Sunday, February 5th, 2012

John Rateliff discusses Silverlock:

“When a man reads my books I do not take it that he is hiding out from anything
but that he is simply doing something he considers worthwhile.”

— John Myers Myers, “Escapism and the Puritans” (1947)

It’s a truism that all books are derived, at least in part, from other books. We recognize a work as belonging to a genre (murder mystery, pulp horror, urban fantasy) because it contains elements common to other books in that same genre. With some books, the derivation is not general but specific: Pat Murphy’s There and Back Again (1999), for instance, is a re-writing of The Hobbit (1937) as a science fiction space opera, with a one-on-one correspondence between the characters and the plots. Similarly, Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara (1977) is a recasting of elements from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) for fans of the original who wanted more “Tolkienesque” stories, and McKiernan’s two-volume “Silver Call” duology, Trek to Kraggen-Cor and The Brega Path (1986), is a direct sequel to Tolkien’s book with the names changed (Gimli to Brega, Khazad-dum to Kraggen-Cor, hobbits to warrows, and so on) to protect the not-so-innocent.

The impulse to write new stories featuring beloved characters or settings created by another author has given rise to both the Arthurian cycle and vast quantities of fan fiction, not to mention all the Sherlock Holmes stories unleashed upon the world since Nicholas Meyers published The Seven Percent Solution (1974). Sometimes such stories take the form of inserting new characters into an established setting, with an outstanding example being Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp’s Incomplete Enchanter series (1940-41 and 53-54), where a modern-day protagonist is plunged into fictional worlds based on Norse myth, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and so on; such tales derive much of their kick from the juxtaposition between the courtly natives and slangy, irreverent newcomers with their contrasting points of view (the ultimate pioneer of all such tales probably being Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). More recently, Marvin Kaye in The Incredible Umbrella (1976) and its sequels transported his hapless doctoral dissertation candidate through worlds based on Gilbert & Sullivan, Sherrinford Holmes (an alternate-world Sherlock), Dracula, certain of the Arabian Nights, and Flatland, among others. Like alternative history stories, these stories depend upon the reader recognizing the literary elements being borrowed: someone who has never read an H. P. Lovecraft tale or one of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves novels will not be able to fully appreciate the fun when Peter Cannon combines the two in stories such as “The Rummy Affair of Young Charlie” (e.g., Charles Dexter Ward) or “Cats, Rats, and Bertie Wooster” (a comic recasting of “The Rats in the Walls”).

Early in the 20th century, the fine art of literary allusion was raised to the status of a major literary movement by works such as Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Pound’s The Cantos (1930-1969), where quotes from a vast array of sources are dropped in without explanation, yet the impact of the quote depends upon its being recognized and its original context taken into account in its new setting. This playful erudition ran amuck in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (1939), which is less a novel than a complex crossword puzzle where the game of identifying all its allusions has become an end in itself. But while the technique may have fallen from favor in mainstream literature in the decades since, the impulse has remained alive and well. Ironically enough, today it primarily finds expression not through novels and poetry but through comic books, with outstanding examples being Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both of which have an easygoing erudition that expose an attentive reader to more literary allusions (e.g., the titles of unwritten books in Morpheus’s library) than an average college-level survey of literature.

Literature (“The Road”) is “the one continuum; all that’s left behind
when an old empire falls down a man-hole, and all that’s ahead when
a new one… [p]ops like a champagne cork out of some cosmic crack
that nobody knew was loaded.”

The Moon’s Fire-Eating Daughter

Between the “high art” of Eliot and the popular art of Gaiman came an extraordinary book like and yet unlike to both: John Myers Myers’s Silverlock. Originally published back in 1949 by an author who devoted most of his career to writing about the Wild West, with books on the Alamo, Tombstone, Doc Holliday, mountain men, and the like, this cult classic had an underground reputation among fantasy fans for decades (among other things, it helped inspire the “filksing” movement) before his magnum opus finally saw a paperback release from Ace in 1966 at the height of the first Tolkien boom but did not truly reach the audience it deserved until a second Ace edition in 1979 amid a general fantasy upsurge in the wake of the second Tolkien boom. This mass market edition carried no less than three introductions (by Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle), plus a foreword by Jim Baen and an afterword by Karen Anderson, all singing the book’s praise and arguing for its importance as a masterpiece.

“Do you think any of those poor devils are still living to float around like us?”
“Maybe one,” he replied. “It’s the usual number.”

