There was a bit of a buzz recently about Robert E. Howard, trying to argue that he was or was not a Nazi, or would have/did sympathize with Nazi beliefs. The argument is somewhat hamstrung because while Howard was alive when Nazis existed in Europe, and he did go on record as condemning their beliefs and activities, the man himself espoused views and political stances that would be questionable at best in the modern world. He was a primitivist, who held a great suspicion for civilized life and yearned for an imaginary barbarian past, and he was also a racist, born and raised in the heart of old Texas slave country.
But the larger question here is less about Bob Howard, and more about the genre he created and where it stands on that spectrum. There has been a disturbing tendency in a lot of Sword & Sorcery fiction to fall rather lazily into racist, fascist tropes. S&S often posits a world of either imaginary or historically inaccurate racism and sexism, worlds where everything is like Norway in the year 500 or in an imaginary version of Rome that is somehow solely populated by white people.
Some of this is the fault of the poor state of historical education in this country, and how thoroughly it has been compromised by racist fantasies. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were, after all, the height of the scientific racist movement, when the superiority of Europeans was more or less taken as a given by their descendents, and many people who should have known better looked back toward a “pure” state when their home countries were entirely inhabited by pink humans.
So this idea, and others, worked their way into the genre through cultural osmosis, and as S&S is often a kind of time capsule, clinging to tropes and ideas from almost a century ago, they have remained. The core of the S&S fandom often seems to be politically reactionary: sexist, racist, wishing for a time and place where men were men, women were slaves, and brown people mostly existed to worship the wrong gods and build empires for white barbarians to adventure in or take over.
Does it have to be this way? After all, the rough and ready heroes of Sword & Sorcery are not here to be sensitive, or to watch what they say. They are here to ride, shoot straight, and speak the truth. They solve problems with their axes and don’t care about your feelings. But there is a world of difference between a character’s attitudes, and the attitudes of the story itself. A barbarian can be insensitive and reactionary, an author had bloody well not be.
I am not going to stand up and argue that an S&S story should go ridiculously out of its way to be inclusive, or that a sword-wielding adventurer must stop the narrative to lecture on gay rights or feminism – that is not what an S&S story is about, not where the focus is. That would be a different kind of story altogether. But too many authors have used the genre as a place where they can feel free to be misogynistic or brutally racist and hide it behind the shield of “that’s the way the world was back then” which is an argument that falls apart under any sort of scrutiny at all. Historically that is not supported, and in a fictional world, any element is there because the author wants it there, not because it is “accurate”.
I feel like this is an element of S&S that not only can change, but has to. The genre is too often seen as a bastion of overgrown adolescents who just want gore and tits, with no other redeeming qualities at all. This backwards-compatibility with an earlier age of bigotry does it no favors. If anything, an S&S world should be an utterly egalitarian place, where what you are does not matter nearly as much as what you do. In a world of violence and darkness, what matters most about a person is how much ass they can kick, not what color their own ass is, or how it looks in a thong. Howard himself was grappling with this, and he often ascribed admirable traits to women and dark-skinned people, even if he was unable to stop thinking of them as fundamentally different. The fact that a Sword & Sorcery story is in a genre that was invented 90 years ago does not give an author a right to be a fossilized bastard.