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.
This week is a strange case, as it is the work of an editor, not a writer, that caught Mister Gygax’s eye: Andrew Offutt, and his Swords Against Darkness III anthology, to be specific!
Sneaky, slippery little Swords Against Darkness III! First, I “checked it off” in my head because I’d already talked about Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, and those have the same nomenclature—swords against this, swords against that—so I thought I’d already taken care of it. Second, because of all the cheap used copies of these books that I’d gotten, this was the priciest; I guess there still is pulp fiction out there that is relatively rare. I shouldn’t be surprised; I think everybody probably has some pie-in-the-sky rare books they’ve got booklust for. I’m lucky, actually: I saved up and got a copy of the Harmonia Macrocosmica and I got a copy of the French facsimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript as a gift after none-too-subtle hinting; I’m hoping this year that my blatant hint dropping will net me one of the new editions of the Codex Seraphinianus!
Here is the thing about Swords Against Darkness III: it is really Dungeons and Dragons-y. Parts of it are cringe inducing; I recently watched Deathstalker on Netflix, and the two share a certain “seriously what is with all this sexualized violence?” incredulity and embarrassment for the viewer. That sort of leather loin cloths and oiled biceps are on display here. Wayne Hook’s “Servitude” has a deformed strong arm berserker, John DeCles has his unstoppable gritty warrior in “Rite of Kings,” “A Kingdom Won” by Geo. W. Proctor has the dashing Nalcon…but by 1978, those tropes were getting tired, and I suspect Offutt knew it, because they aren’t the whole story. “Servitude” is about a curse, “Rite of Kings” is a sterling indictment of slavishly following the Monomyth, or of “the ends justify the means,” depending on your reading, and Nalcon…well, okay, he’s a bit of a cliché but the story surrounding him is one of those big gonzo weird stories; defiant misotheists, gill-people, resurrection, Atlantis, all that jazz.
Nor is this all an old boy’s club, though the assumption of there being an old boy’s club is pretty on-the-face of it. Offutt sounds exhausted by it, with lines like:
“Others continue telling me how nice she is to look upon. That’s nice; so am I and so is Ann-Margaret and so is David Soul. It is Tanith Lee’s talent, though, and its product that most interests me.”
Yeah, scorn the male gaze! Rock on. So obviously, Tanith Lee is in here, with an excellent tale of wizard apprentices and ethical choices. Hey, come to think of it—spoiler alert—the “good” wizard wins because the teachers cheat…just like Harry Potter! Okay, okay, I’m just doing a little friendly trolling. Kathleen Resch has a…vampire poem? A short story anthology with a poem tossed in always classes up the joint, I think.
You know what this is chock full of? Curses. Swords Against Darkness III’s biggest contribution to Dungeons and Dragons? Curses. Come on, you know Gary Gygax loved curses; irrational ones, curses where they don’t make sense, just random “gotcha” whammies. I mean, he liked the rational ones too, but while an insane and evil lich littering its tomb with traps and curses before going on an indefinite astral jaunt is sensible (via the logic of the undead, that is), the vast majority of cursed stuff in D&D gets there by random chance, by losing out on the luck of the draw. Gauntlets of Ogre Power? Sorry, cursed. Magic skull wants to grant you wishes? How do you think that works out? Monkey paw stuff like that leaves its damn dirty ape fingerprints all over the hobby.
What else these stories have are relationships. I don’t mean romance, I mean…well, I mentioned Leiber but I’ll bring him up again because the friendship element of their stories is at the core—I think—of the party dynamic in Dungeons and Dragons. We see that same thing in a few of the stories here; David Madison’s Diana and Marcus in “Tower of Darkness” are real gems, right off the bat. A big bruiser—Diana—in a peacock cape and a small dark playboy—Marcus—in too much mascara. Together…they fight vampires! Or Richard Tierney’s “The Sword of Spartacus” which is a great example of when the party gets railroaded by a weird wizard on the DM’s behalf.
Oh and the oddities! Escaping from giant bloodsucking paper moths in “The Pit of Wings”; trying out Alexander the Great’s solution to the Gordian Knot on a lunar cult in “Rite of Kings”; Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Hag” and its sort of Baba Yaga, witches’ esbat swagger; there is solid stuff in here. Heck, “The Mating Web” by Robert E. Vardeman is a fun aside: a story where the brave hunk of warrior turns out to be the sidekick, of sorts, to a giant spider. Sidekick, confidant, marriage counselor—six of one, half dozen of the other.
It ends with Poul Anderson’s essay “On Thud and Blunder.” I bet this article blew Gary—can I call him just Gary? After reading his book selections I feel like I’ve gotten to know him better, gotten to a first name basis?—Gygax’s mind. These days, you’d expect to read an essay like this…in the middle of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It is Poul Anderson, Golden Age giant, telling people that if they want their fantasy story to make sense, you have to put in sensible worldbuilding elements. Oh, there are bits on how the genre is “overpast” (in 1978, mind you) for more non-Western milieus, on Yelü Chucai, the Confucian adviser who urged Genghis Khan to conquest, on class and production and disease and arson and the physics of weapons.
What he comes back to is the premise. A plausible world is the cornerstone of verisimilitude. You can “buckle your swashes” as Anderson puts it, but the sensible construction of the world is what puts the exceptional into stark relief. It is right on advice, but I think now days we take it as read…in big part because, and I’m speculating, Gygax liked this so much that he spread the word, that is became one of the roots of Dungeons and Dragons.