Who is the young man chained to the tree? What does the scary gargoyle-warrior plan on doing to him? What brought them both into this situation? Is the boy unconscious? Sleeping? Waiting his chance to escape? Where are they?
As a boy, I had a pack of Brothers Hildebrandt trading cards. There were several images from their Tolkien calendars, and some science fiction work, and images like this one, from a concept called Urshurak. The lush paintings, with character and place names to accompany them, let my imagination go wild as I filled in the gaps. Images from Urshurak found their way into my own stories. This is all to say that, often, the wonderful thing about fantasy illustration is not knowing the source.
I personally feel that, in the age of copyright, illustrators are the new storytellers. Long gone are the days when some neanderthal came up with the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and subsequent generations of bards put their own spin on it. You can't retell a Tolkien story. Christopher Tolkien is free to publish every grocery list his dad made, but eventually he'll run out of stuff that JRR wrote. So how do you keep the stories fresh? How do you put a spin on stories that can't be retold? That's where Alan Lee comes in. John Howe. The Brothers Hildebrandt. Every new picture offers a new way of seeing the tale.
The late Tim and Greg Hildebrandt came to prominence in the '70s for their LOTR illustrations, and for designing the first (and best) Star Wars poster. They are among the greats. I came to know their photorealistic style through a series of abridged classics they illustrated. I literally mistook their amazing paintings for photographs. It had something to do with the detail on the faces, but also their masterful skill at light and shading. In the late '70s, they began conceiving the world of Urshurak. They envisioned it as a movie, and took two years off from illustrating to shop it around Hollywood. Sadly, this didn't come to pass. I can see why. Something like Urshurak would have easily become the most expensive movie ever made, and probably a debacle of Ishtar-like proportions. Nobody in Hollywood had the budget or technology to bring something of this scope to film, though Dino de Laurentis (RIP) might have tried.
Nobody had the money for that. Think about it. The movie Krull is a fantasy epic that spans many kingdoms, where magic-using heroes face off against a science fiction bad guy with a massive army in a teleporting space fortress. That's the video box description of the flick. The actual movie primarily takes place in a forest.
Back to Urshurak. I saw some storyboards that suggested they were going to attempt the animated route, which would have been the best thing for Urshurak. They also had some cool drawings of dragons and winged demons that, unfortunately, didn't make it into any kind of final project. The plans for Urshurak: The Movie were a bust, and the brothers took time off afterward to work on individual projects. The book is the only true legacy of this particular obsession, with its profuse sketches and 16 color plates. Make no mistake about it: these are artists at the top of their form. The artwork for Urshurak is lush, atmospheric, ambitious. Their sense of scale and design is off the charts. It took all my control not to scan every last picture in the book.
A few years ago, I found the Urshurak novel, written by Jerry Nichols and illustrated by the Brothers Hildebrandt, in a used bookstore and just had to get it. I was probably better off with the trading cards. Knowing the story drains some of the magic right out of it. Even rereading Urshurak for this review was no easy feat. As a book, it's a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Just a page or two of droning prose put me to sleep, but I'll attempt to summarize.
Urshurak is the story of how the Vandorian archer High Oxhine is recruited by Elgan, the wizard of Mowdra, to aid the Dwarves Erbin and Evrawk, the elf maiden Gwynn, and the Gwarpy Oolu, in the quest to restore Ailwon, Sevena of the White Elves, wielder of the magical blade Elvgard and heir to the Crownhelm, to the throne of Cryslandon, and defeat Gorta, Witch of Zorak, and the Death Lord Torgon who reigns in the dark land of Golgorath. Yes, it's that kind of book. I pretty much give the Hildebrandts a pass on the derivativeness because, along with Terry Brooks, they were the first to rip off Tolkien. I can certainly imagine them reading Lord of the Rings in the '60s and wanting to make their own high fantasy, just like the Wachowski Brothers saw Ghost in the Shell and wanted to make anime-inspired work. In other words, there was a time when the traditional high fantasy story was fresh, and not the genre-killing abode of bad writers that it is now. So Urshurak can get a pass. However, it's been almost 50 years since LOTR came out. It's been 25 years since Weis and Hickman added characterization to the genre, 15 years since George Martin added grit to it. I like a lot of the escapist stuff that came out after Star Wars, while acknowledging that it wrecked the field. If I hear about another recent book with "young white farmboy quests to destroy the evil dark lord, only now he's a dragon rider" or "young white farmboy quests to destroy the evil dark lord, only now he's in a wizard school", I roll my eyes.
Jerry Nichols is a bad writer. The book mainly consists of characters wandering around, pitching camp, doing some navel-gazing, then heading off for more sightseeing. The dialogue is right out of a D&D manual. Nichols' prose literally reads at times like storyboards. His descriptions of architecture and landscapes so exactly match the Hildebrandts' drawings that it's obvious which came first. The story itself is there as a frame for the visuals, with all the characters performing serviceable roles.
The book starts with Hugh Oxhine following some rat creatures through the forest, determined to avenge his family, whom they have murdered. In doing so, he inadvertently rescues Ailwon, the Chosen One, from said rat creatures. As Chosen Ones go, Ailwon is pretty typical: blond hair, blue eyes, brave but self-doubting, whiter than an albino in a snowstorm. The guy is so straight out of the hero's journey handbook that he even appears to have stolen Luke Skywalker's white bathrobe. After saving Ailwon, Hugh meets the wizard Elgan, who can transform himself into a sweet-looking unicorn.
At Elgan's woodland house, Mowdra, he meets the jolly Dwarf twins Erbin and Evrawk (who, in a cool stylistic choice, seem to be physically based off the Hildebrandts themselves), the cheerful Gwarpy Oolu, Ailwon's girlfriend, the elven cutie-pie Gwynn and her useless red-shirt sidekicks Glenden and Ianen. There he learns of The Quest. Many years ago, an elven prince was corrupted by the land of Golgorath, and became Torgon. For a thousand years, Torgon's forces have battled for control of Urshurak. Long have the free people resisted them, all the while trusting to The Prophecy: the coming of the Sevena, who will defeat Torgon on the Day of Fulfillment and bring peace to the land. Twenty years ago, Ailwon's royal parents were murdered, and the newborn prince was taken into hiding among the Dwarves. The companions believe Ailwon is this Sevena, and are determined to help him claim his throne.
So, these 9 companions (ugh) decide to venture on The Quest. This first involves killing a sub-boss, the evil witch Gorta of Zorak. Hugh is only onboard to kill the witch, who is master of the rat-people. From here, massive amounts of nothing happens. Hugh, Ailwon, Oolu and the Dwarves traipse around the scenery on their way to a swamp named after a Space Ghost villain. Gwynn and the side-elves go to the Dwarf city of Penderak for recruits. The Dwarf chapter is kind of fun, since Dwarves seem to live for fun-loving activities. While there, she parties with the twins' father, Esrund (Evrawk son of Esrund? *groan*). Gwynn is the story's Joan of Arc-type, rallying the people through rousing speeches.
"He is the Prince Ailwon...soon to crowned at Cryslandon. I ask you to join us there...for afterward we march against the Death Lord. In dark Golgorath we will decide the final fate of Urshurak...And when we return from Golgorath...we will gather again at Cryslandon...And where we will all hold the damnedest celebration ever seen on the continent!"
That speech brings to mind Keira Knightley in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Not a good thing. And what's with all the ellipses? From there, Gwynn travels from Pendarak to Andeluvia, home of the Brown Elves. She attempts to convince her pacifist father to join in the fight, without success. It is worth mentioning that Nichols likes spending time on secondary characters who add nothing to the plot, like the royal chamberlain in this chapter. It is also worth mentioning that the elves of Urshurak are the least impressive, least mystical, least fae elves ever created. They don't appear to have any powers, no connection to the earth, and apparently aren't even immortal. Half of them aren't even good-looking. I looked through all the pictures in this massively illustrated book, and found only one where I could clearly see an elf with pointy ears. What distinguishes them from humans?
