Archives: Sword-and-Sorcery

Links and Elyana Sadrastis

Keeping with ancient tradition (established last Thursday) I have more Links of Interest. PLUS a few updates on my Paizo book, now vacuuming up all of my time.

First, related to my own musings about epic fantasy in the last week or so, John Fultz took a post live earlier in the week that’s brought in some interesting comments from some of my own favorite authors, and it’s probably worth a look. You can find it here.

Second, my friend and fellow author Alex Bledsoe is looking for some footage of the Smokies. For the whys and the specifics and the reward for assistance, visit here.

Third, I dropped by Fictional Frontiers with Sohaib and discussed The Bones of the Old Ones at length. I always have a good time on Fictional Frontiers! The podcast can be found here.

The Perfect REH Collection

If you’re not a Robert E. Howard fan, then there’s probably not much point in reading this post any further, unless you’re simply curious. If you’ve found that you don’t like REH’s work, though, there’s nothing to see here, so move along. Shoo.

Alright, so now I’m probably mostly sharing this with fans of the stylings of REH, so you probably know that there is, finally, a wealth of material by the man to choose from in print today. For a guy who died so young he was incredibly prolific. I’ve read most of his work several times, and there’s some of it I’ll keep re-reading. Others of it, though, I won’t. For instance, Almuric. Or “The God in the Bowl.” Read it. No second helping required.

I have a long shelf of REH, including a bunch of beat up old paperbacks, all those lovely Del Reys (including the two volume best of), and Conan’s Brethren, which is sort of a “best of” featuring a whole bunch of non-Conan adventure stories. Yet as I look up at that shelf from time to time I think about which stories I would include in my very own Best Of collection.

For starters, I’d want it in one volume. And much as I enjoy and appreciate some of the stories in other genres Howard wrote for, it’s his adventure stories that really tick my clock. I don’t read and re-read “Pigeons From Hell” every few years but I darned well pull down Howard’s historicals with some frequency, or his James Allison tales, or “The Gray God Passes.” And a lot of Conan. You get the idea.

Seven Kings

The second book from the talented John Fultz was released in trade paperback just last week, and I wanted to call your attention to it. If you’re used to a sort of Tolkienized fantasy, Fultz’s work, laden with the wine of wizardry and high octane thrills distilled from vats once owned by Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith, is a rich and different sort of treat. Here’s the official blurb for Seven Kings:

In the jungles of Khyrei, an escaped slave seeks vengeance and finds the key to a savage revolution.

In the drought-stricken Stormlands, the Twin Kings argue the destiny of their kingdom: one walks the path of knowledge, the other treads the road to war.

Beyond the haunted mountains King Vireon confronts a plague of demons bent on destroying his family.

With intrigue, sorcery, and war, Seven Kings continues the towering fantasy epic that began with Seven Princes.

Get thee to a book store and grab a copy! You can try out a sample chapter over at Black Gate.

Writing Sword and Sorcery

I spent so much time writing that gargantuan overanalysis yesterday of what manly movies I’d been watching with my son I’m going to keep things really short this morning so I can get back to writing books. But I logged on to point everyone to a pretty cool post over at my writer friend Violette Malan’s site. She spends some time thinking about why she writes sword-and-sorcery. I particularly enjoyed the strengths she finds in the genre, her discussion of how it’s one of the only places you can present heroism without irony, and her discussion of models she found in some of the work by genre founders.

Later in the week I’ll finally post about that great Arabianesque music I thought I’d lost, and, if I didn’t put everyone to sleep with my manly movie post, I’ll catch people up on the rest of our views and our reactions.

Right, back to work now.

A Guile of Dragons

Most of the weekend was spent working away on house-type stuff, although I did manage to revisit some favorite bits from The Arabian Nights. I wrote one of those stories up (“The Wily Dalilah”) over at Black Gate this morning, and I’ll likely be talking about more tales in the coming months.

Today, though, I thought I’d call attention to the work of my friend James Enge. Like me, he had a serial character appearing over at Black Gate before that character appeared in a series of novels from a major publisher. Well, James’ fourth novel of Morlock the Maker was released in early August, and if you like your fantasy mixed in with sly wit, clever word play, horror, and great action set pieces, then you’re late to the party.

Wandering the Web

With my writing schedule back under control I’ve been wandering around spreading good cheer and talking about great fantasy writers. On the off chance there are some people who visit my site who don’t regularly visit the Black Gate web site, I thought I should point you toward two recent posts celebrating two of my favorite authors.

