Monday, January 29, 2018

Nature of the Beast: Action!

Sword & Sorcery was founded as a development of the Adventure story, and so one of the most salient features of the style has always been an affinity for action, and because of the kind of writer founder Robert E. Howard was, it has always been action of a particularly bloody stripe. It could be said that S&S trades not just in action, but in savagery.

Howard’s stories were always violent, and even when there was no violence on screen, as it were, there was a streak of violence woven into the very fabric of the stories. Even when there is no action there will be mention of beheadings, raids and wars, cruel justice and treachery. There is a very casual kind of ambient violence embedded in Howard’s work that makes them seem brutal even when there is nothing really happening.

This kind of thing serves a number of purposes, and it is a feature not to be overlooked by those who are really looking to dig down on the roots of the genre. Firstly, this creates an aura of tension and suspense, making the world around the characters seem unfriendly and dangerous. It also makes the world of the story seem darker and more primitive, evoking our own more brutal past. The last thing it does is give the reader no illusions about what kind of story and what kind of world this is.

Howard’s stories always featured a lot of violence, and the adaptations of his work have mostly followed this. It is telling that when they veer off from this ambiance of doom and death, they mostly don’t come across very well. Sword & Sorcery really needs the promise of brutal violence to sell the feel of the world.

Some other writers in the genre have opted not to lean on this as heavily. C. L. Moore was light on violence, as was Leiber. The action in their stories more often centered on swashbuckling swordplay, as did the lesser works of Carter and de Camp. Moorcock is one S&S writer who traded more heavily in violence, especially in his Elric tales.

As S&S became less of a literary genre and more of one that expanded into comics and games, the violence associated with it has, if anything, increased. The best Sword & Sorcery stories seem to be those that take the gloves off, and don’t try to play to a PG audience. When they do, it always makes the stories seem less visceral, less exciting, more like “standard” fantasy.

My position is still that S&S is best when it is grim and dark, when the characters are morally questionable and the world feels like a dangerous and uncertain place. This is not the kind of story that does well with Errol Flynn-styled derring-do and stories where everyone lives at the end. The best S&S stories contain strong elements of tragedy as well as action.

Some have criticized the genre as one where people solve all their problems with violence, but in the best tales this is not the case. Violence abounds, but often the real obstacles the characters face are not ones that can be overcome with blood and iron. In Sword & Sorcery a hero may brandish their sword against the dooms of the world, but they know the best they can win is a temporary victory.

S&S fiction is the story of those victories. Action remains a necessary feature of the genre for two reasons. The first is just that it is fun. Well-written action is tense and exciting, it fills a tale with vivid moments and dramatic choices. The second is because the best stories are about the consequences and the cost of violence, in revealing that while killing may solve one problem it creates more. S&S heroes do not shy away from violence, and they revel in it, in ways that may make more sensitive readers uncomfortable. But violence is the story of the human race, and one of the great unspoken truths of our kind is that we like violence, and we like killing - we would not do so much of either if we did not. S&S embraces that truth and does not judge it, one way or the other. Even if you wanted to, you cannot take the action out, and still remain Sword & Sorcery.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Tides of War: Iron Spears

The winds blew hard on the headland, and the men gathered in the lee of the beached longships and huddled against the cold. Ranne went to the top of the hill, following the ancient path to the stone circle. Here his men waited for him, the six champions of his Shield Hall, and the seventh figure, robed in black, and hidden.

The men all bowed to him. He was their Thane, and they followed him to war and back. Today he had to make a choice, and it would echo across the seas and the islands like the sound of battle drums. He looked at them, one face to the next. All of them iron men with spears and swords ready, their shields part of the power that held up his hall. He would need them.

“Today the sea-watchers came flying from the south on their ponies, and they tell me they have seen black sails on the move, coming north. They saw the red banner of King Arnan, and so we know who they are. They are the ships of Daganhurre, the Kin-Killer, come seeking Hror Son of Herun. They come to seek the blood price for Torgged.” Ranne looked at them all, and at the hidden one. No one spoke. He took his long spear and drove the spike into the hard ground, knotted his calloused fingers on the iron-hard wood of the shaft.

“I heard that our king would allow Arnan to send killers after Hror, and though many spoke against it, he has given way to his cowardice. Men from Hadrad will come to our lands to kill one of our own blood.” He looked out to sea, watching the white-tipped waves march across the gray expanse. “Hror is an outlaw. A bastard son and a killer. I have thought of killing him myself.” He looked north. His lands were on the edge of the civilized part of Vathran. North from here there was only hard land and cold sea. Hror had his lair in those bitter places, and he sometimes came to raid and steal in the night.

“I have blood against Hror, so do many of you,” he said. “But I will not let some reaver who sails for blood gold come to our lands and kill him for pay.” He twisted his spear in the ground, hearing the grinding of it against the soil. “What say you?”

Monday, January 15, 2018

Nature of the Beast

Going into my third year of writing Sword & Sorcery stories, and I am brought back again to try and ruminate on exactly what it is that makes this genre what it is, and what makes me like it so much. I mean, I am not questioning, I am just more carefully considering things from within, from a technician’s standpoint rather than an observer’s. After all, I am not just reading, I am creating, and that leads to all sorts of questions that a reader does not have to consider.

I started thinking about this back when I began New Iron Age, and I don’t think any of my essential thoughts have changed radically, but they have been refined, and I have come to consider aspects and facets that I didn’t initially think of. After all, since I started this site I have written almost 60 Sword & Sorcery stories, and I have gained perspective on things that I didn’t have before. I have a more solid, craftsman’s grasp on what works and what maybe doesn’t, on what the genre does when it is working, and how it can go astray.

So I am going to spend the next few articles going over a lot of the trappings and conventions of the Sword & Sorcery genre and trying to parse out which ones are really essential. What needs to be here, and what doesn’t. After all, a lot of things are thought of as requirements for S&S, but are they really? Are there further picky subgenres to be teased out of this one, and does that matter? Should it?

I also want to think about the future. Not just the future of this site, but the future of the genre itself. Should Sword & Sorcery fiction evolve? Does it have to? And if it does change to fit the modern world, what should change, and perhaps more importantly, what should not change? At what point is a story no longer within the S&S mold? And at that point, what is it?

Sword & Sorcery was born almost a century ago, and the world is a very different place than it was then. Once a dominant, vibrant genre of fantasy fiction, S&S has declined into a niche market, a backward-looking genre more devoted to revisiting old works than welcoming new ones. It has too often become a kind of parody of itself, and I think that is a terrible waste. There is still power to be found in this genre, and I want to see if I can figure out what has to change to bring it to life. Come with me as I dig through the blood and guts.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Tides of War: Avenger

Hror son of Herun bore no light when he descended into the sea-cave. It was the moon-dark, and clouds lay low over the sky. It was midwinter and ice rattled in the waves like bones cast upon the shore. He felt his way through the dark with his sword in hand, heart hard within him. He came here for the words that would set him loose upon his enemies, and if not, to devour him whole.

The cave was wet and dripping with salt like teeth; he felt bones underfoot as he walked, grinding the brittle pieces with his bootheels. The cold made his breath into ice in his beard. He climbed down the hollow slope into the deepest part, where waters lashed at unseen rocks in the dark, and then he rang his sword upon the stones and called out into the night, and the night answered.

Something huge heaved itself up from the water, serpentine and terrible. Eyes opened like pale lanterns in the dark, and he heard the hiss of venom where it dripped down. He stood fast and did not flee, for he knew death was very close, and he must not know fear. “Sceatha, Worm of Darkness, harken unto me.” They were ancient words, spoken in dark stories passed down in whispers beside waning fires. He made them resound in the dark.

“You know my name,” the beast answered. Its voice was cold and hateful, yet there was a seduction in it, a calling. “You invoke me. Speak my name and speak your own. What is your asking?”

Hror gripped his sword in both hands by hilt and by blade. “Sceatha, Worm of Darkness, I am Hror, son of Herun. King Oeric married my sister Afra to Thane Torgged almost sixteen years gone. Torgged beat her, dishonored her, and she died from birthing his child. I was only a boy then, so I bided my time. I waited. Then I went before Oeric and demanded a blood price for her, but he refused me. He fears to cause strife with a Thane of King Arnan. I called him coward and drew steel upon him, and now I am exiled from his Shield-Hall. My enemies are two kings and a thane, and I have only a score of men who still stand loyal to me.”

The great worm shifted in the dark, and Hror felt his breath turn cold as it drew closer. He saw his own breath plumed like smoke in the light from its lantern eyes. “What is your asking, Hror, son of Herun?” The voice was close and jagged, like being dragged over sharp stones. By the light of its eyes he could see only part of it – saw-scales and sword-teeth and barnacles encrusting. He saw pale crabs scuttle over the beast’s face and drop to the stone at his feet.

He gathered himself and looked up into those blazing eyes. “Revenge.”