Introducing Sword and Sorcery
Every time a film appears that is based on Robert E. Howard’s character Conan, a spatter of conversation results. Some readers discover sword and sorcery literature for the first time and either love it or hate it. Some readers say “I don’t read pulp,” and sniff disdainfully. Some people (obviously less of readers than the other) don’t bother at all with the stories and just enjoy (or not) the film. And none of these comments are new or insightful, which is just as well, because I don’t have anything new or insightful to say today. What I have is an introduction to sword and sorcery for those who want to catch up, or a rather good compilation of sword and sorcery stories for those who have caught up but have lost their favorite writers in the depths of their vast libraries. There’s a mammoth amount of sword and sorcery fiction swirling just out of sight. Some surprising people enjoy it—for instance, philosopher Russell Blackford wrote a sword and sorcery novel some years ago.
The introduction is Tachyon Publications’ new book The Sword & Sorcery Anthology. It’s edited by David G. Hartwell and Jacob Weisman, but, unlike the last Tachyon edition I looked at, these editors are rather silent. They have selected the stories and carefully ordered them and asked David Drake to write an introduction then they pile the stories up in a dense heap and they let the stories speak for themselves.
It’s a big volume even lacking notes and interventions by editors and it lets the stories shine (for it is a good selection) on their own merits. The main issue I have with this approach is that it doesn’t tell new readers enough of why this story is important or that this other author is not usually associated with the genre. Drake’s introduction gives some of this, but for the most part the reader has to deduce for themselves and in some cases this could lead to some rather unexpected conclusions.
At this moment I’m very tempted to find six non-sword and sorcery readers and have them tell me what they can deduce about the genre from the volume. This could be amusing, but is not actually a useful exercise. What the editors’ approach means is that—although it ought to be a wonderful book to introduce people to the genre—it’s more a collection of the best stories in the genre, for the aficionado who can’t find the older stories or who is short on shelf space or who really wants to be able to find things readily. I’d still recommend the volume for people who want to discover the genre, but I’d recommend with the caveat that they will need to do their own contextualisation. They need to know before they begin reading that sword and sorcery is usually about gods and fates and heroes with swords, and that it plays with extreme emotions and adjectives and toys with the absolute.
The first story selected for the anthology is near-perfect to demonstrate the language of the sword-and-sorcery story. This is because it’s a Robert E. Howard tale: Conan before the big movies. It’s also one of the great classic Conan tales. I’ve sent many people to this story saying, “See if you like it.” When they don’t like the adjectives and the violence and the sheer melodrama, I suggest that maybe sword and sorcery is not their sub-genre of choice. For the language in a sword and sorcerer story is ideally purple (in my perfect world) and the colour is intense. It’s good writing at its best (and Howard may be its most known, but he’s not actually the best writer in the genre—just one of the most influential), but after a very particular style that is not to everyone’s taste. If the story is underwritten and subtle and has irony rather than blunt sarcasm, then it’s not sword and sorcery. Sword and sorcery is full of joie de vivre, and just as full of joie de mourir. Sara Douglass’ last collection had a strong sense of both of these and also had the hallmark of the best sword and sorcery fiction: a total dedication to a moment and an ability to make the colours of that moment far more intense than the colours we can see with the naked eye.
When I hear young turks talking about early and influential sword and sorcery writers, most of them are addicted to Howard’s writing. After all, Howard had the big films and the many republishings. Howard is very visible. I was pleased to see that the other early writer in the sub-genre, the one who led me far more into the heart of this dangerous world, is also in the volume. C.L. Moore is (to my mind) a better writer than Howard. Jirel of Joiry is not a likeable hero, but then, nor is Conan.
Jirel is less known because she is a woman, as is Moore. From its foundation women have written sword and sorcery and been an important part of its development. Those writers and those heroes have been neglected in comparison to their male equivalents. They’ve had different storylines at all levels. One very good part of this anthology is that five female authors are included. I could have wished for more, but considering that the genre is considered so very masculine by so very many readers, nearly thirty percent of the writers is about as good as it can get.
The relationship between sword and sorcery and women is very troubled. The treatment of women in many sword and sorcery stories is its ugly underbelly. Rape is celebrated far too often and women have few roles to play and most of those roles involve servitude or being objectified. Only a minority of writers have the mastery to sort out the fundamental discord between the machismo associated with the genre and the capacity for women to be depicted as other than sexual, other than objects, and other than victims. Even Moore’s Jirel of Joiry falters, for Jirel must lose all hope of love or lose all hope of freedom and happiness.
Of the writers in the anthology in fact, possibly only Joanna Russ and Caitlin Kiernan manage to successfully steer between Scylla and Charybdis. That they manage to do so, shows that it’s possible. The story by Russ is my personal favourite, for it honours both the sword and sorcery tropes and has the full sword and sorcery regalia, plus it manages to sneak in a sense of humour and a hero who knows her own mind.
One of the best writers in this volume is (not surprisingly) less known for writing sword and sorcery and more known for her approach to children's writing, to fairy tales and for a depressing book I adore for it’s a quite extraordinary retelling of the Holocaust (Briar Rose). Her language is normally exquisite and her storytelling can be sublime, so it was a great pleasure to see Jane Yolen’s “Become a Worm” in the anthology. A girl makes a promise on a bloody battlefield. This could be the premise of a thousand sword and sorcery stories, but in Yolen’s hands it’s different. Yolen’s narratives often have a quality of poetry and fairytale and her approach enriches and changes this otherwise classic premise.
Yolen’s story demonstrates that, just in other genres, the codes that govern sword and sorcery stories are the beginning. They are the essentials that the novice writer or the purist or the unimaginative or the genius uses to begin the story. This anthology demonstrates this from the perspective of the high end of writing in this field: these writers play with the tropes and stretch them, but know when to stop. Even the hackneyed is hackneyed in an intense way. The sun never simply shines. It can shine balefully or gloriously; it can impart doom and it can bring blessing. This language, the slight daftness of the intensity and adjectival joy, these things were what drew me to sword and sorcery fiction as a child. They also drew me to space opera. The genres have quite a bit in common. At its worst, this and gore are all that sword and sorcery is, but, fortunately, we don’t have to judge a genre by its worst. It’s always escapist and always violent and dark and very often misogynistic. And, at its best, it’s exceptionally entertaining.
Books mentioned in this column: