraft would approve.” – Bobby Derie, author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos

And if you nominate nothing else, please consider nominating Air and Nothingness Press’ editor Todd Sanders for the Editor (Short Form) category! There is an excellent interview with Todd on, but we’d also like to share our own experiences.

When Todd chose With One Eye, Bright as a Star for The Wild Hunt, we appreciated Todd’s prompt handling of contract and payment, and his communication throughout the editing process. Even our authors’ copies, neatly wrapped and sealed with an AaNP sticker, showed Todd’s attention to detail. The book itself is beautiful: smaller than your usual paperback, with immaculate interior design, and a heavy stock cover with french flaps. Todd has experimented with the form throughout AaNP’s twenty-five years, and when he has an idea, he makes it happen, such as his take on the old Ace Doubles.

When Todd requested stories for a Steampunk collection, we were game and immediately began Reel Number Seven: a take on Wuthering Heights, a perennial favourite of ours. We transplanted the Olivier version to the silent film era, with a dash of the German Expressionist Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (if you have a good quality DVD, please send it over!). Well over word count, we started again with Caught in Wax, loosely inspired by Rem’s goth days in Amsterdam; the warehouse building in which the trio of outcasts have their concert is real, though now converted into luxury flats. Our strange story intrigued Todd: it wasn’t quite what his anthology needed, but he was curious about its background. Meanwhile, we took the opportunity to strengthen its structure.

Though Caught in Wax was not selected for the anthology, Todd was eager to use it, and asked if we had similar stories. We sent him the other story, and his reply: “So how did you guys get so good?” encouraged us in an otherwise deeply trying autumn. He told us his idea for a newsletter-type mini-collection, and asked if we could tie these stories together with something small, set in the same universe. We already had an idea based on a fragment written and discarded years ago, and set to work. Meanwhile, he shared with us the first rough newsletter layouts. We felt very much collaborators in the project, and were even able to make suggestions. When we handed in the last of the stories, The Chill Inside, a contract followed immediately, as did arrangements for payment.

Todd Sanders produces beautiful books with great stories. The reader gets something really special; in a world of mass market paperbacks and print on demand, he has found a niche producing books that offer a sense of occasion so rare for some of us, as reading becomes a snatched pleasure amid life’s pressures. This is what he set out to do as a one-man publisher 25 years ago, and he still maintains this quality. However, why we want to highlight his work as an editor in particular is because of his impeccable and generous work with his authors: he keeps them informed throughout, from submission to authors’ copies, he edits with consideration, and he is very punctual with paperwork and pay!

Too often, small time press can make for a disappointing product and a frustrating experience for the writer. For Todd, Air and Nothingness Press is a labour of love; he extends this his readers and authors.

Van Gogh’s Ear

What really happened on the evening of 23 December 1888 in Arles? And how much of his ear did Vincent van Gogh actually cut off? And why did he do it? Usually, I’m wary of “now, finally: the true story!” books, as they’re too easily a set-up for crackpottery (no, DaVinci did not paint Mary Magdalen in his Last Supper, and Walter Sickert was not Jack the Ripper). Bernadette Murphy’s Van Gogh’s Ear, however, wipes away a century’s worth of careless reporting, gossip, myth-making and speculating, instead unearthing primary sources to bring a careful, particularly thorough and compelling narrative surrounding that one event.

The colour section contains a spread of two self-portraits Vincent painted in January ‘89, shortly after he was released from the hospital where he was treated. Murphy writes about them:

There is not a shred of self-pity or melodrama: he looks straight out from the canvas at the viewer, unnervingly steady. Vincent was not only acknowledging in paint what he had done – his own particular way of expressing emotional experience – but he was also recording his self-harm. (…)

Despite the Van Gogh Museum having accepted both portraits as authentic, there has been much debate about them amongst critics: why would he paint the same portrait twice? What about the differences between both paintings, like the colour of the fur trimming of the hat (black on one painting, blue on another)? The Japanese print in the background of the second portrait is taken as a sign that it’s the genuine article of the two, as it’s known that Vincent had it in his collection. However, others think the latter an “absolute fraud,” with the copyist omitting the pipe from Vincent’s mouth, but keeping the lips pursed. To my eye, both of the paintings are genuine. Should an art critic want to make anything of the colour of the fur trimming, they don’t understand anything about light, colour or art, and have no business critiquing art.

The first portrait, made immediately on his return to his Yellow House, is a record of himself after the traumatic event, much as I have photographed myself after a serious accident, and Angeline has photographed herself immediately after major surgery. It’s a psychological need, and perhaps a way of coming to terms with a changed ‘self’. The portrait is also the work of someone who is really good at what he does, but at the same time is physically unwell. In the background and the green cape we see Vincent’s familiar technique and colour use. We know it well from so many paintings, and he could probably do that in his sleep. When he paints his face, however, he gets unstuck. He’d done many self-portraits by then, but the bandage and the new fur-trimmed hat he’d bought would’ve changed his usual set-up for painting his face. Also, being still weak, probably tired and perhaps medicated, meant he wasn’t in the best form to paint his portrait – you wouldn’t do your best work in his circumstances either.

