In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the eleventh post in the series, featuring Tim’s one-man look at a Kothar of the Magic Sword by Gardner Fox.
Look, Kothar is completely different from Conan, let’s just make sure we’re clear on that.
Sure Kothar and Conan are both sword-wielding barbarians with the same first syllable in their names, but Kothar is Cumberian while Conan is Cimmerian. Totally different, as you can see.
Okay, other than that, they’re pretty similar, except Kothar isn’t as smart as Conan. And Kothar stories were written decades after the Robert E. Howard Conan stories, so the sexuality of the characters can be a bit more explicit. “A dumber, dirtier Conan!” is not the tag line for the Kothar series, but it could be.
Kothar of the Magic Sword is the second book in the Kothar series from what I can tell, though some sources list it as the third. The ragged paperback copy I have is no help, since it doesn’t list any other books in the series or even the publication date. Or feature a copyright notice. Or anything you’d expect to find in a book that was actually published. I suspect the first few pages are missing. But the story’s all there, right after the title page, which gives us an exclamation point. Kothar of the Magic Sword! is how you’re supposed to say it, apparently, which sounds about right to me. Because this book is by Gardner Fox!
Gardner Fox published a novel a year for most of his adult life. And he wrote stories for magazines. He was, in his later years, even a regular contributor to TSR’s Dragon magazine, providing prose fiction to inspire the imaginations of game masters everywhere.
But that’s not why Gardner Fox is important.
Regardless of his incredibly prolific output in the prose world, what matters about Gardner Fox is that he’s one of the most significant figures in the history of the comic book medium. Gardner Fox created the original Flash. And Hawkman. And the idea of the first superhero team with the Justice Society. He wrote all those stories in the 1940s, along with the first adventures of Dr. Fate and Starman and many others. And when superheroes returned to prominence in the Silver Age, he created the all-new Atom and relaunched the superteam concept for a new generation with the Justice League of America.
Gardner Fox is one of the most legendary comic book writers of all time.
But he also wrote Kothar of the Magic Sword. And that’s why we’re here today.
If this one installment of the Kothar series is any indication—and from what I’ve read elsewhere about Kothar, this volume is a representative sample—then Gardner Fox’s Kothar books are schlocky and derivative, but compulsively readable. It seems that when you’re doing a Conan rip-off, you could go in a few directions. You could (A) just change the names and places a little, or (B) go in a more realistic direction with some depth of characterization, or (C) out-Conan Conan with outlandish situations, ultra-violence, and lots of sex.
Fox chooses a bit of option A and a lot of option C.
Kothar of the Magic Sword is preposterous and sometimes nonsensical and absolutely compelling. Perhaps Gardner Fox turned his comic book scripting sensibilities to his sword and sorcery prose fiction, or perhaps his natural inclination just lent itself to the kind of cliffhanger-and-constant-momentum storytelling that worked so well in comics, but if there’s one thing that’s true about this Kothar book it’s that the story moves. Characters pop in and out, enormous dramatic conflicts last a few pages and then we’re on to something new. Kothar barely has time to catch his breath. But he doesn’t need to. He’s Kothar. And he has a magic sword!
Supposedly, Gary Gygax took the idea of the lich—a kind of ultra-powerful undead sorcerer—from Fox’s first Kothar book, in which the “living-dead wizard” Afgorkon gives Kothar the magic sword known as Frostfire.
That’s all backstory for Kothar and the Magic Sword, because now he has the weapon and he gets to use it for…justice? Nope, not justice, that’s comic book Gardner Fox. This is adult fantasy Gardner Fox, and so Kothar uses his sword for profit, mostly.
Kothar’s a self-proclaimed adventurer, and in the spirit of adventuring that would influence a role-playing game in which experience points are granted by the accumulation of gold, Kothar’s main motivation is to make money. He’s a sword for hire, and even when he takes on heroic tasks—like rescuing a young girl from a cult of weirdos—he only does it so that the girl’s father will give him a better price on some jewels Kothar’s trying to unload.
