As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.
The Matter of Aude by Natania Barron
Literary pastiche can be both an artistic crutch and an ambitious undertaking, with writers either piggybacking on the work of their forebears in an attempt to short-circuit their own flaws, or bravely attempting to meet their influences head on and tussle with them to produce something novel.
As with most things however, the truth often lies somewhere in between, and Natania Barron’s story in particular channels a much-vaunted work of the Western literary canon to surprising effect as she attempts to meld Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the French medieval poem, The Song of Roland.
As the title of the story suggests, Barron shifts the narration from the military dynamic of the original poem to the secondary character of Aude, the sister of Roland’s best friend and comrade Olivier, who in the poem dies of grief upon learning of Roland’s — her betrothed — tragic death in battle.
Instead of the passive mourning female archetype of the poem, with Barron’s help Aude is now transformed into a Joan of Arc figure, collaborating with Archbishop Turpin to influence the outcome of the critical battle with the help of the Heavenly Mother, Queen of Heaven. Apart from supernatural clairvoyance, Barron endows Aude with a keen, perceptive intelligence. It’s made clear to us quite early on in the story that this version of Aude would most emphatically not die of grief should Roland be felled in battle: “Theirs was a union of rank and reputation and she was not blind to it, even if she played it so.”
(Think of the way that JRR Tolkien’s Arwen had to be imbued with added agency for the Peter Jackson’s film adaptations in order to be palpable to contemporary audience; Tolkien, of course, being heavily influenced the medieval romance tradition.)
While some writers may be tempted to ‘pulp it up’ with a set-up like this, Barron chooses to concentrate on Aude’s relationship to the characters and her ultimate fate. In this way, she creates an opportunity for herself to slip behind the underbelly of the Chanson and explore its inner workings — making Aude into something of a master manipulator by means of her access to what amounts to Lovecraft’s dreamlands.
Nevertheless, the story allows itself some descriptive battle scenes as Aude follows her brother’s progress, and there’s fun to be had in her sparing but spot-on use of Lovecraftian monster lore.
A giant it was, surrounded by yellow-accoutered monks, all humming in a low chant. It rose close to twelve feet high, with sloping shoulders covered in boil-covered skin, pock-marked, and the color of curdled milk. From its mouth emitted an unholy stench; Olivier found his eyes watering through his visor. Sulfur, perhaps. This giant who was once Fierabras had but one eye, black and pupil-less, and Olivier could never tell where it was looking.