The Barbarian Swordsmen, Edited by Sean Richards, 1981, Star Books, 172 pages.
This is another collection of sword and sorcery tales that I somehow missed over the years. It was a British only publication so that’s probably the reason. Not a lot of such books made it to Arkansas when I was living there. It’s a fine collection, though, and well worth picking up.
The editor of the work is Sean Richards, and there’s an introduction by him that talks about the stories. Some of this would have been new to me in 1981. Not anymore. I wasn’t able to find anything more about Mr. Richards.
The stories including are:
The War of Fire, by J. H. Rosny. This is an exciting excerpt from The Quest for Fire, which was also made into a fine movie. J. H. Rosny was actually a pseudonym, often used by two brothers, Joseph Henri Boex, and Justin Boex. However, from what I understand, Quest for Fire was written solely by the elder brother, Joseph. I’ve read the whole book and the movie does a good job of distilling it, but the book is enjoyable. We have a primitive cave man named Naoh, probably what we’d call a Cro-magnon, whose tribe loses its fire. Since they can’t make fire, only maintain it, they have to seek out fire from some other tribe, and Naoh and his companions have many adventures in doing so, including a battle with Neanderthals. It is that piece which is featured in this book.
The Sword of Welleran, by Lord Dunsany. Lord Dunsany, an Irishman, is well known to fans of sword and sorcery. His fantasy work certainly skated the edge of that genre and he helped develop some of the tropes that later became important. He is said to have influenced Tolkien. His work is rather slowly pace and turgid for modern readers but I find it enjoyable. “The Sword of Welleran” is one of his most approachable tales.
The Tower of the Elephant, by Robert E. Howard. I consider this the strangest of the Conan stories. It certainly breaks ranks with most of the other tales of the Cimmerian in that there is a strong SF element at its core. I was much taken with it when I first read it, years ago.
Brachan the Kelt, by Robert E. Howard. Howard wrote a number of stories involving reincarnation, and several of these featured the character James Allison, who is a modern man capable of remembering his past lives. He then relates these tales from his memories. This is a short piece and definitely not fully developed, but it shows the power of Howard’s prose. Allison remembers being a wandering warrior from a time before history was recorded, when the first white-skinned tribes were entering Europe. As Brachan, he must defeat a beast that makes one think of the yeti.
Jirel Meets Magic, by C. L. Moore. Catherine Moore was just a superb writer and her stories of Jirel of Joiry are outstanding tales of sword and sorcery. They are beautifully written and emotionally charged. Jirel is one of the very first fire-tressed female warriors of fantasy fiction. This is not my favorite of the Jirel stories but it’s close. Moore was influenced by Howard, although it seems to me that most of the influence was in subject matter rather than story effects.
Spawn of Dagon, by Henry Kuttner. Kuttner married C. L. Moore and after that they mostly wrote as a team. I think that Moore was the better writer but Kuttner was more prolific and very professional. Kuttner alone wrote a series of tales about Elak, a prince of Atlantis, and this is one of the best of those tales. Elak was certainly influenced by Howard’s Conan, but is his own character.
The Thief of Forthe, by Clifford Ball. Ball was another writer who was strongly influenced by Howard. That influence can be clearly seen in this story, but I thought it was well written and enjoyable. Apparently, Ball created an earlier character who was essentially a pastiche Conan, but “Rald,” the “Thief of Forthe” shows some originality. I haven't read much of Ball's work but am gong to seek out more.
The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar, by Fritz Leiber. Leiber is another writer who was influenced by Howard as to subject matter, but who in no way appears to be a clone of Howard. His characters and settings are unique and there is a lot more humor in Leiber’s tales than in the Conan stories of Howard. Leiber’s characters are Fafhrd, a giant of a man, a barbarian warrior, and the Gray Mouser, a dark and slender thief. They are unlikely friends but friends they are. All of these stories are enjoyable.
Appendix is: The Man Who Influenced Robert E. Howard. This is an excerpt from a letter written from Robert Howard to H. P. Lovecraft in which Howard indicates his admiration for the poetry of Alfred Noyes.