— castaways Silverlock and Golias, upon witnessing the sinking of the Pequod

The story of Silverlock is extremely simple: A. Clarence Shandon, a cynical man from Chicago with a B. A. in Business Administration (dubbed “Silverlock” for his forelock of snow white hair), is shipwrecked and washes up on a strange land known as “The Commonwealth,” a place made up of sites famous in literature and populated entirely by characters out of books. Thus while still floating on the waves with his new companion Golias (a bard, among whose many other names are Widsith, Taliesin, and Orpheus), he witnesses a great white whale (Moby Dick) sink an old sailing vessel. Shortly after that he washes up on Circe’s island and gets turned into a pig; escapes to Robinson Crusoe’s island and encounters the cannibals; gets trapped on a nightmare ocean with the Ancient Mariner; and gets picked up by Viking raiders on their way to the battle of Clontarf. Separated from his friend after they reach the mainland, he joins up with Robin Hood’s Merry Men for a spell, wanders through a forest straight out of Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, crashes the Mad Hatter’s tea party, and eventually meets up again with Golias at Heorot Hall, where the bard is celebrating Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s dam by singing “The Ballad of Bowie Gizzardbane” — which turns out to be nothing less than the story of the Alamo in a hundred lines or so of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse:

Gathered the garrison, gave them his orders:
“Houston the Raven is raising a host;
Time’s what he asks while he tempers an army.
Never give up this gate to our land.
Hold this door fast, though death comes against us.”
. . .
Bold thanes were with him, thirsty for honor,
Schooled well in battle and skilled in all weapons;
Avid for slaughter there, each against thirty,
They stood to the walls and struck for their chieftains,
Houston and Bowie, the bearcat of heroes.
. . .
at last some found him,
Fettered to bed by the fever and dying,
… Gladly they rushed him, but glee became panic.
Up from the grip of the grave, gripping weapons,
Gizzardbane rose to wreak his last slaughter,
Killing, though killed. Conquered, he won.
. . .
In brief is the death lay of Bowie, the leader
Who laid down his life for his lord and ring giver,
Holding the doorway for Houston the Raven,
Pearl among princes, who paid in the sequel:
Never was vassal avenged with more slayings!

— from “The Ballad of Bowie Gizzardbane”

Before his adventures are over, Silverlock has traveled down a great river on Huck Finn’s raft, watched Horatius defend the bridge (cf. Lays of Ancient Rome), been enthralled by la Belle Dame sans Merci, sent Don Quixote to steal Paul Bunyan’s ox, helped the Green Knight sharpen the axe while they wait for Sir Gawain, had a fling with Becky Sharp (cf. Vanity Fair), journeyed on the Ship of Fools, escaped from the Spanish Inquisition, been captured by houyhnhnms (cf. Gulliver’s Travels), witnessed the fall of the House of Usher, been led into a Dantesque Hell by Faustopheles, undertaken a Canterbury Tales-style pilgrimage with (among others) Falstaff, Don Juan, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Queen Maeve, and much, much more. And, to cap it all, he has failed to recognize a single one of them. For Silverlock prides himself as a sensible, no-nonsense man of the world, someone who clearly has no time for reading (certainly not poetry or fiction) and so has no idea what he’s been missing out on or even any very clear idea of what’s happening to him: he simply drifts from one adventure to the next, at first denying, then fighting, and finally embracing the way they change him from embittered world-weary cynic (the first line of the book, describing how he came to survive the shipwreck of the Naglfar, is “If I had cared to live, I would have died”) to someone with a zest for life (despite being once again adrift in the ocean on the last page, he has no fear, for “a man who has… been put through his paces by the Delian [oracle] has a heart for living”).

Like all travelers in a country which interests them,
I longed to be an initiate instead of a neophyte.

— Silverlock before the Delian Oracle

Reading Silverlock is both a delight and a challenge — enjoyable because it’s great fun to see old friends in a new context, challenging because there are so many allusions, and drawn from such a wide array of sources, that no single reader can identify them all. To complicate matters, many characters are composites of similar types — thus Silverlock’s friend Lucius Jones is both Tom Jones (from Fielding’s novel of the same name, 1749) and Lucius, the hapless hero of the second-century romance The Golden Ass. Faustopheles the tempter is both Dr. Faustus and Mephistopheles, and so forth. [1] Luckily, the story does not depend upon the reader’s ability identify each specific reference: knowing the original context adds to the enjoyment but the story works even when the reader identifies only a fraction of the allusions. Those who do catch a reference get the added fun of seeing how neatly Silverlock’s adventures interlock with what’s set down in the original works. For example, Golias mentions having visited Pwyll’s, then adds “[Pwyll] wasn’t there, as a matter of fact, but Arawn’s a good fellow” – a reference to “Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed”, the first part of The Mabinogion (a 14th century collection of Welsh myths). In the original, Pwyll swaps places with Arawn, Lord of the Underworld, for a year; the story follows Pwyll’s adventures in the Underworld, while Myers Myers briefly visits the neglected side of the tale: what Arawn was doing during that same year. Similarly, when Golias/Widsith prepares to sing a lay in Heorot Hall, the crowd calls for various favorites, including “Burnt Finnsburg,” to which a disgruntled Dane replies “Aw, we had that last night.” In fact, in the original Beowulf a nameless bard sings the story of the Fight at Finnsburg the night after Grendel is killed, or exactly one night before the events in Myers Myers’ story. Other examples abound; as with many things, the more you know, the more you can enjoy.

