This article originally appeared last year on the Rogue Blades Web site, but I thought readers of Black Gate would appreciate it.
“The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times…”
Henry David Thoreau wrote those words in the mid-19th Century for his distinguished book, Walden. They rang true then and they ring true today. Of course there will be those who say we do not live in degenerate times, that we live in the greatest of all ages, that our technological and social achievements are pressing us towards some utopia, but those who are true students of history and have open eyes might argue otherwise, or at least they might hold more than a little skepticism about the potential greatness of the immediate future.
Whether or not we live in a degenerate age, we are in need heroes more than ever. The Thoreau quote above concerns heroic books and not specifically heroic individuals, but I still believe it is appropriate to our current age.
But why do we need heroes? What do they bring to the table? After all, haven’t we shattered the myths of all our heroes from the past? Haven’t we discovered all the dirty little secrets about our real-world heroes? Haven’t we become so modern and avant-garde that the very idea of a fictional hero is quaint? Was not Tina Turner correct in her 1985 hit song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero?”
The following is an an excerpt from Howard Andrew Jones’ essay for the upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life.
I kept missing Conan. He was all over the place in the 1970s as I was growing up. I couldn’t help but be drawn to the covers of the Marvel comic books that featured him, but I was a little kid and embarrassed to be seen reading anything with such scantily clad beauties in it.
Maybe if I’d been a little less shy I’d have read those comics anyway, but I simply didn’t dare. I stayed mostly with prose, devouring the Heinlein juvenile science fiction adventures, Ray Bradbury collections, the Prydain Chronicles, The Dark is Rising sequence, and anything that was Star Trek or remotely like it.
By the mid- to late-’70s, when I had discovered Dungeons & Dragons and its now famous recommended reading list, Appendix N, I hit the library, the bookstore, and the used bookstore in search of everything on it and, unfortunately, came up woefully short. This time, pure bad luck kept me from reading Robert E. Howard. When it came to Appendix N, the library held only the last few Amberbooks. I didn’t want to read them out of order, and I couldn’t find much of anything from the list at the bookstore.
By chance, the used bookstore had not a single Conan paperback. Instead it stocked the best of the Lankhmar books, the first three Corum books by Michael Moorcock, and a friend had the Ambernovels the library lacked. Mostly because of these books I was transformed from a devoted science fiction fan who occasionally tried fantasy into a dedicated reader of fantasy, but the glories of Howard’s writings were still undiscovered territory.
In the years that followed, I saw the rows of Conan pastiche and was rightfully dubious.
The Ring-Sworn Trilogy by Howard Andrew Jones: For the Killing of Kings (Feb 2019), Upon the Flight of the Queen
(November 2019) and the forthcoming When the Goddess Wakes (April 2021)
A bit of prologue and some full disclosure to the Gentle Reader
The purpose of this column has been looking at the challenges of historicity vs. fantasy in the process of world-building; well at least when the fantasy in question is trying to be either realistic or set in our world or a near-neighbor. From contrasting the visual departure of Jackson’s LotR films as a more effective means of showing the vast sweep of Middle Earth’s history, to critiquing the swordplay of the Witcher TV show, to interviewing authors who play in both the worlds of Historical Fiction and Fantasy, I’ve come to realize we have a pretty clear continuum:
Historical Fiction – just what it says. Whether it’s set in the Paleolithic or WWII, it’s a story set in our own past, with the ostensible goal of painting a portrait of that time and place.
Historical Fiction with Elements of “Magical Realism” – really more of a technique of “literature” but the story is more or less as above but there may be hints or some unexplained and unexplainable element.
Historical Fantasy – this is a specialty for folks like last month’s interviewee Scott Oden. Our historical past, only elements of magic, monsters, etc., exist, something like a “secret history.” A lot of traditional sword & sorcery exists here, but so does the fantastical work of writers like Judith Tarr or G. Willow Wilson.
Low Fantasy in a Secondary World – the world I NOT ours, and may not even be based on any clear cognate of our civilizations, but it’s “realistic” in the sense that it’s technology and structure follows our historical models. Magic and monsters exist, but farming gets done with an iron plow and three-field rotation, people ride horses and camels (or something like them), etc. A lot, if not most, of fantasy fits this model and fantasy.
High Fantasy – Magic is powerful and sweeping, there are non-human races who can do magical things, the gods may be capable of manifesting themselves or their will, etc. A lot of epic fantasy fits into this mode.
We can quibble on where those lines are (Tolkien is High Fantasy, but is Martin?), and maybe there are further subdivisions (for example, Urban Fantasy overlays the last two), but the definitions work for this column because the further you go from #1 on the continuum, the less important “historicity” becomes.
Publisher Rogue Blades Foundation recently announced the upcoming release of the book Robert E. Howard Changed My Life. Below is an excerpt from author Joe R. Lansdale’s essay for the book.
You can feel so lonely, out there in the wilds.
Oh, I had my parents’ support. They were great. But it isn’t quite the same. I wanted to know other writers, meet an editor or publisher. As for an agent, I thought they worked for the CIA.
I knew this, though.
I loved books, and I wanted to write them, and I had figured out when I saw names on comic books, Bob Kane and Gardner Fox, that real people came up with this stuff, but I was told, by someone who didn’t know his butt from a hole in the ground, that everyone who wrote comics, or novels, or stories, lived in New York or Los Angeles.