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 and 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 fifteenth post in the series, featuring a look at The Warrior of World’s End by Lin Carter!
Tim Callahan: I don’t know that I’d say that Lin Carter hammered a home run with the ending of The Warrior of World’s End—if you will allow me a baseball metaphor for no good reason—but this was a jam-packed book, even at only 150 pages.
I fell in love with the insanity of this book pretty early on, and my enthusiasm rarely waned, even with its relatively abrupt climax-and-conclusion. Many of the books we’ve been reading for this Gygax project have sequels or are part of multi-book series, and though I haven’t rushed out for more Lin Carter and World’s End yet, I’m tempted to in a way that I haven’t been tempted by anything else recently.
This “First Book of the Gondwain Epic,” or so it says in my copy, which I believe is the first (and only?) edition from 1974, tells the story of the rise and super-crazy-rise and super-super-wonderfully-mad-action-packed-rise-even-higher-on-a-flying-metal-bird of Ganelon Silvermane, who is kind of like a...how do I put this...advanced clone of Jesus and He-Man or something? His name is Ganelon Silvermane, and he’s all-around awesome.
And then there’s the writing.
Sometimes this book reads like a barely-controlled stream of fake science and unrestrained fantasy, and other times it reads like Lin Carter was using William Burrough’s cut-up technique on a bunch of old pulps and science textbooks he had floating around his office. The prose features sentences like this:
“The Tigermen fiercely resented this form of blackmail, and soon found means of rejecting the demands of the so-called Airmasters (as the Sky Islanders had taken to calling themselves). For the comet’s head, a giant mass of frozen oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and helium, was buried beneath the roots of the Thazarian Mountains...”
And it goes on, and that’s no early-story exposition, that’s two-thirds of the way through the book, because Lin Carter does not establish a world and then set his plot in motion. He constantly builds this world as he goes, amplifying the strange landscape and weird cultures and alien races and setting Ganelon Silvermane to work as the one who will unite them all, mostly with his rad fighting skills.
Mordicai Knode: I’m so glad this book came around when it did; I was starting to sour on the Appendices but then, BAM! Like lightning, Warrior of World’s End started laying down the sick beats. It reads sort of...well, to use the lingo of the Appendices, it reads like one of Jack Vance’s wizards is in a tutelary role like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s patrons, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face to a John Carter-esque protagonist. There are a lot of influences going into this, is what I’m saying, making a rich stew. Hearty fare for a weary traveller!
As Tim mentions, this book just immediately goes madcap, and for the best. The crazyquilt of ideas actually gets stitched into a rather cohesive—if surreal—whole. At this risk of bringing up another comparison, it sort of reminds me of Jack Kirby, where each crazy thing thrown into the mix stays in the mix; it isn’t scrubbed out or forgotten but rather lingers, remaining a vibrant part of the story. A lot of fiction throws in big ideas and then walks away from them without exploring their ramifications, but if Warrior of World’s End says there is a giant metal flying robot-bird then doggone it, that robot-bird is going to stick around and become a major character!
And there certainly are a lot of big ideas, just scattered around, helter-skelter. Heck, things kick off with a “godmaker” and a “pseudowoman” as the Joseph and Mary of the story, and that is in the comparatively tame establishing bits. Some of the rest of the trivia you get in exposition, but some of it is happily and lovingly rendered in footnotes. “The zodiacal signs recognized in this era..” starts one, going on to list things like Manticore, Bazonga, Minimal, Merwoman, and Spurge. I have mentioned on numerous occasions that I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, so tiny asides like that really get to me, you know?
TC: Yeah, the kind of worldbuilding I love isn’t in the pseudo-historical details and lengthy chronicles of lands that never were (I’m looking at you Silmarillion), but in the evocative names tossed around and the implied depth of the world. I like the suggestion of the enormity, and weirdness, of a fantasy world, but I don’t like to know all of the scientific and economic details about it. Lin Carter doesn’t give us that stuff. He jumps right into the madness and explains just enough to give us a foundation to make some kind of sense out of everything. But it’s not the explanations that matter—it’s the non-stop acceleration through increasingly epic events.
It’s absolutely Jack Kirbyish, and I love it for that.
MK: Well, I am a Silmarillion nerd— I know it is basically just “biblical begats” but it is my jam— but I don’t want to go off-topic here on that rant. You’re right though, “evocative” is the term: The Warrior of World’s End tosses out entire ideas, just a kernel that your imagination waters and tends to till it sprouts into something personal and unique, filling in the corners of the world off the map. At the same time, what gets me is that, after dangling all these story hooks around, Carter actually grabs some of them, and takes the story off in that direction. We both mentioned the giant robotic bird—well, whatever you want to call a magical superscience automaton, maybe robot is the wrong word for it—but the multi-dimension, soul-eating lobster demon who speaks in a charming pidgin is pretty great, too. Not to mention that the novel remembers that a multi-dimensional demon and a metal bird exists outside of the scenes establishing them. It is Chekhov’s Gun—a simple narrative tool, but in the gonzo context, it really shines.
TC: Oh yeah, I totally agree. This is a book that builds its mythology as it goes, like some kind of genius tesseract of narrative. I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds like it would fit The Warrior of World’s End.
And, in the larger context of this Gary Gygax Appendix N stuff, this Lin Carter novel reminds us of the unrestrained promise of early D&D. As the game evolved and kind of solidified into what most people play as a relatively traditional fantasy setting, D&D lost some of the anything-goes bravado of its early incarnations. Gygax’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books had pages devoted to converting characters from D&D to the western rules of Boot Hill or the post-apocalypse of Gamma World. Reports of the adventures he used to run—as evidenced by modules like Dungeonland—show that Gygax’s game wasn’t a straightforward dudes-in-armor-exploring-ruins kind of thing. He had his characters teleported to insane worlds where parodies of Alice in Wonderland characters appeared. He wasn’t afraid to amplify the mythology-building in his games.
The Warrior of World’s End reminds me of that. Anything can happen, but in the end it makes sense in its own way. And that’s only after reading one book in the series. I have no idea how much more madness Lin Carter packs in to Ganelon Silvermane’s story in later volumes.
MN: That is a really smart point. Gygax’s games had people transported to other planets where their primary class didn’t work, or sent mysteriously into the Wild West. Where, you know, they would pick up stuff that would not only stay with them (Muryland’s “magic wands” which are just six-shooters) but bleed over into the game (Melf’s planetary adventures are the reason that AD&D’s multi-classing rules—or is it dual classing?—are so bizarre). Heck, you can still see those wacky ideas enshrined in the magic items; Vance’s IOUN stones, the Apparatus of Kwalish, Elric’s Stormbri... I mean, Blackrazor, just these little snake-hands, artifacts of a wilder, untamed D&D.
You’re right that the assumptions of the game have condensed into a sort of high fantasy setting, but that is the genius of campaign settings. Spelljammer may not be supported these days, but it remains one of my fondest Dungeons & Dragons milieus. Travelling through the Ptolemaic heavens in spaceships designed to look like nautiluses and manta rays, encountering squidheaded aliens and hippo-headed aliens...that attitude of pushing the envelope shows up time & again. If reading Lin Carter inspires anything, it should be to steal from the odder corners of the game, and to turn the Weird Dial up to 11 for a session or two.
TC: To the Phlogiston, and beyond!