Silverlock has its flaws — the slangy, breezy style is not to everybody’s taste, and the main character for this first-person narrative is downright unlikable in the early chapters. Women are treated as an agreeable diversion, not characters in their own right (a reliable barometer of Silverlock’s character’s development and regression is the degree to which his attitude towards women varies between chivalrous and predatory). Alcohol and violence are both celebrated with a zest appropriate to someone who spent most of his career chronicling the Old West:

“If a man gets shot he should at least have the satisfaction of having earned it.”
“He’s probably deserved shooting somewhere along the line,” Golias remarked.
“I can think of few men who didn’t, and I can’t remember liking any of them.”


Despite those shortcomings, however, Silverlock is worthy of great praise for its ebullience, its enthusiasm, and its sheer joy at plunging into a world made up of the world’s best books. Highly recommended to anyone who considers himself or herself widely read; it shows us all how far we have to go, and how much fun we’ll have getting there.

Other Works

Anyone who enjoys Silverlock should also try The Moon’s Fire-Eating Daughter (1981). Billed as the “sequel” to Silverlock, it is actually a shorter, snappier revisiting of some of the same themes in a short, self-contained story. Instead of characters, it is authors this fortunate traveler encounters as he journeys “The Road” on a mission from Inannu (a.k.a. Ishtar, Astarte, Venus, and so on; the “fire-eating daughter” of the title). A central theme of the book is the continuity of literature from the earliest Sumerian days and a celebration of the “New Renaissance” marked by the recovery of lost stories (Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Tain bo Cuilige, et al.) back into the canon of world literature through archeology and scholarship. Even more slang-heavy than Silverlock and defiantly opposed to women’s equality, it is nonetheless a major work, and perhaps even more important than its more famous sibling volume.

Finally, there is The Harp and the Blade, Myers’ first book (1941), rereleased (1982) following the success of the Ace mass market edition of Silverlock and The Moon’s Fire-Eating Daughter (like the latter, as a Donning/Starblaze trade paperback). Misleadingly marketed as a fantasy, it is in fact a short historic novel set a century and a half after the time of Charlemagne. While its only fantastic element is a curse laid upon the main character ( a wandering bard named Finnian) to never refuse help to any man or woman who needs it — a geas that lands him in any number of tight spots before the book is over — fantasy fans and D&D gamers will find it a vivid re-creation of a dark ages medieval world spiraling into chaos; DMs desiring more realism in their games will find its sword-fights (a nasty, exhausting, dangerous business where even the victor invariably winds up slashed and bloody, requiring weeks to recover) particularly impressive.

Silverlock and Your Game

D&D, like the fantasy genre it mirrors, is a composite made up of a plethora of elements taken from many different works — not just core authors like Tolkien, Vance, Howard, Leiber, and Dunsany but a host of others, each of whom has contributed his or her bit. This multiplicity of inspiration was once acknowledged with a regular feature in The Dragon: “Giants in the Earth,” which “statted out” (used the rules of the game to create a set of game statistics) characters from fantasy in D&D terms (just as the original Deities & Demigods statted out gods from a variety of myths and fantasy series, from the Babylonians through Leiber, Lovecraft, and Moorcock). Creative borrowing is a hallmark of a great DM, and Myers Myers shows how disparate elements from almost any source can be merged into a smooth-flowing whole.


[1] So difficult is it to identify all the allusions that eventually several fans compiled “A Reader’s Guide to the Commonwealth” (1988, published as a special issue of the fanzine Niekas under the title A Silverlock Companion) identifying all the people, places, and things they were able to locate. A Silverlock Companion also contains several short essays on Myers Myers’ work, a brief biography, a few otherwise unpublished poems, and a bibliography of his works.

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