“A small gift hardly compares to the life of a Dwarf King, now does it?”
Gav Thorpe’s first ever Black Library story, first published twenty years ago, Birth of a Legend is an old-school Warhammer story featuring an early incarnation of one of the setting’s greatest characters. When King Kurgan and his retainers are captured by the Orc warlord Vagraz Head-Stomper, things look bleak for the Dwarfs. That is, until the local human huntsmen arrive to investigate the intrusion into their territory, led by a young man with a powerful destiny. Determined to drive them off and free the Dwarf captives, he leads his men into battle against the Orcs…and the rest is history.
Clearly a child of its time, this borrows from classic fantasy tropes and stylings but is still a suitably grim and dark Warhammer tale. While the Orcs’ comedy accents don’t exactly instil fear in the reader, their actions – cooking and eating Dwarfs and brutalising bound captives – are much scarier; likewise the humans are all silent-moving huntsmen, but then they throw themselves into the fighting like berserkers. It’s a little like a snippet of background text expanded into a full, more satisfying story, grounded in the grittier side of Warhammer without many of the magical bells and whistles; a simple, satisfying pleasure to read.
Now this is definitely a tale worth including in Forgotten Texts, being as it is the very first introduction to Gav Thorpe the Black Library author, as opposed to Gav the game designer or Gav the Warhammer Loremaster. It’s fascinating to see the very beginning of his authorial career, which has spanned twenty years so far and shows no sign of finishing any time soon – long may it continue! As always with these articles, let’s now take a look at how Birth of a Legend compares to more modern Warhammer stories…
First of all, even taking Age of Sigmar out of the equation, this is set in a very different era of Warhammer to most (but not all) of the stories you’re likely to read. On the one hand it’s an interesting choice for Gav to set his first Warhammer story before the main timeline of the setting, but on the other hand I suspect it’s a sign of his love for an engagement with the setting that he chose this particular story to tell. If you haven’t worked it out by now I’m afraid I’m going to offer a huge spoiler for the story…the ‘young lord’ we’re talking about is, of course, Sigmar, whose actions in rescuing the High King of the Dwarfs form one of the key points in his backstory.
So it’s perhaps understandable why Gav would tackle this story first, and to be honest the choice to set it at this point in the history of the Old World doesn’t have a huge impact on the worldbuilding in the story. This is what would eventually become the Empire, a part of the Old World which remained largely grounded in terms of characters’ names, styles of dress and so on throughout the majority of the stories set there. Transplant the human characters – even Sigmar – into a later-era Warhammer story, and they would fit in just fine.
The Dwarfs don’t get a huge amount of coverage, but come across reasonably close to what you might imagine albeit perhaps a little more human than later depictions, and a little less grumpy and doughty. The Orcs, however, are where the Warhammer setting shows its age here. As I mentioned in the review section, for the most part they’re much more in the dodgy-accented, essentially-just-green-bad-guys style than the more modern, scarier and more dangerous depictions. They’re definitely Warhammer Orcs on the surface, complete with the expected casual brutality towards the smaller Goblins, but there’s no sense of the joy that Orcs tend to be depicted with these days. You might disagree, but I feel Orcs (and Orks) work best when authors tap into the wild, anarchic sense of collective madness and lust for life that they all have. Here (and, I should add, the vast majority of early depictions) they don’t have that – they’re tough and mean, but that’s about it.
Like I said in the review, there’s a feeling with this story of it being like a snippet of background text expanded and filled out into a proper narrative. That’s absolutely not a bad thing – while modern Black Library stories arguably tend to be more complex and carefully structured, there’s definitely something about the simpler style of storytelling on display here. Not all stories need to be clever – sometimes all you want is a really straightforward but fun idea, a few cool characters, and a big fight or two. Remember that this was Gav’s first piece of Black Library fiction – you suspect he wasn’t trying to be clever, just to tell a good story.
As with all of these old Warhammer stories it’s quite tricky to compare them to more modern tales simply because Age of Sigmar is just such a different beast to the Old World. That being said, a good story is a good story, and I’d argue that this simply works – it’s not sophisticated, but it’s fun. Would it feel out of place when held up against some of the later-era Warhammer stories (i.e. pre-End Times)? Tonally and in terms of the setting…I don’t think so, not really. In terms of character development and complexity then sure, but I guess that’s what you’d expect.
In the end, I’d say that this is not only a good fun story, but a really interesting piece of Black Library history which provides a concrete start point for the career of one of the longest-serving and most popular authors. As such, it seems rather a shame that this isn’t easier for people to get hold of – it’s not currently available from Black Library, as far as I’m aware, so if you’d like to check it out then you’ll need to do some digging. My copy of the story is in Inferno! magazine Issue Two, which was published in 1997 – as far as I can tell it was then included in the Realm of Chaos anthology in 1999, and once again in the Tales of the Old World anthology in 2007. Both of those are available second hand on Amazon, if you’re so inclined.
Alternatively, and I know I’ve said this plenty of times before…if you’d like to see this in print once again then it’s definitely worth emailing Black Library to ask about it. There’s no harm in asking, and who knows? Maybe they’ll oblige and give this a much-deserved (probably digital-only) new lease of life.
I hope you enjoyed this instalment of Forgotten Texts. If there are any classic Black Library stories that you would like to put forward for a review, please do let me know, and likewise if you’ve got any comments or feedback. Check back soon for the next instalment where I’ll be taking a look at another story from the Black Library archives – and click here to see the full list of reviews and author interviews in this series.