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Revisiting the New Edge: Honing the New Edge, Part 1

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Black Gate 12 is off to the printer, and when it returns, I think no further evidence need be presented that this is the truest home for sword-and-sorcery in a modern print magazine. With that in mind, I thought it high time to revisit The New Edge manifesto.

When I helmed Flashing Swords I sat down with William King and John C. Hocking, and, later, Tom Floyd and C. L. Werner, and together we hashed out an outline for what we thought ought to be the paradigms for new sword-and-sorcery fiction (or, if you want to cast the net a little wider, for heroic fiction). A tremendous amount of support flooded in, but so to did some vitriol. Some of those bad reactions came from purposeful misreads, and some from a knee-jerk reaction to our use of the term sword-and-sorcery. And some people out there just delight in being snarky.

I’ve been meaning to take another look at those paradigms for months and was inspired to expand the manifesto after I saw an essay from Martin Zornhau. This time I won’t be as shocked by the barbs.

Before I venture into the manifesto, though, I want to briefly revisit the tenets of sword-and-sorcery, and what makes it different from other fantasy, by looking at the environment, the protagonists, the obstacles, and story structure. These bullet points and the following paragraphs are how I define the genre, with a little help from John Hocking, William King, Robert Rhodes, and John “The Gneech” Robey.

  • The Environment: Sword-and-sorcery fiction takes place in lands different from our own, where technology is relatively primitive, allowing the protagonists to overcome their martial obstacles face-to-face. Magic works, but seldom at the behest of the heroes. More often sorcery is just one more obstacle used against them and is usually wielded by villains or monsters. The landscape is exotic; either a different world, or far corners of our own.
  • The Protagonists: The heroes live by their cunning or brawn, frequently both. They are usually strangers or outcasts, rebels imposing their own justice on the wilds or the strange and decadent civilizations which they encounter. They are usually commoners or barbarians; should they hail from the higher ranks of society then they are discredited, disinherited, or come from the lower ranks of nobility (the lowest of the high).
  • Obstacles: Sword-and-sorcery’s protagonists must best fantastic dangers, monstrous horrors, and dark sorcery to earn riches, astonishing treasure, the love of dazzling members of the opposite sex, or the right to live another day.
  • Structure: Sword-and-sorcery is usually crafted with traditional structure. Stream-of-consciousness, slice-of-life, or any sort of experimental narrative effects, when they appear, are methods used to advance the plot, rather than ends in themselves. A tale of sword-and-sorcery has a beginning, middle, and end; a problem and solution; a climax and resolution. Most important of all, sword-and-sorcery moves at a headlong pace and overflows with action and thrilling adventure.

The protagonists in sword-and-sorcery fiction are most often thieves, mercenaries, or barbarians struggling not for worlds or kingdoms, but for their own gain or mere survival. They are rebels against authority, skeptical of civilization and its rulers and adherents. While the strengths and skills of sword-and-sorcery heroes are romanticized, their exploits take place on a very different stage from one where lovely princesses, dashing nobles, and prophesied saviors are cast as the leads. Sword-and-sorcery heroes face more immediate problems than those of questing kings. They are cousins of the lone gunslingers of American westerns and the wandering samurai of Japanese folklore, traveling through the wilderness to right wrongs or simply to earn food, shelter, and coin. Unknown or hazardous lands are an essential ingredient of the genre, and if its protagonists should chance upon inhabited lands, they are often strangers to either the culture or civilization itself.

Sword-and-sorcery distances itself further from high or epic fantasy by adopting a gritty, realistic tone that creates an intense, often grim, sense of realism seemingly at odds with a fantasy setting. This vein of hardboiled realism casts the genre’s fantastic elements in an entirely new light, while rendering characters and conflict in a much more immediate fashion. Sword-and-sorcery at times veers into dark, fatalistic territory reminiscent of the grimmer examples of noir-crime fiction. This takes the fantasy genre, the most popular examples of which might be characterized as bucolic fairy tales with pre-ordained happy endings, and transposes a bleak, essentially urban style upon it with often startling effect.

Part 2 Coming Soon

Howard

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