Monday, February 27, 2017

Breaking the Night

The armies gathered under black skies lit by stars and phantom fire. All across the northland riders passed, bearing with them undying flame, and every place where men dwelled behind walls against the night they brought the word that Druan called them to war. In a hundred walled forts and sequestered vales men took down their spears and axes, belted on their swords and donned their armor. Riders passed through the dark, knots of flame moving in the deep cold, as the warriors gathered, riding to the fortress called Ember.

They gathered there in hundreds, and then thousands. They found safety in their very numbers, tents and shelters covering the ground. Horses coursed in hundreds, forged flamed without ceasing, and the smell of smoke from a thousand fires filled the air. It was the greatest gathering of men that any of them had ever seen. On the third day, the gates of Ember opened, and Druan himself came forth.

Most of them had never seen him before, only heard the stories, and they struggled to see what they could. He rode a black horse and wore a helm set with antlers and a mantle of wolf hides. When he drew off his helm they saw his face, the flesh marked by the vivid white scar and blind left eye.

Above the great gate hung the skull of the moon beast, dragged back from the wilderness and displayed for all to see. It had been a year since he slew the beast, and the ravens had long ago picked the dark bones clean. It had taken time for the war lord to recover from his wounds, and even now he walked with a heavy limp.

He held up the sword of the burning star, and men looked on it and howled their war cries. That was the sword sent down from the sky, from the hand of the Goddess to wield against their enemies. With that sword Druan had cut down the creatures of darkness, had slain their moon beast, and now he gathered them for a last attack. Once before they had ridden to war against the enemies of their race, and they had been defeated and driven from their old lands. Now they would go to war again, and this time the fires of Ajahe would not be prevented. The warriors howled and beat swords and spears upon their shields, raising up a great shout to the blackened sky.

Monday, February 20, 2017


Barbarians occupy a special place in Sword & Sorcery fiction. In fact you could say that S&S is largely responsible for the way we view barbarians being very different from the way people used to. “Barbarian”, was originally, after all, an insult. It was used to denote someone uncouth, primitive, lacking in education, intelligence, and manners.

But in the early 20th century, a kind of different view of barbarians came into vogue. Yes, they were uncultured, crude, and prone to solving problems with violence, but they began to also be depicted as strong, tough, independent and forceful. Often, in stories, they were presented as being in many ways superior to more civilized, advanced people, and a lot of this came from the American borderlands, which are just where genre creator Robert E. Howard grew up.

Americans spent a long time with a certain degree of inferiority complex with regards to culture, especially when judged by European standards. There was a sort of mini-genre of books written in the 19th century by European travelers essentially making fun of how primitive American culture was. Even the East Coast elites were too often sneered at by Englishmen or Parisians, and the nation as a whole started to get a bit of an attitude about it.

Because the extended frontier phase of the nation’s formative years tended to celebrate traits that are often associated with barbarism: fearlessness, self-reliance, decisiveness, and a willingness to resort to violence to get things done. A life on the middle border, or on the Texas plains, did not leave much room for civilization. People did their best, but life was hard and often unforgiving, and the people who lived that way started to frown on the studied mannerisms of so-called polite society.

Howard was a product of this time and this place, and so his characters also shared a distrust of civilized ways and a desire to keep things simple, direct, and plain-spoken. Barbarians are a distinctly American style of hero, because they follow their own code of honor, never ask for help or mercy, rely primarily on themselves, and often believe the best thing to do is call the play and fight.

Howard’s ancestors were Scots-Irish, the last of the European barbarians, who had proved intractable in their homeland and clung to clannish loyalties and blood feuds. They brought their independent, hardscrabble, tough way of life with them into the Appalachians, and then onward into the West. Howard clearly romanticized his Irish ancestors, as Conan himself was meant to be a kind of proto-Irishman. But sometimes even that was not primally barbaric enough for him, and he wrote about the Picts – a half-imagined race who were so obstinately primitive they looked on the Cimmerians as too civilized.

Thus was born the idea of the Fantasy Barbarian, an image and trope that is with us to this day. Far from being seen as stupid or gullible, fantasy barbarians are tough and resourceful. They may be filled with contempt for civilization, but they are not bewildered by it. They are fearless, dangerous, courageous, and loyal – which is quite a distance from the original idea of barbarians as uncouth rubes who never wash and wipe their asses with leaves. In a Sword & Sorcery world if you want something done, get a barbarian. Barbarians get shit done.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Moon Beast

It came under the moon, a heavy tread beneath star-dusted skies, passing like a shadow under the ice-sheathed trees as the winds howled, desperate and endless. It crossed over the gulfs of the dark that lay in the valleys and deep places, until it could look down from a high crag upon the hill where men had laid their final refuge.

