Friday 24 February 2023

Legends and Re-reads

Relax, I am not going to attack this novel!

I am, however, going to talk about reading it twice with ~40 years between the reads, leading into the whole business of seeing things with new (or older) eyes, and wandering into the territory of tribalism, identity, and the emotional bonds we form with books.

I've broken these things up into sections as it turns out that I went on at length!

Legend, David Gemmel's debut novel, was published in 1984. My copy is from 1987, so it's actually 36 years since I first and last read it. I went on to read a whole bunch of his books and hugely enjoyed them. I count several of them among my best reading experiences.

But the past is, as L.P Hartley reminds us, a foreign country - they do things differently there. In the not so distant past blogs were a vibrant platform, the blogosphere was the place where books were made or broken. Now it's just you and me, my friend. The rest of the world are giving their attention out in 30 second chunks on twitter and tiktok. Even readers prefer not to read too much.

As a side note, Gemmell's success won him many fans, some of whom set up the Gemmell Awards in his name after his untimely death. For a decade they handed out the Legend Award, Morningstar Award, and Ravenheart Award. I have two Legend Awards dangerously perched on my shelves. If you ever see me limping, you'll know how I lost those toes.

(none of the writing awards I've won are not weapons...)

I was a very different person in a very different world when I read Legend at 21 from the man I am at 57. I also know a lot more about writing.

A few things to say about Gemmell. 

- He is a skilled storyteller.

- He knows how to push emotional buttons. When I was starting to think about the mechanics of writing he was the first author I looked hard at and said 'how is he making me feel like this?'

- He had a clear ethos/worldview that runs through all his books. His readers often repeat it as delivered through the eponymous Legend (Druss the Legend, aka Druss of the Axe, aka Deathwalker):

Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.

-The Iron Code of Druss the Legend


Legend, it should be noted, was written at speed when Gemmell thought he was dying after receiving an erroneous cancer diagnosis. He wrote many books and his writing improved. I think the same improvement happens to many authors, myself included, but the nature of publishing success often means that it's our first book that sells most widely and is best remembered.

I've seen it said that the siege around which the entire book centres, was a metaphor for the supposed cancer's attack on the author. Moreover cancer is mentioned in the book - Druss's old friend dies of it, and it's considered as a likely end should Druss survive the battle into old age.

In Legend we see the legend, Druss, emerge from a short retirement at the grand old age of 60. Which seemed really quite old to me at 21, and at 57, not so much...

On a technical note, the book is written in an omniscient head-hopping style that has very much fallen out of favour in recent decades. I was told not to do it many times on writing groups. For a battle scene it has some attractions - the author can bounce in and out of characters on both sides, watching from the eyes of the person loosing the arrow and then sinking into the head of the one hit by it, and then sliding into the mind of the friend standing next to them.

The reason writers (at least in fantasy) generally choose to stick with one PoV per chapter is that it cements the reader in that character and creates a sense of immediacy where the readers shares the character's experience more closely and feels their emotions. Head hopping and omniscience create a distance.

So, returning to Legend I read it very swiftly (for me) taking only 3 days compared to my normal month+ per book. Gemmell's writing is very easy to read (and that's a considerable skill - a bad writer is hard to read). He doesn't push the prose envelope, just gets the job done. I noticed a doctor sweeping away "the debris of pain" as a rare flourish.

But powerful prose isn't the only or even best way to evoke strong emotion, and Gemmell still managed to do that, despite my more cynical, jaded mindset and my technical nous regarding the writing. I could clearly see him pushing the buttons, yet still my buttons were pushed.

One change wrought by 36 years and changing times plus changes in what many of us expect from fantasy writing, was that I now see the book as all rather one-note. The message is of manly men standing up for what's right, even when 'right' is more about obstinacy/honour. The very small number of women are not well written and have fairly minor roles. The new earl's wife does fight (rarely despite being really good at it) and is mainly there to spur change and manliness in her husband.

I should note that, although I had entirely forgotten his existence, Rek has several top level similarities to my own Jalan Kendeth, being a skilled swordsman but rather cowardly, a "ladies' man", and of dubious morals. The big similarity is that when pushed to extremes he berserks. Jalan was very definitely inspired by Flashman from the book of the same name (1969), but certainly has overlap with Rek. Either that was wholly subconscious, or both characters owe a debt to Harry Flashman and as such share considerable genetic material.

