Author’s Notes: Weaver of Shadow

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 :).

High Elves, Dark Elves, All Elves

Central to the struggle in the Tyrion and Teclis trilogy is the conflict between High Elves and Dark Elves. We all know what that means, don’t we? High Elves are glittering and noble, proud and good. Dark Elves are decadent and wicked, drugged out and crazy, given to torture and malice. They are as different as two peoples can be, aren’t they?

Actually, I don’t think so. I think they are exactly the same people. They are just the products of two very different societies. I believe that in every High Elf is a potential Dark Elf, and in every Dark Elf there is the seed of a High Elf.

Consider this. They were all one people once, before the coming of Chaos, before Aenarion and the Godslayer, before Morathi and Malekith. There once were only Elves. There were no High Elves and no Dark Elves. They had their regional cultures for sure, and they followed different gods at times, but all of them recognised Aenarion as their King and the Everqueen as their Queen. The Elves split at the time of Aenarion when he drew the Black Sword from the Altar of Khaine. He had already forged a martial culture, turned the Elves into a warrior nation. The furthest extreme of the militarised culture he created is one of the roots of Dark Elf nation of Naggaroth. It has since been shaped and honed and refined by the personalities of two of the most powerful and ruthless beings ever to live in the Warhammer world: Malekith and his mother Morathi. From Malekith comes martial discipline, from Morathi, decadence, a love of dark sorcery and the worship of ancient and sinister gods.

In the meantime, Ulthuan went a different road. When Malekith failed to pass through the Sacred Flame of Asuryan and the Princes elected a new Phoenix King, they dug the foundations of a more open, multi-polar society. The wars between Naggaroth and Ulthuan that followed caused both nations to define themselves in opposition to each other. The High Elves made themselves into the opposite of their enemies because they wanted to claim the moral high ground.

Elves are not human. They look a little like human beings. They are more beautiful and much longer lived but they are not entirely like us. They instinctively understand magic. They feel things more keenly. They exist in a heightened exalted state. Most of the time it is like they are slightly drunk or on drugs. They feel things very intensely and often with a strangeness of emphasis to the human eye. This is true of both Asur and Druchi. They have far more in common with each other than they have differences but one of the things about them is that they take things to extremes. Their emotions drive them to it. Once the Elves set their feet on a path, they follow it all the way. The High Elves are going to drive themselves to be noble and true. The Dark Elves are going to excel in decadence and savagery. In some ways though, they are playing a role. All of this is the outcome of choices they have made.

Their societies are also shaped by their life expectancy. An elf lives much longer than anyone in our world will, and our life expectancies are far longer than those of a human who lives in the Warhammer World. In the Old World human lives must be much shorter than even those in our own Middle Ages. Elves have to deal with the long term consequences of their acts. They plan on living to have to do so.

Dark Elf society is particularly shaped by two elves who have lived longer than almost anybody else in the Warhammer world: Morathi and Malekith. They have been there from the beginning. From them, as far as the Dark Elves are concerned, flow all power, all authority, all riches. Their personalities have shaped the nation. They are mother and father to it in a very real sense, gigantic parental figures who have always been there and whom it is always unthinkable to imagine ever not being there. Big Brother (and Big Sister) is very definitely watching, all the time, everywhere. There are vast networks of spies and informers and in some ways every Druchii is co-opted into the system. They are rewarded for betraying your kin and companions.

And this is the true source of the very real differences between the two Elvish nations. The High Elves live in a land where no one has ultimate power. Rulership rests on the consent of the ruled. The Dark Elves live in a tyranny, their lives shaped by two powerful semi-divine immortals. I strongly suspect that a High Elf born in Ulthuan and raised in Naggaroth would be a Dark Elf, and a Druchii headed in the reverse direction would be an Asur. In Blood of Aenarion one of the characters is a Dark Elf sent to Ulthuan as an adult. He is changed by the experience, fatally as it turns out. He provides what I hope is an interesting commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems.

Blood of Aenarion is on the long list for the David Gemmell Legend Award this year. You can vote here.


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Elves and Imagery

Your high school English classes probably left you somewhat suspicious of all talk of imagery and I don’t blame you. I have memories of having poems and stories dissected in front of my eyes by my own teachers. Often it was like being present at a surgical operation where the patient died on the table while the surgeon pulled out his internal organs and explained their function.

All of which rather misses the point. Imagery is an integral part of story and its purpose is very simple. It reminds readers in a subliminal fashion of the ideas that the writer wants them to be reminded of. It can be used to comment on the narrative, to make a point, and in an odd sort of way to provide a structure.

In the very wonderful Death Is No Obstacle, a series of conversations between Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland which I recommend you get your hands on any way you can just as long as you don’t try to borrow my copy, Moorcock mentions the fact that he uses imagery to provide coherence to the narrative, a sort of non-linear form of organisation. Basically imagery ties a book together on a subliminal level.

