Monday, September 22, 2008

Swords & Sorcery

UPDATE: Since posting this some long time ago, I've created a separate blog dedicated to the genre: Swords & Sorcery.  Check it out, read the old posts and make some comments and ask some question.

   I like Swords & Sorcery. I can't help it but swords, armor, mighty armed warriors, evil wizards, and ruined temples work for me. I mean I like the elfs and talking trees as much as the next fanboy but they can get pretty stale. Good Sword & Sorcery is like car battery jacked straight to the adrenal glands. Unfortunately, like with everything, most Swords & Sorcery stinks, and I mean really stinks. The bad books are really, really bad and the movies are even worse.

   There's great stuff that's as good as anything else out there between two disposable cardboard covers. The best, such as that by Karl Edward Wagner, Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber, is dirty and messy and there's very few poems or cute little hobbit folk. The good stuff is also scattered far and wide between on shelves and shelves of rotten stuff. It's a long distance between The movies in the stinky wake of Schwarzenegger's "Conan the Barbarian" and its Nietzschean trappings are even worse. I dare you to watch Marc Singer in "The Beastmaster".

   I can definitely understand not liking the stuff. Robert E. Howard  had some definite ideas about the what important traits they saw as lost to civilized man: physical courage and endurance, honor. It's not quite the Rousseauean noble savage nonsense. Howard wrote that he knew "barbaric" life was short, bloody and miserable. He just believed it was preferable to the deadening comforts of civilization. That's part of the reason I get a kick out of his stuff - I know the philosophy underlying it is sometimes stupid, but I can't help but be carried along by the sword swinging sturm und drang of it all.  I don't think there's any contest in barbarism vs. civilization.  Still, there's a deep appeal to some atavistic element in me that still longs for some mythical, glorious and epic past.

   And I like the exotic locales. I like the stink of rotting jungles hiding cursed ruins inhabited by lost tribes and crumbling city slums teeming with thieves and cutthroats. There's a real sense of deep, buried past events still manipulating the present and dark forces moving their hands against civilization. Even the most lighthearted S&S (much of Leiber) is still infused with a deep melancholy. Conan rarely keeps the treasure or the girl and Wagner's Kane is essentially the Biblical Cain and nothing goes right for him ever. Perhaps the strongest theme running in the best S&S is about a man's effort to make meaning and take excitement out of life before it all crumbles down under the weight of time and decay.

   Of course it's also about the monsters. And the battles, and the damsels in distress and the great treasures to be gotten (often illy) and kingdoms to be seized.

   I can add all the deep thinking gloss to Swords & Sorcery that I want but if it's missing the excitement then what's the point of reading it? I don't want to know what Conan really thinks about the state of man in nature. If Fafhrd starts philosophizing about natural law and it's not supposed to be funny I'm not going to want to keep reading.

   The best Swords & Sorcery, or Heroic Fantasy if you prefer, combines hair raising adventure and excitement with enough character and setting to leave the reader satisfied. It avoids the cookie cutter stuff spawned following the Conan boomed sparked by Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter's compilations in the sixties and the repugnant sexism and sadism of authors like John Norman. Sometimes even the best goes over the top but its SWORDS AND SORCERY. Like Meatloaf, that's pretty much the whole point.

UPDATE:  Now I have a fully dedicated S&S site.  Check it out, follow it and join in the conversations.

{This is a reworking and condensation of a e-mail conversation with Evan D. about Robert E. Howard, pulps and S&S)

1 comment:

The Wasp said...

Since I wrote this post I've commenced an actual blog about the subject over at Check it out if you have any interest. Thanks!