Fled & Done: Sword & Sorcery

With The Red Man and Others, we aimed to present our own take on the Sword & Sorcery genre. However, a recent conversation with a friend, a Fantasy author himself, highlighted an inherent problem:

“I would not have put Red Man in the same bracket as Conan—they just feel *utterly* different to me. My love for Conan, was whittled away by some friends who were obsessed with it —that was a culture of the cis-het white super-dude.”

Can readers like him really be blamed for not recognising a broader chorus of voices as having an S&S accent? Modern Sword & Sorcery writers face an uphill battle, if they want to emerge from the shadow of Conan (including, and in particular, his Marvel comics and Schwarzenegger film incarnations). And that indeed sums up our dilemma: is it worth trying to expand the genre, when the general audience’s idea of S&S has calcified in cliché? Especially when a large section of S&S fans (and authors) have very firm ideas of what S&S was, is and always will be?

The Red Man and Others: Swords? Sorcery?

There is an ongoing discussion about decolonising the curriculum, and it’s worth considering whether it’s time to ‘de-Conan-ise’ Sword & Sorcery. Robert E. Howard’s Conan has undeniably become the alpha and the omega of the genre; think of Sword & Sorcery, and that Cimmerian immediately springs to mind: black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand – a thief, a reaver, a slayer. Yet, paradoxically, while he trod the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet, the idea of him has been watered down through a thousand-and-one clones, hundreds of comics, Frazetta’s book covers and muscle-bound movies into something much less compelling.

That Conan himself has a ready audience is not in question, and they are willing participants in his adventures, via RPG supplements, video games and a board game. Related areas also have blossomed: witness the Dungeons and Dragons resurgence, for instance, with more non-white/cis/male players than ever, or the vast mainstream audience by TV success of Game of Thrones and The Witcher. Why don’t they translate to a renaissance of Sword & Sorcery, then, when it’s so clearly visible in their blood and sinews?

Iconic: Frank Frazetta’s interpretation of Conan for Conan the Adventurer (1965).

Perhaps it’s because of those iconic images of Conan that have stuck in the popular imagination – Frazetta’s gurning caveman, Marvel’s fur-diapered giant, Schwarzenegger crushing his enemies – are now forty, fifty years old. They define the genre in a diluted form that does not reflect the atmosphere, the poetry and potential of Robert E. Howard’s earliest stories. When people’s first association with a genre are images that have not,changed in all those decades, and with a fan culture that at its core has not grown, nor wanted to, there is a sense that we must disown Sword & Sorcery, in order not to have to damn it.

But the films and TV series we are huge fans of; why can’t they be counted as Sword & Sorcery? Take the 1980s Robin of Sherwood and John Boorman’s Excalibur. Both have swords, sorcery, and are not pretending to be real history. How about Primal? And the upcoming The Green Knight? Its Arthurian lore, of course, but updated with a modern aesthetic borrowing from Fantasy. Imagine the huge popularity of Vikings, which blends action with eerie mysticism, in a way that we know and love in classic Sword & Sorcery, and then realise there’s no crossover with S&S spaces. What all these have in common, with the early works in which Robert E. Howard distilled Sword & Sorcery into a recognisable genre, is atmosphere and meaning.

Robin of Sherwood, 1980s television steeped in swordplay, mysticism and a sense of wonder.

We get a feeling that older stories that very much fit the S&S definition of “sword-swinging action focused on personal battles rather than world-shaking events, with an element of magic or the supernatural and sometimes one of romance”, like Talbot Mundy’s 1925 Tros of Samothrace, are excluded from the canon because they are written before Howard became the “Father of Sword & Sorcery”. Then look at some of those early Conan and also Kull stories, and ask yourself, is Heroic Fantasy really different from Sword & Sorcery? Is Grimdark? Are these evolutions, or are they attempts to distance ourselves from an image we’re embarrassed by? Are we afraid to reckon with its most tired, predictable and misogynist extremes?

Meanwhile, there’s a defensive insistence among many writers and fans that Sword & Sorcery should remain within a very specific mould, with one writer drawing up the rules: “…an adventure story with fast-paced action that focuses on ONE or TWO protagonists; the level of violence is often high, and that violence is depicted in a gritty and granular style. The sorcery in S&S is most often nefarious, tainted by the horrific, and used against the protagonist(s).” (etc.) You want to get a bit more contemplative, you’ve got THREE protagonists, and sympathetic magic? Alas, poor Almuric, you’re out!

The debates over what is and isn’t S&S must seem the narcissism of small differences. As it stands, whereas SFF fandom is increasingly, though not always willingly, transformative with the influx of more diverse, younger fans, Sword & Sorcery by and large is male, middle-aged, and backwards looking: curatorial. There are admirable corners in S&S fandom, in which the genre’s underlying significance and its problems are openly examined, and its porousness with other genres appreciated, but they find that S&S is not a viable market for them: ignored by outsiders, and regarded with suspicion from the inside.

C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in Black God’s Kiss: destroying her enemy not with the sword but with a kiss.

