Why Swords & Sorcery?
About twenty years ago, I bought John Clute and John Grant’s The Encylopedia of Fantasy. I wasn’t reading much standard fantasy at the time, having abandoned it for science fiction and crime stories. As I pored over the Encyclopedia’s entries, several authors I’d never read caught my attention, enough so that I went out and bought books by them. That was I how I came to read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry and Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. While I liked parts of them, they struck me as long-winded and overwrought for much of their length. I also realized I was done with stories of willowy elfs, doughty dwarfs, and emo heroes — the seemingly standard players in most of what I was reading. If that was the current state of fantasy, I was all right without it.
I was drawn back to the genre a few years later, though, when I became aware of Night Shade Books publishing hardcover omnibuses of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories and novels. As a monster fan of Wagner, I jumped at the chance to replace my battered paperbacks. As soon as I got them I found myself compelled to read them. I hadn’t read Wagner’s fantasy in several years, and had almost forgotten how visceral a punch it packs (click for my reviews of Death Angel’s Shadow and Night Winds). His stories grabbed me and shook me in a way none of the writers like Kay or Williams had. Battle scenes in epic novels seemed bloated in the light of Wagner’s taut action sequences. The Kane stories were both darker and more vivid than most of the epics I had read. And whatever else about the character of Kane, he never mopes or whines, as I found too many modern epic heroes prone to doing.
When I finished rereading all the Kane stories, I practically ran to my shelves looking for anything else that might affect me the same way. The obvious choices were Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock. I had read both authors’ works several times previously, but not for nearly twenty years in both cases.
Howard met my needs, Moorcock less so. Howard remained the ur-swords & sorcery writer, a teller of ripping yarns of the first caliber. This time around Moorcock struck me as too intent on holding the material at a distance, as if part of him was slumming, or maybe just putting on a show to make some shopworn points about heroism, politics, and religion.
That’s when I ran out of books I already owned, so I dove back into Clute and Grant’s Encylopedia and began hunting up other titles and authors I’d never tried before. Within a year I’d bought all of Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian, Carter’s Thongor, and his Flashing Swords anthologies. Over the next couple of years I found all of Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness collections and De Camp’s trio of S&S anthologies from the sixties.
It was when I discovered Jason Waltz’s anthology Return of the Sword that I saw there was a wealth of new swords & sorcery being written. Soon after I discovered Black Gate (woo hoo!) and a bunch of blogs dedicated to the stuff. I was so taken with this renaissance of S&S that I wanted to be a part of it. That led to the creation of my own S&S blog, which ultimately led me to writing here at the mighty Black Gate. Perhaps the renaissance has cooled a little bit, displaced by the current taste for grimdark and epic series, but there’s still tons of pulse-pounding heroic storytelling going on. I’m glad to be able to do my part promoting the best of it, new and old alike.
This long recollection was spurred by something my wife, the luminous Mrs. V., asked me the other day: “Why swords & sorcery?” My immediate thought was, “Because it’s cool!” She explained that what she meant was why, having read so much other fantasy and science fiction over the years, did I come to focus so intently on S&S? As someone who hasn’t read any of it beyond the excerpts in my reviews (which she edits with both a scalpel and chainsaw, as needed), it strikes her as a somewhat restricted genre.
In light of her further questioning I forced myself to think more deeply. Why, indeed do I love these stories of tough, dangerous adventurers doing tough, dangerous things? After some reflection, I realized it’s because they ARE cool.
Several years ago I wrote:
I read fantasy — and swords & sorcery in particular — because it’s fun. Like most middle-class Americans I lead a very safe life, which I’m very happy about, but from which I sometimes like to take a break. Occasionally I need to hear the whoosh of a sword just missing Conan’s head, to peer down into the dark alleys of Tai-tastigon from the rooftops of strange gods’ temples, to smell the fires of Granbretan’s vile sorceries. Sometimes I need to get out of my content, comfortable place and journey to places unknown and fantastic.
That’s a good part of why I read S&S (it’s also part of the same basic reason I read crime, horror, and science fiction stories.) Often, this attitude is condemed as escapism. All I can say to that is, so what? There’s some basic component of our makeup, call it collective unconsciousness or monkey brain, that responds to the call to adventure and action. It’s the reason some people jump willingly out of airplanes or scale sheer cliff faces. Personally, I don’t quite have the nerve to do those things (or risk life and limb), so I, like so many others, am willing to settle for a story.
