Under the Spell of Keith Taylor’s Bard Songs
by Brian Murphy
Tomorrow all will be known, and you’re not alone
So don’t be afraid of the dark and cold
Because the Bard’s songs will remain
~ “The Bard’s Song,” Blind Guardian
A characteristic of good sword-and-sorcery is earthiness; even if not set in some ancient age of our own earth, sword-and-sorcery nevertheless is typically gritty, even grimy, in its realism. Joseph McCullough once described sword-and-sorcery with the terse, pithy, “fantasy with dirt.” That works for me.
Over this layer of grit, which serves to ground the reader somewhere recognizable and to spare overly tedious worldbuilding, the skilled sword-and-sorcery writer adds in the fantastic, in small doses. Weird monsters and dark sorcery that feels alien, and dangerous, and when it appears casts its spell upon the reader.
Keith Taylor struck this balance with the skill of a well-practiced king’s court lutist in his stories of Felimid Mac Fal, better known as Bard. Taylor wrote several stories of the wandering Bard of Erin, published as Bard I-V. The stories take place amidst the backdrop of early sixth century Britain, shortly after the Battle of Badon, in which the greatest Saxon warhost ever gathered on the isle was beaten by the native Britons and their warleader, Arthur. Ruined Roman villas dot the landscape as fierce Jutes raid and plunder.
Felimid is the descendant of Druids and the legendary Tuatha De Danann. But he’s also flawed, and mortal, and three-dimensional, playful and lusty, with a weakness for women. When we meet him in Bard he has succeeded in pissing off the Jutish king Oisc with his sharp tongue, for which he’s bound hand and foot and hoisted over a pit of hungry wolves for the sport of the hall. Felimid can be compared with the likes of Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever—far less bastardly, but when provoked is quick to defend his honor with a cutting verse, or if need be the edge of his blade. He’s a reluctant hero but a skilled and deadly swordsman, and bears with him on his journeys two artifacts of power—the sword Kincaid, and his harp Golden Singer, with which he can not only spin mesmeric tales, but also cast spells of sleep, and laughter, and sorrow upon its listeners.
Kincaid is a magic blade, but its power is quite subtle, almost mundane, though its silver cats’ head pommel and rune-silvered blade comes in handy in what is perhaps Bard’s most well-rendered scene; a desperate chase and battle against a fearsome shape-shifting berserker/werewolf. The last scene in Bard, with Felimid and a small band of warriors desperately digging in the decaying remains of an old Roman villa as the howl of a vengeful werewolf grows ever louder, is taut with suspense and dread.
Kincaid lands Felimid in all manner of scrapes:
“His finding of the sword had made all things possible. It promised everything, a matchless treasure, the steel tough and fine beyond belief, the workmanship a marvel. Kings would give gold in sacks for it—or take it from him and slay him for a thief.”
Taylor uses magic just sparingly enough to feel, well, magical. And weird, sometimes horrifying, as when Felimid catches a glimpse of wild spectral horses of the Celtic goddess Epona and their grim riders:
“Naked they rode on their naked horses, gaunt and bone-white, their eyes pits of shadow. One spectre’s head was split, blood and brains clotted darkly in the streaming hair. The other had a deep stab wound in its side.”
There is some surprising complexity and depth to these stories. For example the man Besdath, though of the native Downsmen, sworn enemies of the Romans, secretly admires the latter for their civilized ways. The civilization vs. barbarism conflict is more nuanced here than is often seen in sword-and-sorcery: “As long as he could remember, Besdath had envied Romans and hated the way his own people lived. What had they to be proud of? They—he—endured cold wind and colder rain, went hungry, raided cattle, fought to keep their own beasts and butchered most of them when autumn came, and then began again in the spring, precisely where they had been the year before. As a young boy Besdath had questioned these things, and received no answer but a beating.”
Taylor got his start in the late 1970s publishing under a pseudonym, Dennis More, with stories appearing in Swords Against Darkness and Fantastic Stories. If you own Swords Against Darkness vols. II and V you’ll recognize “On Skellig Michael” and “Hungry Grass,” respectively. These and many other short stories evidently did Taylor well enough to earn him a contract with Ace Books. He also collaborated with Swords Against Darkness editor Andrew Offutt on two novels of the fifth century Gaelic pirate Cormac Mac Art, When Death Birds Fly and The Tower of Death.
Taylor’s sword-and-sorcery never seemed to break through as Bard failed to become a household title, likely due to bad timing. Bard appeared when sword-and-sorcery was still being published, but starting to tip into disrepute and commercial disfavor, shouldered aside and suffocated by Tolkien clones and high fantasy. Still, it was nominated for the Australian-based Ditmar award in 1982, for Best Long Fiction. The series soldiered on. Sequels were published in succession in 1984 (Bard II), 1986 (Bard III, for which Taylor won a Ditmar) and 1987 (Bard IV). The series concluded in 1991 with Bard V: Felimid’s Homecoming, with sword-and-sorcery largely vanished from the bookshelves, save for the odd title like Echoes of Valor. Taylor went on to write Arthuriana and other stories. And it seemed that was the end of the tale.
Lately, enter DMR Books. DMR recently republished in the fine Renegade Swords II two stories featuring Felimid’s father, Fal the Reiver, which originally appeared in a later revival of Weird Tales in 1988. These two stories, in particular “The Unlawful Hunter,” are terrific sword-and-sorcery, very well written and wonderfully entertaining. Taylor turns a neat trick in his story of introducing a truly monstrous hag, who murders two of Fal’s friends after a botched cattle raid. Fal discovers that the hag does not operate according to commonly understood myth. “The legends were wrong,” Fal realizes. With this deft touch Taylor makes the monstrous and magical feel real in this tale of comeuppance and the end of youthful innocence.
Taylor, who has reportedly been battling a lengthy illness, recently reported on the blog of DMR books that he is currently working on a sixth Bard novel, which is great news indeed. And he has a new story, “Written in Lightning,” in the new sword-and-planet anthology The Lost Empire of Sol.
The Bard’s songs will remain, it seems.