David Gemmell and Fantasy Heroes

Gemmell remains one of my favourite authors of all time. I read Legend, his first book, when very young. My family had a ZX Spectrum computer and we got a game called Legend. It was almost two games, with one side of the cassette loading up an RPG-like game, and the second side loading up a strategy game. Essentially, you journeyed and recruited people for the big battle, unless you just loaded up the battle. Not a good idea.

With the game came the book. My dad read it to learn an answer to the password that let you play the game. He then gave it to me saying: you’ll like this.

I loved it. Druss remains one of my favourite heroes of all time. Old men have often been portrayed in action but rarely as old men. Druss was a legend (hence the title) and he fought like one, but he felt his age all the time. He was reflective of a life of bloodshed and no children too.

Alongside him we had Rek, a coward who becomes a nobleman and champion, and Virae, whose passion and courage make him love her to the extent that he follows her to war. We also have Orrin, a pudgy commander who trains hard to become ready for the fight ahead; he really does change. I loved the Thirty. I loved the two farmers now soldiers, one a farmer at heart, one who can’t stand it but doesn’t feel much better about fighting and dying on a wall.

I’ve read Legend many times and I truly love it. It is very straightforward, with a good, old fashioned them vs us plot, an Alamo/Rorke’s Drift type desperate battle, and characters joining up to face the foe.

Characters joining up is very much something I loved in the Knights of Dark Renown. That might be my favourite Gemmell book. The perfect knights who vanished through a portal. The sense of a golden age having passed, so now we have outlaws fighting for freedom and a king’s champion losing his hand when defending what was right. We have a number of unlikely heroes, including a ruthless outlaw, a poet, a strict nobleman, a former champion and a lost knight, uniting to form a new order of knights. It was good versus evil again, only the good were flawed and interesting.

That was what I loved about Gemmell’s heroes. He knew how to make them flawed but not defined by them. He didn’t write flawed heroes but heroes who had flaws, had dreams, had fears. He wrote rounded characters. But he gave them a greatness. Whether it was Druss, an old man fighting one last battle, or Waylander, the assassin now hunted, or Shannow, the man of faith shooting his way across wastelands while searching for a new Jerusalem – they had that power of personality. They were strong of will, cared for others, refused to back down to evil and were ready to pay the price for their actions. They reminded me of heroes of ancient literature – Samson, Hercules, King David, Achilles, etc. You cheered for them but you didn’t revere them blindly.

He was great at giving us rogues too. My two favourite characters of his could well be Bison and Beltzer. Both odious, blunt, selfish, and yet they were men of action and they would never let their friends down. This is remarked on Beltzer. Something along the lines of – if I were in a valley surrounded by enemies, he would come in, axe swinging. They are men you want to slap some sense into, but you see why others put up with them. A friend, Kebra the archer I think, is asked why he likes Bison. He replies something in the way of – no one likes Bison, we love him.

Gemmell taught me how to write heroes who are annoying, and how you redeem them.

I consider Gemmell to be like a father to me in writing. By reading his work, I learned so much on how to write fantasy, but more on how to write heroes. Heroes shouldn’t be perfect. They can be as weak as any of us, but they rise up to the occasion. He wrote of female characters who were strong fighters but others who were just strong. There was a lesser female character in the Lion of Macedon – Theta or Thesis – who wasn’t even a real love interest for Parmenion, but they were together for some time because she was strong of will and thought, intelligent and resourceful, and caring. She was a woman to be with by virtue of her own worth, not simply because you were infatuated with her.

Another hero was the redeemed hero. The outlaw Daniel Cade turned prophet. The killer Durmast who dies as he defends others. Decado, the Ice Killer, become priest, then a fighter again. With Gemmell, anyone was capable of evil or good, and true worth would be proven when it was really needed. Bad men could change. Weak can become strong. Fear would be overcome, but it would need to be beaten, not excused. Weak heroes and heroes with weaknesses are two different things. Again, Gemmell never allowed his heroes to be defined by their weaknesses either. They were there. Some of his heroes were a bit too unreliable or too reckless. Some wanted revenge rather than salvation. But what made them heroes – that will, that courage, that drive to protect those who needed it and oppose those who had to be – was what always shone out in the end.

I loved Gemmell’s heroes. I still do. Partly for themselves, partly for the type they represent. The hero who isn’t always right. The hero who isn’t the absolute best. The hero who does what they can with what they have.

Hector feared Achilles and went out anyway. Odysseus was a liar and trickster who made it home. Lancelot was the near perfect knight who couldn’t stop his heart, or perhaps his loins, from leading him astray. Beowulf was a boaster. Samson an idiot. Conan was a thief and brute. Moses never reached the promised land. Boromir was desperate to save his people. Gilgamesh was a tyrant.

I also liked Lamorak from Le Morte D’Arthur because he was rated as third or so among the knights and always lost to Lancelot and Tristram. He was great but not great enough to outshine them, which leaves him in their shadow.

So there it is. Once I read a book called Legend. I loved it. I read more and more of Gemmell’s work. I own a slew of them. I loved his style, his worlds, but most of all his characters. He did something that really spoke to me. I hope only to imitate it.

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