What makes it cool to me are protagonists unbound by the things that hem in and tether most of us. They don’t pull back from danger or flee their enemies. Instead they fight, as Artos and Medrawt in Henry Treece’s The Great Captains:
Then, almost by his ear, Medrawt shuddered at the sound of the war-horn. Its high-pitched howling rose like the scream of a soul in the torment of eternal damnation. It went on and on until Medrawt was at the point of crying out for it to stop. He began to tremble in every limb now and could hardly breathe with the great surging of blood in his throat. He tore at the bronze ring about his neck. For a moment his eyes clouded and he was blind.
Then, as though he did not know himself any longer, he turned to Artos and smiled at him, drawing back his lips as far as he could. His hands had gone dry. His legs were firm again.
He was the master of his voice. ‘By God, Bear,’ he heard himself say, ‘they shall know what it is to outface Rome now!’
Artos did not even turn to answer him. But Medrawt heard him say, ‘Yes, yes brother! They shall know! Yes, they shall know!’
Then he raised his right hand in a high and commanding gesture. The Cymry felt godhead move in their veins at that moment. Then the whole line of horse began to move forward relentlessly down the dark hill.
Even when doomed, they fight, as Bear Killer does in John Fultz’s Tall Eagle:
“Help me, Rides the Wind! Sharp Tongue! Help me!” Bear Killer yelled at us from the top of the quivering mass. A cloud left the face of the moon, and I saw clearly now. A great mound of snow-white flesh rose before us. Like a vast centipede it crawled on dozens of segmented, pointed legs depending from its slug-like body. It was longer than eight horses standing nose-to-flank in a row. A great stinking worm. It had crawled into our camp and grabbed Bear Killer in its mouth. It raised its eyeless, featureless head toward the stars as it drew him deeper into its maw.
What makes it cool is the action and excitment. Sometimes it’s in bloody battle, like this scene from P.C. Hodgell’s Dark of the Moon:
A screaming wave of Wastelanders had charged in among the leveled spears and hit the shield-wall.
They swarmed up over it. The first across died on the defenders’ swords, entangling them, and the next wave crashed down alive on the far side. Harn swept the Prince behind him. His own shield was only a buckler strapped to his forearm, but it served to turn aside the Wasters’ weapons of stone and bone while his own axe cleared a bloody arc before him.
Or when the hero, like Rafael Ordoñez ‘s Keftu, faces a prehistoric monster in Dragonfly:
There was a distant boom, and the water swelled a little higher. The black gate swung open, groaning on its hinges. A shadow swam out, circled once, and returned to the darkness. The cries of the helots had fear mixed with their bloodlust now. The fish came out a second time. It swam the perimeter of the tank without seeing me. It had a huge, bullet-shaped head, plated with bone like a living skull with eyes, and a jagged, razor-sharp jaw. It was large enough to swallow me in one gulp.
What makes it cool are the strange, mysterious realms it’s set in, like Keith Taylor’s vision of primeval England in Bard:
The wilderness of oak, ash and thorn men called the Forest of Andred stretched all around him. He’d seen nothing else for three score days. This forest had existed as it now was before the Saxons had entered Britain…or Caesar’s legions had pressed ashore against Kentish resistance…or even the first iron-using Celts had set foot in the island. Long, long before. Those events covered a mere thousand years. Some individual trees had witnessed them all from seedlings. The forest itself was far older.
Or a landscape made of the corpse of a dead god in Darrell Schweitzer’s Echoes of the Goddess:
Far below on the forest floor, the decaying body of a giant stretched for miles upon endless miles, half submerged in a swamp of coagulated blood. The trees were growing out of it, the entire forest like a fungus growth on this thing which in any sane universe could never, never have been alive. Curves of flesh rose like islands. The skin had collapsed between some of the ribs, leaving gaping chasms large enough to swallow cities.
All these excerpts are why I read swords & sorcery. I want the action and danger; the adventure and mystery. These are things I will never do in real life, but reading about them triggers something in my psyche. I can be a traveler of both time and space and fight alongside the men marching with their shields and their swords. Sometimes I don’t want to ponder a scientific puzzle or think about the true nature of realistically conceived feudal economics. Sometimes I just want to stand with Druss the Axe on the walls of Dros Delnoch or skulk alongside Satampra Zeiros in search of a matchless treasure.
I don’t read swords & sorcery to obscure reality, but to take a breather from it. I don’t get chances to play the dashing hero or the intrepid explorer, but reading these stories gives me a little taste of what it could be like.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog when his muse hits him.
Don’t forget Jirel of Joiry –
“Over Guischard’s fallen drawbridge thundered Joiry’s warrior lady, sword swinging, voice shouting hoarsely inside her helmet. The scarlet plume of her crest rippled in the wind. Straight into the massed defenders at the gate she plunged, careering through them by the very impetuosity of the charge, the weight of her mighty warhorse opening up a gap for the men at her heels to widen. For a while there was tumult unspeakable there under the archway, the yells of fighters and the clang of mail on mail and the screams of stricken men. Jirel of Joiry was a shouting battle-machine from which Guischard’s men reeled in bloody confusion as she whirled and slashed and slew in the narrow confines of the gateway, her great stallion’s iron hoofs weapons as potent as her own whistling blade.”
We’re not the same, but I very much understand what you’re saying. I’m more Sword and Sorcery and Planetary Romance than High Fantasy. I have that same hardcover Wagner that’s sitting on your shelf. I’ve read a fair bit of High Fantasy over the years – Tolkien, Tad Williams and other’s I don’t remember right now, but I want the intensity and passion that goes with other genres.
Do you consider Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories S&S? I’ve always included them in my own internal and vague definition of S&S.
“Because it’s FUN!” That was exactly my thought right when reading the title.
Fritz Leiber can not possibly be excluded. He invented the term Sword & Sorcery (after a discussion with Michael Moorcock). And when you look at two or three of his Lankhmar stories it will be immediately obvious that it fits Sword & Sorcery “like the fist on the eye”. (An actual common expression here in Germany.)
Karl Wagner really is great and I’d even rank him right next to Robert Howard, above both Leiber and Moorcock. But while Conan, Elric, Kane are plenty dark, this current dark fantasy stuff is no substitute for Sword & Sorcery. Bleak environments are not what makes S&S alone.
I feel ya, sword-brother. Loved the article and thanks for the excerpts. I don’t think I’m familiar with those but gonna check them out.
@Aonghus – who could forget her? Perfect quote.
@Barsoomia – Planetary Romance is only half a step away from S&S in my book. As to high fantasy, I don’t hate it, but too often it becomes too enamored of its own voice and loses track of the story its telling. That’s something rarely done in a 20-30 page S&S story.
@Jame Mc – Of course not. The four White Wolf volumes of Leiber are right there in the center of the book shelf photo at the top. For whatever reason, while slapping, er, assiduously, putting this together, I just forgot to include Leiber.
@Matin K – Of course Leiber can’t be excluded. In some recent readings of the F&GM stories, I noticed a little too much theatricality to some of them, as if Leiber saw the whole enterprise as a bit of a joke. It stands in strong contrast to the more instinctual writing of Howard, Wagner, and Saunders. As much as I love Leiber, it’s those others and their like whom I find more thrilling.
@Greg – Each is from something I reviewed and I should have included links – I’ll fix that – DONE
That’s exactly my problem with Leiber. He clearly had the skill but I think he mostly overdid it with the silly antics. Fun is important, but I think a bit more seriousness and less slapstick would have improved the stories greatly.
Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are dumber than a pair of bricks, and it’s entirely done for humor. Which is rather sad. Aside from the silliness the stories would be really great.
I discovered sword &sorcery late in my development as a reader (I was mostly a SF and mystery/espionage reader), thanks to Howard, Moorcock and Leiber. I too list S&S and planetary romance as my fave sub-genres.
And I still think that the ability of S&S to accommodate different takes such as those offered by Howard, Moorcock and Leiber (and Wagner, and Moore etc.), is both a sign and a reason of the vitality of S&S, and its main appeal to me.
There is space for very different approaches to the subject matter and the themes.
@Davide – Absolutely! I called Moorcock and Leiber out a little, but I still like them (mostly), and recognize their importance to the history and evolution of the genre.
