As I’ve written before, my introduction to Sword and Sorcery literature came not through the more traditional routes of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, etc. I first delved into Sword and Sorcery almost by accident about 1979 when at the age of nine I picked up a collection of fantasy short stories titled Thieves’ World, the first in what eventually would become a long series of anthologies and novels and even gaming-related material.
At that point in my young life I had discovered Tolkien, and I had read what was then the first of Terry Brooks’ Shannara books, but that was about the extent of my fantasy readings outside of comic books.
Thieves’ World opened my eyes to a much larger and somewhat darker potential for fantasy literature, one I had yet to envision at that time.
Yet my love for the series, and for Sword and Sorcery, would not come immediately upon opening the book. The introduction by series editor Robert Asprin proved interesting enough as did the first short story, “Sentences of Death” by John Brunner, and the following tales were also worthy reads.
Yet when I got to the fourth tale, “Shadowspawn” by Andrew Offutt, something … changed. Something opened within me.
This tale featured one Hanse Shadowspawn, a young, cocky thief who often wore bright garb by the day but dark garb by the night. And he also wore a dozen or so daggers about his body. Hanse showed himself to be a cocky, swaggering sort of fellow, though he also had a soft spot for those he loved.
Over the next forty or so years throughout multiple short stories and a few novels, Hanse Shadowspawn still remains one of my favorite fantasy characters. Despite his upbringing on the roughest streets of the city of Sanctuary, he became a friend to royalty, rescued a near-god from a fate worse than death, found love, grew old and learned his parentage consisted of … but that would be telling. I’ll try to leave more than a little mystery. Let’s just say, Hanse proved no mere thief, and he was the best at what he did for a reason, for several reasons.
In all fairness, to some Hanse might not sound like much of a hero. A swaggering thief isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that I understand. Still, all these years later, why is he a favorite of mine? I’ve read millions upon millions of words of fiction in my life, much of it fantasy literature, but Hanse remains my favorite fantasy character, my favorite fantasy hero.
Part of it might be that I discovered him at such an early age, an age in which I was somewhat enthralled with scoundrels (Han Solo comes to mind) and in which I loved a good quip from the good guy (Spider-Man comes to mind). Shadowspawn supplied many of these characteristics, plus he was actually a pretty nice fellow when it all got said and done.
I’m sure Hanse was inspired by that earlier thief, the Gray Mouser who was created by Fritz Leiber, but I’m also positive Hanse has inspired many another fantasy character since his introduction, even if some writers are not aware of such.
In the last forty-plus years since Hanse Shadowspawn first appeared, I’ve read of many other fantasy heroes, but he is still my favorite. Even before reading of Hanse, I’d read of Frodo and Bilbo and the like, but none of them struck my love of character as much as Shadowspawn, and few have since. And I’d be a fool not to admit that Hanse hasn’t influenced my own writings.
Who is your favorite fantasy character? Or better yet, your favorite Sword and Sorcery character? Is it someone familiar, such as Conan the Cimmerian, or someone more obscure?
Ty Johnston is vice president of the Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit organization focused upon bringing heroic literature to all readers. A former newspaper editor, he is the author of several fantasy trilogies and individual novels.