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Black Gate 4

Sword-and-Sorcery Musings

After mulling it over for some time, and after consultation with Black Gate Exalted Leader, John O'Neill, I decided to try this whole blog thing with a first entry.

First things being first, I'm Howard Andrew Jones, Black Gate's Managing Editor. I started using the middle name some years back because there's a famous bloke wandering around out there who recorded a string of hits back in the 80s, and he also goes by the name Howard Jones. As luck would have it, when the other Howard Jones made it big playing keyboards in an 80s rock band, yours truly was gigging around in rock bands -- through both high school and college -- ALSO playing keyboards. The jokes never got old... well, yeah, they did.

Anyway. I know John will post here from time-to-time as well, so we'll do our best to let visitors know which one of us is doing the writing.

Herein you'll find matters related to Black Gate, such as where we are with submissions and how soon the mag is coming out, and when new articles go live on the web site. It will also give us a chance to talk about other issues near and dear to our hearts.

I'll have a go with one of my own favorite topics: specifically, the writing of sword-and-sorcery.


While sword-and-sorcery is a relative to high fantasy, it is a different animal. High fantasy, mostly invented by William Morris as an echo of Sir Thomas Mallory and then popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien, moves for the most part at a slow, stately, pace, meandering gently from plot point to plot point, or, as is often the case, from location to location. Movie critic Roger Ebert has some astute observations on The Lord of the Rings, which I will quote here.


"The trilogy is mostly about leaving places, going places, being places, and going on to other places, all amid fearful portents and speculations. There are a great many mountains, valleys, streams, villages, caves, residences, grottos, bowers, fields, high roads, low roads, and along them the Hobbits and their larger companions travel while paying great attention to mealtimes. Landscapes are described with the faithful detail of a Victorian travel writer. … mostly the trilogy is an unfolding, a quest, a journey, told in an elevated, archaic, romantic prose style that tests our capacity for the declarative voice."


While exotic landscape is present, even common, in sword-and-sorcery, it is displayed differently and toward a different effect.  Sword-and-sorcery was birthed in an entirely different tradition. Robert E. Howard, its creator, wrote for the pulps. The pulp magazines, the television of their day, were fueled by quick moving action. The stories needed to grab you within the first few sentences so that if you were browsing the magazine at the news stand you’d feel compelled to purchase it to finish. The pulp stories were meant to seize your attention from the opening lines and never let go. 


This difference in pacing is crucial  and there are hidden difficulties attendant in trying to create it on the page.  My friend, the mighty John Chris Hocking, added this to the discussion: "Some sword-and-sorcery authors seem to believe that swift pacing must equal Action.  And that Action must equal Violence.  Neither of these things are true.  All the fighting and running and frenzy you create will grow tiresome unless it is moving the story forward.  Sure, Action is great unto itself, but it is the unfolding of the plot that truly captivates."


The best way to acquaint oneself with this style of pacing is to READ  the writers who did it. Certainly this is a far from exhaustive list, but this is a good start to the process. Read for enjoyment (if you’re not reading for enjoyment you probably shouldn’t bother trying to write in the style) but read critically as well. 

Robert E. Howard: There’s a new set of Howard books from Del Rey that collect all the Conan tales. Find a copy of The Coming of Conan and dip into the collection. At the least, read "Tower of the Elephant," "Queen of the Black Coast," and "Rogues in the House." 

Fritz Leiber
: Leiber’s famed Lankhmar stories have been reprinted so many times that it’s hard to suggest

any particular volume because the contents vary. Instead here are specific stories. Read three or four of any of these: "Thieves' House," "The Jewels in the Forest," "The Sunken Land," "The Howling Tower," "The Seven Black Priests," "Claws from the Night," "Bazaar of the Bizarre," "Lean Times in Lankhmar," "The Lords of Quarmall."


Jack Vance: The Dying Earth – sword-and-sorcery, science fiction, planetary romance—whatever it is exactly that Vance wrote when he bent so many genres (long before that was in vogue) he wrote it well, with amazing world building and vivid imagination. Don't feel compelled to read the entire series, just the first short little novel.


Michael Moorcock: The first Elric novel or the first Hawkmoon novel.


Leigh Brackett: Beg, borrow, or steal the Sea Kings of Mars aka The Sword of Rhiannon. Sure, it's really sword-and-planet, but sword-and-planet is really just sword-and-sorcery with a science fiction veneer. And Leigh Brackett was one of the very, very best sword-and-planet writers.


M.John Harrison: The Pastel City.


