Monday, May 21, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Coming of the Sword

Issue #55 (November 1981) was the last issue in which a story about Gardner Fox's Niall of the Far Travels appeared. There are a number of things that are interesting about this final appearance of the Northumbrian barbarian. First, Kim Mohan, in his editorial, calls the stories of Niall "one of DRAGON's specialties." Then, he apologizes for the fact that it had been nearly a year since a new story had appeared, adding that it was Dragon's fault, not Fox's. Second, the story that appears in this issue, "The Coming of the Sword," is out of sequence from its predecessors. Instead of picking up after the last one, this new -- and, as it turns out, final -- one presents us with the tale of Niall's very first adventure, when he was a young man. Now, presenting the adventures of a sword-and-sorcery hero out of chronological order has a long pedigree, going back to Conan the Cimmerian at least, but I find it odd in this case, because it's different from what Fox had done in all his previous stories.

Of course, we'll never know if this represented a change in direction for the Niall of the Far Travels series, since it was the last one ever published. After "The Coming of the Sword," no more appeared, either in the pages of Dragon or elsewhere. I'd love to know why that was the case, but I suspect it's a mystery without any easy answer (unless, of course, Kim Mohan could be prevailed upon to remember what happened -- assuming he even knows). Even without that knowledge, "The Coming of the Sword" is a strange story. I say "strange" in that it not only shows us a younger, less experienced Niall but it shows him in his homeland, which comes across as a Norse pastiche, right down to invocations of Freya, Thor, and Wodin. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but previous installments in the series were filled wholly imaginary deities with no connection to our world.

The story tells of Niall's discovery of a beautiful woman frozen in the ice. While he stares in awe at her, he hears a voice in his head say: "Free me! free me, man of the outer world! free me — and know my
gratitude!" Naturally, he decides to follow her wishes and spends hours attempting to chip away at the ice that contains her. He eventually succeeds and the woman awakens, claiming to be Clovia, the queen of Helios, a realm of which Niall has never heard. This causes Clovia to realize that she must have been imprisoned within the ice for untold years and that her captor, "a magician ... out of the East," must likely be dead by now. Still, she hopes that he homeland of Helios still exists and asks Niall to act as her bodyguard as she makes the long journey there. She promises him riches and fame in her service, both of which get Niall's attention. He had already decided to see more of the "warmer world" anyway, so he agrees to accompany Clovia.

The remainder of this lengthy story concerns the travels of Niall and Clovia as they seek out Helios. Along the way, they encounter numerous dangers, which not only help to establish the barbarian's skill at arms but also serves to highlight just how much the world has changed since Clovia's time. As the duo get closer to her homeland, it becomes ever less likely that Helios has still survived the centuries. Yet, Clovia still holds out hope and Niall does not abandon her, instead forging ahead into the unknown, in the process showing him a wider world beyond the northlands from which he came. We begin to see him become the character we saw in earlier entries in the series.

With that, the Niall of the Far Travels series comes to a close. There's one story left that I have not read, but I'll rectify that soon. When I do, I'll make a post about it. All in all, I enjoyed the series. Not every entry was pure gold, but many were fun to read, filled with well-imagined scenes and engaging characters. It's a pity the series ended so abruptly. It's even more of a pity that these stories have never been collected together under a single cover. I think they'd make a great read for fantasy gamers looking for inspiration.

3 comments:

  1. Wilhelm FitzpatrickMay 21, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    I've been following your Niall review series with much interest. This is the only story I have actually read, this issue of Dragon being the 4th that landed in my mailbox (and I sure do remember that Otus cover).

    It seems like in this age of the Kickstarter, a compilation is actually something that could come to pass, given someone with the fortitude to negotiate with the estate and shepherd everything through the process of rights untangling.

    Given this story came out only 5 years before Fox's death, I wonder if he just wasn't overtaken by health issues at this point.

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  2. Reverance PavaneMay 21, 2012 at 8:16 PM

    It is not only the last of his Dragon stories, but it is also appears to be the very last story he ever wrote, period.  I suspect that, given his death was just over five years after this was published, I definitely agree that ill health may have been to blame for the 70 year old author to finally put down the pen (unfortuneately the only person I might ask has since passed as well). <sigh>

    What fascinates me is the Gardner F Fox collection at the University of Oregon.  Just for the sheer number of personal reference notes that he wrote with regard to his fiction (such as a quick sketch drawing of the the parts of a carriage and six [possibly a stage coach?] )  I suspect, Wilhelm Fitzpatrick that they might have the copyrights for his fiction (his comics are definitely work for hire by DC).

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  3. (Off on a tangent, but... )

    I was never a great fan of Erol Otus, but I loved this cover. Something about the weird little jester introducing the swordsman to his overgrown friend makes me laugh. :)

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