Hail and Hello! Welcome to the first installment of "I Love...", a monthly article where I discuss something within fantasy fiction or general culture that I, Jay Requard, am oodles-and-noodles crazy about. As a rule, I try to make sure this page contains as little negativity as possible as there is already enough of that on the internet.
Since this is the first installment, it is only appropriate that I begin by proclaiming my love for Sword and Sorcery.
***Warning-- unlike other installments of Sit. Write. Bleed., "I Love..." is usually much longer of a read, so bear with me.***
Sword and Sorcery, for those who are uninitiated, is a genre of fantasy which is sometimes called "heroic fantasy", and the term for the genre may have been first created in 1961 in the pages of the famous fanzine Amra, where Michael Moorcock, famous for his Elric stories, requested that the genre of tales written in the vein of Robert E. Howard be pinned to a literary term--though this story, including the origin of the term "heroic fantasy", is heavily disputed by authors like Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp, who were the first to really codify and study the genre in earnest. However, if we are to follow the Michael Moorcock account, he originally thought the term "epic fantasy" fit better than "sword and sorcery", but after Fritz Leiber replied in an essay in the pages a literary journal Ancalagon, the term "Sword and Sorcery" stuck. Could you imagine what we would be calling Goodkind, Martin, and Johansen if "Epic Fantasy" had stuck to what is today called "Sword and Sorcery?"
Sword and Sorcery is best exemplified in its featuring of rugged heroes and heroines (chain mail bikinis included), the arcane and supernatural, weird and terrifying monsters, exotic settings, and a fast pace which gets the reader from the first page to the last in an enthralling ride. Instead of the plot shaping what the heroes do, the heroes usually react to the danger or situation when it presents itself. Most importantly, the world is never black and white, but shades of gray throughout. Sword and Sorcery strikes a balance between easily accessible and intellectually stimulating--at least for me as a reader.
I first came across Sword and Sorcery completely by accident when I was twelve years old. My family likes to frequent Holden's Beach in North Carolina, and at that particular piece of coast is home to a used bookstore called "The Book Worm." On one very small shelf dedicated to fantasy I found this:
I am somewhat a believer in Fate now that I am 26, but when I first saw the book it was without the dust jacket you see above, leaving it as a simple tome made of green-backed cardboard with the title on the spine that I honestly thought nothing of. I just grabbed it off the shelf along with a "Xanth" novel, the novelization of Willow (which I didn't see until years later), and something else that I left in a box somewhere at my parent's house. I read the Anthony novel and liked it, I enjoyed Willow, but it wasn't until I opened Flashing Swords that I became entranced by "The Sadness of the Executioner" by Fritz Leiber and went on an amazing journey with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Out of those four stories I loved Lin Carter's "The Higher Heresies of Oolimar" the most, not only because it was so cerebral and trippy that at twelve I didn't understand any of it, but I knew it was beyond anything I had ever read. I read Flashing Swords #1 six times before I left Holden's Beach, front to back. Yet it wasn't until junior year of high school that I fell in love with Sword and Sorcery again.
At that time I was more interested in martial arts, weight-lifting, drinking, and I basically hated absolutely everything about high school. I thought most of the people there sucked (they didn't, I just had a bad attitude), and I hated the structure of the classroom and the destruction of learning I endured most of the time, and writing was absolutely the last thing I ever thought I would be doing. I was still reading comics and fantasy novels (mostly during class because those teachers were boring the piss out of me), but I had also started reading Men's Health, and I came across a review for a collection in the magazine's small book review section. Later that week I skipped class to go to Borders and because of that review I bought this:
I was captured by Howard's prose, his grasp of characterization, and more importantly, his pacing. There was never a burdensome passage put there for the sake of his ego, there was never a misplaced line of dialogue, and Conan to this day is the most realistic hero in terms of his mentality, which was always shown even more than his unconquerable brawn. It was beauty and bloodshed mingled together in a gory pool, which Howard reported by putting the reader right there at the front of the battle or skulking in the shadows of a wizard's tower. Howard was a man who wrote what every little boy with a sword wanted to read, and while I love Salvatore, Tolkien, Le Guin, Goodkind, Anthony, and Alexander, nothing ever drew me in like what Howard, Leiber, and Cook were able to write.
Yes, I include Glen Cook in S&S... you wanna fight about it?
Howard sparked in me a need to write. It may have taken me until my senior year of high school to figure that out, but I wouldn't be doing what I am fighting to do now unless I had found Conan, and Kull, and Solomon Kane, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and The Black Company. By Crom (get it?), without Conan the Cimmerian there would have been no Jishnu the Srijati, who is the hero of my hopes and aspirations as a writer. I will admit I still need to get around to Elric, as I hear he is a grand opposite formed by Michael Moorcock to answer Howard's barbarian.
Sword and Sorcery appeals to me unlike other genres because while those other forms of fantasy sometimes rely too heavily on a common narrative structure (which is not to say that Sword and Sorcery doesn't either), this type of storytelling has always had a bit more emotional and introspective weight behind it.
I love heroes like Kull of Valusia, who struggle with what they do even if they are the most powerful men in their glittering kingdoms, and I love magic that walks the line between systematic and supernatural than one that just sticks with one or the other. I like settings which bring in elements outside of western mythology and religion. Sword and sorcery has all of that. But what really makes this genre so important and so wonderful to me is that it is art--earnest, meaningful, but formless as to allow it to take on its own character for each person who view/reads it. Color, tone, shadowing-- what an artists in Expressionism does with paints a writer in great Sword and Sorcery does with words. To me the genre is the most magical not because there is sorcery abound in the story, but because of the sorcery woven into the very prose itself.
I hope you enjoyed my love-fest for this genre. If you did, please click on the "Google +1" to the right side of the page. Remember, you can follow the blog and myself @JayRequard on Twitter. See you next week with the newsletter, which will let you know what is coming next on Sit. Write. Bleed.