Thursday, August 03, 2006

David Gemmell, Author of Heroic Fantasy Novels, Died at Age 57


A little over two weeks ago, one of my favorite Fantasy authors went under the knife to have quadruple heart bypass surgery. I was worried, but it appeared that he would recover. Sadly, he died last Friday. The biography on the back of each of his novels hinted that Gemmell had livid a hard life, and it appears that his youth caught up with him.

Though I am a Fantasy fan, I had never read a novel by David Gemmell prior to 2001 when my friend Tom Wizniewski (hope I'm spelling that correctly) recommended the book Legend to me. Legend was the first of 30 novels Gemmell wrote over his career and the novel that defined the themes readers would become familiar with in his future works. Legend was published in 1984, I read it in 2001, and I expect that one-hundred-plus years from now Fantasy fans will still be opening it's pages.

According to the BBC article I read, notifying me of Gemmell's death, one of the things that made him so popular was the "Sense of Adventure" presented in his novels. I think that the focus on Gemmell's sense of adventure is a good one, but I don't think it captures the essence of a Gemmell novel. Gemmell could really spin a yarn. While authors like Robert Jordan seek to become Tolkien clones writing massive tomes about supposedly complex "worlds" with well developed mythology (these authors often only succeed at being derivative of past Fantasy masters), Gemmell sought to tell exciting tales. Gemmell was the Robert Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs of his day. His stories were inventive and inspired by history, real history, and each page eagerly welcomed readers with action and conflict.

Returning to an earlier comment, what were these themes that Gemmell presented again and again in his fiction? Gemmell's writing usually featured three things. First, and I would argue foremost, Gemmell's novels were infused with his brand of Christianity. Gemmell's novels almost always have narratives discussing the nature of God and Justice in the world. Given that his novels take place in fantasy worlds similar, but different, from our own. The most frequently discussed theological principle in Gemmell's work was that of Just War Theory. It infuses his Drenai Stories (the Drenai are a society based on the ancient Greeks) with discussions of what role, if any, violence can play in the actions of people whose religion forbids murder etc. Typically, his protagonists are flawed heroes who embody this conflict.

The second major theme is Gemmell's constant adaptation of history and historical battles into wonderful Fantasy tales. Legend is an adaptation of the battle of Thermopylae, his Rigante stories mirror the struggles of the Highlanders and Irish with the English. Two of my favorite Gemmell books are his adaptation of the story of Alexander the Great. No one makes me want to open up my Thucydides more than Gemmell, if only to find out what events inspired his creations. He has even written alternate Arthurian and Robin Hood tales.

Gemmell's third theme is the one that finally caught up with him, age. Age and the toll it takes on the body are a constant discussion as Gemmell's stories often feature aging, or aged, heroes struggling against the forces of darkness. These were often the tales I found most inspiring, where the hero has the emotional heart to fight on but his physical heart is giving out.

Last year, Gemmell began what was to be a series of books adapting the Trojan War. The first book, Lord of the Silver Bow was exciting and I was looking forward to the rest (Shield of Thunder is due out in September in England). One of the things that I was most jazzed about was the opportunity to read, in a single author's voice, the entirity of the war. Homer begins in the middle in the Iliad and covers the very end in the Odyssey , the post-homerica covers some of the beginning and end, but there is no really satisfying holistic yarn. It looked like Gemmell was going to provide that yarn, sadly it looks as if the series will end abruptly.
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