Quit beating on EL James (and leave JK Rowling alone as well)



I’m starting to get uncomfortable with the way people, especially wannabe authors, beat on E.L. James.

Most of us write in a genre that somebody else holds in contempt.

How is it that “Mommy Porn” about erotic power and kinky sex is trash, but SF about political power and blowing shit up in space is not trash?

And that Lad Lit  about sex and wangsting over middle age is also not trash?


“Not trash”

And, how terrible to have chunks of your text taken out of context and snarked at by people who don’t get your genre! Especially if you’ve been writing in 1st person, so that odd metaphors etc are part of characterisation.


“Also, not trash”

Has anybody who enjoys criticizing EL James’s descriptions of… erm… intimacy actually read DH Lawrence?

And we get something similar with J.K. Rowling.

OMG somebody used similar concepts before! She must be a plagiarist!

They are tropes, moron! It’s what she did with them that mattered.

Harry Potter


If you demand original tropes, then you can bin just about everything written in every genre. Hell, you can bin Shakespeare, who ripped off Boccaccio half the time.

“Eww. The books get big fat and bloated!”

Are you 12? 14?


“Not bloated”

No? Then shut the hell up.

The intended readers, the ones the right age, read her, continue to read her. Many of the adults too,

Also, how come big fat fantasy  series count as not bloated?

Ugh. It’s just a re-skinned public school story.

First, Hogwarts is technically a state boarding school.

JK Rowling house

JK Rowling lived here for a while

Second, some people like school stories. You don’t have to — hell, many of us had such a shitty time at school we find such stories almost triggering — but don’t criticize a book because you don’t like its sub genre. In that light, the Culture books are “just modernized Flash Gordon stuff”, Pride and Prejudice is just a “pre-modern privilege pain narrative”.

Face it!

Both James and Rowling wrote bestsellers that broke out of their genre ghettos, gave people at minimum a few precious hours of escapism and at best inserted new excitement into their lives, sent moms off to explore fantasies, and teens off to find more Fantasy literature.

El James House

EL James now lives here

Surely the fairest test of a book is; “Do people read it, come back for more, and feel its influence later?”

By this measure, these two writers are literary giants.

They both wrote themselves out of obscurity and into rather nice houses, pretty much like Sir Walter Scott did back in the 19th century, and every 20th and 21st century bestselling Thriller and Crime writer has done since.

So is the real problem that women writers are only supposed to get rich by writing serious literature?

Are some people seeing them as letting the side down? And others just seeing them as uppity?


“women writers are only supposed to get rich by writing serious literature”

I don’t know.


When I was a student in Edinburgh, we used to hang out in a coffee shop across the road, the now-defunct Nicolsons.

This was before it was trendy to fictioneer in coffee shops.

I remember a friend saying, “There’s that woman with the kid writing again” and I have this vague recollection of bottle-blond long hair, an untrendy mum-raincoat, a baby buggy and an excercise book.

I’ve been there, writing in the gaps in my life, hunched over a laptop on a train to Glasgow while broad shouldered morons decided to assert their space, or squirreled away in a biker bar at lunchtime, tapping frantically at my second hand keyboard while sipping bad coffee, or doing edits in the park while a child dozed in their pram.

JKR in Niccolsons

“It’s how most of us start. “

It’s how most of us start.  So, me? I wish JK Rowling and EL James all the best. May they enjoy the good fortune that they have earned.

Snark away if you want. Neither writer need care what you think. A mansion is a great comfort blanket.


Edmond Hamilton, one of Space Opera’s fathers and almost certainly an influence on Douglas Adams

Last-of-the-Star-Kings2-CopyI must admit I started on Hamilton because he was married to Leigh Brackett, one of my all time heroes.

My first thought on reading him was, “Oh good, he wasn’t bad at all. That must have been nice for her.”

(Imagine a relationship where both were writers, but one was an embarrassment? Phew.)

I read on because he’s pretty mind-blowing — Hubble fan fiction with the Galaxy as the star, deep history and deeper space.

Something in his exuberant world building reminded me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, odd because Douglas Adams always claimed to have never read beyond page 10 of any mainstream Science Fiction work. Imagine my glee when I found parallels in the text of HHGTG and Edmond Hamilton’s opus!

This gave me two rather good blog entries on Edmond Hamilton, one calling out the late great author, the other more or less excusing him and revelling in his connection to the tradition:

I haven’t been this excited by discovering a vintage writer since Harold Lamb, so I started cramming my Kindle with Hamilton, reading as much of his work as I could. Since he wrote solidly for 40 years, it took a long time to even read a significant proportion. Finally, I felt braced enough to write up what I had found so far:

There are a lot of writers I wish I had discovered earlier, and Hamilton is now firmly on this list.


The Sky Tomb of the Earth Kings – a story in Heroika Dragon Eaters

Dragon Eaters“Zombie dragons, vampire dwarves, elves, animated skeletons, a flying city,  a steampunk zeppelin, a bounty hunter…”

Kurtzhau (now aged 11) had asked me what I put into my story for Janet Morris’s Dragon Eaters anthology, and now he’s listening with a twinkle in his eyes.

In truth, it was my first paid for Fantasy story. Despite my own genre roots, my entire professional CV marks me as a Historical novelist. For this reason, I threw everything I had at this little story. Fortunately, with the help of Janet who is an awesome editor, the thing worked, and better yet I think I learned how to do it again.

Perhaps it was what a mate calls “stunt writing”. However, I was also marking my territory to prove to myself I could write this stuff. Except…

I clap my hand to my forehead. “Damn. I forgot to put in werewolves!”

“Oh Dad,” says Kurtzhau. “Don’t you think you put in enough tropes?”

“Oh Kurtzhau,” I shoot back. “Doesn’t it concern you that at eleven you can say that sentence and know what it means?”

He just looks at me.


Shieldwall: Barbarians!

Final CoverI’ve just published my YA novel

 and – frankly – I am exhausted.

Indy publishing sounds all edgy and exciting, but really it’s an exercise in micro management and networking. I really missed having an editor on the other end of the email, plus a marketing department to worry about all the crap.

But I’ve done it. We’ve done it. My wonderful helpful friends and I.

It’s a book that’s close to my heart – it all started with a conversation that began “Daddy, how did the Roman Empire fall” – and it’s my attempt to follow in the footsteps of my hero Ronald Welch. There simply aren’t enough boy’s books out there that are about leadership… not that this book is just for boys, or can’t be read for adults. YA is so very close to the old pulps. Decide for yourself…

But now I’m going to drink malt whisky and sleep.


How to simplify a conflict diagram to make it more powerful

The thing about Conflict Diagrams is that you can do them in more than one way. Here’s a first stab at an “odd couple” romance:

Romance 1

Lots of Bones of Contention — the jagged boxes. However, it’s hard to see the potential story here — this could just be subjects for sitcom episodes!

Look again. Can’t we turn it inside out? Like this, perhaps?

Romance 2

Simpler, but at the same time easier to see the story emerge. What I’ve done is treat the couple themselves as  Bone of Contention — what are the forces struggling to define the couple? We only need to know the start conditions, so there’s no need to put in the couple’s strengths; we’ll discover these.

Even so, the story needs a theme — a big conflict playing out. To get that, we need more detail… which is already in my head, or would be if this were my story (actually, it’s a twisted version of something a friend is working on) and thus some thematic forces:

Romance 3So now we have big forces at work, the mythic CHAOS vs ORDER, and then DOMESTICITY and SECURITY CLEARANCE also chipping away at the relationship.

Only one more thing remains — to personify some of these forces:

Romance 4

Actually, I read somewhere that in Romantic comedies, one or both characters should have an inconvenient secret. So that needs to go in there somewhere…. it would be nice if it fitted the themes:

Romance 5

Now that looks more interesting!

