For various reasons, I’ve found myself giving a lot of thought to what is ‘heroic’ fantasy – possibly because this is the sort of fantasy that the Gemmell Awards aim to laud and I happen to have been reading some Gemmell of late. Possibly also because I’ve been reading Robert E Howard again, on and off, and it certainly hasn’t been helped by starting off on both Prince of Thorns and Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand of late (and that, in part, because I’ve heard it said that if anyone should win an award for writing like David Gemmell, it should be Paul Kearney).
If anyone nailed me to the floor and refused to allow me any ice cream ever again until I came up with a couple of icons of heroic fantasy, I guess I probably would have said Conan and Druss. That’s what I would have come up with before I did all this thinking. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Is Conan a hero? Is Druss? They’re quite similar characters in a way – big, strong men who are as good as invincible in single combat, and they have little to no grasp of the concept of either compromise or backing down. They not characters who will turn tail and slink away to fight another day. They will stand up for what they believe in no matter what the odds. Now that last bit ought to make them heroic, oughtn’t it? But as far as I can make out, Conan believes in Conan, in Conan getting lots of treasure and hot babes and respect, and, y’know, stuff. And not much else. There’s nothing very heroic in there – one might conclude that Conan is simply a big bully. A hip-hop star in the worst traditions of babes-and-bling.
Druss is a bit different, but in the end his motivation is a selfish one too – he simply doesn’t want to die like an old man, weak and feeble and no longer in control of his faculties. So yes, he goes off one last time to face up against the impossible odds, only he does it because he wants to die. He has nothing to live for any more. There is no sacrifice, because all he’s giving up is something he no longer wants. The difference, to me, exists in the way they are written. When Conan’s about, other characters exist (largely) to die, either to fall into the horrible trap so that Conan doesn’t, be murdered so that Conan isn’t, or, most commonly, be slaughtered by the man himself. What makes Druss different is that characters around him have lives of their own. They have hopes and fears and aspirations. They have reasons to carry on living. These are characters who have something to lose, and sometimes they do, and yet they put themselves in danger’s path for the greater good, or for love, or some sense of forgiveness or having done one good thing. What makes Druss differ from Conan is not what he actually does, but what he inspires in others. And that, surely, is what Heroic Fantasy is about.
So if I have to give the ‘Heroic Fantasy’ crown to one of them, it’d be Druss, but to be honest I’d rather give it to Rek. I rather wonder who else might deserve it. In fact, I’m rather wondering where the heroes in my fantasy have gone.