Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

Sword and Sorcery, Again.

Fafhrd and the Mouser are rogues through and through, though each has in him a lot of humanity and at least a diamond chip of the spirit of true adventure. They drink, they feast, they wench, they brawl, they steal, they gamble, and surely they hire out their swords to powers that are only a shade better, if that, than villains. It strikes me (and something might be made of this) that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are almost the opposite extreme from the heroes of Tolkien. My stuff is at least equally as fantastic as his, but it's an earthier sort of fantasy with a strong seasoning of "black fantasy"--or black humour, to use the current phrase for something that was once called gallows' humor and goes back a long, long way.

--Fritz Leiber, author's forward in Swords of Lankhmar.

Should he slay Fafhrd and the Mouser direct? No, they had somehow outwitted him, which ought in all justice (if there be such a thing) give them immunity for a space. Besides, it would smack now almost of anger, or even resentment. And after his fashion and despite his occasional and almost unavoidable cheating, Death was a sportsman.

With the faintest yet weariest of sighs, Death magicked himself into the royal guardroom in the Great Golden Palace in Horborixen, where with two almost sightlessly swift, mercifully near-instantaneous thrusts, he let the life out of two most noble and blameless heroes whom he had barely glimpsed there earlier, yet ticketed in his boundless and infallible memory, two brothers sworn to perpetual celibacy and also to the rescue of at least one damsel in distress per moon.

--Fritz Leiber, 'The Sadness of the Executioner."

Yesterday's post where I asked for good sword and sorcery was, firstly, oddly popular in that it bought a lot of people in that I haven't seen before (hi), but in addition was filled with recommendations that suggested that either I have the wrong definition of the sub-sub-genre in my head, or a lot of people don't know what sword and sorcery actually is. So I figured that today's post would actually be my definition of sword and sorcery, which'll serve, at the very least, to explain what I think about when I sit down to write it.


Firstly, writing a definition of any genre is, at best, a ridiculous thing. A lot of people read a set of definitions and they think that they're set in stone, but my belief has always been the genre is a guideline. A blue print. The script given to the cast and crew of a film. Once the actual definition is run through a piece of work, bits of it are tossed, amped up, dumped, and new genres are bought in. That's why, when I say, "This is sword and sorcery," I don't mean that it's the rules that I believe cannot be broken, but rather what I see its potential as, what I look for, where the possibilities begin.

Of course, the other side of that is that I'm writing this post because either I'm wrong or other people are wrong in their definition of it. So, you know, it's like in any aspect of deciphering a piece of literature: there's no wrong answer, but there are responses that are just more right, and if you've got one of them, be ready for an uphill battle to make people see what you mean. Star Wars, for example, is a Marxist revolutionary text.

The Psychology (Also Known As More Leiber).

If you've read this blog for a while, you've probably grown tired of my references to Fritz Leiber, but we've all got our little obsessions and he's mine. Its better than that Rowling one I see around.

There are authors who you can credit with laying the groundwork of sword and sorcery before Leiber. The easy jump is Robert E. Howard and his Conan work, but if you follow the logic left in the Wikipedia entry, you can track it back to Homer's Odyssey, Alexander Dumas' work, and E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, amongst others. It's a bit like jumping from historical period to historical period, but the thing worth noting here is that Leiber himself makes reference to Eddison's novel in the opening of, arguably, the only Fafhrd and Mouser novel, The Swords of Lankhmar.* Of course, none of these books are really what you would call a modern form of sword and sorcery--Eddision's novel has more in comparison to European myths, in my opinion. But most don't believe that sword and sorcery begins there, but rather the background begins way, way, way back, like pretty much every genre form there is.

Where sword and sorcery does begin, is in the pulps.

It begins fully in the nineteen thirties with Howard's Conan--born, it is suggested, out of Edgar Rice Burrough's work--and includes characters by Clark Ashton Smith and C.L Moore, the latter of which who wrote the first female sword and sorcery in the Jirel of Joiry suit, and which can now be found in the first half of Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams. It's part of the excellent British Fantasy Masterworks series, which I believe is non-existent in the States, and a shame indeed, for it has many fine things in it. You can also find Howard's Conan and Leiber's Fafhrd and Mouser as well, though I don't know about the Ashton Smith stuff. Of course, around that time, about a hundred other authors who have since been forgotten were also writing that stuff, but that's the nature of publishing. Truth is, there might have been more interesting and varied work out there, but the way life works, it's all been forgotten.

The work of Howard and Moore (I've not read the Ashton Smith stuff) is strung together by emotional characters giving over to that raw stuff and killing things. That's reduced to its most basic form, of course, but neither work are what you would call intelligent, engaging things. They're all colour and weirdness and sexuality and the chop chop. Personally, I find I can't read more than one of the stories at a time, because they just blur into this one long stretch of something that is, I would say, like eating McDonald's for a week straight. You can live off it, but there's no taste.

Which is what made Leiber so important.

Emerging at the end of the thirties with Fafhrd and the Mouser, Leiber would eventually bring intelligence and subtext to the genre that wasn't there in the other work. I say eventually, because I don't think it was until Leiber started collecting the stories and pulling the arcs together in the 60s that he gave thought to this. I'm basing this decision of the fact that the story pins everything about Fafhrd and Mouser's psychology down wasn't written until thirty years later. I'm speaking, of course, of the fine and beautiful novella 'Ill Met in Lankhmar', which details how the two met, and the tragic deaths of their first loves. It is in the stories and novel that are published around this time that you can see Leiber exploring the effects on his characters, and which will result, eventually, in their lovers in the end who mirror the early loves in young ways.

