June 07, 2014

What Sword and Sorcery Is To Me

by Jeremy Lassen

For a long time I've heard various fantasy labels used interchangeably.  High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery . . . with newer bastardizations thrown in like Low Fantasy and Dark Fantasy, and, absurdly, Grim-Dark Fantasy.  Oftentimes, a favorite label is just a shorthand for "stuff I like" with a hodge-podge of disparate works crammed into a poorly-fitting box.

The only truly useful and pretty clearly delineated labels I know of for the fantasy genre are Portal Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, and Historical Fantasy.  A good example of Portal Fantasy is The Chronicles of Narnia.  There is OUR world and there is a world where fantastic stuff takes place that is categorically NOT our world, and there is some artifact, or device, or doorway (a portal of sorts) that connects the two.

Secondary World Fantasy is what most people think of when they think of fantasy fiction.  It's Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series: a world that is a close analog to ours, but it is NOT ours, and doesn't pretend to be.

Historical Fantasy is the fantasy that purports to take place in our world but has elements of the fantastic intruding into it.  Arthurian fiction of all stripes fall into this category.

For me Sword and Sorcery is the bastard child both historical fiction, and secondary world fantasy -- both in terms of its literary roots, and, in some cases, in terms of its setting. Though not known by a large audience, Harold Lamb's Khlit the Cossack fiction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khlit_the_Cossack) is often cited by scholars and authors as being proto-sword and sorcery.  It influenced Robert. E. Howard and his Conan tales, with Howard himself citing Lamb as a favorite.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (http://sf-encyclopedia.co.uk/fe.php?nm=sword_and_sorcery) provides the etymology of the term sword and sorcery (Fritz Leiber coined it, at the prompting of Michael Moorcock), and also suggests another link between historical adventure fiction and sword and sorcery: Alexander Dumas as literary antecedent to sword and sorcery fiction.  I find these two points very interesting.

First, the Dumas connection, and the link to adventure fiction: The Conan stories are considered to be a foundation of the sword and sorcery genre, and its author still felt the need to articulate a relationship between our world and the fantastic world of Conan.  Howard's essay, The Hyborian Age (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hyborian_Age), details how the Conan stories (and indeed several other of Howard's creations) are temporally and geographically linked to our world.

This impulse on Howard's part, to my mind further cements the cross-fertilization between the fantasy genre and the historical adventure genre.  Howard's contemporary readers -- the readers of Weird Tales -- were quite likely readers of Adventure magazine, where Lamb's Cossack tales were published.  Howard was writing for the same audience, and knew what their expectations where.  Indeed Howard himself wrote many non-fantastic historical adventure stories and several unsold mundane adventure stories were revised into Conan stories, as the demand for his fantasy work outpaced the demand for mundane adventures.

Another way to look at this "pre-history" conceit is to see it as a narrative tool akin to the portal fantasy trope (secondary world fantasy was not a clearly developed genre when Howard was writing).  In a post-Tolkien world, many readers are conversant with the narrative conventions of a world that is "like ours, but not really ours."  Prior to the widespread popularity of this form, readers would find themselves asking "How did we get from here to there . . . ?"  Howard's construction of the Hyborian Age tried to answer that question.  Oral histories, found manuscripts, and mythology lie under the foundations of fantasy fiction.  And sword and sorcery, in its infancy, often pulled out the "pre-history" card.  Later, this trope was used as an homage to this pre-history tradition.  (One could even argue that one of the bastard offspring of this "pre-history" fantasy form is the "Dying Earth" or Post-History narratives, many of which are considered to be firmly in the sword and sorcery stable.)

The other reason I find the Fantasy Encyclopedia entry interesting is because the etymology of the term clearly shows that is a term used by authors and editors, trying to define and come up with labels to describe the things they were doing.  Writers, critics and editors in most fields engage in "long conversations" in which topics that are first discussed in small groups spread across the whole field over a period of months or years because of the essential nature of the topic to the field.  Topics like that mature over time and often reach a consensus conclusion without any real guidance or agenda.  And, throughout, that sort of conversation shapes the stories that are written.  I find the organic nature of these "long conversation" terms to be very alluring (as opposed to literary terms that come from outside the genre, or are applied retroactively to a group of writers and their works).  They might be filled with contradictions and littered with fine lines that are only discernible to fellow travelers, but they are not bounded by arbitrary rules and categories.  They are not terms meant to keep stories in separate boxes but instead these terms allow for and promote literary miscegenation and the cross-pollination of ideas.  And that's exactly what Sword and Sorcery is -- a confluence of specific fantasy archetypes.  With each generation, some part of the form is changed and altered, but the works preserve a similar-but-evolving aesthetic purpose, from generation to generation.

And what is that purpose?  That gets to the title of this little essay.  I can't speak for others, but for me, when I first discovered them, Sword and Sorcery stories were tales of agency.  They served a similar purpose to superhero fiction; the archetype of the "hyper-competent loner" is often at the center of Sword and Sorcery and it serves a very specific pre-adolescent and adolescent need.  Which is why, like many "empowerment fantasies", it is often enthusiastically consumed by younger readers.  And if you never discovered the soulful allure of "blood and thunder" as a young reader, you may not ever come to appreciate its subtle nuance as an adult.

The other essential component of Sword and Sorcery is that it is character driven.  When describing heroic fantasy, people often cite the works by character name, rather than by setting or by title.  That naming convention is not a constant but its frequency does emphasize the character focus of these types of stories.  There can be world building and exotic locales, but the focus is always on the protagonists.

