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.
Sword-and-Sorcery Suggested Reading