TT: Sword and Sorcery

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and take a look at my advice to new writers.  Then join me and Alan as we strap on our swords, pick up our magic wands, and head into the mysterious realms of Sword and Sorcery.

Selection of Sword and Sorcery

Selection of Sword and Sorcery

JANE: Alan, last time you mentioned that Robert Howard’s original Conan books had all become unavailable until Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp brought them back into print.  I’m really glad they brought them back, since I think that was when the stories reached a new level of popularity.

As you noted last time, the stories are very smart, the world-building is strong, and the characters widely varied.  Ironically, the Conan stories were much imitated by writers who diluted the material to the barest minimum.  I didn’t read them for the longest time, because “everyone” knew Conan was just a dumb barbarian.

ALAN: Yes – the idea of Conan the Cimmerian as a barbarian sword swinger rapidly turned into a cliché, and was much satirised. John Jakes (who wrote a lot of fantasy stories before he found fame and fortune as a historical novelist) wrote a very funny book called Mention My Name In Atlantis about the adventures of one Conax the Chimerical. He also wrote a whole series of rather more “serious” novels about Brak the Barbarian. The derivation is obvious I think.

JANE:  Jim was a great fan of the Conan series and convinced me to try them.  I found myself fascinated by Conan’s story arc as he moves from a thief and scoundrel to something of a hero and finally to a king, saddened by all he has seen, but determined to do his best for his people.

ALAN: Conan the Barbarian – undoubtedly he was a great man. But perhaps not as great as Colin the Librarian whose swash-buckling adventures are chronicled in a series of novels by Tony Keaveny and Rich Parsons. Yes, really! Would I lie to you?

JANE: Never…

Before we go much further into this, I’d like to try and define what makes sword and sorcery different from other sorts of Fantasy fiction.  In some sense, the words sum it up.  There should be flashing swords, dashing heroes (and heroines), and not just magic, but sorcery – often of the deepest, blackest form, used by mysterious figures for quite possibly nefarious reasons.

Sword and sorcery novels also usually involve traveling to exotic locations, something I highly prefer over the rather claustrophobic settings of some EFPs, which seem shackled both by location and by the weight of accumulated  history.

ALAN: That seems like a perfect definition to me.

JANE: Wonderful!  Are there other sword and sorcery tales – in addition to Conan – that you have enjoyed?

ALAN: At the same time that he was working with the Conan material, Lin Carter was also writing novels of his own. He had a series about Thongor of Lemuria. There was nothing really outstanding about Thongor – he was a typical sword swinger – but one aspect of the novels that I found vastly entertaining was that Thongor travelled to his adventures in a spring powered flying car (I seem to recall that it was developed for him  by a friendly magician). It had two powerful springs, one of which turned the propeller and also tightened the tension on the other spring at the same time. When the first spring wound down, Thongor simply switched over to the second one which continued to propel the craft and also re-tensioned the first spring again. Rinse, lather, repeat. Thongor was ever so pleased that he never had to refuel. Refuelling stations were few and far between in the barbarian hinterlands of Lemuria…

JANE: Funny story about Thongor…  When Jim was quite young, he read a bunch of the Thongor stories.  When a bit later, he came upon Conan, he was quite indignant that someone had copied Thongor.  Later, still, he realized it went the other way around – but despite his liking Conan quite a lot, he retains a sneaking fondness for Thongor, flying machine and all.

ALAN: That’s an opinion we share. I never cared much for Carter’s other novels, but I do have a soft spot for Thongor.

JANE: I must admit, probably my favorite sword and sorcery stories are those that Michael Moorcock wrote about Elric of Melnibone.

Elric is the last king of a decadent race, a sorcerer by both heritage and through his studies in the mystic arts.  Unlike Conan and his associates, Elric is not physically strong.  He’s an albino who must take a variety of exotic drugs to maintain his vitality.  Because his early years are spent in relative quietude, Elric has become something of a scholar as well – something that will serve him well later.

When Elric’s beloved is taken from him, he lashes out, eventually acquiring the sentient soul-drinking sword Stormbringer and the curses that go with it…  Oh!  The stories become quite intricate, with goals above and beyond merely gaining treasure and avenging wrongs.  I re-read them recently and found I loved them just as much.

ALAN: At the same time that Moorcock was writing his Elric stories, he also had several other sword and sorcery series on the boil. He freely admitted that most of these early novels were written at white heat over the course of a weekend and they do tend to read rather like novels that were patched together in a hurry. Nevertheless they have their fans.

I myself am rather fond of six novels (two trilogies, naturally) that he wrote about Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince in the Scarlet Robe. They are very dark novels, which I think is what gives them their power. Corum is the last survivor of the Vadagh folk, an elf-like race with some small ability to do magic. A group of men raid his castle, killing his family and horribly mutilating Corum himself. After that, things go from bad to worse as he seeks his revenge…

JANE:   I read some of the Corum novels, too.  I liked them, though Corum didn’t resonate with me in the same way as Elric did.

