Sunday, April 29, 2012

Harold Lamb's Swords from the West

Swords from the West Swords from the West is more than just a collection of short stories. The seventeen stories in this volume include two short novels and several other stories that are virtually novellas.

New Jersey-born Harold Lamb (1892-1962) was one of the grand masters of the adventure story. He wrote for pulp magazines but also wrote a number of serious historical works as well as penning the screenplay for Cecil B. DeMille’s underrated 1935 epic The Crusades Lamb was fluent in French, Latin, Arabic and Persian with a smattering of other eastern languages as well and can be considered to be one of the most erudite of adventure writers.  

Swords from the West claims to be a collection of his tales about the Crusades but the stories are far more more varied than that would suggest, including a story of the Battle of Châlons in 451 (possibly the most decisive battle in European history, the battle that ended the advance of Attila’s Huns into Europe and also the last great Roman victory). There’s even a ghost story set in India during the Raj. Lamb was renowned for his even-handedness. There are Crusader heroes but there are brave and honourable Moslems as well (and perfidious and treacherous ones also).

Lamb was also fascinated by the Mongols (he wrote a biography of Genghis Khan) and was surprisingly sympathetic towards them. Some of the best stories in this volume involve the Mongols and Tatars, including the novellas The Grand Cham and The Golden Horde and the novel The Making of the Morning Star. Lamb’s heroes are not kings or even princes but mostly landless knights or adventurers, men on the periphery of greatness or men caught up in great events.

There are brave women as well in these tales. Lamb admired courage and daring regardless of race or gender.

Lamb’s style is somewhat more literary than the usual run of pulp writers but he had the pulp writer’s awareness of the importance of pacing and excitement. His plotting is skillful and well thought out. His stories aren’t just a collection of exciting incidents - he knew how to build a tale towards a satisfactory climax, bringing the hero to his appointed point of destiny.

He was fascinated by civilisations in transition, either on the verge of greatness or in the process of decline. His crusader stories do not deal with the glories of the First Crusade or with the Kingdom of Jerusalem at the height of its power, or even with the exploits of great crusader heroes like Richard Lionheart. Lamb was more interested in the period when the doomed surviving crusader princedoms were struggling for survival.

Lamb’s view of the Crusades was complex but ultimately tragic. You certainly won’t find him espousing the modern and fashionably politically correct view of the Crusades as a war of aggression against peace-loving Islamic civilisations, but neither will you find him adopting a simplistic triumphalist tone. Courage and honour, and treachery and cowardice, can be found in every civilisation at every period of history. You also won’t find modern ideas about universal peace and brotherhood in these pages. Civiliations that are unable or unwilling to fight for their own survival do not and never will survive.

A collection of fine stories by a master story teller, highly recommended.


  1. Just picked up two volumes of Lamb's cossack stories -- The Univ. of Nebraska's Bison imprint put out four a few years ago -- and I'm glad to hear there's more for grabs out there. Funny thing re the Crusades is that contemporary Muslims supposedly found Lamb's accounts more sympathetic than many others from the west, down to his screenplay for the Cecil B. DeMille Crusades film. I like the Cossack stuff well enough to want to give the Crusade stories a try.

  2. I see that you are a fan of Harold Lamb. You may like his biography, which i've put up on my blog Pulp Flakes. You will also find other pulp authors of interest there.