Kothar of the Magic Sword
by Gardner Fox
Gather ‘round, children; an old man is speaking.
Back in the early 1980s, there was only one edition of Dungeons & Dragons and we called it Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There were nine alignments, level caps for nonhuman characters, clerics used blunt weapons only, and we liked it! In the back of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide were a list of appendices designed to make the life of the referee easier, and among them was Appendix N: Inspirational Reading. Appendix N was a handful of lines delineating the novels and short stories that had inspired Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Tim Kask, Rob Kuntz and others in the design of the world’s first role-playing game. Within that list are the usual suspects of J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and H.P. Lovecraft (although Clark Ashton Smith is strangely absent). Lesser known authors, at least today, are also included. One of these is Gardner Fox, with particular emphasis placed on his “Kothar” stories.
Gardner Fox is a name that should be familiar to nerds everywhere, although not for fantasy fiction. Fox was the guy who came up with the idea of the Justice Society of America, the world’s first team of superheroes, in the 1940s and he also created and guided the adventures of the Justice League of America in the 1960s, crafting some of the Justice League’s most iconic early adventures. These included the early annual team-ups with the Justice Society, introducing the concepts of Earth-1 and Earth-2 to DC. We basically owe the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the current line-up of CW shows in a roundabout way to Mr. Fox.
So I’ve read a lot of comic books written by Fox, but never realized he was also a novelist (and a prolific one at that – the Kothar novels are a fraction of his output), let alone an author of sword & sorcery fiction. I’ve been picking away at Appendix N for the last decade or so, beginning with the big names and easy to find stuff, and now I’m getting to the lesser known, out of print, weird fiction of the 1960s and 70s that fueled the imaginations of Gygax and the crew at TSR. Kothar of the Magic Sword is not the first of the Kothar novels, I think it may be the second, but there’s very little dependence on continuity or world-building in these kinds of stories during the era in which they were written. The focus is pretty much on action, adventure, pretty ladies, scary monsters, and heroic deeds. There’s plenty of all of that in this volume.
Kothar is blond and hails from a place called Cumberia, but otherwise he is basically a clone of Robert E. Howard’s Conan of Cimmeria. There are a few other wrinkles; Kothar possesses a magic sword called Frostfire that, while it makes him almost invincible in combat, carries a curse that he will never keep any wealth he acquires so long as he wields the blade. There’s also a witch called Red Lori, defeated and imprisoned in a previous volume, who is out for revenge against Kothar. She seems quite smitten (as all the ladies are) with Kothar though, despite her promises to destroy him.
Kothar of the Magic Sword is a slim volume, broken up into two long stories. In the first, Kothar attempts to steal a magic helix from a corrupt ruler, which turns out to be a gateway to a magic land. In the second, Kothar must team up with Red Lori to protect the soul of a young girl. Along the way, there is much derring-do and exhibitions of barbarian strength and some cunning and vicious swordplay and some really good monster work. One creature, covered in white fur and encountered in a mountain pass, is called the abominathal, and it ambushes Kothar in a cabin. They proceed to fight hand to hand, smashing one another against the walls and chimney, until Kothar uses a wrestling move to weaken it and break its back. I could see the Dick Dillin art in my head throughout the battle.
The names are like that in this book. The abominathal is clearly the Yeti, aka the Abominable Snowman. Likewise, when Kothar and Red Lori encounter a group of horse-riding archers on the steppes, we learn these people are called the Mongrols, in perhaps the most unfortunate attempt to make something familiar sound different to be employed by an author ever.
Kothar is not the kind of protagonist who ever has much trouble with challenges. Even when deprived of his magic sword, which frequently occurs, he is up to any task. Things always seem to shake out for him. For example, when trying to capture an eagle that swallowed a magic gem, he’s able to lure it down to earth and grab hold of it in mid-swoop on the first try. But for all that, there’s a sense of fun and tongue-in-cheekiness to the whole proceedings that disarms the automatic criticism. Something about the bald honesty of calling your barbarian’s remote northern homeland “Cumberia” relaxes one’s defenses. I’ve read a lot of Conan pastiches over the years, and as they go, this is a pretty good one, in part because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.