David Gemmell: Fate and Redemption

‘Only the Chosen One can claim the Armour.’ – Orien the King 

The first time we meet Dakeyras, the Waylander – the killer, slayer, assassin he has just stepped from the shadows to face five men who have stolen his horse. These five men will die, and the man of shadows will be faced by another predicament, a priest of the Source. Is this an encounter of chance or destiny? What are chance and destiny in such a world of death and destruction? The man himself, this Waylander, whose history is one of vengeance, revenge, and assassination lives in a world of shadows where no one and nothing is trusted, a man alone, unconquered, and yet outside the social nexus of the common world of men. Does the man have a soul? Does he feel as other men feel; or, is this shadow man one of those whose inner life has become so numb and empty of its humanity that the notion of caring no longer enters into such thoughts. All rhetorical questions that will be answered over a series of novels that challenge both reader and author to explore the notion of the anti-hero: the man who does not belong, the man outside the law.

David Gemmell grew up in a rough world in West London. In an aside he once described this childhood in third person: 

“Some of the other children had no father, but their lack was honorable. Dad died in the war, you know. He was a hero. This boy’s lack was the subject of sly whispers from the adults, and open jeering from his peers. This boy’s mother was – the boy heard so many times – a whore. Happily the boy was only six, and had no real understanding of what the word meant. Anyway the word was less hurtful than the blows that would follow it. Most of the blows came from other children, but sometimes adults too would weigh in.”

So already this sense of being outside society, an illegitimate child who would have to prove himself time and again, struggling alone amid children who ridiculed him, ostracized him, and challenged his right to be among them. Children are cruel. But out of this cruel and lonely existence a man would be born, a man who would struggle against injustice and this dark status of illegitimacy and exile from the world of men. 

But there was a bright light to this story, one that would change that young boy forever. One man, a unique and heroic man in the eyes of the young Gemmell would do something to change everything. At the age of six, during another occasion of teasing and name-calling, David punched one of his bullies in the face. The boy’s father had chased after him and caught up to him when Bill stepped in, pushing the man up against a wall. In Gemmell’s words:

“In a low voice, chilling for its lack of passion, [Bill] asked. ‘Do you know who I am?’
The man was trembling. Even the boy could feel the dreadful fear emanating from him.
‘C-c-course I know who you are, Bill. Course I do.’
‘Did you know I was walking out with this boy’s mother?’
‘Jesus Christ… I swear I didn’t, Bill. On my mother’s life.’
‘Now you do.’
The big man let the little man go. He slid part way down the wall, recovered and stumbled away. Then the giant leaned over the boy and held out a hand that seemed larger than a bunch of bananas. ‘Better be getting home, son,’ he said. The world changed that day.” (Transworld Publishers. Accessed 31 October 2012.)

Suddenly the boy was not alone, someone came into his life who would gift him with the knowledge of what it meant to be fearless. Over the next few years his stepfather would take the young man under his wings, teach him to box, teach him the way of life and how to face such uncaring and cowardly men as bullies. This experience would not be forgotten on the young man who would later on incorporate such thought and understanding in many of his heroes such as Druss the Legend, Jaim Grymauch and others. 

It wasn’t all peaches and crème for the young David Gemmell,  there was a darker side to the young man’s life in this brutal society of West London. As a teenager, Gemmell was arrested several times and expelled from school at the age of sixteen for organizing a gambling syndicate.1 One psychologist’s report from the time labelled him a psychopath, also stating that Gemmell showed a great ability to “be utterly single minded and screen out everything in order to complete a task.”2

David Gemmell knew and understood violent men, which was why he enjoyed writing about them.3 As Priest tells us Gemmell once summed up the content of his novels with these words: “Love, friendship, honour, courage and redemption”. He was fascinated by what he saw as the true nature of heroes (he believed them to be unreliably heroic), and this ambivalence runs through almost everything he wrote.” (ibid.) On the one hand be became a devout Christian, a collector of Louis L’Amour westerns, and through his mother, there came a socialist streak. After he became wealthy, Gemmell quietly supported many small charities and good causes. He gave generously to a women’s refuge and to a rehab programme for young addicts, and he did much to encourage novice writers. (ibid.)

Waylander Series

Although Gemmell’s first novel in the Drenai series would introduce Druss the Legend, a heroic man whose life would become confused with his own legendary status, it was Waylander where we begin to know Gemmell’s own shadow self, the gray world of the outsider, the man whose existence was neither heroic nor completely evil but rather a creature of mixed hue and mores. 

