An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 3 (as seen in Fritz Leiber & Frank Herbert)
An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 3 ; Finding Echoes of the Chanson de Geste Tradition from Lankhmar to Arrakis … a.k.a., Re-reading Fritz Leiber & Frank Herbert!
Good Morning, Everyone!
When I wasn’t playing on the water or catching-up with friends on land, my recent vacation to the Pacific Northwest gave me a chance to re-read works by two of my favorite authors, Fritz Leiber and Frank Herbert.
In their respective books — Swords and Deviltry (1970) and Dune (1965) ―both Leiber and Herbert cleaved to some essential storytelling elements relevant to this blog series on how medieval literature can inform today’s generation of epic fantasists. During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking at one of the oldest medieval literary forms, the chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds”), and in thinking about the worlds of Leiber’s “Nehwon” and Herbert’s desert planet of Arrakis, my fellow epic-fantasy writers might want to be mindful of a few themes that defined the chansons of a thousand years ago: (1) the veneration of violence in warrior cultures, (2) the suspense of supernatural encounters, and (3) stories related to an emperor, or warrior-king/noble.
Perhaps I’ve been thinking overmuch about medieval literature, but in Swords and Deviltry and Dune, it seemed as if Leiber and Herbert successfully channeled these three aspects of the chansons de geste. Now, I know that the three themes of a martial society, otherworldly experiences, and high-born protagonists aren’t necessarily limited to a verse form prevalent in French lands c. 900-1200 A.D. — take a moment and reflect on how many of your favorite stories incorporate these attributes — but when we’ve been discussing what I see as an absence of medieval source material in current fantasy writing, these three qualities of the chansons de geste make for a decent start to the discussion.
I hope by the end of the next two blogs to show that familiarity with the chansons doesn’t necessarily mean slavish imitation; as with any skill worth mastering, fantasy-writing should draw from a variety of sources to keep both creator and audience entertained. Learn some of the basics about the chansons and you’ll find that the stories therein might contribute to your own creative wellsprings.
So, even if that 9th-12th century chansons weren’t in the minds of Leiber and Herbert when they created the still-vibrant mythologies of “Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser” and the House Atreides of “Dune. Arrakis. Desert Planet,” both works inarguably evoke the chansons’ tendency to describe kings’ & nobles’ adventures, the strength of arms & wits needful to survive in a warrior age, and the battles against both human armies and supernatural forces.
Fritz Leiber certainly captured the spirit of the chansons de geste in his fantasy novels (many of which are actually collections of short stories/novellas), immersing Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in adventure after adventure in the city and environs of Lankhmar, a place that still lingers in my mind’s eye after reading the stories for the first time back in the 1980s. Fafhrd is a “northerner” whose barbaric upbringing and resentment against a matriarchal society leave him with a hankering for civilization and romantic, idealistic notions of the world; contrarily, the Mouser is a city-bred thief who seems have one foot inside of the political intrigue of the Thieves’ Guild and ruling powers of Lankhmar, and the other securely in the taverns and alleys where he and his best friend live a roguish existence. And lest readers think that I’m stretching the chansons’ thematic connection too far past the Lankhmar books, in situating the city and its inhabitants, Leiber himself described his medieval inspirations:
[from Wikipedia entry, “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser,” http://en.Fafhrd_&_Gray_Mouser]
….Technology in Nehwon [“no when”] varies between the Iron Age and the Medieval. Leiber wrote of the Lankhmarts: “They may be likened to the Romans or be thought of as, if I may use such a term, southern medievals.” About his Eastern lands, he wrote, “think of Saracens, Arabs, Parthians, Assyrians even. They ride the camel and the elephant, and use the bow extensively.” [end Wikipedia excerpt]
Similarly, in Frank Herbert’s case, the genre of the Dune series might be Science Fiction, but from the cultures and peoples of Arrakis to the tales oriented around Paul Atreides, Dune‘s in-house troubadour (the baliset-playing Gurney Halleck) probably wouldn’t have any problem in finding the parallels I do between Herbert’s description of the Fremen who live 21,000 years in our future and the Bedouin tribes of the chanson de gestes’ heyday of 1150-1250 A.D. However, instead of imitating the Crusader-era troubadours and casting these faux-Arabian people as adversaries (à la The Song of Roland’s transposition of Muslims for Spanish Basques in the 778 Battle of Roncesvalles), Herbert made the Fremen (“free men”) one of the centerpieces of his story, possessors of the secrets of water conservation (creation of still-suits, life in sietches, etc), the Sand Worms, and the spice melange.
That’s a sketch of Herbert’s milieu, but let’s look at a few parallels between the themes of the chansons de geste and Dune. Veneration of a warrior society? Check. Besides the attention given to the lifestyles of the Fremen desert-warriors, the battles that begin in the fight for Arrakis between rebel Fremen and imperial Sadoukar yield a cycle of jihad and wars that stretch across a galaxy (and into Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and beyond).
Supernatural encounters and otherworldly experiences? Check. Besides the assortment of “witches” that comprise the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood (including Paul’s mother, Jessica) and the warlock/messiah aspect of Paul himself (the prophesied “Kwisatz Haderach”), think about the teleportation abilities of the Navigators of the Spicing Guild (whether described in terms of medieval magic or quantum physics, the Navigators’ ability to displace their gigantic heighliners in space-time still smacks of spice-gas inspired sorcery to this reader!).
Lastly, the chansons’ tendency to relate stories centered on an emperor or warrior-king/noble? Check. The story of Paul Atreides is one that begins and ends with a chanson-like focus on noble houses arrayed in fiefdoms across the galaxy with a premise that noble families or outsiders to a particular culture can impose complete — and sometimes catastrophic ― change on that society; in the case of Dune, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s machinations result in exiling Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, to a desert planet because of a rearrangement by the emperor of “fiefs.” When the indigenous Fremen of Arrakis ally with the Atreides against the Harkonnens and the Padishah Empire, all hell breaks loose. Come on! Are these, or are these not, the kinds of imperial and kingly/noble machinations the troubadours would have loved to sing about in the chansons de geste? I certainly think that they are.
Okay, vacation’s over, and I’ve shared some corresponding relevances I found unexpectedly in my “fun” reading of Leiber and Herbert and my “work” source-material of the chansons de geste.
Next time, we’ll look at a few excerpts from the chansons themselves, and then close this part of the blog series with some examples from my own work that try to make for an entertaining read in my novel, The Codex Lacrimae.
Next time: Raoul of Cambrai, the Song of Roland, the Song of William, and A.J.’s troubadour at the Battle of Mecina!