Wednesday 24 August 2016

Heroes of the Black Company

I've wanted to write of review of the excellent "Chronicles of the Black Company" for a while now, having recently read the book for the first time. Sometimes it takes time for a review to congeal into something cohesive.

Chronicles of the Black Company collects the first three novels in Glen Cook's Black Company series into a single volume. This initial trilogy kicks off what is so far a series of ten books.

I've always enjoyed Fantasy, but as I've grown older I've found that most of my favorite books are Science Fiction. The problem is that much of Fantasy literature consists of Tolkien imitators, many of them, lacking any original vision or message. Glen Cook adopts this pattern but looks at things from the other side of the battle lines. The Black Company concedes the Tolkienesque world, but asks the question: What if our Heroes work not for Gandalf, but for The Dark Lord himself? It then goes about the daunting Humanistic task of making those villains relatable and sympathetic anti-heroes. This trick of creating a narrative with the bad guys in the lead is a difficult balance to strike, as the recent, rather poorly received Suicide Squad movie can attest to.


The Black Company

In this first book, we see the Black Company through the eyes of Croaker, the band's Doctor and Historian. We meet them in the inauspicious time before the end of their fateful commission in Beryl. The company faces an existential threat but is offered an out, if they will betray their employer and help overthrow the city. To their credit, the Mercenary leadership does not take the decision lightly, being men of honor with a proud history of completing their commissions. Only when the Syndic's own refusal to face the dire situation leaves them no choice do they accept the emissary's proposal. But the joke is ultimately on the Black Company as it soon turns out they are now working for this Fantasy World's version of Sauron, known simply as "The Lady".

The company soon takes on a new recruit, Raven. Raven is a Byronic Hero. He contributes considerable prowess to the company, yet remains unpredictable and dangerous.

The Black Company become the Lady's most elite unit, but remain sympathetic protagonists since they are not as bad as her regular troops. They ultimately help the Lady defeat the rebels and her Taken rivals, while at the same time planting the seeds for her eventual downfall.

Shadows Linger

The second book in the trilogy mostly takes place in the city of Juniper. It is, for the most part, a detective story(I'm not surprised to find that Glen Cook's other popular series is in the Hardboiled Detective genre.) Something strange is going on in the city, but no one seems to hold all the pieces of the puzzle. Croaker teams up with a toughened detective from the City Watch named Bullock in an attempt to get to the bottom of matters. Unbeknownst to them, Raven plays a big part of this mystery. His actions unwittingly lead to the almost total destruction of the Company. In this way, Croaker and Raven are unwitting adversaries throughout the book.

In the end, Croaker cracks the case just before the shit hits the fan, but too late to prevent it. The Company earns our respect once again when they officially break with The Lady, but now there is a bit of a bait an switch. It is revealed that The Dominator threatens to rise again. At this point, the Lady herself becomes a sympathetic character as she tries to hold-together her Empire and foil his plans.

The White Rose

In the final installment of the trilogy, the Black Company teams up with the White Rose herself in her fight against the Lady and the Dominator. Cook ends his game of role-reversal by completing the redemptive arcs of The Company and The Lady, respectively. In the final showdown, Croaker and Raven find them selves in parallel situations, pitted against one another in a life-or-death struggle. Croaker emerges victorious while Raven is left with nothing.

Heroic Croaker

One of the main reasons the morally ambiguous Black Company remains relateable is that our narrator, Croaker, is a Hardboiled Hero, straight out of Chandler's "Simple Art of Murder". He is the mean product of a mean world. He kills effectively and repeatedly and overlooks his companions' worst atrocities. Nevertheless, he hangs onto a moral code, often to his own detriment. His dedication to the legacy of the company is complete. He is almost a monk in his his duty as resident scholar, updating the annals and reading them aloud to inspire the men. He is also company doctor, healing the wounded after every battle. Finally, there is his strange sentimental crush for the the ultimate Femme Fatale, The Lady. Even when faced with Evil incarnate, Croaker shows his redemptive potential.

Ultimately, Raven and Croaker's ark in the trilogy pits two types of anti-hero against one another, Croaker's Hardboiled here and Raven's Byronic Hero. The Byronic Hero is a decidedly Modern character, assured in his power, the world is his oyster and he intends to harvest the pearl. The Hardboiled Hero is Postmodern, struggling with his own faults and limitations. Both are products of a wicked age, yet while the Hardboiled Hero hangs onto his moral code, the Byronic Hero is blown chaotically between acts of kindness and cruelty by his own inscrutable whims. In the end, Chronicles of the Black Company chooses the Croakers of the world over the Ravens.

The Roots of the Hardboiled Hero

Men of David, James Tissot
The Hardboiled Hero archetype was popularized in the early 20th century pulps, but his roots run deeper.  A man of  honor in a dark world, Croaker's enigmatic personality reminds me of Y. Medan's description of David. In the book of Samuel, David is presented as brave, sensitive and pious, yet when he is insulted by an unappreciative Nabal the Carmelite, he comes dangerously close to committing mass-murder. Says Medan, this is the lot of good men who live by the sword. With the passage of time, pulling the trigger starts to become too easy. In his darkest times, being hunted by King Saul through the hills of the Judaean Desert, David is left struggling simply to maintain his virtue.

The Hardboiled Hero continues to speak to us today, as police and security forces are caught time and again using deadly force inappropriately. This timeless theme is what makes the Black Company novels work so well. In Croaker's own moral struggle in a Dark Fantasy world, we see our own struggles, and in his ultimate redemption, we see hope for ourselves in the darkest corners of our own existence.