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.