John Myers Myers
(11 January 1906 - 30 October 1988)
John Myers Myers began his writing career with historical novels and later produced several works of popular history, dealing in particular with pioneers and mythic figures of the Wild West. Amid these preoccupations he published his finest work, Silverlock (1949), which became a cult novel among science fiction and fantasy fans.
He was born in Northport, Long Island, on January 11, 1906; his parents were John Caldwell Myers and Alice McCorry Myers. Myers showed himself an inveterate scribbler at high school and college. Reportedly he was expelled from one college for his part in writing and editing an iconoclastic monthly titled The Pariah. As a young man he travelled extensively through Europe and the USA, worked as a newspaperman for the New York World and San Antonio Evening News, and spent some time as an advertising copywriter; inevitably he served in the US army during World War II. He married Charlotte Shanahan in 1943; they had two daughters. In 1948 he settled in Tempe, Arizona, writing books and contributing to newspapers and magazines, and for a time lecturing at Arizona State University. He died in 1988.
Myers's first book was The Harp and the Blade (1941), a roughly historical novel set in tenth-century France and containing only minor, ambiguous fantastic elements. This enjoyably romantic adventure stars the Irish bard Finnian, who finds himself exiled in France after the death of Charlemagne. In company with a warlord named Conan, Finnian is entangled in much swashbuckling, skirmishing, derring-do and carousal. At an early stage he is cursed by a Druid priest seemingly accompanied by a band of trolls, but whether this is a true seeing and whether the subsequent working out of the curse involves actual occult influence (as distinct from suggestion and coincidence) is uncertain.
Two non-fantastic novels followed: Out on Any Limb (1942), set in Elizabethan England, and The Wild Yazoo (1948), set in the American West.
The author remarked of The Harp and the Blade: "It was well received by reviewers whose comments indicated that this was the first period novel to employ natural dialogue in place of fake archaisms of the 'Aye, marry' sort." ("The Inside Scoop on John Myers Myers by Himself," A Silverlock Companion, 1988.) This is also true of Silverlock (1949), in which a Viking warlord issues the command "Jump 'em!" and Robin Hood opines that someone is "probably just a punk kid."
Silverlock owes its cult status both to fluent, colloquial storytelling and to its presentation of an allegorical geography as ingenious as, and rather more engaging than, John Bunyan's austere mapping of the path through temptation-strewn life to edifying death and salvation in The Pilgrim's Progress (1678-9).
Myers shows character improvement arising not from religion but from the gradually discovered delights of literature, after his initially unlovable hero is shipwrecked and becomes a footloose wanderer in the Commonwealth – a land embodying the entire world of letters, the treasury which is literally our common wealth.
Another antecedent of this marvellous land may be John Kendrick Bangs's series of afterlife fantasies beginning with A House-Boat on the Styx (1895), in which illustrious shades and notables from fiction jostle and bicker in the cosy mens'-club atmosphere of that houseboat. Just so, the Commonwealth is full of characters and localities from the entire span of classic fiction and mythologized history, interacting with a cheery disregard for anachronism yet each tending to follow their own well-trodden path of story.
The narrator A. Clarence Shandon, presently to be dubbed Silverlock for the white streak in his hair, is first seen wallowing in a bitter blend of selfishness and apathy. Even his wrecked ship has an ominous name: Naglfar, the vessel made from dead men's nails which according to Norse myth will be steered by Loki when the land is drowned in the end times of Ragnarok – the first of many buried allusions.
A long journey of self-discovery is prescribed for Shandon, and the Commonwealth is the place for it. Adrift at sea he meets the generic bard Golias, who is also Widsith the Old English singer, Taliesin of Welsh fame, and many more. For Shandon, Golias is the Virgil who will initially guide him, since despite our narrator's contemptous indifference Golias understands the story logic which in this place must follow their "chance" encounter: "I took it upon me to save him in spite of himself, and now I'm bound to him."