EDIT: A friend of mine commented:

…there’s no way the title’s accurate: you went from 2 nodes and 4 links in the first draft to 12 nodes and “I stopped counting” links in the final draft. Simplicity? “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

For me it feels simpler because it has four abstract forces driving it:

Romance Marked Up

All the other relationships — apart from her secret — emerge from these four.

The take-home is:

  1. Experiment with turning your diagram inside out.
  2. You only need to capture the start conditions, not the story.
  3. The thematic forces give you the details, or the other way around.


Kurtzhau – 11 – taps on the bedroom door and marches in. “The Xbox 360 doesn’t have an independent volume control.”

I look up from my kindle. “OK. Thanks.”

Earlier I’d tasked him to sort out the way the volume is always too low when we switch between Xbox and cable, and then loud enough to pin you to your chair when we go from from cable to console.

“Right, next chore,” I say. “Find the home address of the designer who didn’t think it needed an independent volume control and mail him–”

–Yes, I’m fairly certain the person in question is a him in this case.

“–a dog turd.”

Kurtzhau grins. “That’s your job dad.”


Writing, illness and outlining

“It creeps up on you,” says my writer friend.


Like a live lobster being cooked… gosh can I smell seafood?

“Yes!” I swig from my third coffee. It’s the only way I can stay alert. “Like a live lobster being cooked… gosh can I smell seafood?”

We’re talking about the experience of getting ill, slowly, almost imperceptibly, and then one day sitting down to write and nothing happens… or nothing worthwhile. (I’m sure this experience is not unique to writers; I could have entitled this post “Brain work… etc”)

Over the second half of 2014, my sinuses gradually closed up. it was like having a continuous, worsening hangover leavened by periods of being a sleepy-drunk. The lost of mental acuity, putting it mildly, absolutely sandbagged my creative output after Storyteller Tools 

Like that lobster, I had no idea what was happening to me. Without thinking, I slowly upped my coffee until I was drinking two double shot lattes in the day just to function–that plus the one in the morning to wake up.

Then the cold damp weather hit, the caffeine stopped working and I just couldn’t finish the short story I was working on.

Cue rising sense of panic — writing like any vocation is an identity as well as a source of income. If I can’t write, I’m not me anymore.

And then you realise you’re an idiot and that we’re all vulnerable to bad health. (And dear God(s) I’m glad I’m not Terry Pratchett right now.)

But here’s the interesting thing.

The weather cleared for an afternoon, the curtain of fug lifted just long enough for me to re-outline the story. Then, despite the sinusy miasma, I wrote the draft to The End.

Now, I’ve compared notes with other writer friends. It seems it’s quite common for bad health and mild depression to knock out the more abstract structural faculties while leaving us able to lose ourselves on the details of the narrative. So, if we know what we’re writing we can write the prose and — perhaps — that prose is all the more vivid for the vivid day-dreamy state of our brains.  .

It explains why, back when, time off work with flu rarely resulted in wordcount , and why writing — though it makes a great leisure activity — is hard to fit into the late evening once you’re past that adolescent waking literary dream phase.

It also explains why I was nevertheless able to write my first novel in lunchtimes in the old Blind Beggar and on the train; I was working from outline.

For me, one of the powers of outlining is that it captures that first flush of sweeping creativity; we can paint with a broad brush without getting lost in the details.

I now realise that outlining also captures the output from moment when you can create at a structural level.

So, if you write in snatched and stolen time, or battle ill health, then my advice is outline — or at least plan — when you can so that you can lose yourself in the draft in those other darker times.


Try Storyteller Tools, my book on outlining and planning! In it I show you how to use Conflict Diagrams and other tools to create an effective outline.



The Strife Ray

(An old LJ post recycled for a friend.)

Fantasy as a genre seems to exist to transfer the Fantasy Vision from the head of the author into those of their readers. Look! Look! Here’s my Gate of the Death. Cool isn’t it? Look at all those dancing skelingtons!

