Back in the day, I fell desperately in love with the writings of Mary Gentle, the British writer whose Rats & Gargoyles is still in my top five of favourite fantasy novels thirty years after I first read it. I have multiple copies of it, and the only time in my life I was mugged, the guy attacked me to steal from my coat pocket the paperback of Rats & Gargoyles.
A bibliophile-thief? A fantasy-loving thug?
In those pre-internet days, the only way to get everything Gentle had published was perusing the catalogs from Andromeda Books, and then mail an order (you know, with envelope and stamps) all the way to the UK, and then wait and pray the postman didn’t so something stupid.
One of the first Mary Gentle books I got was a collection of short stories called Scholars & Soldiers – a beautiful selection of SF and fantasy stories that nowadays are collected in a massive volume called Cartomancy (published by Gollancz – check it out, you’ll thank me later).
Why did I fall in love with Gentle’s stories…
In part is because of her writing style, that is very intricate and dense. In Mary Gentle’s stories there is not a word in the wrong place, not a word too much. Also, she’s the sort of writer that requires the reader to put in some work to actually enjoy the story. The approach to the world-building is always science-fictional, even when it comes to fantasy.
And then there is her imagination. In a time when sword & sorcery was mostly medieval/barbaric, Gentle’s models are firmly renaissance – Elizabethan to Restoration-era, and beyond – with reference to Hermetic Magic, alchemy, Freemasonry and secret societies and other wonders. There’s a lot of rapiers and other thin blades, and a lor of wit. The ghost of Leiber haunted Mary Gentle’s pages, arm-in-arm with an unlikely companion like M. John Harrison – and yet the result was utterly original.
OK, enough fanboy ranting.
For one reason or another, the title of that small collection, Scholars & Soldiers, was stuck in my mind for ages and so, two years back, as I was writing Three Devils in Faustus – my entry in the first Zappa & Spada collection – I made one of the main characters a member of the Goliards Swordsmen. And in The Queen of Spades, the story for the second Zappa & Spada collection, I slipped a reference to the Goliard Swordsmen, to create a sense of continuity – by the way, goliards were medieval itinerant scholars, my thesaurus tells me it’s a rarely used word these days.
In my mind, the Goliard Swordsmen are a loose network of scholars and soldiers (see?), handy both with sword or mystical lore, that roam the landscape, fighting the good fight. They tend to be quirky and a bit worse for wear, living in the shadows and doing odd-jobs, a sort of pariah elite doing what needs to be done when evil rears its ugly head. They are kind of solitary – if the trouble can’t be tackled by one of them alone, three of them wouldn’t make any difference anyway – but often enlist the help of those at hand.
I always thought the concept of Goliard Swordsmen is particularly suitable to roleplaying games. A great class for high-level, close-to-retirement adventurers, and swashbucklers past their prime.
And now, as I mentioned a few days back, there is a Zappa & Spada game coming. Will there be Goliard Swordsmen in the handbook?
Ah, that would be telling.
They are, after all, a secret society.