Yet, examine Howard’s own work by that rigid standard, and many of his early yarns do not make the grade. With Kull he was still experimenting, still figuring out both what worked narratively and what sold on the pulp market, and the result is a surprising number of byways en route to the codified Sword & Sorcery that we are told today is its one true form. And it’s not just Howard. In the first of C.L. Moore’s tales of Jirel of Joiry, while she faces a supernatural threat, Jirel also schleps through a Dantean landscape like some latter-day Virgil, more witness than participant. Tonally they are strange stories and they mitigate against a strict definition of S&S. So, are we to discard these classics in our pursuit of genre purity?

And even if we ignore Howard’s Kull stories and say S&S starts with Conan, we ignore that few of his stories are as pedestrian as those hewn from his template, and those that are were written to make a sure sale. In all this legalistic wall building, there is a deep reluctance to explore the genre’s underlying meaning.

Boris Vallejo’s 1980s Conan: muscle-bound and stiff in posing pouch, staring vacantly.

The success of High Fantasy over the past twenty-plus years makes sense in an era when many people and groups, for various reasons, feel that their world is under threat. Writers and fans of that genre are pragmatic enough to explore and embrace many different reflections of that premise. In theory, Sword & Sorcery ought to have enjoyed a similar renaissance, its personal stakes deeply resonant with the atomised society and lonely individual struggles of our time.

Moreover, Howard’s civilisation – the transient oil boom towns of the American west – like our own, was crumbling, and this crisis is presented as an inevitability. As a result, his stories are full of outsiders who are bold and pragmatic enough to accept that fact and work outside civilisation’s constraints, from Conan to Dark Agnes de Chastillon, who are suspicious of both the seductions and the chains of hearth and home, of a settled life. The appeal of Sword & Sorcery lies in the idea that you can live by your wits and your blade, but the threat of it is that you’ll have to. There is so much that can be done with these themes, and a rich appeal for people who themselves remain on the margins of our modern society, but what progress is being made is tainted by association with tired retreads of the same old tropes, and with regressive attitudes.

Robert E. Howard, called the Father of Sword & Sorcery.

This prescriptiveness prevents the genre achieving cultural escape velocity or wider respect. When the S&S formula is imaginatively expanded, in works that resonate with large audiences, often those audiences do not recognise those works as Sword & Sorcery. Meanwhile, a large part of S&S fandom tends to ignore or rejects the works in question, out of stubborn genre purity or fear of progress. These S&S fans have barricaded themselves within a genre ghetto, while outside those high walls the wider fandom quite happily pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

Projects which are perilously close to Sword & Sorcery are billed as anything but. Our eye fell on an article about an animation for Disney+’s Short Circuit program. Directed by Kim Hazel, it’s called Dinosaur Barbarian, and its promo image features a barbarian, axe held high, astride a dinosaur, surrounded by lightning – indeed, strong hints of Frazetta’s Against the Gods. The article cites ’80s cartoons as influence. The official synopsis for Dinosaur Barbarian reads: “Battling evil is all in a day’s work for Dinosaur Barbarian, but what about taking out the trash? Sometimes even a superhero needs to clean up his act.” That’s right, Dinosaur Barbarian is a superhero.

Dinosaur Barbarian: superhero.

To take another recent Sword & Planet example (now, there’s a term we don’t use often enough!): fans of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix are unlikely to trace the line of descent back to C.L. Moore’s classics. The first thing a 14-year old She-Ra fan encounters when she sticks her curious head over the parapet is angry men on the bottom half of the Internet, proclaiming that this She-Ra is woke garbage: “She’s not even a proper girl! She wears pants, ffs!” Our young fan will have none of it, and moves sideways, into Steven Universe, and from there she graduates to character-driven, inclusive SciFi like that of Corinne Duyvis, Becky Chambers, and the people who have been winning Hugo Awards for the past years. Maybe they’ll transmute those early influences into writing the great S&S series of the 2040s, but it’s unlikely that they, or their readers, will recognise and name it as such.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: pants!

What is the alternative, then? Do we accept that Sword & Sorcery is a damaged brand among audiences who would rather not be associated with the worst the genre has to offer: the retrogressive attitudes to women, predictably white casts of characters, stock plotting, clichés and laughable prose? Do we give up and call what we read and write Heroic Fantasy or Grimdark, or are these genres heirs to all the same problems?

Sword & Sorcery can, and should be, so much: it offers such a big canvas for conflict, magic and trickery, and vast expanses of adventure. So do we rebel, Conan-like, against limitations, and venture to change the narrative, the brand itself? Can we rescue the best of Sword & Sorcery’s past, the malleability and potential that characterised those early days, and build a tent worth inviting people into? Can we plant the flag for Big Tent Sword & Sorcery and invite in those riders from the margins of the genre?

Or, and this requires real consideration, is it futile trying to save a brand when half its adherents don’t want it to be saved from itself? Is it even possible for it to evolve? In the end, are we more in love with the idea of S&S than the reality of a genre dying on its feet because it can’t accept the world moving on?

Is the feast over, and are the lamps expiring?

C.L. Moore

I’ve just been rereading the foreword of Lin Carter’s first Flashing Swords! Anthology from 1973. Female writers, and women in Heroic Fantasy, have been on my mind lately, and some paragraphs made me go ‘hm!’.

These stories appeared in the most glorious of all fiction pulps, Weird Tales. Although in direct competition with brilliantly gifted and enormously popular fantasy or horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner or C.L. Moor, Howard’s Conan stories were amongst the most popular ever printed in the pioneer fantasy magazine.

The Conan stories certainly are the most enduring, but at the time they were indeed popular, but not more so than those of Lovecraft or Moore, or writers like Seabury Quinn. In the period described Kuttner hardly got a look in, though; his first story appeared in early 1936, months before Howard’s death. Last named of these four authors is Catherine L. Moore, whose Jirel of Joiry stories were praised in the letter columns. We’ll charitably chalk the misspelling of her name up to a careless typesetter; the same who misspelled Carter’s own hero as ‘Thonger of Lemuria’.

C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in ‘Hellsgarde’

So popular did this exciting new blend of the adventure story, the imaginary world fantasy and the tale of supernatural horror become, through Howard’s fiction, that when he died in 1936 a number of talented writers stepped forward to fill the gap in the pages of Weird Tales left empty by his demise. (…)

This, hardly before the sod of Cross Plains, Texas, had covered the burly, two-fisted author who had in his time earned more money than anyone else in town, including the local banker, other writers, like Henry Kuttner, with his Elak of Atlantis stories, and Kuttner’s wife, C.L. Moore, with her delightful Jirel of Joiry tales, began contributing to what became in a very short time a new genre of pulp fiction.

Moore, of course, had started her Jirel of Joiry series in 1934, with Black God’s Kiss, and three further stories had appeared by the time of Howard’s death. To label Moore as ‘Kuttner’s wife’ is doing her a disservice; at that time, Kuttner was still very much ‘Moore’s husband’. That word ‘delightful’ also sounds condescending. I really get the sense that Carter didn’t know what to make of her, so decided to stick with ‘not much’. After all, she wasn’t part of the trinity of REH, HPL and CAS, and her heroine, or prose, wasn’t something that he could emulate (and by extension, understand).

Moore’s first Jirel story, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’; trailblazer.

Howard, however, was impressed by Moore’s work, and Jirel inspired him to try his own hand at a ‘sword-woman’, Dark Agnes. He sent it to Moore, who wrote him: My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?’

These are not the words of someone emulating Howard but those of a peer, perhaps even someone who Howard looked up to and whose approval he sought. We don’t have his letter, so we don’t know what he wrote her exactly (one wonders whether Dark Agnes a nerdy and wrong-footed attempt at wooing Moore. If so, she wasn’t biting), and Sword-woman remained unpublished until 1975.

In the mid-70s, when Flashing Swords! appeared, there was no such thing as the Internet, and whatever Heroic Fantasy fans knew about the genre’s history came mainly through the forewords of these paperbacks. Sure, there was Amra and a half-dozen fan- and pro-zines, but you’d have to be a dedicated Robert E. Howard fan to get them; they were not terribly cheap and definitely not easy to find. Even in the mid-90s, it took the coincidence of landing in a class with the son of the secretary of the Dutch science fiction club for me to finally get in touch with wider Dutch fandom – and it was not for lack of trying! ‘Hunger makes raw beans sweet,’ the Dutch say, and the words of Carter will have etched themselves as gospel in the reader’s memory.

Jirel at the start of ‘The Black God’s Kiss’. In the story she wasn’t naked, though.

The difficulty of obtaining info also meant that editors of subsequent books often relied on their predecessors’ work, so that even dodgy info was repeated until it became canon. Sean Richards, in The Barbarian Swordsmen anthology does a better job in giving Moore her rightful place at the roots of Heroic Fantasy, though Jirel is the only female hero in the book and the cover has your standard barbarian, sword in hand, with a woman boobily clinging to him. Even now, near half a century later, these paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s are ‘must haves’ for fans, and Flashing Swords! has proven enough of a brand that Carter’s ‘literary executor’ brought out a new (though abhorrantly mutated) edition. So, whole generations, at least until quite recently, absorbed the idea of C.L. Moore as ‘Henry Kuttner’s wife’ and Jirel of Joiry as ‘delightful’.

In the last decade or there has been a reclaiming of C.L. Moore as one of the founders of the genre; Cora Buhlert’s recent (and Hugo-eligible) articles, ‘Black God’s Kiss’ by C.L. Moore or How to Suppress Women’s Sword and Sorcery Writing and ‘Black God’s Shadow’ by C.L. Moore or Overcoming Trauma as a Core Theme of Sword and Sorcery are must-reads. The tide is turning, yet it will still take time before the pervasive smell of sexism has fully washed away.

(RvS)