I’ve got a friend I’ve known since we were nine years old who often says that we weren’t really brought up by our parents (neither his nor mine), but by the books we read. I’m not sure if we were lucky or unlucky, but those books were full of, well, heroes. The first book I ever read, by the way, was Treasure Island – I think having seen the movie helped me with the hard parts.
Aside: my parents didn’t come from cultures in which picture books were the norm, so we weren’t allowed to read them, nor comic books. Some illustration could be tolerated, but books with pictures on every page were for illiterate people.
Then my brother recommended The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. That was the first fantasy book I ever read. Almost immediately after that I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, my first SF book.
Not very long after these came Lord of the Rings – and every other Fantasy and SF book I could put my hands on. These were the books that raised me.
These books had something in common, something that I’ve spent some time talking about over the last few weeks. They have heroes. And by heroes I mean people who behave in a particular way, who have a particular attitude toward the world. I’ve talked about this idea in other places, and this is the best way I’ve found to express what I mean:
Genre fiction in general, Fantasy in particular, is the only contemporary literature in which characters can act honourably, without irony. Maybe they aren’t nice people, maybe they aren’t even good people – they’re certainly loaded down with flaws just like the rest of us. But they are honourable people. Even if they don’t think so themselves.
Obviously, I wasn’t aware of any of this while I was doing all that reading. At the time, I was just enjoying myself and unwittingly learning how to behave. It wasn’t until I was trained to analyze literature that I looked back over a long career of reading Fantasy and SF, and started to put my theory together.
For me, the germ of my theory came in Warlocks and Warriors: An Anthology of Heroic Fantasy, edited and introduced by L. Sprague de Camp. There were three stories from this anthology which particularly intrigued me, and which give me shivers to this day: “Black God’s Kiss,” by C.L. Moore, “The Bells of Shoredan,” by Roger Zelazny, and above all, “Thieves House,” by Fritz Leiber.
From these stories I learned that heroes didn’t have to be royal and that the endings were sometimes ambiguous when it came to that happiness stuff. In particular, I learned these three things: That when your friends are in trouble you go back for them; that you hold by your code no matter what, even if that code causes you a lot of trouble.
Oh yeah, and payback is a bitch.
These three stories also gave me models for my own heroes, Jirel of Joiry (a woman!), Dilvish the Damned (someone no longer exactly human), and, most significantly, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (worldly-wise comrades and partners).
I’ve often talked about the crime/mystery genre, and though I didn’t start reading them until later, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sword and sorcery stories, as written by Leiber, Moore, Kuttner, de Camp, et al, were appearing in print at pretty much the same time as stories by people like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
In both we have protagonists (certainly not heroes in the classical sense) who inhabit places dangerous and dark, and who yet know how things operate, how to get by – and how to behave. The society around them is corrupt and cynical – they might even be a bit corrupt and a bit cynical themselves. So, they’re not heroes, but they are heroic, by the standards of their own worlds.
The worlds inhabited by today’s Fantasy and SF protagonists tend to be even more dark, and still more dangerous, than the worlds of my three classic favourites. But luckily for me – and for the stories I want to tell – the protagonists are still my kind of guys. Like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, they’re honourable people.
One last thing. There was something I found disappointing in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A couple of lines from the book got left out.
At one point Lucy says “We can’t just go home, not after this. It is all on my account that the poor Faun has got into this trouble,” and later on Peter says “This Faun saved my sister at his own risk . . . We can’t just leave him to be – to be – to have that done to him.”
I realize that a movie can’t contain every single line, nor even every single idea, that’s found in the book. But I find it significant that it’s this one that got left out. Stand by your friends, even if it’s risky.
That’s the real moral lesson of that series of books, and I’m sorry it didn’t make it into the movie. I don’t know why, maybe it says something about our society I’d rather not know. What I do know is this, these are lines Sam Spade would have approved of.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website www.violettemalan.com.