After a Melvillean glimpse of a great white whale dragging a ship into the deep, they reach an island in the Archipelago east of the Commonwealth. This is Aeaea, where Circe (not named) has a short way with sexual advances from the likes of Shandon, who must be rescued by Golias from his pig transformation. Next comes Robinson Crusoe's island, complete with ominous footprint and visiting cannibals to be escaped. Free but becalmed and dying of thirst in their hijacked dugout, the companions sight the Ancient Mariner in similar plight before being picked up by the longship of Brodir Hardsark, to take part in the 11th-century Viking raid on Ireland which was defeated by – but led to the death of – King Brian Boru.
Separated from Golias after the battle, Shandon finds himself already changed by companionship and the sense of common purpose at the oars and in the shield-wall. Uncharacteristically he resolves to keep the suggested rendezvous with his bardic friend, and travels from encounter to encounter through the great forest Broceliande. A young lady – compounded from Rosalind in As You Like It and the heroine of the 13th-century Provençal romance Aucassin et Nicolete – inspires feelings of protectiveness, yet is totally unrecognizable on reappearance in male garb. She breaks his heart a little when the trickster Puck wanders in from A Midsummer Night's Dream and duly applies his love-charms incorrectly.
Folded into this sequence are meetings with such characters as James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo or Leatherstocking, and Robin Hood with his merry men. A pause for refreshment at a "day and night joint" is complicated by the Mad Tea Party from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with much Carrollian logic-chopping from the Hatter as Shandon struggles to elicit where the road goes: "'It's a home-loving road,' he informed me. 'There's no record of it straying.'"
The rendezvous is at Heorot, the mead-hall central to Beowulf, with a drunken party in progress to celebrate Beowulf's victory over the monster Grendel. Here Myers spectacularly illuminates the timeless cross-cultural connectedness of the Commonwealth, by having Golias/Widsith thrill the company with "The Death of Bowie Gizzardsbane" – a rousing account, in Anglo-Saxon alliterative metre, of the end of the supposed inventor of the Bowie knife who died at the Alamo (an episode described in Myers's 1948 historical work The Alamo):
"Houston the Raven is raising a host;
Time's what he asks while he tempers an army.
Never give up this gate to our land.
Hold this door fast, though death comes against us."
Thus the first part of Silverlock, which also includes a wealth of briefer literary and mythic references. In part two, having been generously helped most of the way back to full-blooded humanity, Shandon is required to give help in his turn. So, though reluctantly at first, he joins Golias to tackle the complicated problems of a third party: the compound character Lucius Gil ("rhymes with eel not ill") Jones. This triple name foreshadows a trio of difficulties: being turned into an ass as in Lucius Apuleius's The Golden Ass and Lucian's Lucius or the Ass; scheming, swashbuckling rivalry as in Alain Rene Lesage's Gil Blas; and imbroglios caused by reckless amours, in echo of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.
Jones's mishaps, his friends' desperate support, and a further cavalcade of literary characters and digressions generate a happy mix of high adventure and low humour. There are also touching moments, as when Shandon contrives to handle the deluded Don Quixote not by the easy option of a cruel rebuff but by spinning a story exactly suited to the old man's gently crazy world-view.
It is not enough, in this allegory, for Shandon Silverlock to become a whole man. Through the medium of the Cumaean Sibyl he is called by the land's presiding deity Apollo (always referred to as "The Delian") to make the lonely pilgrimage that will qualify him as a full citizen of the Commonwealth, an inhabitant of the world of letters, perhaps even a maker in his own right. Here in part three the echoes and allusions grow steadily grimmer: the Ship of Fools, the Inquisition, the civilized horses of Gulliver's Travels who regard Silverlock as just another Yahoo, Job and his afflictions, the dank and lurid tarn before Poe's House of Usher, the sinister tower of Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", and a portal with the twin legends "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" and "Beware of the Dog"....
Here, led by that unreliable compound mentor Virgilio Faustopheles, Silverlock descends past chilling tableaux of damned literary characters to the bottom of Hell itself. When all hope is gone, Golias – who seemed to desert our hero, because this journey must be made alone – bursts into the infernal court under another of his many names: Orpheus. Silverlock is freed and goes on to find his intoxicating drink of Hippocrene, the Pierian spring. Drunk with words and overconfidence, he takes a wild ride on Pegasus and ends up back in the sea; but no longer in despair, and with rescue not far away. Silverlock, in the book's final words, now "has a heart for living."
