Archive | November 16, 2007

Isabel Paterson and Talbot Mundy?

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Against all fear; against the weight of what,
For lack of worse name, men miscall the law;
Against the tyranny of Creed, against the hot,
Foul creed of priest, and Superstition’s maw;
Against all men-made shackles, and a man-made Hell –
Alone – at last – unaided – I REBEL!

– Talbot Mundy

I’m pleased to see that Talbot Mundy’s excellent historical fantasy novel Tros of Samothrace, about 1st-century BCE Celtic tribes defending themselves against Roman invasion, is available online (though only in ASCII text – and, for copyright reasons I suspect, only on an Australian site). The book’s savage portrait of Julius Caesar is especially memorable. Robert E. Howard is known to have been influenced by Tros, but Mundy’s protagonist is considerably more complex, and his moral code more severe, than is generally the case with Howard’s heroes. (Mundy himself was an interesting character; check out his Wikipedia bio.)

The Dying Gaul Another writer about whose possible dependence on Mundy I wonder about is Isabel Paterson. In 1930 she released The Road of the Gods, the final entry (though first in fictional chronology) in the trilogy of historical romances that began with The Singing Season (1924) and The Fourth Queen (1926). The trilogy traces the adventures of a pair of lovers as they are reincarnated in different guises, names, and contexts across the centuries, from medieval Spain to Elizabethan England (though in fact it’s not clear whether Paterson planned all along for these to be the same characters reborn or whether this theme developed only with the third book). The Road of the Gods, like Tros of Samothrace, deals with the struggles of Northern tribes (Germanic rather than Celtic this time) against Roman expansion in the first century BCE. Although Tros wasn’t published as a book until 1938, it appeared in serialised form in 1925, so influence is possible – and Paterson would certainly have appreciated the novel’s anti-imperialist message and even its opening epigram, a spurious quotation from Taliesin:

These then are your liberties that ye inherit. If ye inherit sheep and oxen, ye protect those from the wolves. Ye know there are wolves, aye, and thieves also. Ye do not make yourselves ridiculous by saying neither wolf nor thief would rob you, but each to his own. Nevertheless, ye resent my warning. But I tell you, Liberty is alertness; those are one; they are the same thing. Your liberties are an offense to the slave, and to the enslaver also. Look ye to your liberties! Be watchful, and be ready to defend them. Envy, greed, conceit and ignorance, believing they are Virtue, see in undefended Liberty their opportunity to prove that violence is the grace of manhood.

Of course Paterson didn’t necessarily need to have been inspired by anyone else; still, the subject matter was unusual enough in that era (Stephen Cox, Paterson’s biographer, calls the choice of topic “unlikely” and “extraordinary”), Mundy was sufficiently widely known, and Paterson was sufficiently widely read, that a connection does not seem improbable.

Admittedly Paterson might instead have been influenced by William Morris’s much earlier treatment of these matters in his 1880s novels The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, but stylistically Paterson seems much closer to Mundy than to Morris. (The real influence of the Morris books was on Tolkien, but that’s another story.)

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