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Black Gate 4

Honing the New Edge, Part 3

Still Honing That Edge, part 3

In my previous posts I strove to define sword-and-sorcery and to argue for its importance. Now I want to revisit some of the conversations I had with Bill King and John Hocking and Clint Werner and Martin Zornhau, among others, and look at what we need from sword-and-sorcery today – and what many are already striving to do.

When Tolkien and Robert E. Howard crafted what they wrote their worlds were fresh and new. They never set out to create unbreakable molds from which all fantasy had to be cast. Tolkien did not mean to suggest that all fantasy had to be quests with bands of elves and dwarves in a vaguely European world marching off to fight an all-powerful baddie by destroying a magic whatsit. Likewise, it should be understood that sword and sorcery is not limited to a barbarian with a sword, despite Conan's prominence as the first sword and sorcery hero (well, Kull was actually the first, but I’m trying not to get over technical). Bill King wrote that: "One of the main problems with High Fantasy is that it has become a sort of post-Tolkien monocrop where a good deal reads and looks the same. The thing about the writers I grew up reading is that every one of them read differently and wrote about different types of worlds. Hyboria was very different from Zothique which was very different from Carter's Lemuria and so on."

But on to the guidelines I’d like to see in play for putting a new edge on an old blade.

1. We can find inspiration from the pulps without pastiching them. Specifically I mean setting aside the sexism and racism and the suspect politics, but embracing the virtues of great pulp storytelling: The color. The pace. The headlong thrill and sense of wonder. The celebration not of the everyday and the petty, but of those who dare to fight on when the odds are against them.

2. We can create new characters. Not homages. And not ironic sendups. I would prefer to go a long time without seeing any more “comedy sword-and-sorcery.”

3. We can craft exotic settings and/or settings that live - as in NOT faux Tolkien of faux Howard. We need to make our own worlds and look past the groundbreaking ideas that have now become limiting barriers set in place by Tolkien’s imitators and bookshelves stuffed with gaming manuals.

4. We must restore the sense of fantastic. Once magic is banal or easy, once magic rings can be found at the corner market and wizards are everywhere, sense of wonder all-too-easily goes straight out the window. It may be possible to write good fantasy in such an environment, but it would be very challenging to craft good sword-and-sorcery there.

5. We can check the irony at the door. Sure, humor and irony can be found in the world our characters walk, but we don’t need to write, as Martin Zornhau says, with “amused detatchment to revel in swordfights.” We should either embrace the genre or not, but we shouldn’t pretend to do so then try to excuse it to our literary friends by claiming it’s all just a joke and is really beneath us. Pfah.

Sword-and-sorcery can be hard to defend when we are constantly offered up poor or diluted gruel substituted for the real thing, or treacly imitation. But then we, and others, should remember the now famous Theodore Sturgeon’s Law. Whether or not 90% of all fiction is truly crap, or if 85 or 97 percent of it is crap might be endlessly debated, and one might as well argue over the number of angels on the head of a pin. The pin head is pointless, just like the debate. We should judge the genre by its best works, just as a wise critic knows to judge the contributions of an author by his or her best works, not the worst.

Now rather than going on and continuing to hone the language, I'm taking this public. I want to hear what you think of the points. What more needs to be said? What needs to be clarified?

As for what we can do to help sword-and-sorcery today? Well, one of the things we can do is support those few markets we have... and I'll post about that very soon. 

Hope to hear from you.

Part 1

Part 2

Sword-and-Sorcery Suggested Reading



100K S&S novel

Does "pure" S&S work in the longer form?

Re: 100K S&S novel

The Drenai books are around that, I would think - but the answer is probably not, in general. Wouldn't call those pure exactly, either.
The pin head is pointless

Did you do this on purpose? ;-)
Actually, yeah. Pretty bad, huh?
The one problem I think that comes up with the modern S&S writer is that it's difficult to break the mold in worldbuilding. We read all this and have little choice with what our subconscious regurgitates for our work, with having been so influenced with the rich vastness of the Howard, the Tolkien, The Carter, Burroughs, Norman, Zelazny worlds we grew up experiencing.

I wouls suggest one question every high fantasy writer should ask him/herself - does this seem familiar? If yes is the answer, then perhaps your worldbuilding goes a bit deeper than just the familiarity of writing the story. Perhaps you are designing your take, and too closely, of a place you lost yourself in once, as another took you off to a barbaric, adventursome realm...