Alas, fantasy authors have a harder time than artists and filmmakers in the same genre. Where they have visuals, music and mood, the writer has only what I call the STRIFE RAY. Pray allow me to demonstrate.

Try reading this at the normal pace:

The forest fell away and the Vale of the Little Happy People opened up before Torahg. A great river oozed along the valley bottom, feeding the many ditches which in turn watered the fields of miscweed. A herd of white unicorns gambolled amongst the cultivated flowers, swirling around the bases of the lazily spinning windmills. Further off, a natural hill or mound rose from the flood plain. Little cottages dotted its sides. At the crest rose a squat temple box-like temple. Before its open wooden doors, diminutive natives danced in a circle, no doubt celebrating a rustic wedding.

Oh dear god(s)! This is how a lot of published fantasy is written. How far did you get? I have difficulty reading it end-to-end, and I wrote it.


An artist could have just painted the scene. A film director could have pumped up the Hans Zimmer score and swept the camera through the bucolic Vale. No worries about maintaining tension: watching costs us no  effort, and – if the script and directing are good – we know that Something Is About To Happen.

Writers don’t have these luxuries. Reading takes effort. The reader quickly tires of a passage which doesn’t reward them with some visceral kick. Then they skip it, and so much for the Burning Fantasy Vision™.

The only thing guaranteed to stop the readers from skipping the descriptive bits is CONFLICT. (Why conflict is so compelling is a question for better minds than mine.) No matter how wonderful your Burning Fantasy Vision™, nobody will really see it unless you tip red-hot conflict over the top.

Warning: This is a bit like tipping burning petrol over your granny’s flowerbeds to improve their night visibility – it can leave your cosy utopia charred and corpse-strewn.

So, the landscape’s been daubed with conflict. Now, like Ming the Merciless, the Fantasy writer must roll out the Strife Ray in order to illuminate it.

Similar to active radar, the Strife Ray illuminates wherever you aim it. However, if it doesn’t reflect hot conflict, it dims, or – worse! – switches off entirely, leaving the reader with a vague, fleeting impression of that part of your vision.

So, let’s point the Strife Ray at the Vale of the Little Happy People… oh, bugger. We can’t, we haven’t got a conflict.

Grant me a second while I open can of ready made conflict… there… and splash some over the valley and its cute flora and fauna. Right. So now I boot up the Strife Ray and here we go…

Daylight shone between the great oaks. Torahg raised his hand to halt the Hero Riders. Heart in mouth, he inched to the edge of the forest and peered down through the screen of miscweed.

There below was the Vale of the Little Happy People. Already war galleys tore up the great river, prows gouging the placid surface, archers scattering arrows over the fields. Unicorns fled the river banks. Some of the white-skinned creatures tripped in the irrigation ditches and plunged into the high miscweed, never to rise again.

Torahg registered a bitter taste in his mouth. “We’re too late. Mount up lads and watch out for ditches!” He led his charger into the neat rows of miscweed, swung into the saddle and set off at a trot for the valley bottom. From behind came the reassuring thunder of the hooves trampling the crops.

Now the Warriors of Doom disgorged from their galleys. Windmills smoked, blazed, then turned into columns of fire.

Toragh glanced at the cottages which dotted the low hill above the flood plain. The Little People went about their normal business. Outside the boxlike temple which crowned natural mound, diminutive dancers even circled a bride and groom as if life would go on as it always did.

He gritted his teeth. If their way of life was so special, why wouldn’t they defend it? But, he’d made himself into their overlord. If he ever wanted to bed Pixy, he needed to prove he was more than yet another robber baron.

A band of warriors came into view, toasting live Little Person on the embers of a windmill.

Toragh grinned. Sometimes duty was pleasure. He drew his sword. To his rear, fifty snicks answered the gesture. He filled his lungs with the damp river valley air and bellowed, “Charge!”

Not perfect by any means. (I bill for perfection.) But I think the Strife Ray brings alive the Vale of the Little People: the forest, the miscweed, the river, the unicorns, the ditches, the windmills, then finally the Little People and their Quaint Rustic Customs.

Of course, the Strife Ray destroys most of the things it touches, but – hey! – that serves the little peaceniks right. :)



Medieval HEMA Tournaments and Competitive Freeplay and the Nah Mate Fallacy

A nice parlour–by which I mean pub–game is Spot the Fallacy. For example, if  say “A real HEMA person wouldn’t have done that!” then I’m guilty of the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

I’m starting to think we need a new fallacy; the Nah Mate (I can see why an amateur might think that) Fallacy. (Try saying it in a Cockney accent to get the flavor). Basically, the fallacy is that the most depressing opinion expressed the most confidently not only proves the speaker’s insider status, but following from that, must be correct.

You see it all the time in normal life. “Nah mate, I can see why you might think you can improve the interface, but if you understood SQL…” Sometimes people who transcend the Nah Mate Fallacy make themselves very rich indeed.

Nobody – yet – has got rich off Historical European Martial Arts. However we too are burdened with the Nah Mate Fallacy, no more so than in our ambivalent relationship to competitive freeplay and tournaments (NB I’m just going to use the latter word to cover all competitive swordplay where a points system is in operation).

In its extreme form it goes like this:

Nah mate, they might look flashy, but you don’t win a tournament using proper technique, so tournaments are almost inherently worthless. Besides, you can never replicate the feel of mortal combat. If you really must judge people, it ought to be using a board giving marks out of ten like Olympic Synchronised Swimming.

Let’s leave aside that any competitive physical activity brings a much-needed blast of immediacy to our alienated from cause-and-effect modern lives, and set aside the way that any “smoke-filled room type of judging” undercuts this. Let’s also not get hung up on other fighting arts laughing at us if it seems our styles will only flourish in a walled garden either.

Instead, let’s look at the HEMA arguments underlying this, which, I hasten to add, when set out be somebody who’s actually thought about are not subject to the Nah Mate Fallacy.

These arguments are roughly as follows:

  • The Biology of Combat: In real combat, the human body does odd things including distort our sense of time, shuffle blood and sensation around the body in ways helpful to two ape-men bashing each other but not so good for weapon users, and put us into a fight-fly state not conducive to subtle technique.
  • Sharp Blades Bind Different:   Sharp blades stick to each other in interesting ways. Some techniques like Duplieren become much easier, others harder.
  • Judging Effects is impossible: Even a forensics expert would have trouble saying what any particular sword blow would do to any one person at any one moment.
  • Risky Tactics: Since you’re not actually going to get killed if you screw up, it’s theoretically possible to adopt tactics that produce – say – a 80% chance of a double defeat and a 20% chance of a victory, and then win on attrition.
  • Suicidal Tactics: People do stuff that they would never contemplate with sharps, or if they were  a naive ploughboy with no knowledge of swords, would never survive far enough to try.

The first is actually easy to dispose of. Guy Windsor quotes a post-medieval fencing treatise (his translation, my emphasis).

Gio: They say this because one rarely finds men who aren’t moved by wrath or fear or something else when it comes to acting in earnest, which causes their intellect to become clouded and for this reason they can’t employ them. But I say to you that if they don’t allow themselves to be defeated by these circumstances , and they keep their heads, although they may be difficult, they’ll do them safely.

Lep. But what’s the reason for teaching them if they’re so difficult to employ in earnest?

Gio: They’re taught so that courageous men can avail themselves of them in the appropriate occasions. Because one often sees many who were somewhat timid and fearful, yet nonetheless were able to perform them excellently when done in play; but then they were unable to avail themselves of them when the occasion arose in which to do them in earnest.

Lep: I believe it, because when one loses spirit, one consequently loses art as well. From: On the Art of Fencing (1572) pp. 32 recto and verso, translated by Jherek Swanger.
Guy Windsor. The Medieval Longsword, The School of European Swordsmanship.

The text reminds me why I prefer Medieval Martial Arts — oh god the Rambling Renaissance! — but also disposes of the Biology of Combat issue.

You and I thrown into combat might be discommoded by fear and adrenaline. The likes of William Marshal or Don Pero Nino, less so. We might flail or do only basic technique. However, a veteran swordsman though they might play it safe can certainly carry off the complex stuff with sharps. Thus, the absence of fear merely makes we modern fencers fence like heroes with the full range of techniques.

(And let’s not get into this We’re Not Worthy riff. True, trained soldiers are special people, but they’re not  an actual separate breed. Though we might lack the vocation to be a professional fighter, if – God forbid – we had to do it, then like the generations before us we would train for it. None of us can know whether we could make the grade. However, we don’t know we couldn’t either. Just be glad you don’t have to find out.)

The second issue — Sharp Blades Bind Different — yep, can’t do anything about that! However not all Medieval HEMA techniques rely on edge-edge contact. Typically we “Germans” parry by whacking the other guy’s flat. So though it’s a pity, I don’t think it’s a disaster.

The third through fifth issues — Judging Effects, Risky Tactics and Suicidal Tactics? On the face of it, these are damning. However they need not be.

Let’s rewind a bit. Where does HEMA come from?

It’s all reconstructed!

We start with a manuscript, or pile of manuscripts, some swords and some mates and try to make it all work without injuring each other overmuch. Though the original texts are sometimes big on maxims and principles, we are usually forced to work from a set of implicit assumptions, let’s be grown up and call them axioms.

In our case these are:

  1. A hit on you may be immediately disabling.
  2. A hit on your opponent may may not be immediately effective.
  3. You are unlikely to be able to start a new attack immediately after taking a hit.

The first two together are sometimes called Double Pessimism. Roughly: You could clip my wrist with your tip and I could spurt to death. Meanwhile my sword could plow into your head, turn on your skull and merely take off your ear.

The third axiom takes into account: (1) the psychological and physical effects of any kind of strike – it’s one thing to complete a strike with your ear hanging by a flap of skin, entirely different to then lift your sword and cooly execute a new attack, and certainly really foolish to rely on being able to do that, and (2) the way the person who just hit you can continue to press, saw, hack, kick or barge you after the initial hit.

Not only are these axioms our basis for reconstructing our martial art, they’re also implicit in how we judge any freeplay we see on Youtube, and how we judge — and often dismiss — tournament rules and play; “OMG! Did you see those double defeats? WTF did they think they were doing? Epee?”

Now, suppose instead of sitting on the sidelines going “Nah mate…” we were to take the axioms we used to reconstruct our martial arts and then use them to build tournament rules? Wouldn’t that be at least worth a go, since we have the axioms lying around?

What would that be like?


Kurtzhau and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Beowulf

This summer we went to the British Museum for the Viking exhibition. After drooling over the real longship, the weapons, the rare shields, wallowing in pagan relics, and wowing over executed Viking skeletons (with authentic defensive wounds) we had coffee and split down gender lines to see different highlights. Morgenstern and K went off to look at Egyptians. Kurtzhau — 10 — and I marched upstairs to see the new(ish) Dark Age gallery.

I lost track of my son for a few minutes then found him staring at the Sutton Hoo helmet:

Kurtzhau and Sutton Hoo

Last time he was this transfixed, it was four years ago, a Summer evening on the Isle of Mull. Mesmerised by the dark waves lapping the rocky shore,  he waded into the cold water still wearing his shoes. The West Coast being somewhat damp, the shoes took a week to dry. Sometime during those seven days, I read him Rosemary Sutcliff’s Beowulf which helped to kick off his love of the Dark AgesHe was 6, so this was legend without spoilers. Here’s the old LJ entry:

* * *

The wind howls outside the holiday cottage, and Beowulf nails Grendel’s arm to Heriot’s roof beam.