Much like the superhero genre, Sword and Sorcery has been reexamined and remixed and expanded beyond its archetypal form.  Siegal and Shuster's Superman gave birth to Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, the same way that Howard's Conan gave birth to Michael Moorcock and Karl Edward Wagner and Richard Morgan.

Did you like the way I threw that last name in there?  Morgan (though often thought of as a writer of science fiction first) is doing an amazing job of keeping the Sword and Sorcery flame alive, via his series of novels A Land Fit for Heroes. I was lucky enough to read the first incarnation of Morgan's novel, The Steel Remains.  It was originally a short story written for The Magazine and Fantasy and Science Fiction.  This rejected story was more of a vignette, and was essentially the first chapter of The Steel Remains.  In my mind, Morgan stands shoulder to shoulder with Moorcock and Leiber, participating in and perpetuating a long conversation.  The impulse to use the furniture of Sword and Sorcery to say something unique and different about the nature of power and violence and agency is a big part of what that sub-genre is about.

Moorcock famously cast his Elric narratives "against type". That is, while Conan was a muscular barbarian who hated civilization, Elric was physically weak and frail member of the royal family from a decadent empire.  Morgan did the same with his character Ringil, taking the assumed heterosexuality of fantasy protagonists and turning it on its head.  Even more fitting, the homo-erotic subtext of a lot of Sword and Sorcery fiction is elevated to an over-text, with an unflinching narrative eye.

So how did we get from there to her, and what else is here now?  I've already pointed out Harold Lamb's Khlit the Cossack.  He clearly begat Robert E. Howard's Conan.  And a direct descendent of Conan was Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story cycle.  It is fitting that this duo begot two new-wave Sword and Sorcery giants -- Karl Edward Wagner's Kane, an Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone.  From these two characters, one can see the line that goes to Charles Saunder's Imaro, straight (sorry for the anti-pun) on to Morgan's Ringil.  Saunders and Morgan both reflect each other quite clearly, featuring as they do, heroic fantasy protagonists that embody a cultural other, (in the sense of the world the characters inhabit,) as well as "other" when measured against the often-presumed straight/white readership of fantasy fiction.

One great novel of relatively recent vintage that clearly draws the connections between Sword and Sorcery and the historical adventure fiction of Alexander Dumas is Ellen Kushner's Riverside series, beginning with Swordspoint. Though this novel fails to provide the "sorcery" part of the equation, it is a clearly secondary world fantasy, and it is very much character driven.  And it features Kushner blowing up fantasy fiction's assumed-sexuality norms long before Morgan got there.

Another recent novel that revels in its "Dumas-ness" is Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora, which quite literally embraces the character-name-as-title trope I referred to earlier.

Steven Erickson has his sprawling epic fantasy Malazan series, but within that world he has the story cycle of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach.  The black humor and story structure of these works is clearly an homage to the classic Sword and Sorcery form in general, and to Fritz Leiber specifically.

Others who are playing around with Sword and Sorcery tropes who should not be missed include K. J. Parker, Courtney Schaffer, Joe Abercrombie, and Jeff Salyards.

Obviously there are many other characters and works that exist in the lineage of the authors I've mentioned. From C. L. Moore to Manly Wade Wellman, L. Sprague de camp, Lin Carter and on and on . . . there are far too many to list here.  But one very good way to explore these gaps is via short fiction.  Sword and Sorcery anthologies have been a staple of the publishing industry for many decades now, and they are an amazing resource that can convey the very broad spectrum of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre.

First up I'd point to the recent Hartwell and Weisman anthology, "The Sword and Sorcery Anthology."  I'm a fan the functional minimalism of this title, and I'm also a big fan of the overview provided by David Drake's introduction.  His combination of first hand accounts of authors and editors, and his clear, concise scholarship is a treasure.  That, and the broad, representative range of stories makes this book essential reading, IMO.

Another good historical overview is In Lands That Never Were: Tales of Swords and Sorcery from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which collects the best S&S from The Magazine of F&SF.

An original anthology of recent vintage is Jonathan Strahan and Lou Ander's Swords and Dark Magic.  This is a great example of contemporary authors being cognizant of the long genre conversation that they are a part of.

Going further back, one can find the five volume Flashing Swords series (1973-1981) of anthologies edited by Lin Carter, which featured then-original fiction by then-contemporary writers, like Leiber, Vance, Moorcock and many others.  Older reprint anthologies include L. Sprague de Camp's The Spell of Seven and Karl Wagner's Echoes of Valor series.  Jessica Amanda Salmonson had a series of "Amazon" anthologies that are also noteworthy.

Finally, I urge all of you to contact Mary Robinette Kowal, and ask her to write the novel she threatened to unleash upon the world with this April Fools spoof: "Sword and Sensibility" (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/04/sword-and-sensibility-conan-creator-robert-e-howards-lesser-known-collaboration).  When she announced the title of her recent novel, Valour and Vanity, I was convinced she had taken a suggestion of mine seriously.  You see, we had spent a long car ride together, where she picked my brain about Conan and Robert E. Howard.  I told her the Conan story "Queen of the Black Coast" would make the best Jane Austen/Robert E. Howard literary mash up ever.  When I found out Valour and Vanity WASN'T a Conan-novel-as-written-by-Jane-Austen, I was devastated.

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