The Beyond in art. – It is not without profound sorrow that one admits to oneself that in their highest flights the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognise as false: they are the glorifiers of the religious and philosophical errors of mankind, and they could not have been so without believing in the absolute truth of these errors. If belief in such truth declines in general… that species of art can never flourish again which, like the Divina Commedia, the pictures of Raphael, the frescoes of Michelangelo, the gothic cathedrals, presupposes not only a cosmic but also a metaphysical significance in the objects of art. A moving tale will one day be told how there once existed such an art, such an artist’s faith.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Wherein history careened
Like a stray bullet
nb: the prominent Pop Artist James Rosenquist painted ‘President Elect’ (featured image) in 1961, nearly 3 years before JFK’s assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald. But take a closer look at the image and you will see that it is astoundingly prophetic of the assassination. The sleek section of the car recalls the motorcade where it all happened, and the harrowing Zapruder footage of Jackie Kennedy clambering across the hood of the Lincoln Continental. Even the mirrored surface of the Wheel in Rosenquist’s painting appears to me as a perfect rendition of the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald calmly waits, along with the bullet whose tenuous trajectory would dramatically alter the course of history. But the truly haunting image is located in the dead centre: a piece of cake bleached of all colour, torn apart by those deathly pale hands which reach from the pristine visage of JFK, an image which represents the moment of the bullet’s impact…
Hark, shameful wretches!
To mother’s belly banished,
Crave quench the famished
‘Ware of prophecy
For hate and blood it thickens
Flee, pretty chickens
Sidelining surrealism temporarily, this post instead looks at another passion of mine: fantasy literature. I fancied having a go at one of those ‘top whatever’ lists you see all over the place and so I tried to think of something that I hadn’t come across before… Therefore I give you my top 5 lesser-known, badass heroes of fantasy (nb. I’m looking at literature only – though some of the books may have been adapted into films). You will likely notice that there is a conspicuous absence of some major sagas here – Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Discworld etc. – and this is because I have tried to keep away from major franchises and focus instead on works which might not be quite as well-known. Please let me know in the comments of any other bad-ass lesser-known heroes and heroines of fantasy (of which I’m sure there are plenty!) you have come across who you think would also make worthy candidates.
#5. Colonel Bremer dan Gorst – First Law (Joe Abercrombie)
Colonel Gorst is only a minor character in Abercrombie’s more famous First Law trilogy, but he plays a much more significant role in The Heroes, a standalone work which revisits the world and many of the characters from his original series (and also happens to be one of the best standalone works of fantasy I’ve ever read – be sure to check it out). For a number of years Gorst was leader of the revered Knights of the Body (the king’s royal bodyguards), but following a near-miss disaster at a royal event which almost led to the king’s untimely demise, he was subsequently disgraced, outcast and demoted to a military grunt on the front line (though his exceptional leadership and his skills on the battlefield meant he still retained significant influence in his newfound station). Despite his imposing physical stature Gorst has a very high-pitched and feeble voice, which is relentlessly mocked by many of his fellow Union officers and higher ranking kinsmen who know that he would not react for fear of further demotion. In battle however, Gorst is unparalleled. Not only is he the recurring champion swordsman of The Contest (with the exception of his loss to Jezal dan Luthar, which he would easily have won if not for the interference of the great sorcerer Bayaz, who enchants Luthar), the biggest sword-fighting competition in the Kingdom, but he is also the top unenhanced (i.e. no magical or preternatural abilities) fighter in the First law universe. Even the infamous Logen Ninefingers (the main protagonist of The Blade itself) would only stand a chance against Gorst were he to awaken ‘the Bloody Nine’, his maniacal and nigh-unkillable alter-ego, which is surely what we might consider as a form of enhancement. Gorst frequently bests entire companies of Northmen, the sworn enemy of the Union, and defeats high ranking generals of the North with relative ease. But aside from his fighting prowess, Gorst the unfortunate is also shown to have an essentially good heart, and although he is despised by almost all those around him, he is still more willing than most to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Union and for valour.