The first is about Leigh Brackett, and features a lengthy excerpt from the opening of one of her fine sword-and-planet stories so interested folks can see why she’s so lauded.

The second I just took live earlier today, and it is all about Robert E. Howard’s writing. I spend a little more time discussing the whys and wherefores, peeking under the hood, as it were, arguing that he is far more than he is assumed to be.

If these sorts of posts prove popular, I have other writers in mind to look at as well.

In addition to these writer celebrations, I’ve been doing a little mulling over the purpose of blogging as promotion, and it provoked some lively discussion. You can find it by clicking here.

Sword-and-Sorcery

Some years back I decided that if I was serious about writing fantasy I’d best understand the roots of the genre, and I threw myself into reading work by its founding fathers and mothers. I came away with a deep appreciation of a number of authors I’d never explored in much detail before (Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Clark Asthon Smith, Poul Anderson, C.L. Moore, and others) and a better understanding of the kind of fantasy I most enjoyed. Some call it heroic fiction, and others have tried other labels, but the one that seems to have stuck the most is sword-and-sorcery, a term coined by Fritz Leiber. While I think I know it when I see it, a lot of different people have attempted to define it. Back when I helmed the Flashing Swords e-zine I had to tell the readers exactly what kind of fiction I most wanted to print, and so I set out to describe what I thought sword-and-sorcery was all about. That’s been a few years ago, and the definitions have since been improved upon with some suggestions from John Hocking, William King, Robert Rhodes, and John “The Gneech” Robey.

  • The Environment: Sword-and-sorcery fiction takes place in lands different from our own, where technology is relatively primitive, allowing the protagonists to overcome their martial obstacles face-to-face. Magic works, but seldom at the behest of the heroes. More often sorcery is just one more obstacle used against them and is usually wielded by villains or monsters. The landscape is exotic; either a different world, or far corners of our own.
  • The Protagonists: The heroes live by their cunning or brawn, frequently both. They are usually strangers or outcasts, rebels imposing their own justice on the wilds or the strange and decadent civilizations which they encounter. They are usually commoners or barbarians; should they hail from the higher ranks of society then they are discredited, disinherited, or come from the lower ranks of nobility (the lowest of the high).
  • Obstacles: Sword-and-sorcery’s protagonists must best fantastic dangers, monstrous horrors, and dark sorcery to earn riches, astonishing treasure, the love of dazzling members of the opposite sex, or the right to live another day.
  • Structure: Sword-and-sorcery is usually crafted with traditional structure. Stream-of-consciousness, slice-of-life, or any sort of experimental narrative effects, when they appear, are methods used to advance the plot, rather than ends in themselves. A tale of sword-and-sorcery has a beginning, middle, and end; a problem and solution; a climax and resolution. Most important of all, sword-and-sorcery moves at a headlong pace and overflows with action and thrilling adventure.

The protagonists in sword-and-sorcery fiction are most often thieves, mercenaries, or barbarians struggling not for worlds or kingdoms, but for their own gain or mere survival. They are rebels against authority, skeptical of civilization and its rulers and adherents. While the strengths and skills of sword-and-sorcery heroes are romanticized, their exploits take place on a very different stage from one where lovely princesses, dashing nobles, and prophesied saviors are cast as the leads. Sword-and-sorcery heroes face more immediate problems than those of questing kings. They are cousins of the lone gunslingers of American westerns and the wandering samurai of Japanese folklore, traveling through the wilderness to right wrongs or simply to earn food, shelter, and coin. Unknown or hazardous lands are an essential ingredient of the genre, and if its protagonists should chance upon inhabited lands, they are often strangers to either the culture or civilization itself.

Sword-and-sorcery distances itself further from high or epic fantasy by adopting a gritty, realistic tone that creates an intense, often grim, sense of realism seemingly at odds with a fantasy setting.  This vein of hardboiled realism casts the genre’s fantastic elements in an entirely new light, while rendering characters and conflict in a much more immediate fashion.  Sword-and-sorcery at times veers into dark, fatalistic territory reminiscent of the grimmer examples of noir-crime fiction.  This takes the fantasy genre, the most popular examples of which might be characterized as bucolic fairy tales with pre-ordained happy endings, and transposes a bleak, essentially urban style upon it with often startling effect.

While sword-and-sorcery is a relative to high fantasy, it is a different animal. High fantasy, mostly invented by William Morris as an echo of Sir Thomas Mallory and then popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien, moves for the most part at a slow, stately, pace, meandering gently from plot point to plot point, or, as is often the case, from location to location. Movie critic Roger Ebert has some astute observations on The Lord of the Rings, which I will quote here.

“The trilogy is mostly about leaving places, going places, being places, and going on to other places, all amid fearful portents and speculations. There are a great many mountains, valleys, streams, villages, caves, residences, grottos, bowers, fields, high roads, low roads, and along them the Hobbits and their larger companions travel while paying great attention to mealtimes. Landscapes are described with the faithful detail of a Victorian travel writer. … mostly the trilogy is an unfolding, a quest, a journey, told in an elevated, archaic, romantic prose style that tests our capacity for the declarative voice.”

While exotic landscape is present, even common, in sword-and-sorcery, it is displayed differently and toward a different effect.  Sword-and-sorcery was birthed in an entirely different tradition. Robert E. Howard, its creator, wrote for the pulps. The pulp magazines, the television of their day, were fueled by quick moving action. The stories needed to grab you within the first few sentences so that if you were browsing the magazine at the news stand you’d feel compelled to purchase it to finish. The pulp stories were meant to seize your attention from the opening lines and never let go.

This difference in pacing is crucial  and there are hidden difficulties attendant in trying to create it on the page.  My friend, the mighty John Chris Hocking, added this to the discussion: “Some sword-and-sorcery authors seem to believe that swift pacing must equal Action.  And that Action must equal Violence.  Neither of these things are true.  All the fighting and running and frenzy you create will grow tiresome unless it is moving the story forward.  Sure, Action is great unto itself, but it is the unfolding of the plot that truly captivates.”

The best way to acquaint oneself with this style of pacing is to READ  the writers who did it. Certainly this is a far from exhaustive list, but this is a good start to the process. Read for enjoyment (if you’re not reading for enjoyment you probably shouldn’t bother trying to write in the style) but read critically as well. There are other fabulous works and fabulous authors, but this small selection cited here gives you a basic primer on sword-and-sorcery focusing mostly on shorter stories, short novels, and novellas. It is meant as an immersive introduction that will not take two or three years of study. Once you have the material in hand it would not take long to familiarize yourself with it.

Robert E. Howard: There’s a recent set of Howard books from Del Rey that collect all the Conan tales. Find a copy of The Coming of Conan and dip into the collection. At the least, read “Tower of the Elephant,” “Queen of the Black Coast,” and “Rogues in the House.”

Fritz Leiber: Leiber’s famed Lankhmar stories have been reprinted so many times that it’s hard to suggest any particular volume because the contents vary. Instead here are specific stories. Read three or four of any of these: “Thieves’ House,” “The Jewels in the Forest,” “The Sunken Land,” “The Howling Tower,” “The Seven Black Priests,” “When the Sea-King’s Away,” “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” “The Lords of Quarmall.”

Jack Vance: The Dying Earth – sword-and-sorcery, science fiction, planetary romance—whatever it is exactly that Vance wrote when he bent so many genres (long before that was in vogue) he wrote it well, with amazing world building and vivid imagination. Don’t feel compelled to read the entire series, just the first short little novel.

Michael Moorcock: The first Elric novel or the first Hawkmoon novel.

Leigh Brackett: Beg, borrow, or steal the Sea Kings of Mars aka The Sword of Rhiannon. Sure, it’s really sword-and-planet, but sword-and-planet is really just sword-and-sorcery with a science fiction veneer. And Leigh Brackett was one of the very, very best sword-and-planet writers.

M.John Harrison: The Pastel City.

What to look for when you’re reading?

  • First and foremost notice the pacing.
  • Notice the tone in Howard, the somber, headlong drive.
  • Notice how  dialogue is used to reveal the character rather than to reveal plot points and backstory. Pay attention to how the characters sparkle this way particularly in Leiber and Harrison. Notice Howard’s skill with Conan. He is far more than the stereotype suggested by his detractors, and more complex than barbarians crafted by most of his imitators.
  • Notice how atmosphere permeates everything in Brackett and Harrison and Vance—study their world building, and the sense of wonder they constantly evoke.

One thing you should note is that none of these authors worked from templates. The character classes as typified by role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were designed based on the works of these authors so that players might create characters like those from their favorite fantasy stories. Now many of those templates and settings have become rigid and unchanging. Castle, wizard with spell book, dragon, orc, halfing, thieves’ guild (from Leiber), chaos, law (from Moorcock). Too many of us have forgotten the source material. Those templates need to be set aside. If you’re writing for a game company by all means use elves, hobbits, ogres and the like, but otherwise leave them in their castles and invent something of your own. If you do want to write of elves or ogres, then you’ll need to do something unique with them.