Monday, January 23, 2017

Blood & Steel

Obviously, the subject of violence is kind of a big one in Sword & Sorcery fiction. The very roots of the genre are set it adventure fiction, with its swordfights, gun battles, narrow escapes, and chases, and the mold of the genre were set early by Howard and his rough-hewn, quintessentially violent heroes. S&S characters don’t solve their problems by talking them out, they solve them by hacking them up with axes and swords.

Howard was a product of the Texas borderlands, only a generation removed from the frontier days when men habitually went armed and real violence was a fact of everyday life. He also grew up during the oil boom, and saw up close how rough, lawless men handled disputes. As the son of a doctor he probably saw his share of blood and wounds, and he maintained a fascination with boxing and personal combat all his life. Violence was definitely in his blood, so to speak, and it found its way into the stories he told.

All subsequent S&S authors have included violence as an element in their stories, and it’s not like you can get away from it. Creators differ in how much they include, and in how they treat it. Leiber’s swordfights are much more in the tradition of theatrical duels, with a lot of technique and not a lot of blood. He often pitted his heroes against inhuman opponents, so their deaths would not be as gruesome. Several of his tales, feature very little express violence at all.

Moorcock was more liberal with his swordplay, but he always highlighted the essentially tragic nature of his worlds with it. The greatest incidents of violence in the Elric stories are always leavened with some kind of regret. Either this was violence the hero did not want to engage in, or it had some unintended effect that was only apparent afterward. Violence is never cathartic in a Moorcock story.

If you study Howard’s works, you often see how he employed violence with a deliberate precision at odds with his reputation. For a lot of his narratives, the violence is implied. It is spoken of, or the evidence of it is seen, but we don’t see it ourselves. But when he finally gets to it, he really goes after it with a zeal very few modern writers have ever matched. He didn’t candy-coat his fight scenes, and heads fly and entrails are spilled with no flinch from the author.

Some of the luridness of his approach was because he wrote characters that did not fear violence, but sought it out. Howard’s heroes are never reluctant combatants. They are barbarians, wanderers, outlaws, berserkers, and pirates, who all lust for action and never flinch from the clash of steel. It is, in part, this distinctly primitive attitude that makes his stories so vital and so vivid.

This invitation to violence in the genre has led to a lot of second-rate authors misunderstanding the place of violence and gore in their imitations of the masters. I have read plenty of stories that are eager to spill blood or engage in sometimes uncomfortable levels of torture or mutilation without considering what purpose the elements serve in the narrative. Like any other tool, violence must be used for a reason, and for a specific effect. Adding excitement is a perfectly valid reason to use it, but too often, this fails as well.

Because a fight scene has to have its own narrative, pacing, and story beats. You are telling, in effect, a smaller story inside the larger one. There has to be threat, rising action, escalating stakes, climax – all of it. A good fight scene does not just stop the story dead while we wait to see who won, it tells us more about the characters as they do battle. The label “Sword & Sorcery” is not a free pass to engage in pornographic gore and violence. Because you are dealing with such strong elements, they have to be handled with care, and ironically a very fine sense of taste, otherwise works are produced with bring down the entire genre.


  1. Well said. I still believe Howard has yet to be topped in terms of a well written action sequence. With only a few words he could clearly describe a scene of bloody hand to hand combat, or the full blood and thunder clash on the field of battle involving thousands. I like my S&S action oriented and bloody; if you are writing about warriors swinging sharpened steel, there will be blood. Personally I feel the Grimdark sub-genre has gone too far into the gore zone. In an effort to be uber grim and extra dark, some authors seem to wallow in the filth and gore. Howard spilled plenty of blood, brains and entrails, but he never wallowed in it. That is how I try to write my action scenes.

    1. Yes, he could be very gory, but it was always in service to making the scene vivid, never for it's own sake. Torture and wanton killing was always looked down on by Howard's heroes.