Myers does not present literature as a static tableau. His Commonwealth is dense with incidents and encounters. There is a thread of eternal recurrence, because of course a book can always be opened again. Golias suggests that the Pequod is perennially coming to grief on the whale roads, most often with a single survivor: "Maybe one ... It's the usual number." He himself, a born citizen of the Commonwealth, lives in many books and is not exactly a mortal like Shandon: "I don't know what would happen to you ... After we had drowned that is. I'd have to start from scratch again somewhere." Shakespeare's comedies of errors play themselves out in Broceliande forever, with variations, and grim finales like Anna Karenina's suicide are eternally relived in the literary hell.
Another way in which literature itself can be seen as non-static is via what J.R.R. Tolkien called the Cauldron of Story, the common stockpot in which literary inventions boil together with memories of real people and events. What might once have been a factual story of a doomed warlord, spiced with bardic invention and wishful thinking, simmers in the Cauldron and emerges as the Arthurian mythos. Silverlock engagingly suggests the mechanism of this process, as characters from one book or historical period stray cheerfully into another with fists swinging, a Darwinian struggle in which the best stories survive – though not necessarily unchanged. In a small way the process goes on in every reader's and especially every writer's memory. There is something universal in the Silverlock experience.
Far from incidentally, the book contains further spirited verse that demands to be read aloud, and singable songs. The latter have been set to music by the science fiction fans who adopted Silverlock and urged its reissue, to the bemusement of an author who felt his book was "as little concerned with science as Br'er Rabbit." ("The Inside Scoop", ibid.) Musical scores appear in the 2004 reissue, which also contains appreciations written for the 1979 Ace paperback by Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and new essays by Karen Anderson, Fred Lerner, Celia Myers, and Darrell Schweitzer.
So rich is the allusiveness of Silverlock, and so often frustrating is the sense of missing what must be another literary connection, that Fred Lerner produced his chapbook A Silverlock Companion (1988, incorporated with revisions into the 2004 Silverlock) to annotate all known references. But many who are enticed into Myers's teasing game would prefer not to be so easily enlightened. The game is made more palatable by Silverlock's own invincible ignorance of literature. Readers need no great erudition to be frequently, and comfortingly, one jump ahead of this hero's comprehension.
Further non-fantastic novels followed, Dead Warrior (1956) and I, Jack Swilling (1961), and several volumes of historical nonfiction. Myers returned to fantasy only with his last book, misleadingly advertised by more than one publisher as the sequel to Silverlock. In fact The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter (1981) is no such thing. As James M. Crane notes in his bibliography, "Myers doesn't believe in sequels and he never wrote one for Silverlock or any of his other books. The blurb is merely intended to cash in on the popularity of the cult classic."
Yet the very contrast between the novels shows a thematic connection. The jaded hero of Silverlock, armed only with a degree in business administration, travelled through the world of letters presented as geography, encountering mostly fictional characters. In The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter, jaded academic Dr. George Puttenham lives through the story of literature as it extends through time, from prehistory through the ages of the world – and he meets not the inhabitants of fiction but their historical and mythical makers, the poets and the authors. There are repeated personal encounters with Apollo, whose "Delian Law" is the unalterable code of the Commonwealth, and who here appears most often as his equivalent in the Assyro-Babylonian pantheon: Nebo or Nabu, patron of the art of writing.
The lady of the title is Innini, or Venus/Aphrodite, who commissions Puttenham to survey the Road, "the way blazed by clay scratchers or inkswingers as the centuries skidded by." Stripped of his name until considered worthy to carry one in the literary context, he becomes simply "It". His survey begins five millennia in the past, in ancient Sumer, where the Road begins with a god's gift of cuneiform writing on clay tablets.
Writers, it seems, are travellers of the Road and independent of time, leading to many scenes of joyous anachronism as scribblers from all ages debate their craft over beer (another early and important god-gift), coffee or tea. For example, in a Sumerian bar run by Rabelais, "It" encounters the men who will shortly be his shipmates on the Ark: Rousseau, Whitman and Wordsworth.
For some readers, The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter is lessened by its determinedly quirky, slangy, overloaded prose, very different from the easy raconteur's flow of Silverlock. There are jolting discrepancies between the supposed historical characters and the words they are given to speak:
"There was no objectivity in Milton," Aeschylus mused. "It's plenty clear that if God had decided that eating an apple was nothing for an adult deity to throw a vengeful fit about, John would have jumped into the Edenic garden and personally bum's rushed Adam and Eve out of it."
Here Myers himself seems – as Disraeli said of Gladstone – intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity. No matter how serious the event, even a cataclysmic "Drowning of the First World" in the Flood, it comes across as a rollicking tall tale rather than a true history.
Besides researching the Road, "It" is metaphorically shaped into a maker in his own right. When he rashly derides "small niceties" of language, he is assaulted and drubbed by personified figures of speech, including Synecdoche and Onomatopoeia. Lured by the great white whale of a story idea so splendid that the book will write itself, he is trapped Jonah-like in Moby Dick's digestive system until released. In the Critical Woods, adjoining Dante's dark forest but substantially nastier, he battles the worst of foes: "being ganged by reviewers is essential to full scientific awareness."
Like the young Arthur in The Sword in the Stone, our man is also educated via physical transformation, and undergoes adventures as a succession of sea creatures during the Flood. In the form of an iron ingot he is literally hammered and tempered in Nebo's forge. Changed by Merlin himself into a diving bird, a loon, he learns at an instinctive, physical level the difference between surviving in the strong current of poetic metre and the still waters of prose.
Ultimately he wins a swig of Hippocrene, learns to take a Muse's advice, recites his first poem at "The Annual Iliac Eisteddfod" in Troy, and is at last addressed by Apollo as George rather than It. Back at his twentieth-century university, with Venus blatantly stage-managing events, Puttenham launches a new course in Literary Geography to replace his former subject Economic Geography. All ends happily if not necessarily tranquilly. This is an enjoyable romp; but Silverlock remains the author's masterpiece.
John Myers Myers was a writer transparently in love with literature and language, who used all his considerable skills to share that love.
The Harp and the Blade (New York: Dutton, 1941);
Out on Any Limb (New York: Dutton, 1942);
The Wild Yazoo (New York: Dutton, 1947);
The Alamo (New York: Dutton, 1948);
Silverlock (New York: Dutton, 1949), reissued with appreciations (New York: Ace, 1979), and with this and further additional material as Silverlock, including the Silverlock Companion (Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 2004);
The Last Chance: Tombstone's Early Years (New York: Dutton, 1950), reprinted as The Tombstone Story: The Last Chance (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1951);
Doc Holliday (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1955);
Dead Warrior (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1956);
I, Jack Swilling (New York: Hastings House, 1961);
Maverick Zone (New York: Hastings House, 1961);
The Deaths of the Bravos (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1962);
Pirate, Pawnee and Mountain Man: The Saga of Hugh Glass (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1963);
San Francisco's Reign of Terror (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966);
Print in a Wild Land (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967);
The Westerners: A Roundup of Pioneer Reminiscences (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969);
The Border Wardens (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971);
The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning, 1981).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS – UNCOLLECTED
"'Escapism' and the Puritans," Book News (April 1947), 22;
"The Language of Allusion," The Roundup, vol. VIII, no. 6 (June 1960), 15-18+;
W. Ritchie Benedict, review of The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter, Science Fiction Review, no. 42 (Spring 1982): 56;
Mike Dickinson, "Silverlock and The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter," Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, Vol 4 ed. Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1983): 1749-53;
Gregory Feeley, "John Myers Myers," The Encyclopedia of Fantasy ed. John Clute and John Grant (London: Orbit, 1997; New York: St Martin's Press, 1997): 673-4;
Fred Lerner, ed., A Silverlock Companion (Center Harbor, NH: Niekas, 1988), including a bibliography by James M. Crane; expanded/revised in Silverlock (Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 2004);
Mark Mansell, review of The Harp and the Blade, Science Fiction Review, no. 47 (Summer 1983): 16;
David Pringle, Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels (London: Grafton Books, 1988): 38-39;
Gary Westfahl, "John Myers Myers," St James Guide to Fantasy Writers ed. David Pringle (Detroit, MI: St James Press, 1996): 439-40.