There are other fabulous works and fabulous authors, but this small selection cited here gives you a basic primer on sword-and-sorcery focusing mostly on shorter stories, short novels, and novellas. It is meant as an immersive introduction that will not take two or three years of study. Once you have the material in hand it would not take long to familiarize yourself with it.



What to look for when you’re reading?


  • First and foremost notice the pacing.
  • Notice the tone in Howard, the somber, headlong drive.
  • Notice how  dialogue is used to reveal the character rather than to reveal plot points and backstory. Pay attention to how the characters sparkle this way particularly in Leiber and Harrison. Notice Howard’s skill with Conan. He is far more than the stereotype suggested by his detractors, and more complex than barbarians crafted by most of his imitators.
  • Notice how atmosphere permeates everything in Brackett and Harrison and Vance—study their world building, and the sense of wonder they constantly evoke.


One thing you should note is that none of these authors worked from templates. The character classes as typified by role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were designed based on the works of these authors so that players might create characters like those from their favorite fantasy stories. Now many of those templates and settings have become rigid and unchanging. Castle, wizard with spell book, dragon, orc, halfing, thieves' guild (from Leiber), chaos, law (from Moorcock). Too many of us have forgotten the source material.


Those templates need to be set aside. If you’re writing for Wizards of the Coast by all means use elves, hobbits, ogres and the like, but otherwise leave them in their castles and invent something of your own. If you do want to write of elves or ogres, then you’ll need to do something unique with them.


While we’re on the subject of role-playing games we might as well discuss magic. Any gamer can attest to the desirability of wanting a character who is as competent with sorcery as fellow players have warriors who are competent with swords. It’s only fair, in a game setting. When you’re reading a story, though, if magic is as commonplace as lightbulbs and automobiles the very uniqueness of it is almost guaranteed to be sucked away. Something about spell lists with names and characters who can effortlessly whip off fireballs while they’re dripping with magic rings and staves just smacks of game night. Leave it on game night.

Obviously there's much more that could be said on this topic, but that's more than enough for now. 

While you're welcome to post here I hope you'll visit the Black Gate News Group, for which you can find a link over on your right, and join in the discussions there.




Welcome to blogville, Howard. I think conversations on lj are more dynamic than on the old lists, like sff.net, but we'll see how they work out.

And Brackett's Skaith novels are better than SWORD OF RHIANNON. ;-)
Hey Charles, and thanks for the welcome.

Skaith was the first Brackett I read. While there's some great world building, I thought the plot really followed that Burroughsian frying pan to fire variety on Skaith a little too closely, and that the third Skaith book felt like it was written because there was a contract for three, not because there was more to be said.

But there's still good stuff in there. I'd be interested in hearing why you like it better.

To me, Sword of Rhiannon was Brackett at her essence, and I've frequently dipped into that one just to revisit favorite passages and to see how she wrote it for technique tips.
Well, for me, the essential Brackett is The Long Tomorrow, which is her most original book.

My preference for the Skaith books may honestly have more to do with nostalgia: they were the first Brackett books I ever read, and they stuck in my mind for years, even after I let those Ballantine paperbacks slip away through my fingers to someone else. When I went looking for Brackett again much later, after I started writing, those were the first books I collected and they led me to her other writing. For me, they show a breadth of imagination and world-building that surpasses Rhiannon, which reminds me a lot of Burroughs (and Burroughs imitators like Lin Carter's Green Star books), although better written. I love pulling individual passages from Rhiannon just to show how description can work to establish setting, mood, and character with economy and grace.
Great idea, Howard.

Re Leiber and the Mighty Twain, I think if I had to pick a single favorite story it might be the longer chunk of _The Swords of Lankhmar_. It's the series' biggest stage but Leiber handles all the entrances, exits and stage effects with his usual mixture of efficiency and panache. It's like one of Shakespeare's better history plays with more magic. But if the guy holding the gun allowed me to pick a favorite sequence of the F&G stories, I think it would have to be that stretch which starts with the heroes leaving Lankhmar in "The Bleak Shore," continues with "The Howling Tower" and "The Sunken Land," and ends back at Lankhmar with "Thieves' House." That's good stuff (he said, with all due critical subtlety).


(Cross-posted to the Black Gate newsgroup.)
Hi, Howard. Welcome to the LJ world. I hope you'll find it worth while. I've only been doing it a few months and have found it somewhat like an ongoing convention.
Thanks, James. Good to see you here.
Great post! Thank you so much for sharing, and welcome to LJ! :)
Thanks for the welcome!
Beg, borrow, or steal the Sea Kings of Mars aka The Sword of Rhiannon.

