Monday, February 26, 2018

Nature of the Beast: Heroes

So let’s talk about heroes, because a lot of the character of Sword & Sorcery fiction comes through in the character of its heroes – or maybe “protagonists” is a better word, since a lot of the main characters in S&S are not heroes in the traditional sense – they don’t stand up for truth and justice in the traditional way. Sometimes they do it by accident, sometimes reluctantly. I would call them heroes because they are larger than life, and the classic ones are all of a definite stripe.

There is a tendency in modern fiction to make heroes more “relatable” - which is often meant that they are depicted as being much more like you and me. A lot of the leads of fantasy stories start out as much more Joe Average – or Jane Average – typical people with what are presumed to be more typical life experiences that the typical reader will have an easier time identifying with. I myself find this trend to be often carried too far. After all, if you try too hard to appeal to everyone, you end up appealing to no one. But the idea that a character must start out more “normal” and then become heroic as the story goes on is kind of ubiquitous.

Sword & Sorcery does not cast its heroes like that at all. S&S grew out of the pulp tradition, when heroes were almost if not actually superhuman. After all, the pulp heroes like Doc Savage and The Spider were just a small step between literary heroes and actual superheroes, and nobody complained that The Shadow was not relatable, he was just satisfying a very different need.

All the great S&S heroes of the old days – Conan, Elric, Kane, El Borak, Fafhrd and the Mouser – they all come to us more or less fully formed. When we meet them they are not broody teens or humble hoemen, they are adventurers already on the path with sword in hand. They are already good at the things they are supposed to be good at. We don’t see a Conan origin story, with him learning to fight and be tough, he is just there, already brawny and hard-edged. The movies do give us backstory, and I consider that one of the mistakes of the interpretations. Humanizing these kinds of characters adds little while removing what we liked about them.

Characters of this type have largely fallen out of fashion these days. The only modern characters who are of this same ilk are ones that hark back most strongly to the pulp tradition, like James Bond, Jack Reacher, or Bob Lee Swagger. These are all characters who come to us from some tough military background, and who’s major character trait is the ability to kick enormous amounts of ass. It is no mistake that characters like this don’t always adapt well to modern works and worlds, because they are conscious anachronisms.

So, my question is: do S&S characters have to be this way? Is this an element of the genre that cannot be dispensed with or changed? I would say no, and in fact I think it is the adherence to this style of pulp character that does a lot to make the genre seem dated and old-fashioned to new audiences. I am not saying these kinds of characters are bad, but I think the reflexive idea that Sword & Sorcery has to mean this kind of larger-than-life, unstoppable hero should be looked at closely.

What does a character need for a proper S&S story? They need to be capable of violence, they need to have a conflicted or morally compromised nature, they need to be willing and able to endure hardship, and they need to be interesting. They can be integral to the setting of the tale or they can be an outsider, as Howard’s characters often were. But the pulp standard of “The hero is awesome and will win because he is awesome” limits your options, and risks reducing the story to what Stephen King described as “characters who neither gain nor lose power but simply wield it.”

Sword & Sorcery is adventure fiction first, and fantasy second. It is less about the tropes of magic as a metaphor for power than about pitting desperate characters against harsh environments and harsher enemies. If drama is character under pressure, then S&S actually presents great opportunities for drama, as few genres place such emphasis on setting characters alone against terrible odds. With a series character your options are limited, as the hero must survive to the next story virtually unchanged, but when you free yourself from the constraints of status quo, then the real power of the genre can shine through.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Blood of the King

On the south shore of Vathran stood the shield-hall of the king, named Irongaard by some. It was a great hall built with oak from the deck planks of warships, dark with age and hard as iron. Around the hall stood sixteen longhouses, their walls built of stone and their roofs green with the spring grass. A wall of earth surrounded the halls, and then a long white stone path led down to the blue waters of the fjord. To the south the gray mists of the sea coiled in the dusk, and in the north the mountains rose up and up into pillars of stone and ice. King Oeric did not care for any of it, not any longer.

Even as the days grew warmer, and the ice retreated from the waters, he remained within his hall, closed in his own chambers with the doors shut and the fires stoked high. He wandered from room to room, forgetting to dress himself, and he clutched his bared sword as though he saw enemies hiding around every corner.

Queen Ruana did what she could to attend him. She was his second wife, and he was much older than she. His first bride had given him two sons, both now dead, but Ruana herself had never been able to give him a child. She slept each night in the bed her predecessor had bled to death in, and sometimes she still thought she could catch the slaughterhouse smell.

Oeric was not yet old, but it was as though his mind was failing him. He did not speak often, and when he did he seemed to mumble to people who were not there. He carried his sword everywhere, even to sleep, and he touched the spears that lined the walls as though they might rouse and follow him like hounds. He did not dress himself, and she had to struggle to make certain he was attired. The servants were afraid to touch him, and so she had to command them and hope he did not decide to kill any of them.

Sometimes, usually at night, he became violently angry and stalked through the chambers, striking at the beams with the old ring-hilted blade of his father, leaving cuts in the hard wood. Ruana had to stop him then, lest he strike something important, or hurt himself. She would throw her braids back over her shoulder and wrestle him, holding down his sword arm until he quieted.

His thanes came with the warming of the year, and she knew the news from the north was bad. Thane Crune of Hadrad led an army of ninety ships in the hinterlands, and though he claimed he was hunting Hror the Outlaw, there was nothing to prevent him from coming south into the kingdom, and testing his strength against their own. There was already blood on the high heaths, and it seemed nothing but war could grow from the red soil.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Nature of the Beast: Setting the Stage

Sword & Sorcery means fantasy. It means abandoned ruins, ancient gods, lost races, and, obviously, swords. But does that mean it has to take place in a traditional fantasy world? It almost always has, but does that mean it has to for the genre to do what it does? After all, trappings do not make the genre, so are the trappings of fantasy necessary?