I wouldn’t want to read all their books, but I think reading Elric and Swords Against Death were both very valuable experiences for understanding what S&S is, and there’s some moments of really great fantastic imagination in them. As a Sword & Sorcery fan one should have read both these books (and at least some Conan) simply to be able to engage in informed discussions.
@Martin – Yep!
Am I wrong to mostly associate Sword and Sorcery with short stories and Epic or High Fantasy with (usually long) novels and series? Is that simply because the early writers of S&S were pulp writers or is there something inherent to the story telling that makes the short story more appropriate to S&S?
You pretty much hit the nail on the head. Deep inside me rages a savage. He longs to swing the sword, shatter the shields and feel the hot spurt of spilled blood. To explore strange lost cities, to scoop great armloads of jewels and golden coins. To pit his sinews and reflexes against some primal monstrosity of fur and fangs and come out bloodied but victorious. I do not live in that world(thank God!), but that savage adventurer inside me needs to feed, and S&S is his meat and wine.
For me, S&S and Fantasy/Epic Fantasy are worlds apart. S&S had its birth in the pages of the pulps, so they were short stories by necessity. The stories were fast moving and packed a lot of action into a short tale to give readers their money’s worth. The tales are generally episodic, involving the main character and a few secondary characters directly, and the stakes are generally personal rather than global. And most importantly, the heroes tend to be masculine and heroic, without doubts or whining introspection. Kick ass adventure is the name of the game!
@NOLAbert – I suspect the pulp roots are part of the reason for S&S being a genre so deeply rooted in short stories. I also think a major factor is that it’s best when stripped down and direct and functions best when kept short.
@darkman – Thanx! Yep, it tickles some long buried part of the brain reminding us of the time when we lived in less civilized surroundings and drapes it in enough romanticism to allow for heroics.
Myself, I love ’em both — I wouldn’t give up my sword & sorcery, but nor would I give up my epic fantasy; I’m currently about a third of the way through Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars and I couldn’t be happier.
And after I finish that, I’m thinking some REH may be in order — Sword Woman and/or some Conan, in celebration of the board game.
I just read a s & s tale very recently by Ramsey Campbell. He wrote four tales featuring his hero Ryre.
Three of them can be found in issues of Fantasy Tales. Which available as ebooks for $1.99.
I have only read The Sustenance Of Hoak so far. It was quite different from other fiction I’ve read by Ramsey Campbell but it does have horror and weirdness.
I wish Ramsey would have wrote more Ryre tales. But who knows he still might.
[…] N (Black Gate) Why Swords & Sorcery? — “When I finished rereading all the Kane stories, I practically ran to my shelves […]
So who are the go to contemporary S&S writers? Maybe, top 3?
Nice. As is probably apparent, I’m a huge sword-and-sorcery fan from way back, and came to many of the same conclusions after digging through a whole lot of old fantasy.
I remain more fond of the early Lankhmar stories than I think you did, and I’ve never been more than partly fond of the Kane tales, but REH is my go-to sword-and-sorcery writer and I hold Saunders in high esteem.
I rank a sword-and-planet/planetary romance writer right up there, Leigh Brackett, along with the unsung grandfather of sword-and-sorcery, historical fiction writer Harold Lamb.
As far as contemporary S&S writers, a couple that I enjoy include Paul S. Kemp (his Egil & Nix novels) and William King (in addition to his Warhammer tie-ins, he’s self-published a number of short S&S novels, mostly about a guy named Kormak).
Swords and Sorcery? I’m soaking in it. Although we called the site Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, that’s really just a shorthand for S&S, in most cases.
Oddly enough, I haven’t re-visited the early masters. I remember reading REH in high school, and a little of Fritz Leiber, but something rubbed me wrong about it and I never got back to his work.
I did read Darrell Schweitzer’s “Sekenre: The Book of the Sorcerer” and thought it was excellent.
I’ve read some of Leigh Brackett’s S&P novels, and thought they were pretty good.
True story- although I haven’t read them, I did buy the Del Rey collected REH Conan books. My wife picked up the first one, started reading it, quipped something about “naked but for a loincloth”, and kept reading. The next day she was reading it, quipped something about “ah, a secret door”; kept reading it. She had plenty of quips, but she didn’t put those books down for like four days!
