East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Men (and women) of learning and of steel


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.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

9 thoughts on “Men (and women) of learning and of steel

  1. Ciao Davide, ehm … of course the collection of short stories by Mary Gentle has never been translated in Italian…right?


  2. These sound like a great read. I guess you can’t really blame your mugger… he had good taste at least 🙂


  3. Hi Davide, ehm … the collection of short stories by Mary Gentle has certainly never been translated in Italian, right?
    Thanks for the reading advice!


    • No, the only books by Gentle that were translated in Italian were Rats & Gargoyles, as “Il tramonto degli dei” (because… ah, Italian titles), and her novel Ash – A Secret History, split in a number of volumes. Both by Fanucci. I can’t vouch for the translation quality of Ash. The translation of Rats & Gargoyles is not very good.


  4. I am absolutely stealing the concept of Goliard swordsmen for roleplaying games! I love Mary Gentle. recently re-read both Ash, and 1610. lovely books, and extremely well-written.


  5. The Goliard Swordsmen sound like a bunch worth meeting. I’ve always found such characters hard to resist, from the Grey Mouser to Shellabarger’s Andrea Orsini (PRINCE OF FOXES) to several of Sabatini’s supermen (of course) and even one or two characters in comics. I have always fondly remembered Sir Hugo Dinwiddie, star of his own series in HURRICANE back in the 1960s. Dinwiddie, a dashing but down-at-heel cavalier who hangs out at the Blue Boar tavern in London during Cromwell’s years in power, will fight anyone, any time, especially if he’s paid, and his recurring line is “O-ha! Come one – come all! ‘Tis all the same to Dinwiddie!” But Hugo can’t put off his creditors with dash and a blade, especially when they confront him three at a time saying, “Pay our bills or go to jail!”
    And of course there are M. John Harrison’s desperate gang members in the city of Viriconium, which you mentioned above and should never be left out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is in fantasy (andin sword & sorcery in particular) a wide catalog of characters that are competent but super-powerful, and that for various reasons “at the margins” of their society. Not necessarily outlaws, but not the sort you’d invite home to meet the family.
      I always find this sort of characters quite intriguing.


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