The repeating theme of Legend, unsurprisingly given its origin story, is men facing up to an implacable enemy and revealing their true mettle, generally turning out to have deep reserves of stubborness, courage, honour or some combination of these similar substances.

I enjoyed it. I like reading about heroism, defiance, sword fighting, seiges, and the like. Perhaps not quite as much as when I was 21, certainly I'd like more nuance in it these days, but I sat back and enjoyed the ride. Dros Delnock with its six concentric walls stepping up as they guard a pass has much in common with Minas Tirth's seven concentric walls stepping up to the Citadel of Gondor.

The bitter and the sweet of dying in the defence (bitter because of the dying, sweet because of the friendships forged, depths revealed etc) are highlighted in Druss with this being the end of a long, legendary life. We get to see the legend and the man, both butting up against each other, both overlapping, both seen through his own eyes and of those around him.

There's a non-cynical purity to it all that's easy to buy into and easy to feel. I bought in again (with more reservations) and felt it again - perhaps more so this time being old myself.


Of our main hero, Druss, Gemmell says:

Druss had never been good with women, not intuitive as some men are. Women were another race to him, alien and forbidding.

And yes, anyone could write a book with such a character. We have an incel sub-culture at the moment that seems to view women as alien and forbidding too. So the character is not unrealistic [I AM NOT SAYING DRUSS IS AN INCEL]. But it does seem that this attitude pervades the men in the book. Apart from the earl's wife the only other women I can recall who gets any 'screen time' is a staggeringly beautiful young lady who seduces then murders men, gets Druss naked for a regular massage, and has very pronounced daddy issues about him. 

I'm not necessarily saying that every second soldier on the walls had to be a woman, though that is very definitely an option - perhaps a less commercial one in 1984 ... who knows. In my first book the cast was almost entirely male. (And in my 7th book the cast was almost entirely female. And in my 16th book it's a pretty even mix). But I am saying that fantasy 40 years ago was different - the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

In fact, it's right there in the code that is more than just Druss's code

Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. 

Yes, that's great. I'm all for not doing these things. But it's a code for men. A code that treats women as a separate thing, putting them next to children.

I'm both worried and amused by the idea that I might suddenly be labeled "woke". And yes, I understand that fantasy has traditionally borrowed from and echoed the history that gave us swords and spears and shields and castle seiges. So many of us borrowed the man-centric view too for our (certainly in the 80s) man-centric world.

Things change. Fantasy changes too. The worlds we choose to place our stories in change. It's been interesting to jump back to the stories I read as a young man and read them as a man nearly as old as white-bearded Druss the Legend as he makes his last stand.


Gemmell's writing evokes passion. It's a great body of work that I have spent many happy hours consuming over many years.

We are a species that have not-infrequently cut each other with stanley knives (board cutters to my fellow Americans) for wearing the wrong colour scarf, indicating our desire that a different team kick the ball with more success.

It's not surprising then that when someone doesn't like the books we love, there is a tendency in many to close ranks, to insult, even to seek revenge. Not surprising, but in no way good. 

Gemmell's fandom, in my experience, is very welcoming and friendly. I've not seen anything extreme from them and count myself among their ranks. But still, when someone is less than 100% on something we adore, we all feel that sting.


I'm merely commenting on the differences in me that 36 years have wrought, while the text has remained unchanged.

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  1. While I agree with the thought that times change and writing can and maybe should change with it, the idea that the code, "never violate a woman," is somehow outdated or treats women as if their "alien" is ridiculous. It's a code that comes from an understanding as old as humanity: women are physically weaker and are the only one's that can bear life, thus protecting them is of the utmost importance. Now I'm not saying we need to keep up with the idea of protecting women at the cost of everything else that men used to have. But, nor should we ignore or invalidate the simple fact that, while women in stories can protect themselves, by and large most women in our world can and would be physically dominated by most men in most situations. "Never violate a woman" is a code to remind men that while we absolutely have the power to do harm to women and there's not much they could do about it (talking in the physical sense), it's on us to not abuse that fact.

    And 36 years later, that hasn't changed. The code has nothing to do with how men should or do view women, and everything to do with men being accountable for with our power.

    1. Druss is entirely capable of violating men. Why doesn't his code include never violating men? The book literally says "Women were another race to him, alien and forbidding." In that context to call the idea that the code treats women as if they're alien ridiculous is ... ridiculous. Even if that first "alien" assertation was yours rather than from my text, which says "a separate thing".