It had been a valley blasted by the fall of a burning star, but now men had raised stones over the fire, and heaped up a great hill around it, and walls atop the hill, all of stone fitted and clean and smooth. Fires burned along the walls, and at the gate, and greatest of all was the fire hidden deep within, where the power that came from the sky lay burning with the fire unending. Long houses lay clustered inside the walls, huddled as against the cold, smoke rising from their chimneys to vanish in the cold air beneath the glow of the sky fire.

The beast came down from the hills, silent and murderous, giving no warning, making no sign. It did not come in terrible open war against the works of men; it moved in the dark, a part of the dark, and gnawed with hunger at the corners of the world. Huge, it still crept almost silent over the heavy snow and ice-rimed stone. It breathed out smoke, and steam, and its eyes glowed cold and pale in the shadows.

It came over the wall, unseen, keeping away from the flames, and no guard saw it, nor heard it pass. Some of them huddled deeper in their furs, closer to their fires, but they did not wonder at the chill. Only one man lay in the path of it, walking the wall, looking up to the bright moon. He saw something huge and shadowed, and then he died before he could make a sound. Blood steamed upon the stone, and the broken corpse fell crushed and bleeding.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Chainmail Bikini

I have talked about Red Sonja in particular before, but now I want to address the more general issue of sexism in Sword & Sorcery literature and how it seems to be embedded in the very fabric of the genre. Since all of this started in the pulps back in the 1920s, it is hardly surprising that the general approach to sex and women in S&S was a very pulp approach. Women were present, if at all, as adornments, prizes, or temptations, not as characters.

The conventions of pulp adventure fiction are very male-centric, with square-jawed, male heroes who fight their male way through legions of enemies. Women were wanted only as a pretty girl to put on the magazine cover – preferably in some kind of skimpy attire – and this enhance the sex appeal of the stories, even if the woman in question was not much part of the plot. This was a standard demand of publishers, and even Howard complained that editors pressed him to include a love interest of some kind.

However, the woman could not usurp any of the male hero’s glory, and so an array of princesses, slave-girls, kidnapped heiresses, and concubines paraded across the pages of Weird Tales and the other early sources of S&S. There needed to be someone to put on the cover in a dark ages bikini, and often the woman could serve as additional motivation for the hero if he needed it. A kidnapped princess was such a standard trope it was cliché even a hundred years ago, but it was an easy way to work a female into an adventure story.

Things got a little better with the move from pure pulps and into more general print. We got writers like Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore writing tough female protagonists, and support characters that were more than just scenery. And yet things seemed to kind of stop there.

The S&S boom in the 60s was mostly reprinting and pastiching the works that had come before, and in the 70s the genre moved beyond literature into comics and games, and then later into movies. All of this seems to have done more to freeze or even regress that role of women in the genre, rather than allowing it to evolve and grow.

Comics and game art have visual demands and require excitement, and one of the ways to up that excitement was with naked flesh. More relaxed standards allowed for even more nudity, or near-nudity than before, and the ubiquitous oiled-up barbarian was almost universally accompanied by a naked or almost-naked girl who posed prettily while the hero brandished his axe. Even when a female hero is presented, she is stuck in the same kind of pinup role.

It can be argued (and often is) that the barbarian male heroes often wear little but a loincloth and vaseline either, but it is the posing and presentation that tell the tale, as no male hero is posed to look sexy. They stand ready, legs set wide, weapons uplifted, an expression of anger and defiance on their faces. The females, by contrast, pose with backs arched and chests thrust out, pouting kittenishly at the viewer. Often, they are in the twisted “boobs and butt” pose that shows off what we are presumed to want to see. The male is centered in a way that makes him look powerful, the female in a way that focuses on how sexy she is.

And it’s not that a female character should not be sexy, it’s the fact that every female character is drawn this way, posed this way. It’s not the exception, it’s the rule, and the oppressive ubiquity of the imagery has kept the S&S genre from progressing out of its overheated teen fanservice phase. It’s 2017, and even comic book superheroes are trying to stretch out beyond the “skintight boobs” approach to female characters, while S&S almost defiantly remains neanderthal in its attitudes. Sword & Sorcery fiction needs to be lurid and vivid, but it doesn’t have to be sexist.