Forefathers of Sword and Sorcery: Talbot Mundy


Well, Surt and Agni conspired to keep the DMR Books blog offline for almost a week, but I'm back with a (two days late) one hundred and fortieth birthday tribute to Talbot Mundy, one of the Forefathers of Sword and Sorcery.

Mundy, as has been noted elsewhere, started off as a bit of a scoundrel. The scion of a respectable Anglo-Irish London family, Mundy literally ran off to the circus as a teen. Soon after, he embarked on a fairly impressive career of traveling, swindling, bigamy and home-wrecking, using the entire Indian Ocean littoral as his base of operations.

In 1909, Mundy ended up in New York, broke and borderline alcoholic, with a gorgeous woman whose marriage he'd wrecked. He was then mugged and left for dead. Not long after, in 1910, Mundy seems to have experienced a fairly profound change of heart. He began writing fiction, the English beauty left him and he entered a new phase of his life.

Mundy's main venue for the next twenty-plus years was the pulp magazine Adventure. It was primarily through the tales that appeared in its pages that Mundy influenced the First Dynasty of sword and sorcery authors.

Robert E. Howard began reading Adventure around 1920, which was smack dab in the middle of Mundy's heyday at the magazine. Talbot was doing some of his best work at that point and REH would've read much of it. He seems to have been impressed enough to go out and buy (or borrow) hardcover reprints of Mundy's tales, as we know from the Mundy books--that have survived--which were on REH's bookshelf, as well as this letter from June 22, 1923:

I found your first letter waiting for me when I got back, also the Talbot Mundy books.  I got them Monday.  I’ve read ‘King of the Khyber Rifles,’ ‘The Ivory Trail,’ ‘The Winds of the World’ and have started on ‘The Eye of Zeitoon.’ [22 June 1923 was a Friday.] How do you like Talbot Mundy?  Ranjoor Singh (‘Winds of the World,’ ‘Hira Singh’), Rustum Khan (‘The Eye of Zeitoon’) and Mahommed Gunga (‘Rung Ho!’) are my favorite characters...

Do the math on that. In less than five days, Howard had devoured three and a half Mundy novels. His love for Mundy wasn't some passing infatuation, either. Almost a decade later, he wrote this to Lovecraft:

But my favorite writers, both of prose and verse, are British or Americans. They are A. Conan Doyle, Jack London, Mark Twain, Sax Rohmer, Jeffery Farnol, Talbot Mundy (...) and last, but no means least, yourself.

I'll admit that I went through a phase where I didn't believe that Mundy exerted that much influence on REH, but that view was due to a less-than-thorough acquaintance with Mundy's oeuvre. It's now my opinion that Mundy did influence Howard in several areas.

One area that has been pointed out for years--and which the first quote above makes fairly clear--is how REH viewed and depicted India and Afghanistan, and by extension, Vendhya and Afghulistan in the Hyborian Age. Whether it's an Indian Sikh or a Wazuli tribesman, they are depicted by Howard in a fairly Mundyesque fashion (though Harold Lamb and Kipling likely had some influence as well). The influence also includes how REH dealt with Eastern-style magic/mysticism. As he told Lovecraft, "...Kipling, Mundy, a few others, they can write convincingly of Oriental mysticism..." As Fritz Leiber pointed out, "A Thunder of Trumpets," which REH co-wrote, is a patent imitation of Mundy's handling of Eastern mysticism.

Related to this would be Mundy's portrayal of Ottoman Turks in novels such as Hira Singh and The Eye of Zeitoon. In both novels, Mundy presents a fairly accurate look at Ottoman atrocities before and during World War One. We know that Howard began referring to such atrocities right around the time that he read those novels. Other than respect for their bravery, REH never had a good thing to say about the Ottomans. This carried over to his depiction of the Turanians--an Ottoman analog--in the Conan yarns.

To me, another point of influence upon Howard would be an antipathy toward Rome. By his own testimony, REH hated the Roman Empire from boyhood on. However, I think it likely that Mundy's portrayals of Julius Caesar and the Empire--still masquerading as a republic--in Tros of Samothrace hardened whatever ill-will Howard harbored toward Rome.

I think it also possible--taking for granted that REH actually read "Tros," for which we have no solid proof--that the philosophical Tros of Samothrace had some small influence on the creation of Kull, though the young Tarzan of The Jungle Tales of Tarzan probably carried as much or more weight in that regard. 

In addition, assuming that Howard read Tros of Samothrace, I think that Olaf Sigurdsen--the Northman sea-captain in the novel--partially inspired Howardian sidekicks like Wulfhere Skull-Splitter and Athelstane the Saxon. Check out this description of Sigurdsen:

Their leader stood in the first boat, a big man with long moustaches drooping to his chin and a bushy, clipped, red beard; young, hardly thirty by the look of him, but a giant in stature...

Sigurdsen is an axe-man, by the way. Temperament-wise, Sigurdsen is more similar to Athelstane the Saxon, but his appearance is pure Wulfhere. In my opinion, Merritt's Sigurd from The Ship of Ishtar was likely more of a model in many ways. One has to wonder if Athelstane's name was a nod toward Mundy's Athelstane King of King -- of the Khyber Rifles.

Finally, check out this quote from Tros: "The gods despise a man who prays. They help men who make use of opportunity." I think Crom would approve.

The other early S&S scribe to really admire Mundy was Fritz Leiber. As he said in his glowing tribute to Mundy, "The Glory of Tros":

Talbot Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace is one of the half-dozen novels I have re-read most often in the course of my life, or rather during the thirty-eight years since I first devoured it. Such books inevitably become part of our lives, closely interwoven with all of our thoughts and actions...

Fritz carries on effusively for another twelve paragraphs. Tros of Samothrace made a big impression on the man. As he stated, Mundy's novel was his equivalent to The Lord of the Rings.

I can see some Tros of Samothrace in the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In a way, Fafhrd is the philosophical--but action-oriented--Tros with a dollop of Sigurdsen and a dash of rascally Conops. Conops, I should note, is Tros' bosun. A short man of Levantine extraction with a taste for wine, painted women and thievery. I'd say that Mouser has some Conops in 'im, with a dash of Tros. It should also be pointed out that Leiber's first Fafhrd and Mouser tale, “Adept's Gambit," starts out in the Levant, with a setting just a century or two before that of Tros of Samothrace. Mundy's opulent, decadent port-city of Alexandria is one likely inspiration for Lankhmar.

What of the other S&S scribes of the First Dynasty? We know that C.L. Moore had read Tros of Samothrace by early 1936, but no more than that. I think it's a good guess to say she liked it, but we just don't know. We have no evidence that Clark Ashton Smith or Henry Kuttner ever read Mundy, let alone if either one of them was a fan.

L. Sprague de Camp had some good things to say about Mundy in the pages of Amra. Moving further afield, H. Warner Munn, author of heroic fantasies like The King of World's End and Tales of the Werewolf Clan, was a Mundy admirer. Andre Norton was also a fan.

To sum it up, Talbot Mundy affected Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber strongly, but from there his influence on S&S dwindled. His tales are still out there, ready to stir the imaginations of future sword and sorcery authors. One can find all of the Mundy stories I've mentioned above, plus many more, at the website of the esteemed Roy Glashan.

Previous installments in the "Forefathers" series:

Harold Lamb

H. Rider Haggard

H.P. Lovecraft

A. Merritt

Robert W. Chambers

Jack London

James Branch Cabell