Sword-and-Planet Love-Letter: Gardner Fox’s Warrior of Llarn
by Brian Murphy
Sword-and-planet (S&P) is an odd, anachronistic corner of speculative fiction, occupying a colorful and wild interstellar space somewhere between the charted lands of fantasy and science fiction. Fighting-men from earth travel via astral projection to planets where hovercraft soar, shining cities in oxygenated domes rise above dusty plains, and aliens wear radium pistols at their hip, but settle conflicts man-to-man and sword-to-sword. And not with lightsabers, but old school, real shiny bits of steel.
Strange, and awesome.
The best place to start a foray into the subgenre is with the stories from the man who started it all, the late, great Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter of Mars series. Another excellent choice is Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon, arguably the greatest example of this style of fiction. Barring access to these, or if you’ve already drank deeply of the purest draughts of Mars and are looking for the next red planet on which to draw your saber and fight green or blue-skinned aliens, I wholeheartedly recommend Gardner Fox’s Warrior of Llarn (Ace Books, 1964).
Alan Morgan is the son of a well-to-do lawyer and heir to the practice, but does not love his earthbound life. A man of action, he’s at home in the woods, and would rather live off the land as a hunter in the wild. “I wanted no four walls around me, only the open woods or the salt spray of the ocean in my face,” he proclaims. Though he is of Earth, Morgan senses he is of another place and time. This feeling of displacement is sharpened by a mysterious alien voice in his head that beckons his aid. It’s a literal call from an alien seeking help on another planet, but also a metaphoric Call of the Wild, a voice from within. All my life I have heard the voice, Morgan tells us.
Soon he gets his wish, and answers the call. He is whisked away to Llarn, an ancient planet so old that its mountains have been worn near flat, and its moons broken up, their remnants circling the planet. Llarn has been torn by nuclear war. Destruction and fallout has left vast, barren wastelands, empty cities, and mutated species. Savage beasts roam the planet, and even more savage races. Chief among these are the blue-skinned Azunn, a species rapidly and recently evolved from apes mutated by radioactive exposure. Only recently risen from savagery, the warlike and cruel Azunn are Morgan’s chief protagonists, although there are many others.
Let’s pause for a moment to address a sizable elephant in the room. Warrior to Llarn is so much an homage to the John Carter of Mars books and in particular A Princess of Mars (first appearance in 1912) that it borders on unauthorized sequel, or perhaps a slightly altered mirror universe. The plot and protagonist are nearly the same: Cultured but highly capable man from earth rescues an exotic love interest. The world-building is likewise a near clone. Llarn is smaller than earth and its low gravity bestows upon Morgan a great leaping ability. The alien naming conventions (Kav Mork, Gorlun Duv, Morlan Az), use of airships, and a blue instead of green-skinned warlike race, all make you wonder whether you’ve somehow mistakenly cracked an off-kilter ERB novel.
But don’t’ let that discourage you. Fox is obviously having fun with an enormously influential property. Like Robert E. Howard in sword-and-sorcery, ERB’s influence in sword-and-planet is so titanic that it must be dealt with. Rather than attempting something new, or in reaction (think Elric to Conan) Fox takes us on a nostalgic carnival ride through intensely familiar territory. Warrior of Llarn is in no way cynical or archly distant from its source material. Rather, it’s a love letter, and wonderful homage.
In my opinion Fox is the best of the S&S pastichers. His sword-and-sorcery tales of Kothar and Kyrik are worth your entertainment dollar. Though he wrote just two S&P entries, Fox might be even better in this space. Warrior of Llarn is mainlined action and rip-roaring forward motion, non-stop until literally the very last of its 160 pages. Fox returned to Llarn with a sequel, Thief of Llarn (1966, Ace Books). While recommended, the book is a step down in quality from its predecessor, with Alan Morgan traveling back in time to steal a great jewel guarded by reportedly impenetrable defenses.
Sure, they have flaws, too. Like ERB, Fox relies far too heavily on capture and escape to drive the plot. Morgan is constantly “imprisoned” in cells with no locked doors, no guards, and ready access to armories. His “escapes” are at times comically far from miraculous. But they add to the fun, and the novel never flags or bores.
The term sword-and-planet is often used interchangeably with planetary romance, and that term describes Warrior of Llarn as well as any. It’s a classic romance of love found, lost, and regained. Morgan’s love interest, the princess Tuarra of Karkol, will make you fall in love. She’s of course dazzlingly beautiful, “pagan, barbaric, and the loveliest woman on two worlds,” but also three-dimensional—headstrong, possessed of a wry sense of humor, unpredictable, courageous, quick to anger. She is no shrinking violet. Her father has lost the throne after a warlord incites a violent coup, and Morgan’s fierce love for her frames this broader canvass of politics and war.
This type of interplanetary adventure weaves an intoxicating spell, as it draws upon deep archetypes. It’s a window into the past, with the likes of the Azunn standing in for ancient barbaric warrior cultures, vital and virile but also intolerant and cruel. Overlaying this is a seemingly anachronistic chivalry, reflective of both medieval ideals but perhaps also the mores of Fox’s time, pre-sexual revolution. Alone with a beautiful woman in life or death situations, and enmeshed in the vicissitudes of warring races where tomorrow or even the next hour is not promised, Morgan is possessed of virtues incongruous to the modern reader. He thrills at Tuarra’s lightest touch, turns abashedly away as she changes, and refuses to bed her until they are properly married, though sorely tempted (“Tuarra was close to my side and pressing closer. I had a sword at my hip and the devil in my heart.”)
In short, it’s a weird mish-mash of not just technologies old and new, but values too, ones that seem distant and remote. But this is part of what makes sword-and-planet, well, sword-and-planet, and so wonderfully great.