I wrote a story recently that bogged down for a couple months because it seemed too - familiar. I've been too well read growing up and have too good a memory for me not to worry about that.
Yeah, it's hard to do it, which is why it's so wonderful to find. Good luck to you, Wil! We have to take inspiration from the familiar and then find a route to a new place.
Howard, I think these are a very strong set of guidelines, and not just for Sword and Sorcery, but for the whole Fantasy genre. Well done. I don't have anything else to add, except that I will try my best to uphold them in my own work. We'll see how it goes...
Thanks, Nathan. I'm still trying to learn how to put them to work myself. From what I've seen of your work so far it seems to me like you'd already innately figured it all out. How goes the new project?


The idea of #4 is something I've heard mentioned elsewhere and I have to admit I'm not certain what exactly you're going for here--or me, for that matter.
I would think most (and I know thinking is my first step toward putting my foot in my mouth) writers do try to put the fantastic in their fiction. But with a well-read audience, and such a vast body of existing literature, even the most harrowing of magics or elusive of rings can easily be dismissed as something "seen before." Are you suggesting that in the current climate magic has become banal and rings ever-present, that it is a general condition within the genre, or that this occurs at the level of individual stories? Can you clarify?

I certainly agree about supporting those few markets that currently exist. It would seem that one hope for moving S&S forward would be to increase the fan base and bring in fresh readers and, very important, fresh writers. The existing long wait times coupled with those few slots available can be pretty discouraging for all, I think.
There's nothing new under the sun, of course. My point of 4 isn't to initiate a search in everyone's work for things that are similar to things that have come before. It's about those stories that cross my desk where magic is ho-hum and everyday -- sort of like the old Flinstone cartoons. Everything functions but hey, it's prehistoric, with a mamooth for a dishwasher or what have you. When you can solve your problem by going to the corner wizard market and pick up your magic blade...

My problems in general with modern fantasy short stories are that A. it's too ironic. B. There's almost no adventure in short fiction markets. C. It's really cute and magic is too easy. D. It's an exercise in literary experimentation but not a story.

I see a lot of C in my sub pile, and in magazines that I've stopped reading, which is also where I see A and D.

Does that answer your question? Or did I muddle it?
A great set of guidelines! Fair vibrating with hope for a strong and original future in the genre. Very fun! A fresh breath of steel-scented air!
Thank you!
At the risk of being the asshole here, I want to disagree with a few things:

First, I don't support markets. I buy stories I want to read. That's one of the reasons I like Black Gate--most of the stories inside are solid work.

I think it's poison to tell people they should support markets for their writing. You might as well tell them to eat lots of fiber and hit the gym on their lunch hour--maybe it's the best thing way they could solve a particular problem, but you'll get more response by making it sound appealing. IMO.

... groundbreaking ideas that have now become limiting barriers set in place by Tolkien’s imitators ...

Is Tolkien imitation really that big a problem? I know you're reading slush, so maybe you see a ton of dwarf/elf/Dark Lord of the East type stuff, but I really don't see those sorts of books any more.

About 15 years ago, the Tolkien clones fell back out of the limelight and a new formula came to the front of the stage. It featured young, female protagonists who had a special "Gift" inside them, who were cast out of their place in society and teamed up with a telepathic animal.

These were popular books for a lot of years--the market was full of them. A couple years ago, their popularity receded and we're now seeing a lot of paranormal romance with a contemporary setting.

And yet, I still see people complain about Tolkien imitators.

Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm not as up on the genre as other readers are. I'm not one of those book-a-day people, and I read in several genres. But I don't see Tolkienism as a current problem, only a current complaint (and to be clear, not just from you. I read about this elsewhere, too).

I'm happy to be corrected, though.
Supporting a market for the market isn't a point I hit on very often -- it wasn't in the start of thread, and it's not one that you'll see me standing on a podium saying as loudly. It doesn't play as well. But it's a legit point, and it's one I myself try to live by by supporting the markets that publish the fiction I like to see (which reminds me, I need to renew for Paradox again...). But then, referring to your analogy, I try to get to the gym sometimes too.

It's perfectly reasonable to like a mag because you like the stories in it. I mean, that's kind of the whole point. But I'm adressing mostly a writer crowd here with this stuff. And writers aren't rich. If they're really into heroic adventure fiction, why not rally 'round the flag? What I find frustrating is the people that decry the lack of sword-and-sorcery and markets for it and then send us things without checking out the mag or supporting it. It's something I have to deal with, and probably need to just get over.