Cannot second this enough. In my years of reading science fiction and fantasy, few works have given me such a frisson of pleasure. It's utterly brilliant, and in many ways its the apotheosis of the tradition started with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Thanks for bringing this one up, Howard!
Oh, and if anyone tries to steal my copy of Sword of Rhiannon, remember that I'm armed with the Sword of the Lictor and will defend myself! :)
Yeah, those copies used to be rare animals. Thank goodness for the Millenium Press Brackett collection.

Great to "see" you, Ryan!
For some reason, I never could get into Fafhrd and Mouser, although I did try several stories, including "Thieve's House" and "The Howling Tower". I think perhaps the duo just don't appeal to me.

I'm definitely planning to give Jack Vance a try, though, and I've got PASTEL CITY sitting around waiting to be read.
It sounds like you gave it a good try. If you didn't like those two, you've turned away the best.... I'm surprised, though, because your own writing draws from the same wellspring. I never did like the later period Fafhrd and Mouser stuff myself, no matter that the origin story (they were written out of sequence) won a Hugo, if memory serves.

I understand trying and not liking, though. Those Thomas Covenant books... I've had so many people tell me to stick with them, but I figured if I tried three separate times during different periods of my life and could never get past page 80 that I've tried enough.


Good to see another DM-er on LJ! I just found me a new friend.

PS - Loved Six with Flinteye.

Re: Sean!

Oh, hey, Matt! Good to see you around the ether, and I'm glad you liked SIX. Hopefully I'll get my Flinteye novel published someday....
At least your name isn't Michael Bolton... ;-)

Hey Howard! So glad to see you're on LJ. Hope the family is well.
Heh -- that's a great movie.

My family is doing well, thanks -- how's your clan? I forgot to write you about Dabir and Asim, didn't I? I was so busy last year, though, that I didn't write much, and it's hard to sell if you don't write. The only recent Dabir and Asim sale was to BAEN's Universe, although John O'Neil took some before he hired me on to the staff here.

Will you be in St. Louis again this year? I'm pretty sure we'll be going again.
We're all doing great - thanks!

That's okay, I figured you were busy with your BG gig. Whenever you get a chance, I'd love to get the info on Dabir and Asim.

We'll definitely be there this year. Hopefully we can all get together again and eat ourselves sick on carrot cake. ;-)
Hi Howard,

Good list, but if you're going to include 'The Dying Earth', then you have to include Burrough's Mars books as well. And perhaps some of Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique stories, especially ones like 'The Black Abbot of Puthuum' and 'The Charnel God'.

As for RPGs and templates, I have a couple of rules of thumb when buying new fiction: (1) if there's an elf on the cover, I'm almost not buying it, and (2) if there's a dragon on the cover, I'm going to be very, very wary.

If it has both elves and dragons on the cover, and if the elf's carrying a bow and wearing some variant of a hooded garment, and the dragon is looking noble and wise and tilting its head in a quizzical fashion, then I put it back and wipe my hands.

Chicks in chainmail, though, that's another story . . .


That should read 'almost certainly not buying it'.

Damn those typing goblins.


Hey Euan, good to see you here.

All good suggestions. Anyone who's serious about this ought to get around to reading CAS and take a look at at least the first John Carter of Mars books (maybe the first three).

My intent, though, was to provide only a short introduction rather than a "you must read this to understand the roots of the genre" list, which would be much longer. That list would include C.L. Moore and Kuttner, two of my favorites, and a whole host of other works.

Hey Euan, good to see you here.

All good suggestions. Anyone who's serious about this ought to get around to reading CAS and take a look at at least the first John Carter of Mars books (maybe the first three).

My intent, though, was to provide only a short introduction rather than a "you must read this to understand the roots of the genre" list, which would be much longer. That list would include C.L. Moore and Kuttner, two of my favorites, and a whole host of other works.


Hello from Janek Makowski

I'd like to say hello to all people on this board.



Cool quote

The idle man does not know what it is to enjoy rest.



good introduction

Good overview of the genre. _Lean times in Lankhmar_ and _Queen of the Black Coast_ ought to be required reading for the fantasy genre, period. And Brackett probably ties with CL Moore for most criminally neglected pulp writer.

I have to say, though, I'm more partial to Brackett's Stark shorts (Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman) more so than the more Burroughsian Sword of Rhiannon.

- Trey Causey