In the meantime, a contingent of Vilderone soldiers (the gargoyle people) ride out from Golgorath to find Ailwon. They are too late and, seeing Mowdra abandoned, set the peaceful wizard's home on fire. Right after they leave, the magic of the place extinguishes the flame. So, very early on, it is established that the villains can't even effectively kill a house.
This seems like as good a time as any to talk a bit about Oolu. From the start, he's the traditional cute/funny sidekick. He says stuff like this: "It's Oolu, is who. Got things will make Hugh feel good!" There's a point where the characters go to a Gwarpy village and get bombarded by a horde of the annoying little Snarfs. To the Hildebrandts' credit, they were using this trope three years before George Lucas and the Ewoks redefined how to suck all the seriousness out of an epic. This is all well and good. I have just one question:
How in the world is this cute? A short, fat hairy guy. The Ewoks were at least made to look like teddy bears. I see dudes like this begging for change on Haight Street.
They go to the swamp of Zorak, where Ailwon is captured for the first time by the witch Gorta. Of all the characters, she is the one I could most easily see transplanted to a late 70s fantasy film.
I could swear I saw that lady in Conan the Barbarian. She's even got the fur bikini going on. Like a good villainess, she is shrieky and hyper-sexual and tries to tempt Ailwon to the dark side. He will have none of it. The other questers show up and take her out in less time than it took Dorothy to kill her witch. This is how it went down, the best I can remember from that nonsensical chapter: Gorta is in her lair with an army of 100+ rat creatures. Ailwon's friends come up with the brilliant rescue plan of charging straight into them, and, in the novel's second show of incompetent villainy, the rats don't just crush them. Ailwon gets his sword back, Gorta morphs into the mother-demon from Dead Alive, and Ailwon and Hugh kill her, but not before calling her a bitch. Everybody makes it out safely, because apparently they've killed all the rat creatures in two minutes. I fail to see how somebody could terrorize an area for centuries if she and her whole army get taken out by five guys and a comedy sidekick.
One thing the Hildenbrandts do right, and many of their contemporaries did oh so wrong, is that they try to include more than just white people in their world. It is a multicultural book. While the other companions are engaged in the not-at-all hard task of killing Gorta, Elgan goes to the city of Tal-Amon. There he meets the the Viking-like Norseman chief, Tark-Volmar. Since this is a kids' book, Norsemen are more grumpy than frightening. There's also the cultured warrior-king Ali Ben Kara, who looks like he should be a member of The O'Jays. We also meet Elgan's friend and mentor, the Ghandi-like sorceror Shandar. It's worth noting that white = wizard, black = sorceror. Got it? Okay. At this point, Elgan establishes to his allies what makes them so special.
"If we're to be successful in our quest, then we--all of us--must dismiss the hatred that often threatens to engulf us. Let our anger fight this tyranny...but not our hate. Hatred is an emotion--like others--which teeters upon the edge of its opposite...Thus hate is more easily overcome by love than by additional hate."
That's right. Years before JK Rowling discovered her equation of "magical skill = wizard x number of wizards who care about him," the free people of Urshurak were defeating evil with the Power Of Love.
The book is filled with mystical, post-'60s gobbledygook like that. There's talk of the energy in Urshurak and how Shandar's peacefulness leads him to eternal birth and being at one with nature and choosing the right energies over the wrong. There's a point where Elgan and Shandar go to the Valley of Life and get the Crownhelm from the Great White Bobabo, which I believe gives birth to the artifact from its great white womb. All of this wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't so much of it, with endless monologues trying to add depth to a book that could never have any.
Ailwon's band goes to ask the Amazons for aid. The Amazons are not only warrior-women, but scientists and naturalists. They even show respect to the disabled, sectioning them off in an area of the jungle where they commune with nature, then going to learn from them. It would have been more progressive to just let them live with the other Amazons, but these are the early days of PC, so give the Hildebrandts a break. The heroes are captured and brought before Queen Azira. When asked to aid Cryslandon, she gives the "Where was Gondor when Rohan needed aid" speech about how nobody ever helped her people. She apparently does this just to fuck with them, because right after they leave she talks to her heir Zyra and commits their troops to the cause.