“The river became a mass of stomping hooves and spray, flying metal and blood, and Gorst hacked his way through it, teeth ground together in a frozen smile. I am home… he swung, and swung, and swung, denting armour, smashing bone, splitting flesh, every jolting impact up his arm a burning thrill. Every blow like a swallow to a drunkard, better, and better, but never enough…” – The Heroes
#4. Silk – Belgariad (David Eddings)
Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, or ‘Silk’ as he is better known, was always in a league of his own. At an early age his Machiavellian personality drew the interest of the immortal sorcerer Belgarath, who observed that he was smarter than most men by the age of ten, and among the wiliest ‘men’ he had ever stumbled across in all his many generations of life. Spy, deadly assassin, master merchant, business overlord, infamous thief, acrobat, champion swordfighter, and heir to one of the most powerful seats in the empire, the only people who pose even a mild threat to Silk are magic-users, and even they are always cautious not to underestimate him. His position of royalty is juggled with a repository of alternate personas which he slips into freely as he travels to different parts of the empire, even going so far as to shift his facial muscles to adopt a different appearance for his various roles. Archetypal handsome hero he is not; in fact Silk is described as being hideously ugly, with a prodigiously large hooked nose and rat-like features, and much shorter and stockier than the average man. But despite his aesthetic pitfalls, Silk’s charm and skill with words enable him to seduce some of the most beautiful and high-ranking women in all of Drasnia, even whilst not donning his princely persona. Silk is a crucial member of the fellowship responsible for protecting Garion (a young wizard who must fulfill an ancient prophecy to vanquish ultimate evil – standard hero stuff), and gets them out of countless perilous situations by way of his cunning and deadly skills in combat. His ever jocular nature among friends belies a misunderstood soul, whose isolated, regal childhood and superior intelligence have made him forever an outsider, but nevertheless a quintessential fantasy hero.
#3. TenSoon – Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series
TenSoon is one of the kandra, a genetically and magically engineered race of shapeshifters originally designed as loyal slaves to the will of the evil Lord Ruler (the main antagonist in the original Mistborn series). Having been created using a dark form of magic known as Hemalurgy, also known as ‘the art of Ruin’ (Ruin being the most malign of the greater gods in the mistborn universe), many kandra are not only shapeshifters but are also capable of prodigious magical feats inherited through powers of allomancy. Due to their unique set of skills the kandra are often manipulated and used as assassins by devious humans, who take advantage of the kadras’ instinct to follow rather than to think independently, a trait instilled as a means to avoid them using their great power against the Ruler himself. The kandra homeland is very secretive, and within their closed society they do not keep their replicatory forms but rather don what is known as their ‘True Body’; a (usually) humanoid exoskeleton made up of very rare earthly materials like quartz and precious stones; the True Body is often translucent giving them a striking and ghostly appearance. TenSoon is third generation kandra and is around 700 years old, making him one of the oldest and most experienced of his kind. He is also a rebel and anarchist among his race, and seems somehow able to resist the magically instilled subservience which continues to consume his brethren. TenSoon was originally an antagonist in the series, killing and deceptively replacing another experienced wolfhound-shaped kandra, OreSeur, in order to spy on Vin (the original mistborn’s main protagonist). This is the first killing of a kandra by a kandra, and it is clear that even though it was performed whilst under the instruction of a powerful human master, the killing affected TenSoon very deeply, and was a huge weight on his conscience. Once within his new company something changes in TenSoon, and he find a like-mind in Vin, and grows genuinely attached to her, and soon realises that she is the key to overthrowing the dark reign of the Lord Ruler and freeing his race from its eternal shackles. And so TenSoon comes clean. He sees a great power converging around Vin, and vows to help her fulfill the prophecy, and indeed ends up playing a crucial and decisive role in aiding Sazed (a prophet like figure and spiritual guide to Vin) to overthrow his kin who are still bent to the will of the Lord Ruler. Perhaps what makes Tensoon such a great hero is his endless strife to overcome himself; to overthrow instinct and morality, in order to recognise and fight for what is good for his people no matter how great the cost, and how much torment he must endure.
#2. Nakor – Raymond E Feist’s Riftwar Saga (and others)
Imagine a cross between Yoda, a Shaolin monk and Nietzsche and you might come somewhere close to Nakor the Isalani, one of the most endearing characters in Feist’s epic Riftwar saga. Despite his staggering magical capabilities Nakor believes magic to be nothing more than ‘trickery’, and seeks to alter the fundamental perceptions towards magic in the universe as a way of unleashing a much greater hidden power in knowledge. He is believed to be centuries old, founds his own quasi-Buddhist religion and has the godly ability to inhabit any physical body on a whim, though he chooses to stay permanently in the body of an aged, slight and impish Isalani farmer. Nakor is even said to harbour a piece of a greater god; that being, perhaps unsurprisingly, the cunning trickster god Kalkin (a Loki figure in Feist’s mythos). Nakor carries a rucksack on his many journeys across the empire which contains both a portal to another world containing unlimited apples and oranges, and an ancient book which contains all possible knowledge in the universe (the Codex of Wodar Hospur). He sleeps with this book under his pillow every night, and the knowledge filters through to him in his dreams: it is believed that someday this great and ever-growing store of knowledge will tip him into madness. Nakor is undoubtedly a key figure in overcoming many of the evils faced throughout the many Riftwar adventures, and one of the only ‘magicians’ capable of confronting the gods. But what makes him a truly original character in fantasy literature is that he questions what magic really is: Nakor asks us to, from inside of a magical world no less, embrace magic as nothing more than simulation, trickery, as a means of revelation. When we read a work of fantasy we are being asked to accept the irrational as rational, illogical as logical and yet, in this figure who is seen as madness incarnate within his world, Nakor inverts this process, instead providing us with a dogged rationality. Nakor thus emblematises the idea that magic is merely a form of perception: it is impossible to escape magic, it is all around us, only hidden by a very convincing wall of rationality and logic which we all need to slip away from every once in a while…
#1. Diomedes – Homer’s The Iliad
Although it is still up for debate as to how much of the events depicted in the Iliad are actually fantasy, due to the centrality of Greek Mythology and the intersection of mythical characters with worldly events, it seems not unreasonable to include The Iliad in this list (perhaps even as the first ever known work of fantasy!). Now among the long list of famed great warriors who fought in the Trojan war – including Achilles, Odysseus, Greater Ajax, Hector, Aeneas and Sarpedon to name but a few – none come even close to Diomedes in terms of sheer awesomeness. Despite being the youngest of all the major generals of the Trojan war, Diomedes is nothing shy of a one man army in battle, a master strategist and tactician, and arguably the wisest and most courageous of all the mortal heroes. Moreover, he is also the only mortal to injure 2 opposing Olympian greater gods (and he would have easily killed the demigod Aeneas, one of the greatest Trojan heroes, were it not for Olympian intervention) including Aphrodite and none other than the God of War himself (!!!), Ares, whom he skewered with a spear and forced to leave the battlefield with his tail between his legs.
Although the Trojan war is the best known expedition in modernity, many historians believe that the Epigoni war, which occurred a decade or so earlier, was perhaps of even greater importance to the ancient Greeks, and there is evidence to suggest that there was a significantly larger scope of epics which were dedicated to this war, though unfortunately none of them survived (though they are frequently referred to in many other surviving works). But historians have managed to piece together a great deal of the history of the Epigoni war, and there is one figure who stands out as the hero of that war: a fifteen year old Diomedes. Some of his other feats in his younger years include: sacking the legendary city of Thebes; becoming the youngest king ever to rule Argos and doing so for a great many years; obliterating an entire traitorous neighbouring Kingdom (Calydon) following the imprisonment of his grandfather, Oeneus, during a coup, only leaving once Oeneus was back on his throne; founding and building a mythical city in honour of his grandfather (who was assassinated a number of years after Diomedes returned him to his station). And all of this years before the Trojan war even took place! To top it all off, Diomedes is one of only 2 Greek Mythological mortal figures (the other was Menelaus) who was offered immortality (he was actually offered to become a Greek God!) due to his superiority over all other mortal men. If Diomedes is not the ultimate lesser known, forgotten hero, then I don’t know who is.
‘I hold him mightiest of them all; we did not fear even their great champion Achilles, son of an immortal though he be, as we do this man: his rage is beyond all bounds, and there is none can vie with him in prowess’
– The Iliad, description of Diomedes
Shards of ancient stone
Conjure dreams of mythic hue,
Temples by moonlight
‘Scattered notes, without sequence, like dreams, like a life all made up of fragments; and because others have shared in it, the love of beautiful things seen in the houses of others. Things that are sometimes childish when they are written, some of them the fruits of one’s leisure, some the classifications of beloved though perhaps foolish ideas, – in defiance of a bad memory, and some rays that pierce to the vital centre of my art. If a work of art were a work of chance, all these notes would be useless.
I believe that the thought which has guided my work, a part of my work, is mysteriously linked with a thousand other thoughts, some my own, some those of others. There are days of idle imagination from which I recall long studies, often sterile, more often troubling: a black cloud has just darkened the horizon; confusion takes over my soul and I am unable to do anything. If in other hours of bright sunshine and a clear mind I attach myself to such and such a fact, or vision, or bit of reading, I feel I must make some brief record of it, perpetuate the memory of it.
Sometimes I have gone far back, farther back than the horses of the Parthenon… as far back as the Dada of my babyhood, the good rocking-horse. I have lingered among the Nymphs of Corot, dancing in the sacred wood of Ville-d’Avray.
This is not a book.
… On the veranda, a quiet siesta, everything peaceful. My eyes see the space before me without taking it in; and I have the sensation of something endless of which I am the beginning. Moorea on the horizon; the sun is approaching it. I follow its mournful march; without comprehending it I have the sensation of a movement that is going to go on forever: a universal life that will never be extingished.
And lo, he night. Everything is quiet. My eyes close, to see without grasping it the dream in infinite space that flees before me. And I have the sweet sensation of the mournful procession of my hopes…
– Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals
NB: Featured image is Gauguin’s ‘Day of the God’ (1894). This passage from Gauguin’s journals comes directly after his description of his final communications with Van Gogh before his suicide in 1890, which affected him very deeply. Gauguin had taken Van Gogh under his wing, and they had spent some years together in friendship before Van Gogh’s eventual mental collapse.