The term Sword and Sorcery was coined by Fritz Leiber in 1961 in response to a question posed by Michael Moorcock in the fanzine Amra. Robert E. Howard’s stories of Conan and other heroes are considered by many to be the epitome of the S & S genre and entertain a multitude of readers even today, more than eighty years after they were first published. Such tales are characterized by sword-swinging action focused on personal battles rather than world-shaking events, with an element of magic or the supernatural and sometimes one of romance as well. Tros of Samothrace has all those ingredients and was serialized a number of years before REH’s work; doesn’t that mean that it is Sword & Sorcery too? Well, not quite but the distance that separates the two is much shorter that you might think.
Does Tros of Samothrace have sword fighting, fierce battles, threats to the hero’s life and a love interest? Indeed it does but the only problem is the issue of magic and the supernatural; where is it? It isn’t in the hands of the Druids; not even the great Taliesan or the renegade Gobhan cast as much as a cantrip in the book. It isn’t in the design of Tros’s ship or his catapults or his arrow engines; that is all a matter of technology and is alternative history at worst. Instead, magic takes the form of two characters: Fflur and Eough.
Fflur is queen to Caswallon’s king and of royal blood in her own right. She is the first cousin of the king of the Iceni but more importantly she is the daughter of Mygnach the Dwarf, famed for both his Sight and the power of his Voice, said to be so enchanting that the birds of the forest would fall silent just hear him sing. Fflur has inherited both of these powers in some degree; she can use the vibrancy of her voice to calm or persuade but it is her Sight that is most powerful. She can peer as much as a year or more into the future, and what she sees always comes true. If she is face to face with someone, she can read their very soul; her ability to judge someone’s character is infallible.
Eough is actually called a sorcerer on more than one occasion in the book and is the hedge wizard/priest who leads the charcoal burners, a small group of clans with their own language and customs. He is the friend of the Lord High Druid Taliesan (which is why the Britons haven’t burned him at the stake) and is a dwarf himself but one to be reckoned with; he is broad, strong, quick on his feet and at least the equal in wit of Tros himself. He is the medicine man whose word is law to his tribesmen and the alchemist who shows Tros how to mix sulfur, saltpetre and other ingredients to make the reeking explosive that can be packed into leaden balls and fired from the Liafail’s catapults. But that is just chemistry and medicine; what is truly unnerving is his ability to read the stars.
Eough’s skill at reading the auguries of the heavens is such that he can read the future of someone he has not yet met (he reads Caesar’s future across the width of the English Channel) and know not just their future but their Destiny. The old dwarf knows how both Tros and Caesar will die but Sees that the Roman’s destiny is so powerful that no one can kill him before his time and that to even attempt to do so is to court destruction. It is almost as if there is a supernatural being or force protecting their enemy.
“You cannot kill Caesar! You dare not even try!”
Dwarfism, the Sight, magic Voices or Singing: in many myths, these are tell-tale signs of non-human ancestry. In the British Isles, that could mean one or more of any number of faerie races such as the Fomor, the Firbolg or the Tuatha De Danann. Julius Caesar, the unbeatable general who cannot be slain in battle or by mischance might almost be a child of Ares or Mars who is guarded by an invisible Nemesis while he treads tribes and nations under his feet on his path to glory. Time and again, Talbot Mundy uses these references to myth and legend to provide color and depth to his book and pull the reader into his tale. He does a masterful job of it, but he never takes that last step, the one that brings the myth to life within the story.
In my opinion, that is a dividing line between Mundy and authors such as REH, C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson and Clark Ashton Smith; for their stories, myth and magic are alive and awake; in some tales they drive the adventure, while history provides the color and the depth. Is Tros of Samothrace part of the Sword & Sorcery genre? I would say no but it is only a step or two away at most. Given the influence this book has had on such authors as Fritz Leiber and Andre Norton, it would be fair to call it a precursor to Sword & Sorcery and well worth reading.
Previous posts on Tros: