Friday, April 06, 2007

A Kind Soul

My mother often described someone as having "a kind soul," but I have known very few people who seemed to qualify. One such person, though, was the late Thomas Burnett Swann.

Swann was one of the most skilled fantasy writers of the 1960s and 1970's; he died far too young, just over a year after Susan and I paid him a visit at his Clearwater home. We had gotten to know him via the Southern science fiction convention circuit; he had attended several conventions, including a Half-a-Con that we hosted, and had always enjoyed our chances to chat with him.

His fiction was remarkable; he wrote an erudite, sophisticated, almost literary form of fantasy, filled with memorable characters and rife with literary and cultural allusions. In the hands of a lesser writer, such content would have seemed almost pretentious--but Swann included it because that was the way his mind worked. He was a brilliant man, but in a soft-spoken, humble way; for him, intellectualism was natural and almost contagious--he inspired others to attempt to rise to his level, if only to carry on a meaningful conversation about subjects that he so obviously enjoyed.

I heard him read some of his fiction once, and I can still remember his voice; soft, mellifluous, refined, with a steady cadence an almost genteel quality. To this day, when I read any of his works, I hear that voice.

Swann's body of work is all too small, but the quality of his output is superlative. Had he lived for the decades more that he deserved, I think he might have helped to defer fantasy's decline into the homogenization of the 1980's. He spoke of plans to create a fantasy series inspired by Etruscan culture and mythology, and of plans to explore Sumerian motifs; I would love to have had the chance to read them all. But most of all, I would have enjoyed the opportunity to talk with him further, about his work and his passions for literature and history and about any other subjects he chose to explore.

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