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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.