By GW Thomas
Which is my loss, because if I had ever finished reading The Deathbird Stories (1975) I would have come to “Delusion For a Dragonslayer.” I had no idea that Ellison even noticed sword-and-sorcery in the 1960s. The only time I had ever heard him refer to the Big Three of Weird Tales (Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith) was when he selected Clark Ashton Smith’s “The City of the Singing Flame” as a story that inspired him to be a writer. This surprised me because I thought his influences would all be non-fantasy authors like Ray Bradbury or Ted Sturgeon.
Now Ellison’s story originally appeared in Knight (September 1966), a men’s magazine. Alongside the “nekkid ladies” were stories by Brian W Aldiss and John Steinbeck. The cover features Ellison’s story and was done by Leo and Diane Dillon, who would do future Ellison covers like The Deathbird Stories. By all appearances, I had stumbled onto a little bit of Weird Tales-style fantasy in a dirty magazine.
The plot concerns Warren Glazer Griffin, an office worker who gets killed by a demolition accident. Griffin wakes up in heaven, but as the old wizard next to his herculean barbarian body explains, the world is of Griffin’s design and he must fulfill the implied quest of sailing to an island, slaying the monster, and saving the girl. The sailors all chain themselves to their rowing benches and rely on Griffin to navigate them past the siren colors. He does this, then wrecks the ship, because he is too busy admiring his new body.
Much of this scenario is familiar, and I think on purpose. The ship and sirens smacks of Ulysses (not Conan), though the rest could be more Howard. I felt more like the hero was John Eric Stark of Leigh Brackett creation, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. We all know the type of tale, from Beowulf to Masters of the Universe. This tale of the macho barbarian is told in an ornate style that reminds me at times of Clark Ashton Smith. For example his description of killer colors: “In a rising, keening spiral of hysteria they came, first pulsing in primaries, then secondaries, then comminglings and off shades, and finally in colors that had no names. Colors like racing, and pungent, and far-seen shadows, and bitterness, and something that hurt, and something that pleasured...” This goes on for many more sentences.
My first guess before even reading the story was that Ellison was going to be slagging sword-and-sorcery. He would not have been alone. Ron Goulart, Larry Niven, and even Andrew J Offutt (before Andy would become one of the top sword-and-sorcery writers of the 1980s) have disparaged the legacy of Conan. Was Ellison jumping on their bandwagon? I don’t really think so. And I don’t think Ellison is trying to skewer Conan fans. There were suddenly many new ones around 1966 with the new Lancer paperbacks, but most of these lie in the future, as are the Conan the Barbarian comic fans. Instead, I think Ellison may be remembering his own teenage fantasies and enjoyment of hero tales. Ellison was fourteen in 1948 or so, about the time Leigh Bracket was queen of the space pulps. Robert E Howard was becoming a dim memory then. Remember, I thought of Stark, not Conan. Maybe Ellison was thinking of “Lorelei of the Red Mist” from 1941 by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury. The main character’s named is Conan. More likely he was thinking of “The Enchantress of Venus” (1949) that begins with John Eric Stark on a Venusian sailing ship. Maybe he was writing about how he had to grow past such stories and become a “speculative fiction writer.” As such, I can appreciate the story better than a sad reductionist parody.
Finally, I wonder how I would have reacted to this story back in High School where I first encountered The Deathbird Stories? I was a solid Edgar Rice Burroughs-Robert E Howard fanatic then. That fourteen year old me with the fourteen-old fantasies. If I had been able to wade through Ellison’s prose (which is doubtful) I am sure I would have reacted badly to his message. As a fifty-three year old I can see things a little differently. But I still don’t know if I agree with Ellison’s dark message. The hero tale is as old as time and it does more than belittle women and hide cowardice or whatever angsty worries Ellison had back in 1966. Christopher Booker and Joseph Campbell and even JRR Tolkien would back me up on this. I think sword-and-sorcery is worthy of our time. Like all fiction, the best examples are pure gold while the worst hackwork is abysmal trash (Sturgeon’s Law). And maybe Ellison would agree with me now at 82-years-old. Or maybe I missed the point and will have to read “Delusion For a Dragonslayer” again and again until I get it. But a re-re-re-re-read of “The Tower of the Elephant” or “The Enchantress of Venus” is much more likely, and ultimately, more satisfying.
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.