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.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Dead God's Hand

They crossed the furious stormland of the black desert, lost among monoliths and raging winds. The cold princess and the king without a country. She led the way, her one hand gripping her spear as she strode the dunes. The black sands sifted and slid away like water, and the sky was dark with wind. They had lost the trail they followed, could see no more than a dozen steps before them. Violet lightning scarred the sky, and none could say whether it was day or night.

Chona found the cold did not bother her, not now. Her head was wrapped in cloth to keep the deadly sand from her face, but she could scarcely see. Prickles of red lightning crawled at the tip of her spear and over the steel rim of her shield, twitched at her skin. She leaned into the wind, feeling no pain nor fatigue. The poison that Khamag had poured into her body had not slain her, but had only drawn her into a different life. A colder life, without the hungers and failings of her old body.

That was the only reason she could walk as an equal with the giant who traveled with her. Kumura was a hulk of pale skin and muscles like iron. He feared nothing and no hardship seemed to touch him, save that his remaining eye, weak from years of imprisonment, could not bear the light of day.

The wind buffeted and clawed at them, and she struggled to remain upright. Over the moaning of the storm she heard the winding of the terrible horn, foretelling the pursuit of the deadly nomads of the Black Desert. Even in such a storm they would not turn aside, as their god of the dark skies drove them on, calling them to feed blood to the wind and the sands. They drove through the desert on their lean black steeds, and nothing seemed to turn them aside from the hunt.

Chona knew by now they could not shake the pursuit, and they would have to fight. She only drove them on to find a place where they might make a stand in the darkness. If they fought in the open they would be surrounded and cut down, separated and left to stumble alone even if they escaped death. Kumura was a beast, but he sought the same enemy, and he was the only ally she possessed. She would not give him up easily.

Monday, July 10, 2017


If there is a problem with the Sword & Sorcery genre, it is that it dwells in the shadow of its most famous hero, and it’s not possible to study the history and development of Sword & Sorcery as a whole without being struck by the fact that 90% of people’s interest in the genre lives and dies with Conan of Cimmeria.

This is not a new problem. Conan casts a loooong shadow, not just in a relatively small fantasy subgenre, but in the popular culture as a whole. Everyone knows Conan, and when I talk about Robert E. Howard with the uninitiated, I usually have to use Conan as a reference point to explain who he even is. The fact of the matter is that Conan, as both a character and a pop-culture icon, outgrew both his genre and his creator, and looms larger than both.

Howard created a lot of characters, and his most well-known are his continuing ones that went through multiple tales. It was a feature of the era in the pulp magazines – every writer wanted to create a hero that connected with the audience, that way readers would follow the hero and clamor for more of his adventures. It helped sell stories to editors and helped sell magazines, and so when a character hit it worked out for everyone. Howard made a lot of these two-fisted action heroes, from the real-world adventurers like Steve Costigan and Solomon Kane, to dwellers in worlds of pure fantasy.

A lot of the characters we think of as being fantasy heroes – like Cormac Mac Art or Bran Mak Morn – were actually men who lived in historical periods. Howard only really created two ongoing heroes who lived in purely fantastical worlds: Kull, and his kindred barbarian Conan.

Kull was very much the prototype for Conan. A barbarian who leaves his primitive homeland and ventures through an exotic world of strange civilizations, cutting his way with sword and iron will, eventually carving his way onto a throne. Kull inhabited a rather poorly-defined world of generic fantasy with a number of Lovecraftian flourishes. For Conan, Howard made the Hyborian Age, and it is rather surprising that he created such a well-realized fantasy world and then never used it for any other characters. I suppose he might have, had he lived.

Conan was a major hit, and so Howard kept writing stories about him, and they sold like crazy. In 1934 and 1935, when he was selling at his peak, Howard was making the equivalent of over $30,000 a year just from writing – a pretty extraordinary achievement for a freelance author in any time period. Conan was the most lucrative character he created, and the most enduring.

That hasn’t changed. Sword & Sorcery fiction in print, films, and comics, is dominated by Conan. There have been a lot of other S&S heroes of many kinds, but none of them has made the same impact, for whatever reason. Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn are just as interesting, if not moreso, but Conan is the one the fandom took to heart, and has never relinquished.

And in any genre there will be indelible works that continue to attract new fans. The advent of new fantasy does not tarnish the Lord of the Rings, the emergence of new bands does not reduce the appeal of classic music. But Conan’s overpowering ubiquity seems to drown out any other real development of the genre. No original Sword & Sorcery tale is going to get the attention the umpteenth Conan pastiche gets, and in fact the very genre of S&S is unfashionable among publishers today. Rather than a vital, expanding fantasy subgenre such as we get with Urban Fantasy or Steampunk, we get Conan, and only Conan, always and forever.

I feel like this is doing a terrible disservice to literature as a whole. The Sword & Sorcery genre is little-seen, and not taken very seriously, when it is viewed as just part of an aging IP being exploited by film studios or comic book publishers. The effect is similar to what would have happened if “rock and roll” was seen as just “Elvis music”, and rather than an entire genre of creativity and expression we just got Elvis repressings and cover songs forever, with no thought given to what else might be done with the form. I would much rather Conan was the beginning of the genre, rather than just being seen as the end.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Reaping of Kings

The sky was dark with a curse of smoke, and fire rained down on every side. The towers stood stark against the horizon, and the smell of burning and blood was oppressive as the foot of the invader. It was the fourth day of the siege of Utar, and it promised to be the last. The walls of the city wee scarred and blackened by the unending bombardment of mangonel and catapult, and the ground beneath them was strewn with the scorched forms of the fallen. Carrion birds wheeled in the sky, screaming for death.

At the gates the two armies clashed, and the battle was reaching a crescendo of violence and fury. The invaders crushed against the gate and the battered walls, hurling grapnels and ladders up in the face of the hail of arrows that sleeted down upon them. The ground was black with blood and covered with the dead and wounded, and yet they came onward. Behind them stretched a sea of men, men gathered to take the places of the dead, men with swords and shields ready and eyes filled with the zeal of fanatics.

Above the whole black host waved the banner of the new age. A great black war-standard emblazoned with the sign of the red hand. The Left Hand of Fire, the master of the dark army that marched through the lands, scouring one kingdom after another in the name of their dead god. At the center of the army stood the great tomb, drawn by a thousand slaves dragging chains affixed to the iron tusks of the beasts cast in silver that reared at the front of it. Within the wheeled crypt lay the body of the Sleeping Tyrant, the Nameless King, the Undying, the God of all Kings.

The attackers screamed their war prayers as they rushed the gates, hammering a ram upon the ancient timbers until they snapped, and then they chopped at the broken wood with axes and swords. The defenders sent arrows down upon them, poured hot oil and sand on them and cast down torches to set them aflame, and yet the power of the Left Hand would not let the fire ignite. The battle was an agony of trampled dying men, bloodied steel, and savaged flesh, and then the gates gave way.