As I read through this series of novels Waylander, Waylander II, and the Hero in the Shadows a sense of Gemmell’s cycle of hate, revenge, guilt, absolution, and redemption works itself out not completely in Orthodox Christian terms, but rather in a darker and older tragic sense of life and existence. Gemmell would sum up his view of existence in an interview with Sandy Auden, saying:

‘I went to Disney World recently. All around me there were actors in cute, cuddly costumes. Down on a lake, beside a ride called Splash Mountain, was a mother duck with around eight ducklings. She caught my eye because she was chasing a tall, crane-like bird and flapping her wings furiously. As I looked I realised the crane had a duckling in its beak. The mother duck could do nothing about it, and the crane ate the duckling. Real life in Disney World. Nature, as they say, is red in tooth and claw. If you write about warriors you write about blood, violence and death. You can’t have one without the other. Unless you want to sanitise the whole grisly business.’

This matter of fact, no non-sense, pragmatic approach to life and art seems to pervade his works, especially the Waylander series. 

If you’ve not read the Waylander series I suggest you do so. This is your one time spoiler alert. What follows is my own personal ad lib jaunt through the heart and soul of this series. For a good introduction to the story itself one can do no better than reading the articles on the fandom wiki: Waylander

Spoilers Below…

There’s a mythology of Time underlying Gemmell’s vision of life and art, a sense that one is not bound by the vicious circle of never-ending chance and necessity, the fatalistic dance of pain and suffering. But instead that there is a way out of this circle, a way to break the pattern, a moment of Kairos – a Greek term denoting the ‘opportune moment’, the moment when the threads of fate come together and one can at last break that endless circle of repetition and failure. In Gemmell’s cosmology there is this battle between unequal forces of the Source and Chaos. Rather than some dualistic notion to equals, or of two opposing gods as in Zoroastrianism, etc. this is a world of Time where the forces are impersonal and intrinsic to the fate of all things, and yet there is no ultimate law binding everything in some vicious circle of destiny in Nietzsche’s sense of ‘amour fati’ or the love of fate. Instead for Gemmell the notion of kairos in the theological sense of  “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts might be more appropriate. (see Kairos). And, yet, the Source is not a personal god in the Christian sense, but rather an impersonal force of energy and creativity within all things. So that the opposing force much like Taoist thought is not totally negative, but a natural and elemental force – the spirit of chaos, or Chaos Spirit (in Gemmell’s terms) working within this time-ridden realm of becoming to keep things moving and changing. And, yet these tendencies within the world which if maintained in harmony and balance help attain a sense of order can be manipulated for good or ill, therein lies the conflict of men.

In Gemmell’s world there are men who have fallen away from the sense of harmony and balance and produced a dualistic religious sense. So that by the time we enter the Waylander series we are introduced to the Priests of the Source, and the Dark Brotherhood of the Chaos Spirit. That both fail to understand Source or Chaos is part of the challenge that is worked out through one aspect of the complete Drenai saga. It’s just here that we are introduced to Waylander who is forced to make a decision concerning a Priest of the Source when he after killing the men who stole his horse and were torturing this priest whose name is Dardalion. As Waylander walks away from the priest who is tied to a tree, helpless and alone, the priest speaks, saying:

‘Wait!’ called the priest. ‘Release me. Please!’ The man turned.
‘Why?’ he asked. The question was so casually put that the priest found himself momentarily unable to phrase an answer. ‘I will die if you leave me here,’ he said, at last.
‘Not good enough,’ said the man, shrugging.

This is Waylander the Slayer, the psychopath who feels nothing, needs nothing, cares nothing – a creature devoid of soul or life, beyond the law, untouched by the needs of common men… As one scholar Stefan Brink says of such men, to live outside the law is to become dead, to be one of the living dead, 

When we try to understand early society … it is obvious that it was decisive for an individual to be part of a family and a social group. You were in a way identified by your affiliation to a family, a group and a society. The worst punishment you could thus get was to be cut off from this group and society, to be excommunicated or outlawed, which has been described as a ‘social death.’ In other words we can see that our forefathers had another concept of freedom than we have. Freedom was not defined as an individual freedom, but a right to belong to a fellowship, to be part of a social group. A stranger was often considered as an enemy.5

Waylander who is about to get on his horse and ride away when he thinks better of it. “For several moments he stared at the priest, then he cursed softly and cut him free. The man sagged forward into his arms. He had been badly beaten and his chest had been repeatedly cut; the flesh hung in narrow strips and his blue robes were stained with blood.” It’s this act of compassion and kindness that will set the man Waylander the Slayer on a road that will eventually lead him if not to redemption, then at least to the redemption of his earlier self and family. As I read through the series of novels Waylander would be challenged every step of the way with such confrontations of conscience, swayed by either guilt or some other inner workings of chance and necessity to make certain choices between recourse to the old uncaring and unfeeling Waylander whose life after the death of his wife and children would lead him to twenty years of vengeance and revenge, hunting down and torturing every single man in the mercenary band that had caused everything he loved to vanish. Or to this new Waylander whose sudden and inexplicable need drew him to care and help others in distress. It is this caring Waylander we will follow through the three novels, exploring each event and challenge he faces along the way.

