I’ve been reading some books recently, and over the next few days I’m going to talk about them, but I’m not sure what to call them. I started reading these books thanks to a confluence of factors, of which the most important are probably, one, enjoying Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and being interested in his stated influences, and two, having my lingering guilt about my relative lack of familiarity with the masterworks of genre fantasy given a prod by the appearance of Gollancz’s “ultimate fantasy” series earlier this year. It’s not as though – despite what you may think from the predominant focus of my posts here – that I don’t like genre fantasy. I read as many TSR novels as anyone when I was a teenager, plus the really obvious stuff like Tolkien, not to mention collecting several large armies for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which is about as generic as you can get — though it’s true that I didn’t go the whole Eddings/Feist/Jordan route, and that until recently I was never seduced by D&D role-playing (and that as a result innumerable role-playing-related jokes have gone over my head over the years). On the other hand, for whatever reason, I was never sucked into the history of the genre in the way that I was for sf. I know enough about the adventurers-with-swords subgenre to be aware of Conan, Jirel, Elric, and Kane; to know of L. Sprague de Camp’s Sword and Sorcery anthologies and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies; David Gemmel’s Legend, and Samuel Delany’s Nevèrÿon books. (Not to mention Drizzt Do’Urden, of course – or Gotrek and Felix.) But I’ve had little first-hand experience, so this week’s posts are about me dipping a toe into that history. The books I read were determined by what I had to hand, although most of them also fall onto that ethereal list of Things I Should Read Some Day that floats around in the back of my head: some of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser stories, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, some of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, and Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx. Deciding what to call them seems a helpful first step.
In 1961, in a piece written for George Scithers’ fanzine AMRA, Moorcock posed a question:
I feel we should have another general name to include the sub-genre of books which deal with Middle Earths and lands and worlds based on this planet, worlds which exist only in some author’s vivid imagination. In this sub-genre I would classify books like The Worm Ouroboros, Jurgen, The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, the Gray Mouser/Fafhrd series, the Conan series, The Broken Sword, The Well of the Unicorn, etc. […] stories of high adventure, generally featuring a central hero very easy to identify oneself with. For the most part they are works of escapism, anything else usually being secondary (exceptions, I would agree, are Jurgen and The Once and Future King. But all of them are tales told for the tale’s sake, and the authors have obviously thoroughly enjoyed the telling. (reprinted in The Stealer of Souls, Del Rey 2008, p.5)
This was, I believe, before the full emergence of fantasy as the commercial behemoth that it is today. Indeed. Even in a 1971 issue of Vector recently sent to me by Mark Plummer, a review of Andre Norton’s Witch World novels feels able to state that “Fantasy fiction has never had a wide following”, and that it’s only recently that significant amounts of original fantasy have started to be published in paperback form. (Which also leads the reviewer to state some cautionary notes about the potential weaknesses of fantasy series …) Moorcock’s suggestion for “the best name for the sub-genre, considering its general form and roots” is still with us — although I’m not sure how many contemporary readers would consider all of the works he lists as “epic fantasy”, which to me implies a certain amount of sprawl in both cast and geography. Indeed, the entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy for that category argues that by the mid-nineties “epic fantasy” had been muddied to the point of uselessness by publisher over-use and other factors, and today it seems to indicate the Tolkienian tradition above all others. Certainly the two attempts to define the term that have crossed my radar recently, one by Rose Fox and one by Michael M. Jones, both pretty much take Tolkien alone as epic fantasy’s starting point.
Meanwhile, back in the sixties, in response to Moorcock’s request Fritz Leiber suggested “Sword and Sorcery”:
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! (Fritz Leiber, AMRA, July 1961)
Helped along by a series of reprint anthologies edited by L. Sprague de Camp starting in 1963, this has also stuck around. More or less. In truth it’s a term I see used more often by critics than by readers or publishers (though of course there may be an observer bias in that); the Encyclopedia notes the term’s “garishness”, and that may have something to do with it, but it also seems like an odd fit for what it’s used to describe. Certainly it was a surprise to me to see the Encyclopedia assert that “There may be a useful distinction between Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, but no-one has yet made it” (some commenters on the Wikipedia heroic fantasy talk page seem similarly surprised; and the Gemmel Award uses heroic fantasy unashamedly, although they don’t exactly give a clear definition of it), because if you’d asked me as a relatively naive reader, “heroic fantasy” sounds like exactly the right label for most of what I’ve read recently. I risk extrapolating too far from limited data here, but sword and sorcery sounds larksome; heroic fantasy conveys to me something more serious, as well as identifying the focus of most of these stories as tales about identity (if not character) and heroism.
