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John W. Campbell on Tolkien, Conan, and Sword & Sorcery

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The August 1968 issue of Analog Science Fiction, with Sword & Sorcery creeping up on Science Fiction

The August 1968 issue of Analog Science Fiction, showing Sword & Sorcery creeping up on Science Fiction

Gordon van Gelder, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, has posted a fascinating excerpt from The John W. Campbell Letters, Volume 1. The excerpt is from a September 7, 1967 letter to Analog author and Hugo Award winning writer Gordon R. Dickson, author of Dorsai! and Soldier, Ask Not, and it captures the frustrations of the top SF editor in the country as he senses his audience being lured away by the growing popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The swords-and-sorcery and Tolkien have displaced science fiction almost completely. Why? Well, partly — but I think a small part — is the current leaning to escape-from-reality, LSD etc. to the undisciplined world of my opinion is as good as any other, and don’t tell me there’s a Universe’s Opinion I’ve got to accept, willy nilly.

But the larger item, I suspect, is *human beings want heroes.* Real heroes. Not common-men-who-proved-under-stress-they-could-struggle-through. The swords-and-sorcery yarns are all based on superhuman heroes — and it’s clearly obvious the readers love ’em.

Now in as much as it’s the readers who pay for the magazines, it damn well behooves us to give ’em what they want — and they obviously want super-heroes on the Conan order. They want for Frank Herbert’s Dune, with his super-hero. They used to go with all-out enthusiasm for Jack Williamson’s really-not-very-good “Legion” stories.

Now if the fans want — and they evidently do! — swords-and-sorcery type yarns, then we had damn well better give ’em the type of thing they want, or get out of the way for someone who will.

Campbell never published much fantasy in Analog, but he did champion adventure-oriented science fantasy in the late 60s, like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of¬†Pern stories (the first of which, the Hugo Award-winning “Weyr Search,” appeared in Analog in October 1967). It would be interesting to take a closer look to see if there was any noticeable editorial shift in this period.

Read the complete excerpt in Gordon’s Facebook post.


  1. Is it just me or did Campbell really just not get Tolkien and/or sword & sorcery? I can’t think of a more “common-men-who-proved-etc.-etc.” story than LotR.

    Comment by Joe H. - March 26, 2014 5:53 pm

  2. Agreed. Campbell clearly considered fantasy of any kind to be far less sophisticated than SF. This is from later in the excerpt:

    But they clearly do *not* want the “sophisticated” non-hero type of story. They do *not* want the pure think-piece.

    Tolkien’s immensely popular Rings series has two powerful heroes — Strider the King and Gandolf the Gray — who are protecting and guiding the Common Man figure, the Hobbit, who is cursed, rather than blest, with a magical power, the Ring. Basically, Strider is the Warrior-King and Gandolf the Scientist in that framework.

    Did he even read LotR? He’s not sure how to spell Gandalf, anyway.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 26, 2014 6:11 pm

  3. Very interesting – And Cool! Swords & mugs UP for the less-sophisticated!

    Comment by Jason M 'RBE' Waltz - March 26, 2014 7:12 pm

  4. Yeah, I noticed “Gandolf” but am willing to withhold judgment until I confirm that it was actually Campbell’s original error, not something that crept in while it was being transcribed or something.

    But then all bets are off …

    Comment by Joe H. - March 26, 2014 10:52 pm

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