Adrian Simmons: re: your wife: Yeah, Howard will suck you in like that. I wish I could find the reference offhand, but I recall reading somewhere that Tolkien (who was notoriously critical of most fiction written after about 1500 and dismissed most contemporary fiction out of hand) had great respect for Howard — ranked him as one of the few who “got” it.
Postscript to last comment: Just did a quick Google. It was L. Sprague de Camp who claimed that Tolkien told him in a private interview that he admired the Conan stories.
@JoeH – No reason to give up anything. I still love a good, though preferably concise, epic or two.
I’ve got the first Kemp and first King books, so maybe I should actually read them.
@Charles M. – Campbell’s all-too-brief excursion is one of the best examples of S&S horror. All the stories were collected by Necronomicon Press and I reviewed them here a few years ago –
@Robert M – Top three? I couldn’t say. There are so many writers showing up in the pages of HFQ that you’ll be rewarded reading almost any issue. You can’t go wrong with anything by BG’s own Enge, Jones, or Fultz either. Or sword & soul impresario Milton Davis. Or Ted Rypel. The list goes on and on.
@Howard – Re: Leiber, probably. During the reread you did with Bill Ward, I remember liking the “grittier” ones more than the funny ones, though that could change the next time around.
Wagner’s a tough sell. He’s probably better thought of as a horror writer who uses S&S trappings.
For all you and Keith West have written about how great Brackett is, I’m am ashamed to admit how little by her I’ve read.
@Adrian – Schweitzer’s great. I just reviewed the other Sekere book, Mask of the Sorcerer and it’s very, very good. I should see if I can get Hallie to give REH a whirl. Right now, she’s a little bemused/puzzled why I like this stuff so much.
Fletcher, my assessment of Leiber is very similar. In my own survey, I believe I said that I became convinced that Leiber would rather have been writing science fiction (which of course he wrote plenty of), and unlike Jones, I preferred the later Fafhrd/Mouser stories to the earlier ones. And my favorite story of them all wasn’t even written by Leiber!
And I agree with you regarding Moorcock, too. I read a couple of the first Elric novels in a collection and can’t remember where exactly I quite reading (because I want to finish the collection)… Something about facing a giant blob of chaos energy or something? The stories are cold and bewildering. BUT, the last few days I’ve been looking at this very promising opening passage from the First Book of Corum:
“In those days there were oceans of light and cities in the skies and wild flying beasts of bronze. There were hordes of crimson cattle that roared and were taller than castles. There were shrill, viridian things that haunted bleak rivers. It was a time of gods, manifesting themselves upon our world in all her aspects; a time of giants who walked on water; of mindless sprites and misshapen creatures who could be summoned by an ill-considered thought but driven away only on pain of some fearful sacrifice; of magics, phantasms, unstable nature, impossible events, insane paradoxes, dreams come true, dreams gone awry, of nightmares assuming reality.”
When I finally sink into this, hopefully it doesn’t disappoint!
Fletcher, let’s read a Brackett story and compare notes. Maybe get a blog post out of it. You have any of her collections?
Gabe, you seriously prefer the later ones?!? To which Lankhmar stories do you refer? I just can’t wrap my head around that…
I dig Elric, especially in short story form. But I must confess that I’ve read the first three Corum books several times. They were a favorite. The books are a little bit of the same plot each time, but they were grand fun with a great style.
That opening passage from Corum is one of my favorite things. The books remain amongst my favorite Moorcock novels.
Howard, you had me pull out the last two volumes in the Dark Horse Books run. And I reviewed what I wrote for Black Gate so many years ago. In my defense I have this to offer: I predict that in time I became used to Leiber’s style and technique so that, perhaps, since I was learning to like Leiber AT ALL I came to like that which I was reading at the time, which were the later stories. As I say in my review, I regard Leiber’s Fafhrd/Mouser stories primarily as satire (in fact, as a forerunner for Terry Pratchett). And I’d have to say my favorite story would be the very last one, “The Mouser Goes Below”, maybe because, as I said above, for the reason that it was the last one I read. I also learned to love Leiber’s structures and, as with any series, the depth and intimacy that arises from long contact with serial characters. So they seem more “round” and compelling in later stories than in the former.