Despite her utterly humorless countenance, Hugh falls in love with Zyra. After spying on her skinny-dipping, he emotes: "I believe beautiful women are not to be trusted...Ty are so fussed over and pandered to that it seems impossible for them to understand things of reality..and she...How can one such as she feel anything but obvious disdain for the rabble who mire themselves with the struggles of the world?" Calm down, Hugh. The Amazons are ready to go. The Norsemen are ready to go. The black people, ready. Elgan and Shandar, in the great tradition of '80s interracial buddies, devote the next 48 hours to retrieving the ark containing the Crownhelm and walking it to the Elves. Everybody in Cryslandon is told to keep a lookout for a pair of raggedy, smelly wizards hauling a giant box.
But what of the traitor, you ask? While Gwynn is coming to join the party, she meets up with the unfortunately-named White Elf Deceidon. Deceidon is the book's on-the-ground villain, and has been governor of the White Elf city for 20 years. Which begs the question, why didn't he just open the back door to Torgon's forces instead of keeping up the ruse? He was leader of the elves! In the great Saturday morning villain tradition, Deceidon is vain, horny, prone to self-congratulatory bad guy speeches, and is totally in it for personal gain. Or maybe he's just mad that he has a name like a robot from a bad '60s sci-fi novel. In case you weren't convinced he's evil, here's his intro picture.
He captures Gwynn, kills her companions and sends her upstate to Golgorath. Golgorath is a desolate realm at the northern tip of Urshurak, about the size of a postage stamp, and is apparently all Torgon has managed to conquer in a millenia. It really makes me appreciate Tolkien, who actually had a realistic view of how much damage a campaign of evil can cause over ome centuries. Sauron destroyed whole kingdoms. Torgon is content to sit on an uncomfortable-looking metal chair and do nothing. In quick succession, Deceidon captures the Chosen One. Feeling pleased with himself, he ventures to Cryslandon to deliver an ultimatum. Torgon's forces and the people of Urshurak converge on Cryslandon for the least dramatic battle ever.
So they have their Battle of Minas Tirith, which lasts a chapter and the good guys win easily. The battle is so without tension that Nichols has to establish after it's over that many Amazons died and their lightning-spraying war machines all got destroyed. During the chapter, all I saw were Amazons beating the snot out of the orcs/goblins/whatever.
Around this time we are treated to my favorite part of the book: The Death of Shandar. At this point in the narrative, I am so disinterested that I say, "What? Who is Shandar? He's dying?" Go back a few pages. "Oh, he's the black wizard. Deceidon stabbed him after a failed attempt to bring the bad guy to the side of love. Must have skipped that part." The sheer level of boredom in this book creates its own surprises, each skimmed-over plot point coming at me like a Chuck Palahniuk twist. So Shandar is dying, in what I'm sure the Hildebrandts conceived as a beautiful and pathos-ridden goodbye to a beloved character. Instead, its the point where the book veers from harmless kids' story to a bastion of bad fantasy writing.
Though "his breathing had become extremely labored" from his "bloodied wound," he sits there, calmly brainstorming their next step with Elgan. They decide that Elgan will fight Torgon in place of their incompetent Chosen One. "Blood was oozing from his bindings," yet he sticks around to have tearful goodbyes with Elgan and some Dwarf, and espouses his views on mortality. Elgan leaves. "Shandar sat motionless." Does he die? No, but he feels depressed. He doesn't feel like dying just yet. So he stands up, "his hand clutching his chest," and ascends some stairs, "his breathing coming in tortured gasps. The life of his body being slowly drawn from him." I am on the edge of my seat.