Another sword and sorcery series I liked quite a lot were Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  Fafhrd is a big, brawling barbarian along the Conan model.  The Gray Mouser is more of a thief.  They go on amazing quests, have peculiar sorcerers for patrons, and seem to have a lot of fun as they get into huge amounts of trouble.

ALAN: You’re right – I absolutely loved the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Leiber added to the series all his life long and it’s interesting to read the series in publication order – you can actually see Leiber maturing as a writer. The stories get significantly more thoughtful and more subtle as they progress, but they never lose their delightful wit. As with all the great stories, it’s not so much the adventures themselves that give the stories their strength, rather it’s the way the characters react to those situations. Fafhrd and the Mouser had very distinct (and distinctly different) personalities and Leiber really brought them alive on the page. These stories are sword and sorcery at its very, very best.

JANE: Sword and sorcery had a huge impact on role-playing games – possibly the only other form of Fantasy that had as great an impact was Tolkien and his imitators.   Much of the debt is obvious – brawling fighters, subtle thieves, intriguing mages – but some is more about tone.

Early  AD&D had character “alignments” (an effort to make players think about how their characters would behave in various situations).  The basic divisions “Order,” “Chaos,” and “Neutral” owe a lot to Moorcock’s sword and sorcery multiverse, for which these were the lines upon which epic rivalries were drawn and by which magic was ruled.

I haven’t played any of the AD&D franchise for many years, nor newer fantasy games like Pathfinder, but I bet that even if the terms have died out, the influence remains.

ALAN: I played D&D when it first appeared and I was very conscious of the influences that you noted. But I’ve not been a role player for many years now. I prefer reading books!

JANE: To me, the best games are rather like interactively writing books – something of which I am very fond.

Thinking over what we’ve discussed, I have thought of another trait that recurs in sword and sorcery novels – often the events are presented as pre-histories of our current day.  So, it seems to me that a fun type of Fantasy for us to discuss next is that which uses actual history and mythology as a foundation.

How about it?

ALAN: That seems like a good idea. As always, I have opinions…

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8 Responses to “TT: Sword and Sorcery”

  1. Jim Zimmerman Says:

    One of the best swords and sorcery series is the Kane series by Karl Edward Wagner…

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yes! Gritty but good.

      I’ve also liked David Gemmell’s work. I heard him speak about a year before his death and liked the sensibility he brought to his heroes.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Yay! I loved sword and sorcery back when I was a boy. When I was reading that list, it was fun to check off each box. The ones I would add are L. Sprague de Camp and Poul Anderson, but I suspect you’ll pick them up next week. It is too bad these stories aren’t so popular any more, because they certainly are a lot of fun to read.

    As for the pale imitators, I really have to include a link to Poul Anderson’s On Thud and Blunder”. Amusingly,over the years, hobbyists interested in everything from antique swords to reviving European swordsmanship and knightly fighting skills have published essays on exactly the same points he brought up, because newbies coming out of the AD&D tradition (or fresh from reading too many novels) still believe them all.

  3. Tori Says:

    Since Sword & Sorcery was the only sort of fantasy novels my father ever read (other than Tolkien and Harry Potter, naturally) this genre has a special place in my heart. I am relatively young though, and the first time I read Fafhrd and Grey Mouser was in college, and Elric only a year ago. I like these stories and archetypes – I really do. But I have a difficult time with the fact that almost all the female characters are either damsels in distress (only an object, a MacGuffin even) or evil temptresses. I understand that this is a result of socialtal norms at the time they were written. So my question is: does Sword & Sorcery exist with female characters that are actually /people/? I would love to read some of that too!

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Very much so. The classic – actually, I should say Classic – example is Jirel of Joiry. She’s an authorial contemporary of Elric and Fafhrd.

      There’s been a steady stream since then, although I can’t say I’ve been keeping up recently. MZB’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies were a good place to go – and if you look you can find the first appearances of some now rather well known writers. AAMOF, I note that assorted people have kept them going since she died, so it’s still current. Last time I checked, by no means all the writers were women, although it does seem to help.

      As well as Ms Bradley, people like Holly Lisle, Rosemary Edgehill and Mercedes Lackey have all written in the genre, and that’s only the people I can think of off the top of my head.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I’d second the comment about Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels, but yes, Jirel of Joiry is the archetype. C.J. Cherryh’s older works also fall into this genre. I’ll let Jane decide whether she wants to emphasize the swords and sorcery in her Firekeeper books, or not…

      • janelindskold Says:

        Well… Since I am invited… I always thought of the Firekeeper books as belonging more to Sword and Sorcery than to High Fantasy.

        Another of my books — with a strong female protagonist — that I would say is sword and sorcery is _When the Gods Are Silent_. I rather enjoyed the time I spent with Rabble…

  4. Paul Says:

    Now you know why George Lucas included light-sabers, knights and a mystical “Force” in his “science fictional” Star Wars universe. Swords and sorcery!

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