Waylander and Dardalion will end up traveling on together, heading for Skultik. On the road, they bump into a young refugee woman, Danyal, and the children she is trying to get to safety. Once again going against his better judgement, Waylander agrees to help the group. During their flight, Dardalion is assaulted in the spirit realm by a member of the Dark Brotherhood. He is saved when Waylander bleeds himself and drips the blood into the unconscious priest’s mouth; this polluting of a pure soul with that of someone notably impure results in the pacifistic Dardalion choosing to turn and fight back against his spiritual pursuer. Killing him, Dardalion awakes a changed man. 

This changing within Dardelion plays out another aspect of the novels, the sense that the false purity of the priesthood who have tried to believe that the Source is a pure and absolute good without taint is in itself a false image of the Real. That instead life is a mixture of good and ill, conflict and engagement. Dardalion will over time discover a different path, a path between war and peace, one that entails battling the Chaos Spirit and its earthly minions the Dark Brotherhood, the Nadir Shaman’s, and others through a new order of warrior-priests, the Thirty as it will come to be called. 

I’ll not spend time reducing the plots and narratives of each novel to their storylines, nor detailing out each interaction, character, or struggle. What I hoped to convey was this sense of internal struggle within the anti-heroic tradition which is neither purely good or bad, a tradition within which the protagonist is faced with many choices and conflicts and must resolve them in a singular fashion for good or ill. In Gemmell’s cosmology there are multi-worlds and multiple timelines, and in each of them the game of war and life are played out differently and uniquely. There is not final judgment, only the endless cycles of existence in which humans must choose for themselves what must be done. Waylander is always haunted by his choice to seek revenge against the killers of his wife and children, and it’s this legacy which will guide his actions throughout the series. And, yet, there’s this sense that he might just find a way to retrieve that lost world of innocence, that age before all his troubles began, before he became this thing, this psychopathic killer Waylander the Slayer. 

One sees this in many of Gemmell’s other novels, such as the series dealing with Druss as the opposing figure of the heroic, a man who in the end will question this whole tradition of which he’s become its ultimate harbinger and victim. What is real? The legend or the man? Is there a difference, and most of all is there a difference that makes a difference? These are the questions that will play themselves out time and again both in the heroes and anti-heroes in Gemmell’s fiction. And there are no easy answers, and his novels are not the simple derivative fantasy of many lesser authors, but are of a man who through his works is working out the hard choices and feelings, guilts and aspirations of his own life. One imagines that the young man growing up in West London, bullied and hounded by lesser beings, but who would find in his step-dad an image of a real man, a hero who lived up to what that meant would impact his life even as he also made his own bad choices along the way. Gemmell was a man and writer who faced his demons down, exorcised them by objectifying them in his works rather than in his life. Making of his characters a world where he could work out all those inner struggles and turmoil’s about childhood and fate, heroic and anti-heroic lifestyles and choices. 

I wish I had more time to continue, but as in all things I hope to return to the individual novels at some time in the future. Here I just wanted to grasp the essential, the essence if you will of David Gemmell himself and why he wrote the works he wrote. Hopefully I’ve done justice to that. I liked the image at the end of the third novel in which Waylander, who is himself strangely already dead, held together and alive by the magical powers of a being of magic and transhuman powers whose one gift is to open a portal on Waylander’s past, a portal that will allow him to return to his family if only for a brief moment and respite. Strange such a scene, a man riding back into his past to meet the men who slayed his wife and children, a man who can at last stop what has happened from happening:

‘I know you,’ said the newcomer. ‘I know all of you.’ Shock rippled through Tanya as she heard his voice, though she didn’t know why. He moved his mount closer to Long-face. ‘You are Bedrin, known as the Stalker. You are a man with no redeeming features. There is nothing I have to say to you.’ The crossbow came up, and Long-face pitched from the saddle, a bolt through his brain. ‘As for the rest of you,’ continued the rider, ‘there are some who can still find redemption.’

  1. Stan Nicholls. “David Gemmell Obituary”, David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy. Accessed 22 September 2015. Originally published in The Times, 1 August 2006.
  2. Sandy Auden. “Heroic Intentions: an interview with David Gemmell”, The SF Site. 2005. Originally on Sci-Fi Channel UK. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  3. Christopher Priest. “Obituary: David Gemmell”, The Guardian. 2 August 2006. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  4. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism Norton. 
  5. Brink, Stefan. 2012. Slavery in the Viking Age. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 50.

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