Legend by David Gemmell
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / eBook|
|Release Date:||April 1984|
I first read Legend twenty-five years ago, shortly after its original release. I was sixteen at the time, and the heroic tale of an old man coming out of retirement to wreak havoc with an axe really appealed to me. Legend was suitably violent and had the right mix of heroes and villains for my adolescent self to enjoy. Those who’ve read my profile will know that I had a falling out with fantasy for a few years. Legend was one of the few novels I read during this hiatus; I rattled through it, loved it, put it aside again and smiled nostalgically. Job done.
Now, many years later, I’ve read it again, this time to cast a critical eye over it. I have to admit, I was nervous about this; now that I’m an older and wiser (ahem) reader, one with so many good and bad novels under my belt, how would one of my favourites hold up under such close scrutiny?
Legend tells the story of Dros Delnoch, a six-walled fortress than protects the southern Drenai lands from the Nadir barbarian hordes of the north. The Nadir tribes have been united under a new leader, Ulric, who must take Delnoch in order to pass through the mountains and conquer the civilised south. Our band of heroes must stop him, and rumour has it that Druss The Legend will be bringing his axe to aid the Drenai. That he arrives is never in doubt, but his fate – like that of the others – hangs in the balance.
Despite the presence of the mighty Druss, it is Rek who is arguably the real hero of the novel. It’s his journey we follow, as he goes from being a man who would rather run away to someone who becomes an inspiration to others, a man filled with nobility and honour. Critics have argued that Rek’s change from one extreme to the other is too quick, citing page counts. This is unfair, as the battle for Dros Delnoch lasts for months.
Compared to most fantasy offerings, Legend may be a short novel, but it does cover several weeks of the characters lives; extreme changes are caused by extreme situations. It’s to Gemmel’s credit that, despite the time frame involved, there isn’t a wasted word in these 430 pages. When he starts a chapter with words like ‘six weeks after the first attack’, it doesn’t feel abrupt. Rather, it adds to the flow of the story and keeps page after page, turning.
Legend isn’t all about the famous and noble. As in his other books, Gemmell’s recurring theme is dealing with what makes someone a hero. All very well if you’re Druss with a mystical axe, but he also lets us see the common man making his own decisions. Gilad and Bregan are two such men, farmers who have taken up the sword to defend Drenai lands. These men are as much heroes as Rek and Druss, and their ordinary status in the world brings empathy, makes them real. They are equally as rounded as the main characters, too; Gemmell isn’t adverse to introducing a character, letting us get to know them and like them, only for them to be quickly killed – this is a battle, after all, and there is no telling who will still be breathing at the end of the novel.
Heroes and villains exist – as they have to in such tales – but are neither pure white nor evil black. Even the holy priests, the Thirty, are tormented by their own doubts and desires; their magic may be strong, but it never comes across as easy to use. Even the villain Ulric has his sympathetic moments; he is hero of his own story, as all good characters should be. There’s nothing two dimensional about him and, in some ways, it’s possible to feel some empathy for him.
One criticism is that it could be described as somewhat shallow compared to current fantasy offerings. The plot, however good, is relatively simple. Characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, and dialogue is often bereft of any subtext. Description can be basic at times, and there are several clichés. And yet, Legend has held up very well over the years. Sure, it’s not perfect, it’s no sprawling 1000 page epic where civilisations have been created in immense detail while characters are trapped in webs of political subterfuge, but what it does have is a great heart and soul.
Gemmel wrote the book while he was being treated for cancer and it is said that the fortress of Dros Delnoch was a metaphor for his resistance against the disease. In the end, it’s a book about courage, defining it as the strength to stand and face your fear, rather than have no fear at all. It’s a book where the plot rattles along at an enjoyable pace, and the depth of characterisation may even cause the reader to shed a tear.
David Gemmell died five years ago, but he will live on in his novels and his legacy remains in the award that bears his name. Reading Legend again, it’s easy to see why so many writers have cited him as an influence. Quarter of a century on, hundreds of books later, it remains a firm favourite. Britain’s ‘King of Heroic Fantasy’ hasn’t let me down.