As the hero makes his way home across the foam-flecked whale-road, all to the soundtrack of Jethro Tull’s “Broadsword” album (on to drown out Morgenstern’s War Against Sleep in the next room, rather than to provide mood), Kurtzhau bbecomesrestive:

“I’m bored Daddy.”

“Oh. OK. I’ll stop for now,” I say, closing Rosemary Sutcliff‘s “Beowulf”.

Like the original poem, it’s a work of genius. She’s done what I would do for the Battle Abbey Sword; pared away the Christian accretions and given us back the authentic original. In this slim volume, a pagan Beowulf bestrides a pre-Christian north, invoking the All Father and Wyrd more fittingly than he would ever have invoked a deity of Mediterranean origins.

Shorn of a more civilized viewpoint character – her usual gambit – Sutcliff still manages to capture the unremitting otherness of the milieu, and carve out a tale of mighty-thewed warriors that would sit well between the best of Robert E Howard and Harold Lamb – a hell of an achievement, given she was a wheelchair-bound Telegraph reading English lady, trained to paint miniatures, rather than a Texan brawler, or a real-life Indiana Jones.

(It’s also a book I recognize. I must have read it – but when?)

However, the language is rich and difficult, and Kurtzhau is only six and –

“No, Daddy. I don’t mean stop. I just mean I Want To Play while you read.”

“OK.” I’d rather he didn’t because it seems disrespectful, and “I am not a TV”, but he seems to follow whatever I read and parrot it back with unerring accuracy if I spot check.

Before he can leave the bed, I start the next chapter and the narrative skims 50 raiding seasons and suddenly Beowulf is an old king and a dragon stalks the land.

The rain hammers the window, loud enough to be heard over Jethro Tull.

Kurtzhau stops with one foot on the floor. “What happens next, Daddy? Does he kill the dragon? Does he survive?”

I smile. “You only get to hear this story for the first time, once. So, I’m not telling.”

He squirms, but he knows the rule. Me, I’m envious. Imagine experiencing Welch’s “Sun of York” and not knowing how Tewkesbury will turn out? Or, his “Knight Crusader” and not knowing whether anybody will survive Arsuf, given how badly the Horns of Hattin went?

And the finale of Beowulf, in all its forms, packs a punch on the first reading, and Kurtzhau somehow can’t quite make it to the floor where his Playmobil knights and galloglasses are at war.

The white-bearded king dons his ringmail war-sark and his boar-crested helmet and prepares to go alone to what will be his final battle. As they arm him, he sings his death song. Kurtzhau huddles closer—

–and just then the track changes to “Broadsword“.

Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding.
Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.

The story resonates with the song’s theme of fighting for hearth and home, and – damn me – now there’s a lump in my throat and I struggle to read on.

The two of us together live through the dragon fight, the flight of Beowulf’s thanes, all except Wiglaf who tips the balance in his lord’s favor. Now Beowulf lies dying, poisoned by dragon venom.

Kurtzhau and I both hold each other, sharing a blast of emotions from our ancestors’ cold Dark Ages.

Abruptly, Kurtzhau slips off the bed and rummages with his plastic figures.

“Oh well,” I think. “He’s done pretty well for a—”

He bounces back to join me and thrusts a Playmobil barbarian at me. “This guy can be Wiglaf from now on. Now read the end!”

Afterwards, he’s outraged that the story is so short, and we talk about how lucky we are to have the story at all, and about bards and praise singers, and the irony that the two episodes of Beowulf’s life to come down to us are the ones that emphatically did not happen.

“What happened to Wiglaf?”

I shrug. “Was there a theory he lead a Germanic tribe to Britain? Sorry – I can’t remember and we’ve no Internet access here. But if there were any poems about him, they’re lost.”

Kurtzhau considers. “Somebody ought to write a sequel.”