Fantasy is, after all, about magic – that is the defining feature of fantasy fiction. Magic stands in for the idea of power in fantasy, and the questions that power causes us to ask are driven by how magic works in the story, and who has it. If magic is given randomly, then the story becomes one about the effects of power on class and race, on prejudice and control, and how power can be used to change the social order.

If magic is ubiquitous and common, then it essentially stands in for technology, and leads to explorations about what changing technology means for a society and the people who live in it. It asks questions about life and death, mortality and the place of a person within the world now that magic (technology) has changed things.

If magic must be studied and suffered for, then the story is one of sacrifice and the costs of power. We will see both what people will do for power, and the effects this has on them. This kind of story is most likely to show how the quest for power makes people change, and what kinds of people they become after they have given so much to get what they wanted.

These are not the only kinds, but you get the idea. The magic in these tales is not always the Vancian wave-wave-BOOM kind of magic, it can mean a lot of things. It can be an inherent power to detect lies, it can mean the magic of the True Kingship, the power to raise the dead or control the weather. Each different power impacts its environment differently, and allows the writer to tell different kinds of stories.

Magic in Sword & Sorcery is not often under the control of the protagonist, and when it is, it is a dangerous, unreliable force that always demands a terrible price. The wizards in Howard stories often lounge around acting all smug and superior, but when their power turns on them, they gibber and scream for mercy. Magic in an S&S universe can give great power, but it requires very, very careful handling or it will fuck you over.

So does it even have to expressly be “magic”? Well, no, it doesn’t. The Force, in the Star Wars universe, is actually magic, after all. There’s no real science in the supposed “science fiction” of lightsabers and making the Kessel Run. It’s all just magic under another name. Star Wars is actually a high fantasy, because it posits a universe that has declined from a former golden age, and there is a built-in metaphysic of good versus evil. If you took away the “Light Side” and there was just the Dark Side, then you might be talking about an S&S universe. Magic as a consuming, predatory power that tempts and corrupts. You could tell stories about heroes calling on that power to try and do good, only to inevitably fall into darkness and be destroyed. That could be cool as hell.

You would also need a cast of inhuman, ancient gods, and a sense of vast antiquity that stretched far before the age of men. This would be easy to do in an outer-space setting, and could even be done in a post-apocalyptic world. An apocalypse would fit in well with the cataclysmic histories of the Hyborean Age and Moorcock’s ages of chaos, leaving a world of bizarre monsters and people struggling to survive no matter the cost. The required moral ambiguity would abound in a setting like that, leaving characters all in shades of gray, with no built-in idea of good or evil.

Swords? Do I even have to argue that point? Writers have been coming up for excuses for swordplay since forever. Every nominal Sci-Fi franchise from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Dune has done it, and it would be easy to do it no matter where you set your story.

So while the traditional setting for Sword & Sorcery is mist-shrouded forests and desolate ruins in the lost desert, or jeweled cities in ancient kingdoms beside a deep blue sea, there is no reason why it has to be that way. So long as the essential elements of the genre are present, you can dress them up however you want. You just need to remember what those essentials are, and I will keep getting into that next time.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Sleeping Tyrant ebook!

The ebook is ready!  Already released to my Patrons, here is the entire 26-story collection all in one convenient volume, just $2.99!  Click HERE and grab one!  Also remember that the first year's collection: The Howling God, is also available!

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Wolf Crown

Crune followed the light of the fire up into the hills, tasting the breaking of winter on the chill air. Now and then he heard the sound of ice splintering in the stream. The year had turned, and now blood would run with the rivers, and he intended to see that the blood was not his own.

The bonfire was laid in a hollow, hemmed in by briarthorn and a small ring of white stones dug up from the earth like teeth. He did not see the one who waited for him, and that made him nervous. He was alone, and any one of his enemies might choose to lie in wait to slay him. He put his hand to his sword and listened, seeking the small sounds of mail and leather.

There was no sound, only a shadow as the weirwoman stepped from the darkness and into the light of the fire. She wore a black shift that draped over her tall frame, and her hair was so black it seemed to melt into the darkness behind her. She was beautiful, with her fine white skin and her eyes such a pale blue they were almost colorless. There was something ghostly and unnatural about her, and signs of magic power were drawn on her bare arms.

“Welcome,” she said. “I have waited for you here in the hollow of the fire. I was not certain you would be brave enough to answer my call.”

“It was I who sent word to you,” he said. “The Thingvell is called with the thawing, and all the thanes are gathering to the shield-hall of King Arnan. There will be words about the blood price for Torgged, and that Hror son of Herun still walks free, unpunished.”

Crune came down into the hollow, feeling the heat from the fire against his face. His back felt cold, as if something fell pressed against him, looking over his shoulder. These hills were riddled with barrow-mounds and older tombs, and he knew more than enough tales of the wraiths that were said to lurk in this place. Grialle the Weirwoman was no less dangerous than any other phantom, but at least she was flesh and blood.

“You care nothing for Torgged,” she said. “Nor do you care for Hror. What do you seek here?”

“Opportunity,” Crune said. “There are those who see weakness in Arnan because he failed to punish Hror for his raid. He put a blood price on him, but none have claimed it, and many believe he should go to war with king Oeric over the insult.”

“So you seek a war,” she said, folding her long arms into the blackness of her robe. “A war to kill a king.”