Hugh and the other companions go to find the Chosen One with a knack for getting beaten and captured. That's the chapter where the first picture comes from, by the way. This is probably the most well-written chapter in the book, since it is told from the evil orc leader's perspective, with him wondering why the captive prince scares him so much. All this self-reflection does not keep him and his party from getting wiped out. So Ailwon is rescued, and arrives at Cryslandon a week later, where Shandar still hasn't died, but is waiting for them in the citadel tower with his guts hanging out. By now, it's just comedy. "The old man's body stiffened beneath a sudden spasm of pain," but he manages to have tearful goodbyes with everybody he ever met. As "the old man coughed, shuddered," he crowns Ailwon the new king, putting the unearned crown on his tousseled golden head, spouting all the necessary gibberish about destiny. He "spat blood on the floor." "The old man gasped, and would have fallen, had Ailwon not caught him." He says farewell to the entire cast, then sends all Elves and Dwarfs to finish their mission, "the rattle of phlegm and blood suddenly thick within his throat." With tears in their eyes, the companions ride to an uncertain destiny. Ailwon is at the head, an inspirational leader of men out of absolutely nowhere. Afterward, we get to the optimistically titled chapter:
Shandar still hasn't died. He is alone, contemplating the eternal mystery, and that girl who he loved when he was a youth, and how he needs to pick up his dry cleaning. "The pain of his deep wound increased, his mind began to float and the room grew suddenly dark." Does he die? "He lay for a moment, breathing heavily, death rolling within him with each rise and fall of his chest." Enough already! "He rested for a moment, then began to move forward on his belly," and now I wish to God they had made this a movie so this preposterous scene could be caught on celluloid forever. At the precipice of the tower, he looks over all of Urshurak. "This was balm to Shandar. Now he was ready." Then fucking die! "Now I offer the remains of my being!" Oh God. "Come now, O eternal!" he screams with energy no man on death's doorstep should have. He has one more psychedelic vision of the clouds gathering over the land before giving himself to the cosmos. "The cavern of mystery reopened, while in the sky above him, the dark clouds parted and the brilliant light of day issued forth..." "Now touch me, O infinite love!" Dead.
Sigh. Nichols and the Hildebrandts have not mastered the concept that the pathos when a character dies extend from how attached the audience is to them, not the length of the death scene. At some point they even drew a neato "Dead Shandar" pic.
There's a nice one for the kids to color.
Did I mention I like something about the book besides the art? The Hildebrants have crafted a world, and they delight in showing it off. They get heavily into the travleogue aspect, which I appreciate if only for their enthusiasm. Anyways, Shandar becomes a storm or something, enabling Ailwon's crew to reach Golgorath in time for the Day of Fulfillment. So all paths converge on Golgorath, good and evil, where the final fate of Middle-Earth will be decided.
Battle happens. There is some minor character development, and Zyra realizes her love for Hugh. Deceidon gets his. Oolu aquits himself admirably. Minor characters get killed by other minor characters. Some more Amazons fall victim to the "red shirt" policy. Ailwon faces of against Torgon in the Fistfight For The Fate Of The World. It is a harrowing, thrilling battle with Ailwon versus his great-great-great-great-great-etc.-uncle. He literally wins this when the Death Lord trips on his helmet and falls down a hole. Yes, in the great Disney tradition, the villain falls to his death. There is the obligatory celebration, and Hugh talks with Elgan about the Meaning of Life as they contemplate nature. The end, after 405 agonizing pages.
So Urshurak is derivative, poorly written, cliche, cornball, boring, and only useful as a child's introduction to high fantasy (and even then, they'd be better off reading The Prydain Chronicles).
But, I mean, look at this!
Look at it!
Oh my GOD!
As a novel, Urshurak is subpar. As an artbook, it's possibly one of the greatest ever made. It's a treasure. I wish they'd released it as an artbook, pictures without a story, that I could fill in the gaps myself. Years later, the Hildebrandts did just that, releasing a calendar with pictures of their vision of mythical Atlantis. It was a cross between lost civilization fantasy and Buck Rogers-style space opera, with out-of-this-world creatures and plants, and absolutely no story to it. Ursharak would have been amazing in that format. It's not that they're bad storytellers; their specialty is a different kind of storytelling, at which they are undisputed masters. As I said, Urshurak is the brothers at their pinnacle. And I, for one, am glad these pictures exist, to spark imaginations for generations to come.