July 7, 2016

The Greatness of David Gemmell


Psychological Sword and Sorcery. Two trope families that at first seem incredibly distant, perhaps even exclusive. And yet David Gemmell seamlessly blended them to awesome effect. How did he do it?

Perhaps the answer lies in Gemmell's own rough past, his reformation at the hands of his stepfather and boxing training, and most heavily in how he got started in fantasy. Diagnosed with cancer, Gemmell thought he had only a few months or years left to live, and was moved to write a story about it. The story would take the form of a hopeless siege, as an allegory for the cancer; if he got cured the fort would stand, if not the fort would fall. Thus Legend, and a legend, were born.

Time and again in his novels Gemmell goes back to the lessons he learned in life to animate his characters. One of the most striking features of the Gemmell novels is how much they emphasize psychology. The crippling effects of fear and doubt. The false power of anger, and its ultimate weakness. The colossal role of confidence in victory. Inner demons, always larger the greater the hero wrestling with them.

In Legend, the aging, has-been champion Druss rallies the confidence of the demoralized garrison to the point that they successfully hold the doomed fort. In The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, the young Druss receives valuable lessons in anger management from a champion boxer. I think a large part of that was Gemmell paying homage to the life debt he had to his foster father. In The White Wolf, Skilgannon has to live with the guilt of an entire city massacred by his command. And in almost every novel, the line between living and dying for the mortally hurt is neither strength nor science, but their will to live.

The result of this outlook is incredibly powerful narrative, the equal or even the superior of Robert E. Howard's breathless energy and pacing. Yes, sword and sorcery can work even when written from inside a character's head rather than dwelling on his iron thews. We can only wonder, with regret, what an even older and wiser Gemmell could have accomplished had he not been taken away by a heart attack in 2006.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a compulsive homage to Gemmell in the form of a little RPG, Chronicles of the Drenai. I tried to adopt Gemmell's approaches to character building and narrative by building the game around overcoming Passions, like Fear of Harm to resolve combat.

Re-reading it, I have to smile at how crude the game is. The passion mechanics still seem promising*, though, making me wonder if it's suitable for a generic sword and sorcery game with a psychological bent. Perhaps with enough work it will make a worthy offering to the great Saga Masters now in Valhalla.

*Original French blog post for the link above.


  1. Legend is my favorite book by Gemmel. And the closer I get to Druss' age at the siege, the better I find it.

  2. Hm. Since I feel the same way, I must be getting older too! :-D


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