You like Corum? I’m getting to those soon!
re: Fafhrd & Mouser, it’s been a few decades, but I thought it a mixed bag. Hard to raise the sword & sorcery flag over long, boring stories, and I remember some of those stories as being very long and boring.
On the other hand, they had some delicious, vivid, adventures as well. (My favorite F&M story was “Cloud of Hate,” which I read many times.)
Fletcher, this was a great post. And the tidal surge of responses is fun to read and pleasing to see.
How about a sequel post?
The many declarations of S&S being pure escapist Fun make me wonder if some of us are missing the genre’s direct, at times electric, connection to myth. We modern folk don’t get a jolt of that primal storytelling much, and I think S&S can satisfy a need many of us scarcely recognize.
Great post, but I kept reading thinking “Yeah, of course” and “yup” and “I agree”.
Then, last night, an experience that threw the whole thing into contrast. My wife and I watched a film on Netflix called “Happy Christmas”. There’s nothing wrong with the movie, and I’m a big Anna Kendrick fan, but it’s slow moving, and the people are always talking over each other, and it just seemed to involve so much self-important navel-gazing… turns out it’s considered in the genre of “mumblecore”, which means unscripted, dialogue-improvised movies focusing on dialogue over plot, about people in their 20’s and 30’s.
I guess you’ll like that sort of thing, if that’s the sort of thing you like, but I couldn’t help thinking… man, this film is like my most annoying, self-absorbed friends all rolled together and put on screen. If I want that, I’ll call one of them.
There was a definite lack of pulse-pounding excitement and characters taking action. Same reason I read S&S and thrillers and tend to veer away from “literature” (which to me involves the same level of navel gazing).
Themes are great and plenty of good fantasy explores interesting ones, but that all takes a back seat to good characters and a fast-moving plot. I’ll go for Star Wars movies and REH over mumblecore and Jonathan Franzen any day of the week.
So the answer to “Why S&S?” for me is the same as “Why Bond? Why Clive Cussler? Why Dan Brown? Why Jason Bourne?”
@Gabe – At least anecdotally, the first three Corum books seem to be the general favorites among Moorcock readers. I’d like to see what you thought when done.
@Jeff S. – Some of the later stories are more on the dull side than not. Still, there’s almost always something interesting to find in all of them.
@John H. – Thanx! A sequel might does look to be called for. I, and a few commenters, mentioned the deeper thrill we get from S&S. I think the mythic connection is right on and needs a deeper look.
@thehessian – Hah! Yeah, I’ve watched a few too many movies that remind me of my most self-absorbed friends as well (or my own teenage-era navel gazing).
It comes down to narrative energy. I’m put off by fantasy epics that bog down just as much as literary works that just circle around and around never getting to the point. It’s a rare, special book that can get away without narrative movement.
I picked up the Centipede Press collection as well, but I’m afraid I’m going to ruin them if I start cracking them open and leaving them around after reading, especially with the children, the cats, and the dog. So, I continue to peruse the old, beat-up KEW paperbacks. 😉
My KEW collection consists of some well worn but intact Warner paperbacks with the Frazetta covers. If they fall apart, I also have the ebook versions on my Kindle. Wagner’s Kane is unique and a really cool S&S protagonist, but I cannot bring myself to pay the kinda overinflated prices for the newest hardcover editions. But if you haven’t read them yet, they are available for anyone now, so get ’em and read ’em!
I usually avoid stories that are over 400 pages long. Multiple stories about the same hero are okay, but I normally want plots to be neatly wrapped up after 300 pages or so.
I don’t think I’ve read a story that needs to be printed over several books in a long time.
I just wanted to pipe in that I also think Fletcher should write a regular S&S post here at Blackgate. You listening Mr. O’Neill?
Nick Ozment and anyone else who is interested, here’s my discussion about the claim that Tolkien “rather liked” the Conan stories (from the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia).
I found that same quote in L. Sprague de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (Arkham, 1976), p. 244.
Question: I know that Howard fans have a real loathing for de Camp given his Howard biography. Can he be trusted in this claim concerning Tolkien?
As far as I know, de Camp has been criticized for his opinions about Lovecraft (and apparently Howard), but the facts of his biographies haven’t been impugned. Or did I miss something?
