Monday, September 19, 2011
I've raved about the work of Harold Lamb before, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that I loved Lamb's short novel, Durandal. This may be my favorite Lamb so far, as it contains knights and derring-do, as my pal Laura would say, and one of lamb's most interesting heroes, the strange Celt, Donn Dera, a character who might have had some influence on a young writer named Robert E. Howard, who enjoyed dropping Irish heroes into whatever exotic settings he could.
Set during The Crusades, Durandal gets off to a fast start as an agent of the Christian Emperor Theodore Lascaris convinces a knight named Sir Hugh of Taranto to wear the armor of the emperor, thus drawing the enemy away from Theodore. Hugh agrees and he is soon leading his 800 fellow Franks into battle against the Seljuk Turks. But what Hugh doesn't know, is that Theodore plans to betray him, holding his own forces out of the battle until the Franks have been slaughtered almost to the last man. Then Theodore sweeps in with his fresh troops to mop up the Turks.
But fate takes a turn and just when it seems that Sir Hugh will join his comrades in death, he is rescued by a warrior who fights so savagely that the Turks call him a demon. This is Donn Dera, the man of weapons, who hails from the Emerald Isle, a warrior so strong that he shatters every weapon he wields. In fact Donn Dera is seeking a weapon that even he can't destroy, the legendary sword of Roland, Durandal.
Donn Dera and Sir Hugh are taken prisoner by Arabs, but the wily Irishman soon enlists his captors in a mad plan to storm a fortress and steal away a great treasure, and of course to secure Durandal. But things don't go quite the way Donn Dera plans.
This is a book about heroes and villains, loyalty and treachery, friendship and honor. The battle scenes are amazing and the action rarely lets up. You won't find deep characterization here. The characters are sketched rather than painted, but they are fine sketches from the hands of a master. And like all of Lamb's work, the heroes or villains can be any race and any station. It's not good crusaders versus bad Arabs and Turks. No quick and easy labels for Lamb, which is even more impressive if you think about the era in which he wrote.
Durandal was the first of three interrelated stories which appeared in the 1920s in Adventure Magazine. The three stories were combined with some other lamb material and printed as a novel in 1931 called Durandal:A Crusader with the Horde. However, the version that I have is the 1981 Donald M. Grant illustrated edition which is only the first of the three stories. Coming in at 156 fast paced pages, it's a quick and energetic read. I have the second part, The Sea of Ravens, but Donald Grant died before the third part, Rusudan, was published. I suppose I'll have to track down a copy of the 1931 book at some point to see how everything turned out, but fortunately Durandal can be read as a stand alone adventure. Lamb was a savvy pulp writer and he knew that some of his readers might not be able to get all three stories.
It would be fun to speculate on the influences of incidents in this story on some of Robert E. Howard's work, but that will have to wait until a day when I have more time to compare texts. For now I'll just reiterate what I said in another post about Lamb. If you've read all of REH's stuff and you're seeking more stories with the ring of steel on steel, the fire of battle in the blood, and heroes willing to stake everything on the strength of their sword arms, you need to be reading Harold Lamb.