Tolkien clones -- yes. Yes, I drown in Tolkien clones. Nay, not even Tolkien clones, but game fiction cloned from clones of Tolkien. So, yes, and double-yes, it's a point that must be made. So far I don't drown in too many paranormal romances. Thank God. Or thank Crom, but then he mostly hands down dooms, if memory serves.
Yeah, Howard, I think the world building thing is a good point and not one I'd thought much about. Lankhmar wasn't much like the Hyborian world which wasn't much like the Young Kingdoms, which wasn't much like Lemuria so while Fafhrd and the Mouser and Elric and Thongor were similar in tone to Conan, they weren't at all the same thing.
I've said before that most pure sword & sorcery has some element of horror to it, and the two writers who've impressed me the most in my recent S&S reading are both better know as writers of horror, Ramsey Campbell and Manly Wade Wellman.
Anyway, you've given me food for thought and perhaps my next try at S&S won't be quite as Howardian in approach.

Charles R. Rutledge
Thanks, Charles. You're right about the horror aspect. How do you think we should phrase that in the "manifesto?"

How are things doing?
I started to write a response to this, but it was getting really long. I don't have time today to reply properly. In short fiction I have a number of recs, but considering that it's hard to get these kinds of stories published I'm probably missing some good things in more obscure small press.

In books some of the most promsing things I've seen in recent years are actually from the Warhammer universe. Three writers, Bill King, C.L. Werner, and Nathan Long, have impressed me in various ways. Scott Oden's historical fiction (Memnon, Men of Bronze)is a great fit save that, of course, the supernatural isn't involved. Some people I really respect are gaga over Steven Erikson, who I haven't investigated in depth yet enough myself to comment upon. There are probably a few others I'll think of as soon as I sign off.

I'll try to draft up a list of short fiction heroic fiction writers in the next few days.

Great summation, Howard. And I agree with the sentiment of never seeing another comedict S&S piece again.

Every one of your points is necessary to pursuing that 'new edge' you seek. I agree with and like that terminology so much, I've borrowed and adapted the concept at Rogue Blades Entertainmentit.

RBE is taking it one step further, however. We're also taking that step harder, faster, and more emphatically by emphasizing an Xtreme Edge with our soon-to-be unleashed house character Kaimer. I'm confident we have guidelines #2, 3, and 5 licked, and the goal is to consistently deliver points 1 and 4 - but the readers will have to be the judges of that.

As for supporting markets? Well, by our monetary choices we support what we like. The almighty greenback casts a pretty hefty vote, one that speaks louder than any soapbox at any rate.


A few years back, for the span of about 9 months, I worked pro bono as a reader for a literary agent's slush pile. It was an eye-opening -- and deeply disturbing -- experience. It cemented Sturgeon's Law as absolute truth in my eyes . . . and painted Sturgeon himself as an optimist. The real percentage for that 9 months was 99.9%.

One thing I noticed in regards to the fantasy that lurked in the slush pile was how flimsy it was. It WAS bad RPG fiction, as you'd mentioned. It lacked any sense of its antecedents; I'd go so far as to swear those who had submitted it had never cracked open the Iliad, much less REH, Tolkien, et. al. The worst part, for me, was rejecting writers who were good craftspeople but who nevertheless lacked the most basic understanding of how to tell a story.

IMHO, the best S&S, and the best fantasy in general, comes from writers who understand both the history of their genre and the history of the real world. Before they were writers, Tolkien and Howard were historians -- one rigorously educated, the other less so but spurred on by a deep-seated passion. It's not enough for those who follow in their footsteps to mimic Middle-earth or the Hyborian Age; they have to dig up the roots and examine them -- the prose and poetry of antiquity, the histories of the Greeks and Romans, the memoirs of those who were eyewitness to history. Couple that with a fecund imagination and good things will be born.

Sorry for usurping the soap-box, but I've been following these threads with great interest. Well done, Howard!

--Scott Oden
Slush can be pretty dreadful.

Please drop in any time you like and share your thoughts. I thought this was highly quotable: "It's not enough for those who follow in their footsteps to mimic Middle-earth or the Hyborian Age; they have to dig up the roots and examine them -- the prose and poetry of antiquity, the histories of the Greeks and Romans, the memoirs of those who were eyewitness to history. Couple that with a fecund imagination and good things will be born."