Monday, March 28, 2016

The Bones of Fallen Gods

The storm raged for nine days, and when it ended, it cast Scylla and what remained of her crew upon a black island ringed with jagged rocks. Exhausted men lay half-dead at the oars as the sea heaved them up, and then there was a terrible ripping and spears of glassine stone tore through the hull, impaling flesh and wood alike. The ship foundered, water sweeping the decks as another wave heaved them up, and then they were cast down upon the black deadly shore in a cascade of blood and brine as the ship sheared apart.

Scylla struck the water, already struggling for the shore. The rocks were sharp as swords, and she was glad of her armor that ground the bitter points to pieces. The water was only waist-deep here, and she found her feet and struggled inland. Men foundered about her, and she caught those she could and helped drag them from the waves, all but hurling them shoreward.

She trod upon a beach of black sand, and her sandals crunched on the broken rock. Her sword hung at her side, and her bronze breastplate still gleamed in the half-light, but she had little else. The remains of the ship were crushed upon the rocks by the incoming tide, and pieces of it washed about her knees. She spat into the water and looked about her, counting. She had six men alive. After a desperate battle and then what seemed an age of the raging storm, this was what she came to. She had no knowledge of where she was, nor even what place this might be. The sky was still heavy with clouds, and lightning flickered far away to the west.

The waves seethed past her legs as they drew back, and she saw she stood not only upon volcanic rock, but on bones. The beach was embedded with hundreds of bones, bleached by sun and turned green by the water, they were exposed when the waves withdrew, hands and ribs and empty skulls looking up at the pitiless sky.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Eternal Champion

And this brings us to Micheal Moorcock. An iconoclast, a writer who has done more than his share of genre-bending, boundary-pushing, and pissing people off. Certainly one of the most cerebral of the pulp writers, like Leiber his career spans the era from the latter pulp days up to the modern age Unlike Leiber – or anyone else I have written about here so far – Moorcock is still living and still working. He has gone from a kind of counterculture figure in the 60s to one of the grand old men of the genre. He has written everything from straight SF to fantasy to alt-history and all kinds of things in between. But to talk about his contributions to Sword & Sorcery, we have to talk about Elric of Melnibone.

Moorcock’s best-known and most archetypical creation, Elric was invented when Moorcock was about 20, and often seems to be most popular with boys around the same age. He was created to be the kind of anti-Conan, as Moorcock was no great fan of Howard’s often anti-intellectual heroes. He is the opposite of the protoypical Howardian barbarian protagonist in every imaginable way: Conan is strong, Elric can’t even walk without special drugs and herbs. Conan detests magic, Elric is a sorcerer who commands inhuman forces. Conan is a barbarian of no lineage, Elric is from a decadent culture thousands of years old, the 428th of his line. Conan usurped his throne, Elric was born to a line of kings stretching back into antiquity.

And yet many of the themes in the worlds they inhabit are similar, even if the character’s relationships with them are markedly different. Rather than the Hyborean Age – explicitly based on mythologized versions of real places - Moorcock’s world was far more alien. The demons and monsters that lurked in forgotten places in Howard’s work were much more present in the Young Kingdoms. The power of magic was more open and explicit. Moorcock’s imaginings much more resembled the kind of high-magic world envisioned by many modern tabletop and computer games, with easy travel to and from alternate dimensions, and the constant presence of demons and gods.

That, in a nutshell, is a big part of what differentiates Moorcock’s work from Howard’s, and is why the Elric stories kind of straddle the line between S&S and genuine Epic Fantasy. In Howard’s world, and in other pure S&S worlds, there is no built-in metaphysic: no giant battle between good and evil. That kind of scale, and that absolute moral aspect, is a hallmark of High Fantasy, and you see it in the work of Tolkien as well as Moorcock (though he would hate the comparison). Moorcock evaded neat morality by using “Law” and “Chaos” as his proxies for good and evil, but as revolting as the Lords of Chaos are depicted as being, the equivalency of Chaos with Evil is inescapable.

If Sword & Sorcery fiction is a kind of fantasy noir, with characters existing in shades of moral gray, then the presence of real, tangible gods or other powers handicaps that out of the gate and makes it impossible to stick with. Moorcock kind of dealt with this by having his character be torn between Law and Chaos, a servant of chaos who did not really hold with their ideals. If the Lords of Chaos had not been so blatantly demonic, it might have really held water as a moral question, as Law and Chaos can both be said to have valid arguments for and against.

Moorcock’s real contribution to the genre (aside from the fanzine argument that prompted Leiber to name it) is his wider and more inventive world, and his introduction of a tragic hero archetype that adds layers of operatic drama to the essential formula of adventure and action. Moorcock’s work was far more intellectually and philosophically complex than the old pulp tales, and he brought the whole genre out of the old days and helped bring it to a wider new audience as part of the new wave in the 60s – an audience that keeps growing and evolving today.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Frozen Tomb

The sky overhead was lit with shimmering fire, here in the uttermost north, under the black sky at the end of the world. Sethrus waded through snow as deep as his knees, cold and shaking, burning inside with the iron determination which had driven him this far. In his hand the black sword of the dead star glowed and sang to him, whispered of all that he would become if he would only follow the song of blood.

Grimly, he shut his mind against the power of the sword and fought his way on, looking up to the ice-armored ridges above him, watching for signs of the savage men who lived in this terrible place. The Ankou guarded this part of the world, as they had for a hundred generations, ever since their black king had been entombed here, sealed in his frozen crypt. Sethrus knew more of it than any other living man, for only he had been inside the tomb, and now, after many years, he returned.

The wind howled and he thought he heard dogs howling behind it. He knew he was pursued, and not only by the Ankou. Here in the long night of the world, where the mountains howled with frigid wind and the peaks danced with green stormfire, his fate would be decided. He knew he would die, that was not a question in his mind. All that remained was how he would give up his life. He gripped the hateful black blade in his hand, and forced his way onward.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

One Sought Adventure

Writing about Fritz Leiber is not easy for me, because while the man was an acknowledged master of several genres and a highly popular and influential writer, he’s not someone who’s work resonates with me in particular.

Leiber was born in Chicago in 1910 – a late part of the same generation as Howard – only 4 years younger. He was roughly contemporary with the Weird Tales set, and yet he outlived almost all of them, passing away in 1992, long past the glory days of the pulps. Leiber was one of the few pulp writers who managed to transcend the label and move out into a wider fame and even a certain literary respect in an era when few genre authors got much of any.

He was born to an acting dynasty, and he hovered around the fringes of the profession most of his life. He wrote for movies, taught drama, and even appeared in a few small parts himself. In his fiction he shifted from form to form, producing stories and novels from fantasy to SF to horror. Later in life he produced lauded works and won several Hugo awards, spending the heyday of the 60s SF field as a kind of elder statesman.

But his first published work was a Sword & Sorcery piece entitled “Two Sought Adventure” in 1939, and it introduced his indelible heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser – the prototype for all the Tank-and-Rogue pairs ever since. He produced a slew of stories about the two throughout his life. Their career spanned most of his own, with new works appearing well into the 80s.

Leiber is also credited for coining the very term “Sword & Sorcery”, in a fanzine exchange of letters with British author Micheal Moorcock. Moorcock demanded a name for the genre and Leiber came back with “Sword & Sorcery” no doubt in line with such familiar genre titles as “Sword & Sandal” or “Cloak & Dagger”. The name stuck, as it was both apt and edged with Leiber’s trademark wit.

And wit was a big part of what made Leiber a giant, as well as why his S&S stories just do not work as well for me as such. Leiber was inventively, almost savagely satirical, and he quickly tired of straight-up adventure stories and moved into more slyly humorous territory. Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories like “Lean Times in Lankhamar” and “Bazaar of the Bizarre” are some of the most viciously pointed satires you will ever find. His more direct tales, like the original “Two Sought Adventure”, and the hair-raising “The Howling Tower” are some of the leanest, most engaging S&S stories you will find. But Leiber’s need to work commentary into his narratives adds a layer of irony I just find does not work as well for me.

He remained a familiar and welcome presence in the field his whole life. TSR Inc. licensed his setting and characters for publication in game terms, and the royalties from this allowed him a measure of comfort without needing to work through his twilight years – his writing had never provided as much money as it had admiration. He lived simply in a single room in San Francisco, passing away at the age of 81. He moved S&S away from simple imitation of Howard and proved the genre had the breadth to be more than people perhaps imagined. Leiber was never one to be bound by conventions, and neither was his fiction.