However, he’d recorded what he wanted, and left it that for the moment – perhaps happy that he got the thing done at all. I can imagine, though, that a week or so later, he looked at the painting and had a change of heart. Rather than fixing the painting, he made a new one. After all, it wasn’t uncommon for him to return to the same subject several times. The pose he takes is knowingly similar to the earlier painting, as it is a reaction to it. We can see that the padding beneath the bandage is not as bulky; he’ll have had it renewed, and with his wound slowly healing, less padding will have been needed. Vincent’s face in the painting looks more like the one we’re used to seeing, though still clean-shaven, and he proves to himself that his painting skills are returning to him. Where the earlier red and orange background can be seen as the depiction of a mind that had been in turmoil, he now paints the Japanese print and a painting easel behind him: he is feeling calmer now, and looking to the future again, as an artist.

There’s another self-portrait which has been considered a fake. There have apparently been decades of doubt about it, but I cannot imagine why – if you’d forge a Van Gogh, surely you’d at least make it look more like one, doing some of the stripey and swirly stuff? And you’d not give him that weird expression, surely? He painted this portrait in August 1889 while in the asylum of Saint-Rémy. Vincent had been suffering from depression, and a psychotic episode that started in July and lasted for a month and a half. In a later letter to his brother Theo, Vincent wrote about a self-potrait “attempt from when I was ill”, and it’s a haunting piece of work. Van Gogh’s usual painting style is still there, somewhat, but it’s subdued by the heavily tamped-on paint. There’s no surety of line or light touch, but muddy colours and impasto noodling.

Anyone who is familiar with depression will recognise the look in Vincent’s face – it’s complete withdrawal, with slack and lifeless features. I’m not sure which title Vincent would have given it if he’d been in a poetic frame of mind, but I imagine “portrait of the artist as a hollow man” would be fitting. It’s not the portrait of a man who is mentally well at all, and yet Vincent felt the need to record this state of being; perhaps another attempt to getting to grips with this ‘self’ he had been confronting for the larger part of a year. And of course we know how it ended all too soon. His later paintings still have signs of doom and turmoil, though also colour and life; at times he had hope for the future. Resignation, at least.

Vincent’s time in Arles plays a large role in my novelette Hastur’s Canvas, out via Amazon UK and US.There’s depression in there, and Vincent’s descent on the path that would ultimately lead to his death. However, the book is set against the background of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, so fact and fiction play hide and seek with each other!


Disability and Heroic Fantasy

Imagine Robert E. Howard staring in that Mirror of Tuzun Thune, and seeing Conan, an idealised essence of himself. Conan endlessly reaches towards life, towards survival, in a world where barbarism will always win out over civilisation. These have become the central tenets of Heroic Fantasy, and its defining features, from Howard onwards to The Witcher, Game of Thrones, and The First Law.

This is what my talk, Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy is about.

When the first season of “The Witcher” launched at the end of 2019, two conversations dominated my Twitter timeline: “Look at the size of Henry Cavill!” and “Why did the witch Yennefer have to lose her disability to be powerful?” These two elements are interlinked, and can be directly traced back to the roots of Heroic Fantasy as we know it, with the Texan pulp writer Robert E. Howard. 

“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of.” – We all know this fragment, ending with the introduction of that ultimate survivor, Conan, “the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

Having died at the age of 30, by his own hand, Conan’s creator, Robert Ervin Howard is an enigmatic and complicated figure. Several biographies have been written about him, pouring over his writing, letters and background to make sense of him. The tone was set by science fiction and fantasy writer L. Sprague De Camp, who brought Conan back into print along with “posthumous collaborations.” He summed Howard up as “maladjusted to the point of psychosis.” There’s a surprising lack of sympathy there, and you have to wonder if he found in Howard some sort of distorted mirror, into which he all too easily projected his own dreams, fears and failures. 

Perhaps I am doing the same, as a disabled author, in looking at Robert E. Howard, and the genre he created, through the lens of disability. Yet, given Howard’s disabled mother, and his father, a country doctor in an area where serious accidents were a fact of life, it’s worth looking at how disability filtered into his work, both implicitly and explicitly, and often through rejection of vulnerability. Howard, of course, did not invent the superhuman hero, but he did infuse his protagonists with grit, with insistence. For Howard “this is just how heroes are,” no longer suffices. For him, “this is how they need to be.” 

If you’ve enjoyed my talk, and would like to explore these subjects further, I can recommend the resources below. You can also download the slideshow Remco made to accompany the talk here.


  • Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard – Mark Finn. Get it on Amazon UK or US.
  • Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction – Ria Cheyne. An open access PDF is available from the publisher.


  • The Whole Wide World (1996) – Robert E. Howard biopic, available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Articles and blog posts:

Historical context: