Monday, December 18, 2017

The Cursed Prince: Part Two


A dark day when Prince Kumura rode in sight of the city called Samzar. Of old a place where caravans came to sell their goods to be loaded onto ships and carried away to sea, it was a port city of ancient wealth and fabled for its beauty. It dreamed beside the deep sea, towers uplifted into the sky and domes gleaming in the faint light. A cloud lay over the city, a shadow that cut away the sun and the sky and left darkness to live within the streets and halls.

He rode to the hillside that looked across the plain to the gates of the city, and he saw a shadow lay over the earth, drawn like a line across the soil and the stone. Under the shadow the plants had begun to fail, leaves curling and the green leached from them, flowers wilted and closing. There was something unnatural here, and he sniffed the wind, not liking the feel of it.

He watched for a time, seeing that even at high noon the light of the sun did not properly fall upon the city, and that very few people passed in and out of the great gate. This was the storied Samzar of legends, and rivers of riches were said to flow in it like blood in a heart. But today there was hardly more than a trickle. He put his hand to his sword, tapped his fingers on the hilt, and then he laughed. It was fitting for a cursed prince to ride to a cursed city.

So he set his spurs to the horse and rode down into the valley of shadow. He felt the air go cold when he crossed the boundary into the darkness, and he thought he knew the feel of it. This was the same power that had given his old sword its magic. This was some scrap of the darkness that lived, and it had gathered in here and sought to work an evil will.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Tides of War


So there has been some question about what will come next here on New Iron Age. I am overall pretty happy with the way The Sleeping Tyrant came out, and even if it went in some unexpected directions, that’s part of the fun of working in a serialized format.

One thing it did that I was not totally happy with was how deep it got into magic stuff, leaning maybe too hard on the “sorcery” part, rather than the “sword”. I like that it gave me a framework for the stories, but I think it got a bit too serialized, and by the end there was no way for a new reader to know what was happening.

Next year will be, once again, something different. Tides of War will be a serial detailing a war between two iron age powers, with the stories stretching over the entire length of the conflict. But it will not be focused on the leaders and kings, but on all kinds of people: common soldiers and warriors, outcasts, criminals, bystanders, brigands, and others. It will tell the story of a war in a series of snapshots from all different angles, from the glorious to the base. You will see characters and events from different perspectives, at different distances in space and in time, and from different sides. Two great Thanes will go to war, and that war will devour them.

Next week will be the second part of “The Cursed Prince”, and then I will be taking a short break for Xmas and New Years’. Posting on Tides of War will commence on January 8th. And I know stuff has been kind of fucked up with Patreon right now, but I still need your contributions, and I will be striving to add more value for patrons in the coming year. Stick with me and stay tuned.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Cursed Prince: Part One


When the prince was born, he was beautiful, and perfect. The King of Utar bore him to the temple of the Faceless Gods, and he laid the child upon the black stone altar and placed around him a circle of silver coins. He bowed his head and called for a prophecy, that he might know the fate of his newborn heir.

The veiled priestesses came forth from the darkness, and they stood behind the altar. There were three of them, and they made no motion, only breathed and chanted, and then the one at the center reached out and touched the child, and the king saw her hand flinch away, as though she had been burned.

“Dark is this child’s fate,” the priestess said. “You shall not wish to know it.”

“Speak,” King Samudragos said. He was no longer young, and there was gray upon his temples and in his beard. For many years he had sought for a son, but all three born to his wives had died. Now he had a new wife who even now lay weakened from birthing. At last he had a son, and he would not turn aside. “Tell me the omens.”

“He will survive you,” she said. “He will be a king, but not here. He will rule a distant country by his own hand.”

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Old Ways


Sometimes I get asked why I write Sword & Sorcery, and why I have this whole blog dedicated to it. There seems to be a pervasive idea that S&S is essentially a juvenile medium, wallowing in sexist tropes and quasi-racist archetypes that are only acceptable in light of the time period when the genre was created. The thinking is that Sword & Sorcery fiction is outdated, and is like Sword & Planet or Edisonades – a relic of a bygone era, doomed to niche appeal to only a small audience of enthusiasts.

Obviously, I don’t feel that way or I wouldn’t be here. I am often frustrated by the wider public view of Sword & Sorcery as an immature genre that began and ended with Conan the Barbarian, and is not allowed to grow and change. I even find a lot of fans fall into this mindset, seeing the old works as the best, and not allowing as much room for new innovations or directions.

Fans are, of course, allowed to like what they like. I myself have a shelf full of Howard collections, owning damned near everything the man ever wrote several times over. I have my shelf of Moorcock and Lovecraft and Burroughs and Brackett and Moore and Leiber – all the greats of the old days have a place on my shelf. I am as guilty as anyone of preferring the old ways.

But the very success of the style in the early years worked against it. After all, S&S started out as a pulp genre, and pulp it remains even today. You can dress it up all you like, but the genre deals in violence, iron-muscled heroes, and black-hearted villains. It lives on pulp tropes, and you can’t really change that without making it into something else.

Pulp gets a bad rep these days. The association is that pulp means “juvenile” when really, it was never a genre aimed at younger readers, it was rather seen as more lurid and intended for adult readers who liked action and excitement. Pulp is vivid and intense by nature. It can use subtlety, but that’s not its main strength. It stands in opposition to the slower, talkier high fantasies that got more mainstream respect out of the gate. Not that it is their enemy, but they are both doing very different kinds of things.

So rather than wonder if a pulp genre has any place in the modern landscape of genre literature, we should stop treating “pulp” like a dirty word. Plenty of stuff is pulp, but just stopped calling itself that because of the associations with trash literature. Star Wars is pulpy as hell, Superhero movies are pulp, crime shows like Breaking Bad are pulp. Pretty much 90% of all horror stories and movies are pulp, and so are romances. Pulp means vividly giving the readers what you know they want, and certain kinds of creators and critics hate it.

There was something in screenwriting that William Goldman called “The RX Factor”, and by that he meant that a movie had a leg up on awards if it was seen as “good for you” - in other words, a movie that Teaches You Lessons or makes you think Deep Thoughts or is About The Human Condition. There is a deep impulse in the American psyche that feels like the arts should always be to elevate and improve people, not just for fun.

And yet pulp is supposed to be fun, first and foremost. Pulp is about gratification. About giving you what you are here for, and there’s a cleanliness and a purity to that. It’s not about subtle lessons, or commentaries on the human condition or politics or any of that. It may address those things – because writers put themselves and the things they believe into their stories – but they are not the reason it is here. Pulp is here to fucking entertain you.

Once Sword & Sorcery was tarred with the pulp brush it never got free of it, and all subsequent works were therefore dismissed out of hand as not “real” literature. The clinging to the old masters has done a lot to make this worse, and it is kind of an uphill battle for new creators to make a name when a lot of the potential audience is just here for the stuff they already know they like.

I believe that S&S can be more than it has been, and there is plenty of room for the genre to grow and evolve without losing sight of what it is here for and what it does. I don’t mean that it should stop being pulp, I just think we should be unafraid to say it is pulp and that we like it that way. We should not bastardize S&S by trying to make it “respectable”, but rather find out all the things we can do with it while still keeping it bloody and fierce. Sword & Sorcery should never be ashamed of what it is.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Emperor of Night


There was no day, here at the utter north of the world, in among snow-blanketed hillsides and evergreen forests. This was the cold land where the Old Empire was born when Druanu rose to become a hero of his people, and now he returned to this place a shadow of himself, driven by powers he could not overcome, and the swordmaker’s daughter followed him, with a horned helm and a blade made all of fire.

Shan waded through the deeps of the snow, following the path of blackened footfalls as it wound through the deeps of the valleys. The trees closed in overhead, and she was shielded from the baleful glow of the sky fires as she made her weary way. The sword warmed her flesh, but her heart was cold, her spirit worn and hollow from the deaths she had seen and encompassed to reach this place. She was tired down into her bones, yet she would not turn aside.

She entered a valley that stood silent and undisturbed beneath the blazing sky, and she saw the entrance marked by pillars of stone. They were ancient and worn, but they still bore the mark of the craft of man. Beyond the gateway was a place of hollow hills, and she knew she now entered the great secret of the Karkahd people, the ground they had lived and died to defend for a thousand years. This was the valley of tombs.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Sword and the Planet


In the lineage of Sword & Sorcery, the most immediate ancestor is not quite adventure fiction, nor horror – it is, rather, a genre that was huge when S&S was born and raged for another quarter century before it began to fade, and today is little more than a nostalgic blip on the Fantasy radar. I am talking, of course, about Sword & Planet.

Obviously named of a piece with Cloak & Dagger, Sword & Sandal, and Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Planet was an outgrowth of the kind of stuff that is sometimes called Planetary Romance, and which also led to the rise of genuine Science Fiction. In the late 1800s the market for adventure fiction was growing even as the blank spaces on the map were shrinking. Knowledge of the other planets was expanding around the same time, and it all was kicked into high gear by astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1878.

Schiaparelli got some good looks as Mars through his telescope and described some features he saw as “canali” - which in Italian just means “channels”, but in translation this became “canals” in English, and people lost their collective shit over the idea. Nobody could see well enough to tell whether Mars had life or was even capable of supporting it, but the idea seized hold of the popular mind like a rabid badger. People started writing stories about Mars, life on Mars, and what that life might be like, a guy named Percival Lowell wrote a series of entirely speculative and very imaginative books about what life on Mars might be like, and the whole topic was very much in the public consciousness of the early 20th Century.

Enter Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the genre-defining A Princess of Mars in 1912 (though it did not appear in book form until 1917, before that it was serialized in magazines). It was extremely popular, and was followed by not only ten sequels, but kicked off a whole wave of imitators who dominated up through the 1960s, and who continue even to this day.

The genre conventions of Sword & Planet were these: a male hero from Earth, usually the United States, who is a misfit in his own culture due to his code of honor and restless nature. He is transported somehow (S&P was not big on scientific explanations for anything) to another planet. This may be a planet in our own solar system, or may be a world unknown to the modern age – the location is not really important. On this world he finds humans who live in a barbaric society that he finds suits his temperament much better than our own safe and stultifying Earth.

There will be a woman – usually a princess or a queen – and the hero falls in love with her, but in order to win her he will have to impress her with his prowess, rescue her from multiple threats, monsters, and kidnappers, and often in the process save the entire world/kingdom with his sword-swinging derring-do.

Now it is true that there is a lot more Errol Flynn than Solomon Kane in most Sword & Planet adventures, but that does not mean the genre as a whole did not have an effect on the evolution of Sword & Sorcery. Both genres entail lone heroes who are more virile and badass than the people they encounter. Both take the reader to alien and fantastical worlds, and both entail a lot of solving problems with violence.

Imagery, in particular, is very similar between the genres. Ever since Burroughs decided to make Martians go around functionally naked, warriors in straps and loincloths and princesses in golden bikinis have been a staple of Sword & Planet art. Throw in the fact that the S&P hero will invariably be brandishing a sword in the face of some hideous monster and you are already almost there. The two major differences are that a S&P hero will sometimes also be waving some kind of gun around, and a Sword & Sorcry hero will be engaging in much more bloody levels of violence.

The literary differences are really ones of style and execution. A Sword & Sorcery hero will usually be a primitive from some almost stone-aged tribe, while a Sword & Planet hero will be a person from our modern age, able to explain things to us in a modern vernacular style. There will be no express magic in a Sword & Planet tale (though there may be super-science that mimics the effects of magic). The violence in a S&S story will be much bleaker and bloodier than the more PG-13 violence found in the Sword & Planet genre.

The real different aspect is the thread of Horror that runs through Sword & Sorcery. There will not be a whiff of Elder Gods or prehuman monstrosities in a genuine Sword & Planet story. Right now, writing that, I am thinking how cool that could be, but it would not be a proper story in the genre if you added those elements. Sword & Planet is almost always expressly hopeful, set in a world of black and white morality where the good guys always win. It has nothing like the moral grayness of Sword & Sorcery, with its grim landscapes and fatalistic heroes.

Sword & Planet was born in the early years of the 20th Century, but it remains very much a product of Victorian sensibilities and tropes, while Sword & Sorcery is much more modern to our eyes. It porytays a world without moral absolutes, where a man’s fate may be forged by his steel, but there is no assurance that he will win, or even that he is the hero.

The imagery and ideas of Sword & Planet fiction clearly had an influence on S&S, if not at the beginning, then later, as the genres evolved through the early 20th Century and then when both had a revival in the 60s. The loincloths and swords and monsters and exotic locations, the muscular heroes and scantily-clad heroines, the bright colors and lurid situations – all of it kind of grew together in this pulp-fueled mass, and yet they remain distinct genres because they are doing different things. Sword & Planet has modern heroes and lives in the light. Sword & Sorcery is in love with the primordial, the primitive, and will always dwell in the dark.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Ablaze in the Northern Sky


Alone, bearing a burning sword and a broken helm, Shan stumbled into the cold northlands under skies of winter fire. She left behind her betrayed followers and a burning city, and now she was no longer hunter, but prey. It would not be long before the Tyrant himself came following, his blighted pale wights ranging ahead like hounds, and they would run her to earth.

The land she passed through was low and cut by a hundred curling streams, the ground boggy and festering with limp grasses and pale fungi. She fought through the mire, staggering through the shallow, cold waters edged with ice. The stars blazed overhead like a fortune, and from the north, the uttermost dark at the limits of her sight, came the crawling, many-colored fire she had heard of in tales, but never dreamed she would see.

It hung in the sky like curtains of shifting blue and green, casting a phantom light over the world below, and she knew that in that demon glow her blood would look as black as the ichor of the fallen. Ahead of her she saw mountains looming against the night, their shoulders cloaked in deep forest, and she did not know where to go for what she sought. She remembered the words of Chona, the fallen princess, but she did not know her destination. She could not follow the Tyrant to his end; now he was at her heels.

All through the long night she looked back, seeking a sign of the pursuit. She saw nothing but dark, and though she knew the Tyrant would be heralded by his pillar of smoke and frost, still she imagined she would be ambushed in the dark, would see the pale legions closing on her, their black mouths open and hungry. She gripped her blade tight, and she knew if it came to that she would battle them to the last, but there were too many of them. They would drag her down, and they would kill her, and then she would feel the cold power coming in to animate her body. She wondered if the fallen were simply dead, or if they still remained trapped within their corpses, screaming inside for release.

She was staggering with exhaustion when daylight came, but the rising of the sun was feeble in this land, and it did not come high above the horizon, glowed weakly through the slate-gray clouds. From a world of dark she entered a world of half-light that gave no comfort or warmth. It was said that of old the Tyrant and his armies came from this land, where there was never day nor sunlight, where even summer was a season of ice.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Blue-Collar Barbarian


When Bob Howard created Sword & Sorcery, he lived in the heart of Texas during an oil boom the likes of which the state has not seen since. No other economic shift was as transformative to Texas as that one, and the effect it had on the young writer was significant. After all, Howard was the son of a country doctor, and he saw a lot of the workers close up. Being a doctor was not an ivory-tower kind of life in that time and place. Howard himself never worked a “real” job for more than token periods of time, but the worlds we live in affect the way we see the world outside.

Howard himself said Conan was inspired by men he saw around himself in his rough-and-tumble town in the middle of nowhere: boxers, roustabouts, oil riggers, gamblers and railroad workers. He saw these kinds of men up close and grasped their essential nature, and it stamped itself on Conan, and thus upon Sword & Sorcery as a whole.

It really marks a break with previous ideas of fantasy, and even now remains a bit of an oddity. Fantasy writers then – and now – are largely obsessed with rulers and kings. Tolkien’s cast of characters is deeply involved with kings and royal bloodlines. The “Sword and Planet” adventures that predate S&S were all about princesses on alien worlds, and even today we have stories that revolve around those who are kings, or should be kings, or were kings and are working to get back to it. The emphasis is on ancient bloodlines and rights to rule, often with magic worked in to make the “rightful” king undeniable.

Howard was not really enmeshed in any of that. Conan is expressly the son of a blacksmith, born of a rough, border people. Kull is a similar primitive, only a few steps above a stone-aged man. The only hero Howard created with a royal bloodline is Bran Mak Morn, and his ancestry is more often seen as a curse than a blessing. Also, he is far from the most important character in Howard’s canon.

Overall, Howard’s perspective is undeniably blue-collar, populist, and allied with the common people. Howard grew up in rural Texas, and his experience with genuine wealth and nobility was exactly nil. He was writing in the years when Depression was choking the country, and people were suspicious of the rich and powerful. Howard trusted them even less, and you can see that in his writing where nobles are almost universally depicted as evil and scheming, or at the very least rather foolish and naive. Howard did not idolize kingship, and in fact he had a rather more realistic view of it than a lot of fantasy writers do today.

He understood that rulership is not just a privilege, but a job. Both Conan and Kull discover that while it is one thing to seize a throne, it is quite another thing to sit on it. His heroes are men of action who find the minutiae of leadership to be tedious and confining. They also have a good grasp of the fact that all wealth and comfort are transitory, and that there is actually very little separating a king from a vagabond.

It is notable that almost without exception, Howard’s heroes are from the low rungs of society, or even properly outside it. They have no inheritance, no bloodline, no name. Whatever they have they must work for, fight for, or steal. They attain their position in the world with violence and a willingness to do same. They inspire men by their personal qualities, not by titles or gold.

Growing up cheek by jowl with working class men, it is hardly surprising that Howard’s sympathies would lie with them. What is surprising is how consciously he keeps that perspective. We do not get a story where Conan is found to be the long-lost heir to the kingdom. No. We get several stories about how people steal his throne, and then find out the hard way that Conan is not someone who merely inherited his crown, but someone who bled for it once and will gladly do so again. Howard showed a remarkably modern appreciation for the fact that loyalty is fickle and so is the mob of the ruled. He instinctively sided with the downtrodden, but he also did not overestimate their virtues.

So after decades of fantasy stories about long-lost princesses, hidden heirs to this-or-that, and magical macguffins to establish just who is king around here, stories like those Howard wrote in the 1930s remain rather unusual – stories about men who come from nothing and then take their crowns with force and keep it. Usurpers are often painted with a black brush in fiction, but Conan and Kull never gave one shit about being usurpers. They took what they wanted and killed to keep it – the essence of Sword & Sorcery.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Frozen Blood


Shan and her ragged army followed the path of destruction north, passing dead villages and splintered trees. They left the country of the deep forest and ascended into high, cold hills jagged with rock and threaded by narrow, twisted trails. She still followed the seared prints of the Emperor, and so she knew she followed the correct path. They were leaving even the edge of the lands of civilized men, and passing into the country of legends. North of this place lay only myths, and the eternal night of the lands of the dead.

The snow grew heavier, and the winds were cold, even though it was summer. The days grew shorter the farther they went, and some of her followers began to desert, to flee back down toward warmer lands, and she could not blame them very much. This was her crusade, and they were not blood-bound to follow it. The nights lengthened, and the snow came down all around them, and then they crested a last hill and saw the city.

It was old, and the walls were cracked and worn down, the gates open as though it were abandoned but lights flickered in the dark hollows, and Shan smelled smoke. The city crouched in the pass that led through the hills and into the far north, and she knew that was the way they must take. She looked back down the hillside as her army snaking through the narrow trails. There were perhaps a thousand men in her wake, half that many women and followers, and she wondered if the people of this cold place would shut the gates against them as against an invader.

Bror came and stood beside her, looked down at the ancient walls and towers. “What place is this? I have never heard of a city here at the edge of nothing.”

“Nor I,” she said. She looked for the marks of the enemy horde across the snows, looked for a sign of destruction in the wake of the Tyrant, and she saw nothing. She wondered if she had lost her way, had missed the passage of her quarry, and then she heard war horns sound and the hair on her neck stood up. Looking back, she saw lights moving in the shadows of the hills behind them, and she heard the smash of battle drums.

Monday, October 16, 2017

As Does The Worm


One of the stranger roots of Sword & Sorcery lies far back in the family tree, coiled around itself and eating its own tail. Before Tolkien or Lewis defined in the popular imagination what “fantasy” was, things were much more fluid, and back before all of them was the strange artistry of Eric Rucker Eddison and his weird, fascinating near-masterpiece The Worm Ouroboros.

Eddison was a much-read author in his day, and he was an occasional member of the so-called “Inklings” - the writer’s circle at Oxford that included Tolkien, Lewis, Dyson, Barfield, and a slew of other academics. However, like most of the rest of them, Eddison has long faded into obscurity. There seems to be a cutoff in genre fiction at World War 2, and very few of the writers who made their mark before the war have been much read since then. Eddison is probably mostly forgotten because his philosophies did not align with the late-60s progressives who were largely responsible for bringing fantasy to a wider audience.

The Worm Ouroboros is a strange novel. Rather than a modern approach, it is written in a very conscious imitation of Norse sagas and a carefully-crafted Jacobean prose style that pulls in influences from both Elizabethan drama and Homeric literature. It was not like anything else written at the time or since. Eddison had a fantastic ear for words and rhythms, and the prose of the book is often just achingly beautiful.

The story is a high heroic romp through an alternate world populated by rival kingdoms of “Demons” and “Witches” who, however, look entirely human, save for small horns on their heads. There are also goblins, imps, and other rather loosely-defined races that may or may not be human. The exact detailing of the world and it’s peoples and histories did not seem to interest Eddison very much, as it was just there to serve as the backdrop to the tale of epic warfare he was intent on spinning.

Contrary to later writers – but entirely in line with most of his contemporaries – Eddison did not take the time to invent a really detailed, consistent world, so all his places and names were kind of lifted as needed from history or simply made up out of gibberish, resulting in such names as “Goldry Bluszco” and “Lord Spitfire”. Eddison was not interested in consistency of language. Instead, like his heroes, he plunged headlong into furious contests indulged in seemingly more for the fun of it than for any real reason. Like Homeric or Nordic heroes, Eddison’s characters contended with one another for the sheer joy of it, seeking violence and war as the only worthy occupations for noblemen. Indeed, at the end of the book, having won, the Lords of Demonland wish their enemies back to life so they can start the war over again. The last chapter ends with the beginning of the first, symbolizing the eternal nature of the title.

The story is a sword-slinging, swashbuckling ride, though it is far from the action-packed, chopped-down style of Howard. It does resonate more with the elevated prose he used for “The Shadow Kingdom”. The book was published in 1922, so it is entirely likely that he read it. Both Karl Edward Wagner and Micheal Moorcock have praised the work, and indeed, it is hard not to, with its language so beautifully constructed. That said, Eddison was too wordy, and often got in the way of what he was saying by how magnificently he was saying it. To a modern reader, he takes far too much time to move the pieces around, and your eyes start to glaze over. The language is gorgeous, but it is gorgeous constantly, to the point where it is too much and all drama is numbed out.

Still, the book paints a colorful, vivid world with heroes who seek out battle and solve problems with their swords – and furthermore feel that is the way it should be. Eddison’s starkly aristocratic point of view would not survive the war, and the essential element of Sword & Sorcery as it was formed proved to be an antagonism towards nobility, and a fundamentally lower-class, blue-collar perspective. Those elements would have to wait seven more years for the publication of “The Shadow Kingdom”, but there in the first tale of Kull and the serpent men, you can see the mark of the worm.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Coldest Fire


The Horned Brotherhood rode north through the forested lands, along the deep-cut streambeds and in and out of hollows and the shade of the great trees. As they went farther, there were more paths, and then the paths became roads paved with ancient stone. Shan rode at their head, and they followed her, even if they did not speak it openly. Bror was at her side, and that drew even reluctant followers in her wake. They followed him, and they followed the legend they made of her and the sword of fire she carried.

There were villages and towns here in the rough country, and not one did they find that was not burnt black and smoldering, the earth dark with ash and the bodies of the dead. Corpses were impaled on spears and left behind as a warning to those who might follow. Shan cut them down with her own blade, and would not turn aside.

There were survivors, men and women, those who had hidden, or who had been away. Hunters and foragers, wanderers and children, cowards and those who were wise enough to hide. They followed, and Shan welded them to her gathering band. They gathered fresh horses and scavenged armor and arms. Children foraged for food, hunters brought meat. Those who could take up spear and sword did so, and marched.

Once all this land had been a great wasteland, and in the center was a forbidden, dark heart of the forest where no man set foot. The trails that led there vanished in the undergrowth, but there was the ghost of a great road, long buried under sand and earth, marked only by the stone pillars that had once measured distances across the waste, long before the time of Druanu, before the empire. That was the path that Shan followed, because it was where the footfalls of her enemy led.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Old Master


If we’re talking about Sword & Sorcery fiction, then we are also talking about art, because fantasy art has had a huge impact on the look and style of the genre, and in fact, in the mainstream of pop culture, artwork has had a much bigger impact than any story, book, or film. When asked to point out the meaning of Sword & Sorcery, most people would settle on an image by Frazetta, Kelly, or Vallejo, because those were men from the generation of artists coming into their own when the genre crystallized, and Frazetta himself was the primary shaper of how Sword & Sorcery artwork looks.

But that generation of artists didn’t come to exist in a vacuum. Many of them started out before the late-60s S&S boom - working in comics, on magazine covers, and other places where fantasy illustrators of the time made their bones. And they came from influences of both comics and illustration and the artists who worked before them. One of the biggest names from that slightly earlier generation was Roy Krenkel.

At one time, Roy G. Krenkel was one of the most famous fantasy artists in the field, and that seems kind of hard to remember now. He was only ten years older than Frazetta, and yet while Frank’s work is still recognizable all over the world, Krenkel is far less well-known.

Part of that is just the misfortune he had of working in the shadow of Frazetta, a much younger and ferociously talented artist. Krenkel was a kind of mentor to Frazetta, they collaborated together, and it seems that Frank always had great affection for his friend. Yet Frazetta’s talent was so massive, and his impact on the genre so huge, as to overshadow his more old-fashioned compatriot. Frazetta’s larger-than-life personality also tended to push Roy into the background almost by accident.



The other part is that Krenkel’s style is just of an earlier era. Heavily influenced by old-school artists like Norman Lindsay and J. Allen St. John – illustrators of an earlier generation – Krenkel’s style was detailed and almost fussy. He had a tremendous ability as a penciler, and he created fantastically detailed landscapes and cityscapes in the pages of comics and in paintings.

When Lancer revived Howard and Burroughs in the late 60s, a lot of artists caught some of the cover work, but Krenkel and Frazetta became the most iconic. Krenkel won a Hugo in 1963 for his cover for a collection of Kull stories, but really, his best works were for the revived Burroughs books. Krenkel’s feel for landscapes and strange architecture made him perfect to illustrate stories of Barsoom and Pellucidar.

On the Howard side, Frazetta was hard to compete with. Frank’s florid, dynamic sense of composition and energy fitted in much better with the emerging modern sensibilities, while Krenkerl’s staid, classical sense of design and taste for muted colors made his work seem to pale in comparison. Roy’s art was like him – somewhat muted, old-fashioned, and a bit stiff.



It also didn’t help that Krenkel had a strange relationship with his own work, which he was known to regard as unimportant and disposable. The man was unassuming, and didn’t like to call attention to himself, and he seems to have suffered a lack of confidence in his own artwork. It may be this, in fact, which deterred him from breaking out of old styles of compositon and color and doing something more dynamic, but perhaps he didn’t have it in him, and was just a born traditionalist.

His heyday was in the 70s, but his health began to fail him, and he died in 1983 at the relatively young age of 64. Ironic that his good friend Frazetta was ten years his junior, yet outlived him by almost thirty years. Krenkel’s work has had something of a revival, with collections published, and a lot more attention paid to his part in shaping modern fantasy art – a part he himself would probably be first to disparage. He has become – like Ralph McQuarrie – an artist loved by fans, but who's name is known to few others.


Monday, September 25, 2017

The Horn-Crowned Helm


Shan went into the forest with only her sword and a path to follow. The armies of the tyrant marched across the hills and grasslands and left a path of destruction in their wake. She followed columns of smoke and found only fire-blackened villages and scorched farms, the fire-scarred bones of those who could not escape hung from spearpoints. Always to the north she saw a pillar of smoke and ice in the sky, a marching storm that marked where her quarry stalked. She wondered what she would do when she caught him.

In the nights, when she huddled beside her fire against the unseasonal cold of spring, she wondered at herself. That she would set herself against the march of a dread conqueror from beyond death was foolishness, the dream of a child offended by death and injustice, yet the sword that dreamed beside her in the night gave the lie to that. She had forged a weapon from a shard of fire and blue-black steel. She had seen the enemies of flesh wrought by the arisen emperor. She would see what that keen edge would wreak upon them.

In old times, this land had been a desert, the hills growing more and more barren until they were naked and dry, buried in dust and bitter weeds. But the weather had changed, grown colder, and more rain fell, and the once-desolate lands that had been the center of the old empire were now forestland. The dunes became earth again, and the valleys once fit only for caravan roads were thick with trees and ran with narrow streams. She had heard stories that once the forests had dwelled only in the far northern lands, a place of colossal trees and deep vales hidden by mist. Like a waiting army, the trees had lingered until the time was right for them to return.

Shan had no horse, and only an old mail shirt for armor. She walked the forest paths with her sword slung over her shoulder, following in the wake of her enemy. Once deep in the hollow woodlands she saw fewer signs of their passage. Yet here and there she found the remains of their bonfires, and the bones of the slain they hung from the trees.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Age of the Horseclans


During the Sword & Sorcery upsurge in the late 60s and extending into the late 70s, a lot of books were published that drew on the imagery of the genre, and it was hard to walk down the SF/Fantasy aisle in a bookstore without seeing a lot of sweaty barbarians and mostly-naked slavegirls. One of the mainstays of the period, with a lot of books making for a large footprint on the shelves, were the Horseclans books by American author Robert Adams.

The Horseclans stories were an interesting mixture of 70s-style S&S with 80s-style post-apocalyptic fiction. Bloody barbarian adventure was popular, as were stories of the world after nuclear war, with echoes of the modern world mixed in with strange tribes and mutated monsters. Adams quite rightly saw cool possibilities in combining the two, and the Horseclans were born.

Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the stories centered around the titular clans, who were based rather blatantly on both Mongols and Native Americans, without making any real statement on their ethnicity. They are depicted as textbook noble savages, with a code of honor and a reliance on violence to solve problems. They ride horses and are aided in battle by domesticated sabertoothed cats. Many of the clansmen are telepathic, and can communicate directly with their pets.

As the story opens, the clans are led by their undying lord Milo Morai – a self-insert character if ever there was one. Milo is a cross between Conan and John Carter of Mars, being an immortal man who has lived for unspecified centuries. His memory dates from before the nuclear war, though he suffered a head injury in 1936 and can’t remember anything before that. He is psionic, invincible, and unkillable unless he is drowned or decapitated.

Adams was obviously very influenced by Howard, and he even adopts his “barbarism is the natural state of mankind” saw virtually word for word. The horseclans books depict all settled civilizations as inherently decadent and repugnant, though the way he goes about this makes his work largely indigestible to a modern reader. His major way of showing that civilized men were disgusting was to show them as being homosexual, and also mixing in a healthy dose of pederasty and cannibalism. The “civilized” men of this world are such ridiculous caricatures they become accidentally comical.

His picture of the horseclans as being “manly” will also make a reader wince, as a central feature of their raid-and-pillage lifestyle is rape. The first book opens with Milo taking a woman prisoner during a raid, and this is Mara, who later becomes his wife. Their relationship begins with Milo’s telepathic sabertooth reading her mind and telling Milo that Mara is eager to be ravished, and things don’t go uphill from there. Another female character is raped and then is discovered to be only twelve years old, so that’s horrible, but is met with a kind of shrug.

Adams’ style is often said to be fast-paced and violent, but a new reader will find his work actually rather dull. He dwells more on the gore element than on the inherent drama of battle, and actually he often shied away from real excitement. He is lurid in his descriptions of torture and execution, but the action itself is oddly abbreviated. The most egregious example is in the second novel Swords of the Horseclans, where he spends literally the entire book building up to an epic battle that then never happens, and the combatants just turn and go home.

A close read reveals that the Horseclans are almost the opposite of what they are sold as. You go in expecting fast and loose adventure with bloody battles and high-octane action, instead you get rather slow, talky melodrama with Milo acting as the author’s self-insert/Mary Sue to sometimes lecture about the Nature of Man and similar such bullshit. The characters are poorly-drawn, the worldbuilding is complex yet uninteresting, and the timeline between all the books is labored and confusing. What action there is does not really excite, and Adams actually has a reliable instinct for avoiding anything actually interesting and defusing drama.

A slew of good Ken Kelly covers and Adams’ own persona as a kind of modern barbarian sold a lot of books, but the works themselves don’t really bear up to scrutiny. The idea of the horseclans books remains compelling – a post-apocalyptic, retro-fantasy romp through a savage world of barbarians and telepathic sabertooths – but the lackluster execution manages to suck almost all the fun out of it, and the idea remains one as yet unrealized.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Swordmaker's Daughter


Shan lived with her father on the mountainside, and on those days when the air was clear and the sun rose clean over the hills, she could look down into the valley below and see the city of Haitu. It was one of the greatest cities in the world, set here in the forested mountains, high above the old road that led north and into the old lands of the empire.

Every morning she went into the woods and gathered wood for the forges. She did not take new-fallen branches, but old ones, watching them season by season as the wood aged and dried, and when it was ready she gathered it up and bound it together with long cords and dragged the heavy bales back with her, up the narrow trails through the wooded mountainside. She was a strong girl, though only sixteen. Her father had a great deal of work for her, as he was growing old, and his sight was failing year by year.

Beside their forge a small stream cascaded down the hillside, and there her father had made a wheel to fire his forge instead of a bellows driven by hand. Shan took the wood and chopped it into even lengths, and then she put it into the coal furnace and lit it carefully. By the time the sun came up above the mountain’s edge, the fire was going, and she packed it closed with mud from the stream and left it to cook.

Her father’s forge was bigger than their small house, but they spent more time in the forge, so it seemed fitting. She looked down the mountainside, seeing the narrow path snaking up from below, and she wondered if anyone would make the journey from the city today. Her father was famous for his swords, and now and again some wealthy man would send servants with silver to buy one from him. Her father sold them fine-looking blades, but not his best. He saved the best for the hard-bitten warriors and soldiers who came of their own. Some men saved their money for years to be able to afford what he crafted, and to them he sold his finest steel.

The city spread out beside the river below, the water bright with the dawn reflection, and the haze of night smoke still drifted over the rooftops. She looked north, to where the hills rolled green and unending. There, at the limit of her vision, she saw a shadow on the earth, and something like a dark cloud. She watched it, thinking perhaps it was a storm, but it hung too low to be a storm. It gave her a misgiving, in the hollow of her stomach, and then she turned away and went to the forge.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tara of the Twilight

 

As I have said before, Lin Carter was a diligent editor and literary historian, but at best a mediocre novelist. He had enthusiasm and imagination, but his characterization was bland and his sense of action and timing were execrable, which are signal failings when one is trying to write Sword & Sorcery. Today I will eviscerate what is probably the worst book he ever wrote: the semi-infamous Tara of the Twilight.

It’s not clear, really, whose idea this was. In his forward (!) Carter waxes rather scholarly about “the erotic impulse” and so forth, while mentioning that he had never written anything that was A: from the point of view of a female, and B: meant to be porn in any way. Both of these are big warning signs of the awfulness to follow. But he also mentions Zebra editor Roy Torgeson, who can bear some of the blame for his travesty. Torgeson – an editor of some note in the 70s and 80s – worked mostly in hard SF, and it’s not clear what he was doing at Zebra in 1979.

Zebra books is an imprint of Kensington Publishing, and is very much still around. Their main focus has always been Regency Romance titles, which they still put out to this day. But there was a period from 1975-1985 when they were trying to expand their slate a bit, publishing some westerns, and even some horror novels. They don’t seem to really be proud of Tara, and it’s not hard to see why.

I stumbled on the book when I was seventeen – pretty much the ideal audience for bad porn – and I still found it all but unreadable. I did read it, mostly to see just how terrible it was, the same instinct that causes us to lance boils and look at car accidents. As porn, it was a complete failure, because it was impossible to jerk off to, even when I was seventeen.

Tara follows the tale of the titular heroine, who is a red-haired sixteen-year-old girl who has been raised by a wizard and is a sworn worshiper of a rather nebulous pantheon of gods who demand her virginity; also to be a war-maiden she has to wear no armor, and go about conveniently almost naked. Thus, Carter has an in-universe rationale for the “chainmail bikini” trope. He does, however, fall hard into the “omniscient boobs” style of writing, where all of Tara’s attributes are discussed in lavish detail and with a great deal of leering that makes no sense in a first-person narrative. Also, let us just deal with the fact that we are being invited to lust after a sixteen-year-old girl, something that simply would not fly today. Unfortunately, this is not the only highly unpleasant turn this story will take.

Far from any kind of action-adventure, the novel is simply our heroine going from one kind of captivity to another, and the vaunted warrior skills she is said to possess seem to do her no good whatsoever. She is enslaved by a succession of vile and lecherous captors, and is thus subjected to all manner of depravity without any kind of consent. Now, there is certainly a market for this kind of porn, where consent is dubious or nonexistent, but it is really rather gross to discover that Tara is essentially rape porn from one end to the other.

Tara spends the bulk of her time a captive of the barbarian warlord Hunza – a typically musclebound, illiterate, loincloth-wearing type of dude. Everything kind of crashes to a screeching halt when he is shown raping a twelve-year-old girl. Repeatedly. There’s not really a way for the book to recover any kind of sympathy after this point, as it is just far too repulsive for even ironic enjoyment. Sexually violating underaged girls is a major theme of the book, to the point where it starts to say something about Lin Carter, something more than a little distasteful.

One of the very strange contrivances of this book is that Tara never actually has regular sex. She manages to maintain her technical virginity, mostly because her various captors are too depraved to be interested in it. She has a lot of oral sex, and has anal sex (is anally raped, to be honest), but she never actually gets fucked. It has to be said that none of this is tremendously sexy, both because of Carter’s stilted prose, and because of Tara’s traumatized reactions to it. It’s not sexy to read about a teenaged girl vomiting after she is forced to suck a dick.

And in case you are thinking I exaggerate the redolent badness of the writing, let me grit my teeth and provide some examples. Lines such as “I explored the wrinkled flesh stretched tight over the twin rondures of his testicles.” or “I felt the hammerlike head of his maleness probe forcefully at the small wrinkled eye of my anus.” are like porn written by a fifteen-year-old fanfic author, not a fifty-year-old professional. To be fair, Carter’s line-by-line writing was never any good, but applying his sensibility to porn causes things to verge quickly into the grotesque.

Tara ends on an open note, clearly leading up to a sequel that would never come to be. Carter apparently published some Tara stories later on that may have been the beginnings of a full-length sequel, but there has never been a collection of them, thankfully. The book only went through one printing, and though I believe you can get a print-on-demand copy, the original paperbacks are rather valuable if they are in good shape. This is rare, as the cheaply-printed copies often simply fall apart (mine has lost the front cover, and the back cover will soon detach, even though it has not been read in almost 30 years). It seems Carter’s one work of rape porn shall remain more heard-of than read.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Dark Rising: Part Two


The snow screamed on the wind, obscuring everything, making the night a torrent of razor ice that clawed and froze and cracked apart. The fanatics of the Left Hand looked into the night, to the gate of the dead city. They held hard to their spears and shields, set their feet against the wind, and they listened as the tread of many feet drew closer. Again the blast of a battle horn ripped the darkness, and then the vanguard of a terrible army surged out from the night.

They were not men. They wore the shape of men, but they were not made of flesh; they were stone men, black and gleaming like glass, rimed with frost, and from their masked helms eyes blazed like lanterns. They made no sound, gave no cries. There was only the inexorable pound of their feet upon the earth, and then their spears lowered to make a serried wall of deadly points, and the two armies came together with a roar.

The attacking men were of stone, but their swords and spears were of hardened bronze, and they struck with inhuman strength. The warriors had great weight and size, and they smashed into the ranks of their enemy like a tide. Men were knocked back, impaled and crushed under stone feet. The men of the Left Hand fought like demons, but their blows rang useless upon stone skins and their swords and axes snapped like brittle ice.

The stone men tore through the lines and split the front apart, and then through the ranks of them came another shape. Tall and pale, dressed in blue-scaled armor and with a black sword in her dead left hand, Chona strode through her army of unliving warriors, and she let loose her war cry into the storm. From death she was risen to avenge her kingdom, and nothing would stand in her path.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Problem Solving


Bob Howard’s innovation was to use the high-octane action of the adventure story as a way to end supernatural mysteries. All of Howard’s best stories presented a mystery of some kind, even if they were just “who is the evil wizard this time?” Conan, Cormac, and Solomon were usually called on to figure something out – whether it be finding a secret door, a path through a deadly maze, or a way into a well-guarded tower.

Other Sword & Sorcery writers leaned less hard on the mystery aspect, and thus had to rely on other sorts of story structures. Either they went for Lovecraftian horror, or they fell more into fantasy quest tropes. This started to cause problems with plots, because if you solve all your problems the same way, your stories start to get predictable.

There was something fun about setting up a mystic mystery with some Yellow-Peril-styled wizard, and then having Conan split his head open before he could get a spell off. It was subverting a trope that writers like Sax Rohmer had been using for decades, along with slews of lesser authors of “exotic” adventure fiction. The wizard always has another trick up his sleeve, and the heroes often stand maddeningly and gawp while the sorcerer (or his equivalent) pulls ropes, flips levers, or steps on suspiciously-colored sections of floor just as the lights go out.

Once Conan had been through a few adventures, it was obvious that he was physically far superior to anyone he faced. The reader didn’t really worry about it, and it was harder and harder to pit him against opponents who posed a credible threat. All of Howard’s heroes were like this – they were so badass that making us worry about them got harder and harder.

Hence the mysteries and misdirections. We knew that once he comes face to face with his foes, whatever Howard hero we are following will handily wipe the floor with them. Howard was good at action, and he strove mightily to make the fights seem bloody and dangerous, like every one was a near thing. He was good enough at it that he was able to carry you past the fact that you know the hero is not going to lose.

The writer has to make the way his hero solves a problem seem exciting, not a foregone conclusion. The problem with building your hero up into an unstoppable killing machine is that you start having trouble using violence as a problem solver. This is a common weakness with second-rate S&S. Hack writers see the violence and like it (and well-done violence can be a real pleasure), and they want to imitate that.

But if your protagonist is The Best at violence, then all the violence in the story has less tension, because the reader does not seriously believe the hero can’t win, or won’t win. The violence becomes dull, and in response the bad writer pumps it up more and more, verging into exaggeration and hyperbole that make the suspension of disbelief impossible.

Under these circumstances, you have to make something besides pure violence the solution to the story’s problems. Violence should still be part of it, because this is Sword & Sorcery, but you need something else.

Some writers then resort to magic, which has its own set of problems. Unless your character is a wizard – which most S&S heroes are not – then the magic has to come from somebody or something else. Useful magic has to be difficult and dangerous, it has to have a price. If it does, then you have something you can work with, especially if the character knows the cost ahead of time and still chooses to use it. Sacrifice always makes for a good ending.

But it risks reducing your character, if you do it that way. The power to defeat the enemy should come from within the hero or from a decision they make, not from some magical doodad. You run the risk of falling into High Fantasy tropes of using the Magic Thing to defeat the Bad Thing, and your characters feel superfluous.

So it all presents its own set of problems. This is an action genre, and we want the action to mean something, but the battles can’t feel like a foregone conclusion. There has to be risk and danger, but we don’t want it to become unbelievable, as our hero is supposed to be good at this. There should be magic, but we can’t use the magic to solve all the problems presented by the antagonist. Ideally, any magic used by the hero should serve only to negate a magical advantage from the villain, so that they are once again on an even footing. Fairness in conflict is an excellent source of drama and excitement, and if things are not fair, then they should be stacked against your protagonist, not for them.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Dark Rising: Part One


Through the dark forests, across the deep quick rivers and through the screaming snow, the army of the Left Hand dragged the great tomb of the ancient king. They climbed higher and higher in the mountains, toward the deadly pass men called the Black Gate, where destiny waited for the touch of a spark. The sun hid behind the clouds, and the sky drew down low and hard and cold, as if the earth herself willed them to turn away, but they would not. They were driven by a more than mortal faith, the words of their prophet branded on their flesh, and though men died in the cold and were left to be torn apart by wolves, no man would turn aside.

Khamag rode at the head of his army, and though the wind was a blade of winter, the sword in his metal hand warmed him and guided him on. The sword of flame was a shard of red in the gray landscape, and when the snow grew thicker he held it up like a beacon. It heated his iron hand, until he felt the sting on his flesh, but he would not turn it loose. He had struggled and planned and waited for three hundred years for this moment. He would not be denied.

The Black Gate loomed ahead of him, the two great pinnacles of basalt, black as moonlight blood, scarred by wind and time, jagged against the sky. The wind howling through them was like voices raised in anguish, screaming words no ear could understand. The voices of the dead, gathered in this place as the stars wheeled unseen above.

He reached the pass and stopped, turned his horse to look on the long line of his army, his fanatics struggling upward through the wind and snow, heads bent, forcing their horses up the slope. In the midst of them rose the great tomb, gleaming with jewels and blackened silver, covered in ice. A hundred of the chosen bent their backs to drag it onward, the heavy wheels gouging the earth and the stone. They were close to the end. These men had dragged it across the breadth of the old empire. Five hundred had died on the journey, their limbs and hearts burst from the unrelenting toil. Khamag would have sacrificed a hundred times as many.

He felt the red dagger driven through his dead heart pulse with fire, and the sword of flame steamed in the flailing snow. Now, at last, he would consummate the quest he had undertaken centuries before, the goal for which he had forsworn his own people, and the oath into which he had been born. Khamag had forsaken that oath, and taken another one. He had bled across the world, died and risen again into a new life, and now he would achieve his goal. Gathas was gone, the short-sighted wizard who had seen only power for himself. Asherah was gone, his blood-kin who had been his relentless enemy. No one remained to stop him.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Lost Race


One of the staples of the adventure genre is the “Lost Race” story, which grew out of the “Lost World” story and sometimes overlaps quite a bit. Since Sword & Sorcery evolved from adventure fiction, some of that DNA ended up mixed in, but in a kind of interesting way.

Adventure fiction grew out of the 19th century, when a lot of the world map was still pretty blank. Explorers were busy all through the century trying to find all the hidden corners, but for fiction writers there were still plenty of spots to put whatever you wanted, because nobody could say you were wrong. You didn’t even have to give some bullshit explanation as to why your lost civilization didn’t show up on satellite pictures. It was a magical time.

Because all the hidden valleys and lost oases in the world were not as interesting as they would be if there were people in them, pulp writers inevitably populated their forgotten corners of the earth with some advanced civilization, often a remnant of some culture that had existed in the past. These lost worlds were found to contain Romans, Vikings, Cavemen, Israelites, or even Atlanteans. People cut off from the world around them, and somehow still existing on the same cultural and technological plane they had inhabited centuries or millennia before.

This was a very popular subgenre, and a slew of authors cranked out story after story and book after book. Haggard, Kipling, Doyle, Burroughs, and Merritt all wrote books in the genre, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of these books influenced Howard, and so the idea of the “Lost Race” went into the stew that created Sword & Sorcery, but the nature of fantasy worked a fundamental change.

Because unlike the regular run of Lost Race tales, S&S is not set in the modern world, but in one that is either earlier in history, or in a completely fantastical world with no relation to our own. Thus, the usual candidates for lost races were not available. This means that a writer of Sword & Sorcery who wants to do a lost race story has to invent their own lost race.

In practice this went one of two ways; either the author used some shadowy people out of semi-legendry, or they just invented from whole cloth. Howard himself was quite obsessed with the Picts – who were an actual race who existed in northern Scotland – and used them in several of his Dark Age stories like “Kings of the Night” and “The Dark Man”. To him, the Picts were a pre-Celtic race who had been driven out by later invaders, and who retreated underground to survive, slowly reverting to an almost bestial savagery.

But in a fantasy world, the author has to invent lost races out of nothing. And in Sword & Sorcery fiction this impulse tangles with the Lovecraftian influence to create lost races that are not just alien, but actually inhuman. In a Lovecraftian cosmos, the races that came before man were avowedly subhuman, from the nebulous subterranean beings of Irem, the Deep Ones of Innsmouth, to the Worms of the Earth, the Serpent Men of Valusia, or even the Melniboneans.

Lost Races in Sword & Sorcery fiction are not just remnants of earlier eras, they are enemies of mankind. Inhuman and inimical, serving bestial gods and bent on the destruction of humanity. Inevitably, this makes evil and corruption a racial issue, as dark magic and evil machinations are the heritage of those peoples who descend through aeons of time from some pre-human race of monsters. In a Howard story, if you trace the bloodline of a sorcerer back far enough, you will find a lizard.

This means lost race tales are fundamentally different in S&S. You are never going to have a tale about an explorer who happens upon a lost city of Romans, helps them build a cannon, runs afoul of the high priest, and then escapes hand-in-hand with the princess as the volcano erupts. The only thing remotely like this in the canon is “Red Nails”, and there Howard subverts the tropes by having the hidden race be as bloody-minded and primitive as anyone else in the Hyborian Age. In adventure fiction, a lost race tale makes the modern era look so much more advanced than all those silly primitives. In Sword & Sorcery it rends the veil and reveals civilization as a thin veneer over ages of howling madness.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Night Sword


Kumura left the desert behind him, entering lands of rock and bitter, hard earth. He lived on acrid plants and ate insects that crawled in the cracks, and at last, under a yellow moon, he saw again the trail of the tomb he sought gouged deep into the earth among the footfalls of an army. He bared his teeth to the night, for he knew he was on the path he sought. He spared a look behind him, at the way he had come, for the desert where Chona lay dead in a crypt of ancient kings, and then he set out to follow the path of his revenge.

Heavy-footed, he climbed the steep hills, covering his eyes by day when the sun blazed down from on high. The nights were cold, and soon the days were as well. Snow fell on the tenth day, and then he found himself looking upon a land of white-stoned hillsides and deep black forests. The wind moaned in the hard passes, and birds flew screaming in the iron sky above. He drew his tattered robe harder around himself, and he followed the path.

Never in his life had he thought to see such forests, and once he was beneath the heavy boughs it was as though he had entered a night land where the sun never touched the earth. The smells were like nothing he had ever encountered, and the breath of trees and cold wind was like a blessing that filled his veins with strength. He walked beneath the looming forest with his executioner’s sword over his shoulder, and he breathed smoke like a beast of the old earth.

He saw signs of his enemy everywhere, the earth marked by their feet and the crawling passage of the great tomb. He felt the coals of their fires on the cold earth and knew they wee not far ahead of him. Soon he would come in sight of the army, and then he would have to choose what he would do. He could not cut down an entire army, thousands upon thousands. No matter how strong he was, they would overwhelm him, and he knew it. Perhaps he could slip into the camp by night and find the man with the burning sword. Kumura could take his head and be gone. That would be retribution, but would gain him nothing else.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Magic Sword


Swords are central to any S&S tale – I mean it’s right there in the title. Somewhere somebody has probably written a Sword & Sorcery story with no swords in it, but really, I mean, why would you, aside from the desire to prove a point? True, there are plenty of other weapons with which to maim and kill, and spears, bows, axes and maces all get their due in the genre, but swords are special, and in fantasy we reach the very pinnacle of awesome: the magic sword.

There is actually a good amount of speculation about how swords came to occupy their lofty position in legend and fiction. After all, there are plenty of weapons better for getting through armor, and spears were a far more characteristic arm for much of history. Some have posited that the inherent equality of sword combat helped make it symbolic of fairness and honor. Two men with swords, barring other factors, are on an even footing, with only skill to separate them.

Some have theorized that it is simply that swords were expensive, and therefore reserved for the elite, that made them seem more important. This doesn’t seem to tell the whole story either, as there were periods where the production of swords all but ceased, after the widespread use of mail made the old slashing swords functionally useless. The long blade did not recover until the advent of iron and steel forging allowed longer, heavier weapons that could be used effectively.

But nevertheless, the cult of the sword survived, and flourishes to this day despite being an archaic weapon rendered obsolete on the modern battlefield. In fantasy literature, authors have been free to imagine swords possessed of extraordinary qualities, inspired by the legendary swords of myth and folklore. It seems to be the Vikings and Celts who really dug in on the idea, and through them we have the magical blades of the dark ages: Thyrfing, Durendal, Excalibur, and others.

Fiction has spawned its own host of enchanted blades, often with far more flashy and detailed powers than the rather nebulous qualities of a sword like Excalibur. In the dark ages, a sword that cut deep and didn’t break seemed like the best you could want, but modern fiction has proved impatient with such limitations, providing weapons that flame, dance, talk, and devour souls. This is all the more interesting when you realize that Sword & Sorcery has had a rather ambivalent history with such weapons.

After all, most of the great S&S heroes are all about self-reliance. Conan, Cormac, Turlough, Fafhrd and Kane are all products of their savage backgrounds. They lived hard and fought hard and it made them into men of iron – able to take immense amounts of punishment and keep going. In a scenario like this, even having a favorite weapon can be seen as a sign of weakness. A real action hero should be able to fight and kill with anything that comes to hand. Both Kull and Conan fight with whatever they can find, and in one case Conan batters an enemy to death with a rock after his other weapons break.

Also, you have to take into account the adversarial view taken of magic in a true S&S world. In these kinds of stories, magic is the weapon of the enemy. It is an untrustworthy, dangerous force that will drive men mad or worse. A magic weapon in a world of Sword & Sorcery is always going to be seen as evil, or at least a thing unfeeling and unfriendly to humankind. Magic is always dangerous, and so a magic weapon would be dangerous to both foes and wielder alike.

Some heroes have characteristic weapons. Solomon Kane always has his rapier, Fafhrd and the Mouser have their favored weapons, and name them – but this is never more than an affectation. Fafhrd calls whatever sword he picks up Greywand. There’s nothing special about the sword itself. And while Turlough has his specially-made axe, it is never supposed to be magical.

The one real exception to this is Elric, and his monstrous weapon Stormbringer. And this brings the whole issue into focus, because how Stormbringer works in the narrative shows why S&S heroes do not have magic swords.

Because Sword & Sorcery stories are highly individualistic: one character against a world that doesn’t care about them. S&S heroes cut their way through life, and so for maximum drama everything must be stacked against them. A reliable magic weapon is an advantage they have that no one else does, and it weakens them as characters. Conan would be less impressive if he won his battles with an invincible sword rather than just because he is tough as hell. In fact, a constant trope in Howard’s tales is weapons breaking and armor rent to pieces while the heroes endure. The message is plain: steel isn’t strong, flesh is stronger. Or rather, the will that drives it.

So the one famous magical sword in the Sword & Sorcery canon is Stormbringer, and that works because while the runesword is an awesome weapon that makes Elric a more than mortal opponent, it also serves as an antagonist for him. The sword, after all, has a will of its own, and on many occasions it does things Elric doesn’t want it to do. It feeds him with power, but sometimes that power drives him mad and makes him kill without thinking. Sometimes the blade simply turns in his hand at the wrong moment and strikes down those he loves. He needs it, but he cannot control it, and it acts against him enough that he cannot trust it.

This sets up a dynamic that feeds into the essentially lone-wolf nature of S&S narratives – Elric has a magic sword, and it does awesome stuff that is cool to read about, but it is his enemy. Magic in a Sword & Sorcery world is not a benevolent or morally blank force, it is a dangerous power that always has a cost to be paid for using it. It is a mark of corruption and evil to rely on magic, and a mark of insanity to trust it. So a reliable magic sword does not fit the style of a genuine S&S story. If there is to be a magical weapon or tool of any kind, it must be mysterious, dangerous, and perhaps best left alone.