A Novel Ian Likes: Legend by David Gemmell

The Nadir are on the rise. The fractious northern tribes have been united under one ruler – Ulric – and he is marching them south, conquering every country in his path. Only the fortress of Dros Delnoch stands between him and the Drenai nation. It’s undermanned, poorly maintained and run by a dying duke and a general appointed more for his connections than his talent. So they send for the Drenai’s greatest hero, Druss the Axeman. But can one old man save the day…

I’ve always been a sucker for the well-told adventure yarn, and few did it better than David Gemmell (1948 – 2006). If you aren’t familiar with Gemmell, he wrote heroic/epic fantasy with a deeply moral subtext and characters who leap off the page at you.

This, his first novel, was drafted in a two-week fever dream in 1976 when Gemmell suffered from a misdiagnosis at his doctor’s office and believed he had cancer. When the situation was resolved, he was relieved to discover that he not only didn’t have a life-threatening disease but he also had a manuscript as well. He let a friend read it in 1980 and submitted it to a publisher in 1982 from where it achieved publication two years later. From this unusual beginning he went on to become one of the UK’s best-selling fantasy authors with a large and devoted following.

It was followed up a year later with The King Beyond The Gate (1985), a sequel set a century after Legend, then the year after that with Waylander (1986), set a few generations prior to it. He wrote around thirty other novels during his lifetime. The other Drenai stories (there are eleven in total) were written at various points in the history of that nation, but most of his other novels contain a link to them. He used the idea of the constant rise and fall of humanity (a theory he adapted from Erich von Daniken’s writings) as a backdrop to his many settings and series: it was hinted at in The King Beyond The Gate and made explicit in Echoes Of The Great Song (1997).

Like a lot of commercially successful novelists, his books can be described as formulaic. And while this is true to a certain extent, there are at least new ideas and themes that he tries to explore in each novel, as well as providing character arcs and settings and ideas that are unique to each book. But it can be said that most Gemmell plots deal with a tired, jaded protagonist (usually male) who discovers that his fire for justice hasn’t quite gone out, nor has his need for redemption. They are also fiercely intelligent novels that question why we need to rely on violent people when we are seeking peace.

This book is where it all began.

I first discovered Legend (Gemmell) in 1985. The blurb on the back of my first edition tells of an epic struggle, and the cover art (I felt then and still do now) is eerily effective in portraying the mood of the piece, despite Gemmell being on record as actively despising it and not even counting it as the “proper” first edition! When I saw it in a shop, its stark, monochrome cover stood out amongst all the vibrant illustrations around it and that was what really attracted me to it.

Anyway, I bought the book, took it home and curled up on the couch with it. Three-and-a-half hours later I got up, exhausted, exalted and with my spine a-tingle. It was — is — one of those feelings that, were it bottled, would be classed as an addictive substance. For as I was reading, I lived through the story of Druss’s campaign to strengthen the fortress of Dros Delnoch, I battled with Rek, Virae and The Thirty and I cheered when Gilad and Bregan showed just how heroic they could be.

It’s a really simple setting and story but it works brilliantly because of the investment you have in the characters. There’s a hefty amount of cheese and ham in the delivery but it’s done with sincerity and honesty. Some elements of the ending feel a little weak (personally, I love the resolution of the siege, but I can totally see why other people hate it) and hackneyed but there is so much else going for it that you can easily forgive it.

And I love it. From the stone-cold classic prologue (something every fantasy novel seems to have, but rarely needs), through to the meeting of the protagonists, past the assembly of the gifted team, through the forty-something page training montage and into the 150 or so pages of fortress-under-siege goodness that is the third act. It even has an epic funeral, for crying out loud. And the epilogue is a stark, one page summary of “what-happened-next” to the surviving characters.

But the thing that most impressed fifteen-year-old me was how there were no real villains in the piece: until then I had steadily imbibed a heady brew of evil overlords and dastardly minions, of heroes who did the right thing because, well, because it was right. Gemmell introduced me to characters who did the right thing, but not necessarily for the best reasons: Ulric is the ostensible baddy, but he comes over as sympathetic and noble, only wanting the best for his people. You want to hate Orrin, the general in charge of Dros Delnoch, but when you finally meet him and discover that he is not evil, just completely out of his depth, you feel only compassion for him because who hasn’t been that in their time? Gemmell gives us characters who are heroic because it is easier than living with the alternative. I sympathise most with Gilad, the farmer who chooses to remain at Dros Delnoch because he has found a purpose there that he can’t fulfill in any other way.

Legend introduces themes that Gemmell prodded at in every other book he wrote: the nature of heroism; the morality of war; what is the perspective of a religious person when it comes to war; and the nature of the heroes chosen by a culture. He also touches on the bonds forged between people who have shared a common experience that has changed them. He praises it as a sacred bond here, but in later books (Quest For Lost Heroes (1990), for example) he does start questioning it. Because, while his characters are heroic, they aren’t necessarily people you might like or admire away from the battlefield.

Druss is heroic, but not a terribly nice man. And that is true of all Gemmell’s protagonists. They are revered for their talents, but not for much else. And in times of peace, they are often likely to be considered outcasts and troublemakers – Gemmell was really writing about toxic masculinity long before it became well-known. Contrast that with the Renaissance Men and Women who populate most of modern Fantasy who turn from combat to intrigue to diplomacy to seduction in as long as it takes to get to the next chapter. In most of the other epic doorstops that characterised the mid-eighties, the heroes finished up their quest and went off to rule the kingdom/marry the princess/fight another day. They seemed unscarred by the events they had lived through, save becoming “a little wiser”. And besides, they had all their neat new friends and skills to play with afterwards! How many people do we really meet like that in real life? Gemmell gave us people facing extraordinary situations with only their native wits and intelligence to guide them. Legend is about ordinary people becoming heroes, simply by saying to themselves, “Something bad will happen if I don’t take a stand.” It doesn’t try to dress it up with the nonsense of “Evil will only take root when good men do nothing.” What would you call a good man? Gemmell doesn’t know either; he only knows heroism. Good is for a higher power to decide: the petty conflicts of man are about perspective, and Legend is one of the few books that effectively deals with that idea.

You can find out more about David Gemmell at: https://www.orbitbooks.net/author-spotlight-david-gemmell-2/

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