That simple motivation makes the Kothar stories work pretty well, actually. It gives him a clear mission and a clear sense of purpose. And if he happens to do awesome stuff along the way, well that’s just part of being Kothar. But awesomeness is its own reward. And it doesn’t pay the bills. So the gold and jewels are really the reward that matters. Not that Kothar actually has any bills. But he does seem to love to travel. And to stay at fancy places filled with beautiful women. And that lifestyle ain’t cheap, friend.
Kothar of the Magic Sword is actually two stories under a single cover. There’s a tenuous tie between the two, but they are basically two complete adventures of about 70 pages each. The first tale is “The Helix from Beyond” in which Kothar briefly teams up with a Gray Mouserish thief named Rufflod in an attempt to steal the magical helix thingie in the title. It starts as a nautical heist, and quickly turns into a gladiatorial battle with a very angry giant slave bear, and an almost-tryst with a sexy dancing girl, and there’s a necromancer named Thaladomis and this whole thing happens on the emperor’s ship, and that’s just the first dozen pages.
Here’s a sample of Fox’s prose style, for those of you wondering how the creator of the Justice League of America handles depictions of violence:
Kothar reached out, grabbed the sheeted heads of the other two assassins and rammed their skulls together so hard Laella could hear the sound of their splitting, like overripe melons dropped on a paving stone.
But Fox can do sensitive romantic interplay, too. Here’s Laella, the dancing girl, after being rescued from the emperor’s ship: “I belong to you,” says Laella. “You belong to yourself, girl,” Kothar grunts.
Laella, by the way, spends the entire book either throwing herself at Kothar or waiting for Kothar to return from wherever he goes next. So while she might technically belong to herself, narratively she belongs to Gardner Fox, and he uses her as set decoration. It’s mostly sad. Okay, not mostly. Completely.
And what else happens in “The Helix from Beyond”? Well the helix turns out to be a gateway to a pocket dimension created by the wizard Phronalom as a man-cave to get away from the pressures of life, but now the emperor is using the dimension as his own hangout and there’s also a magical gem and…well, I’ll let emperor Kyros explain this part: “Thaladomis locked a powerful demon inside the ruby gem of Gwanthol…the jewel he hid in the—in the belly of Skyre, the great eagle of Nirvalla.” Yes, right. All that stuff.
The demon, by the way, is named Warrl, and Kothar eventually frees him. (Eventually? What am I saying? This is Gardner Fox! The whole killing-the-giant-eagle-and-smashing-the-demon-gem takes about two pages.) Kothar steps aside and lets Warrl get his own revenge against the bad guys and our hero swoops in at the end and pawns some of his loot for cash. The end.
The whole thing is actually pretty fun and fast-moving and sleazy and kind of dumb and that about sums up Kothar of the Magic Sword. There’s a second story in the book called “A Plague of Demons” which I could summarize at length as well, but let me give you the ultra-short version because I think you get the point of Kothar by now: a sexy sorceress taunts Kothar as he tries to rescue a young girl from the cult of Pulthoom, but the young girl is actually possessed by a different sexy sorceress and the reason the cult is so successful is because they have orgies all the time and anyway, Kothar rescues the girl-actually-an-evil-sorceress and fights some beast men and some dudes who call themselves Mongrols and then the really evil sorceress (not possessing the girl) plays mind games with Kothar and he saves her from something called a “mating duel” and then he helps imprison her with silver, because silver stops sorceresses from escaping.
But no, this isn’t the plot of a movie you saw on cable at midnight in 1983, this is the plot of the second half of Kothar of the Magic Sword. And it’s just as terrible and kind of great as it sounds.
It also sounds a lot like Dungeons & Dragons, as played by a bunch of teenagers pounding back cans of Mountain Dew. Gardner Fox’s prose work may be mostly forgotten now, even as his comic book creations are adored, but his Kothar novels have the spark of proto-D&D in their belly. Their sleazy, gold-hankering barbarian belly.