I bring all this up because the Tyrion and Teclis books are absolutely saturated with imagery, a good deal of it not mine. A lot was created by the great Jes Goodwin back in the day. I can still remember sitting in GW’s old Design Studio back in the early 90s and looking at his concept sketchbooks with amazement. There was everything in there— the very first maps of Ulthuan, sketches of costumes and armour and banners and weapons, iconography and images. Jes was meticulous and brilliant and he thought about all this stuff. I remember him talking about Tyrion and Teclis as archetypes rooted in ancient myth. Tyrion is a solar figure, bright, strong, aggressive, powerful, associated with war and kingship. Teclis is a lunar figure, associated with magic and mystery and the night. You can see it on the detail of the original figures: the Moonstaff of Lileath, and Tyrion’s armour.

This sort of thing is an absolute gift to a writer. It provides a different sort of structure to the book from the one that plot provides. I tried to emphasise it where I could in the text. Most of Tyrion’s big scenes take place during the day, most of Teclis’s at night. It’s simple but you can see F Scott Fitzgerald doing the same sort of thing in The Great Gatsby if you look. Wherever I could I tried to work what I could remember of Jes’s ideas into the narrative.

It affected the characters of the protagonists as well. Tyrion is a brilliant, lucid and logical thinker, a strategist who looks at every situation as if it were a game. Teclis, for all that he is the cleverer of the two is more intuitive. The twins are brothers but they are very different as well. In some way they represent the dichotomies of the Elvish character which are central to this trilogy.

These are books about the conflict between the Asur and the Druchii, the High Elves and the Dark Elves. These are two seemingly very different peoples. The High Elves are noble, wise and idealistic. The Dark Elves are savage, decadent and cynical. And yet, these two nations are actually the same people. They are expressions of the two sides of the Elvish character.  All elves are descended from the same folk; their ancestors all came from the same homeland. One nation has evolved in the bright sunny lands of Ulthuan under a sophisticated, pluralist political system. The other emerged in cold, dark Naggaroth under the savage tutelage of Malekith and Morathi.

The High Elves are a semi-democratic state with functioning institutions for electing their leaders. Their military strength rests on the consent of their citizen armies rather like in many of the city-states of the Classical Period. The Dark Elves come from a feudal-totalitarian nation ruled over by two immortal tyrants possessed of virtually unlimited power. It is a conflict that has been there since the time of Aenarion, a manifestation of something central to the Elvish character. They are a people who have the potential to be either Dark Elves or High Elves. Sometimes it comes down to a choice. They recognise this in themselves. Tyrion is aware that within himself there is a psychotic killer. He keeps that under control, most of the time. He is, to use Martin Cruz Smith’s lovely phrase, a beast leashed by his own hand.

I seem to have digressed from my discussion of imagery however. I chose images to reinforce these ideas and placed them through the book where they seemed natural. Where I could I emphasised dualities, dichotomies and mirrored conflicts.

That’s why these books are littered with chess-sets. A chess-set is an image of exactly the sort of conflict that the two Elf nations are engaged in. A chessboard is a mirrored setup where two balanced forces, one light, one dark fight it out. In the book many of the major characters are chess-players, some better than others. The first time we see Tyrion he is playing chess with his father and then Korien Ironglaive. By the time we reach Book Three the ghost of the Archmage Caledor is playing chess with Death in a game on which the fate of the world hangs, as does the fate of the Great War between the High Elves and the Dark Elves.

Then there are mirrors. These appear everywhere in the books as well. They are there for a lot of reasons. The first and most obvious is that Elves are a very vain people, greatly concerned with their own appearance. The second is that magical mirrors are the means by which Malekith communicates with his agents in Ulthuan. When the great spy and assassin Urian looks into a mirror the image he presents to the world, that of a noble High Elf, is transformed, first into a version of himself in his own memory, and then into the image of his master Malekith. It’s a reminder to the reader as well as himself that the Elves are not what they seem.  Characters in these books are often looking at reflections and not seeing quite what they expect.

Characters are paired with each other too. It’s a recurring image suggested initially by the fact that the central characters are twins and repeated to the point where it becomes a motif. Urian is in many ways the anti-Tyrion, his mirror image. He is a Dark Elf transformed by magic who has spent so long in Ulthuan that he understands the High Elves better than they understand themselves. The oddest thing is that he has come to like and respect them even as he kills them. Morathi and the Everqueen are mirror images, one ancient, decadent and wise, the other eternally self-renewing and in some ways innocent. Where Aenarion and by extension the Phoenix Kings are fire, Malekith is ice and is always shown in cold places such as frozen caverns and chilly keeps. And on and on and on!

Anyway, I am in danger of belabouring the point in the way my teachers once did with me so I will shut up now.