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning in this discussion of swords and sorcery, that it’s remarkably easy to write. I remember this from my teen years around 45 years ago. To write science fiction you generally have to think about science, technology, society, etc. To write historical fiction (including Westerns) you have to know about the times and places. To write mysteries you have to be able to create puzzles and evoke a milieu. And so on. But with S&S you really can pretty much just make it up, and that has real advantages for a young writer. Back in the day, lots of us produced ditto- or mimeo-type fanzines, and it was easy to place an early writing effort with one of these, using the easily perceived characteristics of S&S. One might not know a lot about human relationships, history, culture, etc., but could still write a readable enough “yarn” with a rough-but-decent hero, a Lovecraftian monster in some ruins, a damsel in distress, and so on. It was a lot of fun!
I don’t know if de Camp is criticized for his facts or not, though I know both his Lovecraft and Howard biographies are fairly universally panned. Why? Not sure. If it’s not for the facts, perhaps his interpretation of the facts.
I read at least the Lovecraft one when it came out, and it seemed good to me, allowing for de Camp’s right to express a point of view different from that of Lovecraft’s admirers. I read his biography of Howard in the form of a fan-published staple-bound book (as I recall), and it didn’t leave a strong impression. Again, I don’t think de Camp’s information was criticized as erroneous. The REH book(let) may have been criticized for amateur psychoanalysis. I don’t suppose de Camp imagined that either book was definitive, but I think he worked responsibly with the information he had. In short, if someone has something substantial to say about factual errors in de Camp’s biographies of the two authors, it would be interesting to see it. Otherwise, perhaps these were decent treatments for their time and audience.
Personally, Joshi’s massive biography of Lovecraft is so loaded with information and burdened by tedious exegesis that I would be much more likely to reread de Camp’s Lovecraft book than to plow through the two volumes of I Am Providence. But for Howard, I have little doubt that Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder is the book to read.
This exchange got started when someone mentioned the notion that de Camp reported that Tolkien had read and “rather liked” the Conan stories. De Camp himself stated things more exactly, as indicated in the link I provided to the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. However, de Camp perhaps should have said that he -assumed_ Tolkien had read “Shadows in the Moonlight” since it was in the book he gave Tolkien (and which, btw, showed up for sale within the past few years). It is likely but not certain that Tolkien had read that Conan story.
I’ve read de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, which has individual chapters dedicated to both. I enjoyed both.
One thing I do like about de Camp (and Lin Carter could be put in this boat too) is that despite being an “amateur” scholar, in some sense, his fannish enthusiasm for the field is contagious. Not something that you always get from “professionals” such as Joshi.
@Ghul – I know, the prices are nuts!
@James Mc – 😉 I love Carter’s fannish enthusiasm so much more than the dull pedantry of certain other writers.
@Martin K – I’m pretty much with you there. Raphael Ordonez posited an interesting idea that much commercial epic fantasy is really serial fantasy. http://raphordo.blogspot.com/2016/08/serial-epic-fantasy.html
@Major Wooton – thanx for all the info re: de Camp and JRRT
I had said that I hadn’t read any REH in a long time– turns out I spoke in error!
In early 2016 I read the REH collection “Sowers of the Thunder”– a collection of his historical adventure fiction set in the crusader period: “The Lion of Tiberias”, “The Sowers of the Thunder”, “Lord of Samarcand”, and “The Shadow of the Vulture”.
They are good adventure stories, edging ever slightly into S&S territory. I’m not quite sure when they were written, probably the late 20s or very early 30s. One of the more interesting aspects of the collection is REH’s writing skills improve in each story. “Lion of Tiberias” is the work of an inspired amateur, being pretty much concerned with bloody vengeance and whatnot.
By “Shadow of the Vulture” REH’s got a much better knack for storytelling, with an MC who is a bit of drunkard, a heavy who is out to kill him, and a mix of luck and humor with great action and adventure thrown in.
Add a fantasy element and a whiff of dark horror, now it’s S&S. Historical adventure fiction is the older cousin of S&S.
Indeed, thedarkman, a kind of older, squarer cousin. Which reminds me that I need to write up a couple of posts about Ottilie Liljencrantz’ Viking age novels, written in like 1890 something.
Which also reminds me– 50th post on this thread! By Crom this whole thing had better end up on John’s ‘top 50’ list for the month!