What Leiber brought that made his characters so memorable was an adult psychology to his characters. As I've noted in the beginning of this post, he doesn't see them as Tolkienesque heroes. There's no Lost King, Hobbit that Must Endure, We're All So Pure and Happy business going on here. Fafhrd and Mouser are damaged individuals, running out their life in the dirty streets of Lankhmar like a pair of second tier characters who, in a heroic fantasy novel, will find themselves with The Boy Who Will Be King, learn to respect themselves, and then die heroically in the end. Since they're not found in such work, however, they drink and gamble and fuck and steal and, essentially, squander their lives in the pursuit of pleasures that won't last the week.

It is not until their youth begins to fade that they end up in a steady relationship and out of Lankhmar, having in Leiber's own way, settled down to become honest men. It is then, of course, that Fafhrd and Mouser lose some of their interest, and one can't help but think that it might have been better if they had met a messy end in their youth, dying brightly and violently in the way that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid do. Despite this, however, there's no denying that Leiber took sword and sorcery out of the basic emotions that Howard and others had brought to it, and added a psychology, while still adhering to the basic principle that, like Conan, what motivates his characters is not a sense of right, or destiny (though both have mage like mentors who send them off on adventures), but rather the pursuit of the self, the satisfaction of some carnal instinct that cannot be satisfied until something, in some way, has been broken.

The Landscape.

What sword and sorcery also brings is, in comparison to heroic fantasy, a decision to leave Kings and Queens and full scale battles to the sideline.

It is, instead, marked by weirdness. In heroic fantasy, the type where Great Burdens and Destiny are laid, it's quite often the case where the landscape often has a mocking believability. Outside the races like dwarves and elves, which are often just shrunk down, pointy eared versions of Caucasians, you won't find much in the way of strangeness or oddity. The landscape is often rural, and turns into mountains with big castles on them, where horses are ridden, and armies ride across the plains, and so forth. Giant hideous harpies don't drop out of the sky to kill the heroes nearly as often as you'd like (they do in one of Moorcock's Elric tales), and there's an almost, well, cleaned up British Empire feel to a lot of the worlds. Less shit and disease and better dental hygiene. There are exceptions to this, of course, though I'm struggling to remember any of the top of my head.

Sword and sorcery, however, went weird. Howard's biggest strength as a narrator was that he had this imagination that could go from strange black flowers to lost valleys to toad monsters without ever making you think that you'd somehow landed in the wrong kind of story. Leiber, likewise, was no afraid to give us cities of rats, main characters trapped in dirt, and houses that came alive. In comparison, heroic fantasy struggles to keep that out of there, as if the intrusion of the weird would somehow break the believability that authors struggle to achieve.

Despite its weirdness, sword and sorcery was very much about the loner. The individual, making his or her own way across the landscape for money and adventure and, sometimes, sex. When it comes to comparing the first two character goal aspects of sword and sorcery, my mind immediately leaps to Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy. Is it no surprise, then, that those films are born out of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, where one nameless samurai plays two gangs against each other for money?** But my point is that in sword and sorcery, the heroes (or anti-heroes, for they are more than than the other) do not join groups, do not ride out to save king and country, do not seek to serve a higher goal in some puritan way... but are motivated by themselves, and never become part of a cast.

To compare Leiber's work with, say, Tolkien, you can find no other characters until Ayfreyt and Cif, the final lovers of the two, that have an equal dominance in the story, unlike with Tolkien, where he has a cast that all have important roles to place. For Tolkien--and much of heroic fantasy--it is about the community, the group, the friendship, and that is why those stories have children as major characters--or races who take the place of children, such as Hobbits--for there is an innocence being protected and nurtured within these tales. In sword and sorcery, the child like character is lost--when young characters do appear, which is rare, they are jaded and world weary, often as damaged as the protagonists.

There is also, it is worth noting, a higher death rate in sword and sorcery. It's a harsher, dirtier world, and death is often and bloody and violent.

Heroic fantasy tends to be rather bloodless.

Later Years.

I'll wrap it up here.

I'm not sure if this has helped define my version of sword and sorcery, or shown how ill conceived my vision of it was to begin with. Be sure to add your bits as you feel is needed.

The final part worth noting is that, to me, sword and sorcery literature has ended up in role playing novels. Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight has always had more to do with sword and sorcery than any other fantasy like genre to me. Is it any surprise, then, that Weis lists Dumas as an influence for her? Of course, in later books it twists into armies and a vague sense of world politics, but destiny is a small, ignored thing, and the damaged lives of the characters play out, as Hickman and Weis have just about every main character met a painful death at the end of a sword. In the case of the knight Sturm Brightblade, it's only with death that he becomes remotely likeable. But still, to me, the link is there, just as it has slithered out into Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey's Thieves World Universe--while Abbey herself, a more interesting writer than most would give her credit for, has written some interesting sword and sorcery in the desert filled world of the Dark Sun with the Brazen Gambit and others.

At any rate, that brings me to the end.

* It is arguable that The Mouser Goes Below, the final story of the two that Leiber left in their chronology, is also a novel. I don't know if it was ever released singularly, however, and I'm not sure you could read it and appreciate it without having read all the other work before, unlike with the Swords of Lankhmar.

** It might be worth noting that Yojimbo is rumoured to be an adaption of a Dashiel Hammett novel, The Red Harvest. Those genre lines blur up real easy, don't they?

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    Originally published at Ben Peek. You can comment here or there. The paperback release of Leviathan’s Blood is very soon and to…

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