One of my formative Sword & Sorcery influences is Thundercats, the 1980s cartoon series (and comic, and action figure line, and shampoo bottle, and…) in which a group of anthropomorphic cats flee their dying planet, Thundera, to make new home on Third Earth.
Their leader Lion-O is the hereditary wielder of the mystical Sword of Omens, and finds there a rich array of dangers, both mechanical and magical. He also finds a worthy foe in Mumm-Ra, an ancient sorcerer bent on taking the Sword’s power for himself. To that end, Mumm-Ra often manipulates the barbarian Mutants into doing his dirty work. The observant among you will have spotted that this science-fantasy blend makes Thundercats Sword & Planet rather than pure Sword & Sorcery. That hardly matters, as many of the ingredients that primed me to enjoy S&S later were already there: the Sword of Omens, towers with traps and treasure, a wicked sorcerer, and a threatening world.
I was five when the Rankin Bass cartoon series and the Marvel UK comic arrived, so I didn’t know there was such a thing as Sword & Sorcery, and some of its key elements aren’t present in Thundercats, like the lone wolf protagonist alienated from society. Granted, Lion-O – a ten-year-old accelerated to manhood during space hypersleep – does a fair bit of lone prowling around Third Earth, but he’s got his adopted family to temper his rashness. Mumm-Ra and the Mutants generally thwart the Thundercats by trapping them individually or luring them into isolation, so the ‘cats largely survive through cooperation.
The world they live in is still rich in Sword & Sorcery influences, and that’s hardly surprising: the writers of both the show and the comics were of an age to have enjoyed the S&S revival of the 60s and 70s, and they gleefully funnelled everything else they liked into Thundercats. So, there’s a Viking story, and an Arthurian story, as well as straightforward Sword & Sorcery episodes like The Tower of Traps, in which one of the younger ‘cats gets trapped in the booby-trapped tower of Baron Karnor after foiling a robbery. In rescuing him, Lion-O escapes giant swinging blades and a precarious bridge over a fire pit.
It’s the sort of thing that could happen to Conan – if Conan had a kid sidekick prone to getting into scrapes. When they discover the Baron’s corpse in a treasure room, it looks exactly as we’d seen in Conan the Barbarian. And come to think of it, when Mumm-Ra is in his beefier shape, he wears Thulsa Doom’s double-snaked helmet.
Of course Lion-O is, aesthetically speaking, your classic S&S barbarian, as are the mutants: scantily-clad, muscular avatars of masculinity. If the show is rich in science fiction elements – notably the Thundercats’ own advanced technology, the neighbouring robot bears, and the occasional fugitives and troublemakers who visit Third Earth by spaceship – then it’s arguably the fantasy and occult aspects that lend it its atmosphere.
Nobility in the world they came from, the Thundercats bring an honour code of “justice, truth, honour and loyalty” that many S&S antiheroes would roll their eyes at. On reaching Third Earth, they stop short of conquering ambitions, but in their urge to cultivate their new land and mine its natural resources to power their high-tech fortress and vehicles, they flaunt their power and wealth. In effect, they become the sort of people S&S protagonists typically try to rob. The series often contrasts their scientific and technological expertise with their naive susceptibility to magic, which often threatens to divide and destroy them.
Some Thundercats themselves have uncanny powers, though they’re innate abilities rather than derived from arcane studies, and they play second fiddle to their more obvious learned combat skills. Tygra can telepathically create illusions in his enemies’ minds and become invisible to them, and Cheetarah has a ‘sixth sense’ warning her of danger – though when she forces it, it drains her energy. The stealthy disciplines of the sorcerer are beyond them. Only Jaga, Lion-O’s mentor, offers consistent supernatural aid – and it’s more in the form of hints that drive Lion-O’s moral education than anything else.
Usually, the magic of Third Earth is an uncanny and threatening outside force, whether it’s Mumm-Ra’s machinations, the terrifying Netherwitch, or deadly supernatural phenomena native to the planet. Treasure offers temptations, but often proves not to be worth the risk of acquiring it, and though they make friends, the Thundercats remain threatened by Third Earth. That very name, and Mumm-Ra’s onyx pyramid and Egyptian regalia, suggest it is our world’s far future, after two cataclysms. This is underscored by the explosive fate of Thundera, whose high civilisation could not save it from annihilation.
In the end, the Thundercats are saved from inhabiting a fully S&S world mainly by the fact they live in a 1980s children’s cartoon. In that decade’s atmosphere of moral angst around children’s shows, the production team included a child psychologist tasked with ensuring prosocial values in its storylines, and vetoing elements deemed too violent, scary or adult. We grew up with action cartoons ending with a heavy-handed moral, followed by a cheesy group laugh. In the same spirit, Jaga did not do anything as horrible as dying on their long voyage, but instead “translated himself to the spiritual plane”.
Thundercats, like its Filmation Sword & Planet peers He-Man and She-Ra, still had enough darker elements to feed our imaginations, along with enough S&S tropes to lead the youngest Gen Xers and the eldest Millennials to the genre that we would eventually explore in depth, fed by the glut of 80s S&S movies, video games and tabletop adventures.
And with a string of remakes of each of these shows, revamped and reissued toy lines, not to mention more straightforward Sword & Sorcery action in the pipeline across different media, and the massive groundswell of new D&D players, it seems certain that today’s children are getting their first taste of both Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet. They are the creators of the future, and I can’t wait to find out what they will make.