“Tales of the Once and Future King” and Pulp

This would go on superversive SF but it’s kind of self indulgent, so here we go.

Draft one of the frame story for the massive anthology/novel “Tales of the Once and Future King” is done.

This is no ordinary frame story, though. This is a retro-futuristic fairy tale/western about knights of King Arthur who rescue a Princess locked in a tower from an evil king. It’s got gunfights, romance, wagon chases, secret kings…the works.

The question is interesting, though: Is “Tales of the Once and Future King” pulp?

Let’s apply Misha Burnett’s five pillars of pulp revival to it and find out!

  1. Action:  The focus of the storytelling is on what happens. We know who people are by what they do – This is, or should be, a definite yes. One down.
  2. Impact: These actions have consequences. While a character’s actions do inform us of that character’s personality, significant actions should never be only character studies. They have lasting real world consequences – I’d say so. Characters make mistakes, these mistakes put them in danger, but they come up with brave and clever ways to solve their problems. Impact works.
  3. Moral Peril: Consequences are more than just material. In Pulp stories there is not simply the risk that that the hero may fail to defeat the villain, there is also the greater risk that the hero may become the villain – This is where it gets sticky. I really can’t recall any point the heroes were at risk of going “to the dark side” as it were. They have a moral code, but it’s left unstated for the simple reason that an opportunity never arose for them to announce it to the world. That moral code is never really in danger of being broken. My heroes are heroes, and heroes they remain. This has to be a no.
  4. Romance: Pulp heroes are motivated by love. Not always romance in the modern sense of a relationship involving physical attraction, but a relationship that obligates the pulp hero to take risks on behalf of another – This is another one where it gets sticky. It would be more accurate to say my heroes are driven by honor. Maddie, the viewpoint character and default protagonist, is in the situation she’s in because she is on a quest to rescue her father, but the main driving force of the plot doesn’t revolve around that but on a promise. That said, the heroes will, at times, take outrageous risks in order to defend each other’s lives. And there is a traditional romance in the boy-meets-girl sense. So I’ll give this one a yes.
  5. Mystery: I am using the word here not in the genre sense of a plot concerned with discovering the identity of a criminal, but in the broader sense of the unknown. There are many potential unknowns—the setting, the true identities of other characters, the events that led up to the current crises – Once again, this is sticky. What the protagonists are trying to accomplish and why are never really a question. There is, I suppose, a brief period of time at the beginning of the story where it remains unclear whether our heroes are in the hands of friends or foes, but it becomes clear fairly quickly who the real bad guys are. I’ll give myself a half point on that one.

So, “Tales of the Once and Future King” hits 3.5 pillars of the pulp revival. Maybe I can get a participation trophy.

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11 Responses to “Tales of the Once and Future King” and Pulp

  1. Cirsova says:

    One of the big friction points of moral peril in Arthurian stories comes from Guinevere and her ladies. Can the knight stay true to his moral code when tempted by a beautiful woman? What about if that woman brings his manhood into question? The knight risks blemishing his appearance of Virtu to maintain his code of honor. The moral danger the knight faces is in a place where there are conflicting parts of the code he must uphold.

    Take the Arthurian legend of Lanvale, for instance:
    -A knight must remain virtuous; Rejection of a temptress calls sexuality into question
    -A knight is loyal to his Lord and his lord’s Lady; obeying the Lord’s lady is disloyalty to the Lord, and to bring it to the Lord’s attention brings dishonor on Lady and Lord both
    -What if circumstances demanded that honesty and loyalty be punished?

    I think Point 3 isn’t saying that heroes won’t be heroes, but that the presence of temptation for them to reject adds a bit of drama into the mix.

  2. Hrodgar says:

    I’m gonna go ahead and call the 3rd pillar bunk. Kimball Kinnison, for instance, is never in much danger of becoming a villain, and Lensman is pulp if ever there was. Numerous other examples could be produced. In fact, I’m harder pressed to think of pulp where the protagonist is seriously tempted to villainy than not, unless you count despair as a form of villainy; hope and fortitude are, I think, the two virtues most frequently and emphatically taught by such stories.

  3. Hrodgar says:

    Continuing to use the Lensman series as an example, your description of your own work would also apply to that series. Not that Lensman is without any mysteries, but the white hats and black hats are defined pretty clearly from the get go, and the goal of the good guys is only vague insofar as a utopia must be (which would hardly qualify as a mystery). If having clear heroes and villains disqualifies something from being pulp, then the word has no meaning any more.

    • Hrodgar says:

      should have said “description of your work [in pillar 5]”. Comment was only meant to refer to that section.

    • Well, to be fair to Misha, as Cirsova pointed out the third pillar isn’t about not having clear heroes and villains, but rather having your heroes become tempted to break their moral codes.

      Which is fine. It’s even a planned conflict in my mainline series (as Cirsova again pointed out, those sorts of romantic conflicts are practically a requirement in the late medieval Arthurian fiction). It just happens to not be one of the conflicts in this particular story.

      “Tales of the Once and Future King” is an adventure story about how King Arthur’s knights, and two of their friends, help rescue a Princess from an evil King, except King Arthur is being called Michael Maddocks, the Princess’s official title is “Lady” and the evil King is technically an evil Count.

      It’s straightforward, and not overly long. Moral temptations aren’t really a part of this particular story.

      • Hrodgar says:

        I suppose I agree with the first sentence (“Consequences are more than just material”). But then, they are in most stories of whatever genre.

        It is plainly nonsense on even a cursory examination of history to claim that the hero must be seriously tempted in order for it to be properly pulp. I mentioned the Lensman series because it was the most extreme example of the opposite that I could think of. The whole purpose of the Lenses is that by means of psychic space magic they can only be used by folks who will never betray the white hats, producing a morally incorruptible police force. It is undeniably pulp, and a very popular and beloved example of it.

        I dunno how much of what I’ve read really qualifies as pulp, but from what I recall the protagonist struggling with temptation only features very occasionally in Burroughs or Robert Howard or E. E. Smith or Heinlein or Verne. Other authors may have made more use of it, but it is clearly not a requirement of the genre, and even the above did from time to time.

  4. MishaBurnett says:

    Look, my “Five Pillars” post was intended to generate discussion. I used that particular format to lay out some preliminary thoughts, not to hand town tablets from on high.

    In particular the third point is shaky as it’s stated there. A better restating of it might be that the heroes are heroes by choice. It’s not that one expects the good guys to do a heel turn mid-story, it’s that what makes them good guys is the choices that they make. We expect our heroes to make the right choices, just as we expect the heroes to prevail in combat. However, a character who is foreordained to make the right choice is just as dull as one who is foreordained to be victorious in battle. You don’t have to have the characters agonising over their morality, it’s enough that the readers know that they are not compelled by any outside force to rescue the princess, they do it because it’s the right thing to do.

    And “Mystery” in the sense that I used it in that article refers to the quality of the world in which the story is set. It should be a world in which the edge of the wild is visible, a “Here Abide Dragons” sort of universe.

    • Well, I’m not taking it too seriously, hence my bit about a participation trophy.

      The “Here abide dragons” sort of mystery…yeah, it definitely has that.

      The discussion about the third point IS interesting, and may induce me to make some minor changes (the gist of it is that while I imply in the narrative that part of their motivation to get the job done is a matter of honor, it could probably be made more clear).

      So thanks for that. It’s really just good drama, anyway.

  5. Hrodgar says:

    Sorry, tired, flipped last two clauses. Sentence should read:

    Other authors may have made more use of it, and even the above did from time to time, but it is clearly not a requirement of the genre.

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