Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilisation is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.
That quote, as you probably well know, comes from Robert E. Howard. More specifically it comes from his 1935 story Beyond the Black River, one of my two all-time favourite Conan tales. (It’s a toss up with Red Nails. I can’t choose between them.)
Beyond the Black River illustrates Howard’s theme all too well. It’s a tale of violence along the border between the civilised land of Aquilonia and the Pictish Wilderness. It was written late in Howard’s short life at a time when his always dark vision had turned particularly bleak. In it events spiral out of control as war erupts between Aquilonian and Pict, and the best even the mighty Conan can do is emerge alive from the maelstrom of violence.
It is not a tale of triumphant adventure. It is shocking excursion into a nightmare world where the primeval forest provides the setting for a conflict between civilised men turning savage and absolutely primordial barbarians. The ending is resolutely downbeat. I read it at a very impressionable age and it imprinted itself indelibly on my imagination.
It was a story that was very much on my mind when I came to write the third book about Kormak, my monster hunting hero, although I did not realise it at first. I did not consciously set out to emulate Beyond the Black River at all. I originally had something very different in mind: The Hobbit!
I have talked about how when I started I wanted to explore Kormak’s world through a series of short stories. I eventually dropped that plan as impractical but when, in a fit of wild enthusiasm, I sat down to write Book Three a variant of it came to me. I would explore different facets of Kormak’s world in each book. This was going to be a book about elves.
Even the most cursory examination of my output will tell you I like to write about elves. When I was a developer at GW I worked on the original High Elf army book. My Terrarch books are set in a world ruled by corrupt and sinister elves, and of course my recent Tyrion and Teclis books have concerned themselves with both High and Dark Elves in their various manifestations.
So I sat down to take a long hard look at elves, and I went back to their roots (sorry!) at least as far as modern fantasy fiction is concerned, which is to say to Tolkien. I was thinking about the elves of Mirkwood, and how oddly sinister they seemed to me when I was young and first reading The Hobbit. For all that Tolkien intended them to be the heroes of Middle Earth, those elves always seemed needlessly cruel to me. Fey and strange and random too.
Of course, when you think about elves, you think of woods. I took that as a starting point and thus Kormak Book Three came to be dominated by forests, and not just any forest but the Elvenwood, a sentient wilderness that had once covered an entire continent. That’s when Beyond the Black River snuck in. When I think of forests in fantasy worlds Howard’s tale of the dark, monster-haunted Pictish Wilderness is never far from my mind. It immediately set the tone. More to the point, it provided an excellent template for a mighty central conflict, the struggle between man and elf for control along the great forest’s edge.
So Kormak’s quest took him to the borders of the Elvenwood, and there he found war brewing. He arrived at a moment when that struggle was about to become a raging inferno. Sniping between the two factions had escalated into raids and slave-taking and ritual sacrifice, spiralling quickly towards out and out war.
The elves themselves turned stranger and darker as the book progressed. The spirit of Beyond the Black River seemed to possess them. They were still semi-immortal pointy-eared woods dwellers but they became ever more like the Picts, feral, savage and deadly, armed with poisonous weapons, attacking from ambush. Their forest was in the grip of a Shadowblight, and the elves themselves had been changed for the worse by it.
The Shadowblight became a huge part of the story, an area of sorcerous corruption, eating the heart out of the old magical forest, and twisting and changing everything it encountered, turning natural creatures into monsters and driving normal people insane. To stay too long in it corrupts anything, even a Guardian like Kormak who is warded against such things.
Another aspect of Mirkwood has always haunted me, arachnophobe that I am, and that is the spiders. So the mad elves acquired allies, twisted sentient spiders, more than a little reminiscent of the Ultari in Death’s Angels. Hell, they even worshipped Uran Ultar, the infamous spider god of the Terrarch cycle. I’ve always wanted to build my own multiverse a la Michael Moorcock and Andre Norton and here was my chance to make a start. Weaver, the Prophet of the Spider God, became the chief adversary of the story. And, at the end of the line, Kormak has to face a creature even worse than Shelob.
I needed also to give the reader some idea of what the Elves were normally like when not corrupted by Shadow, so Kormak found an ally in Gilean, an elvish warrior and huntress sent to investigate the Shadowblight, and she in turn gave me a chance to explore more mainstream elvish culture and its relationship with the sentient forest.
The stage was set. On one hand we had feral, drug-addicted elves allied with giant sentient hunting spiders, emerging from their twisted forest to enslave and kill the humans who had stolen their lands. On the other, the humans became ever more like the embattled settlers of Howard’s masterpiece, foresters and woodsmen who had carved out their own little homeland beyond the feudal borders of the Sunlands and who were unwilling to give up their territory without a fight to the death.
Weaver of Shadow is a tale of raids, chases and ultimately war set beneath the eaves of a Shadow-haunted forest. It does not quite show the triumph of barbarism but it’s a close run thing. In the end it illustrates a somewhat different quote, from another of my favourite authors, George Orwell. Men can only be highly civilised while other men, inevitably less civilised, are there to guard and feed them.
Kormak is not very civilised but he is one of those stand guard while others sleep. He has his work cut out for him in this story.
The new Kormak book has been shipped out to Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, B&N, Smashwords and all the usual suspects. Apple’s iBookstore is, as ever, a law unto itself and will let you have the book when it’s good and ready :).