Among the authors I read, the one whose work does strike me as sword and sorcery is the canonical example: Fritz Leiber. The “ultimate fantasy” edition of Lankhmar I had to hand comprises the first four collections of stories about the barbarian Fafhrd and the ex-wizard’s apprentice, the Gray Mouser although — and I didn’t realise this at first, since publication credits are conspicuously absent from the book — the stories are presented in order of internal chronology, not publication. This means that, for instance, the knowing first sentence of Swords and Deviltry (1970) — “Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries” (3) — was written well after the term became accepted. It also means the stories may have been written to fit an idea of the subgenre that already had some shape to it. Certainly the shape of them felt more immediately comfortable to me, with my modern-reader expectations, than some of the other books I’m going to discuss; moreover Leiber’s stories are more concerned with conveying the excitement of adventure, almost for adventure’s own sake, than any of the others. The world in which the stories take place is not a whitewashed fantasyland (rape and other such unpleasantnesses are mentioned in casual conversation), but the stories themselves are filled with humour of incident and observation. This leads to an at-times odd, but also effective, tension between exuberance and sobriety, one particularly literal manifestation of which is Fafhrd’s reaction on overhearing that a woman he’s just rescued is to be sold as a slave — the revelation “filled him with a mixed feeling he’d never known before: an overmastering rage and also a desire to laugh hugely” (35).
This is not to say, sadly, that I think these stories are much good. I enjoyed what I read more than my only previous encounter with Leiber (reading The Big Time as one of the nominees for the BSFA 50th retro award earlier this year), but in the end conceded defeat at the end of Swords Against Deviltry. So I didn’t actually read any of the earliest Fafhrd/Mouser stories, which seem mostly to be collected in the second book, Swords Against Death (also 1970, revised from Two Sought Adventure). If anyone tells me those tales are dramatically better, I may be tempted to continue. Part of the problem with Swords Against Deviltry, after all, is that it’s all origin stories: a vignette (“Induction”, 1970) introducing the world and the characters; an overlong novella introducing Fafhrd (“The Snow Women”, 1970); an incredibly generic novellette introducing Mouse (“The Unholy Grail”, 1962); and a better, though despite its Hugo-winning status still only average, novella detailing the first meeting of the two (“Ill Met in Lankhmar”, 1970). It would be hard for me to deny that I haven’t experienced the partnership in full flow.
However, it seems that Leiber’s style is simply not to my taste. In between the passages I admired (these were often the passages that used omniscient perspective to best effect; the final one-sentence paragraph that closes “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, describing Our Heroes’ disgusted exodus from the city, is pretty fine) there was much that fell flat. There was, for example, what to my ear is a wearying over-reliance on adverbs to underline the tone of conversation; by the end of their first page of conversation in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, either Fafhrd or the Mouser or both has commented, answered, explained, demanded, suggested, rapped out, directed, remarked, or mused. There is a tendency to deaden action scenes with laboured, move-by-move descriptions. And while some of the humour is slyly subversive, the more deliberate absurdisms — when one character manages to shrug while jumping from a high place down to a low place, it’s surely deliberately absurd, as must be a daring escape via rocket-powered ski jump – fell flat. It may be deliberately farcical that Fafhrd spends most of “The Snow Women” running back and forth between different groups, but in the reading it felt like a formulaic, repetitive plot. And, as a final insult, the turn of “Ill Met in Lankhmar” depends on the embarrassingly thorough fridging of both Fafhrd and Mouser’s partners, at least one of whom had been a fairly satisfactory character to that point.
Perhaps the most interesting thread running through Swords Against Deviltry is an argument – overplayed in “The Snow Women”, underplayed in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” – about the nature of civilization, and the place of characters like Fafhrd and Mouser within it. Fafhrd in “The Snow Women” finds civilization totemic, representing an escape from everything he dislikes about his barbarian life, though plenty of people are ready to warn him that it is unworthy of such adoration. His mother describes it as a “putrid festering”, while others warn him that civilization will darken his soul. And it does: there is much of the country boy going to the big city in Fafhrd’s trajectory, and in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” the character is a less certain, more troubled man (although still somewhat more upstanding than Mouser, whose heart seems more easily darkened by events). But where in, say, the Elric stories I read the analogous struggles going on in Elric’s heart are central, here the focus never wavers from the plot; Leiber’s work seems to flow best when it is in motion, rather than self-considering repose. I don’t know if this is a sustainable difference between sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy, but I’m going to call the rest of the books I’m going to discuss heroic fantasy and be damned: because the most interesting thing about each of them is what they do with their heroes.