Many writers have a theme or subject to which they return even despite their best efforts. It is an idea, concept, or belief around which many of their stories revolve even when they may appear wildly different at first glance. It may be a unique fear or anxiety (as with many dystopian writers,) an image of unknown origin that somehow keeps following them, or a philosophical idea. Regardless of what it is, it's almost always there, and the writer seems to have problems getting away from it.
Traditionally, a lot of fantasy has not shown this trait. This is not necessarily wrong or a defect, and if the goal of your novel or short story is just a tale of adventures, there may not be any need for any more complex subtext. Excitement for a well-written adventure is a goal in itself that doesn't require any justification. Still, many of the old masters of fantasy did have their main themes to which they always returned. As E. R Burroughs once said:
“We wish to escape not alone the narrow confines of city streets for the freedom of the wilderness, but the restrictions of man-made laws, and the inhibitions that society has placed on us. We like to picture ourselves as roaming free, the lords of ourselves and of our world, in other words, we would each like to be Tarzan. At least I would. I admit it.”
That individualism, the "roaming free" experience and the nakedness of Burroughs' and Howard's heroes (especially as interpreted by Frank Frazetta) must be understood in that light, as a symbol of pure and unaided strength. The armor-clad knight is a symbol of civilization, technique, discipline, order, and aristocracy, the peak development of a medieval arms race, but Tarzan or the roaming barbarian who kills his enemies carrying barely anything are symbols of primal and universal raw force, independent of place or time. To quote Tarzan once again:
"to me the only pleasure in the hunt is the knowledge that the hunted thing has power to harm me as much as I have to harm him. If I went out with a couple of rifles and a gun bearer, and twenty or thirty beaters, to hunt a lion, I should not feel that the lion had much chance, and so the pleasure of the hunt would be lessened in proportion to the increased safety which I felt." Tarzan of the Apes, chapter 26.
The reader, talking about the pleasure of reading a story, could say the same.
Why I'm saying all this? Well, first because those authors are part of the genus or family into which I would classify Hernstrom's work. And second, because they are a useful contrast with his work. Although there are obvious similarities between Henstrom's stories and, for example, Howard's barbarian tales, there are some stark thematic differences even when they share certain philosophies. The most important one is, I believe, related to the main theme that informs almost all of the Hernstrom's works I have read: The cyclical rise and fall of cultures and civilization.
While many pulpish heroes seem unrooted, their cultures barely mentioned, almost like aliens from another planet (quite literally with John Carter,) Henstrom gives an unusual attention to the protagonists' societies, beliefs, religions, and myths. Many of the heroes of the stories we read here at the Puppy Book Club work better as universal archetypes, as somewhat independent of circumstances, time, or place. However, the barbarian warlord in Athan and the Priestess can't be understood without paying attention to his culture, society, or even his surrounding geography. Athan, as an individual, isn't really that important in the story; it's the role he plays in the great historical /divine drama what matters. In fact, his death is somewhat anticlimactic and irrelevant as he had already accomplished his purpose, and he doesn't even see the result of his actions (i.e. sleeping with a hot princess.) But that's because he is not the center of the story, that would be the almost Hegelian historical process he initiates: the synthesis of two opposite cultures, the hypermasculine and degenerate barbarian tribes with the equally broken but hyperfeminine people from the other side of the barrier.
That is a theme that repeats itself in many of Hernstrom's stories, and he has mentioned his interest in such ideas. After all, in this Gabbin' with the Geeks podcast, he asked if someone had read Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West. He was one of the most influential philosophers in a long list of thinkers who have understood cultures and civilizations in an organic manner, as living organism and, therefore, like systems with their burgeoning and blooming phases, but also their inevitable decline. And in the upper-left corner of Thune's Vision cover, you can see the Futhark rune Yr, which sometimes has been interpreted as meaning "death." Also, less subtly, there is a whooping giant skull in the cover. Still, this shouldn't be interpreted in an ominous or depressing manner since in (almost) all the stories, death or loss is only one side of the coin.
Without dwelling too much on the specifics, these are the stories in Thune's Vision and how they relate to what I'm explaining here.
The Challenger's Garland: Death's Champion challenges a living champion. Life defeats death, but he then accepts the mantle of Death's Champion and the cycle starts again. I should note here, as a curiosity, that the new champion of Death always forgets his past role, so he thinks he is the only one. Amnesia between the cycles (individual or societal,) is a common theme in all these stories and one of the reasons the cycle keeps repeating ("Those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it," and all that, I guess.)
Athan and the Priestess: Already mentioned. A Hegelian synthesis that starts at the orders of Thune, the shaman who received a prophecy from the gods of Change and Time.
The Movement of the Ige: An anthropological sci-fi story where a species of lizardmen reproduce thanks to warfare and slaughter. Their culture revolves around their sun and the beauty of their death dances. It's difficult to find a stronger symbolism of the symbiosis between life and death than a species that must kill to reproduce.
The Ecology of the Unicorn: A humorous story and less somber than the others. It's also more personal and, for that reason, not focused on societal changes but on the ambitions of an individual, a wizard who thanks to his powers can (or so he believes) outwit death. He fails at that but achieves an immortality of sorts.
The saga of Adalwolf: Most of Hernstrom's stories seem to possess a certain musicality or rhythm, a feeling strengthened by the cyclical nature of its philosophical themes. That's boldly expressed in this novella, whose first paragraph essentially prefigures its end. The story is also full of symbols that repeat themselves and, as with the other stories, the main theme is about the rise and fall of culture, a nation, and a shared worldview. This development manifest from top to bottom, from the gods themselves (Odin) to Adalwolf, whose hubris, rise to power and final decline mirrors (and causes) the rise and fall of his nation.
Finally, although they are not part of Thune's Vision, two extras:
The Gift of the Ob-Men: a short story that appeared in Cirsova #1, this one follows a Conan-like warrior, cast away from their tribe after breaking "the idol of a strange god", forced to wander a land dotted with the remains of mysterious, advanced, and incomprehensible (from his barbarian point of view) ancient civilizations. He receives a third eye that allows him to see through time, and the story ends with this vision:
"His descendants would multiply and cover the world, learning of iron and grain. [...]
The descendants would form first kingdoms and then great nations. They would war among themselves under a hundred banners. They would make symbols to record their deeds and art to display their vanities. They would raise great cites [sic] of metal and temples of mirrors and forget again the name of the gods. They would become lost in the labyrinths of their own minds. The great towers would crumble and the cathedrals would fall. The cities would rot as man would return to the earth, again stalking the forests for game and fighting their enemies with blades of stone, building great bonfires to hold the terrors of the night at bay. They would dwindle in number, debased, and fearful.
Then a day would come when a warrior would stalk the ruins and find the idol of a forgotten god, a strange statue with three eyes."
And so the cycle continues.
Images of the Goddess: A novella that appeared in Cirsova #2. This Dying Earth-like story tells the adventures of... oh, ok, this one probably doesn't follow the epic themes mentioned here. Still, I couldn't finish this piece without mentioning the exploits of novice Plom and his quest the reclaim a priceless relic from ages long forgotten, an artifact crafted by the superior minds of ancient civilizations, a libram flawlessly depicting the glorious Goddess! (Spoiler: It's an adult magazine.)